Guest Post – Josh Bresslin: Corrections Officer/Writer

Josh and I met through a local reading series, and I was struck by how completely he was able to change his entire life to better focus on his creative work.  He’s written one novel already and working on a second, and you can find him on Twitter @Josh_Bresslin or at his website, joshbresslin.com.

 

Six months ago, I was working a county government job as a corrections officer, making about $40,000 a year, and was three years into a 25-year retirement plan.

And I gave it all up.

To be clear, I never received a degree in English or creative writing. In fact, I’ve only taken two college-level English courses in my entire life, and the only writing I ever did in either was research papers. My degree was actually in something completely different: criminal justice.

There was a time when I actually enjoyed the idea of working in the criminal justice system, and to this day I still salute anyone who wants to enter that field, because the hours are long and most of the people you deal with are people that no one should ever have to deal with, and no amount of training or schooling can ever prepare anyone for that line of work. It’s half-instinct, half-personality: either you have the personality to deal with the job day-in and day-out, or you don’t.

So after finishing my degree, I started working odd jobs in the criminal justice field, as a private investigator, a dispatcher, and a hospital security officer before landing full-time work at a local county jail. My experiences leading up to my career as a corrections officer (or guard, for all you lay folks out there) gave me a glimpse into what the field was like, but no job I worked ever satisfied me. I had a few exciting stories to tell, and it was kind of exciting being the person people could rely on when they needed help, but at the end of the day, nothing I did ever motivated me to do more. I just sort of went through the motions.

At the same time, though, I was writing again. I was spending my free time doing what I always did: planning out entire novels or series and stopping mid-first draft on each one. But something was beginning to change. I was writing longer. I wasn’t just crapping out the first time I got stuck, and I was no longer quitting halfway through my first drafts, though I still wasn’t taking my writing as anything more than a hobby.

When it came to my day job, if my other jobs in criminal justice didn’t kill my interest, my job as a guard did.

Now I’ll preface this by saying that anyone who goes into the corrections field is an absolute superhero. It’s probably the least appreciated job in the country, and also one of the most demanding. The average person who takes a job as a guard doesn’t last longer than two years. Burnout, drug/alcohol use, and suicide rates are higher than almost any other field of work. You have to wear about a dozen hats every day, from manager to negotiator to hard-ass, and deal with people that society can’t, with little to no resources at your disposal besides your demeanor and your radio.

On top of that, overtime is rampant. In my facility alone there was at least 2-3 overtime spots every day, and if you didn’t volunteer for them, they were generally forced on you based on a rotating roster.

This. Job. Sucked.

To give you an idea of what someone in corrections deals with on a daily basis, our facility was what’s referred to as a “direct supervision facility.” That means that unlike the movies where prisoners are locked in cages along an entire cellblock and a lone guard walks back and forth down a hallway checking each cell, the officer and the inmates are in one giant room together. On most units you were by yourself with forty-eight inmates, with just keys and a radio for backup. Everything else was up to you.

You were basically a manager in charge of forty-eight employees that you couldn’t fire if they acted up, and couldn’t offer any rewards to for listening to you. Everything on those units was done based on one currency: respect. Every day you had to make sure that each inmate’s bunk was made, the unit was clean, and that people weren’t doing any of the big 4 (fighting, sex, drugs, or planning an escape). For eight hours every day, whatever happened on a unit fell on the officer.

Needless to say, this job took its toll on me, and I dreaded going to work each day. The environment was always depressing, morale was never high, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d worked a straight forty-hour week, and I had to deal with having gone to school for six years for a job that I never wanted to do, and would be paying off student loans for the next ten years.

But this job secretly rekindled my love for writing. Writing became a therapy for me. An outlet. An escape. Instead of making work the center of my life, it became a backdrop. I was at work counting down the hours until I could go home and write. The job became nothing more than background noise.

This continued for a year, and in that time I actually wrote two manuscripts, neither of which will ever leave my computer’s hard drive, but I’d actually written something! I’d completed a project! And somewhere between the first and second drafts I decided to get serious about my writing. This was no longer a hobby for me. I began to realize that you can actually pursue what you love as a full-time career and not be crazy.

If there was one lesson I learned working in that jail, it was that you’re only getting one shot at your life. Every day I saw people who’d given up their lives. People who were given a shot to do something and squandered it. Our correctional system is full of untapped potential, and I wasn’t going to end up like that.

So I decided to get serious about my writing. I changed shifts at my job, switching from the afternoon shift to the midnight shift. The hours sucked—I was constantly tired, and for two years I operated on about 4-5 hours sleep a day, and at one point was taking sleeping pills just to keep a baseline pattern. But this choice changed my writing forever.

I was writing 2-3 hours a day, which I could do anyways regardless of my shift, but I was also reading 4-5 hours every night at work. Working the midnight shift had one advantage that to a writer was impossible to pass up: you could read during your shift. I was cranking out books left and right, and the more I read, the more my writing improved. I had built the perfect basis to get a writing career going, except that I lacked formal training.

That’s when I decided to go back to school for an MFA. I wasn’t sure how, but I was determined to go back and get it. I was/still am drowning in college debt, so taking out student loans was out of the question. I’m a firm believer in following your dreams, but in doing it intelligently. You have to be bold and take risks, but there’s generally more than one way to pursue something. So the question persisted: how do I get an MFA degree without earning tons and tons of debt?

I’d learned back in my undergrad days that most colleges offer full-time employees discounted tuition as part of their benefits programs, so I began applying to different universities. If it was in the state and had an MFA program, I applied there.

At this point I was about three years into my corrections career and was burnt out. I couldn’t take the hours and had nothing more to gain from the place than a paycheck. It took about three months of applications and job-scouring before I landed an interview at a university and was offered a temporary-to-fulltime position working in admissions. If I was what they were looking for after a 3-month probationary period, they’d hire me full-time at $33,000 a year with full benefits, including free tuition for any grad program they offered.

If I wasn’t what they wanted, I’d be let go. No job. No fallback career.

I said yes right away, and put in my two weeks’ notice the next day, to the dismay of a few family members and friends who thought I should’ve stayed with the stability of the jail. At the same time, I began applying for the university’s MFA program right away. The program itself only takes two full-time staff members every semester, and getting a job without getting into the program would’ve defeated my entire purpose for making the switch. By some stroke of luck, though, I was admitted, and I survived the first few months at my job to be brought on full-time.

So now I’m months out from the start of the program. Was this all a smart move? Who knows. Maybe things will take a drastic turn and I’ll be wishing I was back in my safe career. Maybe I’ll fail out of my MFA program. Maybe I won’t find a career in writing afterward.

But what will I have lost? Time? Hours spent doing what I enjoyed anyway? Why would anyone not put their passion at the center of their life and building everything else around it, instead of treating their passion like a luxury item that maybe someday they could pursue?

 

Have something about the Day Job life you’d like to share?  I’m always on the lookout for guest posts and new ideas, so hit me up!

 

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