My journey from fiction to journalism and back to fiction again

I often get mistaken for a new writer. I don’t know if it is because I am open about my struggles, or because I complain sometimes and ask questions, or whether this is simply a burden that women who look young for their age must always carry. Women must always tell strangers their age, and prove their qualifications. So I thought I would share a bit about my background and my general philosophy about writing as an avocation.

I have written stories and novels since I was about 12. I didn’t always want to be a writer. Writing was just something I always did. It was a part of me. I was a shy loner who had no friends and spent her days in libraries, with books as friends. Eventually, I wanted to write one. But I didn’t think about it as a career.

I wanted to be a ballerina, at first; then an entomologist, a marine biologist, a music therapist, a computer programmer and a counselor. Above all else, I am curious and that is a trait that has made it difficult to settle on a career. I started off writing fiction and poetry. I self-published books of my poetry by going to Kinko’s and spiral-binding them and sold them at my church’s charity auctions. I wrote a space opera novel in high school. I did not have a happy high school experience, and writing and playing music in a band got me through it. I told myself I just needed to finish my novel, before I listened to the lies my brain told me.

I used excerpts from this same novel to apply for a creative writing scholarship at the college I chose. I went to a school that was in a book called “Colleges that Change Lives.” In truth, it was a college for high school slackers. I decided to major in creative writing. I was one of the rare few who knew what I wanted to major in my first year. I knew I was no good at math, so science careers were out, which used advanced algebra as a gatekeeping class. I dabbled in computer programming but it never came as naturally to me as writing did. So I decided on writing, because that was the only thing I was really good at. I had a delusion for a time, partly fed by my creative writing program, of becoming a novelist, but I quickly realized the way to make that work was to become a college professor, and I didn’t think I wanted to teach. I don’t like kids. I tried, sometimes, to submit my work, but I would get so crushed by rejections that I couldn’t keep going.

I tried journalism, but I quickly realized it was not creative writing. I completed a summer internship at my hometown newspaper and held various positions in my campus newspaper. One night, when working on a lead late at night alone in the office, calling my young editor who was at a party, I realized that’s what I wanted to do. I loved the adrenaline rush, the feeling of making a difference, and satisfying my curiosity by writing about a variety of topics. But I still wanted to write fiction, and I wanted to travel, and I didn’t think I could write all day for work and write novels at night. I thought maybe I could become a war correspondent.

So I decided to travel, instead. I graduated with my BA in creative writing from Eckerd College, and taught English in Japan for a year. I quickly realized teaching was not for me. I hated managing a classroom and I wasn’t good at discipline. I came to work each day scared, with a ball of panic in my throat. I thought about staying anyway because I was romanced by the adventure, but it was time to move on. No job, no money.

I went back home and got my first gig at a newspaper. I didn’t think my chops were good enough for a daily newspaper, so I started out at a twice-weekly community newspaper in a small town on the Oregon coast. I did a little bit of everything there – photography, pagination, copy editing, shepherding the paper through the layout process, and yes, reporting and writing. I stayed until midnight at heated city council meetings in which a town of 2,000 people was pitted in a battle between retired environmentalists and developers. I devoted many column inches to them only with the support of my first mentor, who was the kind of editor who still cut and pasted his layouts, even in the age of Quark XPress.

After a time I wanted to move up to a daily newspaper. I had aspirations of working at the New York Times before I turned 30. I applied everywhere, but no one wanted to take a chance on a weekly newspaper reporter. The Oregon connection didn’t help. I was ready for a daily beat, but newspaper work is as much about who you know as it is a meritocracy of your clips. I eventually landed a gig at a weekly newspaper in the valley whose parent newspaper was a daily, so it seemed like good potential for promotion.

I stayed for four years. It was a small pay raise, but I still could have made more at Nordstrom’s. It seems my beat was small towns and the people in them, small towns that were forgotten by the mainstream press. I ran a bureau office and I was the newspaper’s face in that town, doing everything from fielding complaints about subscriptions to photographing parades. “I want to talk about my prescription.” “Do you mean subscription?” “Do you realize I have lived in the same house since 1920?” Clock’s ticking, I have a deadline.

I fell in love with the town and after a while I didn’t want that promotion.

But I fell in love with the town the way a journalist does, with objectivity. I liked the idea of the town. I didn’t actually want to live there, and was in fact quite restless, as much as I tried to deny it. I loved the story of the underdog more than the place itself. I wanted a town that had more culture than a chain Mexican restaurant and a biscuits-and-gravy country diner and a Libertarian city council. I didn’t want Portland; I realized on the coast that big cities were not for me. But I needed a change. And I wanted out of journalism. When you sit in a staff meeting every six months to find out which lifers have been laid off, it wears on you. Journalism sounded glamorous, but it often was not. It was formulaic, it was not creative, it was if it bleeds it leads, it was the quick story and the live tweet, not holding power to account. I was ready to move on.

Trying to change fields was not easy, though. 150 applications later, and I finally landed my coveted PR gig. I was a member of the dark side. I worked in university communications. I managed social media pages, ran a newsletter, trained staff on social media best practices, wrote articles about gardening and science. I enjoyed it, for a time, and working on a college campus has its moments. But copywriting is not journalism. It was a learning curve that I did not expect. I soon realized, too, that PR was not for me; not as an employee, anyway. I am a “just the facts” kind of writer. I only do color if it is the color of the truth.

That position was soft funded, so I needed a new job, and I decided I needed a complete break from a writing career. I was burnt out, and I needed to do something completely different. I had worked in journalism and PR for almost eight years and I was bitter. I applied everywhere, and soon landed a gig as a court clerk. I stayed there for five years. I didn’t expect to stay long, but the people who worked there were just who I needed at the time. I quickly realized the legal field was exactly for me.

For a time, when I worked at the court, I still wrote freelance. Mostly for newspapers, and for some agriculturally-themed publications. But I think I wrote out of spite, more than passion. Spite can only carry you through so much persistence. Eventually the deadline pressure after hours started to wear on me, and I turned to photography, instead, for my creative hobby. I didn’t make any money at photography, but it was still creative. Throughout my life, whether I make money at it or not, I have realized that I need to be creative. It’s just a part of me. It is how I express myself and process my emotions.

I fell into a deep depression after I stopped freelancing. Who was I, if I was not a writer? If I did not make a living as a writer? I had attached my sense of self worth to that identity, and it crumbled when that was no longer my job. I spent a lot of time and work to realize that I am more than a writer, and I want more than a writing career. That is probably the reason for my good attitude about rejections these days. I did a lot of work on myself.

After awhile I wanted a change, and I thought about either going back to content marketing, or becoming a paralegal, so I started applying for work again, and I started work as a legal assistant. I will have been a legal assistant for one year in a couple of weeks, and I love it. I still am interested in pursuing content marketing, but on a freelance basis.

So I’ve had a writing career. I realized that in the eight years that I worked as a writer, I never wrote for fun. Writing was a job, just like any other. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for Friday; usually at Friday night at 10 p.m., I would get a call from my editor with a question about my story. Every week there was a new council meeting or school board meeting at night. PR had a more regular schedule, but after writing to deadlines all day, the thought of coming home and doing more writing sounded exhausting.

So for eight years I didn’t write a word of fiction. No short stories. No poems. No novels. It wasn’t for lack of trying, at times. I had an idea about a small town newspaper reporter, a life I knew well. But I just couldn’t bring myself to write creatively. I stopped writing for a few years, while I was still figuring myself out.

Then I realized writing didn’t need to be my career. I didn’t want that. My career is not what makes me happy, and is not what makes me who I am. Writing for a living sucks the joy out of it, the passion, when you always have to satisfy a client’s needs, an editor’s needs, in order to pay rent. That’s why I couldn’t write creatively after work. It felt like work. Now, I realize it’s a different kind of writing entirely, but back then, I was exhausted and stressed out by writing.

So I read The Artist’s Way and I wrote in my morning pages and I became a runner and ran 5Ks. I started writing again. I was not lesser than for wanting writing as a hobby. In fact, writing as a hobby is better for my mental health. I am also not less qualified as a hobbyist, and that does not mean I do not deserve to get paid for what I am worth. Even as a hobbyist, I have skills and experience and the background to want to be valued for my time and creative labor.

I am, however, new to submitting my fiction to literary magazines. I never thought I was good enough to do it in the past, but it was always my dream. I thought for awhile about why I wanted to do it. Perhaps it is just for validation. Maybe I still think I need to publish that great American novel by X age and I can run off into the sunset in Bermuda with my partner. I cannot deny that is part of it. I am, instead, interested in the exposure, in getting my name out there, and it is what is encouraging me to write right now and work on my craft. I am not going to make a writing career out of $10 for a story. But anything that keeps you writing is worth it.

Maybe next year, I will tackle that novel. This year, I am finally writing again, and finding joy in the process. That is enough for me.

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