Once upon a time, in a land far away where stretch marks and lack of sleep were only the stuff of sc-fi inspired fairy tales, I used to be a reporter. It was my dream (okay, my consolation prize, but I’ll get to that in a minute) and not six weeks after graduating from the University of Detroit Mercy, I was hired as City Editor for The Mirror Of Berkley and Huntington Woods in Michigan.
Don’t get too excited. The title sounds super fancy, but it was a loaded one with a pretty measly paycheck. The Mirror office served as the hub for all the Mirror publications, including Royal Oak, Ferndale, Clawson, and my new little neck of Oakland County. And each paper had its own editor…which meant we did all the city council and school board meetings, wrote up the features on the bazillion kids making Eagle Scout and new business features, made nice with the police chiefs to get the best scoops on the police beats, wrote the majority of our own stories, assigned the one photographer we all shared, dummied our own papers, and proofed each other’s pages before calling it done and starting the whole process all over again.
It was crazy, but I loved it. Even after I moved on to another city paper in Northville, I still got that macabre rush reporters don’t always admit to when covering murder trials (Jessica Seabold and Florence Unger were the two biggest, but the papers I worked at aren’t in business anymore so you’ll just have to take me at my word) or stepping over pools of blood at car accident scenes while waiting for comments from the Chief and scrounging up witnesses willing to talk. Even as I was thinking “front page!” I was reigning in my own emotions in an effort to objectively capture the voices of those who mattered.
I hadn’t grown up wanting to be a reporter. Hell, I only chose Communications as my major when I got to college because I’m a math idiot and I figured I’d eventually figure something out since the department kind of served as the umbrella for what would have been separate English, Journalism, and Public Relations departments at larger universities. And after only a few months and not one high school byline to my name, I decided I was going to become a reporter. My name started appearing in the college paper, and I was just counting the days until someone recognized my literary genius and asked me to write a book.
That’s how it all started. With dreams of a book. I was eight when I decided I was going to become an author after reading one by Gordon Kormon and learning that he was published at 13 after an English assignment had a teacher wondering how he got so lucky to have gotten this kid named Gordon in his class (Or at least, that’s how I remember it). That gave me five years to hone my skills. I figured I had plenty of time.
Long story short, I had my first midlife crisis at 14. My writer’s ego was in fine shape, but the skills needed to accompany it were sorely lacking. I wrote essays about everything and showed them to my friends before hiding them away. I wrote children’s books that I thought were spectacular and were anything but. (The first was called “Crashing in the Backyard of the White House. No, I’m not making that up.) And as clueless as I am was I still was as certain that I was going to become a real writer one day as I was that I was never going to be crowned Homecoming Queen.
My bright idea when I got to college was that if I got a job as a reporter that it would at least give me a steady paycheck until I hit the big time. I had it all laid out: Step One–small time local paper, Step Two–Detroit News or Free Press, Step Three–start freelancing articles to the glossy mags, Step Four–and then just wait for someone to ask me to write a book.
Great plan. The execution sucked.
Step One was rocky. I was eventually fired by a rather evil-gnomish looking editor for refusing to use off the record information from a trusted source, got even when my side of the story had the Unemployment offices ordering my former employer to pay me for being idiots, and waited tables while waiting patiently for an editor at one of the big Detroit Newspapers to notice me and my wondrous clips.
Someone eventually noticed. But Step Two was even rockier because I didn’t get my dream job as a reporter. So I patiently did my editorial assistant duties (and occasionally got a writer’s high with my own byline) as I waited for someone to notice me, give me a raise, new title, and the ability to focus on stories (so someone else could notice me and ask me to write a book.)
But before any of that could happen, I got pregnant, put on bed rest at six months, quit after my maternity leave was up (because I had spent those eight weeks doing the math and realizing I wasn’t making enough to pay for daycare, gas, and lunch) and decided to try Step Two and a Half: Get my bylines in the local parenting magazines in order to have the cajones (and know how) to approach the glossies (which would eventually lead to someone noticing me and asking me to write a book.)
I never made it to Step Three. Bottom line? I sucked at the business-end of freelancing. While I may have been able to write the hell out of a feature article, I never bothered querying new markets, or was able to balance taking care of Buttercup and getting my taxes done on time.
Besides, by then I had realized that even though I thrived on deadlines and lived to write, I wasn’t writing what I wanted. I’d been so busy working on my back-up plan so I could afford to wait to be noticed while writing a book that I didn’t have the time or the energy to even get a Chapter One at the top of a new document on the screen.
I was burned out and I hadn’t even started. And no one had noticed me and asked me to write that book yet, so I said “to hell with it” and just went ahead and started.
(Hey, I got tired of waiting)
The funniest part about the whole thing is that until a few months ago, I never comfortably used the term “writer” to describe myself. I was a “reporter”. Or a “freelancer.” Then, for a little while, just a “wife and mom” while I came to terms with getting off my ass and finally making my own dreams come true. The binders I have stuffed full of clips? That was just proof I let my fear of doing what I wanted get lost in the shuffle. Because I wasn’t really a writer, at least not the way I had defined it so long ago, if I didn’t have my name on a shelf at Borders.
Maybe it was the first #writerwednesday mention on Twitter. Maybe it was Chapter 8 of Baby F(Ph)at. Maybe it was the fact that I finally pulled my head out of my ass.
I was eight when I decided to become a writer. And I was 31 when I finally realized that I had been all along.