I belong to a writer's group in Pittsburgh. We critique each other's work on a mostly monthly basis. The writers in the group are amazing and I'm extremely lucky they let me tag along.
They are so knowledgeable about different aspects of writing, different genres, techniques, etc.
I've known that I wanted to be a writer since I was about five or six years old. I know that sounds ridiculous or impossible, but I have a vivid memory of my father teaching me how to write in cursive and I fell in love with the motion of my hand sweeping the pencil over the page. I never put my notebooks down after that. Watching TV? I would be writing something. Playing with my friend? We had pretend businesses and I was in charge of 'paperwork.'
Storytelling came later. Sitting in the back seat of our van, on the way to our grandparents' homes or maybe on a camping trip, I would stare out the window until I saw something that triggered a story idea and I would amuse myself by spinning tales about whatever I'd seen. People-watching is incredibly important in my storytelling process.
In second-grade, my teacher gave 'awards' to everyone in the class and mine was 'best storyteller.' That was about 25 years ago and I still remember how it felt to claim that prize.
Journalism came a little later. I loved the show Murphy Brown and thought, well...I guess I'll have to be a really important reporter. When I think back on those days, I can't help but laugh at what I assumed my career would be like.
I assumed I would be flown all over the world to cover very important stories, just like Murphy. My college years didn't diminish that expectation very much, I just figured I'd end up at the New York Times one day...(wow, to be 20 again and think those things would come so easily!)
Community journalism came after that.
My first job interview was with a terrifying woman who criticized my college portfolio but praised my spelling. It didn't look good. She brought in an even scarier guy whose first question was 'what is your least favorite form of writing?' I answered scientific and technical -- that class was agony -- and he considered this for a minute before saying 'that's good, most new reporters wouldn't admit that there was any kind of writing they didn't like.' Then he left the room. I overheard the executive editor outside the conference room telling everyone that she finally found someone who could spell...and then she offered me a job.
Three months after graduation from college, I was a reporter with a weekly, community newspaper in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
I spent that first year assuming I would move on to a daily paper in no time...you know, begin that ladder climb. I left for a bi-weekly paper after one year. One month later that paper was closed and I lost my job.
The terrifying lady, who I'd grown to love as a mentor and a friend, gladly took me back. I took a new beat and stayed there, loving my job, for four and a half years. Then I was forced to leave that lovely town and take a neighboring beat. Actually 'beat' is a good word for that job because by the end of my three years there, I felt pretty beat up.
I started questioning my desire to stay in community journalism. I love journalism at the community level and I love weekly papers. I love being the main source of information for a town. I love having the flexibility to cover stories that the dailies don't have room to cover. Did Johnnie catch his first fish? Send me a picture. A second-grade class met their goal of reading 200 books? Let me write that story. Grandma's church group knitted blankets for the poor? Give me a ring!
The world of journalism is having a pretty rough time right now...it's been getting worse since the economy started tanking. As journalists, we all live with the reality that papers can close...at any time and without warning. Last year, our company offered a buy-out and I really considered it. Take the money, use the time off to find a new job...but I just couldn't do it.
When I was at the end of my rope at work, a new opportunity presented itself. An editor in another division of our company did take the buyout. He was the editor in my grandfather's hometown. My mother's hometown. The paper, when I found it, was in horrible shape. It was pretty evident that the former editor had been preparing for retirement for awhile. I felt this surge of enthusiasm for the job again. I sort of begged the boss for the chance to get my hands on that paper and resurrect it. I got that job on May 1, 2009.
It's amazing how loving your job can affect the rest of your life. I love the town I cover now. I love having final say on each week's paper as the editor. I like doing a lot of the photography. I love working with freelancers and teaching them the way I was taught about a decade ago.
Throughout the last 25 years of my life and 10 years of my career, I always assumed I would write a book at some point. It's along the lines of the New York Times assumption...no biggie, I'll just eventually become an author.
That is not how it works.
I'm working on a book, which will be my first full-fledged attempt at a novel, and I realized again this week how lucky I am to be part of this writer's group. I find that when it's time for my piece to be critiqued, these authors are literally saving me from myself. I fall in love with my writing too often. I don't think critically, because I love the story I'm telling at that moment. I'm so glad to have them in my life. I'm so grateful.
I've focused on journalism for so long, I never gained the knowledge about fiction-writing that this group has and is sharing with me. I would love to finish this book and see it go somewhere!