I never wanted to be a journalist. Not really.
What I wanted to be was a creative writer. This was the major I settled on as a sophomore in college, after my parents ruled out classical studies and comparative anthropology. Why they permitted creative writing, I’ll never know. Perhaps it was because I had been writing stories and poems for nearly as long as I’d been able to string words together into sentences and paragraphs.
That first go at college started out with a lot of promise, but ended in gloom by the end of the second year, a casualty of poor choices and a burgeoning chronic problem with depression that I wouldn’t fully understand for another 15 years. The executioner of that first go at college turned out to be a tall, thin and unfortunately handsome man who was as cruel as he was attractive, and who had a knack for using all my weaknesses against me. I left college broken and suicidal, and it was writing that helped me get through that time.
Transferring to the community college in my hometown, I continued to enroll in a number of creative writing classes. It was, as they call it, a rebuilding year. As I labored over piecing together the shards of my psyche, I finished out the core classes I’d need to transfer to another college. And this time around, my parents weren’t going to be quite as permissive.
My dad had been a photojournalist when he was younger. He had been good enough to make a life out of it working as a freelancer. He had taken portraits of governors and been backstage with rock ‘n roll stars such as Grace Slick and Meatloaf. And while he was never a reporter, he had a good understanding for what that work entailed. He’s a talented writer as to boot. My dad was the one who tried to knock some sense into me.
“No one really hires a creative writer, do they?” he asked.
I had to admit an alarming lack of classified ads looking for one.
“Why not give journalism a try. Just try it. If you don’t like it, then we’ll see.”
I couldn’t deny the logic of it, but I wasn’t sold on the idea, either. The problem was that journalism seemed hopelessly dreary and uncreative. As a writer of stories or poems, I could use whatever words I wanted to say anything at all that came to mind, and facts – much less objective truth – never entered into the picture. It was a lush landscape that I could shape in any image I desired and fill up at whim. Journalism, with its rules and demand for objectivity and factualism, seemed like a desert by comparison. Where was the challenge in that?
But my attitude suddenly changed one evening as I stood in the kitchen of my parents’ house, drying off some dishes while National Public Radio played in the background. The segment was talking about the Peabody awards for broadcast journalism, and mentioned that the awards were handed out by the journalism school at the University of Georgia.
It was one of those moments where something clicked, a window opened and I could see a clear shot into the future. It wasn’t a matter of simply wanting to go to the University of Georgia. At that moment, I just knew I would. Never mind that the Peabodies were for broadcast journalism only, and I had zero interest in that. Never mind the fact that it was 12 hours and four states away.
Months later, once I had molded my Midwestern habits into a Southern routine, I sought out a job at the student newspaper, the Red and Black. They took me on as a writer. To be honest, I think they took on absolutely any student who showed an interest, so long as they could prove themselves to have some amount of talent. And soon, I had my first story to write.
I don’t remember much about that first interview I ever did, but I know it was with one of the directors of the university’s marching band. I even remember his name: Satterwhite. The story was about a tour the marching band made of the state every year, visiting several small towns in Georgia to share the music and promote the school. I must have spoken to a musician or two as well. At least I hope I did.
As luck would have it, my dad happened to be visiting just at the time I had to write that story. I brought him my first draft. He took his pen to it and handed back to me, five minutes later, a piece of paper filled with lines and X’s arrows. Try this. Move that here. Why isn’t this up higher? What are you trying to say?
It was the challenge that hooked me. I had written off reporting as being uncreative, but now I saw that while the scope and tone of the story were limited, it was still a challenge to get it right. And that’s why I continued on as a journalism major.
It’s a decision that would haunt me periodically throughout my fifteen years as a reporter, especially when it came time to interview for jobs. Because, inevitably, the editor sitting across the desk would ask, “What made you want to be a journalist?”
If I would have been honest – and I’m not that stupid – I would have answered, “Because no one hires a creative writer.” Instead, I spun some story about how my father was a journalist and how he inspired me to be one, too. Technically, not a lie in the least. But also not the facts. And being creative with facts is something that journalists know a thing or two about, whether we liked to admit it or not.
I never wanted to be a journalist. That’s why it didn’t break my heart to be told I wasn’t one anymore.