How the hell did you become a writer?” an acquaintance inquired during a stalled start to the morning meeting.
“I mean, how does anyone choose their profession?” I thought, but instead replied, “I just always liked it.”
“Yeah, but like, no one really becomes a writer. Like, unless you write books, right?”
You never think something about yourself is odd until someone else flags it as odd. That’s what makes it official. You mean everyone doesn’t leave the last tissue because they like the design on the box so, so much? I don’t think the way I earn a living is particularly noteworthy, but I’ll entertain almost any question for the sake of content. I can trace the roots of this one all the way back to a little majestic dot on an elementary school map, called Turtle Town.
While others were known to dabble, I made a career out of having an awkward phase. The beginning of my climb to peak unpolished adolescence arrived at age 10. In the fourth grade, I had spacey, jagged teeth and mousy blonde hair with bangs that easily flipped and frizzed at the slightest breeze or rush of activity. My lips were always chapped. I wore a rotation of sweatshirts with assorted appliqués over turtlenecks in contrasting shades (they never matched exactly because I liked to embrace my rebellious whims). My boyfriend, who wore hammer pants, was 2 inches shorter than me, and I was a meager 3 feet in stature. Things ended abruptly when he placed my Pound Puppy, which I had gifted to him against my mom’s wishes, in a sad, semi-rain-soaked brown grocery bag on top of my desk with a note that read simply, “Itz over. – Jon”. I knew nothing of myself. I was a sheep. A follower. The full extent of my ambitions for the foreseeable future consisted of marrying Dylan McKay, having a smile like Julia Roberts and moving like Penny from Dirty Dancing. (The fact that my parents allowed me to watch sex-tinged programming with prostitutes and “knocked up” resort performers is not for any of us to judge.)
What I didn’t realize was I had something going for me; A hand to gently guide me toward fate. I had Mr. Johnson for fourth grade and Mr. Johnson was the shit. In the midst of sleepovers where we made girls pee their pants and call their parents at 1 a.m. and clammy, sweat-soaked hand-holding, and the arrival of Gushers, Mr. Johnson went and turned our classroom into a microcosm and just waited to infiltrate our tiny, ignorant little brain saplings.
Every year, the students in room 23 would decide the name, mascot, and basic government and judiciary system of their pretend city. In 1993, the name was Turtle Town, the mascot was a fox – just kidding – it was a turtle, and the government was comprised of a collection of pinheads who liked to show off their turdy friends and make fart noises in the middle of films about migrating birds and what have you. But it was cool. We had elections and town meetings and learned all kinds of important life stuff without realizing we were being taught (such suckers). I can’t remember if it was my idea, or the teacher’s, but at some point, it was decided that Turtle Town needed a newspaper. It would be called Turtle Talk and I would be the editor.
I went to my parent’s office and took a giant accordion-style file folder and labeled the slots with sections – sports, front page, government, etc. I carried around a small spiral-bound notepad and pen and pleaded with my classmates to write fake pieces of news. “So, like maybe you left the town hall meeting with a stomachache because you ate bad porridge at the Turtle Top Tavern. Huh? Whatdaya say?” In the end, I discovered a truth that followed me for the next 23 years and counting: If you have the vision, and you want something written, it’s best to just ask the right questions and write the damn thing yourself. And so, I did. I slapped on my Bonne Bell Dr. Pepper chapstick and got to business writing horrific headlines and cheesy photo captions and exposés on Turtle Town’s public officials (the majority of which never made the cut). I fashioned that fabricated content into a true, tangible newspaper, piece by piece. Of course no one really gave a crap. How do you compete with an unstoppable TGIF lineup and Beanie Babies for Pete’s sake?
Followers be damned, the seed had been planted. I loved to write. I loved coming up with ways to tell stories and talking to people who’d done things I hadn’t and working with words until they formed the perfect linguistic cadence. (This last sentence may be a bit overkill for the work I was turning out at this time.)
Where Mr. Johnson left off, my high school journalism and English teacher (one in the same) picked up. This woman was a dead ringer for Miss Geist from Clueless. She had a sarcastic wit Amy Schumer would envy, sobering honesty when you really needed it and a hands-off style that just made kids thrive. She didn’t reach all of the kids in the school, but the ones she did, she changed. We were like a gang comprised of rejected members of the Breakfast Club. There were intellectuals, athletes and “outcasts”, but when we entered that corner classroom, tucked away from the social hierarchy, the subtitles dissolved entirely. We ate boxes of Lemonheads and troughs of Cheetos while we brainstormed story ideas and layouts. We made McDonald’s runs to clear writer’s block. It was an editorial-induced euphoria that kept me high for four solid years.
I wrote sappy editorials about saying goodbye to upperclassmen and being single on Valentine’s Day. I spent a solid week sipping sugary gas station mochas and pouring my emotions out for the intro page copy in our yearbook my senior year. My Miss Geist doppleganger, who by then was like a second mother, encouraged me to make a last-minute change of college for a better Journalism program and a leg up down the road. I followed her advice.
In 2002, Sex and the City was a female institution. You knew if you were a Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte or, God forbid, Miranda. I was studying Magazine Journalism in the Midwest and, culturally, could not be farther from the Big City storylines I relished so intently. My then-boyfriend (now-husband) was a student at a small all-male college a little shy of 2 hours away and they were looking for a female columnist for their newspaper. One sample article later, I was committed to pen a biweekly editorial on life through a woman’s lens. From the Hip ran for 3 glorious years. It was the closest to Carrie I would ever get. And while most of the questions submitted came from lonely independents who just couldn’t understand why the weekend lady visitors weren’t feelin’ their flavor, we did venture into some heavy early adult topics. If nothing else, writing that column made going to the bars super fun. “Hey, aren’t you From the Hip girl? Whoa! Wussup?” “Hey, you know what you should write about? Why girls don’t make any sense.” “Hey, you were wrong. That girl totally called the next day.” “Hey, you know what you should write about? [Insert late night radio show topic].” “Hey, your article cut into the football feature. I’m not mad though. I’m just sayin’ it was long.” Those were good times. I sincerely loved those times.
And those were the articles, with heavy sexual undertones and ridiculous subject matter, that I took with me to apply for my first job out of school; an editorial assistant at a food magazine. The publisher must have been on heavy pain meds when he hired me. My portfolio was sad, but my rate was cheap and I was eager to work like a typing mule. The magazine had zero money. Paychecks would bounce at least once a month and we were our own cleaning service. But the education I got in the five years I worked there was immeasurable. I went into immaculate kitchens with freshly butchered meats and cheeses I couldn’t pronounce. I learned about wine varietals and molecular gastronomy and organic farming. I was 22 when I started that job. It was a champagne experience on a penny pitcher beer budget. I adored my editor. I still adore my editor and I still call her my editor even though we haven’t worked together in seven years. She had her priorities right and was a sharp wordsmith. She shaped my writing and she showed me how to balance my work and personal life without sacrificing myself. She ran on her lunch hour, knew the best places to grab a beer and believed in the value of a Friday Coke. Every young writer needs an editor like that.
Eventually my writing turned into more of a job than a joy. I made some career turns and strayed from the rich editorial path a bit in exchange for a more realistic salary. It worked for a few years. But I know myself and I knew that I was missing the art of writing. Not just the piecing together of words with alliteration and spot-on syntax to reel consumers in, but the actual soul sharing and storytelling part of it. I started this blog, privately at first, as a way to quench that desire to express myself in that way. I needed an outlet to complement my occupation. And, 3 years later, here we are.
A man that I admire a whole heck of a lot said, “We write so that we can taste life twice.” He was referring to journaling. I think that is what this blog – and truly, many parts of my professional career – are for me. I’ve seen natural springs and traversed the steep hills of a maple syrup farm and flown in helicopters and hiked the AT and survived 7 years of motherhood, and I can relive those days any time I want. I can pull out a magazine or pull up an article and recall those sights and sounds and characters because I’ve shared them and they live somewhere outside of my forgetful mind. That is the gift that writing gives you.
You might love cleaning people’s teeth or educating young children or giving quotes on various goods and services. I love the sound of the keys when my fingers can’t keep up with my mind and the satisfaction of submitting a finished article. For me, it isn’t about showing up in your newsfeed or standing from the tallest podium in a room of screaming grownups. I just want to make people feel something. I want to elicit empathy and contemplation and exploration. I want to write things that inspire and engage people and make us hop off the hamster wheel for a few minutes. Not everything I write is going to do that, but I respect the process, and I respect rare gem you get when the words come together just so and set something off for someone.
From Turtle Town to this Desperate search for Superwoman, there’s just something about writing for me. I’m so blessed to have found it. I’m so thankful you read it. It’s so delicious tasting this life twice. Period.