If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do Something Else
“If you’re really serious about writing, do something else for a living.”
This is the advice I dispensed recently to a young, aspiring writer who had emailed me seeking guidance. Specifically, this writer wanted to know whether she should stay in her entry level magazine job in order to keep a foothold in the publishing business, or do something else entirely. I get a lot of emails like this, most of which I don’t have time to respond to in any depth, let alone offer an in-person conversation. But something about the tone and timing of this particular correspondence struck a chord, and I suggested we have a Zoom meeting.
In our meeting, the woman explained that the magazine that currently employed her was one she grew up reading and even worshipping; in other words, she had her dream job. But a few years in, she was finding it difficult to imagine moving up through the ranks. Many of her peers were leaving the magazine to work in things like e-commerce and social media. She’d always wanted to write, but she was also interested in other kinds of careers, for instance public policy work. What should she do?
My advice boiled down to one word: leave.
Leave what’s left of the “magazine business.” Dispel yourself of the notion that a job in social media or e-commerce bears any resemblance to what we used to think of as a “creative field.” Let go of the idea that the most of the publications you grew up worshipping (as it happened, the magazine where she worked was one I grew up worshipping, too) have anything more than trace amounts of the DNA that once defined them.
Moreover, let go of the idea that not working in a writing job means you can’t write. If anything, it means you can. That’s because if you’re a real writer you’ll write no matter what. And if you write well and have something interesting to say, you’ll probably get published despite not having high flying professional contacts from your magazine-turned-e-commerce jobs. After all, the only thing editors love more than great writers that everyone knows are great writers that no one knows yet.
Maybe I’m projecting (or flattering myself) but the woman appeared to take my advice with relief. It’s not like you have to quit right away, I said. Just back away slowly, as if your job is a wild animal you accidentally happened upon in the woods.
A moment later, I revised my directive. Actually, I take that back, I said. Run and don’t look back.
There’s often a dopamine hit of satisfaction that comes from lending advice to a younger person. Look at me! I made a difference! (This applies regardless of whether or not you’ve actually made a difference.) But this time, upon hanging up the call, I was met with a wave of sadness, closely followed by an emotion I rarely if ever experience when talking with young writers about their professional prospects: envy. Specifically, I envied this young woman’s opportunity to change course. I realized then that run and don’t look back had not only been a directive to her but a decades-too-late injunction to my younger self.
Most days, I’m grateful for the work I’ve been able to do. As I wrote recently in this blog, being the age that I am often makes me feel like I’ve slipped out of a bank robbery scene just as everyone else hits the floor, resigned to going along with whatever program has been laid out for them. I was referring in that case to cultural norms and the moral policing of social media, but I also feel that way when it comes to my career. As a writer, I am damn lucky to have gotten my start at time when the magazines I grew up worshipping were still worthy of worship — and paid their writers decent wages on top of it. I am damn lucky that the older people from whom I sought advice were far more likely to help me get a foot in the door than to suggest I run out of that door. But sometimes, especially lately, the fantasy of being able to go back and do everything differently becomes so potent as to be painful.
Those who know me may know that I’ve long wished that I were not a full-time writer but (wait for it . . .) an FBI agent for violent criminal investigations who also happened to write. (They also can barely hold back laughter at the thought me me running around in a pantsuit with a handgun.) The fact that this is not the reality of my life does sometimes bum me out, but I can hardly file it under “regret,” since that would imply that I’d had somehow lost or give up chance to become an FBI agent. The truth is that when I was young I would never, ever have joined the FBI. I would no more have contemplated this line of work than I would have contemplated becoming a zookeeper (I did, for what it’s worth, have a high-paying magazine assignment wherein I got to work at the Oregon Zoo for a week.) But I also would never have imagined that even the most worship-worthy magazine would, in 2021, pay writers a tiny fraction of what it paid in 1996. I would never have imagined that the media landscape I wanted so badly to participate in would eventually devolve into a mud pit of fungible facts and competing confirmation biases. I would never have guessed that a day would come when I longed to do work that was rooted not just in ideas but in actual events that I could evaluate up close and in real life.
I know, I know. Journalists, particularly investigative journalists, can do just that. And criminal justice work is fraught with all kinds of conscious and unconscious bias, grandstanding for the media, corrupt leadership, internal politics and office nonsense. Plus there’s the whole having to run around with a gun thing. Who are we kidding? I was never going to do anything like that. (Oh, and as a federal employee, I’d probably have a tough time publishing and getting paid for any writing I did related to my work.) Since FBI work was never remotely on the table, I’m pretty sure what I feel is not “regret” as much as self-pity over a fundamental human condition, which is that we’re all stuck inside the minds, bodies and lives that we have.
If my young advisee heeds my words and leaves journalism, chances are she’ll have moments when she looks back at her choices just as I’m now looking back on mine. Twenty years from now, if she has an established career in public policy and finds herself being asked for advice by a young person, she might tell that person to get out while she can. The compromised ideals! The mushy-minded agendas! The office nonsense! Leave!, she’ll say. Never look back!
On and on it will go. Which is why, when we reach a certain point in life, the best advice we can give ourselves is that last bit, all on its own. Never look back. Doing so is a surefire way to ruin the day. Especially when you’ve already decided — absurdly — that you’ve ruined your life.