It’s been a year, and coincidentally I was back in the newsroom for a few minutes.
One year ago today was my last day at the newspaper, capping 18 years in one newsroom and 21 years in daily news. It was chaos, of course: the paper in the middle of another round of layoffs, and the president was in town, which meant a number of our people were out of the office being jeered by the public so they could cover his speech.
It was bittersweet and strange, a bit like that dream when you’re falling slowly down a flight of stairs and you wake up before you land.
It was nostalgic, with a lot of memories from nearly half my life bound up in the place and in the people, enough that I needed to encapsulate those memories in a photo essay and, eventually, in writing.
There’s a better analogy than the falling dream. It’s like jumping off the high dive without being able to tell if the pool below you is full of water, and you’ve got your family handcuffed to you. It might be easier to make that jump when you’re only responsible for yourself and maybe a cat, but when you have other humans depending on you, it’s frankly terrifying.
Could I manage to earn a masters degree in two years while freelancing? Could I gain enough skills and academic credentials to land a full-time teaching position and continue to be of service to my profession? Could I juggle all of these responsibilities while not starving to death or starving my family?
I spent the first few weeks of grad school convinced I had made the second-worst mistake of my life. I didn’t fit in, I was too old, my writing style was entirely contrary to academic expectations, the theoretical and philosophical aspects of research and analysis were… daunting. We’ll go with that.
But somehow I passed, re-learned academic style (still a work in progress), and began research projects that reflect my passions and aspirations.
I am officially halfway through my masters degree in media studies, and no one has yet chased me off the campus shouting, “Heretic!”
And I love teaching.
I’m not good at it yet. I’m capable, and I’m learning. My students seem to appreciate me, though I don’t think they appreciate the unannounced news quizzes that pepper the semester’s fun. (Too bad, kids. That’s what you get for drawing me as a professor.) More importantly, their writing seems to improve from the beginning of the semester to the end.
It’s quite clear to me how much I have to learn in this new profession, but I really love it. I don’t know if I’ve yet converted any students to leap into news reporting as a profession, but they seem to gain a greater appreciation for journalism, at any rate. If I can train them to evaluate good, balanced, smart reporting, to follow the news from multiple outlets and figure out the real from the fake, if I can open their eyes just a bit to the importance of journalism, then I’ve succeeded in my mission, whether or not I get them to become reporters.
The freelancing has been a slower launch, partly because I had no idea what I was doing. If there is a craft to cold-pitching stories to editors, I have yet to master it. But thanks to a number of contacts in the industry, I’ve started to develop some regular recurring gigs, working with local news organizations and some magazines, as well as my fiction editing work.
The photography has mostly been going to the Patreon, which has been an utter delight. It launched shortly before I left Ye Olde Newspaper, and I’ve experimented with a lot of different content. I’ve tried fiction excerpts, nonfiction essays/rants, photo essays, travelogues, even a recipe or two. The Patreon has become an absolutely essential part of my family’s income, but I have also found it wonderfully stimulating in a creative sense. I’m always thinking of new ideas to share with the Patrons, of places I can go and photos to shoot that might interest them.
All through the spring semester, I ran the Door Project: I covered my office door at the campus with Magnetic Poetry words, and photographed the fascinating (and occasionally silly) poems left by anonymous passers-by. All of it was chronicled on the Patreon, with a summary on Donald Media.
The last few weeks have been consumed with compiling a promised ebook for the Patrons, for those who joined the Patreon during my birthday week and my original audience members. We’re minutes away, she said as she took a hammer to the algorithm that keeps deleting her footnotes. Another thing I’d never done before: Self-publishing. I’m not sure if it counts, since it won’t be available to the wider public. But it’s definitely on my horizon.
Today was the anniversary, and it was actually a quiet day. The Boy was off to a ballgame with his father, who is in town for the weekend. The Man had to work. So I decided on a whim to drive down to Eckert’s Farm in southern Illinois, because they had created a maze of giant sunflowers. It’s like a corn maze, but all sunflowers, and those things get crazy tall. I thought it would make for some fun pictures for the Patreon, and I was able to pick up some fresh peaches and other tasty items.
And on my way back, I stopped by Ye Olde Newspaper.
It wasn’t actually out of nostalgia. My former work twin* messaged me earlier in the week that a package had arrived for me. I was not sure who had missed the memo after a year that I was no longer employed there, but after she ascertained that the package wasn’t ticking, I promised I’d drop by the next time I was in town. It so happened that the newspaper is only a few minutes away from the farm.
Fortunately there were folks I knew on duty, and we chatted for a few minutes as I collected my package (a book for review). It was good to see the newsroom again, so familiar it might as well be an old apartment where I once lived. It helps that newsrooms never change; they switch out the posters or the computer screens once in a while, but fundamentally, they never change. I promised not to steal anything on my way out the door.
It felt like full circle. I left a year ago not knowing if there was anything else I could do in this world that would be worth anything to anyone, much less could feed my family. I left in a bittersweet tang that I once described as eerily similar to the emotions of my divorce: regret, sadness, firm resolve that it was the right choice while coated in fear that it might be a terrible mistake.
It’s a frightening thing to imagine that you can have a different life, but it’s also a freeing moment, what my good friend Frank Fradella might call the Possibility Sense. (You should totally check out Frank’s new book.)
There was no way I could have managed this far without my terrific fans who keep buying my work, clicking the links and supporting me, particularly my wonderful Patrons. Special thanks and a round of applause should go to my beloved menfolk. My husband Jim is carrying more than his fair share of keeping the roof on while I go through this crazy balancing act, and has never wavered in his support. My son Ian has been wonderfully supportive, as well as quite sanguine about going to college with BOTH parents. We’re a team, helping each other through one of the hardest times in our family life, and I couldn’t be more blessed with their love and support as I wade into the final rounds.
We’re still waiting to see if the landing is a splash or a thud. Ask me in another year.
* Her name is Elizabeth O’Donnell. When she was hired, I introduced myself as “Elizabeth Donald, and we are so going to be getting each other’s phone calls.” I was not wrong.