Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Second Act

Whenever I tell someone I work from home, I always hear the same answer: “That must be so cool, to not have to leave the house for work.”

While working from home does have its advantages, it isn’t quite living the dream. The reality is more complicated.  It can be isolating, and folks who work from home can be susceptible to depression, anxiety, and see their social skills erode. If you’re like me and your anxiety already is at a high idle, you need to stay vigilant, or else you move straight from the desk to a tearful 90-minute nap, because you’re emotionally drained after the work day is done.

After I was fired from Chicagoist in March, I wanted a change from that routine. I cast a wide net with my job search. I wanted to stay in local media, but the current local journalism landscape meant most of the plum jobs were gone as fast as they were posted; the rest were filled at a snail’s pace, as companies had multiple vacancies in their professional hierarchies. So I extended my reach to marketing, public relations, content development and the nonprofit sector. My resume was polished to a new penny shine.

One thing I hoped for, regardless—after five years of mostly working from home, I dreamed of a job in an office, surrounded by peers, with a commute and the occasional bad lunch at my desk, followed by a mid-afternoon coma while counting down the hours to quitting time. 

So how did I wind up with another job requiring me to work from home? The answer, in short, was that it felt right. My now editor-in-chief, a charming woman with a languid Georgia accent, and a descendant of Southern newspaper royalty, said this wasn’t for everyone when we first spoke. What was supposed to be a 20-minute chat turned into an hour-long phone call where we discussed our backgrounds, individual writing and editing philosophies, and our mutual desire to be a part of something with the potential for growth. There were some stumbles in the weeks after I accepted the job, compounded by the other upheavals in my life. But in talking with her, I realized, like Chicagoist a half-decade prior, it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.

The struggles were evident as soon as I started my writing tryout. The language of commercial real estate (and of this publication) was as foreign to me as speaking Esperanto, and I resisted learning it, from the onset. It’s fast-paced, requires attention to detail, and the learning curve is steep and fast. My editors realized I was green and were patient, knowing they took a chance on someone with no business writing experience. From my perspective, I realized how much I allowed by reporting skills to deteriorate. My first drafts—even reblogs—were sloppy and required multiple edits before they were fit for publication. Doubt as to whether I had the ability to do this job set in deep and became a driving factor in my summer of weltschmerz. I would lash out at what I believed was nitpicking of my copy, which frustrated my editors. I ended my work days in fits of crying, yelling into pillows, and bad eating habits.

Eventually, it reached a point where, as I sat in the quiet room of Bridgeport Coffee House on a mid-August day, I considered reaching out to the Evanston law office where I first dreamed of becoming a full-time writer, to see it they had work. You had a hell of a run, the doubts screamed in my head. There’s no shame in going back. That night, I told my friend Michelle of my decision. “It’s good that you came to this decision early,” she said. While Michelle rarely offers advice aloud, the look on her face told a different story. “Don’t make a rash decision. You’re going through a lot, professionally and personally, and you’ll get through this the way you always have. You’re a fighter—fight.”

The next day I returned to work more composed, determined to get through the day without incident and doing the job to the best of my abilities. I spent the weekend soul searching and dedicated to taking control of this situation for the first time. The next week I pounded phones; incessantly emailed a growing list of contacts; turned in sharper, tighter copy; laid out a detailed editorial calendar to my editors that was greeted with enthusiasm; and listened to their advice. Around the same time, I started to receive analytics showing the growth of my page views, and how I progressed learning the language of business reporting. I’ve learned to trust my editors, and they have put their faith in me to do the job I’ve been hired to do, to the best of my abilities. The doubts began to recede and, though there are some days where they return with a vengeance, those moments are exceedingly rare. Like any good reporter, I’m finding the meat on the bone I want to eat, and trusting once again that if I find something interesting, readers will, as well.

I’m having fun again with the keyboard. I’m finding myself interjecting my personality into my reporting, which was one of the things that these folks liked about me from the onset. Most important, I’m able to leave work behind me at the end of the day. I spent far too long letting my job description define who I am, when I’m so much more. Not having to worry about that in my downtime has been a revelation. 

Journalism, at its foundation, is a simple endeavor—report on who, what, when, where, why and how; and get the facts right. It's equal parts science and art, but the balancing act is simple. Remember that, and you can do the job, and find satisfaction in it. Hunter S Thompson wrote, “Although I don't feel that it's at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I'm going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.”

Writing, for me, has been as much a therapeutic tool and a salvation, as an art form. And it will continue to be, long after I stop earning the right to be paid for the endeavor. It’s just nice to feel comfortable in my skin again and enter the day with clear eyes and a full heart.