Finding the write reasons

That's right. It's an absolutely terrible pun to introduce a painfully self-indulgent edition of "The Dang Apostrophe" upon the publication of a magazine feature on the D.B. Cooper case.

I was in third grade at Sacred Heart Academy when Mr. Geever instructed us to write a one-page essay using a simile. I wrote about a dust devil that “took off like an airplane” on the dirt path at the end of our street, just past the red two-story house where my friend Manuel Mendoza lived. At some point after we turned in the assignment, Mr. Geever announced he would read one essay aloud to provide a good example, but that he wouldn’t specify who it was written by. When I realized he was reading my essay, I put my head down on my desk, my cheeks flushed with a combination of what must have been pride and embarrassment. Or maybe I just assume that’s what it was because I’m embarrassed by my pride.

This is as close as I have to a professional origin story, and I’m afraid it is fairly vain. I always saw writing as an ambition and (hopefully) an aptitude, and that day in Mr. Geever’s class is as close as I can come to an explanation for when or why it began. In high school, I was a better student in science and math, but I never really considered taking that direction in college. I’ve never doubted my decision in that regard, either. I have always wanted to be a writer. I have wondered, however, at several different points whether that pull I feel toward writing is because of how much I value and appreciate the craft itself and how much I enjoy the attention and commendations I have received because of it. Maybe Mr. Geever’s class was the hit that got me hooked.

I’m sharing this today because on Sunday a story I wrote was published in Pacific NW magazine at The Seattle Times. It’s about the D.B. Cooper case in general, but the lead FBI investigator specifically and how he dealt with never being able to identify the crook (spoiler: he did just fine).

I am proud of how the story came out, and grateful to both the people who talked to me for it and the editors at the magazine who worked with me. If you’ve subscribed to this newsletter it’s because you’re interested to at least some extent in the next chapter in my working life, and along with adding a subscription option to the newsletter, this story is another tangible step toward this next stage.

I’m also a little bit leery of appearing to be too chesty, too self-enamored with all of this. To be honest, I’m neurotic enough to worry that all this honesty and self-deprecation is actually a ploy to wring out even more affirmation. The truth is I’ll probably always feel a little conflicted about this when it comes to writing.

I want to share my work, and actually I’ll need to as a freelancer, but I’ll always fear being too self-indulgent. I’m going to scan Twitter for reaction even though it’s how I feel about the work that’s going to matter most. It has just taken me a while to learn that, however. You want people to like what you write or at the very least be moved by it. There’s nothing worse than being forgettable. But writing strictly for affirmation is to preclude yourself from fully embracing the act of reporting and then writing the story. That’s the bedrock you can build on. Approval, on the other hand, is too fickle, because while it may feel good in the moment, relying on it as the primary signal can lead you to becoming miserable. I know that from experience.

I’ve faced burnout to different degrees at each of the three jobs I’ve held over the past 20 years. I used to think that this was due to a combination of what was expected from those jobs and my desire to please those I was working for. The schedule was demanding, especially when I was traveling to cover the NFL. I would take on too much, I would try too hard and when I inevitably wore down I would blame myself for having taken on so much.

I no longer think this is an accurate description of the issue, though. I think the root of my issue had more to do with what I expected from my job as opposed to what was expected of me. I wanted to be acknowledged mostly by my bosses, but also by my peers and definitely by the people who read or listened to me, and while I think that my desire for this affirmation was natural, I based way too much of my identity on how I felt others received my work. Because in all that time, my bosses have been supportive of me, peers have been kind and encouraging and I have been blessed to have people not only read and listen to my words but have come to care about me yet I still ended up feeling utterly miserable at some point in each of those jobs.

So what was my issue? Well, the problem with expecting affirmation and approval from your job is that if — for whatever reason — you don’t feel you’re getting it, the only real fix is to work harder to get it. And if working harder is already making you feel kind of miserable? Well, you’re (stuck). I’ve been there before. A couple of times in fact, most recently coming in November 2017 when I woke up on a Sunday morning in Tampa, Fla., with a hell of a hangover, a new rash that turned out to be shingles and a game to cover starting at 4:25 p.m. and a 6 a.m. flight the next day.

I’ve come a long way since that day both personally as well as professionally, and now I’m doing something new, which is frightening, but also invigorating. I truly don’t know what the future holds, and while I’m not optimistic enough to just assume everything is going to turn out great, I truly believe that there is a chance it will be. Similarly, I know that there’s a bit of vanity that is mixed up in what I’m doing, but I think that might be true for most writers.

So instead of thinking back to Mr. Geever’s third-grade class and trying to decide whether I’m some sort of affirmation junkie still chasing the high that came from my essay being read aloud, I’ll think back to the moment just before that. That moment when I was waiting there, nervous to know if I had written something that was worth being read and getting red-cheeked with excitement when I realized that I had.

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