The fruits of failure
I brought this on myself.
I’m invited to speak this week for Professor Stacey Spaulding’s class at Towson University on journalism and new media. She told them that journalists are expected to pepper subjects with questions, and they have come up with more than I could answer in a day and a half, much less in and hour and a quarter on a Thursday afternoon. One of them wants to know how I got into this business, and to be honest, I would have to tell them that I got into it by being a failure.
Oh, it would be tempting to quote Mark Twain and say that I got into journalism because there was no honest work available, but that would be a mere half-truth.
When I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in English, I was accepted into the graduate program in English at Syracuse as a university fellow. In my first year, I took a seminar with a bright young member of the faculty, and wrote a clumsy and amateurish paper. He returned it to me with several pages of single-spaced sarcasm that accurately and devastatingly ripped into the inadequacies of the paper. For the next two years I froze whenever I had to write a paper. I showed that commentary once to a fellow graduate student, who was floored by it, saying that he had never seen anything like it, and it was only years and years later, after having carried it from state to state, that I finally consigned it to a recycling bin.*
What I dodged for my six years at Syracuse, and came to recognize only gradually after leaving, was that though I love reading and love to talk about books, I do not have the temperament for being an academic scholar, for sitting all day in a carrel in the library coming up with publishable insights into texts.
So, after leaving Syracuse, with a dissertation topic approved but the thesis unwritten, I abandoned the Ph.D. for journalism. I hated to do it, but there wasn’t any honest work available.
Since 1980, I’ve found my niche as an editor, enjoying the camaraderie and gallows humor of the copy desk, establishing a small reputation in that circumscribed sphere of endeavor, and even returning to the work after having been laid off during a crisis.
The point of indulging in this personal account is to be able to say to Professor Spaulding’s students that they should not be afraid of false starts and failures, that the disappointments they will inevitably encounter do not have to define them. You are what you can become.
*The instructor, as it happens, was denied tenure in the following year, and the last I heard of him, many years back, was that he was on the West Coast growing succulents for a living.