About seven months ago, I graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism. As of now, I have no idea how to “follow my passion,” as professor Berkley Hudson put it. How did I get here?
My love of writing began in fifth grade. My teacher, Marge Tracy, required us each to keep a journal. It was a small assignment – two entries per week of any length. One sentence was an acceptable entry. She read our entries and wrote us each responses. We were given incredible immunity for fifth graders in a strict parochial school. She promised we could say whatever we wanted, even express anger against her, but asked that we be respectful. I didn’t care about the sparse requirements. I wrote daily, often filling page after page. It was probably the first safe and healthy outlet for my thoughts an emotions about my parents’ divorce, finalized just a year earlier. Mrs. Tracy was the first person to encourage my writing. She could have found my excessive entries tedious. She could have skimmed them. But she read them all and always wrote back. She delighted in my triumphs, empathized in my pain and praised my mature and honest writing style. I owe so much to her. Whatever I may or may not do with journalism, what she gave me was invaluable then and now.
My eighth grade English teacher, Karen Beaty, was the embodiment of discipline in my eyes. I owe her the foundations of my understanding of grammar and citation. Her research and citation requirements were as rigorous as any I faced in high school. I found I enjoyed the challenge of answering grammar questions in class. It may be because of Mrs. Beaty that I earned an A in Mizzou’s dreaded Magazine Editing class eight years later.
High school honed my essay skills. I also got my feet wet on creative nonfiction, short fiction and poetry. I worked on the disciplined art of writing about research for religious exegetical studies and psychology experiments. I always most loved the creative side of things. Junior year came and I floundered in a sea of college applications and a hopelessly infinite list of possible majors. Claudia Staude, my high school English/Lit teacher, drama director and friend offered up the fateful advice. You should be a journalist.
Journalism is the only reason I chose Mizzou. I had a serious ego issue. I scoffed at Mizzou’s general admission requirements. I shuddered at the number of my classmates getting accepted. I loathed the thought of a monstrous, public university. Almost all my other applications went to small, private schools. I wanted the safety of a familiar Christian environment and the prestige of a low acceptance rate. I was pompous. But the Missouri School of Journalism was something else. It is among the notable journalism schools in the country and in the world. It had its own admissions requirements and promised a rigorous study and sure future. Beyond that, I was absolutely seduced by the beauty of the campus in contrast to that of Concordia Lutheran University in Chicago. So off to Mizzou I went to become a journalist, whatever that might mean.
I’ll never forget sitting in the giant lecture hall of my freshman journalism class. It was a starter course meant to explain exactly what journalism was and what we should expect. In reality, it was a weed-out course where various lecturers used scare tactics to eliminate all but the most determined students. It wasn’t difficult; I don’t remember any assignments. Instead it was disheartening. Want to be a photojournalist? National Geographic is impossibly competitive. If you are the best photojournalist in the world, they may hire you to sit for ten hours in a swamp covered in biting insects holding perfectly still hoping to get one perfect shot. Want to have a family? Forget about it. Successful journalists are married to their jobs. They will work any and all hours, travel to countless destinations and obsess completely about a story until it is perfection. But the warning that struck me most was this. Good journalists don’t have to be good writers, a lecturer said. If you are here only because you love to write, you are in the wrong place.
Ouch. Some of my friends heeded the advice and switched to English or creative writing majors. But what do you do with an English degree? Well, you go to grad school. And then? Whatever you want. I did not want to go to grad school. I did want to be able to tell people my “planned” career path. An English degree would not promise me that. Furthermore, I believed those lecturers were trying to scare me. They wanted me to quit, didn’t think I was tough enough. I would show them. I would have a journalism career and have a family and love to write. I might never be wildly successful on their terms, but I would be on my own. The challenge was set before me. I dug in my heels and wouldn’t back down.
I’m creative and artistic. The J-School pounded analytical thought into my head, then invited me to be artistic with what was left. I love long descriptive narrative. They put me on the public safety beat writing daily crime briefs for the local newspaper. I thought I might like design until I took the class. You never understand a design rule until you discover you’ve broken it – then you understand it exists but still don’t get what it is. Reporting stressed me out far beyond lost sleep. When I did get down to the writing I craved, I sweated over the details and was terrified it wouldn’t be good enough. There were days, weeks, months, dare I say years, when I hated my degree program.
But then there were moments. Moments when the words flowed out of my fingers like magic. Moments like the front-page meth piece I co-authored – months of work – getting picked up by the Associated Press. Moments like professor John Fennell calling me when I was no longer in his class to say they wanted to publish my profile of a gay man turned straight. Moments like professor Berkley Hudson assuring me my swim club story was worth publishing and that I should get paid. Moments like the day I picked up my graduation portfolio with trembling hands to read that professional journalists thought my work was excellent. Any time a peer comments on a blog post or enjoys my writing. This is who I am.
I still have no idea how to follow my passion. I don’t know what this journalism degree will mean in my life, or where my career will head. But the truth is, I don’t regret it. If writing never earns me dime, if hobby blogging is the farthest I get, the journey has still been worthwhile.