Things I Learned a Year Ago

For some reason, this paper I wrote popped into my head, so I went to pull it up on Google Docs. The date? May 11th, 2014. Exactly a year ago today. The assignment was to write about our experience in the class. I am such a different person a year ago from who I am today. I think every year I’d like to write a what I’ve learned piece, outside of a class context.

This year I became a better writer, and a much worse writer.

For my first assignment of the year, I found myself sitting at a table in the office of an executive director with her personal assistant and the ninety-two year old woman that founded the company. Over the course of the hour long interview as I frantically took notes while the wheels on my tape recorder turned, each of the ladies told me in turn that they were glad the story was in my hands, because they were positive that I was “a truly gifted writer.”

Of course I smiled and thanked them, but they had no idea what was really running through my head was: I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

Being on the high school yearbook staff and learning the basics in English 215 had no way of preparing me for the blatantly harsh but necessary review I received on that article, or the fast-paced assignment style of the class.

Yet it was because of that honest criticism and large workload that I learned to go from “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing” to “Okay, I kind of know what I’m doing now.”

In that first article, I didn’t know what questions to ask during the interview, didn’t know how to format a paragraph, didn’t know how to wrap things up, and lived in constant paranoia that my tape recorder would malfunction.

Now I can go into an interview without my safety net of pre-written questions, learned that a paragraph in journalism is not a big wall of text, and can conclude a story with a bang. I still am plagued by tape-recorder error nightmares, though. I’ll work on it.

As a creative writing major, I was unused to being assigned a topic to write about. Usually the topic world is our oyster, but in the journalism world if my editor told me my topic was oysters, I’d have to find the silver lining somewhere without complaint.

Topic assignment was a big learning experience because I’d never written creatively about something which I was not enthusiastic. On one hand I became more skilled at finding interesting aspects in topics I viewed as boring, and on the other I realized the importance of communication with my editors. A story with a writer who doesn’t want to write it is going to be a lot worse than with one who does, and I retrospectively I wish I had consciously recognized this earlier and talked with my editor more frequently about it.

I learned there’s a reason deadlines have the word “dead” in them, but the can bring out the life in a story. I’ve had unfinished creative writing stories on the backburner for years, but with journalism the idea is pitched and written over the course of a week, for better or for worse. And it’s usually for better, because of the immediate publication. I will self-create deadlines for my work in the future.

So, through learning all these things that made me a better writer, I am now a worse writer, because I have learned how far I still have to go. I know I will forever be in pursuit of a perfect headline, procuring the most memorable quote, and writing the most precise sentence. The fact that there is always room for improvement is both terrifying and exciting.

Accepting that someone else’s edits were an improvement upon my work with them having the final say was also something I wasn’t used to, but helped me grow. Sometimes when I think I’m making a fantastic pun – “Downtown orange feeling blue” or “Glow dance fades away” – I’m really just being cheesy, and it was important to realize that and move forward.

With this in mind, an article about The Club and the crazy adventures they go on was my favorite thing to report this year, not necessarily because of the resulting article, but because of the enthusiasm for life each member brought to the experience. During his interview, the club president quoted something that still resonates with me – “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” I immediately knew that I would include that in the article. And my editors immediately removed it. At first I couldn’t believe they had removed what I thought to be one of the finer quotes I had gathered, but then looked at the article as a whole and realized they were right.

Professionally, from a very young age I always wanted to be a novelist. But the older I get the more that looks less like a life of fame and storytelling adventure and more like lonely days battling blank word documents and even blanker bank accounts.

Journalism offers the possibility for a social aspect while – hopefully – earning a living and still being able to write. More than anything, I discovered just how much simply talking to people allows you to learn. Everything seems like a smaller world, and a bigger one – one girl I interviewed lives in my neighborhood across the street and I had no idea, but she just moved from the Ukraine.

Yet I must admit, I still have yet to find my niche in the journalism world. A fantasy-oriented writer in a fact-driven world, sometimes I felt caged-in by guidelines or rules. For a little while, faced with deadlines and difficulty in reaching people, I didn’t know if I could do it. But, looking back at everything I created over the semester I realized – I can. And that’s possibly the most important lesson of all.

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