Here’s a Secret They Don’t Teach You in School
Letter to My 23-Year-Old Self: Life Has Second Acts, and Third …
Congratulations on your new job, Ellie Guzman! Whichever you choose to do first — attend school to become a physicians assistant, or go to grad school to learn screenwriting — I have no doubt you will succeed. I don’t know anything about your medical studies, but I’ve watched you finding your voice as a writer, and it’s been a joy to see. You have many, many fans because they see your gift and recognize the work and care you pour into your writing.
I say “first” in the paragraph above because life is long, and you are young and ambitious. As I’m discovering, life has second acts, and third, and fourth, and . . . as many as you have the energy to attempt. I’ve just started my seventh different job since I graduated from college in December 1987, in my fourth “industry,” if you will. I did 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, with five stops along the way. I supervised a team of 12 copywriters in the marketing department of a worldwide retailer; worked as an editor of fiction and nonfiction at a literary journal; and on March 28, I started writing corporate communications and designing leadership development courses for an auto-finance company.
I also started pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing (fiction) at the age of 50 and just completed it at age 52. My next step will be publishing the short stories I wrote for my thesis — two of them have been accepted for publication — and continuing to write and publish fiction. You really can have it all, and I have an idea you will.
I’m living proof that you’d have no trouble making a living as a writer, depending on your definition of “living.” Since the end of April 1988, when I landed my first newspaper reporting gig, I’ve worked as either a writer or editor, and I haven’t gone a day without a job. If I’d made better money, perhaps I could have taken a week off in between each one, but no. With three kids, I couldn’t afford to miss a week’s paycheck. And though the pay was lousy — worse than lousy — when I started, the salary of my new job has put me on the cusp of six figures for the first time. Had you told me this 28 years ago, I would not have believed it.
I enjoyed reading your story because I was in a similar place as you are, except I was 21 when decision time arrived. I had planned to be a mechanical engineer but discovered that my love for writing was pulling me in another direction. I had a year left in my pursuit of an engineering degree, but instead I took the leap — changed my major to English and took a vow of poverty. Or accepted the curse of poverty, or something to do with poverty, I remember that much.
I had no clue how to be a writer, had never met one in my blue-collar upbringing. I didn’t know anyone who’d graduated from college.
As I neared graduation, I decided I wanted to go to grad school, become a college professor of creative writing, and publish fiction to my heart’s content. I applied to my dream school, which accepted only about 20 percent of qualified candidates because of the massive number of applicants. I met the requirements for acceptance, but I didn’t make the cut.
Am I ever glad I didn’t. I wasn’t happy about it then, but I can see now, after finishing the master’s degree last week, that I had no business trying to write fiction in my early twenties. My artistic temperament was not developed well enough to observe life through the prism that fiction writing requires. I tried a handful of times, but couldn’t properly frame a short story to save my life. Or, more to the point, I needed years of practice to master the art of writing because even though I had an affinity and a talent for it, that’s not the same as being a good writer.
Fresh off my disappointment about grad school, and with my newly minted bachelor’s degree in hand, I began to cast about for the sort of job where someone with no experience could get paid to be a writer. During the pre-Internet days of 1988, I was able to imagine one vocation that fit the bill: being a newspaper reporter.
The Dallas Morning News, Times Herald, and Fort Worth Star-Telegam quickly indiciated that I wouldn’t get a sniff until I had some years of reporting and writing under my belt. The editor of the Dallas Observer wrote me back, and his letter was memorable for its frugal practicality: He had flipped my cover letter over, rolled it into the platen of his typewriter, and pounded out a single sentence (paraphrased from memory): Go get five years of experience at the smaller dailies and then come see me. Someone at the Star-Telegram was even more helpful and wrote a letter to explain that I should be scanning the job listings of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association, and was kind enough to enclose a page with TDNA’s latest job listings. It included a position for a sportswriter in Pampa, a town of 20,000 people about an hour northeast of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.
Pampa also happened to be the town where I was born. We lived there only six months before my parents moved to Amarillo, but we visited my maternal grandmother’s house in Pampa all though my childhood.
I mailed my resume and writing samplesl off to Pampa. (I cringe to think of the English papers I sent, some in longhand, including an essay about the character Joe Christmas from Faulkner’s novel Light in August, plus a couple of sports columns I had written only moments before dropping them into the mailbox.) Within a few days, Larry Hollis, the managing editor of The Pampa News, had summoned me to the semiarid flatlands for a job interview, the only one I had during a four-month job search. During the course of the interview, Larry made his play: They were willing to hire me as a sportswriter, if I was willing to accept the pay.
I was not willing. In fact, I’m still embarrassed to admit that the position paid $5 to start — and I could tell that Larry was embarrassed about low-balling me. I was making $5 an hour when I graduated high school, for Christ’s Sake. I was so insulted that I left the interview rather quickly after the figure was revealed. To my credit, rather than turning him down immediately, as I wanted to do, I asked for a night to sleep on it. I drove back to Amarillo in a funk of equal parts anger and depression, induced by the reality I had found awaiting me and my English degree.
Thank goodness my father suggested that I check the price of local housing rentals in Pampa, so my then-girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife Nancy and I drove the hour back to Pampa and promptly found a three-bedroom house for $300 a month and put down a deposit. In the end, I accepted the job, which I understood might be the only offer I would ever receive. Thinking back now, I’m convinced that if I had not taken the job, I would not have become a writer. I’m also sure that I got the job because I was born in Pampa and knew the town from visiting my grandmother’s house through my childhood, and because Larry knew that I, as a native of the Llano Estacado, wasn’t likely to flee when winter arrived on the blistering north wind with not even a tree to slow it down.
Accepting the position meant quitting what I considered a lucrative job as a bartender in big-city DFW, where I earned more than twice as much money. So I took up small-town life to write stories about the cow-calling contest, high school football, basketball, rodeo, and the like.
But I was a writer! Eventually I even learned to compose using the keyboard, rather than first writing the story on my yellow legal pad and painstakingly transferring it one keystroke after another into the “tube,” the first computer I had ever used, which had a vacuum-tube monitor featuring green letters blinking on a 6-inch-by-6-inch black screen.
I also learned to design newspaper pages, to typeset the print in columns of a certain width, to use an Exacto knife to cut the photographic typeset paper into “legs,” or columns of type, to wax the back of the paper and stick it onto the page, to shoot and develop my own black and white prints, and, of course, the most important part: To report, write and edit a story. We had a separate crew of pressmen or I would have learned to burn the sheet metal plates and wrap them around the rollers and load the ink onto our offset web press, too.
Damn, I’m digressing so bad with this response. Sorry Ellie . . . .
My saving grace was that, in addition to my $5 per hour, I also earned time and a half for overtime — and man did I work the overtime. Once, when putting together our special section previewing the upcoming football season, I worked 88 hours in one week, not to mention the mileage I logged on my 1981 Honda Civic hatchback, which threw a rod after more than 220,000 miles as I drove through one of the eight or 10 neighboring towns we covered.
When Jack Herlocker described his niece’s job as a physicians assistant, he could have been describing mine at the Pampa News: The hours sucked, the schedule was unpredictable, the people ranged from jerks to saints, and the daily routine was anything but. But I was a writer!
I learned to shoot basketball photos by pushing the film to 3200 inside the dimly lit school gyms, and how to shoot bull-riding by holding my position on the dirt floor of the arena for as long as possible before springing up and hugging the rail fence as the bull barreled past. And eventually, after about 10 years, I learned to write well on deadline — proving, to me at least, the truth of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of repetition for a skill to become second nature.
To this day I do my best writing when the chips are down and I’m racing the clock.
After two years, I moved on to the Amarillo Globe-News (starting pay: $9.45 per hour) and left sports behind for news reporting. I was there seven years and was kicked up into the night city editor position, where I became salaried and thus could be worked like a dog without being paid overtime. Next I was on to the Wichita Falls newspaper, where I was city editor but got cross-ways with the editor and left after a year and a half.
Eventually, I landed the job I had always coveted, at the metropolitan newspaper where my guardian angel had shared the small piece of advice that cracked the code and allowed me to break into the business: I was hired by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as the night city editor. After five years, I was promoted to metro editor, and I worked for more than three years in the best, toughest job I ever had. The Star-Telegram was a hard-hitting, big-city newspaper, and we did investigative journalism that I’m proud of to this day.
I and a reporter who worked for me broke the tragic story of the Fort Worth Catholic diocese covering up the misdeeds of a pedophile priest, and we revealed the secret files the Bishop had kept that documented how he moved the priest from parish to parish to stay a step ahead of the children who were raped by the priest. We helped put the priest in prison for 50 years, and the bishop died, in shame, less than a year after our reports showed that he had been complicit in the cover-up. The reporter, Darren Barbee, and I had a special penchant for unmasking the religious charlatans who grew as thick as scrub oaks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Mike Murdoch. Benny Hinn, who owned a building the size of a super-Walmart that served as the counting house for the money that people sent him following his pleas for cash during his daily television “ministry.” While in Wichita Falls, I won a first-place statewide award from the Associated Press for investigative journalism for a series of stories about the state’s then-new laws requiring sex offenders to register after completing their prison sentences.
I mention these stories only as a way of saying that, during the second half of my 20-year career as a newspaper reporter and editor, I worked on stories of real impact, and I wrote watchdog stories that put people in prison and uncovered public corruption. Yet it all came crashing down so quickly after the Internet made inroads into every niche of American life, and newspapers nationwide imploded for lack of a business model to monetize the Internet. It’s the same puzzle that Medium is trying to solve. And I, for one, hope like hell they do, so we can all make some money for this skill we possess. I left the Star-Telegram after nine years, in December 2008, because it was a shell of its former self, with half the editorial staff it had when I started. By now it must be down to one-fifth or one-sixth of the staff it had when I arrived in 2000.
I say this not to mourn the Star-Telegram, though I have done so previously, but to say these sorts of disruptions force us to reinvent ourselves, no matter how much we loved our prior lives. No doubt you’ll endure disruptions along the way, Ellie Guzman, and I venture to guess you will be a physicians assistant, and you will be a writer, and you will be many other things, too. And if you decide to have children, you’ll find a whole other layer of adventures there, and you’ll have your heart broken and stomped flat because that’s what happens when your flesh and blood grows up and makes their own mistakes, as they do.
When I look back, I sometimes wish I could return and give my 23-year-old self one piece of advice: Don’t worry so much. Laugh a little more. Enjoy yourself. But it’s tough. Ellie Guzman, in another essay about Millennials you wrote about the struggle to pay for college, and the debt you incurred. My experience was like yours: I worked constantly, never had any money, borrowed, begged, scraped, and sold blood and plasma. It’s tough to laugh when you don’t know where the rent money’s coming from.
These are the advantages I’ve found about aging: I don’t have to worry so much about the rent, and my career is pretty much settled. Yes, the ravages of time and hard living, the decades of booze and cigarettes (now done, thank God), mount one upon the other to mock the physique. And I cringe to see myself in mirrors or photos, with my comically crooked nose growing more bulbous and laying over to one side from having been broken three times now. The once-toned body is going to high holy hell. Pasty Irish skin ruined by too many years in the sun is marked by scars where the cancer has been excised from my face and arms.
But a funny thing happens that they don’t teach you in school. In truth, I would never go back to a point in my younger life because I’ve finally arrived at the best of it, and I realize I’m lucky to be here. Neither of my siblings were so lucky. Misti and Kathy both died in their late 40s, may they rest in peace. The thing they don’t teach you is this: I’m much happier and more comfortable in my cancer-scarred skin than I was in my younger days.
The desperation of trying to impress girls or find a mate, the anxiety of putting myself through college with low-paying construction jobs, worrying about how to carve out my niche in the world. During high school and college, I expended colossal energy arranging my leisure time so as not to be alone, and fretting about what I wanted to do with my life, about whether I had what it takes to be a writer and make my living with words. Now, I know I have what it takes because I’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years. I’ve also raised my three children, and I just finished up a master’s degree.
Today, I know exactly what I want: to spend my waking hours at home in quietude, writing. I’m happy with the person I’ve become, and I don’t care what other people think about me or whether they think about me at all. Yes, I still have a career ahead of me, but the largest portion of it is done, and I have a challenging job that pays me well to write and edit words. Yes, I still have to manage the money closely because I have kids in college who all have cars and insurance and blah, blah, blah. So what if I have a spare tire around my midsection and a puffy face from lack of sleep. I stay up too late at night writing because these days the only anxiety I feel is the fear that there won’t be enough time to get everything written that I want to say.
Want to read more of Sonny’s work?
Click on the links below to discover his journalism and humor writing.
- Blinded by Faith: An investigative series that reveals how the Fort Worth Roman Catholic Diocese covered up misdeeds by a pedophile priest.
- Dog Day Afternoon: Erlene Wheeler works a heart-breaking job. But don’t call her a dogcatcher. At heart she’s an animal activist.
- Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? On God, the Devil, and the $50 Bet. Think you know the Book of Job? Think again!
Sonny Bohanan is a writer and editor in Fort Worth, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his work on Medium and on his blog. You can also read his investigative and long-form journalism here. He was a newspaper journalist for 20 years and is now writing fiction and nonfiction while pursuing a master of arts degree in creative writing. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!