Nearly three decades ago, I began my writing career as a reporter working an overnight crime beat for the Times Leader, a daily newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I hated it. First, I had to put up with the idiotic jokes: “Is there any crime in Wilkes-Barre?” (Answer: Yes. As I write these words, Wilkes-Barre, a part of our nation’s former industrial belt, is being ravaged by a heroin epidemic.) More privately, I agonized over my decision to join a paper whose owners several years earlier had busted its union. I am pro-labor, but I went there anyway. It was a gutless decision for which I’ve never fully forgiven myself. And the work of a police reporter didn’t suit me. I disliked many of the area cops (as they did me), and I got tired of the suspicious attitude that many of the locals harbored toward outsiders. Although I delivered many outstanding stories, I would count the hours each night until my shift ended.
I did all right and earned a decent-enough living, but I didn’t feel like I stood for anything.
One evening, I was chasing a story about a cop accused of rape. I was finding my way around the wall of “blue silence,” in which police don’t discuss a crime committed by one of their own. That night, a city editor made the abysmal judgment call of pulling me off that important story to cover a local Irish festival. I grumbled over the decision but trudged off to the festival. Another reporter broke my story. While I was complaining about it in the newsroom the next day, a fellow reporter, a Frenchwoman displaced to Wilkes-Barre (this was straight out of a David Lynch movie), confronted me and said that I hadn’t really wanted the story.
“What?” I asked. “How could you say that?”
“Look,” she said, “I know you were pissed off when Linda sent you to cover the Irish festival. But you should’ve refused. You should’ve said no. You didn’t really want the cop story badly enough. You let it get taken from you.”
I was flattened by the truth of what she said. I was sick inside — because I knew she was right. Later that night, I returned to my apartment. (I went stealthily because, among the other joys of my time there, I was being stalked by a violent street vagrant with a feral pit bull. I had exposed his assaults on other homeless people.) Once inside, I locked the door, dropped to the floor, and prayed to God with everything in me that if what my colleague told me was true (and I knew it was) to either help me recommit to journalism or give me the resolve to get out of it. I would not hang around my field as a mediocrity.
I prayed to God with everything in me to either help me recommit to journalism or give me the resolve to get out of it.
I got out. I took a job in book publishing in New York City, a place I yearned to live in. That proved a so-so compromise. I did all right and earned a decent-enough living, but I didn’t feel like I stood for anything. I wanted to be in front of the camera, literally and figuratively, not just facilitating the work of others. The years piled up — five, 10, 15 — since I left behind writing in Wilkes-Barre (a lament rarely heard in American letters). I was restless and dissatisfied.
Then, in the summer of 2003, something unexpected occurred. Two friends, Amanda Pisani and Randall Friesen, were running the positive-thinking monthly Science of Mind and had landed a very big “get.” All-Star pitcher Barry Zito, then with the Oakland A’s, committed to an interview. Barry used positive-mind methods in his training, including affirmations, prayers, and visualizations. Inside the rim of his cap, he had pasted the mantra: “Be still and know.” In 2002, the southpaw had gone from the near-bottom of the major leagues to winning more games in a single season than any American League pitcher since 1988. “Dude,” Barry told a reporter, “that’s not a coincidence.”
Barry’s father, Joe, and mother, Roberta, were themselves deeply into mind metaphysics and had imparted their son with similar values, and he had gone on to become one of the most talked about figures in baseball. My friends at Science of Mind realized this interview was a big opportunity, and they brought it to me as someone they could trust. I vowed not to disappoint them.
I approached the story determined to write it my way, careful not to let my subject lead me around or decide the narrative. After interviewing Barry and completing the profile, “Barry’s Way,” I felt a sense of purpose that had previously eluded me as a writer. As his story came into focus, I discovered my own goal in writing it: to document metaphysical experience in history and practice. I had framed Barry as an exhibit of positive-mind principles, which is exactly what could be gleaned from his career and training, if one knew where to look.
I experienced the renewal of my wish to be a writer — but on terms that far better suited my interests and temperament.
About two weeks after my article appeared in October 2003, I got a phone call, wholly unexpected, from Barry’s father, Joe, whom I had never met. He loved the story. “Mitch,” he growled into the phone, “you stick with this thing!” He meant my writing about metaphysical ideas. Joe had no idea of my struggle and my past; he didn’t know me, but he got it, dead on. He saw what I was after, and his drill-sergeant encouragement gave me just the lift I needed. Barry later told me that Joe, who died in 2013, had played that role in several people’s lives.
I experienced the renewal of my wish to be a writer — but on terms that far better suited my interests and temperament. I felt a sense of mission and purpose — and I acted on it. About three years from the day I heard from Joe Zito, I sold my first book, Occult America, which won a 2010 PEN Oakland literary award, received widespread and positive reviews, got endorsements from Ken Burns and Deepak Chopra, and resulted in appearances on CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, NPR’s All Things Considered, and other national shows. In the years ahead, my writing on alternative spiritual topics ran in publications from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal. I had left a regional newspaper with my head down at age 22. By my forties, I was seriously and unexpectedly back in the game.
The road was gradual but perceptible, helped at a sudden moment by an opportunity for which I was prepared. We’re often told that you should never give up on your dreams, and I agree with that — but at the same time your dreams must not be idle or fantastical, and they must employ powers that are within your reach. Resilience is an act. The constituent elements of a thing must be in place, and in action, before its realization. And sometimes you can discover them only by quitting the wrong road to discover the right one.