As a kid, I dreamed of being a writer. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to explore potential careers as a teen. As I’ve addressed before on this blog, my teen years were consumed with survival during the loss of my family.
I went to college because it was expected of me, not because I wanted to go. College also was an escape from a difficult home life. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to run collegiate track and cross country. I did so, and even earned numerous trophies and medals. I didn’t do well in the classroom, though. Three years later, fed up with everything, even distance running, I dropped out of school.
I worked as a waitress for a couple weeks. I have great respect for waitresses but it wasn’t for me. My next move was to go to mechanics school because I was curious about engines. I got a job at a bus depot. Three weeks after I started, my boss called me, drunk, from a bar at about 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. He could barely speak but he managed to fire me.
I remember the panic. I was living on my own and had to pay the rent. How would I support myself? I called an old family friend who said I was born to be a writer and that I should apply for jobs at area newspapers.
I argued that I didn’t have a college degree or any writing experience. I didn’t even know how to type.
“You never know till you try,” she said.
So I applied at one newspaper — a semi-weekly now known as the Wyoming County Examiner, in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, where I had been living. Much to my surprise, they hired me!
My first assignment was a story on rabies and I wrote it like a college paper. My editor said, “It’s very good but it’s backwards.” And so began my foray into journalism.
Flash ahead a few years. I still didn’t have a college degree. And, although I never learned to type the right way, I could type wicked fast using just four fingers. I was young and ambitious and wanted to try working at a daily.
At the time I had been working for a weekly in the suburban Philadelphia area. I applied to its daily counterpart, The Reporter. I think I got that job because I managed to get into the locked building on a Sunday.
After I’d interviewed with the executive editor, the assistant city editor contacted me to ask me to do a trial story. The assignment was to cover a march against drugs that took place nearby on a Sunday morning.
The assistant city editor said she would not be there on the weekend. She gave me basic directions for putting the story into their system and then said they would expect it to be there Monday morning.
I covered the event and headed over to the newspaper office where, to my horror, I found it locked up tight. It had never occurred to me that no one would be at a daily newspaper office over the weekend.
This was before cell phones. I had no way to contact anyone at the paper. I had promised the story would be there the next business day and I wanted to honor my word. Besides, newspaper reporters are supposed to be resourceful, enterprising individuals, not quitters. So I continued pacing outside the building, trying to figure out the best course of action.
I walked around a little and came to another door. It appeared to be the composing room, where they built the pages. It was locked too, however.
I continued to pace and, as I walked past the composing room door another time, I saw two painters setting up drop cloths.
I knocked on the glass door and pointed to the doorknob. One of them let me in! Ecstatic, I darted into the room and asked, “Where’s the newsroom?”
“You mean you don’t work here?” said one of the painters.
“Not yet!” I said and shot up the stairs, afraid they would follow me, insisting on credentials.
I found the newsroom and, as I sat finishing up the story, I heard a deep voice behind me. It was the executive editor who had strolled into the room.
“So, Johanna,” his voice boomed. “Did you somehow manage to get a key?”
“No,” I answered. “I told the editor I would have the story in the system by tomorrow morning so I convinced some painters downstairs to let me in.”
I don’t think he said anything in response. But, I got the feeling it all clicked for him. I got the job, after all.
I had a track coach in high school who used to say, “There’s no such thing as luck. You got to make your own breaks.”
I disagree on the luck part. Luck is circumstance. Luck was losing my dad at a critical time in my life. Luck was having a handicapped sister and a mother who couldn’t handle it.
But I do believe in making your own breaks. That means jumping in and going after what you want, even if you don’t think you’re prepared. And sometimes it means finding your way inside a locked building.
When you make your own breaks, the rewards are boundless.