As the last students filtered from the classroom, my best friend and roommate, Mia, gave me a quick wave and an eyebrow lift. I waved back knowing that she’d be there waiting for me outside. Our journalism professor, Donna, pushed the soaring oak door shut, the hinges offering a high-pitched squeal. The old, drafty Boston building was unforgiving—the windows barely blocking the howling wind. I sat in front of the classroom as Donna made her way to her desk; her long skirt catching the draft, billowing softly. She took her seat, rested her elbows on her desk, knitted her fingers together and looked me in the eye. The falling snow reflected in her glasses; her hair was tucked neatly into a low bun; Donna was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and had the hard, serious face that perfectly matched her role. She was the professor every journalism student fought to impress; she was the woman every female student fought to become. Between us sat my most recent article about a fire in the South End. I’d been particularly proud of it—the way I captured the flames, the horror, the anguish of losing it all.
“Alee,” she started, taking a deep breath, “This piece is. . .”
She closed her eyes. I imagined her telling me how she believed me to be the next great journalist—a prettier, more edgy Katie Couric.
“Well, let me just come out and say it. It’s not good.”
I felt my face go hot. “Not good? What do you mean. . .not good?”
“It’s simply not journalism, dear. Tell me why you thought it pertinent to share the color of the flames—the way they reflected off the windows before blowing them out?”
“I don’t know…I felt like it put the reader there, in the house before. . .” I fought the urge to put my head in my hands.
“Maybe so, but this type of print journalism doesn’t seek to pull a reader into the story. The goal is to use the 200 words you have to convey information. You see, you captured the scene, but you missed key details about portions of the street that are shut down, other damaged businesses, the list goes on.”
I absorbed her feedback like a punch to the gut. Not only had I done a bad job on my article—it turned out, I didn’t even know what journalism was.
“I don’t know what to say.” My voice broke. The hard truth grabbed hold of my throat and began to choke me out. “I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was a kid, I don’t know anything else—I don’t have anything else.”
“Listen to me,” she said, reaching for my hands, “You may not be a great journalist, but you are a great writer. Have you thought about creative writing?”
I couldn’t formulate a response.
“It’s early days, you can consider a major change next semester. Until then, remind yourself as you write as a journalist—information. . .without so much color.”
“Thanks,” I said as I grabbed the paper off the table, gathered my things, and bolted for the door.
I ran out of the building onto the icy Boston street. Brown, sooty snow was piled on either side of the sidewalk, which was tinged white with salt. Mia was there waiting, staring at her phone.
She looked up, “So how much did she love the article?”
“She didn’t,” I responded, digging into my bag. “She hated it.”
Mia knew to give me space at that moment, she didn’t probe, but did offer a few choice words about what a fucking idiot Donna was and how she didn’t know what she was talking about. I knew Mia was saying these things to make me feel better, and although it worked like a band-aid, making me laugh through tears, I knew it was untrue.
To me, Donna was the penultimate—the final say.
I pulled out a cigarette and lit it, blowing smoke into the frigid air. It billowed like a cloud, mixing with my warm breath, then disappeared into the ether with the future I’d always envisioned for myself. I linked arms with Mia, shoved my free hand into my pocket and we trudged arm and arm toward our dorm.
As the frigid air whipped my face, I drifted back to life as a little girl. Every evening, the gravel of our driveway would crackle and pop beneath the tires of my dad’s old Subaru. He’d walk in the door, I’d hug his legs, and he’d stride to the kitchen to pour himself a scotch on the rocks. Then, he’d walk upstairs to change out of his work clothes—little Alee in tow.
He’d turn on the TV on top of the armoire that sat at the head of the bed he shared with my mom. As I sat on the bed, I’d find comfort in the soft glow of the TV, Tom Brokaw delivering all the news of the day. My dad would wander into the bathroom to change into his after-work clothes, which were shockingly similar to his work clothes, then he’d ask me how my day was as he sipped his scotch. When his glass was empty, we’d go back downstairs, he’d drink his second scotch, then his third, then the dad who showed me tenderness and warmth, was gone until the following evening at 6 p.m.
Over time, journalism began to equal love as the soundtrack to the best parts of my relationship with my dad. As the steady stories played in the background, I found those fleeting moments with him. We listened to NPR on rare occasions when I rode in his car; ABC News Radio when we raked the yard; and watched the local news before we settled in for The Cosby Show. I began to watch the news alone more and more, falling in love with the reporting, seeing each story as a representation of the fact that the world wasn’t mine alone. My story wasn’t all there was. There was so much more—and one day, I’d tell those stories too.
When I arrived at Emerson College, I’d reached the threshold of a career in journalism. I loaded up on courses, fought my way into the most advanced, well-respected professors’ classrooms. I took notes, I pushed myself hard—working well into the night every night. And in a matter of months, my dream rejected me—spit me out like chewed gum on a city street.
Three cigarettes, an identity crisis, and seventeen gallons of tears later, Mia and I arrived back at our dorm at the corner of Boylston and Tremont street. I must have looked like a monster—my eyeliner running down my face, my boots soaked through, my hood tightly secured around my face. The one thing that kept ringing in my mind was an idea that had been pounded into my mind as a teen. Creative writers don’t go anywhere in life. They live in the purgatory of desire—wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard, wanting to be recognized—but it almost never happens. Authors who succeeded were like unicorns (if unicorns were even more rare than actual unicorns).
Back in my dorm, I threw my stuff on my bed, turned on an episode of Punk’d, got under my tiger print blanket, and let it all out. Mia got onto a chair, reached up, moved a ceiling tile aside, pulled out a handle of vodka and mixed it in a plastic cup with an old Gatorade that sat on my desk. Then she let me cry as I gulped it.
The alcohol sent warmth down my legs and arms—allowing me to finally relax into the notion that I’d need to part ways with my dream of becoming a journalist. The feeling was terrifying. Even loosening the grip on the image I’d had of adulthood my entire life made me feel completely out of control. But I pushed on and let myself really hear what Donna had said.
She said I was a great writer.
Ultimately, I decided to change majors. Was I terror-stricken? Hell yes. Did I stick out like a sore thumb among the hipsters, goth kids, and effortlessly cool hippies? Absolutely. But after submitting my first piece and realizing how freeing it was to create a world, invent characters, and build their lives, I was hooked. When I saw the reactions of my peers and professors to the type of writing I was meant for, I fell in love with the craft. I wanted to tell stories.
All the stories.
Now, (gulp) nearly twenty years later, I look back at the me who felt rejected and scared, worried for her future, saying goodbye to a dream—and I want to give her a hug. She believed that in giving up on her dream, she was letting go of a secure future. In reality, living my passion has generated more happiness, more fulfillment, and greater wealth than I’d ever imagined. The funny part? Every single bit of it was born out of rejection—a dream squashed—allowing a new one to take root.
That’s why the Hey Young Writer community exists. It’s for all of you down and out creatives who need someone to tell you that a career in the arts doesn’t automatically lead to a poor, sad, single, lonely life in a house full of cats. If you push, lean into that fear, take up space, let yourself be heard, others will listen. What that leads to—well, you’ll see.