Four Years and 60 Days (July 10, 2013)

Although the seeds began to germinate long before, the title reflects the exact length of time it took this blogger to realize her fullest potential.

It was May 2009, age 30, when I finally located the chutzpah to relinquish a stable career in corporate operations to strike out as a professional writer. Three people who knew me intimately enabled this Great Leap Forward: my beloved sister Jenny, well acquainted with my bookishness and passion for social issues, as well as a frustrating tendency to play it safe; the tireless Dr. T., my longtime shrink, who patiently retrained me to believe it ok to want for myself; and my ex-husband, who provided the financial safety net without which I could never have considered the risk. Two of these three people are still very large parts of my life, and while the ex is now past, I am forever grateful to him for believing in my talent enough to temporarily underwrite it.

Those first efforts at professional writing were low paid, plentiful, and in retrospect, somewhat embarrassing. There wasn’t a job I didn’t say “yes” to, and apparently, no such thing as a run-on sentence. I stumbled upon an amazing female mentor, the Editor-in-Chief of StreetWise, a local Chicago newspaper, who trusted me with six feature stories that year, despite a wholesale lack of journalism experience. She also introduced me to the accomplished ladies of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, an organization of communication professionals founded in 1885. Upon joining the group, I enjoyed regular fellowship, networking opportunities and lo and behold, state and national awards for the urban agriculture pieces Suzanne challenged me to write.

As the demands of a nascent career expanded to include Chicago theater criticism, a weekly political column and achingly confessional blog, my profile began to rise, spare time began to fall and my marriage started to unravel. My version of Sophie’s Choice became clearer: relinquish heretofore-inexperienced professional satisfaction or the love of my life. Gut wrenchingly, painfully, debilitatingly, I opted for the latter. To say I never looked back would be a colossal lie. For the better part of a year after the initial separation, my head turned in circles with alarming speed, like the possessed child from The Exorcist. Alone, broke and panicked, I waited for someone with authority to bless me, to provide reassurance that I hadn’t thrown it all away for nothing.

Two and a half years of progressive responsibility followed: a temporary resume writer, an entry level web content production and project management position at a small publishing firm, culminating in a Head Writer role at a successful Direct Response TV marketing company. In the latter two spots, I became a better communicator. I learned to craft marketing content with succinct, actionable clarity (run-on sentences, never a solid sales pitch make). I learned to edit and revise not only my own work, but that of others. I found my voice and learned when to say “not yet,” beginning to trust my skills and experience. I felt it slowly, in increments. Yes, I was born to do this. I was in the right place.

Until I wasn’t. Until I found myself suddenly and spectacularly unemployed 60 days ago and I worried that the incremental growth of my career might come to a screeching halt. Hadn’t I spent hours reading anecdotes and talking with talented, amazing friends who’d been out of work for six months, a year or more? Didn’t I know a plethora of fascinating people who struggled to have their resume viewed? I was no different from any of them, and in many cases, far less accomplished.

I did have one advantage. After just three years of regular membership and two years of serving on the board as the group’s Newsletter Editor/Social Media Strategist, my fellow IWPA colleagues saw fit to elect me as the Association’s 47th President, a stunning development I have yet to fully comprehend. Though the work is volunteer in nature, work it certainly is: administrative manager, cheerleader, public relations, recruitment and retention, strategic planning. Sworn in just days after I lost my full-time job, the IWPA promotion seemed to lend a legitimacy I struggled to feel. I’d been vetted and verified by the vaunted.

I filed for unemployment insurance. I applied ad nauseum. I temped. I took to the bed a couple times, unwashed, unfed, existentially haunted. Planning is impossible for those waiting in the crosshairs.

Then yesterday: the phone call. The Human Resources recruiter I’d been working with sounded stern and serious. Like a World War II widow shakily opening a telegram with Earth-shattering news she can already sense in her marrow, I braced myself to hear that I’d be the bridesmaid again. Stoically, I uttered the one word question: “Yes?”

This time was different. I was chosen. No screw that. I’d made it happen. Three interviews, one personality test, a nationwide background check, written references and a credit report later, I’m the new Marketing Manager at a multi-billion dollar, privately-held company. I’m President of the IWPA and in late August, I’ll travel to Salt Lake City to pick up an award from the National Federation of Press Women – Best Personal Blog of 2012. At this very instant, I find it difficult to believe it gets any better. It was all so worth it: the loose ends, the divorce, the ensuing depression, migraines and cancer, the poverty, the estrangement, the obscurity, the lost health coverage, fear and shame.

Four years and 60 days of doubt and recrimination. Four years and 60 days of “You’ll never make it. You’ll be sorry. Who do you think you are? How do you dare? (a voice that sounded remarkably like my own).” Four years and 60 days of introductions, writing samples and oh so much rejection. Four years and 60 days of growing-pain filled evolution that makes today a brilliantly lit vindication of a neurotic 30 year-old’s wonder. “What if there’s something else I’m meant to do?”

Holy crap! I won! (March 25, 2010)

iwpa_award_seal

Back in January, the Editor-in-Chief at StreetWise, Suzanne Hanney, told me she’d like to nominate two of the pieces I wrote for the paper last year for Mate E. Palmer Communications awards, sponsored by the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. At the time, I thought she had gone daft. I had been a freelance reporter for all of about five minutes when she told me I actually had a shot of winning such an accolade. I spent a sizeable amount of time in 2009 honing a reputation as a go-to journalist for Chicago’s burgeoning urban agriculture business. But considering that my previous reporting experience consisted of theater criticism for the Lincoln Park High School newspaper, I figured I still had a ways to go before earning the right to trophies. But is always nice to be nominated for something, and Suzanne has been a critical mentor in my development as a writer. I can never thank her enough for all she’s done.

So imagine my great astonishment as I returned from the gym Tuesday afternoon and opened a letter from the Association. I had to read it several times over before anything made sense. It seems the good ladies of journalism decided to make me the State’s winner in the Special Articles: Agriculture, Agribusiness, Aquaculture category. Really? Wow!

Pleased as I am, I did have to take a moment to appreciate the irony. Ms. Concrete Jungle herself, lover of all things urban and high culture, wins a media award for writing about farming. True enough that the farming takes place within City limits, but it’s agriculture. If there is such a designation, I have what the horticulture set might refer to as a “black thumb.” I couldn’t even keep a cactus alive when I was living in Bensenville. But I suppose that’s life, isn’t it? Full of surprises.

The awards luncheon will be held on Saturday, May 15th, and I will receive the honor in front of a sea of female journalists who have been in the game much longer than I. How humbling and awe-inspiring. I don’t do praise well, never have, so when the inevitable tears of embarassment materialize, I will have the support of my family to help me dry them. It means so much to me that Jen will be sitting at my table, because honestly, I wouldn’t be writing this post were it not for her. A little more than a year ago, I was languishing in corporate hell, nursing a dream, but doing nothing about it. Jen invited me to participate in this blog, then kicked me in the pants as often as needed until I found the guts to branch out.

As a winner of the 2010 Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest, I will have paid entry for a wider competition, sponsored by the National Woman’s Press Association (NWPA), of which I am also a member. Again let us pause to reflect on that idea that Boop will going womano y womano against seasoned Red state agriculture vets. It’s kind of hilarious.

I dare not develop a big enough head to think I will place at the national level. I still can’t believe something I wrote will be considered at all. But I feel pretty amazing today, not to mention vindicated. I chucked it all, literally – safety, salary, benefits and continuity – to enter into a new field, as it has fallen on hard times, and when I have to compete for bylines against people ten years younger than me, with twice the experience. But even more astounding than having the gall to take a risky plunge is the fact that it’s working.

I’ll be damned.