I got my first real job 19 years ago by replying to a classified ad that asked for resumes from “aspiring journalists.” Fresh out of college with an English degree and absolutely no idea what to do with it, I didn’t know if I was qualified to be a journalist. But I did know I was “aspiring” for something — even though I wasn’t clear on what. So I took my resume down to the newspaper office and dropped it off.
A few days later, I got a call from the executive editor, which made me feel fancy and grown-up. I put on a dress I imagined a business woman might wear and went to the interview. I don’t remember much of what he asked or how I answered. I was crazy nervous and kept telling myself that if I accidentally said something grammatically incorrect, I’d blow the whole interview.
The only part I remember was when he told me the job would be mostly administrative — that I’d be typing in school lunch menus, wedding announcements and obituaries and that I’d answer the phone a lot and take messages. Did I still want the job? After all, I’d graduated college with honors and the job didn’t pay much.
I looked around the newsroom, full of reporters, editors and photographers who were rushing around, typing and talking loudly over the sound of too many ringing phones. The only thing I knew for sure was that they were paid to work with words. And in that moment, that’s all I wanted. So I said something dramatic and desperate: “I will sweep the floors in this place if it means I get to work with words.”
To this day, I don’t know if he hired me because of that line or in spite of it or because he really needed somebody to type in those wordy wedding announcements. I like to believe it was a “God thing.”
After more than a year as the assistant, that same editor sent me downtown one afternoon in late November to write a story about the city’s holiday decorations and activities. It was a tiny story but I felt like he’d just handed me the assignment of a lifetime. I walked around the town square worried sick that I wouldn’t describe things just right. I clutched my little tape recorder and forced myself out of a shy-girl shell so I could interview the man who drove the decorated horse-drawn carriage. I remember playing the tape back later that night as I sat in the newsroom, groaning because I could barely hear the man’s comments over the loud jingle bells and the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves on pavement.
I turned in the story on time and the next day I had my first newspaper byline. It was a start — an exciting, imperfect, nerve-wracking start. A few months after that, I was writing and editing business stories and, eventually, I talked that same editor into giving me a chance to write a column — this column. I’ve been blessed with so many business and creative adventures since then, and I couldn’t have imagined any of them the day I answered that classified ad.
It reminds me that often one brave or desperate attempt can lead to something special. Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, started out writing plane tickets as an agent for Eastern Airlines. Alexander Graham Bell set out to make something that would help his deaf wife communicate better, and he ended up inventing the telephone.
So here’s to all of us who aspire to try, who find a way to make something from nothing. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it would feel so much safer not to risk it. But here’s hoping we never forget that life is always — always — worth a try.
Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.
Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography