Someone asked me what I did for a living the other day. I paused for a second. I always pause when people ask me this, because I never really know how to answer. “Journalist”, I could say, which I suppose covers it. “Anchor” or “News presenter” might be more accurate, or even “news host”. In the end I went with “investigative reporter”, because that seems most apt, but still no one really knows what that means. They usually raise their eyebrows and nod, and follow up with, “Oh, wow, is that for a paper, or…?” And then trail off, not really sure where to go from there.
That’s fine, I don’t really know where to go from there either. Because to be honest, I don’t see myself as a journalist. Not really, anyway. I’m a writer, stuck in a journalists body. And whenever I’m asked what I do, it’s kind of hard not to just blurt out “I’m a writer.” But you have to follow that up with what you’re writing or working on, and that’s the problem. I haven’t been writing for myself since I started doing journalism.
In fact, if you check my blog post history, it’s been nearly two years since my last post. Writing is something I do for me, but when I write stories all day long, the wellspring is empty when I come home at the end of the day. And that’s depressing, because writing stories and imagining worlds and creating realities is all I really want to do. I love my job, but not because it’s journalism. I love it because I get to write, and get paid to write, and get paid to travel and explore and do interesting and unusual things. The fact that it has to do with the news is entirely secondary, and if I could excise the news portion of my work, sort of like removing an atrophied limb or unnecessary pancreas, then I would, and be happier for it. Because I’m a writer, not a journalist, and I while I think I’m pretty good at my job, nothing can change the fact that I approach each story with my fingers aching to type, “In a far-off world…”
It may surprise you–especially after magically picking up thousands of Twitter followers overnight after visiting Syria–but one of my biggest struggles is feeling like I don’t really have anything worth saying. Who am I? What do I possibly have to write about or post on a regular basis what would be even remotely interesting to anyone? To even think that I do seems impossibly arrogant to me. But in our age of social media saturation and oversharing, millions of Instagram and YouTube celebrities are popping up seemingly overnight, their feeds bursting at the seams with nothingness. Empty, vapid, self-glorifying posts abound, but as the Bard said, they are “tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Still, I am plagued with the sense that nothing I have to say is worth listening to. And so sitting down and writing a blog post is incredibly daunting. So to hell with it, I’ll write for me, and you can listen if you want to, but I won’t lose sleep over it.
So let’s go back to the beginning.
I like good things. Not good as in “high quality”, but “good”, in the traditional sense of good versus evil. Goodness, purity, light, kindness, sweetness… You would probably say I had a very sheltered childhood. I grew up without a TV, learning my sense of right and wrong from the stories my father read to me. Before I could even understand words, I listened wide-eyed and full of wonder at the beautiful sounds my father made when he read me Shakespeare, and later, I discovered chivalry and nobility from the Tales of the Round Table at King Arthur’s Court in mysterious Avalon by the misty shores of Wales… I learned to appreciate strength and honor from the Greek myths and legends, with Theseus and Perseus showing me what valor meant and how to be brave. I then took these lessons and headed into the forests outside my home in Ohio, brandishing my trusty sword (a sturdy stick), and vanquishing the monsters of the deep woods who threatened my home.
James Herriot, the English veterinarian of the Yorkshire Dales in the 1940s, taught me kindness, as he tenderly cared for the animals in his practice. There was no malice there, no sexual themes or crude behavior or bad language. Just “goodness” and love.
To maybe get a better sense of what I mean, take a listen to this song: Here.
It’s by Mark Isham, and it’s from the story by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor and the Nightingale”. If you’ve never heard of it, I beg you to read it. A short children’s story, but as full of “goodness” as anything else I can bring to mind.
It’s so hard to convey what I mean by “goodness”, but it’s so important to me and what I believe in that I want to try. It’s something without politics, without meanness, without cruelty or baseness. It’s just innocence, I suppose. Pure innocence: No guile or cunning or deceit. Just open, honest, and sincere. It’s pure love, self sacrifice, and kindness. Other examples include the movie, “So Dear to My Heart“, a movie from 1949 about a boy and a black sheep he adopts. Parents, this is what your children should be learning. There are so many good songs in that movie, such as “It’s what you do with what you got”, talking about making the most of your situation, no matter what, and not blaming anyone else. Imagine that! Another perfect example is the poem, “Little Boy Blue“. It breaks my heart every time I read it, but it’s just so “good”.
This was my world, my reality. There were no politics, no gossip, no television, no modern influences. I grew up valuing things that were “good” and “kind”, which seem like alien concepts today. The very notion of “goodness” appears to be totally forgotten, and even scorned as sexist or racist or based in white privilege. Which is why I often feel lost and left behind by what our culture has become today. I don’t relate to any of it.
One of my favorite authors is Charles Bukowski. Which may seem odd, given the previous statements. But his writing is full of honesty in a way that many authors, including myself, can barely aspire to. His life is wracked by hardship, however. A grotesque childhood of abuse and pain and suffering that I could never relate to. The same goes for Stephen King, who’s book “On Writing”, I am currently reading. King details the privations of his young life, his struggling mother, absent father, abusive classmates and later his absolute poverty and despair as he begins his life with his new wife, Tabby.
His language is vulgar, base, crude and disgusting. That’s not a criticism, because I love his writing. But it reveals a character that I have nothing in common with. Someone hurt, who struggled and suffered and was abused. I read it, but I just don’t “get it”. You’d probably call me naive, ignorant, or (I get this a lot) a “sweet summer child.”
I have a very close friend who is constantly shocked, still, about all the movies and TV shows and music that I’ve never heard of. He’s not alone, most people who know me are usually surprised by how little awareness I have of pop culture or this or that “famous” show that “everyone” knows about. It’s kind of surreal to hear them constantly comment on it–even my closest friends who have known me for decades–and makes me wonder just what I’m missing. No, I’ve never seen this popular movie, or heard this popular song, or your favorite TV show. How do I even “live like this”?? I dunno, pretty happily I guess. I don’t watch TV really, except every now and then after dinner with my fiance, and I’ve been introducing her to the wonders of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show that came out over 30 years ago. Not exactly current.
There’s a lot of ugliness in the world that just isn’t part of my reality. I see the world as a thing of beauty. I look for beauty in my surroundings because that’s what I was taught to see. I move away from ugly things, and towards beauty, almost instinctively. My mother is an unbelievably talented artist, and my father plays the most beautiful piano you’ve ever heard. Art is beauty, and life imitates art. That’s why these modern shows, music, and “art” have left me totally at a loss: there’s no beauty anymore. There’s no “goodness”.
To come full circle, this is why I have trouble answering when someone asks me what I do for a living. Because “journalism” has nothing to do with “goodness” or “beauty”, and that’s what I want to focus on. Because wherever you put your focus, that’s where you see results. I want to focus on being a writer, and building beautiful worlds for myself, for my children, and for the world to escape too. Today, reality is less true than it ever has been, and talking heads are always telling you what to think and what is important. But imagine a grassy hillside in the summer, or a gorgeous woman smiling at you, or a snowy French castle in the alps: beauty needs no explanation, it just is. Beauty is truth. And we need more truth in our lives.