My first job out of college was at the Courier News, then a 40,000-circulation daily newspaper covering central New Jersey. In a work history rife with nametags and “How may I help you?,” it remains the worst job I’ve ever had. I’d write multiple stories a day as part of a skeleton crew covering sprawling Hunterdon County, toiling through nights and weekends, scarfing down greasy lunches in plastic containers, failing to convince myself that my work had any impact.
I endured from June 2000 to July 2001, an era when newspapers began their prolonged, job-killing slide from indispensable daily reference to an indispensable daily relic. The publisher’s strategy to stay relevant in the internet age involved more projects for an already-overtaxed, ever-dwindling staff. Faced with mounting deadlines and responsibilities, I began the lengthy, inevitable process of burying myself alive. I willed the days to stand still; they rarely complied. With every blurt of the police scanner, each court case involving children exposed to unspeakable horrors, I bungled facts and misspelled names. My editors, who were too busy drowning, threw me a rubber duck and called it a life preserver: They had me write out my questions for each story beforehand and fax the list to them for approval.
How was that supposed to enhance my accuracy? I still don’t know.
I was 23 years old. Every day I woke up feeling like a failure. One beautiful summer night, long after the lead-footed students in the dance studio above my office had left for the day, the phone rang. The managing editor rushed through pleasantries, then harangued me for making another mistake.
When she said, “We’ve given you every opportunity to improve,“ the world melted away to molten rage.
“You know what, Marilyn? You’re not happy, I’m not happy, so why don’t you fucking fire me!”
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” she said.
I quit the next day.
This ain’t the movies. After two years of reflection – read: too much daytime TV and two bookstore gigs – I found another writing job. It took another four years of answering phones, data entry, making bank runs, ordering office supplies on top of helping to write, edit, and report 28 magazine issues a year to summon the courage (and common sense) to freelance full time. It took seven years to get routinely published in publications that didn’t have friends and relatives seeking an origin story: “It’s a sports blog” or “it’s a local publication.” Yet those early newsroom days stuck like gum in my hair. I’d get published somewhere of note – the New York Times, Grantland – work like hell to make sure everything was right, and immediately hunt for errors even after the piece was published. For days, I’d wait for the email from an angry source claiming I’d gotten an important fact wrong or the phone call from an editor admonishing me for being sloppy. As soon as I filed something, I felt like I had gotten away with a crime.
I have always been a nervous person, so I cast my travails as another layer of my daily mania. I adopted the attitude of the sports heroes I read about as a boy and played through the pain. I’d outwork the anguish and anxiety, and eventually I would feel functional.
Guess what? The “rub some dirt on it” approach to mental health is awful. Five years ago, my anxiety was so pronounced I had trouble enjoying anything in my life. Every activity – a day off, watching TV, even sex – took on the weight of a Greek tragedy.
That’s when I started therapy. It took years, but I can slowly walk away from a story. I still have flare-ups, but I now have the self-confidence so that these bouts don’t corrode my soul. Am I going to start giving motivational speeches? No. But I am comfortable to celebrate success without fearing a Scarface-like comeuppance. My therapist also convinced me, for years, to take anti-depressants. When I acquiesced, I found that they sharpened my clarity and perspective.
Self-care also allowed me to develop an evolving game plan for coping with mistakes. By no means do I consider myself cured. But I am happy. Here’s how I got there.
It’s not always your fault.
For years, I shouldered my failings at the Courier News, and it poisoned every success. Then my wife provided a flash of insight.
“Did you ever think,” she asked, “that you’re not to blame?”
At the time, I needed to improve as a reporter, but there was limited instruction on how to do that. And there was less investment in me as a person; I was just a doughy information machine that was malfunctioning. The frantic environment didn’t promote development, which writers need at every age.
After 15 years, I could finally say it: The Courier News was a terrible job, made worse with the internet’s sudden growth. A veteran reporter would have struggled with that workload in a frantic environment, let alone someone a few years removed from having their parents drive him to school.
You’ll do better.
After I wrote a piece for Columbia Journalism Review, a few people (rightly) pointed out shortcomings. I was bummed, until a colleague wrote the following during an exchange: “You’ll do better next time.”
Writing is not a one-and-done process. You get a little better every time, and what you learn carries to the next assignment. It’s what makes writing an enjoyable and exasperating occupation.
Not all mistakes are created equal.
Facts are writing. Nobody wants to make mistakes, but they happen. So you have to find a way to cope without living in denial. Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN the Magazine was once asked about the mistakes in one of his investigative stories. Those errors, he asserted, were “in the margin” – minor issues that didn’t ding the piece’s soundness as a whole. Jon Krakauer flubbed facts in an award-winning article and then wrote Into Thin Air to atone.
The essence of the stories was true. They captured the feelings, events, and facts that engaged readers. Truth matters, but telling a true story matters most.
You don’t work in a vacuum.
We don’t just write stories. We research. We interview. We copy edit and fact-check and proofread. But freelance writers are a one-man band. Sometimes, we’re going to miss notes. That’s just the way it is. Forgive yourself – no one else is going to do it for you.
Ditch the defining piece of work mindset.
With so much writing available, readers bolt to their next distraction or bit of enlightenment. Follow suit. Move on to the next project and take another step toward the career you want, instead of wallowing in what might have been.
The highs and lows of writing pass. Your day-to-day happiness is worth more than any byline.
Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) lives just outside Ithaca, New York, with his wife and daughter. He’s currently working on a basketball book for Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.