An announcement: This week I’m leaving my job of the past eleven years. My job has been the latest iteration of one I’ve held off and on for decades. As a staff writer for James Madison University, I’ve written about international students, philanthropists, autism, dams, archeology, engineering, international affairs, intelligence, education, pioneers, cyclists, museums, business, and scads and scads of people. And this is the short list.
It has been a wonderful opportunity for a writer—and I am enormously grateful for it because by the act of writing, one becomes a writer. It is a also profession that requires tutelage and hard work. Few come to writing knowing it all and one might argue that no writer ever knows it all. There is always something more to learn, to discover, to hone.
Right out of college, I became an editorial assistant for my alma mater, Virginia Tech. It was a heady position for a wet-behind-the-ears political science major, whose only academic claim to fame—save a few quarters on the dean’s list—was having garnered “A’s” on all my papers, except for one—a “B” from Dr. Sturm, the university’s research professor in political science. (I also passed micro-economics because I could write, but that’s a post for another day.)
A co-worker, Mrs. Milhous, took me under her wing and taught me. I had a LOT to learn. She was patient and kind and once brought me goulash because I had been so wrapped in my job that I’d forgotten to grocery shop. (I also forgot to leave one evening because my Mickey Mouse watch died; this is true.)
Later, when another colleague, Harry, and I decided that the university needed a magazine rather than the large format newspaper they had used for decades, we pitched our idea to our superiors: “You need a slick, new magazine that can compete with commercial magazines,” we told them. And they agreed. Harry became the editor and I became associate editor. (Putting monks on the cover of the first issue was probably a tactical error on our part, but again that’s another post for another day.)
When my husband, first son, and I moved to Harrisonburg, I took a job at JMU, in the office where I’d interned for a couple of summers. My boss, Fred, was a very cool, 30-something with the patience of Job.
I still had lots to learn. And I did. What I loved most about working for Fred was his trust in me as a writer. I think that’s tremendously hard to do — I know this to be true from later being on the supervising end. As a former newspaperman, Fred was highly skilled and his talents served the university wonderfully for decades. He helped create an entirely new persona for a school that had, historically, been thought of as a teacher’s college for women.
Into that university, I swam in and out for a long time. All the while, I was learning, honing my technical skills, and earning my chops as a writer. And I was paying attention to how Fred wrote and edited. (He’s still at it, by the way. Now retired, he’s taken on a new role as a magazine columnist. Click here to read his latest.)
Now it’s my turn. As of this week, I’m turning in my keys and walking away from a place that has taught me much about writing and also about life, about organization, about friendship, about hard work, about success and failure, about kindness and empathy, about trust and honesty. It is a wonderful university—an upstart in the best sense of the word in a state that boasts some of the nation’s oldest and finest.
But I am leaving — tacking with a new wind — to pursue my lifelong dream of being a full-time novelist and writer. I’m sure I’ll face doldrums, but I will not face regrets. I am excited about the future and the full sails that I have long dreamed about.