The day I learned one of my most valuable lessons as a writer? I don’t remember the exact date, but I can reconstruct that it was some time in 2003.
I was working for The Wall Street Journal Online as a columnist, editor, projects guy and cat herder. Back then my primary duties included co-writing a weekly technology column called Real Time and a daily roundup of the best sportswriting, The Daily Fix. (Real Time is no more, but The Daily Fix still exists, albeit in altered form.)
We didn’t have comments on articles yet, so we also did a weekly mailbag for Real Time called Real Time Exchange. At the time we also offered the Morning and Afternoon Reports, roundups of general-interest and financial news from other publications. Like the Fix, those were exercises in aggregation, though I don’t think anybody used that label at the time. The Reports weren’t my baby, but now and then I’d get called upon to edit them, or pinch-hit as their writer.
Anyone with a lot of loosely related responsibilities knows you get pretty good at juggling things and arranging deadlines so everything doesn’t happen at once. Anyone in that situation also knows that sometimes the tumblers line up just so and you wind up with a day so overstuffed that you have no idea how you’re going to get through to the other side.
This was one of those days. The Daily Fix was mine. Real Time was mine, and had to get filed that day. So did Real Time Exchange. Neither of my co-writers was around to help. The guy who wrote the Morning and Afternoon Reports was out. I was the only able body available. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It had just worked out that way.
I filed The Morning Report and handed off the email digest, then started researching the Fix. Normally reading sports columns from all across the country was fun, but this morning I was already late and having no fun at all. Finding six or seven good sports columns felt like an excruciatingly slow form of torture; the idea of turning them into 1,300 decent words for readers seemed impossible. And Real Time, Real Time Exchange and The Afternoon Report still awaited.
Staring at my screen and a sports column from some distant city, I felt myself stop reading and start tallying up how many words I’d written, how many more words I had to write, and how many hours I had.
I didn’t panic — I don’t do that — but I did start to feel very, very sorry for myself.
And then I remembered something.
It was a memory from eighth grade, in junior high in Setauket, N.Y. I was sitting in Algebra, not getting it and not interested in getting it. I was thinking what an utter waste it all was, and daydreaming about a space opera I’d written 20 pages of the night before, saved to a 5 1/4” floppy disk and then saved to a backup floppy disk. (Outline? Who needs an outline when you’re 14 years old and the smartest person in the world?) I tried to figure out how many hours it would be until I could get back to it. Let’s see … the rest of Algebra, German, Lunch, Recess, Science, Track and Field, Walk Home, Dinner, Homework. What an incredible waste! All I wanted to be was a writer. Clearly I was meant to be a writer. How long would I have to put up with these distractions, with this nonsense and noise?
Twenty years later, remembering this in the newsroom, I smiled.
You wanted to be a writer, I reminded myself. Well guess what? You’re a writer. You did it. You’ve got all day, and all anybody wants you to do with it is write. So write.
And that’s what I did. I got through the day, weary but undamaged. And ever since then, whenever too many deadlines are stacked up too close together and I’m getting fretful, I remember that moment, and that reminder. And then I stop worrying and get back to doing what I always dreamed of doing.