The daughter of a friend is taking a summer journalism course, and one of her assignments was to interview “a journalist with international experience” about their “career choices and future goals.”
One of the questions she just sent me was so excellent that I am reprinting it, alongside my answer, below (with permission):
Q: Your byline has been seen in many internationally significant publications and you regularly comment on current events. Today I read your comments to Yahoo Sports about Russia’s doping scandal. Also today I opened your blog and read a song about “shrieking demon heads” that you wrote. Is there a contradiction between your professional persona and your artist persona? Has it affected your work? What would you say to someone who wanted to follow your example?
A: What a great question. I will be honest, I think I would have had more professional success as a journalist if I played it straight – as in not had a blog that featured songs about demon heads, nor posed for artists in my spare time, nor written plays about sunken ships and haunted bureaucrats, and so on.
My generation grew up on the mantra that you should “be yourself.” This rarely works out well. For a woman it can be especially hard to “be herself” and not experience career setbacks. And forget about being taken seriously if you’re also seen as a kind of “sex object.” Serious journalism, of the kind I’ve always been interested in, is a macho field, and if you don’t play by its rules, people are going to be weirded out by you. And when people can’t put you in a box they’d rather not deal with you at all.
On the other hand, songs about demon heads, poems about sex, and plays with ghosts in them are also part of my professional life. They’re also just an intrinsic part of who I am.
Over a decade ago, I received the shock of a lifetime when my cousin was killed in a car accident. She was a talented pianist and singer and just weeks before she passed away, she and I had an argument about me becoming “who I really am” eventually. I was leading a pretty strait-laced existence at the time and she saw right through it. She told me that I was a “crazy artist type” no matter what I did. I was not prepared to listen. We parted on an awkward note. I never saw her again, unless dreams count.
Her words stayed with me. No matter how much I tried to fight her vision of me, deep down inside, I knew it to be correct. I think I would have escaped a lot of disappointment and drama had I accepted that she was right much sooner.
Any meaningful life choice involves a degree of sacrifice. So you do what you must. And you give thanks for being disliked, because, honestly, most people in the world won’t care enough to dislike you in the first place.
I consider myself a serious writer, a serious journalist (though I barely work as a journalist anymore, tbh), and I think it shows in everything I do, because I try to do it well. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be able to do what I love. Were they justified? I don’t know. I probably won’t ever know, since you can’t draw conclusions until your life is done. And who knows what my loved ones will eventually come to say about the choices I’ve made.
So, should you be like me? No. Be like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of being like yourself. Be clear-eyed about the consequences of not being like yourself. Whatever you do, try to do it well (and I include crap you do to pay the bills in that category too). Don’t let anyone, no matter how well-meaning, decide anything for you – because owning your screw-ups is sometimes even more important than not screwing up in the first place. Let your heart hold fast and good luck.
Q: P.S. Did you come up with phrase “tornado of shrieking demon heads” yourself?
A: Of course not. I got it off of Twitter and annoyingly enough can’t remember whose account that was.
P.S. I owe a word of thanks to WordPress Discover for featuring this post. I’m glad so many of you found it useful. This blog continues to exist due to Discover support, due to your support, due to me very much needing an outlet, and due to the occasional tip, which you can send here, if you wish:
Owing to her young age, the author of the question that prompted this post would like to stay anonymous, but I’ve let her know that you guys have been reading, and she wants to say she’s glad that she inspired this post and this discussion ❤