19 June 2011

In Retrospect

A recent graduate contacted me with a few questions about how I came to be where I am in my career. The questions gave me cause to think, and I felt compelled to share my answers so that any other young writers out there may glean what they will from my words.

1) How did you begin your writing career? Did you study journalism?

My writing career has been in the works since I first learned how to read. I’ve always been an avid storyteller, and the state’s former poet laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer, commended my writing even when I was in kindergarten. There’s never been anything else I’ve wanted to do. I was always in the program for academically gifted students, and my teachers greatly encouraged my reading and writing skills throughout. In high school, my AG placement continued. I had three amazing teachers (one I had for two years). I joined the yearbook staff my junior year and was editor my senior year. We finished early — and turned a profit for the first time ever — so I used the spare time to do a literary and art journal for the school. My experience with yearbook actually turned me toward graphic design in college. I’d always written and wanted a different skill set. I went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and my overall major was indeed journalism, though my concentration was in graphic design, and my outside concentration was in political science. While at Chapel Hill, I worked for The Daily Tar Heel. I began as a writer on the arts desk, quickly became assistant desk editor, then desk editor, then I was managing editor of the paper as a whole. Also, I spent summers (even before starting college) interning in three offices of public relations, which both kept me on as a writer during the school year for occasional projects. After graduation, I took a job as a general assignment reporter in South Carolina. Frankly, it was hell; however, I do not regret doing it. Every budding reporter needs to get a few good threats from readers under his or her belt. My first two weeks on the job I got to cover a murder trial in which the defendant was accused of killing his girlfriend in a drug-induced rage. He blamed four young black men. The girlfriend had been stabbed in the face and neck 27 times, though each of three wounds would have each been fatal alone. Good times. I lasted nine months, quit on my birthday, didn’t have another job lined up, and asked my parents for three months rent on the promise that if I didn’t find a job in that amount of time, I was coming home.

2) How did you begin working with the magazine?

Another company owned the magazine until about three years ago, when the newspaper company I was with at the time bought it. I had been with the newspaper company since 2003 (the job I found after quitting in SC). I began as a reporter covering two counties, one of which was the county in which I had grown up. The newspaper's format is different from a “community” paper in that it is a news magazine. It doesn’t cover local sports or who grew the biggest zucchini or obits or crime. It focused on regional issues, and reporters do much more in-depth stories than would ever be found in a more traditional paper. It was this format that attracted me to the newspaper. I did the reporter gig for about two years and then moved up to a newly created position of Special Sections Editor, in which I oversaw all the editorial content and production of our contract publications. The newspaper could be described as more of a publishing house since the newspaper is just one of the many (MANY) things we do. Such publications help pay the bills since print overall is declining. Companies need to be like any good stock portfolio — diversified. The Special Sections Editor job also allowed me more flexibility with my schedule and got me off the road a bit. (No more late night commissioners’ meetings – yay!) In 2005 my health had taken a bit of a turn and, long-story short, I had triple bypass surgery. All was well, until May 2008 when I had a stroke at work and on press day no less. Fear not — my health issues are not a result of my job. I was out of work completely for about six months, during which time my job was phased out. The newspaper was able to give me some part-time work while I recovered, and I was able to return to an office of public relations for some part-time work as well. Never one to be down and out, I used the employment gap to finally go to grad school. In January 2009, I enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Asheville where they have a Master of Liberal Arts degree. Most of 2009 was spent working part-time and recovering from various things. I had my left kidney removed in September 2009 and three brain aneurysms repaired in December 2009. Somewhere in there I came on as an associate editor for the magazine. By late 2010, I was doing a majority of the work for the magazine, and in December was named managing editor. It is one that requires much business acumen in addition to traditional writing and editing skills. My tenure has marked the magazine’s increase from four issues a year to six, and I’m glad to say that we’re turning a profit.

3) I read on the author-bio page of the magazine website that you have recently begun teaching remedial English. I went to a liberal arts college and have experience teaching and tutoring as well. Do you recommend supporting yourself with another career to supplement writing, or have you found that this is a good way to gain “processing” time in between articles?

The honest answer about teaching is that after my stroke there was a period of time in which we did not know if I would ever be able to return to my previous line of work or work at all. I went back to school because I had the time and to force my brain and body to work rather than atrophy. My end goal with the master’s degree was to become eligible to teach full-time at the college level; however, I was extremely fortunate to be offered a part-time teaching gig last year. I jumped at it. It is wonderfully rewarding, and if a full-time gig becomes available, I’ll have some hard decisions to make. However… teaching is a red-tape nightmare. If I could simply teach, I’d be happy. Paperwork is a killer. If anything, my writing is an escape from the hard and fast rules of teaching. Processing time is little to none in my world. I do make a point to go and sit and think from time to time, but it is something that happens by virtue of a concerted effort. There is always something I could and should be doing. Downtime really is just procrastination. I’ve heard from other people who have been happy doing only one thing. I tend to find such people boring. Even when I only had one job title, I was juggling multiple stories, deadlines, projects, and side projects.

4) Do you have any advice off the top of your head for aspiring freelance writers just starting out?

Writers are a dime a dozen. People who fancy themselves writers often are wrong, and in today’s market there is always someone else who is willing to write better, more cheaply, on deadline, and without the attitude. The absolutely best thing any writer can do to endear him or herself to an editor is to do the story right (as in read and understand the assignment, get multiple sources, and proofread the thing before submitting it); communicate if there are problems/respond quickly to emails from an editor/and leave the editor alone otherwise because no one likes a high-maintenance writer; and meet deadline. If an editor can trust a writer, the writer will get more assignments. All that said, don’t be choosy. Prove yourself first with whatever schlock assignment you get. I do try to get to know my writers’ interests and cater to those interests when I can; however, there it is incredibly frustrating when trying to assign an article and the response back is, “That’s not really my thing.” I don’t care. Make it your thing. It is your job. Also, get your own camera — and a good camera at that. We require our writers to submit photos with their articles, and a writer who can’t even take a mugshot is of no use to me. Learn how to take good photos, edit files, and supply cutline material.

5) The magazine's website has an editorial submissions instruction tab. Does this mean you accept unsolicited articles, or do you respond to queries?

Sort of. Again, many people fancy themselves to be the next best thing, and often they are not. We get things in that are just… well… not what we’re looking for. However, I don’t pretend to know everything about everything. I’m interested in story ideas, and if a writer can show their work, he or she may in turn get the assignment. Some ideas get filed away for months. I’m being fairly strict and directed with the editorial focus of the magazine, which has made it a better product.

6) Is there anyone else in your field that you recommend that I talk to?

Talk? Not so much. Listen? Yes. Get in a newsroom. Observe what everyone is doing. Take mental notes. There are so many little things that go in to being a good employee that schools aren’t teaching. Make friends with the people who really honestly put the paper out – not just the tunnel-visioned reporters. Otherwise, READ! Learn how to tell a good story, which is really what writers do no matter the medium. For current writers, I particularly like Tony Horwitz and Sarah Vowell. Listen to This American Life every chance you get. Listen to A Prairie Home Companion. Talk to yourself about what you want to do, to be, to read, to write about. If you’re not interested in what you’re doing, no one else is going to be.

11 June 2011

The Bucket List

Next month I will turn 31. My hope is for the gift of a diagnosis.

Upon experiencing a stomach rupture from unclear causes on April 24, I was jolted out of the comfortable lull into which my family and myself had settled in terms of my health. Things had been quiet, perhaps too much so, and it is patently easy for one to forget the seriousness of one's medical condition when not actively in crisis. I myself have near daily reminders be they the fact that I am still (and for all appearances always will be) deprived of the sensations of pain and temperature on my right side; the nystagmus in my left eye that affects my vision and often leads me to close it so that I may better focus; the tremendous bypass scar across my mid-section that traces my ribcage; the adjacent scar from my kidney removal; the random aches and pains and twinges and generalized weakness that begin each day; and now the 11-inch scar that splits my abdomen, curving around the right side of my belly button, which is new enough to still itch and pull each time I stand up. Please note that I do not view these statements as complaints. These are simply statements of fact. They are characterizations of my body, which increasingly seems to have a life of its own independent of my soul. My body does what it wants to, regardless of my intentions for it. It and I have spoken repeatedly about the matter, and while I believe its heart is in the right place (the doctors at least have never given us any reasons to doubt that), it just never can seem to get – and keep — its act together.

The rundown is as follows:

gallbladder removed - 1995
double jaw relocation due to TMJ - 1997
depression and anxiety diagnosis - 1998
unexplained high blood pressure begins - 2001
renal artery stenosis and celiac and mesenteric artery occlusion found - 2004
triple bypass for renal, celiac, and meseneric arteries performed - 2005
hardware from jaw relocation surgery removed due to infection - 2007
transient ischemic attack/stroke - 2008
bypass fails - 2008
left kidney removed due to loss of blood flow and subsequent failure - 2009
discovery of and coiling of three of four brain aneurysms - 2009
stomach rupture (unknown cause) with emergency exploratory surgery - 2011

* list discludes additional diagnostic procedures including CT, MRA/MRI, arteriograms, renin sampling, renal duplex sonograms, barium swallow, endoscopy, and buckets of blood taken for testing

Despite this rather extensive medical history and care from highly-qualified doctors, I have remained undiagnosed. There were theories. One from 2005 pointed to Takayatsu's Arteritis, an autoimmune type, progressive, and incurable vascular disease. Pathological examination of a sample of my artery taken during bypass surgery negated this theory, as no signs of inflammation — a hallmark of the disease - were found. As the years progressed the best we could get was "something like fibromuscular dysplasia." In short, the disease was first discovered in 1938; however, not much has been learned about it since. It is a vascular disease that most commonly affects the renal arteries, and in its primary form, the affected artery is characterized by a string of beads appearance. The result is a reduction in blood flow that, depending on severity, can result in organ failure. The second most common artery affected is the carotid artery, which supplies the brain with blood. No one knows what causes fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD for short). There is no cure, and there is no specific treatment — rather there is management of symptoms, which tend to occur seemingly randomly and include high blood pressure, kidney failure, ringing and/or swooshing in the ears, vertigo, headache, transient ischemic attack, stroke, Horner's syndrome, neck pain, and artery dissection. I have had ten of those eleven symptoms. The eleventh, the artery dissection, is missing only because we do not know exactly what caused my stroke. However, my arteries do not have FMD's signature string of beads appearance, which means that if I do have FMD, it is a rare version of it. The likelihood is that it is the intimal FMD variety. Intimal FMD is characterized by a long, smooth narrowing of the artery.

While in for a routine checkup at Bowman-Gray/Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, I discussed with my doctor my recent stomach rupture and how we were unsure of its cause. I brought up that I had been looking into FMD again, how it seemed like such a fit for my case, and how the Cleveland Clinic had a specialized FMD team. The team is one of five in the nation focusing on the disease. My doctor fully endorsed the idea, saying that if I hadn't wanted to pursue treatment there, that she would have wanted to start more testing at Bowman-Gray to see what else we could find out given the stomach rupture. With her blessing (and referral), I have requested an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic and am waiting to hear from schedulers as to when I can be seen. As an added bonus, my doctor at Bowman-Gray sent me home with a stack of medical records and surgical narratives to have on hand. I am a person who functions much better when I have detailed information no matter what the situation, and to be given in-depth information to read about myself was a thrill. I pored over the records and absorbed as much as I could, of course having to look up several medical terms. Two phrases of particular interest were rather amusing in their honesty: "findings are considered not specifically diagnostic" and "difficult to explain." That's the thing about FMD. It is hard to diagnose and it is difficult to explain since doctors know so little. By going to the Cleveland Clinic, I will be in the care of the few doctors who know the most of what there is to know about FMD and will finally feel like less of a medical and more of a diagnosed patient who can possibly serve as a research link to help discover more about the disease. The research these doctors are doing is in my Bowman-Gray doctor's own words "cutting-edge." It is an incredibly exciting time in life as a patient.

However, what you may have already read between the lines is that the effects of FMD can be quite serious. FMD in and of itself will not lead to death, though strokes, artery dissection, and organ failure very well can. The median age for FMD patients was last reported at 50. A median is not an average. It is a middle number, and well, it's the middle number between 0 and 100. I could live to be annoyingly old — or not. Such diseases often prompt a lot of dwelling on the "or not" part of living. The simple fact of that matter, which is also something we tend to forget, is that any one of us has the opportunity to become "or not" at every moment of every day. We could slip in the shower. We could be in a car accident. We could have a heart attack. We could be mauled by a wild animal. We could choke on a pretzel. We are very fragile creatures overall. I have long had a pragmatic view of my condition and have tried my best to continue on with my adventures passionately and fearlessly — after the stroke caused me to lose my job, I used my new found free time to enroll in graduate school, which was a challenge for my brain and my body but fed my soul. My studies have ensured that I will never stop learning and allowed me to fulfill a life-long dream of becoming an English teacher. My students fill my heart with joy. I also have reached the point in my writing career that I have risen to be managing editor for a nationally published magazine, a job that allows me to exercise my creative, people, and business skills and gives me a tangible product to show for my efforts. On a more personal level, I am married to a wonderful, patient, stoic man with whom I will celebrate my fifth anniversary in October. We have carved out a life of loving family members, furry four-legged children, a cozy home, and a unfailing dedication to one another.

As of yet, I have no regrets... and I want to keep it that way, which is why, at my husband's urging, I have begun work on a bucket list. My goal is to identify 100 things that I truly want to do before joining the "or nots," whenever that may be. Some of the items on the list are for myself and my husband or other family members. Some of the items are purely for myself. Some items may be placed on the list solely so that I may cross them off as there are things I have already accomplished that are worth recognizing such as having made my parents proud, lived on my own, changed a flat tire by myself, and stood up for myself. The point is that the list is a work in progress, much like myself.

1. Pet a tiger

2. Get more than a magazine article published — preferably a book

3. Write a book

4. Take Travis to London

5. Go horseback riding in Big Sky country.

6. Visit Scandinavia — horseback ride through Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark

7. Visit Athens, Greece

8. Have a ROCKIN’ wedding anniversary/recommitment

9. Learn to Latin dance — and do it well

10. Learn how to make really awesome Asian dumplings

11. Eat fresh lobster in Maine

12. Effectively tell someone off/stand up for someone in public and in the moment

13. Drive the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway

14. Snorkel at Stingray City in Grand Caymans

15. Cruise in and explore the Caribbean

16. Go to the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan (July)

17. Go to Whiting, Indiana’s Pierogi Festival (July)

18. Have an extreme spa day – 2+ hour massage, mani, pedi, facial, body scrub

19. Pay for something random for a random deserving person

20. Learn to play the hammered dulcimer

21. Wear an expensive beaded dress for a fancy dinner date and evening out

22. Raise awareness of whatever disease I am finally diagnosed with

23. Participate in research to help with the diagnosis of my disease

24. Help teach other patients to be proactive and involved in their healthcare

25. Ensure our financial security by living debt-free and investing well

26. Finish my master’s degree at UNC-Greensboro

27. Earn the certificate in Multicultural and Transnational Literatures and
the certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from East Carolina University

28. Be the subject of/inspiration for a piece of artwork

29. Landscape the backyard to be more of a place for ourselves and guests to enjoy

30. See the Grand Canyon and stay at Cliff Dwellers Lodge in Lees Ferry – fly fish, ride a donkey into the canyon, stargaze

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