Two things I learned from journalism that help me navigate life

If we haven’t known each other for 8 or more years, you might not know that once upon a time I was a journalist–a newspaper reporter (later a copy editor and page designer) for daily publications in small towns in Illinois. I gave all that up when we moved to Pennsylvania and I became a stay-at-home mom, so sometimes it feels like a different life entirely.

A funny thing happened last week–my name and picture made it into the local paper where I live now. It was a brief mention because I’m co-teaching a workshop at a writers conference with a talented writing friend. I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until people started telling me they saw my picture in the paper. I guess I haven’t been as vocal about being a writer as I could have been.

A decade ago, in my hometown, it was normal (and sometimes creepy) for random people to say to me, “Aren’t you that girl that writes for the paper?” or something similar. My picture was in the paper weekly. My name, almost daily. I had forgotten what that was like. (Not that I’m looking for a repeat of that experience!)

Journalism was a difficult career for me. I’m an introvert (though I don’t know that I would have known to call it that at the time). I was fresh out of college and not particularly happy about being back in my hometown. I hated conflict and sometimes had to create it because sources or public officials were not cooperating. There were painful times when something I wrote ticked off an entire community and I became their target for hateful words. (One time I couldn’t answer my phone for a whole day because every time it rang, someone was yelling at me.) There was also one embarrassing time when I misidentified a girl as a boy. (It’s a long story but one I’ll never forget.)

Yet when I look back on my somewhat brief career in journalism (Is 8 years brief? I don’t know. It was longer than I expected to stay in the business.) I’m almost nostalgic. (But I could not do the same job today in our social media saturated world. No, thank you.) I can see how beneficial it was for me, not only as a writer but as a person living life.

Alejandro Escamilla | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Alejandro Escamilla | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Two things stand out to me, especially on days when all I see is an overwhelmingly long list of things to do in a variety of life’s arenas. (P.S. Not my real workstation pictured. I would love to return to my Mac ways.)

The first is that there is always work to do, so do something.

I can’t ever remember a time I was bored while working in journalism. Well, maybe once or twice. It was not a large city, after all. But my work was almost never done. There was always another call to make, another story to write, another idea to pursue. I hated Mondays because all I could see was the long list of unfinished work, and by Friday, I might have accomplished most of it but I could always get a jump on the next thing. Breaking news happens fast but follow-ups take longer. Feature articles are always planned ahead of time so the designers can work their magic. “Done” was a dirty word because then an editor would find something else for you to do.

It could have been so overwhelming that I just did nothing until I needed to. But I was constantly switching from one activity to the next. I would write a bit of this story then answer a phone call from a source for another story before leaving my desk to go to an interview with a source for yet a third story. Maybe I’d get back to that first story later, but I might have to take a few hours off before heading to a government meeting later that night.

Yes, I got paid and it was part of the job, but it was still stressful. I couldn’t afford to waste five minutes doing nothing if I could use that five minutes to make a call or send an e-mail.

Now, I’m not saying that being constantly busy is a good thing. It’s not. But too often I think something like this: “Well, I don’t have time to finish the dishes or do all the laundry, so I’ll just do that later.” In truth, I generally have time to start the dishes or laundry, even if I can’t finish it. And then I feel better about taking time for leisure later.

As a stay-at-home mom who also blogs and does freelance writing and serves in leadership at church, there is always work to be done. This week’s to-do list includes housework, grocery shopping, writing, buying supplies for the church kitchen, catching up on book club reading so I can lead the discussion while our pastor’s wife is out of the country and I don’t even know what else! (I recently heard this called a portfolio life. It’s an interesting concept.)

Which brings me to my second lesson from journalism: expect the unexpected.

Oh, how I hate this one! I’m a planner, and I like when things go according to (my) plan. I’m not sure how I survived journalism. Even in a small town, news breaks at the most inconvenient of times.

Like at 5 p.m. on a Friday when a fax comes into the office announcing the closure of the town’s steel mill, the major employer in town, and practically no one is available for comment but you can’t go home because you have to try everyone and the story will run the next day.

Or when you’re just doing your usual police rounds on a Saturday afternoon weekend duty and you discover a news release about a family of four who drowned when their van went into the river and you have to spend the rest of the day talking to people who are grieving.

Or on another Saturday when the president who grew up in your hometown (Ronald Reagan) finally succumbs to Alzheimer’s and the stories you’ve been holding and writing and planning for months finally see the light of day.

Sometimes all my plans got pushed aside for something else that was going on. It was the nature of the business and it’s the nature of life.

I still have a hard time with this. I look at the week ahead and think about how calm and peaceful it will be and then 3 out of 4 us end up sick or there are two snow days and three school delays and everything I thought I would get done gets pushed back another week.

Some weeks will go as planned and some won’t. Sometimes I’ll get through my to-do list and sometimes I won’t. What I’m (slowly) learning is that I can trust the Spirit to lead me through the day. As I’m writing this blog post, I could also be cleaning the house, but at this moment, blogging is helping to clear my head for the rest of the day, which will certainly have its stressful moments. Another day might lead me to tackle the organizing projects I need.

I’m good at procrastinating the work I don’t want to do but I’m learning that if I take small steps or knock off a few smaller items on my list, then I’m less overwhelmed. (I also probably need a few less hats, but I’m working on that, too.)

How do you do it? Are you able to find balance in all the tasks of your life? Have you learned something from a job or a role that was surprising to you?

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3 thoughts on “Two things I learned from journalism that help me navigate life

  1. Whew!  I am worn out just following your description of your activities!  Your writing always puts me right in the flow of things.  I sense that you do find enjoyment in it all.  Hopefully, as much as I do in reading about it.   It is certain that others, as well as Katie and I, appreciate all you are doing. Thank You! 

  2. I’m a working mom that works at a church. That balance is something that I have struggled with over the years since having our twins 10 years ago. I think it would be a little easier, but still not easy, if my job was somewhere outside the church.

    The idea that has helped me the most over the last few years, comes from Andy Stanley. He talks about tensions to be managed vs. problems to be solved. Work and home balance is like trying to stand in the middle of a teeter-totter. Sometimes it tips a little one direction, sometimes a little the other. For me there has been huge freedom in knowing that it’s OK for things to get tilted for a little while and that balance is never perfect for long, it is a constant state of little adjustments. Being free to not “fix” the balance but just to manage it takes some of the pressure off.

    Thanks for the encouragement to get started even if I don’t have time to finish. I rarely start if I can’t finish something. Then I get busy and the project doesn’t get done or gets done poorly because I’m in a hurry.

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