I’ve done it.
After almost nine years as a reporter, I’ve quit my job at The Hour. I started there as education reporter in 2001, the week before Sept. 11. I remember telling my mother, arrogantly, that I was just going to be there a year. Maybe two years, at the most. It’s been eight and a half. And I’ve covered schools, business, politics, features… almost everything in the paper’s coverage region in that time.
And I always said I wanted to leave and write my fiction. I even threatened to quit once. And I went part-time a year ago, when I went back to grad school. And all year, I thought, okay, it’s time. I’m going to quit. And this Wednesday, I did it.
Boy, was it hard.
When I was a reporter, I covered a lot of personnel changes, and whenever someone said: “This decision was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, but it was time for a change,” I always thought that person must be saving face. Surely, he or she was canned. Hard. For doing something awful.
Well, leaving The Hour really is one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I’ve been twitching ever since I gave my notice.
The Hour was my second job out of college, and my first real job as a reporter. When I started, I was Ann O’Connell. Within a week, people were calling me by my pen name, A.J. I encouraged this, because it sounded cool, and A.J. became my name when I was at work. Then it became my identity. Now the only people who call me Ann are school friends and family. I had this moment of panic yesterday: if I’m not A.J. the Hour reporter, who am I? What are people going to call me? The idea of not knowing the security code to get into the building is unfathomable. The idea of having my Hour email account closed is bizarre. Hell, I check that account when I’m on vacation.
It’s silly, but my job is a huge part of my life. I owe it a score of life lessons.
The first time someone called to demand a correction, I reacted as though I could never have made a mistake. It took me a long time to admit that I could, in fact, have made one. It took me even longer to acknowledge it. I also had to realize that my prized stories didn’t actually belong to me; I was telling other people’s stories, and when I screwed up, they had a right to be angry at me. It taught me humility. And accountability.
I learned so many things. How to stand up for myself. How to keep my mouth shut to protect a source. That just because I might not agree with someone doesn’t mean that person doesn’t have something of value to say. That even when you aren’t happy, you must keep working. That sources cannot be friends and friends cannot be sources. That the cost of living can be staggeringly high. That the truth can set people free. That the truth can destroy a life. That people are beautiful, wonderful, resourceful creatures. That people are horrible, awful, barbaric creatures. That if your grammar is not up to par, a fifth grade class will correct your article and mail it to you. That you can read a story five times and not see an error until it’s actually in print. That nothing is permanent; not even printing presses the size of a house. And I also learned to meet deadline, every day and every week for eight and a half years.
It seems like the whole time I was there, I was trying to gather together the funds to quit, take time off and write the great American novel. I spent half my twenties fantasizing about this, starting novels, joining and starting writers’ groups. Now I’m 32 and entering my second year of grad school. It’s not going to be easy, but this may be my last chance to take some time off to be a full-time novelist. It might not work, but if I don’t at least try, I will never know.
So I gave my notice. Working at The Hour hasn’t always been easy and it definitely hasn’t always been fun, but it’s eight and a half years of my life. I practically grew up in that newsroom. I met a lot of unforgettable people there. A lot of them are still there and I will miss them. At least 30 of them have already moved on.
Now it’s my turn.
I have no doubt that this is the right move. I just wish it weren’t so damned hard.