Mistakes. We all make them and some of them are doozies. People have lost careers over a faulty decision–think Captain Hazelwood drunk astern on the Valdez. A mistaken choice often produces incredible fruit–Fermi’s first chain reaction.
I have come to believe that there’s really no such thing as a mistake. There are only changes in direction.
Due to low self-esteem and lack of confidence, I gave up being a full-time journalist in 2000. It’s sad, too, now that I look back on it. I was good at what I did. I liked making comfortable and confident people—elected officials and corporate functionaries and CEOs—think twice about their actions. I loved the feeling of power I possessed when, armed only with the First Amendment, I took on corporate and governmental lions. It was my duty, sworn duty, to work on behalf of those with less than, people who could not fight for themselves, and those with the least amount of power.
When it was time for me to move from the newspaper I worked for—they wanted only pap when I needed to dig deeper—I chose a desk job. This was perhaps my greatest mistake. The market for journalists was shrinking, and one can see today just what funeral homes the great dailies have become. Our own Kansas City Star sits morgue-like there at 17th and Grand, a once august and powerful institution, now a content provider for its much diminished corporate owner.
But I could have been something. I had the bona fides. I could have written for national magazine. I had ambitions. In These Times. The Nation. But I thought to myself, I better hadn’t. I’m going to fail.
Instead, I sat a desk in a publishing house that wanted mindless, or nearly so, material for books that didn’t move nations, challenge power, or change politics. They were the kind of books you find up by the register at Barnes and Noble. Gift books, they call them. Greeting cards, they were, with just a few more words in them.
I can’t say I was good at my job. At first, I wrote books for authors that couldn’t deliver their manuscripts. The owners of the company had given a former salesman an imprint as a consolation for not making him vice-president. He was something of a maniac, an expert at understanding the motivational and business book market—easily digested tomes for people who wanted support and affirmation for their ambitions.
The authors he enlisted had little more than ideas. But the sales and marketing departments depended on the imprint manager to deliver those books on time. When the authors could not produce, I wrote. I was an author before my name ever landed on the cover of a book. I wrote a book about the team secrets of the Navy SEALS, a motivational book for executives, and several books about business practices, teaching, and golf.
The thing was, I didn’t know jack about business, motivation, or golf. It didn’t seem to matter.
When the imprint manager left the company in disappointment—he may have been forced out—I joined the bigger book group and had to start acquiring gift and little books. I can’t remember all the titles or subjects, but among them were comedic books about golf, funny books concerning sports, and endearing books having to do with animals and kids.
And I wrote. I sat behind my desk and in the span of three years, wrote a novel that will never see the light of day and the original manuscript that would become my first two books. I often did all of my actual job for the week on Friday afternoon. Mostly, I was bored and frustrated and wrote instead.
Then, I quit and, for the next year, did whatever came up. Trash hauling, rock-wall building, house rehab and remodeling took my time and energy. I was almost as happy having no boss and depending only on my back and arms as I was as a journalist. I made more money that year than I ever did in my life to that point.
On the suggestion of a friend, I went into Ph.D. studies. He made an offhand comment on a Sunday night as we were sitting at our friend’s house, as we did every Sunday night, watching a serial of some kind. Monday, I woke up and began the application process. Somehow, things worked out. I started school that fall with a fellowship, an assistantship, and a scholarship. I was making almost as much money going to school as I did as a book editor.
Three years I went to school and taught class. I published my first book. Eventually, we decided to adopt my son. That put dissertation on hold, and, besides, I had no idea what I wanted to write about. I joined the Ironworkers union and worked at that for three years until work slowed down in the Recession. On a whim, I contacted the head of the history department at JCCC and got on as an adjunct, work that allowed me to publish a second book and kept me at home as a full-time father.
So, a mistake—not continuing on as a journalist—led me to pursue an uncertain future, one that would take me into book editing, to construction sites, into the classroom, and ultimately to dissertation and a second whack at fatherhood. I earned a doctorate.
Was it a mistake? Probably not, though it seemed so at the time, particularly when I was fumbling away my life as an editor of books that were the literary equivalent of cotton candy. My decision not to continue in journalism, while born of my own faults and failings, brought me to where I am today.
It’s not such a bad place. I have written another book, albeit one that needs more attention. Several dozen poems have emerged recently, and I published my first book of poems in March. I get to be a father. My adjunct status produces a certain amount of uncertainty—I never know from one semester to the next how many classes I will have. But I will complete turning my dissertation into an academic book soon. My scholarly work continues unabated.
Plus, I’ve gotten to be a father to a child who has become a brilliant young man. I have learned that the only mistake I can make is to abandon what I’ve built for myself. But even if I did, imagine the possibilities.