Everything was looking up.
It was October of 2012. I was named “Young Alumnus of the Year” by my undergraduate alma mater, Western Carolina University. I’d just had another article accepted for publication in an academic journal. My spring conference proposals had been approved. My annual tenure-and-promotion packet was finished — submitted early. I got a raise.
Life in academia was grand.
I was entering my third year on the faculty at Clemson University, “progressing favorably toward tenure,” as the dean said. The Clemson Tigers were looking good on the gridiron. The campus was beautiful, wrapped in fall colors. I adored Clemson, where I’d earned a doctorate in 2009 and worked since 2006. I admired many of the students I taught. I liked most of my colleagues. But I was unhappy.
In October of 2012, I realized I didn’t fit the research-faculty role. It was a good life, just not the life for me.
I came to this realization when everything seemed in order, when life’s path was clearly marked for success, around the time I gave a homecoming-day speech at Western Carolina, honored as the year’s distinguished young alumnus who, at only 31, had accomplished so much — in academia. I walked onto the football field at halftime and waved at the crowd. My cheeks burned. Maybe it was just the sun.
Ain’t life grand? I thought.
I stepped onto the field with a secret — a plan. I’d researched journalism schools and decided to apply. Writing had long been a creative outlet for me, an escape. Academia had looked like the place to write, but … no. I kept thinking about my dissertation, which explored how veterans handled the transition from combat to college. I remembered the stories the vets told me. And I remember being discouraged from telling those stories in a way that someone outside the Ivory Tower could understand them, relate to them — feel them.
In a New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof expresses what I encountered in academia: “academicians seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose.” In addition to the “goobledygook,” he writes, academicians’ work is typically “hidden in obscure journals,” amounting to “a double protection against public consumption.” The writing I was doing lacked soul and no one was going to read it.
Time to change that.
In August 2013 I made good on my plan. I came to the University of Missouri School of Journalism to learn how to tell stories, to get my writing chops. I sought out the sports department at the Missourian because the editor pushed his writers to be creative. I chose sports so I could cover a football game at Battle High School and craft a clumsy article about a Chihuahua named Cammie that followed the band onto the field. The score was 42-27, by the way. Battle lost.
I’ve written long-form pieces infused with literary techniques. I learned how to shoot a gun for one story, and I went downrange with trainees during live-fire exercises. Scary as hell. Equally exciting.
I covered SEC football as beat writer. The Kansas City Star asked me to cover one of Mizzou’s preseason basketball games. I did, although I’d never covered basketball. I managed.
Right now I’m working at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in the South Carolina Lowcountry. I report and write about almost everything. My beat is coined “Lowcountry DNA,” and it’s basically an assignment to find interesting things and people and tell their stories. It’s a wide-open challenge, and I’ve developed a reputation as the newsroom’s storyteller.
Family and friends tell me I took a risk going back to school and changing careers. I guess I did, but I’ve never really looked at it like that.
I just enjoy reporting and writing with soul. I like crafting pieces people will read. I’m enjoying my “new gig.”
Ain’t life grand?
Take a look around and contact me if you’d like to talk.
(NOTE: Cover photo is credited to Kholood Eid)