When we bare our fears and weaknesses, our twisted pasts and uncertain futures, we get a little closer to understanding we’re not alone in our doubts.
When my husband and I started a local newspaper eleven years ago, I thought it would be the perfect venue to write for, but apparently putting out an issue each month required more than just articles—it took talent we didn’t possess. In the beginning, we were extremely lucky to have a few friends that took on the bulk of the graphic design work at a fraction of their ideal pay rate, but there were always last minute edits in the pre-dawn hours, just before we were scheduled to go to print, and it was never much fun for anyone to have to drag them from their bed and back to a computer still warm from another long night before the deadline. I needed to be able to take over the keyboard where they left off if we wanted them to still like us the next day.
I have always praised (by my grandmother—still counts) for being able to find a solution to a problem, to make something work, even if it was as simple as following the instructions in a manual. Her little daisy of confidence abetted my belief that I could find a way to make myself useful to our company if I could figure out how to do the things that we’d pay someone else to do, and I’d do anything to not have to sell ads. Over the last decade, I’ve learned a variety of graphic design programs by looking over the shoulders of others, and eventually web development using a search engine as my foremost professor. I had no lesson plan, only real-time requisites guiding the curriculum: We need an animated gif? A survey form? A rabbit needs to fly across the screen? By morning? I’m on it.
As the company grew into other companies—restaurants, music venues, and an annual music festival—so did my self-directed education. After starting out in graphic design, I soon learned to build newsletters, static websites, online forms that stored information in databases, and eventually dynamic sites with interactive scripts. While I loved the challenge of mastering a particularly difficult problem, there were countless nights of struggling to just find the damn keywords for the question to search that would reveal the answer.
It was in those moments that I wished for a mentor the most, someone who already knew the terminology and could gently guide me to a resolution. It’s like being in another country and craving an apple, but not knowing how to say ‘apple’ in the local language. Once you know what to ask for, it’s much easier to obtain. However, it was in those same moments that I found troubleshooting satisfy the creator in me, that part that would normally only be sated through writing.
I continued editing articles submitted by others and occasionally submitted my own piece, but my words didn’t help pay the bills like our web presence did. After a few years, we had a plethora of writers and graphic designers, but I was the main geek, and conveniently enough, I was always on call. By then we could have afforded to hire someone else to manage our web needs, but I based my worth on what I was able to do for our companies, and didn’t want to let that go.
I’d stay up until two in the morning foraging online tutorials and forums that might hold the solution to the latest function I had to implement. There were times when the work swallowed me whole. I’d work in silence, as even Mozart could distract me from the tiny asshole details that were the usual culprits when a function wasn’t behaving. I’d finally get to sleep only to dream of a white backlit wall with line after line of code. When awake, I’d spill something and think ‘Ctrl + Z!’, which would require time-travel to pull off in real life. Once, I even told my son to ‘scroll down’ while in the cafeteria line.
From making ads and copyediting, to organizing volunteers and managing our online presence, I did so many different things that I never had a single position with our company and that made it difficult for me to see the value of my work. Some might say it’s petty to need a label to define our worth, but I’d bet they could tell you their job title without hesitation. Even now, I cannot tell you all of the skills I’ve acquired from necessity, but if I’d made a business card for each, which I could, I’d have a full deck. I once lamented the feeling of being a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ to a very gifted graphic designer friend, and she replied, ‘that’s just job security!’ She’s currently learning web design on her own.
I didn’t take a classic, instructor-led approach to learning web design, with real-life person to answer my questions. I needed to know something by the next day, not next semester. My guess is that if I had paid a tuition for the knowledge I managed to obtain on my own, I might give myself more credit for my accomplishments. Had I attended a ‘real’ school to learn these things, I’d have been taught from the start that I wasn’t just designing the site, I was developing the code to bring it to life on the screen. I didn’t know these were two separate jobs, I just knew we needed both to happen in order to obtain the desired end result, so I set out to accomplish both without comprehending that I was entering territory a typical web designer shies away from if they’re smart, as the nights soon become tedious and lonely.
Even if I had known my worth, it wouldn’t have stopped the crystalizing fact that I need to write. The last few weeks have been hectic and stressful with big hairy back-to-back deadlines, days became nights and I got sucked back into the code. Between midnight and my pillow, there was nothing left of me to do much more than haunt Reddit for mindless candy, as reading and writing needed a different part of my brain that seemed to have gone dormant.
Then mercifully, the hard part was over. It’s not often that I’m in such an arduous situation, and it was a good challenge. It also confirmed that after years of trying to find an equilibrium through accomplishments that were monetarily valuable and temporarily satisfying, they failed to involve the introspect of the written word, and it left me incomplete. Not everything of value has a monetary return.
As a wife and mother, I know there are many things I provide my family that cost nothing, nor generate revenue, and that they are valuable nonetheless. My friends know I support their endeavors and will give my time and attention to helping them however I can. I’ve been able to create several free websites for my entrepreneurial comrades, and that I might be a boon to their burgeoning success is all kinds of rewarding. I’m also good for those times when someone just needs to rant without anything from me other than the occasional ‘mmm hmm’ and ‘amen to that.’
As with friends, send me a stranger in need of an ear and honest feedback, and I’m ready to give objective and earnest advice. See, while I have a decade of experience in the publishing and web worlds, I have a trove of knowledge, hard won over a lifetime of unique and difficult experiences, yet the lessons are not so unique that their wisdom wouldn’t help others. So, as I’ve helped others with my technical skills, I want to do the same through writing. I need to do both to meet my own standards of helping to provide for my family and being of service to others.
When I hear another person’s story that demonstrates a true reflection of humanity, be it a story of lost love, misguided priorities, an unquenched thirst, or unconditional loyalty, it usually resonates within a chamber somewhere between my childhood and now. They may be unaware that through sharing their worries, they are comforting others who have struggled in similar ways. When we bare our fears and weaknesses, our twisted pasts and uncertain futures, we get a little closer to understanding we’re not alone in our doubts. I wouldn’t be comfortable with writing this for public consumption had I not been emboldened by someone else’s divulgings.
There are few things more fulfilling than a deep, honest conversation with another person who has humbly removed their mask so that you may see their true self. I believe I have found my true self through writing; it gives me the time to sort through the myriad words like a bucket of beads, selecting only those that embody a feeling, then carefully threading each on a strand of ether as thin as a thought. It isn’t easy to precisely convey something as subjective and elusive as a complex idea or subtle emotion with a medium so rough and concrete as language, but the process of finding just the right word clarifies a muddied, formless perception. When I am given a chance to listen to someone’s problems and offer my genuine thoughts through writing in this way, I feel I am in my truest niche. Maybe those words won’t make a dime, but if they are worth anything to someone else, I’d still be richer.