On an April night in 2005, I stood outside the Westin River North ballroom overlooking the Chicago River. It was a crisp night, but I was comfortable in just a sports coat with a shirt and tie.
As I smoked a cigarette – a habit I have since quit – I eyed the buildings, the bridges, the people floating by on a river tour boat. I thought to myself, “It won’t be long now. Soon Chicago will know my name.”
That sounds a little psychotic looking back now. In reality it was hopelessly naive. I was basking in the glow of having won a Lisagor Award for a series of stories I did for the Sun about pressures facing today’s high school athletes.
In my mind the Lisagor was my ticket to bigger things. Surely, the Tribune would be calling Monday morning, offering me my dream job as a sports takeout writer. I guess we all know how that worked out – for me and the person who last held that position.
But that’s not what this blog post is about. It isn’t about me bragging about the Lisagor, either (OK, maybe it is a little). It’s about that project and burnout.
I never envisioned my initial idea turning into a three-part series with sidebars each day. I didn’t envision interviewing nearly 30 people, or taking six months to complete it. I just wanted to do a story about how today’s athletes were specializing in sports much earlier than in the past, and that maybe that trend was leading to high levels of burnout.
At first I planned this to be one story. I was right. It ended up being one story – a sidebar to the third part. Everything else mushroomed from that nugget.
I was driven to complete the project by forces I don’t always understand. It’s happened with several stories since then, too. Something about a particular topic will stoke my interest enough that I don’t care how long it takes, or how much writing I have to do, I’m going to tell that story to the best of my ability.
As my time at the Sun went on, I became less and less motivated to tackle those projects. By the end, I hardly wanted to do any story that was going to take more than a couple days to complete.
It became clear I was suffering from burnout. All the signs had been there, but I didn’t recognize them despite having done research on the subject five years ago. I had no motivation despite seeing some pretty interesting topics come my way.
This really began sinking in last week. How it took this long, I still don’t know. But when I was exchanging e-mails with my former sports editor, it hit me. He was offering some stories for me to do on a freelance basis. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I just don’t want to write for a newspaper right now.
That’s not entirely true. I’m still trying to pitch ideas to the Tribune, but I’m doing that for two reasons. One, I want to be able to write on my resume that my work has appeared in the Tribune. And second, I’m not pitching sports stories.
I’m trying to broaden my portfolio of clips. Two weeks ago I did some freelance work for an employee newsletter at Good Samaritan Hospital, thanks to a woman there who used to work at the Sun. I’m hoping that blossoms into more work from her, but also from other hospitals.
It’s not the most exciting writing, but neither was a lot of what I did for the Sun. Plus, these tend to be well-paying assignments. I enjoy the challenge of writing in a different style and for a different audience.
My goal is to build more of these assignments together and eventually have enough to declare myself self-employed. Freelance writers today can’t rely on magazine and newspaper assignments for steady work. So by branching out to the health-care industry – and hopefully soon into the corporate world – I’m taking positive steps toward making a living as a writer.
At the same time, I’m recovering from my burnout. I’m sure some day I’ll want to re-enter the journalism world ready to tackle the next project. As long as the journalism world is still there, that is.
It’s all I can ask for at this point. I no longer stand overlooking the Chicago River thinking I’m going to conquer Chicago. I no longer care how many people will know my name. I simply think, “I’m going to make a living as a writer in this city.”
It’s a scaled-down version of my original dream, but it’s enough to make me happy. For now.