April 06, 2006

Becoming a Writer: The Journey

(Wrote this for my Feature Writing class... had to be a "personal or turning point" kind of story, and this was the only thing that came to mind, since it's been such a big thing in my life lately. Also, background information: I've actually tried to write this type of story twice before, but never finished due to dissatisfaction with the message and/or work.

But this is okay; just don't assume I'm trying to talk down -at all-. I don't consider myself a master writer by any means, and certainly my stuff could use some work. I just have finally gotten to the point where I can call myself a writer and feel good about it. So here's what I wrote.)

Let me first say that this isn’t one of those “dramatic realization” situations. Nor did I wake up one morning and “just know.” And for the record, I wasn’t “born to be a writer.” In fact, this story features none of these quotation-marked events. When my various interests converged as a teenager, journalism seemed like something I could enjoy and also be pretty good at. From my humble beginning writing news stories on the internet, I am now a college senior that has been recognized for my writing skills by a major publication. It’s been a long, strange journey, and what follows is the journey of a lifetime… or roughly eight years.

As a teenager in the Midwest, I was largely apathetic towards most things. It comes with the territory, it seems, as many of my peers were the same way. I was also a bit introverted, preferring to play video games in lieu of school activities or sports. I’ve always been fascinated by technology, be it video games, computers, or more recently, iPods. When my sister was given an internet-enabled laptop in the mid-1990s by her employer, I was floored. There was this whole world of information out there that had not previously been within my grasp. After that, I would go to my father’s office at Lewis University whenever possible to surf the information superhighway.

Following years of pestering my parents to buy a modem for our old Macintosh computer, we finally invested in a proper, Windows-based personal computer in early 1998. With that purchase, I now had internet access whenever I wanted it. And I wanted it eight hours a day. It was like a full-time job, but with no pay and zero benefits. Web publishing seemed so cool and unique to me, so I started toying around with free pages at a site called Angelfire. After a few botched concepts, I settled on something that would keep me busy for several years: Final Fantasy VIII Source, a site based upon the recently-announced sequel to one of my favorite games.

As the site picked up steam, I moved it to its own domain and server and started to make a bit of money off of the ad banners. Over the course of several years, I wrote several hundred news stories for the website, as well as for other sites in the gaming community. At some point, it seemed clear to me that I could write fairly well, at least for my age and experience level. I hated my English classes in high school, but the prospect of taking Journalism in junior year seemed like a sure thing to me. I signed up for it and eagerly attended the first class. One of the first things out of the teacher’s mouth was a mention that we would have to stay late after school on a regular basis to complete our work for the class. Cue my aforementioned level of apathy. I walked out and never returned.

During my last semester in high school, I took a class called Media Studies with Mr. Miller. It ended up being exactly what I needed: a serious look at the various forms of media with an emphasis on writing. My self-developed talents applied themselves well, netting me the best grade in the class. In addition, it affirmed my belief that studying journalism in college would be the right thing for me. As soon as I completed high school (actually, the same week), I jumped right into college, opting to attend the prestigious (read: local, free) Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois.

Though college is absolutely jam-packed with filler courses, the Journalism and media courses I took have certainly strengthened my work over the years. Luckily, I haven’t struggled in any of the core classes for my major. Rather, I took the suggestions and teachings and integrated them into my work, piece by piece, which has added up to the level of writing I possess today. In the first couple years of my college career, I continued to work on my gaming website, though I started focusing less on stories or reviews and more on free-form writing via the site’s message board. In late 2004, I shut the site down for good, effectively eliminating my only reason to write outside of school.

I was in a funk. I wasn’t playing video games much anymore, so writing about them seemed like a waste of time. I had a general malaise towards writing, as the end of my college career still seemed so far away. I did very little to further my writing career in the first three quarters of 2005. Over the summer, I had attempted to re-launch a small writing site that I had maintained, but the effort just wasn’t there. In late fall of last year, I finally decided to ditch that site for good, instead starting over with a ready-made blog at Blogger.com. The ease of use encouraged me to start writing again, and a handful of my friends supported the cause by reading and commenting on my work.

In December, I saw a link for a music writing contest being sponsored by mtvU (MTV’s college affiliate) and Billboard Magazine. I was interested, but had too much going on to give it much thought. I bookmarked the site and gave it another look in January of this year. Shortly before the deadline, I submitted my essay responses to their three questions, and promptly forgot about it. I continued to post reviews, impressions, and general reactions to various media items on my blog. While it wasn’t reaching a considerable audience, I felt like my work had improved significantly, even over the span of a few months. I was finally doing something with the ideas that constantly dart around my mind, and it was turning out well.

In March, a call from New York informed me that I was a finalist in the aforementioned writing competition. I had always seemed to have luck in contests in the past, but this was different; this was based upon skill, not chance. As a finalist, I now have the opportunity to submit essays for potential publication in Billboard Magazine. As a college student about to enter the “real world,” this is one of the best opportunities I could possibly have. In addition, I have been writing for a Chicago-based entertainment website that gets over 100,000 unique visitors a month. Along with the writing I do for the school paper and a potential internship this summer, I feel as though I am adequately preparing myself for post-collegiate life.

Perhaps most importantly, I can finally consider myself a writer. It isn’t because of the contest, but rather a feeling brought on by several aspects of my life. Everybody writes in some respect, but to me, calling yourself a writer depends on at least two important things: the quality of your work, and the ability to reach a willing audience. I have no doubts about the quality of my writing, at least for the level that I’m at. I know that it must continue to improve for me to base a career off of it. Now that I’ve been recognized by people in the industry, and people want to hear what I have to say, I feel as though my writing finally has a purpose. With those things in mind, I can call myself a writer, not a “student writer,” or “journalist-in-training.”

If I come across as cocky, it is entirely unintentional. In fact, I feel very humbled by the recent developments in my writing career. At the same time, I’m not going to ignore any possible opportunities because I don’t want to come across as being too outspoken. We make our own opportunities in life, especially in the field of journalism. We can only learn so much from our elders. At some point, it becomes our responsibility to improve our own work and start taking chances. As such, the only advice I can give to younger or aspiring writers is to write often. It’s the advice that was given to me, and it worked out wonderfully. Oh, and follow your dreams. That sounds inspirational.


Burrellcreekkid said...

Andrew! Yawn, yawn! Where's the compelling insight? Where's the short, sharp, clipped copy? Sure the piece has to be about you, but make it relevant, what's in this for the reader?

Andrew Hayward said...

And who might this be?

I won't make excuses for my article; it won't be published and will be read by few other than my professor. I posted it on here for any of my friends who might not know of what I believe led to whatever amount of success I'm having currently.

I don't like to write about myself (which is probably why I aborted this twice previously). What's in this for the reader? Nothing terribly important, that's for sure. And it is relevant: it's all about the one and only A-Rock.

Thanks for your input.

Andrew Hayward said...

After re-reading my article this morning, I'm still quite happy with it. It may not be short, but it's often sharp and sarcastic. I think it would be a fairly enjoyable read for my friends and contemporaries; certainly not something I would want published, but that was never the point.