When I first began to write, it really never mattered to me if I made money at it. I never thought about it because as a teenager, of course, I didn’t care. It wasn’t until I started looking at colleges that it mattered.
“What do you want to do with your life, Sonja?” my guidance counselor asked during one of our meetings.
“I guess I want to be a writer. I like it,” I said, even though I thought that everything I’d written at that point was not Pulitzer-winning material. “I’d like to move to New York City after high school.”
“New York City? Why on earth would you want to move there?” he asked. The better question, I thought, was why wouldn’t I want to move there? Had he looked around? We were sitting in Tony, Wisconsin, after all, and I thought that it sucked.
“It’s away from here,” I said and stared blankly at the wall, wondering if he was even listening.
“A writer, huh? That’s not much of a career,” he said. “And New York isn’t the place for a young girl like you. What can you do with writing? Be a journalist, I suppose. You’re on the school paper, right?”
I nodded. “Then journalism it is.” And he handed me pamphlets for the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, Wisconsin, an agriculture-focused school.
I looked at the pamphlets, then at him. “Um, isn’t River Falls an ag-focused school?” I asked. “Why would I go there?”
“Oh, well, they have a journalism program,” he said.
“OK, but I told you I want to go to New York City for college. Can you help me research colleges out there?” He wasn’t even paying attention anymore as he handed me a book filled with information on schools all over the country.
“You can look through this and then request information from the ones you are interested in, but I still think River Falls is a good choice for you,” he said.
I stared at the book, then at him. “Are we done here?” he asked. I nodded and walked out of his office.
At another meeting I told him that I wanted to be like Hunter S. Thompson. I wanted to travel the world and be known for my literary mind. I wanted to be somebody. How the hell could I do that here? Why was everyone determined to keep me in Wisconsin? Cows and cheese curds and deer shinin’ and cow tipping – this would not be my life. I couldn’t believe it was my life.
I wondered what Hunter would write after experiencing Wisconsin. “The land is open with the horrific smell of something recently deceased. I learned that the putrid smell is that of the cow feces the farmers use to fertilize the food that we eventually eat.” It wasn’t all bad, of course. Some of my best memories happened there. It just wasn’t the place for me to spend the rest of my life.
I couldn’t get enough of Hunter. And yes, we were on a first name basis. Sometimes I was able to sneak Rolling Stone into the house without my father finding it. While the rock stars gracing the cover mesmerized others, I was foaming at the mouth over Hunter’s political words of wit. He’s the real reason I finally decided to become a journalist.
In my English class we were researching careers. During our junior year we were able to take days off to shadow someone in what we thought, at age 17, would become our chosen profession.
“So, what is Hunter S. Thompson’s job? Is he a journalist? ‘Cause that’s what I want to be,” I said to my English teacher.
“Well, he’s a freelance writer,” he replied. I’d never heard the word “freelance” before and asked him what it meant.
“He writes for many publications and gets paid per story,” he said. That sounded great to me.
“OK, that’s what I want to be,” I said. “How do I do that?”
He said it wasn’t easy and that I might be better off getting a job on staff at a newspaper, or becoming an editor. Now, I realize that he was just looking out for me, but at the time I was all kinds of annoyed.
It’s because I’m a girl, I thought. Then to him I said, “OK, can I follow around an editor or maybe a photographer at a newspaper?”
And so, my professional writing journey began. I hung out with a photographer for a day at the Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He asked me what my parents did for a living. “My dad’s retired/disabled. My mother died a month ago.” He didn’t know what to say after that – I’ve always had a way with people.
“Uh, so you want to be a photographer?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. I like taking pictures a lot, but I think I might do writing or editing. Do you like your job?”
“I do. Something new every day,” he said. “But I would advise you not to get into the newspaper business.” I looked at him, kind of stunned. I asked him why. He said he had a feeling it wasn’t going to last. It was 1996, and we had no idea how right he would turn out to be.
Regardless of his sincere warning, I received a degree in journalism from the University of St. Thomas, a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Then I was off to the real world working at a newspaper, determined to change the world.
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Genre – Non-fiction
Rating – PG
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