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Part 3: I boarded a sinking ship.


I could spell the crap out of some words when I was a kid. Taking first place in the schoolwide round was a given — we won’t talk about the seventh-grade mishap that ruined my otherwise perfect streak — and my focus was generally on higher levels of competition, though I never made it to the national level. What can I say, “sequoia” suddenly has a shit-ton of vowels in it when you’re onstage with a camera in your face.

If you didn’t pick up on it already, anyone with a lot of spelling trophies can tell you every word they’ve ever stumbled through only to hear that goddamn bell ding and crush their overachieving dreams. (”Cholesterol”? Really, fourth-grade self? You’re going to experience a premature wave of triumph and then rush through it and forget the freaking H and then have to hand the district championship over to the kid whose head you had on a platter only a moment before? Get it together!)

Don’t worry, I came back to take the district a few years later with “dachshund,” and I don’t think it’s overly small of me to point out that it also has a silent H and I still nailed it, so hey, IN YOUR FACE, Kenny from Bolin Elementary.


I was praised for my writing as well, but my grasp of grammar and syntax bordered on freakish. Again, my failures in this arena were so few (and my ego so large, apparently) that I remember every single one of them, including the only question on my ACT that kept me from a perfect score in the English section.

As for the Math section … did I mention I did really great in the English section? Is that not accomplishment enough? What is it with you anyway? Have you been talking to Kenny from Bolin Elementary?


Because it will be relevant shortly, let me emphasize that 95% of my ability was completely natural. Beyond reading voraciously just because reading is fun, I did nothing to earn it. I’m grateful for the talent, because it allows me to represent myself well in all sorts of professional situations. I still mentally frame this uncanny knack as a big part of my identity.

But I want to talk about what can happen when you have a rigidly defined idea of yourself and you are afraid. Because a lot of us conceive of ourselves as This Type of Person or That Type of Person, and a lot of us are afraid.

I am afraid of poverty and homelessness. I have always been terrified of this. I used to blame my impoverished upbringing, but some research out there indicates that homelessness, like public speaking, is just a common gut fear, the sort of fear that harkens back to our days of hoping we could find a cave to hunker down in before a tiger ate us for lunch. I read an article somewhere recently that implied that a surprising percentage of women who make more than $200K a year still fear homelessness, ridiculously enough. There you go.

And yes, these days, it’s easy for me to categorize this fear as irrational. I am very financially blessed these days, so when I walk past a homeless guy and think, “That will probably be me by NEXT TUESDAY,” I can at least laugh ruefully at my overblown anxiety.

But when I was in college and making career decisions, it didn’t seem at all obvious that I would be able to make my way in the world and earn a living.

I still remember the first time I realized that it was possible to edit text as a career. I couldn’t believe anyone was willing to pay me good money, like FULL-TIME MONEY, just to smooth out a bunch of paragraphs. Finally! My prayers for a failsafe route to guaranteed not-homelessness had been answered!

It’s not that editing is easy; it’s not. But for me, the process of becoming one, at least, was easy. It wasn’t a huge leap to polish my skills to a professional level.

And ultimately, that’s why I did it: not because I felt a burning desire to rearrange dangling modifiers for the rest of my life, but because I was scared and it wasn’t a huge leap. There’s also the cultural belief that it would be pretty clever of us to turn our pre-existing abilities into careers.

We think it makes logical sense to choose the career path leading us to a paid version of whoever we already are.


Our fanciful society has produced a lot of romantic movies, books, and stories about destiny and self-discovery. These can make you feel as if it’s your job to find out who you are, instead of becoming who you want to be. We’re trained to believe that the right decisions in our lives, romantic or otherwise, are the ones that feel as if they fit us, the ones that feel like foregone conclusions.

There’s just one problem with that: some skills don’t come to anyone naturally. I would never let an untrained person build a skyscraper or perform heart surgery or do any number of things that nervous people everywhere are missing out on because they weren’t willing to choose a career they weren’t sure they could handle. If you are going to insist on staying in your comfort zone, you are going to close the door on a tragically large number of your career options. Women are especially guilty of this, if the research can be believed.

Programming is one of those career options. No one comes out of the womb with a grasp of variables and methods and arguments. Natural aptitude does exist in programming, of course, but if you understood any of the terms I just used, it’s because someone taught you how. No amount of natural talent in the world will make the vast vocabulary of programming less intimidating for you if you’ve never encountered it before.

Editing, though? That suited me perfectly. I thought my goal was to find a relatively painless paycheck. It would be years before I realized how much potential joy I was stealing from myself in my life by choosing easy targets across the board.

Don’t get me wrong: editing is hard. But it’s hard in a gritty sort of way, because maintaining your focus through 900 misspelled pages of an anatomy textbook requires serious mental discipline. It’s not hard in that exciting “ooh, can I accomplish this?” fluttery sort of way, at least not for me, because of course I can accomplish this. It’s just English, and even Kenny from Bolin Elementary would probably grudgingly admit that I can handle that.

I often do enjoy editing. It can be really rewarding to help clients communicate more clearly and effectively, especially the ones who have poured their hearts and souls into their work. Helping someone achieve their publishing dreams can feel like an honor instead of a gig.

But there are only so many grammar and spelling mistakes in this world, and I think I’ve fixed each of them at least a thousand times. How often have I lovingly removed the “e” from “judgement” or adjusted “dietician” to “dietitian”? Do I even want to know?

Editors are so much more than spell checkers (trust me, editors just love it when they tell someone at a dinner party what they do and the response is “Oh, like spell check?” … yeah, just like that, thanks), and the best editors are truly inspired individuals who can create a reading experience so painless that it feels natural, when it was in fact an enormous amount of work. But, admittedly, a big chunk of my time was always going to be spent on errors that I suspect I could train a typing parrot to fix.

He could just tap away at it with his little beak and croak at me anytime the full force of my editorial finesse was actually required. His name would be Norman.


Despite the drawbacks, I think I would have stuck with editing, because I wasn’t getting any younger, and the idea of abandoning my hard-won list of clients and starting over in a new career was exhausting. I got to work in my pajamas every day, and I wasn’t enraptured by the situation but I was a thousand miles away from miserable, and I had the good sense to appreciate that.

Lucky for me, if not for everyone else, technological advances have been driving publishing downhill since the day I collected my diploma. Fittingly enough, the rapidly evolving technology I had decided to ignore would, eventually, nearly eclipse the easier path I did choose. Serves me right.


  1. This sounds like me when I first discovered online copywriting as a career.

    Woohoo! I was set. For life!

    One issue: Writing “Caribbean cruises from $299″ more than 100 times a year will make any writer want to end it all.

    And that is when I had to learn to do something else and keep the writing for just me.

    I didn’t know you were a spelling champ. Impressive.

    Sunday, June 2, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Jim wrote:

    I was the 8th best speller in South Bend, Indiana, in 1978. I’m so glad I can’t remember which word tripped me or I’d probably still have bad dreams where its letters chase me down blind alleys.

    But that’s not the point of this comment. What I really want to say is that I love the heading, “Real Fear Can Make Life Real Predictable.” Because it really can. We do have needs for basic security — food, clothing, shelter — but you’re quite right, they can become very overblown and lead us to milquetoast choices that rob us of joy.

    Monday, June 3, 2013 at 3:27 am | Permalink
  3. I got “periodical” wrong in 3rd grade (thinking it ended in “le”) when my teacher’s strong Southern accent threw me off, and I’ve hated magazines ever since.

    Monday, June 3, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink
  4. Liz wrote:

    The first part of this? Some friends and I had a #howIlostthespellingbee hashtag going on twitter for a while a couple years ago. We get it.

    Tuesday, June 4, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink