Before this year, I wasn’t sure if I could call myself a writer or a journalist any more. I had barely written or reported anything in almost 18 months, except for three short blog pieces. In January, I was working at a television station as a broadcast associate. The entry-level job offered almost no opportunities to write, and I was discouraged from trying anything beyond my assigned duties. I had a freelance contract for a feature in a major magazine, but it involved a long trial and I only worked on it about once a month.
It is completely cliché to say that everything changed for me soon afterwards. But it’s true.
First, I did not expect to be offered the full-time job with Northern News Services, the independent newspaper chain based in Yellowknife, much less be granted the business and labour reporting position. I didn’t know if I still had the ability to report on a daily basis, do interviews, develop sources, or shoot news photos.
I also chose the worst timing possible to move across the country and start a challenging new job. My parents had recently split; my relationship to my father shattered in the process. And work for my magazine contract had ramped up considerably: I had to submit two drafts to my editor at Toronto Life before my flight up north in early March. While I had successfully pitched the feature story, an in-depth look at a high school classmate accused of matricide, I had also never written about crime, done an investigative piece or written for a magazine before.
I was incredibly afraid about what I was about to try and accomplish. All I knew was if I didn’t try to write full-time again, I would wonder about it for the rest of my life.
The first month after I left my job at the television station, I knew my gut feeling was right. However, I constantly struggled with irregular sleep, deadlines, anxiety, perfectionism and other rookie mistakes, especially after I moved to Yellowknife. My sheer lack of knowledge about geology, mining, aviation, the history of Canada’s horrific treatment of its First Nations residents as well as the eye-wateringly large geography of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut also didn’t help. And in May, I was selected for a month-long internship with the media newsletter Today in Tabs, which meant four to eight hours of additional research and writing each week.
In the months since then, I’ve gained a lot more knowledge about my beats, managing my workload and additional confidence in my ability to take a well-lit photograph. However, there are still many moments when I feel filled with doubt or close to a complete failure.
So I was very surprised when my 5,200 word Toronto Life story finally went online in late July and quickly picked up more than 10,000 shares on Facebook.
Then the Washington Post called.
That blog post for Morning Mix, a combination of aggregation and additional interviews, set off a wave of attention beyond anything I could have imagined. My story was recommended or aggregated by dozens of journalists and organizations such as the New York Times, Jezebel, BuzzFeed and the South China Morning Post. I was part of a 15-minute long panel discussion on BBC Radio 1. After four weeks, the story racked up more than one million page views, 50,000 of them for the Chinese translation. Toronto Life’s online editor said it had set a new record for the year.
A few weeks later, the senior producers at a major American television channel flew me to New York to discuss turning the story into a documentary. I’m now working with them part-time.
There were other highlights and challenges. I walked on a frozen lake. I dated a wonderful guy, but we broke up. I went through a rough period when I frequently cried and talked about my feelings late at night on Twitter when I figured I was bothering the smallest number of people. I presented a lightning talk at the Asian American Journalists Association‘s national conference in San Francisco. I was bad at softball. I had lunch at the New York Times. I saw the city of Yellowknife from a helicopter. I signed with a literary agency. I published a well-received essay with The Walrus. My friend Sara and I chatted about advice and why I write for Tell Me About It. And the Toronto Life story was named one of Longform‘s top five true crime stories of 2015.
Near the beginning of this year, my mother asked, “Are you sure you want to keep doing this?”
For years, she had watched me struggle to find work, then watched me struggle to keep going despite the consistently low pay, high amounts of stress, little career advancement and the pain of being laid off. She knew if I had stayed in public relations, I could have been making twice as much as my hourly rate of $15.25, plus benefits.
I told her I was giving myself two more years.
“If I don’t make enough by the time I’m 30, I’ll quit and go back to applying for communications work at the University of Toronto.”
Shortly after that, I got the call from Yellowknife.
Sometimes, all it takes is a year.