Here’s a memory: I was 28 and sitting at a desk, surrounded by three white walls and a below-ground window that overlooked a dark patch of muck. It was a Monday afternoon, but my office was quiet except for the steady sound of email pings, mostly for tasks on which I was “looped in” but not necessary.
On one of the white walls, I’d put up a giant poster of a leaf and told myself that would be enough. I had a neighbor on either side of my office, but both preferred to keep their own doors shut all day long, effectively isolating me in a silent corridor of a dark hall. Occasionally an insect would slip in through the old and flaky window pane, but that was about it for company. I was supposed to be a storyteller, but I had no one to tell … anything.
I’d taken the job in a hurry a few months earlier, eager for my first meaningful promotion up the university food chain after eight years of job-hopping my way across campus. Throughout those years, I was on several creative and innovative projects that I was proud of, along with some laughably lazy ones that I pretended I wasn’t. I worked with some wonderful people and learned how to overcome a few unkind ones, too. I wrote a handful of excellent articles and more than my share of duds. In short, I’d built myself a perfectly steady and average early career in PR. And I was perfectly unsatisfied.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m forever grateful to the Wisconsin mentors I met along the way who gave me opportunities when others didn’t and helped me start to become the writer I am now. Those people know who they are, and they know better than anyone that things weren’t always easy for me in Madison — and that I didn’t always make things easy on myself, either. I was young, restless, ambitious and, at times, arrogant. I was convinced that I could see my own creative energy bouncing off the white walls of my office, spinning out, and collapsing into dust on the windowsill. (Like I said, I was a bit overwrought in those days.)
I stopped scrolling through the never-ending emails and called my mom. “Matt got an offer in Vienna. Should I go with?” I already knew the answer and so did she, but I needed to talk about it anyway, right then, right there.
Ninety minutes later, I hung up the phone, closed my computer, locked the door, and snuck out early. It would be a few more months before I officially gave notice and a couple more yet until I turned in my keys. But for some reason, I remember that day in my drab little office as the emotional end of one era — and the beginning of a new and very different one. Nothing happened that day to make me finally say to myself “this is it,” but the not-happening was the problem with my career, and I was about to solve that problem in dramatic fashion. I wanted to make stuff, and I was ready to make it happen.
Our time in Europe had its challenges. We struggled as English speakers in a German-speaking country and felt the isolation of being Ausländen in a city that reifies all things “insider.” But just as often, the experience was an incredible adventure. We watched Austrian festivals and celebrated Austrian holidays and visited Austrian museums and sampled Austrian flavors. Then we ventured out of Vienna to explore cities in more than a half dozen countries. Eventually, we became regulars at our neighborhood restaurant, with aperitifs “on the house” every time we stopped by. We made friends. We cried when it was time to leave.
Sure, on my resume, Vienna looks like “a gap.” I had enough freelance work when I wanted it, but for many months I didn’t want much. Instead, I wanted time to shake out the words in my brain that didn’t sound like me, didn’t feel like me. I’d spent years learning to chisel at sentences with cold and clinical precision for researchers and administrators, more than a few of whom preferred staff writers to write essentially nothing at all. A friend once told me that writing for a day job makes it difficult to write for love at night. I thought about that comment often as I struggled to rewire myself in Vienna. I wrestled out the novel I’d been daydreaming about on and off for almost two years. It was 91,000 words, and the moment I finished it, I knew it wasn’t good. It took me awhile to accept that it was unsalvageable, but I was never under any illusions that it would “make it.”
Why not? Well, fundamental story flaws aside, the manuscript sounded like a metronome stuck on staccato, all dialogue and this, that, and this again. No description. No internal monologues. No heart. It was as if I’d told a story in press releases. I worried that I’d made a horrible mistake. I quit my job to write … this?
After I finished the manuscript, I took a break. I flirted with two false-start novels that each made it to about 20K before they just died on the page. I wrote a handful of short stories, a couple of which were eventually decent, but most of which were not. I wrote blog posts about topics that interested me and I managed to sell one at a moment when I really needed the boost in confidence. I did a few more freelance things that didn’t get bylines. And finally, after all of that, I decided to try again.
By then it was spring 2017, and we knew we would soon be leaving Vienna for Alabama. I’d never been to Tuscaloosa, making it the second city I moved to sight unseen, but this one was different. It held the possibility of permanence in a way Vienna never did. I was both curious and nervous; all I knew was that the locals were really, really obsessed with football.
In the three months before we left Vienna, I wrote more than half a novel about a town that turns its local sport into a religion. The story is deeply infused with my own experience of growing up in a troubled town and set in a nightmare version of Tuscaloosa. (Vienna is in there, too, but in a subtle way. I’ll write more about it later, I think, when I’ve had enough time and distance to sort out what I really want to say about that lovely city of secret layers.)
Summer came and we traveled for a bit, and then we moved officially. I finished a draft of the manuscript after meeting Tuscaloosa for real — and realizing that, of course, it’s a place very different from the one in my novel.
I’m now revising that manuscript and learning on the fly how, exactly, to do that. I’m slowly and selectively building a freelance roster, and I’m also going to start teaching at the University of Alabama in the fall.
I’m back to writing behind a desk again, but this time I’m surrounded by walls that are butter-colored instead of white. And I have a real window now, too, that overlooks trees and hummingbirds and the Black Warrior River. Most importantly, though, I’m finally working on my own terms, on things that may not ever matter to anyone else — but that mean the world to me.
I’m a writer with a passion for stories about folklore, travel, women’s history, small business, arts, and entrepreneurship. I have a decade of experience in nonprofit PR, and my freelance work has been published in/on Atlas Obscura, BRAVA Magazine, Discovery, and elsewhere. I’m a regular contributor to On Wisconsin Magazine and a communications consultant for Oak Philanthropy. My fiction is published or forthcoming in Nimrod International Journal, Heron Tree, and Psychopomp Magazine, and I was named a finalist in the 2017 Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers. I hold a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I’m an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Alabama.
Want to work with me? Let’s connect!