Cathy Scott, Contributor
How-to guides are regularly published about the process of pursuing new careers. I, however, don’t believe a guide can show you exactly how to do that. You have to first believe in yourself, and then take a risk. Otherwise, you will stay in a dead-end job afraid to step away from your comfort zone.
And for those executives able to hire others who are hoping to land that dream position, give them a chance. They’ll thank you later. I know that from first-hand experience.
It was 1989 and I was a secretary for Pacific Bell. It was a steady, secure job with good benefits. I didn’t dislike it. But I didn’t feel I was making a significant contribution to society. It didn’t feel relevant.
I’ll never forget PacBell coworker Jutta Stern Stoffel (now, sadly, gone) saying to me one day as we powered out on our electric typewriters finishing paperwork for who knows what project management wanted. “In ten years,” Jutta said, “no one will care or remember the work we’re doing here.” It was because the job had become rote.
My true avocation was writing. As kids, my sister and two neighborhood friends – Cordelia Mendoza, Victoria Pynchon and Sharon Lawrence – formed a writers group, Sisters of the Pen.
It wasn’t until years later when I volunteered to help save a historic site from becoming a shopping center in San Diego’s Mission Beach that I began thinking seriously about a writing career. A handful of volunteers, including me, were regularly interviewed about our ongoing grassroots effort, including getting the measure on the ballot, and I was fascinated by reporting.
One day, when we were waiting for a politician to show up at a news conference, I asked a staffer with the Los Angeles Times how he came to be a reporter. He told me, “Go to Podunk, Iowa, cut your teeth on a small newspaper, then try and break into the dailies after that.” Then, he asked, “Do you have a degree?” I didn’t. I had gone to community college straight out of high school, but I quit after completing two years when I should have transferred to a four-year university. He told me, “You can’t be a reporter without a degree.”
About the time I’d spoken with him, PacBell offered to pay 100 percent of college tuition to employees if they majored in business. I took them up on it and, the same year my son began his first year of college, I enrolled in night classes before applying at and being accepted into a four-year university. A few years later, I finished my degree and took a buyout from Pacific Bell.
At the time, I looked at the women I worked with who were older than me and in the same clerical position. I knew that they too must have once had dreams. But somewhere along the way, they’d lost their passion. I did not want to lose mine. I wanted to be a journalist. I studied newspaper and magazine writing, dissecting and analyzing the sentences and article structure, and I bought used textbooks about how to turn facts and information into an article.
My late mother, Eileen Rose Busby, had continually told her five children we could do whatever we wanted in life. At 62 years old, she earned her bachelor’s degree, wrote about antiques for collector magazines and eventually wrote three books, all late in life. And the late Donald Pike, friends Vickie and Sharon’s father, showed us as kids that we could attain whatever we wanted in life; we just had to chase our dreams. He surprised us all when, without ever having attended law school, he studied for and passed the California Bar exam and became a lawyer (before law school was required) and eventually took a position on the bench as a judge — this from a man who was once a milkman and an insurance salesman.
As I left Pacific Bell more than 20 years ago, the words of Joseph Singh, the district manager who landed me the only buyout that year, stayed with me: “Don’t look back. Don’t be one of those former employees who come to visit once a week. Move on.”
I took his advice and never returned. I broke into the news business, writing for publications and gathering clips that landed me more story assignments and fulltime journalism gigs. It wasn’t always easy. I lived frugally, like a college student, for several years. But I was determined and driven by my passion to write.
My first break came, after freelancing for tiny publications, from the publishers of a community newspaper, the Beach & Bay Press. It didn’t pay well, but it was a reporting job, and I loved every second of it.
After I won a top award from the San Diego Press Club, I was offered a job as business editor for the La Jolla Light newspaper, where, on assignment, I once interviewed Walter Cronkite. But I didn’t want to get stuck reporting and editing business stories. I stayed a year, and then moved on to the police beat at the Vista Press, a daily. While there, I was in the pool of reporters who covered then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s eight-hour visit to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. I also was sent to Somalia to cover Operation Restore Hope and to Los Angeles for the Rodney King riots.
When the 50-year-old Vista Press folded, I returned to freelancing, this time for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Associated Press, before landing a job at the Las Vegas Sun. I’d had an offer from a Tacoma, Washington, paper, but it didn’t start for two months. So, I took the job at the Sun. Three years later, rapper Tupac Shakur was shot, and my reporting parlayed into my first true crime book. After the Sun, I taught journalism and magazine writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Then, one Sunday afternoon, I went to PetsMart to buy cat food and came home with a puppy from Best Friends Animal Society. That was my introduction, in the year 2000, to the largest no-kill animal sanctuary and one of the largest animal welfare groups in the U.S. After volunteering for a year on weekends, I was hired to coordinate mobile adoption events, while still teaching at the university and freelance writing. Once Hurricane Katrina hit, I was invited to cover Best Friends’ animal rescue efforts on the ground in New Orleans and at a nearby Mississippi triage center. The result was articles for Best Friends Magazine and website as well as the book Pawprints of Katrina.
Many literary deals later, my eighth book, The Millionaire’s Wife, is set for release in March 2012. I feel lucky to be where I am today, but it was not without some breaks along the way, which is why I encourage higher-ups to give rookies the encouragement to move forward in their careers. For me, included in that mix of cheerleaders was a patient editor at the San Diego Business Journal who early in my career took a chance on me as he walked me through and helped me organize freelance feature stories.
Julie Hoisington and David Mannis had enough faith to give me my first fulltime reporting job, at the Beach & Bay Press. And Sally Buzbee with the Associated Press regularly gave me very cool assignments after I passed the AP’s editorial test (which I credit to taking a UCSD copyediting class). I’ve never forgotten Sally, who went on to become bureau chief of the AP’s Washington office, for giving a relatively new reporter an opportunity to be a contributor for the wire service’s San Diego bureau. And a generous Irene Jackson, a metro editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, for more than a year regularly assigned me stories.
But not all of it was positive as I wrote for a variety of editors along my career path. Early on, an unhappy editor, Caron Golden, at the time with a regional magazine, left a huge impact. She not only gave me a talking-to, but she killed my story for not writing it the way she’d expected – a hard, but probably necessary, lesson I carry with me today.
A university teaching position made me a better editor and writer when UNLV’s Dr. David Henry offered me two classes after I applied for one (ultimately giving me four classes), and who waived the requirement for a master’s based on my years of reporting. Ironically, the very same textbook I had purchased years earlier to teach myself the business of writing was what the university gave me to use in the classroom.
The adjunct teaching position would last five years until Katrina and Best Friends drew me away.
The nonprofit, after Katrina hit the Gulf, enlisted me as a writer for Best Friends Magazine, a position that for me is much more than a career. Today, I write fulltime for Best Friends, about animals and the movement, and I cover crime in my spare time. I am where I want to be.
My advice, for those who want to leave an unsatisfying job, is don’t hesitate to pursue a new career, because it is there for the taking. That’s what my childhood friends’ father, Don Pike, and my mother, Eileen Rose Busby, taught me by example. Leaving a job with Pacific Bell to pursue a writing career is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I have never looked back, as Joe Singh so aptly advised this once-wanna-be writer all those years ago.
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