My birthday is this Sunday, Jan. 12 and I’ll be turning 29. It’s not quite a milestone birthday, that’ll be 2021, but my best friend and I are already thinking about what we’d like to do for that. That being said, it is the first birthday I’m celebrating as a professional journalist, so I’d like to take a look back at some of the careers I considered and dabbled in over the last almost three decades.
I spent the first decade of my life in Houston, Texas. I remember some of the things I wanted to be include veterinarian and Amish (I don’t know how this came up but I definitely remember telling nurses at the doctor’s office that I wanted to be Amish) but at one point a class put up a big Loch Ness Monster display thing on a hallway bulletin board and that compelled me to want to become a paranormal researcher (what I called an “explorer” at the time, but exclusively to find cryptids). In second grade, though, I discovered my passion for writing and spent a lot of time writing stories, but I don’t think I ever said I wanted to grow up to be a writer.
Paranormal research followed me into middle school, which I spent in Annandale. Nearly every research paper I needed to write for school was about ghosts or aliens and I would program our VCR to tape documentaries about Area 51 if for some reason I wouldn’t be home to watch them. Sometimes even if I was home to watch them I’d still tape them, just to keep a copy for my records. I also got really into art during middle school and wanted to grow up to be an artist or graphic designer, but my parents were against it.
I went to high school at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville and I think that school has a wonderful way of finding the talents of its students and cultivating them. I still had a passion for writing and they saw that, connecting me with opportunities at the St. Cloud Times and other local papers to write guest articles. I also started learning Chinese and, combined with the Spanish I learned at home, a lot of people started telling me I should go into economics, law or politics, especially my parents.
When I started applying to college, I looked for colleges that specifically had Chinese programs because I knew it was something I wanted to continue to pursue. I was accepted to a lot of great schools and I knew that where I decided to go would probably influence what I ended up doing as an adult. It was a difficult decision, but financial aid was a huge factor and Macalester College gave me one of the best packages, so that’s where I went (and I don’t regret it at all, I loved my four years there and it’s a wonderful school, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had said yes to the University of Chicago instead, or New York University). I still didn’t know what I wanted to do-- political science? Economics? That summer I was babysitting for a Japanese woman in St. Cloud in exchange for Japanese lessons. She asked me what I wanted to go to school for and I said I didn’t know, that people were saying I should look into economics or something. And she asked me something that I don’t think anybody had ever really asked me: “But what do you want to study?” And that question really stuck with me.
For years I had been hounded by people telling me what I should study that I hadn’t really given any thought to what it was I wanted to study. And the answer to that was writing, the answer had been “writing” since I was in second grade.
Since then I did stray (it’s not easy finding work as a writer), becoming a teacher for four years, but I quit teaching to get back to writing because I knew that if I didn’t honestly try, if I didn’t commit myself to making that my livelihood, that I would regret it.
Today, here I am, spending my 29th birthday with a job in writing (and I recently won an award for it, too, but that’s for another column) and 17,000 words into my first novel (it’s about vampires, so it’s a little bit like I’m a paranormal researcher). It was scary, quitting a job with no safety net to chase a dream in a volatile industry, but I have to say — so far so good.
Johanna Armstrong is the Lifestyle editor of The Fergus Falls Daily Journal.