Archive for May 23rd, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about the closure of Progeny, a company for which I used to work. Usually, I lack the patience for nostalgia by temperment. Besides, experiences such as my high school reunion last fall have convinced me that such efforts are largely pointless. However, writing the article required contacting old acquaintances, and I became introspective, writing a reminiscence on my Linux Journal blog about working for Progeny and a sequel about Stormix Technologies, the company I worked at before Progeny.

Both, I realized, were part of the path to my current work as a journalist. After writing those articles, it strikes me more strongly than ever that my work history amounts to a circling around my core skills until I actually had the courage to use them.

In school and university, I never worried much about what I would do with my education. I have always been a firm believer in the value of learning for its own sake, and I was too interested in my classes to think much about where I was going. I always had vague plans about being a writer, but I can’t say that I took many concrete steps towards that goal – certainly not any consistent ones, anyway. As a result, I have a work history that might politely be described as chequered. Less polite observers would call it a thing of rags and patches that they wouldn’t even wear to wash the car on Sundays.

After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I literally had no idea what I wanted to do. I had taken a double major, straight out of high school with no more than a semester’s break, and I was mentallly exhausted. I took a minimum wage job in a bookstore to pay my share of the expenses, but it was a nightmare – not just because I endured a Christmas in which every second album played in the mall was the Smurf’s, but because I had never been previously exposed to the idea of books as commodities. Nor was I cut out for dealing with customers arriving one minute after closing or saying things like, “I can’t remember the title or the author, and I can’t explain what the book is about, but it’s got a green cover.”

Seeking escape, I entered graduate school. After all, what else does someone with an English degree do except teach? Besides, it was another few years in which I could put off the decision, and, meanwhile, I was at least talking about books as books.

I had given poetry readings and lectures at my old high school, thanks to the courtesy of Allan Chalmers, my Creative Writing Teacher. However, it wasn’t until I started working as a teaching assistant during my degree that I realized that I had a talent as a teacher. I enjoyed sharing my enthusiasms, and genuinely felt that I was helping students, if only by teaching them enough about writing to survive the rest of the university years.

That belief was enough to propel me through my years as a grad student and for another seven as a sessional instructor. I might not have been doing much writing myself, but at least I was talking about books.

But university English departments aren’t about enjoying literature. They’re about dissecting it, and, as I settled into semi-regular work, I realized that my distaste for straightjacketing literature into the latest trendy theory was counting against me in my struggle for full-time employment. My thesis supervisor and I described ourselves as the department’s “token humanists.” And I started thinking a lot about Robert Graves’ story of his oral defence, in which one professor said that he seemed like a well-read young man, but that he had a serious problem: He like some works better than others.

After seven years, I had squeezed the last hopes out of academia like an old lemon. I attended a presentation about technical writing, and jumped careers. It wasn’t the sort of writing that I wanted to do, but getting paid for writing sounded fine to me. No one cared, either, if I was a post-modernist or post-colonialist. The only priorities were accuracy and meeting deadlines, and since I’ve always been a first rate researcher and well organized, neither was a serious problem. Within six months, I had so much work that I was hiring sub-contractors, and was organizing major projects for international companies.

Unfortunately, I was also mind-thumpingly bored. In desperation, I learned typography so that my working life would have an element of creativity. I branched out into marketing and PR. I became ferociously devoted to learning the technologies I was documenting – not just enough to get by, the way that other writers did, but becoming an expert in them. Boredom receded, but it was still lapping at the outer edges of my mind.

That changed when I worked at Stormix and Progeny and discovered the joys of both free and open source software (FOSS) and of management responsibility. FOSS triggered my latent idealism, as well as my growing impatience with the average executive I met. When those jobs ended and I returned to being a technical writing consultant, boredom came flooding back. Only now, it was combined with a impatience at the mediocrity of those giving me orders.

With growing desperation, I realized that I didn’t care if the projects I was working on finished on time. Nor did anyone, else, really. Without a prospect in sight, I quit my last consulting job and started doing FOSS journalism. And, to my surprise, it seemed to be what I had wanted to do all along. It’s already lasted three years – about two years longer than any full-time employment I’d had since I went back to grad school – and I don’t think I’ll be tiring of it in a hurry.

That revelation may have seemed like a blinding flash of the obvious. However, I don’t think I could have done it sooner. I didn’t have the experience to know what I wanted or could do. I needed the experience of teaching to understand that I needed meaning in my work, and the experience of technical writing to believe that I could make a sustained effort in my writing. And, when I discovered FOSS, I also found a cause that I wanted to write about.

Looking back, I wish that I could have hurried the experience. However, I doubt that I could. Clarity and experience take time, and, if I got to where I want to be late, at least I got there. How many people can say that?

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