© 2015 By Leslie Slape 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

I hated that question. It plagued my childhood. 

I was one of those kids who, if I knew the answer, had my hand up — pick me!  pick me! But for this question, I didnʼt know the answer. Oh, I had ideas, but they were  apparently the wrong answers.  

I love the creative arts. As a kid I was always singing, or playing my toy  instruments, or drawing, or writing, or telling stories. I wrote and directed little plays  based on comic books. I wrote poetry and short stories. I wrote a little family newspaper.  

But if I said I wanted to be a musician or an artist or an actress or a writer, the  grown-ups said, “Honey, you canʼt make a living in the arts. Learn a skill that pays the  bills, and do the arts in your spare time.” 

Faced with the dilemma of what boring job I should pick to spend my life doing so  I could do the arts in my spare time, I graduated from high school in 1974 without a  goal. I decided to go to community college, figuring that in two years, I would figure out  what I wanted to be when I grew up. But two years later, I graduated with a degree in  music and a deeper love of theatre, but I still didnʼt know what I wanted to be. 

So I decided to work for a few years while I thought it over. I discovered very  quickly that an associateʼs degree in music is not a marketable skill. However, that  typing course I took in high school was. I did clerical work, and then in 1979 landed a  job selling classified advertising for The Daily News, a 25,000-circulation paper in  Longview, Washington. Four years later, I moved into the newsroom as a proofreader. 

A year after that, I got married. Now I had to really rethink my future. Up until I  met my husband, I had always assumed I would move away and finish college. But now  we were firmly planted in Rainier, Oregon, more than an hourʼs drive from the closest  university.  

I devised a plan, my own little Horatio Alger fantasy: I would be discovered. I  would study diligently the art of journalism from my proofreaderʼs chair; I would learn  and grow and someday I would be promoted to reporter.  

I set it in motion. I soaked up the conversations around me between editors and  reporters; I looked at stories before they were edited and looked at them again  afterward, noting the changes; I read old journalism textbooks that I bought at Friends of  the Library sales; and most importantly, I wrote. The only way to really learn to be a  writer is to write every day. In addition to my assigned work, I wrote personal columns  and feature stories and play reviews. The features department was very welcoming: If I  had a story idea and was willing to write it and be edited, they were happy to have it.  Features are “soft” news, however; my goal was “hard” news, the territory of real  reporters. Still, I wrote a lot, and in the evenings I had my creative life: storytelling and  theater. I was stage managing, directing, and I even wrote a play. 

The only hard news I got to write was the obituary column. I learned a lot writing  obits, such as when you make an error the family eternally hates the newspaper.

Me: Daily News newsroom, Leslie speaking. 

Woman: Did you write my motherʼs obit?

Me: Yes. What can I do for you? 

Woman: You put that the funeral was at 1 p.m. 

Me: Yes …? 

Woman: It was at 11 a.m.! 

Me: Oh no! Iʼm so sorry! 

Woman: I have prayed to my mother. I told her to tell God what I wanted. So  when you die — you and everybody else at The Daily News — you will all go directly to  hell. Itʼs been arranged! (click) 

In addition to the certainty of knowing what will actually happen after I die, I  learned to triple-check everything I wrote.  

Writing obits also brought home the shortness of life, and how we should not  waste our time on earth. You never know when the end will come. 

The end of my newspaper as I knew it came in 1999, with the announcement that  we had been sold to Howard Publications chain. 

I watched in dismay as some of my favorite reporters and editors leapt from the  ship. Those of us who were left clung to each other in panic. I even wrote a song about  it: “Gee I feel like / such a coward / when I think of / life with Howard.” (I gave command  performances all over the building.) 

When the new masters came aboard, they changed everything. My new job was  administrative assistant. I cried when I got the news. “But I want to write.”  Howard representative: “I donʼt understand why youʼre so distressed. This is a  job with great responsibility.” 

But then, a miracle. My old friend Andre, a reporter hired the same year as I, had been promoted to city editor. Nearly every day Andre came over to my desk and said,  “Do you have time to write a story for Area News?” Oh yes I did! 

And just like that, I was writing hard news. 

Then the new managing editor asked me, “What do you want to be? Do you want  to be an editor? Want to be a reporter?” 

“Oh, Iʼd love to be a reporter — but I donʼt have a bachelorʼs degree.”

“Doesnʼt matter. Itʼs a new era. You can write.” 

And now I was a reporter!  

One of my first big stories was covering a murder trial. I had written the initial  piece, a simple missing-teenager story. Police thought she was a runaway, because  they kept getting tips that she had been seen in Vancouver or Seattle. 

Turns out, those tips were coming from her murderer. Every time police got close  to changing the case to a homicide, heʼd “hear” that sheʼd been seen. But a year after  her disappearance, police recovered her remains from an unmarked grave and arrested  her motherʼs boyfriend, Michael Andes. This was the trial I was covering. 

Andes swore it was self-defense. The girl had come on to him, he said, and when  he rejected her advances she swung a baseball bat at him in anger. He instinctively  blocked the blow, and the ricochet swung the bat into the right side of her head, killing  her. 

The prosecuting attorney had a model of the girlʼs skull with a deep impression in  the right side from the bat. He proved, scientifically, that it was impossible for a ricochet  such as Andes described to have enough force to dent the girlʼs skull so deeply.

But if Andes — a muscular young man — had swung the bat himself as the  frightened girl turned to flee, he would have hit her in the right side. And the jury said:  guilty. 

I was riveted. This was theater. This was real! I captured the experience for my  readers. I took them there with me and brought the story to life. I loved what I was  doing. I was a journalist!  

Many other stories like that came my way. I hung out with actors on a movie set. I  rode with narcotics detectives on a drug bust. I spent an entire shift with 911  dispatchers. I began to win journalism awards. But the best prize I received was a letter  from my former managing editor. He said he was really enjoying my stuff, and he  regretted that he had never realized I could do that. He was sorry he had never  promoted me when he was my boss. 

So why doesnʼt the story end here? I had successfully completed my quest.  Happy ending, right? 

Not quite. Two things marred my happiness. The first was … thereʼs a certain  snobbery among some people with degrees — not all, but some — that people with  degrees are superior, smarter, more worthy that people without degrees. I would hear  things like this: “Statistics show that thereʼs a low percentage of people in this  community with higher education degrees, and we need to remember to write down to  their level.” And I even heard: “Some people think that we should hire reporters without  college degrees.” I was denied opportunities, blocked from stories, treated like I didnʼt  belong with the cool kids. I had to fight for respect, had to work twice as hard to be  thought half as good. Itʼs exhausting. 

The other thing had nothing to do with me personally: it affected the entire  industry. The internet. When I worked in classified ads, 70 percent of a newspaperʼs  revenue came from those little ads we sold. Seventy percent! Try to find a classified  section today. Itʼs a whisper of its former self. When people can run free ads on  craigslist or eBay, why pay for classified? And when classified shrinks, the newspaper  shrinks. Thatʼs why the pages are so narrow, why the Oregonian is a tabloid, why the  Seattle P-I is only online. 

The staff shrinks, too, and those who are left have to absorb the duties. I was  working long hours, in early, home late, sleeping in my car during lunch, dictating stories  from my cell phone, doing rewrites on my home computer. I rarely saw my husband. I  had no time or energy for a creative life. My work life had become my whole life.  

Thereʼs a folktale about a lad who wants to learn a trade that no one knows. He  goes to a wizard and poof! the wizard transforms him into a stag. He runs through the  forest for a year. Then poof! heʼs transformed into a bird, and flies through the air for a  year. Then poof! heʼs transformed into a fish, and swims through the sea for a year.  Finally poof! the wizard changes him back to a man, and tells him, “The things you have  been and the places you have lived are all within you, and together they will tell you all  you need to know.” 

After 13 years as a reporter, I was ready for a transformation. And my husband,  the wizard, said, “Honey, if you want this, we will make it happen.” 

Poof! Iʼm a college student! 

Iʼm attending Portland State University, polishing my skills as a writer. Because I  am a writer. I have always been a writer, even when I was Little Me.

And if I were to go back and talk to Little Me, I would say, “Pay no attention to those grown-ups. “What are  you going to be when you grow up” is just like “How are you?” — they donʼt really want  an answer. Follow your passion. Donʼt ever let anyone talk you out of your dreams.

And  that goes for all of you. If thereʼs a door that you closed, a path you didnʼt follow, itʼs not too late. Open it. Follow it. Itʼs never too late to be what you should be when you grow up. 

Originally told in oral performance at Portland State University, January 2015.

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