I’m late to the office. I run past the snarls of my editor. I sit at my desk and quickly start powering through copy. Deadlines are approaching. The newsroom is tense and I’ve let everyone down. I desperately want to escape.
This is my newspaper nightmare — a regular nighttime stop for me when I’m on the anxiety train. It’s an artifact of my twenties, when I had a special talent for picking unsuitable jobs. It took me a long time to align my ambitions with who I really am.
Among many misfires, it is my first newspaper job that stands out as truly demoralizing. I knew I was headed for trouble even in the interview. That’s when an editor handed me something I’d hoped to never see again: a copy editing test.
If I’d been following my instincts I would have walked away. But that seemed rude. So I accepted a stack of articles that were mired with misspellings and grammatical errors.
I sat at a table and nervously dove into the mess. I tried to forget my long history with failed spelling tests, errant commas and exhortations about careless errors. What self-destructive urge, I wondered, had caused me to recreate the worst of my school-day traumas?
By the time I was done, I was a wreck. I turned in the test and quickly slipped out the door. I planned to be far away by the time it was scored. So I wasn’t prepared when the editor called the next day. Somehow, I’d passed the test. And they had a job waiting for me — on the copy desk.
I don’t think it was purely masochism that caused me to take the job. I believe it was also a healthy desire to leave the ranks of the unemployed. But there was also a seductive symmetry at work, and an inner devil that wanted to prove to all the second-grade teachers of the world that I had arrived.
I was no longer the loser who couldn’t spell.
And so I entered my personal hell. The copy editing team read every word in the paper before and after it was laid out on the page. We wrote headlines and subtitles, did some line editing and, most importantly, made sure every page was mistake-free. We sat in front of computers, in a condition of constant time pressure, scanning frantically for errors.
I tried to rise to the occasion. I studied vocabulary books and found ingenious ways to remember the spellings. I made up rhymes, visualizations, strange little games and cheat sheets. I reviewed grammar rules and tested myself repeatedly. I became an expert on its vs. it’s and when to use that instead of which.
But there was one thing I could not change. And that was my eye.
My eye was not made for details. Knowing the fix only helps if you can see the error. My eyes would skip over misspellings, comma faults and duplicate words.
This was when I discovered how very different people are. While I struggled to see the errors on a page, my colleagues could not overlook one. They were the sharpshooters of the printed page. My supervisor would glance over my shoulder and instantly see the single typo in a sea of words. She was a virtuoso.
Just as I could not imagine their super-normal abilities, they could not fathom my lack of them. They were scornful of my impulse to look things up and they hated questions. The pace was fast and fumbling endangered the entire timetable. They were a band of eagle-eyed perfectionists, with little patience for training someone like me.
For months, my colleagues barely tolerated me. One morning, everyone in the copy room suddenly disappeared, leaving me alone with the computers. Later, I discovered they had gathered down the hall to share bagels. It was going to take hard work to gain membership in the club.
Before this job, exclusion from the club had never seemed an option. If I hung around long enough, people usually liked me. But this group was tough. They demanded qualities I didn’t possess. I learned it takes a Herculean effort to maintain self-esteem when you are an out-group of one.
I also learned that there’s not much reason to linger in areas of weakness. It simply doesn’t pay. Sure, you can improve skills. But the naturals will always outgun you in the end.
I lasted an astonishing two years on the copy desk. Life did get better over time. The team warmed up to me and I became solidly mediocre at my job. But it was a relief when I moved on to reporting, which was a happier fit. It was even better when I left the paper altogether to start graduate school.
The doctoral program, by the way, was surprisingly easy. I had picked a field that rewarded abstraction more than attention to detail. Through my ordeal, I had shed some illusions and gained a better sense of what I am really about. Finally, I could play to my strengths.