A few years back, at a weekend conference, I did a brief tour of the newsroom of New Mexico's largest newspaper. Other attendees walked through the rows of empty desks without so much of a glance around. I ogled the different personal items on the desks — the witty mugs, the dog calendars and so, so many books — I thought about what it might be like to work there.
My undergraduate degree is in journalism. I started college in an offshoot of a computer science degree at a technology-focused university. Unfortunately, the only class I enjoyed was English. I did the sensible thing and followed all my high school friends to the "party school," the state school, down the road.
I switched over to journalism after realizing that they'd let me write straight out of the gate. I wrote for the university paper for a bit and took a brief, one-week, paid internship in my parents' town during the four-week winter break. But I worked at the university library for most of my years there.
When I graduated, I took a full-time job at the library. It was 40 hours a week. There were benefits.
University classes taught me what awaited me in the Real World: meager pay and crazy hours in a cutthroat world offering information to those who didn't value the work put in. Every one of my journalism professors was immensely jaded about the industry they came from.
When I had graduated, my writing was OK. The next step would have been to go out and pay my journalism dues. I had the support of professors to find a job. All would ask: Why are you still here? In this town? They were particularly perturbed and surprised when they'd see me in the food court at the same university — where we both now worked — as I casually went for coffee on my afternoon break.
I only got back into writing because I went to a local chapter of the National Federation of Press Women event. An editor in the audience said she was looking for writers. I had been trained to do that, supposedly. I emailed the editor as soon as I got home.
I learned more freelancing on the side of my full-time job than I did in three years of journalism classes. I got over my fear of phone interviews, learned to schedule my time — mostly — and learned to listen for that moment in someone's voice when a conversation becomes more real. It wasn't always something I could publish, but it was something that continually gave me faith in humanity. It's something I needed then.
I never left town because my dad was dying of lung cancer. Life had taken priority over growth of a career with dubious outcomes, particularly during the Great Recession. Sure, I could have moved to find an entry-level job, scraping by alone in a new city while my dad died and my mom grieved. But that would have been the antithesis of the only life question my dad had continually posed: Did I want to live to work or work to live?
I think many are debating that now. Workers are recognizing how commuting strips their time while ungrateful customers and demanding employers are treating them terribly.
Plenty of those jobs are associated with the paying of dues, but when accruing that debt comes with incompatibility to sustain a simple life, it's no wonder that plenty are choosing to opt out, especially when they've had a minute to come up for air.
Paying dues feels like something from a bygone era, of "Mad Men," of when the elevated classes ushered in those who looked like them and pulled up the ladder behind them. They'd then call down to those at the bottom to build their own ladders as the first "due" to pay, knowing that many could not.
But perhaps we've discovered that we don't want to climb over that wall in the first place and, instead, we'll prefer to live and cultivate the beautiful dirt of humanity already around us.
Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma(,) and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate. Write to her at