My blogging, indeed, all of my writing, was thwarted this week when some press credentials I did NOT expect to come through, did, and I suddenly found myself Chicago-bound to represent the cancer hospital at a large annual meeting for clinical oncologists. I knew, of course, about the possibility of this trip but I really didn’t think it would work out. Which just goes to show.
But I am here..under a pretense, really. Most cancer hospitals send their public relations handlers. Since our director of media relations is so very, very new (new enough to ask if the National Institutes of Health is a local hospital!) I am pinch-hitting for her and I am here to tell you, I absolutely stink at PR. Right now, as I write this, sitting directly across from me is a very prominent journalist from an even more prominent newspaper out of New York City and all I want to do is not bother him. Sure, I could approach him like so many other public relations handlers (who are, interestingly, all women), hand him my card, talk about the hospital I believe in so much, and see what happens, but every molecule in my being shrinks away from doing so. I would like, rather, to disappear into the very air so as not to annoy him with my typing, sipping my coffee, the occasional phone call from media back home.
Between this conference and the last one I attended in LA I’ve had a really good opportunity to think about what direction I want my career to go in, because yes, I do think about my career and its trajectory what comes next. And here is what I have learned:
I do not want to be a free lance writer. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of setting my own hours, working from home, etc. but I’ve met a large variety of free lancers in the last few months and the duress they are under would probably bring my rash back. From one esteemable weekly publication the free lance writer was told to “find a friend to stay with” because the publication would not pay for a hotel room. Others eat their fill of the subpar food in the press room because they can’t afford another way to eat, and still others are so desperate to find the story that will be their big break that they spend hours trying to find a story where none exists. Now, to be clear, I won’t mind at all free-lancing once publications are sending me on assignment, pursuing a particular story, but for now I am quite grateful I can make my living writing on salary, with an expense account and a boss who believes steak, wine and cheesecake perfectly acceptable expenses.
Nor, though, do I want to move into PR. Oh – these glossy, beautiful women who run the show for their hospitals! Their suits cost more than I earn in a paycheck. They must travel with their jewelry boxes because every day they don new necklaces, new rings, new earrings. They have hairstyles, as opposed to my Medusa head, and their makeup doesn’t seem to melt down their faces in this Chicago heat, like mine does. With their doctors they have this…I don’t know how to describe it…almost paternalistic relationship, where they smile, fawn, cajole them into interviews and usable quotes. They aren’t the writers, they are PR, and they are very, very good at what they do.
I would be almost bitter if (a.) I weren’t in Chicago, and (b.) I wasn’t having dinner with wonderful friends tonight,(c.) if after the conference my boss wasn’t letting me stay the rest of the week and work from my best friend’s house and (d.) if S. hadn’t flown in for the weekend, to keep me company at night and (let’s me honest here) to go to the Cubs game. But all of that is happening and I am happy.
It’s sort of infuriating to be thirty years old and still feel intimidated by the “popular girls,” the girls who always attend these conferences, who have known one another over years and years of public relations and who do well a job I don’t even want. But still, I envy them, I envy their suits and their hair and their blackberry phones.
There is, of course, another layer to all of this, and it is this: this is the first time our cancer hospital has ever been represented, pr-speaking, at this conference. My cancer center is probably the smallest, certainly the poorest, and instead of residing in places like Chapel Hill or Houston or New York City, it rests in Detroit, with no intention of ever fleeing to the suburbs. It serves an high percentage of minorities and commits a lot of its efforts to health disparity research. When people realize, though, that I am from Detroit and at this conference, this is what they say: well, you must be looking for a job. Which I am not but I don’t think anyone believes me.
Oh, I’m not really feeling so inferior. I know I am good at my job, I’m even good at writing press releases and connecting physicians to media. I am just not very good at the politics of the workplace, the cocktail conversations, the lengths one should go to advance her career. I would like all such negotiations to take place via conference call, or, better yet, email.
The point of all of this, though, as to start thinking through where I next want my career to go and I honestly can say I don’t have any idea. I know I would like to keep writing about the science behind cancer for a couple of years, but after that? Freelancing, not for me. PR, not for me. I would love to not think about this at all, to keep on writing about cancer and Detroit, working on my novel and not think about the future, but I’m genetically incapable of not considering the next step, of what I’d like to do down the road. And while I’ve been thinking about this for a while, about what I should prepare myself for, career-wise, down the road, every single time my brain goes blank. S. and I were discussing this just last night, over drinks in our hotel by the airport…whenever we ponder what will happen over the next two years, with his law school graduation, with my job, with where we live and what we will do – we see nothing, and we see everything, all at once. It’s both a scary and exciting place to be, and it leaves me wondering – should I start adjucting? should I finish my novel more quickly than I intend? should I blog more, blog less, pitch more stories, stop pitching altogether? Do I decide to become a mover and shaker in my field, which would require fighting every step of my reticent personality, or do I begin looking at other ways to work in science writing? I once wrote for NASA – I really liked that.
I am sure the old adage will prove itself and time will tell, but it would be nice if I could help it along a bit!