Cooking Up Frustration

In the middle of the night I had it all figured out. In a journal rescued from stack of half-finished tomes, I penned thoughts about what I am doing here, free of school, free of work and ready to cast out on my own yet again. Writing with a sudden fervor, I listed the major projects I wanted to work on, projects I've discussed tangentially here on this site from time to time, and repeatedly in conversation with my friends and family. I knew what it was I wanted to do. After an uneasy weekend of random, mounting bits of disappointment and frustration, I went to bed content. Hours after waking, it all seems to have dissipated. I can't start one project for fear it will distract from another. I send out queries. I update my résumé. I catch up on my reading. I research. I follow-up and I wait in silence.

Meanwhile, the life I want surrounds me. The radio crackles behind me as I type. Through a light fog of static Warren Olney spends 45 minutes catching listeners up on the rapidly changing situation in Iran then deftly switches the topic to American policy in Afghanistan.

Across the room one of my typewriters rests on a table. The paper is rolled up to reveal the few lines of faint text I've randomly typed on it. A reused sheet, I can see enough of the paper's opposite side to know it's an old 460 — a California campaign finance reporting document — printout I must have consulted for some story about political donations, or one I hoped to tell. It makes me hunger to pore over documents, to analyze connections, to question and prod and explore.

A pile of books sits stacked against my bed. Stories and stories and stories full. I want to tell so many similar tales. I want to bring people and places to life; to recount histories of far-off lands as well as all-too-familiar backyards. I want to look beneath the veneer of political and social idealism to the true machinations occurring in even the most progressive atmospheres. I want to translate complex knowledge to lush, page-turning narratives about the fascinating processes governing this world in which we live.

On one corner of my computer screen a little box occasionally lights up. It tells me I've received new updates about stories I've been following. Subjects that matter to me. Right now it's announcing the release of the full text of a new federal transportation reauthorization bill in Congress. It seems boring, but what it contains will directly shape how we get around our neighborhoods, our cities, and our country. I want to dive into the text, to carve it up, to continue one thread of my master's project. Then I realize that project still sits on a shelf. I wonder whether it will see the light of day, whether the editor pondering it will write me back, will find it suitable for publication, will believe that I have something to say, a story to tell that no one else can tell.

I've talked about this project for months and I'm starting to feel like a lier, like a cheat, like I've told all these people how I was compiling this grand tale of movement and transportation in Los Angeles. So far, most of them haven't seen word one. It's there, it's on the page, and I think it's fantastic. I think about it every time I ride the subway or the bus, or tell someone I am doing so and they look at me quizzically, as if they're shocked to learn there are ways to move about this vast, deep city without a car.

I understand – trust me I understand and kinda don't want to discuss – that the publishing world is rapidly changing. Even if it weren't, it takes time and patience to get something published. But I wonder about the rules of the game. With information spreading so rapidly how am I supposed to do this, to wait patiently on a story that is constantly evolving? Even if things go well with this story, how do we publish, how do we write or report anything? How do we set boundaries? Do we just say “that's the story” even as it continues to change? Do we just cut convenient slices of ever-lengthening timelines out?

I've just finished reading Roxana St. Thomas's most recent “Notes from the Breadline.” The poetry in her words. The honesty. Most importantly, the resounding familiarity of her situation, despite our differing professions, has brought me close to the point of tears. When she wonders why she left “The Big Law Firm” I ponder why I left my Big Job, then finished school feeling less certain than before about where I wanted to be, more certain than ever about my ability to do it, and completely lost about how I could ever fit into this transitioning world of journalism.

She ultimately recognizes the fight she has left in her and I think of the times I've come to the same realization, of the numerous times I've gotten off the mat, of the blessings I've counted, of the gratitude I have for the ceaseless support from my family and of the friends who have lately been crawling out of the woodwork. But I also feel the ebb and flow more than ever, the impermanence, the sensation that everything about where I am is foreign. I feel as I always have: neither here nor there. Too experienced to start completely fresh, not quite accomplished enough to stand out.

I've become good at what I call step one. Last week at the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards I countered my disappointment at not making my mark beyond a finalist in the commentary category by introducing myself to a few people I wanted to meet, getting my name and my card out there, and getting excited about journalism again. The question, now, is what is step two? I'm there, making the connections. What do I do with them? More importantly, why am I asking? Shouldn't I know by now? Shouldn't that be what I learned, if not in my years as a professional journalist then certainly during my master's studies?

The day after the Press Club awards I set up shop at a Melrose coffee shop and spent hours reading old Lascher at Large columns. The originals. The ones my dad wrote. The ones I always heard about at the childhood dinner table but never really grasped. For much of my adult life I've avoided them because I just didn't want my entire writing career to be some sort of cliched following-in-my-father's-footsteps endeavor. Finally, a few months ago, I realized they really had something relevant to say, something worth expanding upon.

Last week I sat at this coffee shop watching the traffic pass and savoring the sun despite irritation from a nearby smoker. I was riveted. In my father's words I found a tremendous richness, a biting wit, a sense of humor and an intelligence I wasn't old enough to appreciate before he passed away. I don't want to idolize a man I really barely knew, and there were elements of his legal columns that really are too specific to his field and his time to be of much interest, either to a general audience or a current one. Still, I did find threads I will eagerly pick up and weave, not just into my own writing, but into today's contemporary political and social discussions.

As I was saying before, though, do I pick that up or one of these other projects? Those with whom I've spoken are probably wondering about other plans of mine I've discussed. Where have they gone? Why am I not focused on them? I won't detail them here. I've articulated them again and again. Repeating what I want to write about like a mantra is meaningless if I don't do any of the actual writing (just as journalists' pondering repeatedly of how to monetize and disseminate their work means nothing if they have nothing to monetize and share).

My problem isn't forgetting what's simmering on the backburner. It's figuring out what I'm trying to cook in the first place.