I didn’t plan to quit.
One night when my boss yelled at me, I’d had enough. I stood up, grabbed my bag and rushed past a suddenly silent newsroom. I walked outside, stunned. Did I just quit? What was I thinking? Should I go back and apologize? No. No, I can’t go back.
I was 24, a newspaper copy editor. Journalism was my dream. As editor of my high school and college papers, I had mapped my path as a newspaper reporter and later a columnist. Step one was this newspaper copy desk, where I’d been for a year.
I had ignored warning signs that this job wouldn’t fulfill my hunger to be a reporter. Nothing about this job suited me. I was a morning person working night shift. An east coast liberal transplanted to Fargo — North Dakota’s biggest city, smaller and more conservative than anywhere I’d lived.
In an era of Desmond Tutu and apartheid activism, the editor told copy editors South Africa wasn’t front page news unless whites died. Days later, a photo crossed the wire showing white South African cops siccing dogs on black protesters. We ran the photo on page one and didn’t get in trouble. Still, I couldn’t forget the publisher’s expectations.
Each shift left me exhausted. My eyes ached from hours of reading, my mind jangled with the night’s deadlines and the next day’s news. I’d leave work after midnight, shuffling ten blocks home through Fargo’s mostly darkened main street. The only places open were bars, the Piggly Wiggly grocery and a tattoo parlor. Most nights, ice cream offered more solace than beer, but sometimes, I’d stand outside the tattoo parlor, imagining inky designs I was too timid to get.
Lonely and unmoored, it didn’t occur to me that I could seek out another newspaper gig. I was a responsible ‘good girl,’ dutifully finishing every assignment, no matter what. But when my boss exploded, scolding me about a minor mistake I’d made updating a late edition, my face turned hot. I felt angry, hurt and embarrassed. I couldn’t take it anymore. Once I’d walked out, I couldn’t bear skulking back to that newsroom and staying in a town where I didn’t fit. If I had owned a car, I would have packed that night and fled town.
Instead, I staggered home, shaking. My mind focused on escape. I’ll return my office keys tomorrow morning, give my landlord notice. When my sister visits this weekend, I’ll leave with her.
I stayed up all night, pacing and packing my apartment. In the closet, I spied an item with tags still attached, bought days earlier, back when I had a job. It was a classic trench coat with a tie belt, the kind I thought journalists wore. I ransacked the apartment for the receipt, desperate to return the unworn symbol of what had been my future.
The next morning, sitting at the kitchen table my parents had driven out from Philadelphia, the first furniture they’d bought when they got married, I wondered how much stuff I could wedge in Julie’s compact Toyota. The oak table would fit. The chairs would stay behind.
I pitched my soggy untouched cereal, the first of several days’ worth of meals I couldn’t stomach, then headed to the newspaper office one last time. Walking into the editor’s office, I calmly set my keys on his desk. He looked shocked. I realized he didn’t want me to resign. It didn’t matter. I was escaping a bad relationship.
Quitting that job was the biggest breakup of my life, more wrenching than splitting up a few years later from a man I had agreed to marry. Leaving Fargo meant abandoning my dream.
I retreated to safety, returning to my Saint Paul college town and friends. I turned to bulletin board notices in coffee shops for clues about what to do next. Maybe I should fly to Nicaragua and help with the coffee harvest? Wait, I don’t speak Spanish and know nothing about crops or even gardening. Maybe the Peace Corps?
Lacking confidence and any references from Fargo, I applied for internships and retail jobs. At least I had recommendations from professors and bosses from my first post-college job at the local public television station.
My first week back in Saint Paul, I got a call from the local CBS station. They’d seen my internship application and wondered if I’d be interested in a job instead. Could you come in today for an interview? Hours after the interview, I got a call back. Can you start tomorrow? I had stumbled into a job almost as quickly as I fled the last one.
I figured TV would be a stop-gap, a pause while I reset. Instead, I stayed at that Minneapolis station for over a decade, writing news stories, shaping a different life than the newspaper success I once envisioned.
A lifelong feminist, I quit TV news to stay home with my young sons. I worked freelance, proofreading and later writing nineteen books. I volunteer widely and worked briefly as a National Park Service ranger.
Quitting Fargo sent me on a different path. My career didn’t end; it morphed. I think of a quote from English psychologist Joanna Field: “I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.”
When colleges invite me to talk to students about careers, I always include Fargo. It’s a lesson that losing one job won’t derail a life. One left turn can reroute a career, not wreck it. Quitting Fargo freed me to find my life.