[22 October 2009]
“You gotta get out of Ky.”
Since I was a kid, I’ve heard that phrase repeated by parents, teachers, siblings, and friends. In context, it means, simply, in order to succeed, to really achieve anything, you must leave home. And not just any home: this home, this tiny little enclave, this trap, where banality and boredom are the orders of the day. Tumbleweeds don’t roll by here, because even they have better places to be.
I believed it, too – have even used those words myself. My belief growing up was that this place, with its population of 5,000, its orchards and dairy farms, sporting clubs, pubs, and churches, was a place to succeed if you wanted to run a business, and build a family. It was Nowheresville if your dream was to be Joe Queenan, Gene Shalit, or even, dare I suggest, Mary Hart.
Books, movies, and music were my way of escaping, in spirit, everything I hated about my hometown. I used them, like so many do, to educate myself. In order to do this, too, I had to travel out of town. Kyabram’s unfortunate disdain for the arts can be measured by the fact that it does not contain a single book store or record shop, and its movie theater opens but two nights a week playing releases, generally, that are close to DVD (you can buy novels and CDs in Ky, but you’ll only find a limited range at the back of the newsagents, or stuffed to the side of an appliance store).
To further my education, I read magazines, and to this day still have years worth of old Movieline mags, microfiche print-outs of New York Times columns, and boxes and boxes of VHS tapes of Entertainment Tonight episodes. Still, a career as a journalist like my heroes—in the days before the Internet, before blogs, even—was something so utterly unreachable to me. As much as I wanted to free myself of this apparent dump of a town, I always knew, way deep down, I was a country girl. I didn’t necessarily hate Ky, I just wished it would do something—anything—to cater to people like me. I resented, in a way, its forcing me to leave in order to do what I wanted to do.
And then the Internet arrived. I wrote my first review for PopMatters in 2001, after an invitation from Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters’ Film Editor and my film professor at George Mason University (I spent the millennial year prior abroad finishing my undergrad degree). The review was for Andrew Dominick’s film Chopper starring Eric Bana, and it was in writing the piece that I realized opinion-based reporting was so much harder than Joe, Gene, and even Mary made it look. I endured, saw my review online, and felt positively famous. There I was, little old me, in print (sort of). The bug had struck. I wanted it all, and more. I made myself available for anything PM’s editors wanted to throw at me: music, movies, TV shows, DVDs, interviews, anything. And for that first year or so, I wrote about stuff I couldn’t imagine even attempting now (I reviewed a Christina Aguilera CD? Really? ).
Even though I barely remember composing much of my original output, I do remember those long nights slaving over hellish Fuchs-ian edits. I came to understand early that Internet journalism is still journalism and must adhere to strict rules of essay construction, something I wasn’t as into or as knowledgeable about as I may have thought. Cynthia broke my back review after review: “Too much plot description.” “This is a cliché.” “This is also a cliché.” “This is not a sentence.” “This doesn’t make sense.” “What is your thesis? Do you have one?” “This bit of the review that you think is so awesome? I’m cutting it.”
I still have nightmares about that little word with the big bold stars in front of it:
I wanted, many times, to give up. But, this was my education. Education I wasn’t paying for, and was receiving free gifts in the mail of review DVDs and CDs and books just for attempting. I felt obligated to persevere. Four years of university and it was Cynthia Fuchs’ edits that taught me more about writing than any class I’d taken or workshop I’d attended.
Confidence, eventually, and a belief in what I had to say away from comments on Christina and Britney Spears, saw me turning my hand to editing. I was offered a spot assisting Valerie MacEwan in the books section, and I took it. There I learned the ins and outs of PopMatters behind the scenes: ordering books, editing reviews, dealing with writers and publishers and publicists. Val took me under her wing and mentored me to the point where I thought perhaps I could run the section myself.
After assisting Val’s successor, James Oliphant, I took over the books department, and my career flourished. Here I was, living in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house with my new husband, working a day job that let me write and take photos (my other passion), in control of an entire section of a magazine, watching it grow and change. I was working with accomplished writers, passionate creators and artists, all the while learning everything I could about my newfound enterprise.
Life on the personal side, though, wasn’t so sweet, and I soon battled at home with unemployment and lack of finances. I left my “real” job as a local journalist here in town when office politics meant I had to go or my sanity would go without me. I figured, anyway, that my experience at PopMatters would stand me in good stead to finally get out of town and hit the big smoke, get that big time job I so craved. Armed with my PM portfolio, I thought there was nothing I couldn’t achieve. City rags would fight for someone as experienced as me, wouldn’t they?
This is where the rise in online journalism proved a help and a hindrance for a career-hungry writer. Over a two-year period I applied for media-related job after job – positions for journalists, editors, copy-editors, sub-editors, researchers, everything. I only ever passed to interview stage once, and that was for an erotic photography website called I Shot Myself. I didn’t get that job, either. Newspapers just weren’t employing full-time writers anymore. Even the subbing positions were part-time. I couldn’t pick up and move to Melbourne on a part-time salary. It wasn’t possible. Pride in my back pocket, I decided to go back to school. I figured at the time, perhaps I can teach?
A Graduate Diploma and Masters Degree later and the only job I could score myself was as a pizza delivery driver in, you guessed it, good old Ky. And I hated my town more than ever. Here was I, holder of a Masters Degree, section editor for a major online magazine, and I was mopping floors, washing dishes, cutting tomatoes, sinking further and further into a depression that left me angry, bitter, and helpless.
No money meant no big move to Melbourne, no job meant no money. It was a cycle I could not break out of. My employment agency didn’t help. They wanted me to remove my degrees from my resume. I was unemployable, they said, because I was overqualified. They told me not to be “unrealistic” as far as my career goals went, and encouraged me to apply secretarial work at medical centres, accounting firms, Vet clinics. I couldn’t even get those jobs.
Thinking back over 2005-2006 can be distressing. Everything suffered – my health, my relationships, my self-esteem. This poor feeling was enhanced by the fact that this other me, this Nikki Tranter, Books Editor was apparently thriving. Those years were the peak of my PopMatters career. I was reviewing more books, honing my editorial skills, interviewing major public figures. I remember a day when I awoke at 4.30am to interview Jewel by phone from LA, having the sweetest chat with this woman of whom I’d been a major fan since high school, discussing music and love and farm life. I remember chatting to Augusten Burroughs in my PJs and feeling this calming connection with the funny, smart writer. I remember listening to Don McLean tell me about the meaning behind his song “Empty Chairs”, he said:
“It’s a metaphor for so many things. Everything is slipping through our fingers and we try to grasp on to it and hold on to it, but we’re aware in some deep sense of the futility of trying to do that.”
I talked about music and politics with Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, the power of pop music with Ashlee Simpson, activism with Henry Rollins, poetry with Delbert McClinton, and comedy and writing with Greg Behrendt, whose book at the time, He’s Just Not That Into You, was one of the biggest in the world.
Soon after doing these monumental things that, to me, were proof my entertainment reporting dream had come true, I was donning the dry-bacon-smelling apron and heading out again to deliver food to strange houses that sometimes contained my old school friends who would greet me with a stunned, “oh…”, as though I’d fallen just so far after my illustrious career on the local paper. I went from the highest of highs to wanting to crawl in a dark hole and never come out.
End of 2006, some of my best PM work completed even in the midst of such mayhem, everything changed again. Ky decided to give back, and I scored a casual position at my local video store. That very week, I walked away from a major road accident that occurred while delivering pizzas. I destroyed my mum’s car and very nearly killed another driver, but, on the plus side, I could finally quit that soul-destroying job. (Ever since, though, no pizza driver leaves my house without at least a five dollar tip.)
PopMatters played a role there, too. While my new bosses were skeptical that with such qualifications I wasn’t looking for a job simply to fill time between major gigs (if only they knew), they were also drawn to me because of my qualifications, particularly my film reviewing. “A love of movies is not enough to work at a video store,” my then-employer told me, “but a passion like this could be handy.” That video store, which I now manage, has become as much of a passion for me. It changed my life, lifted me out of my depression, gave me a challenge, a new group of life-long friends, and saw me thriving in an environment that couldn’t have been more me. How much more sense it made to interview Kevin Bacon, and then go off to my job at the video store. Right? The stars were finally aligning. And in Kyabram, no less.
It’s taken a long time, nearly 10 years, but I think I’ve almost got it figured out. Success is not about where you are, physically or financially in life. It’s about doing what you want to do above everything else, and realizing while you’re doing it just how special it is. Much of my best work for PopMatters is tainted by the years in which I completed it, but it’s still there, a permanent reminder in a Google search that I did those things, that PopMatters continues to afford me opportunities of the same magnitude.
I struggle to accept it’s been nearly 10 years I’ve been at the magazine, and while I’m only now getting myself together on a personal level—newly single, about to move back to that childhood bedroom—I look back on what amounts, who would’ve thought, to a career in entertainment journalism. They call it cultural analysis, but I know, for me, it’s just a little girl talking about movies and music and books, more Mary Hart in her mind, if you must know, than anyone else.
Much has been written on just how the Internet changed the face of journalism, particularly in terms of opening doors for anyone and everyone to create a space in which to voice their opinions. Much, too, has been written on online versus print media, the decline of print media, and opportunities afforded writers due to this new, global system that saves time and money while reaching wider groups of readers. So, rather than concentrating on that, this is my story of how the new media world impacted my life, as a rural Victorian with a big dream. How it changed, and continues to change, my everyday life. How it made me a writer, gave me the confidence to undertake post graduate study, how it gave me the edge I needed to get the job I now utterly love, how it gave me the chance to chat with Kevin Bacon—I mean, come on!?
And, ultimately, how it brought culture to my cultural wasteland of a hometown and made me see that this place isn’t really all that terrible; it’s quiet, familiar, it’s beautiful when the sun sets a fiery shade of pink, my parents are here, the rent’s cheap, and with an Internet connection it can become the whole world.