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Before that: My life as occupation

Shuly Cawood, Community Voices • Sep 22, 2019 at 7:00 AM

I wasn’t always a writer. Before that, I was primarily an editor, though I wrote some stories for my employer, an international non-profit organization. I liked its mission — helping improve health care in developing countries — but I felt removed from the work, sitting in my cubicle in the U.S. while their work spanned the globe. I edited articles and training manuals, and I became an expert at cutting 2,000-word abstracts to 500.

I had a supervisor I adored, a man with a gentle and quiet spirit whose heart was big enough to save the world. He protected me from office politics, and he remained calm when the job was not. By then I knew that life was not filled with fabulous bosses. He was one of the biggest reasons I found the job so hard to leave.

Before that, I was a career counselor and financial counselor with a women’s center. I counseled job changers and older women facing age discrimination and young women who felt overwhelmed by too many choices. I counseled stay-at-home moms whose husbands wanted a divorce. These women were often smart and skilled but scared and insecure about whether any employer would want them. I taught people how to interview, how to network, how to build a resume, all the while trying to teach them how to build confidence.

On my best days, I succeeded. I didn’t always have best days, but the rest were trying-really-hard days. I helped my financial counseling clients manage their spending and curb excesses they couldn’t afford: store-bought lattes, premium cable TV packages, Beanie Baby dolls. Some clients made all the right decisions but struggled with debt due to medical emergencies or family catastrophes or other people’s terrible decisions. We sat at a round table and talked about what money really meant, the thing no one wants to talk about. Together, we created money-management systems. If they followed the system, if they didn’t give up, the plan worked, just like so many things in life.

Before that, I was an admissions counselor for my alma mater. I recruited high school students and worked on publications. I developed a series of pamphlets to showcase each major — not only the classes but possible internships, potential jobs post-graduation. Basically, the stuff I wanted to know: how to make my dreams come true. I didn’t want to give up this job, but I did anyway, for love, which is another story about the belief that love requires great sacrifices, which I now know is not always true.

Before that, I worked in the international student office at my alma mater. I kept wishing I were in admissions.

Before that, I took a few months off. I was drained and down. I worked freelance to pay the bills.

Before that, I worked at a big university recruiting students for admissions. I ran the tour guide program, wrote and edited publications, and worked for a man who micromanaged my time and only gave me one compliment I can remember. I was asked to work with another recruiter — a man I’d dated — on a couple of special projects. For a few days or weeks (that felt like months and years), he ignored me when he passed me in the office, even if I said hello. He was forced to talk when we sat down to hammer out the projects together, which we did surprisingly well. I missed all the good things about him but knew I shouldn’t. They moved my office to the one right next to his. We could hear each other’s muffled conversations with other people through the walls.

Before that, I did some freelance reporting. Before that, I taught English at a university in Mexico. The students thought I knew no Spanish at all, so they talked about me in class. It wasn’t until the third week that I let them in on my language skills. They looked down; they turned red. They waited until after class to talk about me. I learned I was only a good teacher to the good students, the ones who tried hard, who raised their hands and had the guts to answer even if it was wrong. Back then, I didn’t know how to motivate the ones who doodled and whispered in class, the ones who needed me the most.

Before that, I worked at a big insurance company, churning out computer templates for a “journalism” internship that in the end included no writing at all. I took a city bus to work, a bus full of strangers and fluorescent lights. My cubicle had half-walls covered with what looked like grey carpet. I only saw the daylight at lunch, and at the end of the day. My boss made me laugh, every time we had a meeting, and for that I am still grateful.

Before that I was in graduate school.

Before that I was in college.

Before that, all I wanted, all I ever hoped for, was to be a writer.

Shuly Cawood of Johnson City is a writer and the author of three books, including the memoir, “The Going and Goodbye,” and the forthcoming short story collection, “A Small Thing to Want.”

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