I did not come readily to my life's work.
As a student at Fleming County High School in Eastern Kentucky, I thought, being a bookworm good at grammar, about becoming a high school English teacher. That was, after all, where the models were.
As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, I seduced myself into imagining that I could become a writer of fiction. It turned out by my senior year, despite strenuous efforts, that imagination was lacking.
So, when Syracuse University, which had turned me down for the master's degree program in writing, offered a fellowship in the academic program, I accepted immediately and came to aspire to being a professor of English specializing in eighteenth-century British literature.
This despite the experience of my first semester, when I enrolled in a graduate seminar and wrote a paper on Jonathan Swift. It was not good. The professor favored me with four single-spaced pages of devastatingly sarcastic commentary on the paper's limitations and mine. A fellow student gasped that he had never seen anything like it. (That professor, denied tenure the same year, left the profession.)
That experience left me gun-shy about writing academic papers. In fact, over six years in graduate school, there was only a single paper that I enjoyed writing and that a professor said could be made publishable.
I left Syracuse in 1979, still thinking of finishing a dissertation on the joined themes of friendship and decay in the works of the Earl of Rochester and Jonathan Swift, which the world will now have to do without, and the world is not sad.
Landing in Cincinnati, where my first wife had gotten a job, I spent five months applying for any opening that seemed even remotely possible, including one on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, which offered a three-week trial, partly on the strength of my credentials as a minority hire. (Another story.)
There I found myself at last in my element, with smart and irreverent colleagues doing useful work, always against deadline and often in the face of the scorn of people, as I have described elsewhere, whose lapses in elementary English grammar and usage I cleaned up every working day. Recently on one of those online describe-your-job-obscurely posts, I wrote, "making people look more literate than they are."
In time, I made my way to The Baltimore Sun, where I learned how to manage people from Andy Faith, and where two editors, John S. Carroll and Bill Marimow, allowed me to hire, train, and mentor the smartest people I could find for the copy desk. It was a grand time with grand colleagues, a long and full career.
Some people go through their lives never discovering the work they were meant to do. It is largely luck, and I was among the lucky ones.