It was my first day on the new job. I was stuck in a minibus in Sunnyside, Pretoria. The bus was leading a crowd of people in a march, so naturally it was moving at a snail’s pace. However, my fingers were typing away at lightning speed.
I was racing against a mobile device that was losing power by the minute, and an internet connection that kept breaking at random. All the while I was thinking: “What did I get myself into?”
I was not supposed to be on that bus. The other journalists had left an hour earlier. They got all their pictures and quotes and promptly headed back to their respective newsrooms to file their stories. But I chose to hang around to get the video footage I needed.
Waiting a few minutes longer meant that I would have to find my way back to the starting line, by foot. Being in unfamiliar territory, I was not confident that I would navigate back safely. I decided to complete the march, all 15km of it.
But it was after the second uphill when I told myself: “You’re a journalist. You’re not supposed to be marching. Your editor is waiting for the story. You can’t tell her you didn’t file it because you were marching.” Survival mode kicked in, I hitched a ride on the minibus and I filed the crap out of that story, frankly speaking.
In the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been turning water into wine. Seriously, I have been doing impossible things or rather what I figured was impossible until I tried it. Working in a digital newsroom requires you to work at a faster pace than in print. I’ve gone from writing two stories a week, to four in one day. It reminds me a lot about my time at Wits Vuvuzela.
The Wits Vuvuzela newsroom taught me everything I know about journalism. It was characterized by its controlled chaos. I was constantly exhausted but I kept living off boosts from the adrenaline rush that came whenever I was on a story. I am in that space again.
I like to think that I make safe decisions when it comes to my personal life.
Someone asked me once if I have an addictive personality. I was not sure at the time. But after I covered a wage protest it became clear to me why I loved the job. It’s the adrenaline. I like to think that I make safe decisions when it comes to my personal life. But when it comes to my job, I am fearless. I take risks, all the time, without hesitation.
Once I was heading to a story, in the Johannesburg CBD, at night. I took an Uber, but on the way I wondered what my parents would say if they heard what I was doing. “Be safe,” I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. And then I heard: “You have to do the story. What are you going to tell the editor if you don’t do it?”
And that’s what happens in my head most days. One voice signals caution and the other eggs me on to push the boundaries. The only reason I do take the leap is because I know there’s a figurative safety net to fall back on. “It’s my job. I have to do it,” I coax myself.
And the adrenaline, it’s almost incapacitating. “Almost” because if it was entirely debilitating, I wouldn’t be able to report the stories.
Find the words
Reflecting on my job, I feel like Jack Kerouac. Except for the drugs and promiscuity. But equally burnt out. Like him, I am doing what I love. But I wonder, whenever he created a piece, was it painful, or did it give him joy? Did it come from a place of hidden melancholy? Or was he perfectly fine, and he just happened to write these great pieces in passing?
I write constantly. There is not a day that I don’t. If I don’t write then it means I didn’t work. I’ve been writing so much for work purposes that I have not had the time to do so creatively. I used to write from a place of pain. Now it just comes from a place of skill. I don’t know if it’s natural. And I cannot measure whether it was better as a hobby, than as a job.
I used to write to unwind and reflect on life. After a day’s work the last thing I want to do is write. So I have been challenging myself to find a new hobby. But writing always wins.
I come back to it, even when I don’t want to. There is a release of some chemical in my brain, perhaps dopamine, whenever I write. Whether I’m reporting at a protest, or sitting in my lounge at home, typing at leisure, I feel that rush. I feel that pleasure. I am addicted.
I still feel there’s so much to learn about writing. So much I have to master. I still haven’t found my voice as a writer. That thing that marks that a piece was written by me. I think part of finding your voice, is understanding the space in which you are most creative. For me that space has evolved from sadness to thrill. And I am concerned about whether my pieces are still good, if the place from where they are coming is happy?
One of my writing mentors at varsity once explained spontaneous writing. He went on to add: “But you have to use punctuation. You’re not Jack Kerouac.”
So I think it is just fitting to end with words by Jack Kerouac in his book, The Dharma Bums: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”