Last week, I got a call from a producer at Life + Times aka Jay-Z’s website. It was an invite to sit on a panel with two industry vets—Datwon Thomas and Shaheem Reid. (If you don’t know who they are, Google, especially if you’re an aspiring writer.) I would have said “yes!” no matter who was on the panel, but this invite meant a little something extra. Let me explain. I started my writing career as a Vibe intern back in 2000. Just before my arrival, Shaheem Reid, a legend of sorts among Vibe interns, had made a recent departure. He was a former intern who was hired to work for the magazine, and three months (!) after landing his first full-time writing gig, he was promoted to the prestigious position of Vibe’s music editor—a very big deal, especially back then. He also was the youngest Vibe editor ever, a record he may still hold to this day (13 years later.)
Shaheem did Vibe for awhile, then went to MTV—ie. mainstream— where he churned out story after story and became a writer-hyphenate-brand before everyone and their mother (like now) even thought of it. And this (the short version) was before social media, which makes it 100x as impressive.
My “obsession” with Datwon Thomas, who I recently learned also started his writing career as a Vibe intern, was slightly different. When we crossed paths, I was a freelance writer who had been hired to host a roundtable of upcoming rap artists to get them to talk about R&B for XXL’s (short-lived) spin-off Hip Hop Soul. I showed up on the set as the only woman in the room* and nervous about getting a group of hardcore guys to reveal their softer side. It was a difficult task made even moreso because Datwon (and Bonsu Thompson, then a XXL editor, who actually hired me for the project) were both present and watching over the discussion. I was still a hip-hop head then and I didn’t just want to work for Datwon (and Bonsu) full-time, my career goal then was to be either one of them.
So the invite was a very full-circle moment, and of course, I jumped at the opportunity. Even if after 13 years as a writer—a vet in my own right—and becoming an author, it was still a privilege to be invited to hold my own with guys who had such an influence on my career. I’m not a newbie anymore. Today, I felt like one anyway.
But that’s not the point of this. The point is actually a discussion I had with the producer after I accepted her invitation. She gave me a rundown of how the discussion—not a panel—would go and a list of things we would discuss. The overarching question we were charged to answer was, “What does it take to be successful as a entertainment journalist?”
My uncensored answer: “Uh, don’t sleep, sacrifice your entire life, including people that are important to you. Miss their birthday celebrations and your own, your own anniversaries if you can make it that long in a relationship, alienate your family and friends, lose out on your first real love, work like a slave long past your competitors with sense have said “eff it!” and dropped out, nurse your stress with alcohol or your ‘upper’ drug of choice so you can sleep/ stay awake respectively, and maybe, finally, if you’ve avoided burning out or an addiction and luck and karma and God are somehow still on your side, you’ll get to be one of the people you admired when you were young.”
She, at the top of her game, laughed with me. It was an awkward laugh, the type you make to keep from crying or going crazy or thinking too hard about the uncomfortable truth of that statement. “That’s about right,” she said, “But say that and the webcast is officially over.”
So I held my tongue when we were taping. When the question, “how do I get to where you are?” inevitably came up, Shaheem joked about the loves he lost—“and they were fine too”, he said—as he chased his dream. Datwon talked about the interns he had watched pass on offers from friends to go have fun, however it’s defined, as they toiled away working. He talked about how he admired their dedication and it showed something exemplary in them. The implication was “it’s all worth it in the end.”
I skipped on telling my truth because… well, because if someone had told me what it really takes and I had the presence of mind to believe them, I wouldn’t be sitting on the panel, being featured as some sort of writer ideal. And not saying that truth is bugging me.
I wanted to encourage young writers, or anyone aspiring to be anything—which hopefully happened— but I feel I’ve done a disservice by not saying all that I said to the producer, and I should have added this:
Be mindful of what and whom you’re giving up as you climb that ladder, one that seems to grow taller which each rung you conquer. From the outside looking in, it can seem as the people you think you want to be are living “the life”, whatever that means to you. If you have the endurance (talent counts, but actually comes second), eventually you will have admirers and people who will say, “I want to be you”, which is very flattering.
But somedays, you won’t really know who you are anymore. You will do unforgivable things and good people with sense will bail on you as they should because they know they deserve more. There will great moments where you can’t believe the life you’re living is really your life. But there will also be moments when you look in the mirror and don’t know you who you have become or even like that person. You will hear a nagging voice (I call it “God”) telling you that you’re straying too far, and you will have to ignore it against your better judgment to get the job done, then pray later that you didn’t just damn yourself by doing so.
Unbridled ambition, an approach which means taking “by any means necessary”—ironically, the slogan on today’s off-camera t-shirt—is oft-admired, a sign of sorts that you have what it takes to achieve. But are you really ready to pay that cost?
The “supposed” answer is yes. But folks need to know too that there’s no shame in saying, “the price is too high”, bailing for tamer waters and working a 9 to 5 that doesn’t define your life or you. It might not be your original intent, but there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind and cashing out while you’re still ahead.
Be determined. Fight for what you want. But please set limits for how far you are willing to go and how much you are willing to sacrifice. To thine own self be true. Doing that by any means necessary is the sign of a true success story.
*Bonsu insists that I was not the only woman in the room as I Erica Z. also got a byline for that article.