Becoming a storyteller

“What do you enjoy doing?” she asked.

The question threw me off. I called my church mentor and ran her through a string of existential life questions, mainly revolving around what I should study in college. By this point in my academic career, I had formally changed majors five times—I didn’t know you could just take a class to see if you liked it, and besides, I’ve always been the all-or-nothing type.

What began as a college freshman eager to learn Spanish and take her bilingual skills to the mission field had progressed to a young woman dazed with a previously suppressed memory of childhood molestation. At the age of 19 I had gone into a tailspin internally, though no one would ever really know it. My life was spent meeting expectations of everyone around me, which meant very few people were inspired to check in on me. The gal down the hall doing drugs and sneaking up pimps to her bedroom at a Christian university? She was the one you should worry about, obviously.

Time was running out as I neared the middle of sophomore year at a pricey private university. Pick a major or risk paying back student loans for a degree you never finished. A near-failed Spanish class led to declaring sociology (for one semester) then social work and then history as her majors de jour. I reminded myself daily that this was on me to figure out.

But that day on the phone, my future was in the hands of a good friend who was talking as I ran across campus to my next undergraduate class and she briskly made her way to another round of torture known as First-Year Medical Student.

The question nagged at me for a long time it seemed, but really I had about six weeks to find a new major and stick with it no matter what. While I can appreciate her open-handed approach to mentoring friendship now, back then what I really wanted was what I had been accustomed to: some passive-aggressive directives that would help me secure her approval (and the world at large) without having to get uncomfortable or seem unstable.

What do any of us enjoy, really? Who has the luxury of spending their days doing something enjoyable when the world is crumbling, I thought?

I disliked the spotlight I had to shine on my own life in choosing a major. It wasn’t pretty to look at directly, so I hopped from temporary balm to temporary balm, which wasn’t easy to find at this point in life.  Finally, I thought of a word.

Writing.

I did a lot of that growing up. And I always made A’s, so maybe it wouldn’t be a difficult thing to major in either. An English degree seemed too stringent with its verbs, adjectives and pronouns. God was welcome to strike me dead if I ever voluntarily agreed to diagram a sentence. (A useful, but merciless practice I intend to drag my children through one day for their own benefit.) Where could I write without having to deal with all the complicated labels for words?

It came down to a few things in the course catalog one day. First, find a degree that didn’t require me to know much more than high school algebra (less, preferably) and had the least amount of science requirements. Two maths and four sciences led me to narrow down to Amanda Bray, earner of a bachelor’s of art. With English off the table, I zeroed in on communications and media.

Journalism showed up.

Writing.

Yes, I like writing and talking to people most of the time. This will be great. I can solve this existential life crisis and move on to the next.

There was an interview at some point in the process of becoming a Spanish-sociology-social-work-history-turned-journalism convert. All good departments interview you, I learned, to make sure you were up-to-snuff for the rigors of their academics.

Maybe it was in a class or before I formally declared journalism, but someone asked me, “Why do you want to get a degree in journalism?”

Without blinking or thinking or analyzing, my mouth started moving and I said, “Because I love writing and I love people. I don’t care much if I’m ever published or acclaimed. If the person in front of me feels better because I listened, that’ll be good enough.”

For as lost as I’ve felt for my most of my life, there are a few things that have remained remarkably consistent. It turns out, I am much more found than I am lost, but that’s for a different story. In journalism I was in a mix of misfits who mostly sort of cared about reporting and writing, but who mostly had lives that journalism worked well inside. There were one or two eager rising stars in the group.

I was in the middle—eager to keep up, to learn, but to also stay out of the spotlight. At the time, I was also in the throes of a spiritual crisis as my college church was engaging in some unsavory practices. While on the verge of stepping down from church leadership and departing from faith altogether, the great irony of my young 20s emerged: I found more integrity in journalism than the faith of my childhood. 

When I finished editing this particular blog, I knew with rudimentary watercolor skills (my first set of watercolor paper and brushes arrived two weeks ago), that drawing a picture of a college sophomore frantically pacing around campus was outside my skillset. Instead, I painted this: what I see right now in front of me. A gray and white rug, a table with books and a box underneath it and a mason jar with peachy orange roses. All good company for Sunday afternoon, if you ask me.

When I finished editing this particular blog, I knew with rudimentary watercolor skills (my first set of watercolor paper and brushes arrived two weeks ago), that drawing a picture of a college sophomore frantically pacing around campus was outside my skillset. Instead, I painted this: what I see right now in front of me. A gray and white rug, a table with books and a box underneath it and a mason jar with peachy orange roses. All good company for Sunday afternoon, if you ask me.