What always kept me going were the calls from women readers. Often, I could tell they were hoping I wouldn’t pick up—they would call after hours and were so nervous about giving me their opinion that they had written it out and were reading it. I would hear that and I would say to myself, “You know what, I really am that woman who’s figured out that I’m entitled to give my opinion, and I am lucky to feel this way.”

Always a journalist

I left the Plain Dealer in large part because Sherrod was going to be back in cycle. I’m a woman with a lot of opinions and a significant percentage of my readers never questioned that my opinions belonged to me and don’t have to do with my husband. But in the newsroom, that was going to become an issue again, and I’ve just reached the point where I don’t want to waste my energy. And I can be nationally syndicated and still write out of Cleveland. Everyone should have these great problems, where you get a national forum but are still having to duke it out over whether some people in the industry think you should do this because of who you’re married to.

The biggest shift for me is working on the novel. For five years, my editor has been encouraging me to write fiction. She said that the working class is really underrepresented in modern literature and that I could do something about it. At the time, I didn’t have an idea and I didn’t have this strong sense that I could do it. What really pushed me to consider doing it was feeling increasingly constricted as a journalist in trying to tell these stories in my columns. My mom always told her daughters, all three of us, “Don’t marry him until you see how he treats the waitress.” I remember when she told me that—it was one of those rare moments, like a holiday thing, and Mom would take just me, the oldest, out to lunch and somebody was berating the waitress. Well, I have a mother character in the novel. You can make it play out in a way that people see the origins of that advice and they live the consequences of that advice, in a way that writing one column about it can’t.

When you’re writing about the working class, of course you don’t want to say, “Now I’m going to tell you about the working class.” The point is that working-class lives are similar to white-collar lives, except they don’t have money to fix things—they don’t have the resources or the connections or the education to make life’s major problems go away, which is what I’ll be dealing with in the book. There’s a lot of tragedy in working-class lives, and certainly my family was no exception. There’s something really energizing and humbling in realizing I can call on my own roots to tell this story. Some of the secrets in this book are pretty common secrets for a lot of families. It’s fiction, but it’s all true.

I want to remind reporters that nobody knows their community like they do. What I worry about with the cutbacks is that what it’s really cutting back is the confidence of the reporters. But that’s something reporters can be in control of: You decided to be a journalist for a reason, and that reason still exists. You want to tell the stories of people that otherwise nobody would ever know about. You could change lives if you write about them. And you’re also letting everyone else know that we have more in common than we want to think.

We’re getting so beaten up in our profession, but that’s not who we are. Ambition is contagious and good journalism begets good journalism. There’s that quote from Lucille Clifton, which I still have taped to my computer: “What they call you is one thing, what you answer to is something else.” They can call me a senator’s wife until their hair falls out. I’m a journalist. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. 

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic.