Northern cardinal

Northern cardinal in Wichita, Kansas

We’re all reinventing ourselves in this suddenly sideways world. So here’s my reinvention story, and the theme that goes with it:

Do it for love.

The micro of what I did in the last 18 months was teach myself photography. The macro was falling in love with a passion again.

I’d been missing a passion for a craft long before I got laid off from my newspaper reporting job in 2017.

Writers, like all craftsmen, must make enough money to allow them to write. But few, if any of us, started writing as a way to make money. We did it for love, did it because we fell hard for books and oral storytelling and scribbling. We got addicted to the rush of creating something from nothing, starting only with an abstract idea. We did it because we found magic.

The passion I felt for words was an obsession for almost 50 years. It pulled me happily through the thickets that all true-believer, wanna-be reporters stumble through as we learn parts of speech, how to research and fact check, and how to occasionally outmaneuver editors. (I’m looking at you, Tom Shine.)

Mourning the loss of a lifelong passion

The last couple of years before my layoff were filled what I thought was misery but is more accurately described as the absence of passion. I still did a few intriguing stories in those years. But because “readers’ reading habits have changed,” we all did a lot less good stuff and a lot more two-graf items from press releases. In my last few cop shifts, I was sent out on non-injury accidents to shoot the busted-up cars with my iPhone … because those “stories” got clicks.

Roy Wenzl with his camera

Roy Wenzl with his camera in a photo taken by his 6-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, using Wenzl's iPhone

I moped around after the layoff, and day-dreamed about pissing on the lawns of those who laid me off. I lifted weights and rode my bicycle — always taking my iPhone, which I used to take pictures of birds, flowers, and bugs inside flower blossoms.

I had spent decades working with great news photographers like Travis Heying and Fernando Salazar, but hadn’t touched a real camera during my newspaper career — unless Travis handed me his spare and told me to hold it for him on a shoot. He made me hold his light umbrella, too, the cheeky bastard.

A year-and-a-half after my layoff, my wife Polly, having watched me spend hour after hour editing my iPhone insect-flower photos, got me a Canon Rebel T6 for Christmas. Then I acquired a couple of lenses — real glass.

At first, I feared the camera because I’m a twit with technology. The simplest tools prompt me to blast the household with f-bombs. Sure enough: On one of my first shoots, after I’d had the camera for a week, it stopped working. F-bomb!

Polly looked at the back screen and said the battery had run out of juice. And I said: “What — this thing has a !$#% BATTERY?” That’s how clueless I was.

What happened next can be applied by any of you to any obsession. It doesn’t have to be photography:

I quickly got better because the camera made me fall in love again.

I’d loved working with photographers all my career — that tribe of clever and oddly dressed eccentrics, always solving their problems and mine, always knowing where to find the best food and coffee on the road, and always noticing everything around them like artists do. (Most news reporters are, by contrast, a dull lot about noticing. They rely too much on the quick Q&A.) On stories, for years, I would nudge Travis to help me interview the people in our stories because he noticed things in the room and things people said that I had missed. Photogs are the best noticers in the world.

Now, robbed of my long-time life with words, I coveted that cleverness.

Learning to see stories anew

Learning to see stories through my camera made me feel artistic again, like I did when I was 5 and discovered the magic of written words. I shot thousands of bad photos — probably tens of thousands — nearly all of them in bad light or out of focus, or static and lifeless. But I was obsessed again. I wanted to sleep with my T6 the way Keith Richards slept with his first guitar.

The hardest part was learning how to balance the camera settings. At first it felt like learning the violin while standing on a tree branch while pulling up saggy pants. Travis showed me light settings, and showed me again and again.

Great Horned Owl

Great horned owl in Tucson, Arizona

But one day there was this Mama Owl — a great horned — raising baby owls in tree branches looming over me.

Mama and her brood stared at me with their owl eyes in light that changed from moment to moment as the leaves waved back and forth. Sometimes they stared at me from shade, a moment later they were in full sunlight, a moment later in light and shade. Clouds moved in, clouds move out. But I kept shooting through the changing light, and in morning and late afternoon light.

I shot thousands of bad owl photos that week and a few decent ones. In the process, I finally started absorbing which camera settings worked best with shade, with light, and with shade-light. I dropped hundreds of f-bombs along the way; learning to balance settings was like learning ancient Greek when you HATE learning ancient Greek but desperately want to read Homer’s Odyssey in the original.

I wanted Homer in the original.

By week’s end I was hopping up and down under that tree and hollering like a happy chimpanzee. I SEE you, Mama Owl. And now I’ve GOT you!

I’m still only a so-so photog at this stage. But I learned how to shoot RAW (serious photogs know what that is) and how to use Lightroom, and that stuff is a !$#% to learn. I’m getting better every day.

And I’m in love again with creation.

A new creative passion sparks the return of an old one

There was a bonus. My new obsession led to an old one — it reminded me how I first fell in love with writing, how I felt so alive when I did it. It tapped into the part of my brain that first lit up with “The Last of the Mohicans” and carried me on a lifetime of magic carpet rides with words. I’m now writing again.

I’ve written 25,000 words of a book that may never see the light of day. I’m unemployed, 65, and have several vulnerabilities that put me in the cross-hairs of COVID-19. But I can’t remember a stretch of time when I’ve felt as happy and as useful and as alive as I feel now.

Good for me. And now for my humble caveat:

I’m luckier that many. I can shoot photos and write because I have a Social Security check and a wife with a job. So who am I to talk to those who are watching jobs and savings and safety nets disappear?

Yes, income is priority number one. And yes, sometimes the drudge job is the only one you can get, and it wears you out so that you have nothing left to give (at first) to some discretionary creative pursuit.

Yes to all of that.

But I would argue, as real as fear and exhaustion is these days, that you are worth the effort it takes to try for more, to find your love, to lose yourself in the magic of something.

Roy Wenzl was a reporter for the Wichita Eagle for 21 years. He was the primary author of the 2007 book “Bind, Torture, Kill; The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door,” and of the 2013 book “The Miracle of Father Kapaun.” In 1981, Wenzl was on the team at the Kansas City Star and Times that won a 1982 Pulitzer prize for coverage of the Hyatt Hotel skywalks collapse.

Most popular articles from Nieman Foundation

Show comments / Leave a comment