Writers often talk about the moment they realised they wanted to be a writer.
For me, there was no such defining moment – or at least not one I can remember. The desire to write was always there.
However, I remember a different moment – the moment I realised I could be a writer. That I could receive money in exchange for my words. That being a writer by profession wasn’t a pipedream, but a real possibility.
I was 14 years old. I had bright pink braces, bleached-blonde hair, a bad fringe, and just the right balance of enthusiasm and naivety.
Let me take you for a walk down memory lane…
I was a studious teenager. I was earnest in the pursuit of my goals and I took people’s advice very seriously. I must have been quite entertaining to watch! I was also very enthusiastic about the things I liked, and in 2005 I took a liking to The Edge radio station.
I loved listening to The Edge Morning Madhouse when I was getting ready for school. One day, I heard an advertisement for a competition called ‘Being Judy Bailey’. For those of you who don’t know, Judy Bailey was a famous 6pm news anchor at the time. It had just been uncovered that she was on a $800k salary – roughly $3,000k per working day.
The Edge decided to pay someone $3,000 to read the news live on air one morning. As soon as I heard about this competition, I didn’t think “wow, I want $3,000!” Instead, I thought “Wow, this is the perfect opportunity to start my journalism career!” (Told you I was studious).
At the time, everyone was encouraging me to become a journalist because I loved writing so much. Somehow, I got it in my mind that I needed to become a television journalist (even though the thought fills me with terror today), and I saw this radio competition as a chance to prove my worth. (Honestly, where did I get these ideas from?)
To this day, I really don’t know why I took such an intense interest in this competition. But from the moment I heard it, I was determined to win.
So determined, that when I called and entered for the first time and was rejected, I barely blinked. It’s all right, I thought. I’ll enter again. And enter again I did. The people at the station must have thought I was such a geek!
Second time round, my entry was successful. I was in the running alongside a few other people.
The decision was out of my hands, but I felt a deep sense of certainty that I would win.
On the morning of the announcement, my mum, sister, and I gathered around the kitchen radio. I was clutching the home phone. The DJs kept putting the announcement off – “just after the next ad break”. I was almost sick with anticipation.
Finally, they called the winner live on air. There was a heartbreaking silence in our kitchen, and I felt a wave of disappointment.
Then the phone started to ring.
At that moment, I believed in something – fate, magic, the universe, God, manifesting your own destiny. That there was something bigger than me pulling the strings.
Sure enough, it was Jay-Jay, Mike, and Dom calling to tell me I’d won $3,000 – I just had to come in and read the news live on air to receive my cheque.
I screamed and cried and ran around the house like a madwoman. The Edge played my reaction for days. At least I wasn’t one of those “cool, calm, collected” winners!
The night before I was due to read the news, I barely slept a wink. My mum and I arrived at The Edge studio in Ponsonby at around 5am. I was wearing a bright pink top, formal skirt, and pink kitten heels (oh, what a fashion crime – my outfit even matched my braces).
Jay-Jay, Mike, and Dom welcomed us into the studio and we got a sneak peek into their show preparation. I was handed over to Toni Marsh, the newsreader, who would be helping me on my big day. I learned how to push the right buttons and line-up audio clips for playback. I was terrified!!
The rest of the morning is a blur (apart from the moment I said conversation instead of conservation – that moment I remember vividly!). I was so nervous at every news break.
In between readings, I got to sit in the studio and watch the show in action. I was soaking up every precious moment.
As the show wrapped up, my mum and I were “interviewed” by the team. I remember suddenly feeling extremely shy. Of course, they asked what I would spend the money on.
“A laptop so I can pursue my writing career,” I said, without hesitation. It had never occurred to me to spend the money on anything else.
Jay-Jay, Mike, and Dom were all kind, funny, and generous with their time. If I was a fan of the show before that experience, I was a superfan afterwards!
When I went home that day, it felt like the beginning of something. The sense of possibility was intoxicating.
A few weeks later, I saw that Jay-Jay was advertising for writers for her website, radiochick.co.nz. Of course, I jumped at the chance to apply.
I sent in my first story, advocating for gay marriage (the civil union bill was in the news at the time), and Jay-Jay immediately took me under her wing. She paid me an hourly rate, invited me to work from her Grey Lynn office during school holidays, and – the best part – printed a set of business cards printed that read: Jess O’Connor – Staff Writer.
Words can’t describe how grateful I am for Jay-Jay’s generosity. She might not realise it, but she (and the entire Radiochick team) invited so much magic into my life. She never made me feel young or inexperienced; in fact, she never treated me any differently to how she treated anyone else.
So, that’s the moment I discovered that I could be a writer. Jay-Jay was the first person outside my family to support my writing. At that age, external validation meant the world.
After a year or so of working for Radiochick – which included interviewing celebrities, attending awards evenings, and spending hours hanging out at The Edge’s studios – I had my heart broken for the first time.
For several reasons that I won't go into here, Jay-Jay decided to shut down the website. I bawled my eyes out at home in the kitchen – the same kitchen where I cried tears of joy when I won the competition – and felt my heart break for the end of an era.
But, a new era was just beginning. I continued writing for several other websites, such as nzgirl.co.nz and kimberleycrossman.com. I grew up, graduated high school, went to university, spent six months in France, won a short story competition, fell in love, got my first full-time writing job, moved to London, moved back to New Zealand, bought a house, and eventually ended up here: launching my own business. Jay-Jay and I fell out of touch, but I still love listening to her on the radio.
I wanted to share this story because whenever I tell people I have 10+ years of professional writing experience, I immediately feel self-conscious about my age. I’m 25. It doesn’t take long for people to do the math. Now you know how I got off to such an early start.
Thank you Jay-Jay – you taught me how to believe in myself and how to believe in other people. Age is just a number. You’re never too young or too old to chase your dreams.