I write a lot.
You know this.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can really remember, though I do recall making the proclamation that I wanted to be a sports writer when I was in the fifth grade. By some miracle, that’s exactly what happened. In seventh grade, on the car ride to my family’s annual reunion in Myrtle Beach, a festival of sports and late nights watching thunderstorms on our deck, I jotted down handwritten notes for a book I would never write, but I did know I wanted to write a book one day. In high school, I got my first internship at a newspaper, a weekly called the Community Times, where I wrote about high school sports in Baltimore County. In college, I majored in journalism and wrote for more newspapers and websites than I care to count.
Immediately after college, I took jobs at The Washington Post and a weekly sister paper called The Gazette.
My life consisted of writing.
I would always get a little mad, when my friends would jokingly — maybe, I still don’t know — make off-hand comments that I didn’t have a real job. I watched games and wrote about them. I talked to athletes and then wrote about what they said. I was paid to do what other people routinely pay to do.
My life, to them, was a bit of a joke.
Sometimes I’d argue, get defensive. Other times I’d laugh right along with them. Maybe my life was a joke. When I lived in Baltimore City, my work days rarely began before 2 p.m., which was actually quite early compared to when I still lived in College Park, and I worked the 6 p.m.-2 a.m. shift at The Washington Post.
Maybe they were right. Maybe I really didn’t do anything important. Maybe this writing gig was the equivalent of a ring leader at a circus: I was there exclusively to entertain. Let the grown-ups do the real-world stuff. It didn’t help when my buddy’s girlfriend would return home from a 14-hour shift as a nurse at a hospital. Some days she’d come home and say she saved a life. Others, she had someone die on her table.
Her life was no joke. What she did meant something — life or death much of the time. It meant quite a lot.
It began to become something I quietly struggled with. I don’t believe my knack for writing is God-given. Anybody can be a good writer, should they try to become one. But I do believe my passion for it is uniquely gifted to me and a small percentage of others who willingly do it for a living. On my off days from writing for work, I write for fun. When I have nothing to write, I make something up and write fiction. When I struggle writing fiction, I write in my journal about struggling to write.
I just write.
So why, I wondered, and wondered often, did God give me this insatiable passion for something with which I could make no impact?
I wondered that and wrestled with it in every phase of my life. I questioned it at The Post, probed at it when I moved to Florida and wrote high school sports for the Northwest Florida Daily News. I debated quitting it then, considering joining the Marines. They do real things. They make a difference. I even met with recruiters but never really took myself seriously. I knew I was meant to write; I just didn’t know why. So I stuck with the job which, I do need to note, I loved very much.
I almost quit writing again in California, so unfulfilled was I writing crap stories by the dozen on Pac-12 football and basketball.
For six years, I wondered why I loved this craft so much. Surely there had to be something more I was capable of, lives I could legitimately impact.
In a single day, sitting on the floor above a garage in Virginia Beach, I found my answer.
This year was not the best year of my life. But it was the most important. Your 20s are an interesting epoch, that period of time when your friend group shrinks, you live off your own paychecks — or credit not covered by those paychecks — the roles in your family sometimes become reversed, where the young are now caring for the old, and, secretly — you’ll never tell anyone this — you have no idea what you’re doing.
At some point along the lines, if you’re lucky, you’ll figure that out.
June 15, at 8:26 a.m., was when that happened for me.
It came three days after Avery Drost met me on the beach at 16th street in Hermosa Beach. Told me to find him after practice, that he needed to tell me something. An hour later, I found out that the something he was referring to was Eric Zaun’s suicide.
The next three days were a mix of emotions and sensations I had never felt, though the one I recall feeling the heaviest was an overwhelming listlessness. I played a tournament the next day, and in the semifinals, down 11-10 at the technical timeout, I stood in serve receive, and I could not bring myself to care.
Everything felt quite pointless.
What was the point in passing this volleyball?
What was the point in trying to side out?
What was the point in winning this match?
On match point, I essentially hit a serve out on purpose, walked off the court, and sat by the ocean, staring at an incredible blue-green swath of nothing. Myles Muagututia, bless his heart, told me we could call it a day. No need to play the next match. Go home. Work your stuff out.
I wouldn’t work it out until a red-eye flight from LAX to Atlanta two days later.
I usually sleep well on red-eyes. Typically, I’m so short on sleep that when I lay down or sit anywhere — plane, couch, garage, pool chair, whatever — I’ll knock out in seconds and not wake up until hours later. That was not the case on this red-eye.
My mind was too busy. Turning over every memory I had with Eric, trying to find any sort of sign, of indicator, anything I had missed. I read our text thread. Read them again. Listened to a few hilarious voicemails I still have saved. It helped my mind turn over to the good memories, of which there are countless.
As the engines of my mind powered on, I did what I have always done: I began to write.
When the plane touched down, I had written one of the longest pieces of my life, more than 2,000 sleep-deprived words. It was, at the time, the most therapeutic thing I had ever done for myself. Alas, with my mind emptied into words, it could relax. I published it, hopped on another flight, from Atlanta to Virginia Beach, and spent the next several hours with Brandon Joyner.
He dropped me off at the house we were crashing at so I could catch a nap while he caught up with some buddies he grew up with.
What I found, upon waking up, when I checked Instagram was, and excuse me if this sounds hyperbolic, was genuinely lifechanging.
In my notifications and direct messages were hundreds of people reaching out. Some expressed their condolences. Others offered prayers. But the one I held onto the most came from Cara Spieler, the older sister of Katie Spieler, who has since become one of my closest friends. I don’t really want to share the first 90 percent of that message, but the last sentence read “Thank you so much for sharing and helping us and many others find beauty and healing.”
Over the next few days and weeks, dozens of people sent similar messages. My writing, they said, helped start the healing process for them. It made them laugh, made them cry, made them remember the kid we all loved more than we could reasonably explain.
My words helped heal.
My words made a difference.
My words had a purpose.
Knowing that my words have a power not just to entertain ephemerally, but to heal, to make an impact, has changed the lens through which I now view my life, and the gift I’ve been given in it.
Before writing a story, I wonder how it could make the best impact. Sometimes it’s to make people laugh, because laughter, as the adage goes, is medicine, and I do find that to be true. Sometimes it’s to help shine a little light on lives well-lived, lives that might not get the spotlight they rightfully deserve — lives whose stories can and will inspire others.
Sometimes — most of the time, actually — it’s to help someone tell their story, a story they want told but don’t really know where to start or how to go about it, which is where I come in. And it’s messages like the one from Torrey Van Winden — God bless that incredible Van Winden-Spieler-Ma’a family — after I wrote about her long and devastating line of concussions, that I cherish now.
“Your writing,” she wrote, “has me in tears. I can’t thank you enough for sharing my story. I’m beyond grateful for you to use your talents with words to help me encapsulate the last year.”
I screenshot and save every one of those messages, little reminders whenever I might question the point of an assignment.
Beyond my writing, I began to look at events in life with an almost desperate optimism to fish the good out of it.
Good, as I’ve discovered this year, can come from anything. Sometimes you just have to look for it. Sometimes you have to make it yourself.
It was not a good thing that happened this June, but small ripple effects, little miracles, are coming of it. What I found was a beach volleyball community that rallied together, and a scholarship fund founded in Zaun’s name ballooned from an initial $2,000 to nearly $7,000 in its first year. Five players were awarded scholarships that helped them road dog their way to tournaments and ease the financial burden.
“ARE YOU SERIOUS!!!” Aurora Davis wrote me after I told her that she was the latest recipient of the scholarship, an extra $1,000 to get her to an expensive NORCECA in Bonaire, which she’d go on to win. “That is so cool, Josh and I have been praying for a miracle all week.”
Volleyball is important, yes. But this year was a wake-up call. There are bigger things than wins and losses.
Nobody has ever likened a win to a miracle.
The beach volleyball community, in collaborating to fund that scholarship, was that miracle.
I will never forget Cara Spieler’s message, and the knowledge that I had helped someone with a skill I once thought was fun but, in the grand scheme of things, a bit useless.
I will never forget sitting on the floor of that room in Virginia Beach, smiling for the first time in days, as those messages poured in. Each one let a little more light shine through in the spot that I was broken, helping me to, alas, find myself.
And then I wrote about it.