I WAS A twentysomething divorcée sitting behind a flesh-toned cubicle wall at Vanity Fair magazine. This was a desk that many coveted, but not me. Don’t get me wrong—the magazine was a terrific place to work. Its sleek blocks of frosted-glass offices were lined with smart, caustically funny people editing some of the most vibrant voices on earth at the turn of the 21st century.
But I was blindly impatient and headstrong. I loathed sitting still. I couldn’t figure out how I was being paid (barely) to keep my butt in an office chair even though I had so little to do. I wasn’t even allowed to answer my boss’s phone, since he and his friends played elaborate prank-call jokes on one another. So I whiled away afternoons reading great stories. Without realizing it, I was learning that curious people could support themselves by traveling and writing about the world’s problems. One day I was sent to the offices of Human Rights Watch to fetch photographs of possible war crimes that Sebastian Junger had shipped back from Sierra Leone. As I waited for the photographs, someone pulled me aside and told me the story of honor crimes: women who are killed by their families for rumors of sexual dishonor in Jordan and on the West Bank.
This was a story that demanded reporting, I thought, and I decided to go to the Middle East and do it myself. This was ambitious, yes, but I had nothing to lose and I knew it. I had few expenses, and I was responsible to no one. (I was living in my parents’ guest bedroom following my divorce.) There was no chance in hell that Vanity Fair would send me, so I pitched the story to The New Republic. If I could do it, the editor said, the magazine would publish it. After just nine months at Vanity Fair, I’d left my desk behind for good to pursue a life as a writer. About a year after publishing that first story, on an achingly bright September morning in 2001, I was walking through Central Park with my sister when emergency vehicles began to race past us. I called up The Sunday Times of London and offered them my services as a stringer in New York. After filing a few dispatches for them, I scrambled and found a women’s magazine that wanted a story on refugee camps on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At the time, the United Nations was sending journalists to Pakistan. In addition to helping secure visas fast, the UN would arrange for a flight if the journalist had an assignment.
I landed in Islamabad wearing sneakers white with the dust of 9/11 and rushed into the refugee camps from which the Taliban had sprung. For the next three years, I worked for whoever would pay me. I left Pakistan for Medellín, Colombia, to report on child assassins. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I reported on pygmies who claimed that rebels had killed and eaten their family members. I returned to Pakistan several times to report from the tribal area of Waziristan. And each time, I returned home to the same set of pink twin beds in my parents’ apartment.
I finally moved out, but I’ve kept going for the past decade, working primarily on issues of religion and justice in Africa and Asia. My story isn’t uncommon. There’s a whole itinerant pack of us who came of age in the shadow of the falling towers. As I’ve grown older, I’ve mellowed with the realization that the good things—jobs, skills, careers, love—take time. Talent is the least of it. But the attributes I learned during that unsettled period continue to serve me: curiosity, empathy, and a desire to return to desperate places. As a wise friend told me years ago, the greatest challenge is getting there.