Mark Dawidziak found success at a young age. He didn't want it.
At least, not that kind of success.
Dawidziak, a former television critic and author of the recent, Agatha- and Edgar-nominated book, A Mystery of Mysteries: The Death and Life of Edgar Allan Poe, had gone to work for the Associated Press, a news-wire service, in Washington, D.C., after studying journalism at George Washington University. That was an accomplishment in and of itself. First, good journalism jobs were scarce in 1978, with many evening papers having gone out of business across the U.S., leaving hundreds of seasoned news people unemployed. Second, AP required job candidates to pass a tough test – on editing, news judgment and much more – before they could be hired.
Still, Dawidziak had passed ("You never knew what you'd scored on it. You either got hired or you didn't") and AP had made the New York native a city wire editor. It sounded more glamorous than it was: Wire services were important sources of information, but they were also news factories that created and sent out endless – endless – streams of stories to papers everywhere.
"You got a raise every few months just for surviving," Dawidziak recalled.
So there he was: only 21 and yet possessor of a coveted news job in the nation's capital, working all the hours he wanted, making decent pay. He had a health plan and an apartment in famed Dupont Circle. He had done it. He was on his way.
"Except I was miserable," he said. "It was all grunt work."
Perhaps more important, it was news work far removed from the arts journalism Dawidziak had focused on in college. He loved theater, film, literature. Still, he couldn't see giving up his hard-won AP post. There didn't seem to be a solution.
Then one day at work, another editor came over and suggested that Dawidziak take a breather from the wires. This editor, an older fellow redolent of vanilla from the Captain Black tobacco in the pipe he smoked, said "'Mark, this isn't really what you want to do, is it? Take a walk with me.'"
Together, Dawidziak said, they strolled the newsroom, stopping near the man who was the national editor. The pipe-smoker asked his young companion, "How old do you think Carl is?"
Dawidziak said he answered, "I don't know, 42?"
"We went around the bureau like this," Dawidziak remembered. "Everybody looked 10 years older than they were."
Finally, they stopped near a man whose age Dawidziak was absolutely sure he could peg – the guy looked like an emaciated white mouse, smoking his cigarette with a shaking hand while he coordinated incoming sports scores.
The young man guessed 70.
No, said his companion – 56.
"And then," Dawidziak recounted, "he said two words to me: 'Get out.'" Get out before you get trapped by the good pay that will turn into golden handcuffs. Get out so the grind won't make you an old man before you're 40. "It was the best advice I'd ever gotten."
On top of that, he added, every good thing that happened afterward confirmed the wisdom of his decision to leave, starting with a new job: On the recommendation of a friend who was a reporter at the Bristol Herald-Courier on the Virginia-Tennessee line, Dawidziak soon had a job at that paper as arts editor, overseeing the Friday entertainment magazine at two-thirds the salary he'd been earning at AP. But the money didn't matter.
"Yankee Boy from New York was in heaven," he said gleefully.
The greater Bristol area occupied a beautiful corner of the South, was home to lots of professional and alternative theater, and Dawidziak spent four years writing arts stories and managing arts coverage, doing what he really wanted to and learning to do it well. Word spread and, before long, another good thing happened: The Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio called, offering him the position of television critic. But Dawidziak said no thanks. He was happy where he was.
Yet "nothing makes you more attractive to people than turning them down," he said with a laugh, and the Beacon Journal kept phoning. The third time they rang, Dawidziak agreed to come for an interview. He ended up working there for 16 years, eventually moving to the region's other major paper, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, for another 21 years of television coverage.
His decades of award-winning journalism work in Northeast Ohio led to the two other occupations that Dawidziak has long pursued in parallel with his day job: writing both books and plays, and acting. Many of his books explore aspects of television history and characters, such as The Columbo Phile: A Casebook (1989), and later volumes including The Night Stalker Companion: A 25th Anniversary Tribute (1997) and Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone (2017).
His lighthearted love of TV and horror has a flip side, though. Dawidziak is a serious (sometimes not-so-serious) scholar/devotee of Mark Twain, whom he resembles. He has portrayed Twain many times, along with other historical authors such as Charles Dickens, in plays he writes, produces and performs with his wife, Sara Showman, through their Largely Literary Theater Company. Off stage, Dawidziak has been the visiting scholar at Elmira College's Center for Mark Twain Studies four times. He has also presented papers and served as keynote speaker at many literary institutions and official Twain events across the U.S.
His latest book concerns Poe and the detective work that scholars and scientists have undertaken to figure out how and why America's greatest writer of horror was found dead, in somebody else's clothes and in the wrong city. This work has brought Dawidziak a new level of attention and respect from the literary community.
Clearly, that decision to leave AP changed everything for him. He wasn't even scared to make it.
"I think I was too young to have qualms," he mused. The only time he felt daunted was at the very beginning, before the AP hired him, he said, when all his job queries met with silence or rejection. "That was the most worrisome moment."
Since then, "I've gotten more friendly to change," he added. More specifically, "I've become a lot more welcoming and accepting of fear. Fear is a good thing."
Especially the fear of writing books.
Dawidziak laughed again. "They do frighten you. And they should."