John W. Miller grew up in Belgium, the son of American expat musician parents. He cut his teeth as a young journalist writing about European economics in Brussels, the capital of the EU and a financial hub of the continent. In 2006, he was hired to cover trade for the Wall Street Journal, one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world. He was living his dream for about 10 years.
Then he gave it all up and walked away – without a concrete plan for what he was going to do next.
What drove John to do something so bold and risky? And how might his story prompt us to think about our own life plans? I asked him these questions and more in an email exchange. I’ve shortened and edited the conversation for clarity.
Mike: You were at the Wall Street Journal for a long time. What did you cover there? What was your favorite story to write? Was the reality in those early years the dream job you thought it’d be?
John: Yes, it was a job whose reality lived up to the fantasy for a very long time. I really only had three beats: European economics in Brussels, global trade in Brussels and Geneva, and then global mining and metals out of Pittsburgh.
Those three beats took me on trips to 40 countries, but the dreamiest part of the job was how seriously my bosses took the mechanics and ethics of reporting, and the craft of writing, editing and rewriting.
When I started, the Journal had this laborious workflow, where bureau chiefs and their reporters in the field told the top bosses in New York what the stories were. We’d write proposals every morning, and the bosses in New York would give a thumbs up or thumbs down. I once wrote a 1,000-word proposal for an 800-word story. We’d argue about the merits of doing the piece, and often wouldn’t. It was about quality, not quantity. And the debates were like going to grad school, which I never did.
I did a lot of stories I loved reporting. The good ones take a lot of work. I’m probably proudest of a 2007 front-page feature about a blind man who went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes trying to get his sight back. That took three months to report and write.
I also love a story I wrote about a working-class gold miner in western Australia who bought a $1,200 Chihuahua.
For highest level of fun, I’d have to go with the 2010 and 2011 Tour de France and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I got to drive around those countries covering these exciting soccer matches and bike races. I love sports, and did a lot of work for WSJ Sports over the years, but I never took a full-time gig with sports because I find athletes boring to interview, and I’m more interested in learning about wider global issues.
When did you start thinking you might be called to something else? What led to your discernment process? Can you tell me a bit about your spiritual/existential journey?
I really was quite happy in my job until early 2016. Around then, the Wall Street Journal closed its Pittsburgh office. I kept my job but did it from home. There was a budget crunch, and they cut back on reporting trips.
And at the time I was single. I felt stuck at home, and very lonely. I still got joy from some specific projects, but I also felt a new kind of restlessness. I was about to turn 40.
The big story that year was the 2016 election, and I didn’t feel like I was doing anything important or interesting about it.
In the fall of 2016, the Journal offered “buyouts,” which means they pay you a lump sum to quit your job. It’s a way of reducing staff when you have a strong union, which WSJ reporters have. They wanted the older people to quit, not me, and my bureau chief fought me over it. But I felt like it was an opportunity to try something else. I wasn’t quite sure what.
In my case, I had been there 13 years, so the value of the buyout was around $50,000, which was enough for me to live on for a year. So I accepted the buyout and bought a one-way ticket to Cancun. I thought I’d go lie on a beach somewhere and be really happy.
That’s not what happened. I got extremely depressed, and I had a really strong, incontrovertible sense in my stomach of being called by God. To what? It was so strong, I thought it must mean he wanted me to be a priest or a monk or something.
Was it stressful to give up the paycheck? Did it feel embarrassing even to quit such a prestigious publication? Did your friends and family think you were crazy?
That’s a really good question, and one people are afraid to ask, so thank you. Yes, a lot of people thought I was crazy, especially when I started talking about God. And I often wondered myself if I was crazy. It was a really stressful, difficult time.
After about a year, the buyout money started to get low, and I needed to find work. And I realized that I was kind of damaged goods for the media industry. Also, I had lost my enthusiasm and energy for reporting.
I had something else in me that needed to come out. But what was it?
So you have this feeling that you’re called to something else, but you’re not sure what. How did you go about discerning where that strong but unclear feeling was leading you?
I traveled a lot and talked to a lot of church people, priests and religious. They advised me to be patient.
The turning point toward a better path came at a monastery in southwestern Belgium, Orval, which happens to be famous for making a world-class beer. The abbot there spent some time with me, and, kindly but assertively, reminded me that God created us to be happy in our lives, and that I needed to return to the life I had built over almost 40 years and make that life happy.
He cautioned against the illusion that a call from God meant moving away from things that you know, deep-down, that you love. Instead of starting a new life, he said, “You need go back to what you know, work in journalism, maybe meet a woman.” He offered three pillars for a time of crisis and change: the facts of who you are right now (i.e. I wasn't going to become an astronaut), divine inspiration (what is God suggesting?), and wise witnesses to talk to (“and make sure you're not doing anything crazy”).
Slowly, I started to cobble together a new life. I discovered America Magazine while on retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Ohio, contacted the editor and started writing for America. I picked up other freelance gigs. It was difficult, and I was making much less money than I had at the Journal. But I was building something new and had no choice but to walk that path. The hustle reminded me of being in my early 20s. But I wasn’t in my early 20s, so I was embarrassed.
To me, the wildest part of your journey was how at this stage, after a really extensive career in print journalism, you decided to make a dang feature-length documentary film. It seems kind of audacious to say “I’ve never made a movie before, I’m going to make a documentary now!” How did you settle on writing and making a film about Moundsville, a rural town in West Virginia?
It really came out of the 2016 election, which was so nasty and sad. I wanted to tell a story about America, and the part of the country where I’d been living, and loved, since 2011, that was healing and rich and interesting.
I had first been to Moundsville 2013 to do a story in 2013 about a paranormal hot dog stand, and found it totally fascinating. It’s a West Virginia town of 8,000 people built around a 2,000-year-old Native American burial mound that used to make Rock’em Sock’em robots at the world’s biggest toy factory. I thought about moving there and writing a book.
Instead, I met filmmaker David Bernabo at a party and said let’s do a film. I was basically ready and willing to try anything. By the way, there’s very little money to be made from indy filmmaking. I’ve made $20,000 off the film, and that’s with it getting picked up by PBS and getting reviewed by The Atlantic and NPR. In late 2017, I found a part-time job writing a column about global trade that paid the bills.
What was it about the community of Moundsville made you want to share those stories?
I felt like there was a deeper, more human story buried beneath all the Trump country accounts. We were all obsessed with Trump and why he was so popular. And Moundsville voted 75% for Trump.
But instead of asking them why they loved Trump, we should have gone to places like Moundsville and asked them who they’ve been and who they are. (We still should.) So that’s why I wanted to do. And I feel like I did find the deeper story. The deeper story is grief, and it’s legitimate.
After the movie came out, I started Moundsville magazine, where I’ve added over 100 stories about Moundsville, about everything from Lady Gaga (whose mom is from Moundsville) to airplane-building in West Virginia in the 1930s. I think it’s been a more loving form of journalism than covering mining for the Wall Street Journal.
Now you’re working on your first book – even more of a dream job than the WSJ, yes? Are you living a charmed life or what? Though of course, you had to give up on an old dream to make space for the possibility of this new one. There’s probably a lesson in that somewhere.
You’re going to jinx it, Mike! I got my first book contract in November, after spending six months approaching and getting rejected by agents and publishers, and rewriting many times my 11,000-word proposal.
Getting that deal with Simon & Schuster to write a book about Earl Weaver and the role of the baseball manager was a dream come true. I’ve always had a deep love for baseball.
In hindsight, I had to leave my job at the Journal, and the old dreams, in order to make a space for something new. I’m not smart enough to know everything about what God’s been up to with me, and it still quite painful sometimes to think about if I’m properly responding to God’s call.
But here’s the thing: I see the fruits, and there is love in my life in a way that wasn’t the case before. And it’s about love in the end, isn’t it? Loving ourselves. Loving others. Loving our life and work. I just got married for a second time.