Back to School

Plus a special, free offer for my new personal essay class...

On social media, to mark the end of the decade, people have been posting side-by-side photos of themselves from 2009 and 2019. Alongside the photos, they’ve been listing milestones illustrating how much they’ve achieved and changed in that time.

I’ve decided to mix things up a bit and look back 25 years. Here are my captions for the above photos:

Left: me in 1994, a 29-year-old about to drop out of my second MFA program, this time at City College.

Right: me in 2019, a 54-year-old teaching in an MFA program (at Bay Path University), at Catapult, and now, also in an online class I recently created for Skillshare.

(*More about my Skillshare class, how you can take it for free, and a special offer at the bottom.)

Let’s rewind to the early 90s, shall we?

In an earlier installment, I told you about how I dropped out of the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence when I couldn’t figure out how to pay for it (especially not after I was scammed out of $850 for the delivery of a $30K Cadillac I figured I’d hock, but which I had not in fact won 🤦🏻‍♀️).

Before I dropped out, I mentioned my financial distress to one of my professors, and she shared a little money-saving secret with me: “Many of us also teach in the program at City College, which is a fraction of the cost.”

It was true. Where Sarah Lawrence was something like $11K per semester, at City College, I could take one or two courses at a time, for about $375 each. I applied, got in, and then enrolled in two courses.

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I was most excited about the short story workshop led by Deborah Eisenberg. At the time, creative non-fiction wasn’t offered in the program, and I was writing fiction then, anyway.

(The big memoir boom of the mid-to-late-’90s, which had a big effect on me, hadn’t yet gotten under way. When I started at City College in the fall of 1993, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation was still a year away from being released; it would be another three years before Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes would appear, and another four before Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss would be published.)

But the short story workshop was too big, with something like 25 students, meaning we each had only one opportunity to workshop a piece — two students per session. When it was my turn, I found a lot of the feedback on my story to be utterly useless. One guy said, “I don’t like these characters. I wouldn’t want to be friends with them” Another hissed, “I find your writing to be disingenuous, obtuse and oblique,” without offering any further insights as to what about that one story had made him feel that way. I felt vindicated when Eisbenberg gave me an A on the story, and another for the class, but I found that workshop experience to be wholly unsatisfying.

A much bigger problem was one I’d already encountered at Sarah Lawrence: I couldn’t seem to juggle going to school at night with working full-time as a reporter, not to mention commuting to West 137th St. and Convent Avenue from the East Village. In the middle of my second semester, I dropped out of the City College MFA program.

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Often younger writers ask me if I regret not going further with my MFA. The truth is I do and don’t. I wish I’d had time to immerse myself in reading and writing and learning craft. I wish I had that degree, and the community and connections that come from being part of a program. I’m glad, though, that I haven’t saddled myself with massive school loans to pay back; I believe I could have only continued if I had quit my job and gone into major debt. When I hear about the steep debt hanging over writers who pursued MFAs and other advanced degrees, I feel glad I’m not in their shoes. To wit:

The good news today is that there are lots of great alternatives to (on-site) MFA programs — and I am fortunate to be able to teach through three of them.

The Bay Path MFA program I teach in is 100% online, so my students and I are able to telecommute. (I wish I’d had that option in the early 90s. Although, back then I had AOL and a 14.4 kbit dial-up modem, so it would have taken forever.)

Catapult — whose tote bags are emblazoned with the slogan “Catapult vs. MFA" —offers a wide array of courses taught by some of the best writers and editors around. (There’s still room in my January anthology editing course! Grab your spot before it’s gone!)

And Skillshare allows you to take countless classes in a variety of creative subjects online for a low subscription fee. In fact, you can get two free months of Skillshare Premium if you sign up for my new class, "Writing Essays: Making the Personal Universal"

I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Skillshare and taking my class. It’s an introductory course in writing personal essays that will be useful for students at all levels, even true beginners. Here’s the special offer I mentioned:

The first five students to take my Skillshare workshop and post their essays in the class’s project gallery will receive my light notes on their pieces.

So, sign up, why don’t you? Twenty-five years from now (and hopefully also much sooner!) you’ll be glad you did.

My Worst Thankgsivings, Ranked

Yeah, there were some really bad ones...

(^^^In an effort to learn how to draw myself, I’ve been using tracing paper over photos. This has nothing to do with Thanksgiving. I just wanted to decorate this installment of my newsletter.)

When I was a kid, I liked Thanksgiving just fine. Each year we traveled to a big family gathering in New Jersey, filled with favorite cousins and aunts and uncles (one who has always called me “Turkey” because apparently I looked like a Butter Ball when I was born). But then my parents got divorced when I was almost 11, and the holiday (all holidays, actually) became painful for me.

Meeting my husband Brian in 2003 ushered in a new era of good Thanksgivings. We always celebrate the holiday on the Saturday of the weekend (so people can go to their in-laws on Thursday) with most of his extended family, usually at our house. It’s great fun, with lots of good food and live music.

But prior to that, there were some real…turkeys. Here, a look at four of them.

Fourth worst: 1994, West Village

I’m psyched when I’m invited by a new friend to an intimate Thanksgiving dinner for 10 at her brownstone apartment in the West Village.

I met her the year before, at a media/publishing networking party, of which she was the host. She held these parties monthly at a bar just on the next corner from my East Village apartment. She had this southern way about her that made it natural to warm to her, and for guests to warm to one another, as she made her way through the crowd introducing everyone.

I only ever went to one of her events. But she had taken my card, which had my full name on it, as a business card would. (*That’s a detail to remember.)

Shortly after the party, she contacted me. “Hey,” she wrote in a message sent to my email address, which also contained my full name: saribotton@aol.com “Hey,” she wrote, “I remember you said you write personal essays. I wondered whether I could send you one for some feedback?” Sure, I replied. So she sent me a really touching piece about finding out her mother had cancer. I made some notes and sent it back. “Hey, can I send you one?” I asked? We went back and forth like this for about year, with a few very personal pieces each.

This was different from my other friendships. While I met other friends for movies and meals, I didn’t trade writing with them. Even though we hadn’t seen each other again, and we didn’t talk on the phone, I thought this was something sort of special, and I was glad for it. Not to mention, I was kind of jazzed that she had chosen me. She, about whom there’d been a New York Times profile. My new friend was anointed, and well connected.

So, then, in early November, she actually calls – leaves me a message on my machine, back when we had answering machines – inviting me to Thanksgiving.

The holiday arrives. I get to my friend’s building with two decent bottles of red wrapped in foil gift bags, and hit the buzzer. I climb the stairs, knock on her door, and after a few seconds, she opens it.

I smile at her, ready to take a step inside, but she stands there, in the doorway, looking at me with the most puzzled expression.

“Can I help you?” she finally asks.

"I'm…Sari," I say.

Blank stare.

"Sari Botton."

"Oh…" she says, as a light bulb seems to go off in her head. Turns out the whole year we’d been corresponding, she thought I was a different Sari altogether: Sari Locker, then the host of a popular cable sex talk show.

Never mind that my full name was on my business card, and was also part of my aol address. Never mind that I have a really uncommon first name. When you meet a Sari, you tend to remember her. I’m not flattering myself. People meet me and they say, “I once met another Sari!” and they tell me all about her, and ask whether I know her, too, even if she lives all the way on the other side of the country. It’s the Sari-specific variety of Jewish Geography.

My new friend invites me in, clearly deflated. I meet the other guests, ascendant media types she’d culled from her networking parties, all possessing much greater media-world currency than mine. Sari Locker-level currency.

I eat turkey and drink wine with them, and they all show just enough polite interest in me, nodding as I tell them about myself and my work. It’s so awkward and uncomfortable. When enough time has passed that it doesn’t seem rude for me to leave… I’m thankful to be able to say goodnight, and make my way back to my little shithole across town.

Third worst: 1992, Westport, Connecticut

I didn’t hold out much hope for Thanksgiving of 1992. I was already feeling pretty shitty because I’d just left my first marriage. I went with Dad’s family to the Westport, Connecticut home of my step-mother's friend, a woman who volunteered at a senior center. In the pool there, she taught aqua-robics or yo-qua or something like that, and each year, she’d invite a handful of the seniors whose families were far away to share in the Thanksgiving meal at her home. It was really sweet. Over the years, we all got to know some of them.

The one who came most consistently was Benjy, a sweet, Midwestern octogenarian. After cocktails in the late afternoon, Benjy announced, “Okay, I’m going upstairs for a nap. Come and get me when the turkey’s been carved!”

If I’d been at a loss for something to be thankful for that year, I’d later realize there was this: I wasn’t the one who was sent upstairs to rouse Benjy from his nap. Benjy never woke up. Like, ever again. We spent the rest of the evening trying to reach his family, and figuring out what to do with the body.

Second worst: 1993, Lido Beach, NY

The next year, for obvious reasons, I wanted a break from Thanksgiving in Westport, so instead I went with my mom and step-dad to the home of a couple whose oldest daughter, a girl I grew up with, was a coke fiend.

We’d been assured that Suzy* was now clean. Last year, while her parents were on vacation, Suzy had reported their BMW stolen, but it turned out she had sold it for drugs. But then she went to rehab and she was never going to touch cocaine again, and now they were all living happily ever after.

Well, you just had to take one look at Suzy to know there was pretty much nothing in her system other than coke. She was skin and bones — frail, and chatty, and high as a fucking kite.

At several points in the night, she’d sit down to the piano, ask whoever was nearby, “Remember this one?” and play “My Way.” We all played along, never questioning the redemption narrative her parents had put forth on her behalf.

At one point, Suzy took me aside. “Back when I was using, I sold all my mother’s jewelry so I could buy drugs,” she said really fast, “but now that I’m clean, I really want to buy it all back for her, sooooo…do you have any money you can give me?” Not loan. Give. Prior to this, I hadn’t seen Suzy in about 10 years. She asked me again later in the evening, seeming to have forgotten her earlier request.

After my mom and step-dad got back home on Long Island, and my sister got back home to the Upper East Side, and I got back home to the East Village, we all called each other and compared notes. It turned out Suzy had asked each of us at least twice. And…she’d helped herself to all the money in our wallets and jacket pockets. Every last lint-coated dime. She’d cleaned us all out.

(* Not her real name.)

The Number One Worst Thanksgiving Ever: 1976, Island Park, New York

One of the worst aspects of being a child of divorce is navigating holidays now that your parents are apart. I might be 54 years old, but I am still, and always will be, a child of divorce. In the run-up to just about any holiday, I am overcome with leftover old grief.

The first holidays of my divorce kid existence truly ripped me apart. When I was celebrating with one parent, I was worried about the other. That first Thanksgiving after my parents’ separation that summer, my Dad had already landed with what would soon become his new family. My mom was alone, and so she got us for the holiday.

I don’t know why we didn’t go to New Jersey that year, to be with her extended family for the kind of big, fun Thanksgiving gathering with cousins I was used to. That year it was just me, my mom, my sister, and the world’s smallest turkey. It was the saddest holiday of my life.

What I’m Grateful For This Year

I mean, I can’t end this on that depressing note ^^^, can I? So I’ll tell you some things I’m grateful for: My sweet husband. My family. My awesome friends. My health. My dream job at Longreads. My dream side-jobs, teaching at Catapult and Bay Path. Some publishers are interested in my memoir-in-essays, and one might let me illustrate it. (That’s all I can say about that for now.) We’re celebrating Thankgsiving with friends tomorrow, and with Brian’s fun family, as usual, on Saturday.

Not bad. I’m pretty fortunate, even for a divorce kid.

Greetings from San Miguel Allende

Where I am making the best of the worst Mercury-in-Retrograde ever…

Last week I was interviewed by Leanna James Blackwell, director of Bay Path University’s MFA in creative writing, where I have been leading a workshop this semester. Among other things, she and I talked about the importance of making time your friend — of being patient with the writing process, plus the development of your work, and yourself as a writer. Everybody, myself included, is in a rush to get their essays done and accepted and published. It’s a competitive creative field, and we all want to be successful NOW — at least before civilization collapses, as it seems to be in the process of doing.

In the past that impulse has led me astray; back in the xojane days especially, I published more than my share of half-baked pieces, which I am so glad are no longer online. But I’ve often also swung to the opposite extreme, avoiding working on particular essays for way too long, wasting time as if I have a guaranteed unlimited amount of it. I’ve probably mentioned here (possibly 100 times?) that I’m obsessed with the fact that both my grandmothers died around my age — one at 53, the other at 55. (I am 54.) Who knows how much time I have? We have, as a species?

Now I’m working to strike a balance: carving out time for a daily writing practice; neither rushing to publish nor procrastinating on writing; asking myself, when I feel resistant about writing a particular piece, why I do. Am I maybe not ready yet to write what I’ve set out to? Have I not yet achieved the critical distance necessary to saliently interpret the particular story at hand?

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This week I carved out a sizeable chunk of time for my writing. This missive comes to you from a writing retreat I’m taking in San Miguel Allende, Mexico, with another writer. I’ve been angling toward this for three years, since I bid on a week at a the lovely house we’re staying in at a TMI Project silent auction, and won. I’m a bit of a workaholic, and it’s hard for me to press pause. I postponed the trip three times, but the owner finally said I had one more shot, and here I am, taking it.

I’ve strived to set realistic, reachable goals for this retreat so I don’t leave feeling disappointed in myself. I gave a lot of thought to what material I might want to work on, and chose a beast of an essay so fraught with painful memories that I’ve been wrestling with it for years, and am considering trying to publish it under a pseudonym.

But now I am rethinking that choice, and it’s possible I have Mercury-in-Retrograde to (reluctantly) thank.

If I ever doubted whether the astrological phenomenon of Mercury-in-Retrograde was real, this instance of it has cured me of my agnosticism. I mean, things go pretty haywire just about every time it occurs, which is three or four times a year. Computers, electronics, cars, and other machinery break down. Miscommunications between people abound. Everything … s-l-o-w-s … d-o-w-n. Achieving anything can feel Sisyphean.   

Astrologers insist Mercury-in-Retrograde is an important and valuable occurrence, despite how disruptive it can be. They say it forces us to slow down so we can review and reconsider our choices before moving forward more thoughtfully.

Some advise against certain activities during those periods — signing contracts, buying homes and cars. Traveling.

Aaaaaaand…here I am, traveling.

This Mercury-in-Retrograde is a real doozy, and it’s affecting my trip.

The day before we left, Delta misspelled my name on my boarding pass and ticket. I did not want to show up to the airport for an international flight holding a boarding pass and ticket that bore a different name than the one on my passport. Because I’d booked through Travelocity, Delta wouldn’t just fix it on their own, even though we’d later figure out it was their fault. I spent three hours on the phone with Travelocity trying to straighten it out as I packed — stopping occasionally to shame them and Delta on social media, as one does after more than an hour of cheesy on-hold music. In that time, the person helping me out got disconnected twice.

Next, when we arrived in San Miguel at 10pm at night, it turned out we had the wrong address. We knocked on the wrong door, and this poor older couple on vacation from Canada, were naturally upset to be informed (mistakenly), at that late hour, that, no, we were supposed to be staying there instead of them. We finally figured out what the error was, and made it to our house at close to 11 p.m..

My friend and I tried to settle in, but were both wired from 14 hours of travel, door-to-door, and the snafu with our address. I went to make some tea — a pot of it, except there was no tea pot, so I thought I’d make it in a glass pitcher. I boiled the water, poured it over the tea bags, then, bam, the pitcher exploded and boiling water shot out and hit me square in the belly.

My friend reached into the freezer and threw me a tray of ice cubes to apply to my abdomen before cleaning up the water and shards of glass that were everywhere. I now know ice on a burn is ill advised, causing blistering. I googled it after the massive, throbbing blisters appeared. Actually, I did my googling at around 1 a.m., with shaking fingers, because I was shivering uncontrollably — a side-effect of treating a burn with ice, I learned — and wanted to determine whether I needed to seek medical attention.

In my hour of shivering, I berated myself for my stupidity, and panicked over the possibility I’d ruined my whole trip just as soon as I arrived. Would this calamity also put a damper on my friend’s vacation-slash-writers’-retreat? Would I not be able to join her at the hot springs? Worse, would I be in agony the whole time? What about my writing goals?

How was I going to tackle that beast of an essay, one that hurt me so much on the inside, when I was hurting so much on the outside?

In my traumatized state at first I was hard on myself, grumbling at the thought of not leaving San Miguel with a completed draft of that piece. Then it dawned on me that I am just not ready to work on that one. It’s been years, but it’s still not the right time. Period.

I could change my mind, and write something else. I have so many other ideas. I have a spreadsheet with something like 165 essay ideas! I also have other essays in the works that I can turn my attention to.

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In the morning, my next natural inclination was to pressure myself into picking another essay to work on NOW, commit to it, and get going on it pronto. But I hadn’t slept well. I was up and down all night, and unable to fall back asleep after 5:30 a.m. When I finally arose, my head was pounding. The fluid in my blisters now strained against my stretched skin. They were (and they remain) gargantuan — I’ll refrain from posting a gruesome photo, but one is the size of an egg. We face-timed with a nurse my friend knows, and she said she didn’t think I needed to go to a doctor; that I could apply some aloe, and then Neosporin and gauze. If I got worse, I promised to call her.

Still, I was (am) in no shape to jump to attention and chart a new course for the writing retreat part of my trip. Maybe I will be tomorrow. Today I need to take some time to recover.

And yet I had an impulse to write this. I decided to follow that impulse — and I also decided that writing an installment of my newsletter counts as something in terms of achieving writing goals. Writing any piece in which I try to make sense of an experience I’ve had contributes to my development as a writer, something that takes time, and which you can’t skip over (unless you’re a rich influencer with a ghostwriter).

There’s still plenty of time — another six days here — for me to decide what I want to work on, and get to it. If I give myself ample time to recover, I will likely make better choices in my writing when I’m ready.

I’m not sure I want to forgive Mercury if it’s the reason I badly burned myself. But I might have begun to appreciate the way it’s slowed me down, allowing me to redirect, and stop being such a task master toward myself.

The Cadillac

"If it sounds too good to be true..." and other lessons I learned the hard way.

Oh, Subscribers… I hope you will go easy on me as I confess to these seriously embarrassing choices.

🤦🏻‍♀️🤦🏻‍♀️🤦🏻‍♀️

In the last installment I told you that in the early 90s, to my surprise, I got into some MFA programs in creative writing, including at my top choice, Sarah Lawrence. I was thrilled, and accepted right away, despite having no idea how I was going to pay for it (other than a small divorce settlement that wouldn’t go far), or fit it in to my schedule. I had a full-time reporting job at HFN that involved covering industry events (in three different industries) after hours, and a fair amount of travel to trade shows.

Still, I imagined I could juggle it all somehow, as I had in college. I don’t come from money, and had managed to put myself through undergad at a state school by working while studying, sometimes as many as three jobs. It hadn’t made for the best learning experience. I’d figured out how to do the least to earn a B+ while, on the side, writing freelance articles for local publications, processing insurance claims at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and teaching Sunday School at a nearby synagogue.

I knew nothing about how to apply for financial aid or loans, and I was too afraid I’d get rejected or mess it up to even try. I just mailed a check off to Bronxville — draining my bank account of something like $11K — boarded Metro North, and signed up for some evening classes.

Very quickly I started panicking. When would I write my assignments, and read my fellow students’ work? Would I do it on the hour-plus commute, each way, between the East Village, where I had moved from the Upper West Side, and campus? More pressingly, how was I going to afford tuition after that first semester?

Then I got the call.

🎰🎰🎰

“Suh-REE Buh-TON? You’ve won a Cadillac Coupe de Ville!”

The call came from a number in Las Vegas. I mean, when the phone rang, I didn’t know where it was coming from, because there was no such thing as Caller I.D. yet, or even *69. In the early 90s there were just plain old land lines without those features. I wouldn’t have my first cell phone for another seven or eight years.

I knew it was a Las Vegas number because it was the beginning of a volley of calls back and forth between us — initially in pursuit of verification of this grand prize, and later to arrange for delivery of the car.

The number was similar to another Las Vegas number I’d recently called to ask how to mail back, at no charge to me, an enormous makeup kit I’d never ordered in the first place, put out by a flashy makeup artist who starred in late night infomercials. The makeup kit had been sent to me in error by the same direct marketing company through which I had in fact ordered…um…a set of Tony Robbins Personal Power! tapes. (This is not nearly the most embarrassing part of this story.)

The tapes were meant to take the place of my…um…life coach, whom I realized I couldn’t afford. (Still not the most embarrassing part.) I’d been referred to the life coach by the woman who taught a personal essay workshop I took at NYU in 1991. She had become something of a mentor after she invited me to continue studying with her at a private workshop at her apartment, which I paid for in part by babysitting for her kids.

I confessed to her one day that I was feeling like a complete failure…at 27. I was having difficulty staying focused and juggling everything — creative writing, a day job as a reporter, trying to freelance for consumer publications, all while going through a divorce and, oh, also dating a few different jerks, to whom I devoted a ridiculous amount of mental energy. She suggested I visit David, a former Marine drill sergeant-turned-actor-turned life coach.

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Each week I’d hop the subway to David’s Theater District office and admit I hadn’t done most of my coaching homework — because I didn’t have time, but also because the assignments were weird. They were based in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), through which, David, explained, he was going to “re-language” me. For instance, I was only allowed to use the word “no” in limited contexts (I can’t remember which). I was not allowed to use the word “but” ever; in its place, I had to use “and.”

Each day, I had to call in to a number he had set up with an answering machine, and declare my (positive!) word for the day. I had to recite a particular line declaring that I was my word. “This is Sari Botton, and I am my word. Today is October 26th, and my word today is focus. Today I will be focused!”

All this for $100 per session. After a handful of appointments, I quit. My writing teacher recommended Personal Power! as a cheap substitute.

Right after the tapes arrived, so did the coffee-table-sized makeup kit I never ordered, plus a heavy bill for it. Thus began my phone calls to the direct marketing company in Vegas, followed shortly after by the call from a similar number about the Cadillac.

There was a time in my life when I wanted nothing more than for my family to own a Cadillac.

I was 10 and my parents were splitting up, and I was very anxious about our financial situation and social station. My new best friend came from a family that my mother described, disdainfully, as nuveau riche. They had a pink Champagne colored Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a shiny green BMW 2002.

After my grandmother died and my grandfather remarried, we received as a hand-me-down their massive, red Cadillac El Dorado with a luxurious, white leather interior. It looked ridiculous parked outside our small house in a blue collar town. Immediately my parents sold it, and as if by some act of automotive fission, parlayed it into a Dodge Dart for my mom and a Ford Pinto for my dad (the very model that would soon be recalled because some of them had exploded), in which he’d soon ride off to his bachelor apartment in the next town.

I was a tween whose parents’ divorce had made money even tighter than before, and I had a rich best friend. Naturally, I became status-obsessed. For a Friday afternoon “rap session” at school, to which we were supposed to bring in photo albums for show-and-tell, I grabbed the key to the Cadillac that had been sitting on a kitchen window sill, and placed it under the cellophane. “See kids,” I meant for it to telegraph, “I’m not just some poor, bedraggled divorce kid. My parents once had a Cadillac.” (<— For like, a month.)

☎️☎️☎️

Okay, here comes the most embarrassing part. Brace yourselves.

Obviously, in my life as a struggling writer living in a crumbling East Village tenement I did not need a Cadillac, nor any car for that matter. Neither did I any longer harbor a desire for one, but I liked the idea of having one to sell to fund my grad school gambit. It was worth about $30K. I had a plan: once that massive boat of an automobile arrived, I’d drive it right over to Potemkin on 11th Avenue, and cash it in.

All I had to do was mail a cashier’s check for $850 to Nevada for shipping.

🌟🌟🌟

I had many, many, many — too many — conversations with the guy who called to tell me I’d won the car, trying to determine whether this was legit. Every time I considered going to the bank and getting a cashier’s check, I would call him again.

“Are you sure this is real?” I’d ask. “Like, really real?” Because obviously if it was a scam, he’d admit it.

“I’ve already told you a million times,” he’d say, at first chiding me in a friendly tone, but later becoming annoyed. I did not like having men annoyed at me, so eventually I just got the check and sent it.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. I tried calling my pal in Vegas. The number you have dialed is not in service, said the robovoice.

Reader, there was no Cadillac. I was out $850, and my attempts to have the bank recoup it were in vain. Before the semester was over, I’d drop out of Sarah Lawrence.

M.F.A. vs. J.O.B.

It wasn't bad enough that I was desperate to break out of trade journalism into consumer. I had to go and get (re-)bitten by the creative writing bug.

Hello, new subscribers (and old ones). My last installment reeled a bunch of you in and I feel it’s only fair to inform you that it was…kind of an anomaly? Generally speaking, this is not a newsletter full of pointed blind items.

Although, maybe it should be. The conversation that incited that angry post forced me to confront some aspects of my experience as a (short, average-looking, non-WASPy, ambitious, awkward) woman in media that I’d at least partially blocked out.

It reminded me of ways in which I was diminished and mistreated at some places where I worked in the ‘80s and ‘90s — painful recollections I’m now re-examining through an updated lens. It was hardly just me. Even the tall, conventionally pretty, WASPy, less ambitious, non-awkward women suffered, to varying degrees. It was all so normalized, we barely knew whether or how to question it. We knew we were better off than women working in media in the 60s and 70s, and worried we’d be seen as asking for too much if we spoke up.

In time, I might share more about that. But for now, I’ll keep reflecting on highlights and lowlights (mostly lowlights) from my past, mostly in chronological order. (Scroll back here if you are curious about earlier stories.)

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Alright — onward to the next stop on my wayward career path. Where did I leave off? I think it was 1992. (The same year “A League of Our Own” came out.)

Holy hat — that was 27 years ago. Half my life ago, now that I’m 54.

It was the beginning of my first “Saturn return,” to use astrologyspeak, just as the psychic I visited for the first time that year did. She said it would likely be a time of painful upheaval, during which people and situations in my life that didn’t truly suit me would fall away, but it would all be for the best.

She was right. It was the year my first marriage ended, prompting me to leave the suffocating familiarity of my suburban hometown and return to New York City. These changes and others were excruciating — I went through my daily life feeling emotionally raw, and lost — but also necessary.

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I’d just returned to Fairchild Publications for my second tenure (of four-ish, ultimately), this time to Home Furnishings Network, or HFN, where I worked on three beats: decorative pillows, luxury linens, and…personal alarms, these small plastic and metal devices you could keep in your purse and set off if you were being attacked. I know — what a strange assortment of topics to be covering. It was so weird. A couple of years later, Tonya Harding would make news scaring away an assailant in a parking long after setting off a personal alarm of her own.

I was not excited about working at HFN, but it seemed the lesser of two evils, the other being the most embarrassing position of my life, as editor-in-chief at Fashion Jewelry Plus!. After working at Fashion Jewelry Plus! for a year-and-a-half, I couldn’t take another minute, so I impatiently sought the first Fairchild post available.

My day-to-day job was the trade publication standard: a slog of manufacturer and retailer round-ups about consumer trends, and trips to boring trade shows. At the sprawling Housewares Show in Chicago, I met a guy who was famous for his regular stints on a popular morning news show where he would showcase kitchen gadgets. He was more than a decade older than me and very much not my type, but I felt like I had to say “yes” when he asked me out. Back in New York he took me out for a couple of expensive dinners, but I was not the least bit interested.

I made the mistake of telling my dad about it. He was so excited about the prospect of his daughter dating someone a) Jewish and b) famous — and so disappointed that I didn’t want to keep going out with the guy. He bugged me about it for years. Well, until the guy was busted for possession of a massive amount of coke in 1999. I sent my dad an email with a link to an article about it. Subject line: Your son inlaw, the Gadget Guru.

Gosh, I hated trade shows. More generally, I hated my job. But at least HFN was an actual journalistic publication, not thinly-veiled advertorial for a jewelry trade show company. HFN was situated in the Fairchild newsroom on 34th Street — a real newsroom, which it shared with WWD and W.

I had the idea that if I could aim myself back toward WWD, where I’d started four years earlier, I could regain the footing I’d had before I left hastily, at the end of 1989. Maybe I’d eventually be poised to wend my way out of trade publishing altogether, into consumer.

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But that wasn’t all I wanted. Now I had additional goals. The year before, I’d taken a personal essay writing workshop at NYU, and it reignited my passion for creative writing, making my arts-journalism dreams pale in comparison. I’d enjoyed studying both creative writing and journalism in college, and it seemed there were elements of both in personal essays. I’d written them before, starting all the way back in fourth grade. (I won the school-wide essay contest that year and the next. Yay, grade school me!)

^^^This right here is the winner of Francis X. Hegarty Elementary’s school-wide essay-writing contest, in both 1974 and 1975.

I had also started writing fiction that year. Like, out of nowhere, for fun, with no real goal. A story was born in my head about a character named Julia Rosenbloom, a woman similar to me but not exactly the same. She was both worse and better than me. Meeker at first, more courageous in the end, willing to do and say things I never would. When I tried to get it all down on the clunky Mac Powerbook I’d just bought second-hand (pictured above), I felt as if I were just following a thread, rather than making it all up.

I knew that publishing any of my creative writing was going to be much harder than breaking back into consumer journalism. Now I had two difficult ladders to climb. I needed to allow myself time, and also study more.

An other reporter in the Fairchild newsroom attended Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program. I started applying to programs, submitting chapters of my novel-in-progress. I was pleasantly surprised when I got into several, including Sarah Lawrence.

More on that next installment…

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