Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
Behold, a few particularly bad ones.
As a 50something Libra, I am somewhat decision-making-impaired, especially when it comes to significant life choices. I’m so afraid of making a wrong move that I weigh all the alternatives from every possible angle until my instincts are completely bollixed up and I have no clue what I actually want.
Maybe my astrological sign isn’t entirely to blame (and anyway, I can never decide whether I fully believe astrology is real). I think it’s also a reaction to having made many poor, impulsive decisions when I was younger.
Among the first: leaving my job at Women’s Wear Daily at the end of 1989, 18 months after I’d started.
That was my first departure; eventually I’d come and go from Fairchild Publications (which published WWD in those days) four or five times between 1988 and 1996, writing for several of their titles. This is where my career path started to really zig-zag.
Let me back up, though, and tell you about a poor life decision I made long before that, because it informed so many of my others:
Beginning sophomore year of college, I made a difficult-to-hold-onto young man the center of my universe. And before him, from the middle of high school through freshman year of college, I revolved my life around a different intermittently-interested boy.
I was largely mismatched with both, which attests to the embarrassing later-in-life revelation that, within certain parameters, either of them could have been almost anybody. I had the deep-seated idea that I needed a man to complete me, and to that end, I cleaved myself, pathologically, to the first two who came along.
Throughout my childhood I’d heard my mother and her friends joke that their sole purpose for attending college was to earn an MRS. While enrolled at Albany from fall, ‘83 through spring, ‘87, I never allowed myself to notice I was essentially doing the same thing. Now I cringe recalling the ways in which I made hanging onto one and then the other of those men my primary objective in life.
Maybe another Libran trait is partly to blame: the love of love, the predispositions for being in a relationship and fostering harmony. (I’m remarried now, happily, for 14 years, but this relationship is one that affords me a lot of space and freedom to pursue my career and interests, and to travel.) But I’m also a product of the culture, and of my upbringing — of being the daughter of pre-boomer, pre-second-wave feminism parents who tacked this coda onto my bedtime stories: “And the prince and the princess finished college, then got married and had children...”
I won’t bore you with my litany of lousy decisions in college.
Instead I’ll bring you to the period just after graduation, when I severely limited my career options because I wasn’t willing to live anywhere other than the New York metropolitan area, where the difficult-to-hold-onto man, whom I hoped would propose (all our other friends married just out of school), was now living.
After collecting bylines at my Newsday summer internship, then spending a year freelancing for the Albany Times-Union and other publications, it’s conceivable I might have been able to land a job at a small paper somewhere else in the country, or in another country, and eventually make my way back to New York, or to a bigger paper in an other major city. But I didn’t apply to any.
If I had, I might have benefitted from the experience of living somewhere else and broadening my horizons beyond my monocultural Long Island upbringing. I might have followed a clearer career trajectory as a journalist and editor. If I’d taken just a little time away from constantly being in an all-consuming relationship beginning at 15, I’d have also had the time and energy for the creative writing I wanted to pursue. (I might never stop kicking myself for hindering myself back then.)
An editor at The Berkshire Eagle reached out to me — after reading some my work in the Times-Union and Metroland, and meeting me at events I covered — to see whether I’d be interested in writing on their arts desk. The job offered $12K — $5.5K less than what I’d go on to earn in my first position at a trade, Body Fashions/Intimate Apparel. But in 1987 you could live pretty inexpensively in Pittsfield and the other small surrounding western Massachusetts towns. I loved the Berkshires. The arts scene was, and remains, very rich.
Taking the Eagle’s offer would have been a good career move at 22. But I wasn’t making career moves. I was pursuing the validation that came with being chosen by a difficult-to-hold-onto man, seeking to fulfill my married, suburban destiny.
It worked; in a matter of months, he chose me. Reader, I married him — at the ripe age of 23-and-change. That’s not a wrong choice for everyone, but it was for me. The marriage would last three years, and in that time, I’d engineer all my other choices to support it.
One of those was leaving WWD after 18 months so that I didn’t have to commute from my home town on Long Island, where we’d moved after the wedding.
Okay, that wasn’t the only reason I left.
I had quickly become dissatisfied with my job on the accessories beat at WWD. Occasionally I got to report on things that felt as if they held significance beyond the hollow world of manufacturing and retail. But most of what I covered seemed insignificant and boring to me.
I longed to write for the paper’s arts and gossip section, called “Eye”; for its sister publication, the consumer title, W; and for Scene, the new gossip and nightlife magazine Fairchild had recently launched to compete with the original, pre-Conde Nast Details and Forbes’s short-lived Egg.
It wasn’t that I loved what they were publishing. I just saw it as a route out of trade journalism, which bored me, and did not allow me to shine. Goddamnit, I wanted to shine. After my early career experiences, I was spoiled. I worried that the longer I wrote for trades, the more entrenched I’d become, and the harder it would be to switch to consumer publications. And I was too young and shallow to recognize the quiet respectability in well executed trade journalism at a long-established paper.
But the reporters and editors who worked on the arts and gossip beats were part of a kind of exclusive club, and I couldn’t find a natural way in. They were from moneyed families, and had gone to fancy colleges and prep schools. The women were tall and modelesque, the men were preppy and well-connected. Some were from families that had connections to the Park Avenue socialites WWD and W covered. I didn’t stand a chance.
But I was also to blame. As much as I wanted a chance, it didn’t help my cause that I wasn’t interested in assignments later in the evening when they came up, because that would take me away from you-know-who.
Women’s Wear was a difficult place for me to work in those days, on a number of levels.
It was clique-y. Some of the top editors were notoriously bitchy. Just before I left, Spy magazine ran a damning profile of one, a cruel modelizer, alleging, among other sins, that he liked to punk guests by offering them wine glasses filled with his urine.
^^^ Illustration from the December, 1989 issue of Spy by Anita Kunz
It was also a hard place to maintain any kind of healthy body image, or sense of yourself, physically. I’d struggled with anorexia as a teen (I mean, who in my age group didn’t?), and was still progressing in my recovery. There were days I felt okay — better than okay — about how I looked. Then I’d go to the women’s room, which doubled as a dressing room for the photo studio, and there would be Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell — or a gaggle of willowy teens newly arrived from the South or the Midwest or eastern Europe — dressing and undressing for a shoot, a foot taller than me, and flawless. I might never fully recover from the embarrassment of needing to gargle after wisdom tooth extraction beside Cindy Crawford, as she fixed her makeup.
I impulsively took the first out I could find.
As I was approaching a year-and-a-half at WWD, a friend of the family got in touch to say he was launching a news weekly on Long Island. Did I want to be the “People Editor”? It entailed writing and editing human interest stories. This job would solve multiple problems: I’d no longer have to commute to the city, and I’d have a path out of trade journalism.
I was ecstatic — so ecstatic that I didn’t ask enough questions about what the publication would be like.
I had no idea that I was leaving a coveted position at a respected news organization to work at a shitty Penny Saver, one that would fold six months later.