Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
I was once a Hope, then a Nancy, but I might forever be a Melissa.
A month from today I will turn 54. That number boggles my mind, but so has just about every number associated with my age since I was a tween.
For much of my life I haven’t felt aligned with my age or my age group. These days I struggle to feel like a true grownup, while people from my childhood are grandparents several times over. When I was in my 20s it was the opposite; I was kind of precocious. I married young (and divorced young). I got started as a freelance journalist while still in college. Then, in a hurry to establish myself, I made a series of hasty choices which I then compounded with worse ones.
I mentioned in a prior installment that 30 years ago, when I was 24, I foolishly left my job as a reporter/market editor at Women’s Wear Daily to become the “People Editor” at This Week, which turned out to be a glorified PennySaver. The idea had been to get myself off the trade journalism track into consumer journalism, but from the first day, I knew this wouldn’t take me there. I had made a huge mistake.
This Week’s “newsroom” was only a few blocks away from Newsday’s, in Melville, Long Island, where five years earlier I’d gotten my start as an intern the arts desk. In those days, Newsday was highly venerated. I hoped desperately to be hired there for real. I kept in touch with my editors, but they told me positions on the arts desk (and other desks) arose very rarely, and were reserved for reporters who had done their time at smaller papers around the country. It was a kind of guild, they said, encouraging me to move somewhere else and work my way up the ranks. But I had prioritized the validation of landing an intermittently interested man over developing my chops, paying my dues, and building my career.
I wrote the word “newsroom” in quotations above because the space This Week’s reporters and editors were situated in looked more like an elementary school classroom. The walls were cinderblock. We sat around big tables, rather than at individual desks. We had to take turns using a handful of office telephones (it was 1990 — no cell phones), and a small number of Mac Classics, on which we had to not only write and edit, but also lay out our own pieces, using photos we had taken and gotten printed ourselves, with our own point-and-shoot cameras.
Each week I would drive around the island interviewing a couple of subjects — everyone from local “celebrities” to the parents of a child with a life-threatening disease called Prader Willi Syndrome — then write 750-word profiles of them. I’d also edit profiles by other reporters and editors.
My job at This Week was interesting for about…actually, it was never interesting.
Good thing it was over within less than a year after I started. The publisher unloaded the lame free weekly and laid off the entire editorial staff.
While on unemployment I freelanced and applied for jobs (at consumer publications only!) which I circled in the New York Times classifieds. I sent my resume to Conde Nast and Hearst, landed a few interviews, and never got the jobs. I was only 24, but I was sure my career was over.
I did not apply for jobs at trade publications — not until after my unemployment ran out. That’s when I got hired as the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade called Fashion Jewelry Plus! — the exclamation point included in the title.
Reader, I took my house apart today trying to find a copy of Fashion Jewelry Plus! so I could show it to you, and you could appreciate how amateurish and embarrassing it was.
Some time last year when I was moving I came across a copy. I cringed hardest at my monthly editors’ letter, accompanied by a very serious photo of the 24-year-old editor-in-chief, in another of those power suits with the big should pads.
The magazine was published by a family-owned trade show company based in Newton Mass. I was based in their New York office, on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, but I had to fly to Newton each month for meetings and fashion shoots. At Fashion Jewelry Plus! the EIC did pretty much everything. I wrote all the articles (many of which were little more than coverage of the company’s own trade shows, and the manufacturers who spent money on booths and ads), styled the shoots, wrote the editorials.
The magazine was hideous. It wasn’t a real magazine — by and large it was a trade show directory. I was mortified by my association with it. The worst thing was running into to my former colleagues from WWD out in “the market.” I didn’t want to tell them where I was working. I didn’t want them to see that stupid rag. More than that, I didn’t want them to know how much I regretted leaving WWD, how far I’d set myself back by trying to move forward too quickly, without thinking things through.
Eventually, though, after about two years, I admitted it to my former boss. I begged her to take me back. She said there weren’t any jobs at WWD, but that there might be some at other Fairchild titles. She suggested I get in touch with HR, which I did.
Next stop on the trade magazine trade: Home Furnishings Daily, aka HFD (which then became Home Furnishings Network, or HFN), one of WWD’s sister publications.
At HFD, I would simultaneously hold the titles of “Luxury Linens Editor,” “Decorative Pillows Editor,” and…“Personal Alarms Editor.”
(There was a moment in the early 90s when women were carrying personal alarms. How they wound up being covered by a home furnishings publication escapes me.)
^^^ The remaining swag from my days as “Decorative Pillows Editor” at HFD.
I was working at HFD when my “starter” marriage collapsed. There were so many reasons, and I’m really now glad I got out when I did, but at the time it was very hard.
When we were together, my first husband and I religiously watched thirtysomething every week. In our 20s, we sort of aspired to be like the characters on the show, most of all the lead characters, Michael and Hope — one of those annoyingly perfect couples. As we were separating, though, we became more like Elliott and Nancy, the couple whose marriage was falling apart.
Once I moved out, I started to identify more with the character of Melissa, the artsy-funky perpetually single photographer, who dressed kooky and lived in a cool loft and dated unavailable men like Gary, the hot, roguish English professor.
After my marriage was over, I’d go on to waste a lot of time with several unavailable men (including one whom I described to friends as “a Gary”) before meeting my current husband when I was 38.
Now, on the brink of 54, despite being long married, I still feel kind of Melissa-ish — in a sort of ageless, weirdo, good way. I hope I always will.