(^^^ *Does NOT actually exist. Yet. I did recently submit a revised proposal to my agent. Fingers crossed… 🤞)
Greetings, “Adventures in ‘Journalism’” subscribers. Before I lead you back in time to the beginning of my wayward career path, a little Sari Botton 101 (also included in some of this newsletter’s “About” materials) so you’ll know where I’m coming from (and aiming toward):
I’m a writer, editor, and quasi-journalist in my early 50s. These days I have a pretty satisfying career, writing personal essays, working as an editor at Longreads, and teaching at places like Catapult. But it has taken me a loooong time to get here.
I’ve held many weird jobs, and wasted so much time at so many crazy stops along the way. I suppose it hasn’t all been for naught, though. Each experience has informed who I am and more importantly, who I’m not. And the big bonus: In hindsight, it’s made for some pretty funny stories. Well, they make me laugh, anyway. I hope they’ll make you laugh, too.
By the way, I hardly consider myself to be at the end or top of my career. As far as I’m concerned, I’m hashtag #StillEmerging. (Read Jenny Bhatt’s wonderful Longreads essay in the Fine Lines series that inspired this hashtag). I still have a long way to go toward reaching my ultimate goals — largely publishing books of my own (as opposed to books filled mostly with other people’s writing, like the anthologies I’ve edited, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY, and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY). In this newsletter you’ll find glimpses in the rear view mirror from where I’ve gotten so far.
“When Did You Know You Wanted to Be a Writer?” and other questions I hate.
Recently someone asked me one of my least favorite questions — actually, two of them rolled into one: “When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Whose work were you reading that made you think, ‘I want to do that!’”
I hate being put on the spot about favorite books and authors because, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’m not terribly well read, especially for an English major (I mostly studied plays and playwriting) and journalism minor — not to mention someone who teaches. I have unusual taste, and when I’ve read from The Canon, I’ve often felt as if I were missing something.
Also, I came to writing in my own weird way, and I’m self-conscious about it — as if I might have come to it the wrong way (which would be just like me, weirdo misfit that I’ve always been). Because so many people ask those same questions, it feels as if there are right answers to them, which I am incapable of furnishing.
Usually I respond by scanning my brain for what I think will be impressive or at least acceptable responses, but this time, I short-circuited that exhausting, old routine and came clean.
“That’s not how it worked for me,” I said. “I started writing as a kid, when I was 7 or 8, shortly after my grandmother died…because I felt like an alien who’d landed on a strange planet, and I had to get down everything I was witnessing.”
I was an odd kid, different from the others I grew up with, different from my spunky, energetic younger sister. I was super sensitive, intense, artsy, (or as they pronounce it on the south shore of Long Island, where I’m from, ahwtsy) interested in playing make-believe way beyond an age where it was appropriate. I was hyper-aware of other people — always monitoring their moods, trying to decipher their motivations, studying their behavior to determine how I could act normal like them, but also to try and understand what was really going on behind the normal appearances they projected.
Everywhere I looked, I couldn’t help but see duality. There was me and there was everyone else. There were financially well-heeled, intact families that drove around in Cadillacs and shopped at the tony boutiques in Long Island’s fancy “Five Towns,” and there was mine — struggling to get by, driving rickety Dodges, and coming apart. There was how people acted and how they truly seemed to feel. Because my parents were elementary school teachers, and my father was also clergy, I had behind-the-scenes views into otherwise impenetrable institutions. I overheard the principal and the most intimidating teachers in my school gossiping and joking around in the teachers’ room when my dad brought me in there before or after school. I did my homework in the synagogue’s pews while he rehearsed for shabbat services with the choir, listening as they kidded, or swore when someone sang their part wrong. There were the hopeful, festive weddings my father officiated, against a backdrop of failing marriages all around me, including my parents’, all casualties of the ‘70s divorce boom.
Before she died, there were my grandmother’s bruises — I’d later learn they were from blood transfusions to treat her leukemia — and her insistence that she was fine. There was the a hyper-vigilant, super well-behaved child I was, and how angry and sad and worried I felt, behind that facade. Behind every story was a different story.
Life seemed to be kind of like theater, people like actors. It’s probably why I was deeply drawn to the stage, from the time my father played Tevye in a community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (and goddamned Selby Banks got to play one of his younger daughters, instead of me 😡).
I started acting in first grade, in school, and then through a local children’s theatrical workshop, run by a talent agent who would send me on auditions. In fifth grade, I got my dad to take “professional” photos for my “portfolio.” One of my best friends and I wrote our own resumes, both of which included the line, “I always face the audience and project.”
I was determined to be not just an actress, but an all-around star. I’d act and sing and dance, like one of those celebrities from the MGM/That’s Entertainment era, who showed up and dazzled in every arena. I’d perform in straight dramas, musicals, on sit-coms, and of course the variety shows that abounded on television in the ‘70s, hosted by Flip Wilson, Andy Williams, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Sonny & Cher. Maybe I’d even engage in some sort of sport that didn’t require much skill on “Battle of the Network Stars” — maybe Tug of War or something. I’d sing the national anthem at baseball games. I’d be the recognizable celebrity voice in television commercials.
In addition to journaling — where I’d try to make sense of the world around me and how I might endeavor to fit into it — at 10, I began writing plays, such as, “Sadie, Sadie, Five Towns Lady,” (clearly influenced by the song “Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady” from Funny Girl). It’s the only piece of writing from my childhood that I still have. And that is how I got started as a “writer.”