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.
|Sari Botton||Oct 18, 2019||2|
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.)
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.
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.
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…