The most crushing disappointment of my life was when Elle magazine didn't hire me as an editorial assistant.
A coveted job, of course, and surely the competition was stiff. And to his great credit, the Elle editor who turned me down couldn't have been sweeter or more ego-salvaging. He assured me didn't think I'd be happy in an opening-lots-of-mail editorial assistant position, since I seemed to be a writer.
I still wish I'd gotten hired at the job at Elle; it still stings. But in retrospect I can see how not being hired at a magazine and instead charting a course that brought me to three different web-based publications (so far) has been a blessing in disguise.
Because I am a writer -- rather, I'm a young person trying to be one. I worked as a newspaper reporter for a year and half, then I factchecked at a couple magazines' web sites for about seven months, and most recently I've been an associate blog editor here at HuffPost who does a lot of freelance writing on the side. So I read with great interest the recent New York Observer piece by Doree Shafrir, "Freelance Fizzle: The Decline and Fall of the Writer," which articulates the conundrums for us writers/dodo birds:
"A generation that is starting to see barely legal bloggers become more prominent in six months than even the most talented contributing editors may not see this path as necessarily the most appealing, or expedient, one.....Another related issue is influence--whether the kind of buzz generated by a magazine story is the kind that young writers still want--that is, attention from a world in which someone may get news not from CNN but from a Facebook posting about a story on CNN."
A lot of us who go into journalism are completely sheltered and naive about what it actually entails, disillusioned by unrealistic portrayals in movies that lack the actual two-weeks-standing-on-your-feet-and-Photocopying and ulcer-inducing insecurity that we face in our pursuit of a byline. I myself have a long history of being boondoggled by pop culture: I applied to NYU because I thought it'd be just like Greenwich Village in the 1950s, all beatniks in berets, poetic and artistic and sipping coffee over a dog-eared Village Voice. Naive, right? (I hope charmingly so.) For the most part, that fantasy has resurfaced as the gold ring to strive for in my albeit short career as a professional journalist. As Shafir puts it:
"Boozy lunches at Michael's and evenings at Elaine's, unlimited expense accounts, stories that took months to report and longer to write, maybe a ramshackle house in the Hamptons to complement the musty, book-clogged apartment on the Upper West Side. But above all, there was the sense that magazine writing was at the center of a vital intellectual universe, with New York as its capital, and vaunted writers and editors such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Willie Morris, Harold Hayes, Lillian Ross, Clay Felker, Norman Mailer, David Halberstam, Nora Ephron and the like as its reigning princes and princesses, with salaries and perks and moist-eyed acolytes to match....
And until quite recently, landing an editorial assistant gig at Esquire or GQ or Elle, or the reporter-researcher job at The New Republic, or the two-year training program at Vanity Fair, or the (unpaid) internship at Harper's, or the (nominally paid) internship at The Nation, or even, for the most well-connected and talented graduates, an assistant job at The New Yorker, was the ne plus ultra for the young, tweedy intelligentsia, those graduates of Yale and Vassar who had committed to memory the opening lines of "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.""
I convinced myself at the time, in the many months that I felt like a piece-of-crap failure, that the Elle job would have been a ticket to the romanticized lifestyle Shafir described. I believed that all I needed was that ticket and talent and drive. And I am still so earnest to believe that still is the recipe, although the magazine-job "ticket" will truly never be what it once was.
My senior year at NYU, I interned at New York magazine. I asked one of their star journalists, Vanessa Grigoriadis, if she would be my mentor that semester and she generously agreed. Over dinner one night at Blue Ribbon Sushi, I explained how I hoped to one day be a journalist covering women's politics, societal and cultural issues, like her or Ariel Levy or Emily Nussbaum (or Rebecca Traister at Salon or Katha Pollitt at The Nation, etc.). "You need a strategy," Vanessa told me.
That idea confounded me at the time, and to a certain extent, confounds me still. What kind of strategy? I want to be a writer. Isn't my "strategy" just to pitch good ideas, be driven and talented, and write well?
In the almost-four years since Vanessa offered me that advice, I've operated completely seat-of-the-pants without a strategy. I've gone on lots of job interviews, I've gotten hired at some great jobs, I've pitched more story ideas than I can count, I've bungled a few articles, and I've knocked a few other articles out of the park. But what I was most surprised to learn -- what NYU's journalism department didn't tell me, what Vanessa didn't tell me, what no one told me -- is that being a journalist supporting herself sans Mommy and Daddy has entirely been a race to financially stay afloat and keep-up-with-the-Jones with my friends who work at Fidelity and Google. Pitching ideas and writing has not been the hard part; it was that first job out of college that paid $21,000 a year that was brutal.
And yet, on the upside, once I realized I was operating under complete disillusionment about the difference between folklore versus reality, it helped me to refine my goals. All along, the only thing I wanted to do was write. The other stuff -- a professorship at my alma mater, that place in the Hamptons, a New York Times bestseller, fairy dust rubbing off on me at some writerly cocktail party -- would be nice extras. But extras they would be. That's not what journalism is, or what it ever was, or what it ever will be for the majority of us in this profession. My motivation has always been #1, the pleasure I feel from writing, and #2, the occasional accolades from the my family, friends and peers.
Barely anyone gets Google- or Fidelity-style well-to-do in this profession from editing or staff writing jobs. My goal, as I stated before, is to be either a staff writer somewhere, focusing on women's political, societal and cultural issues, or to freelance on those subjects. But the occasional $400 check here or there from working as a freelance is not a serious lifestyle choice if one owes the NYU/the government loan people thousands of dollars.
My career -- for awhile at least -- will most likely be a hodgepodge of day job and freelance, print and online. On the one hand, I think the ubiquity of online publications can make the dead-tree byline more coveted and valuable in theory, if not necessarily more financially lucrative. But on the other hand, here's a quote a 24-year-old editor from Shafir's article:
"I feel like there are certain people I've met who are young and super into magazines still, which is always surprising to me, because I don't know why anyone who wants to be involved with the media would want to turn their attention to magazines.""
Case in point: Recently I wrote a freelance article for Bitch magazine about a sexual politics matter -- easily the best article I've ever written. I labored for about four months on this piece. And I can only think of one friend who went out to buy the $6 magazine off a news stand. Every single other friend and colleague, without exception, has asked me for a link to the article -- which cannot be found online. So I saw my name in print on a dead tree and I cashed a check for my months of researching, interviewing, writing and rewriting. But I'm not sure anybody's actually read it.
On second thought, maybe I do have a strategy now, although I doubt it is what Vanessa or I ever would have come up with four years ago when I was an earnest, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 20-year-old journalism undergrad, licking my lips to see my name in print somewhere other than my hometown newspaper. It's a gun-to-your-head strategy, out of necessity, rather than choice:
Stick to the web.