Saturday, December 19, 2009

Chapter 2 • 1972-1973 • Instant Editor

Who hires an inexperienced freelance writer to run a city magazine? Obviously, no one in his right mind. And who takes the job when she knows nothing about magazines except how to read them when they are already published. Same answer: no one in her right mind. And there you have a combination doomed to failure.

Actually, I wasn’t hired to run The St. Louisan; I was hired to be a warm body when the editor stormed off in a fit of pique, which of course he did shortly after I walked in the door. “I’m going to lunch,” he said and never came back. Who could blame him? He knew me, and he probably thought the whole thing was a bad joke.

After a suitable amount of time, the publisher (who was not in his right mind) called down and asked, “Is he back yet?” I said, “No.” He said, “OK. Change the locks, clean out his desk, and send a press release announcing that you’re the new editor. Congratulations.” I think they call that a meteoric rise in job stature, or just plain loony.

The hardest part was cleaning out the desk, which was a pigsty. Yuck. I needed industrial-strength chemicals to get through the accumulate filth, but I didn’t have to sort piles of paper or files because there were none. Those he had managed to clear, take, or destroy, leaving me absolutely nothing—no plans for the next issue, no manuscripts, no names or phone numbers. This man was thorough in his sabotage. He even blacked out every entry on the daily calendar. He might as well have left a note saying, "Ha! Now let’s see how far you get.”

The staff—one space salesperson, one secretary, who actually set type, and a designer whose hand shook so badly he could barely hold a pen—was in shock. Apparently, no one had any idea what to do, how to do it, or when it was supposed to be done. I did have an electric typewriter, which gave me hope that I could write the whole magazine if I had to, but that was the only amenity. The office itself was a concrete box in the middle of an underground parking garage. I guess when the publisher, who owned a bunch of restaurants and the hotel above the garage, decided he wanted a magazine, he just marked off a bunch of parking spaces and said, “Let’s put it here.”

The office was either too hot or too cold, depending on the weather, noisy, and full of exhaust from all the cars. The designer, whose hand shook because he drank, also smoked. Between the fumes and the smoke floating in the air, I’m surprised everyone hadn’t already died. We attempted to solve that problem by installing an air filter over his desk, but that still left everything else. And everything else seemed insurmountable.

I called a locksmith, though it was apparent we would never see Harry (my predecessor) again, and figured out how to write a press release. Then, I called my little crew together to see what could be salvaged. “What do I need to know?” I asked, “And how are we going to keep this ship from sinking?” I guess they realized if they didn’t help me there would be no magazine, and we would all be out of work. Harry had run the place with tyrannical control, so no one had been expected to think creatively.

They told me what they did and where it fit in the grand scheme. Of course, with no plans, names, or phone numbers, there was no grand scheme. But the press release had an instant effect; the phone started ringing. “Are you looking for articles, writers, photographers?”

“Yes, yes, and yes. Come on in,” I said. “I will talk to anyone, read anything, consider any idea.” In a town where no editor had ever uttered such blasphemy, the news traveled faster than I would have though possible. I was deluged with visitors who seemed not the least put off by the location or ambiance of the office. The first few weeks were truly surreal. I didn’t know enough about running a magazine to ask intelligent questions, so I stuck with the one that had worked so far: “What do I need to know?” People were only too willing to tell me.

The first time a photographer handed me a contact sheet, he had to explain what it was and how to read it. The next time he came by, he brought me a magnifying loop so I could see the tiny squares. Another photographer went even further. He handed me a camera and said, “Go take pictures so you know what we’re talking about.” The printing salesman’s opening gambit was, “Do you want to be billed accurately or the way Harry wanted us to bill him?” Then, they had to explain what was written on the invoice.

One of the perks of being the editor was getting to pick the articles I wanted to write, and there were plenty of opportunities. If there was a hole in the schedule, I plugged it, sometimes with important topics but often with pure fluff.


“My dog is a an obedience school dropout, a fact of which I am not very proud but which nonetheless fills me a certain, undeniable sense of relief. It isn’t that he actually flunked; he simply didn’t finish. Though I accept full responsibility for the decision to quit, I suspect he is as relieved as I am about the final outcome. For some, obedience school becomes a way of life. For novices, such as our family, it became a weekly trauma with no relief in sight. We came COLD, having no inkling of what was in store for us.”

1972 • The St. Louisan

This was journalism 101 through graduate school with lessons, insights, information, skills, and secrets coming at me so fast it was almost impossible to absorb them. I meant to write down everything I was learning, but I didn’t have time to go to the bathroom let alone write a textbook. Now, I have to time travel to recapture some of those early lessons. But a few of them have stayed with me in stereo and Technicolor, building a foundation for my unknowable future as a writer and editor.

· Never pretend you know something when you don’t. Chances are the person you’re trying to impress knows more about it than you do, and you’ll look like an egotistical fool. Corollary: don’t be afraid to sound stupid. You’re a novice; you know it; they know it; you might as well admit it.

· Respect writers. Yesterday, you were one (before you became a big, important editor), and you hated it when editors treated you like a second-class citizen. Remember, you need writers unless you want to plan, research, write, and edit the whole magazine single-handedly. You need ideas. You need different viewpoints. You need writers as much as they need you, probably more.

· Your job is to keep what is good and fix is bad, if possible. Not every story that comes across your desk will be good. Some of them will be pretty bad, in fact. When you get one that you can’t possibly publish as it is, you have four choices: (1) rewrite it completely, (2) fix it, (3) work with the writer to fix it, or (4) send it back. If you rewrite it completely, it’s hard to justify paying the writer, but it is his story, no matter how badly written. If it just needs a little tweaking, do that because that’s an editor’s job, and it’s the most efficient solution. If it needs a lot of work, and you think the writer could fix it with a little direction, offer to provide it. If you send it back, that’s a hole in the magazine; but if it really is hopeless, you are out of options.

· Don’t be overly impressed by the little nameplate on your desk that says EDITOR. It’s a job title; not a divine right. All that genuflecting by aspiring writers and photographers is not about you; it’s about your perceived power to get them published. Write this down. You have no power. If you doubt it, spend an hour with the publisher who will be happy to remind you that he has the power.

· Never, never lie. To anyone. If you do, the person you lie to, and anyone that person tells (and she will tell everyone in town) will never believe another word you say. Trust is fragile. It takes forever to build it and mere seconds to destroy it.

· Be lavish with praise, understated with criticism. When you read something that makes you tingle or see a picture that takes your breath away, stop what you’re doing and reach for the phone. Tell the person how unbelievably great her work is. When you read something that makes you groan or see a picture that looks like a 12-year-old took it, try to explain why it won’t work for the magazine, not why it is beyond redemption.

Despite all the valuable lessons, life at The St. Louisan was indescribably stressful. The publisher, who didn’t know much more about running a magazine than I did, seem to feel he was in the same league as the Hearsts and Pulitzers. I would bring him the entire finished layout for approval, and on a whim, he would start pulling stories out or wanting the whole thing rearranged. This was in the era of manual typesetting (one agonizing line at a time) and pasting up boards. Our designer was not the world’s most dependable person, and often someone had to climb through his window to wake him up and drag him down to the office on layout days. We never actually knew if he would make it.

The person who sold adverting space was from an old St. Louis family and had all the right connections. She played tennis at the publisher’s club (Did I mention that he also owned a club?) and occasionally went horseback riding with him. She knew business; I knew writing. As the months went by, she began to exercise more and more influence, while I was slowly sinking in quicksand. Frankly, I was either too naïve to see what she was doing or so relieved at getting rid of some of the responsibility, I didn’t understand what was happening right under my nose.

While I was hanging on by my fingernails, I lost my grip and came down with pneumonia. That was 37 years ago, and I still remember what that cough felt like. Bad. Very bad. I ended up in the hospital with a raging fever that went on and on and on.

One day, the publisher called—not to ask how I was feeling, but to tell me he was considering hiring my replacement. (Why was this a surprise? It was what he had done to good ole Harry.) What did I think? he asked. I wasn’t having many coherent thoughts at the time, but I do remember saying, “Well, if you want a February issue, I suppose you should hire him.” He did.

The bad news: I was out of a job. The good news: my resume looked a lot better than it had 14 months before. I packed up my issues of the magazine and my Rolodex of writers, photographers, illustrators, and suppliers and tried to figure out what an ex-editor of a city magazine does for an encore.

If every stage of one’s career has a defining moment, I don’t have to think too hard about what mine was during that year. Back when I said, “I will talk to anyone, read anything, consider any idea,” I began a practice that would come to define my professional life. A handful of glossy magazines were impressive, but they didn’t come close to my real accomplishment at The St. Louisan: being in a position to recognize, encourage, and launch talented people, many of whom have become very successful over the years.


“Commuting is a word that means different things to different people. To the thousands of St. Louisans who inch their way twice daily along our various highways systems, it means the ordeal of stop-and-go traffic, stalled cars, slow downs for accidents, next to impossible conditions in inclement weather, and expenditures for gas and parking. For those not “fortunate” enough to own a car, but who live on a bus line, it has a different meaning. To them, it means waiting at bus stops in all kinds of weather, constant stopping to pick up passengers, delays as their vehicle fights city traffic and endless stoplights, increased fares, and occasional discomfort. Though their problems are different, their needs are the same. What they all want is to get where they’re going as conveniently and rapidly as possible.”

1972 • The St. Louisan


Catherine Franz said...

Bobbi, good draft. There are some spots that need clarity and a few grammar problems. Was able to read between the lines though and get the "gist" and that was good. You're doing better than me, anyway, I can't even remember what I was doing in 1972 without returning to my journal.
Catherine Franz, a fan.

Bobbi Linkemer said...

Hi Catherine. Tell me what the grammar problems are. My editor will shoot herself. And what needs clarity? I'm open to critique, believe me. Thanks so much for commenting and for being a "fan." That is SO neat! Bobbi

FictionDeeva said...

awesome! That's a great story...I wish an editing job could be handed to me that way as well!!! yes i'd love to write as an editor...but is it worth it? So, I'm strating to think! Im new here just started a blog this month! feel free to stop by and comment anytime! Im glad I found you!