Monday, December 28, 2009

Chapter 4 • 1978-1980 • Corporate Culture Shock

I was not born with the corporate gene. Surely, it is innate, I thought, as I observed my new cohorts at my new job. They all seemed to know how to dress, what to say, to whom to defer. I was 41 years old and didn’t have a clue. I had just come from two jobs where I had been invited to have coffee with senior executives who were happy to chat with me. Here, I sensed that wouldn’t be the case.

Fortunately, I had a friend who understood the mores of this strange new culture. She gave me two guidebooks to survival—Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women and Dress For Success, which I read from cover to cover, trying to absorb as much as possible as quickly as possible.

I was hired by a sophisticated young woman who probably never read either of those books. She just knew how to conduct herself. She wore stunning suits, exuded confidence, poured her black coffee from a silver carafe, and smoked long, mentholated cigarettes. She was V.P. of Public Affairs, the first female vice president the company had ever appointed. Since the department was brand new, so was her staff. She was a flaming feminist, and she filled the department with strong, talented women. We all had cute names: Judy, Judi, Bobbi, Connie, Margie, and Cindy. That did not auger well for garnering respect from those who were already referring to us as “the hen house.” To diffuse our negative image, our boss instructed us to sign memos and correspondence with our initials and last names. This didn’t fool anyone.

I was, by that time, an experienced writer and editor, so knew I could do the job. The corporation had 120 small companies loosely organized into industry groups. All I had to do was plan publications, interview people, write articles, work with designers and photographers, get everything approved, and go to press. I had been doing that for years—in the land of “media.” This was a whole new country.

In a magazine, there is a publisher and an editor. Decisions are made and executed. I never appreciated the simplicity of that process before. In a corporation, there is a hierarchy of folks who get involved, call the shots, and grudgingly, after much strutting around, approve the politically sanitized copy. Every decision is a major event, every conversation a potential minefield. The first time I interviewed one of the group presidents, I closed his office door so the microphone wouldn’t pick up the background noise from the hall. Two hours later, my boss summoned me to her office for a proper dressing down. How dare I offend George (who happened to be the CEO’s son) with such disrespectful behavior? I remained at the company for two years; George never spoke to me again, and my boss made sure our paths did not cross. That was lesson number one.

George’s father was indeed the CEO, a dour looking man who didn’t fraternize with underlings. Being used to easy-going relationships with many corporate and civic leaders, when I found myself alone in an elevator with him, I smiled and said, “Hi. I’m Bobbi Linkemer,” and extended my hand. He just stared at it. Apparently, the proper show of awe on my part would have been to genuflect, not shake hands. Back to my boss’s office for another talk. Lesson number two.

My title was Manager, Internal Communications, and my job involved launching a series of publications for the employees of our disparate and scattered companies. The purpose was to unify them into one big, happy corporation. Since nothing existed, I could create these magazines and newsletters from scratch. The good news was I didn’t have to conform to established editorial guidelines and constraints. There were none. The bad news was everything had political implications, even the most straightforward little story. Perhaps at my age, it was just too late to learn the nuances of a silly though stressful game. Behind the scenes all sorts of intrigue was going on, but I had no idea who was involved or what was at stake. I was blithely meeting people, getting them to tell me their stories, and working with great photographers. Who could ask for more?


“If you’re one of those lethargic Americans who think the current craze of physical fitness—like hula hooping and the twist—will run its course and disappear, think again. To an increasing number of people in this country, from scientists to secretaries and every other conceivable occupation, physical fitness is as much a part of living as eating and sleeping, and they can’t image life without it … Athletes seem to overwhelmingly agree that it is impossible to be involved in a sport, giving it your full attention, and still think about the problems of the day. ‘I believe you can only do one thing at a time, and if you’re going to play well, your mind has to be on that.’ insists one committed golfer who has been perfecting his swing for twenty years.”

1979 • Accent

Yet, the tension in the place was palpable, handing in the air like smoke. The people who worked there were not happy campers. It had to do with the history of the company, which had been one man’s hobby. He had just kept buying businesses whenever he saw one he liked despite a lack of any discernible pattern to his acquisitions. When he died unexpectedly, everything changed. Out with the old, in with the new. New management, new rules, new culture. Public Affairs was part of the new order, and we were not winning a popularity contest with the old guard.

On the surface, I had a great thing going: a big office overlooking the park, an impressive title, and a livable salary. I even traveled to such exotic locales as Mishawaka, Indiana, to write about bottom silo unloaders and DeKalb, Illinois, to immortalize the Huskie Bus Line. It was heady stuff. Mostly, I kept my head down and tried not to antagonize anyone, which I seemed to have a knack for doing. If there was a way to open mouth, insert foot, I did it, never quite getting the hang of who had the power, which seemed to change frequently.


“Winters are severe in the Midwest and mobility is often difficult, to say the least. But at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, about an hour and a half outside of Chicago, folks don’t worry much about ice and snow. Whatever the season or the weather, NIU’s 22,000 students, as well as much of the faculty and staff, get around with relative ease. Rain or shine, in breezes or blizzards, most of them take the bus. ‘Our buses run during inclement weather,’ says the manager of the Huskie Bus Line. ‘As a matter of fact, there’s a saying around here that if you want to get through, just follow a Huskie bus. That’s how DeKalb keeps its streets open in the winter.”

1979 • Accent

One day, after the board of directors had met behind closed doors, a seismic shift altered the power structure. A coup had been staged. The president was out, somebody new was in, the current issue of the magazine was shredded (I was heartsick about that), and the Public Affairs Department was no more. Just like that. We were called into the V.P.’s office and given the news. Judi, Bobbi, Connie, Margie, and Cindy all stood around looking stunned. It was nothing personal, of course. They were merely disbanding the department. I guess the new leadership didn’t see any need for what we did, making us instantly superfluous. Whatever we had produced during the past two years was deemed worthless.

It was an interesting day. No one spoke to us. It was as if we had leprosy, and even indirect contact would put others at risk of being disbanded. Cardboard cartons appeared in our offices. We packed up our belongings and personal files, and a couple of brave souls helped us carry boxes to our cars. We were out by 4:00 p.m. I heard later that the file cabinets had been locked and the door to the office sealed and wallpapered over. That made for a nice story, anyway.

Like figures in a Soviet history book, we had been eradicated.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Chapter 3 • 1973-1978 • The Making of a Real Writer

Job-hunting is not for the weak or the meek, and I was both. Pneumonia had taken its toll, and my self-image had was foundering. But I really didn’t have any choice; I had to find a job. So, I wrote a rather creative resume, added copies of The St Louisan to my portfolio, bought a suit, and started making calls and knocking on doors. At least now, people knew my name, which did help.

Who knows what causes the planets to align and produce a miracle at precisely the right moment? I was not expecting any such thing when I walked into the office of the editor of St. Louis Commerce magazine. Bob was an old-school newspaper guy—distantly polite but no nonsense. “Why would the editor of the other city magazine want to work for this one?” he asked. Good question. “Do you know the publisher of the other magazine?” I replied. (St. Louis is a big small town, and everyone in the journalism community knows everyone else) “Yes,” he said. “I do.” “OK, that’s the first reason. The second is I want you to make a real writer out of me.

He raised one eyebrow. “Really?” was all he said. “This has all happened pretty fast,” I admitted. “I was kind of thrust into that job, and while I’m an OK writer, I’m not great. I want to be great.” (This was unplanned, believe me. I had no idea I was going to say that.) Bob explained that he had a staff of three; he and Mary did all the writing; someone else sold advertising. I assumed Mary wasn’t going anywhere. As I left, Mary stuck her head in Bob’s office and asked, “What was Bobbi Linkemer doing here?” “Looking for a job,” he told her. “That’s interesting,” she said.

That was on a Friday. Monday morning Mary resigned, saying she had been wanting to retire for years, and now that there as a replacement in the wings, she wouldn’t feel guilty about leaving. Monday, Bob invited me to lunch and offered me the job on the spot at slightly more than starvation wages. I was too excited to care. (That came back to haunt me.) Later that week I was interviewed by “the boss,” a man whom I would have called a “male chauvinist pig,” had I known there was such an expression. These days, he would be sued for the questions he asked; but, then, it was the way of the world. He covered everything from boyfriends and birth control to what I would do if my children called me in an emergency. That one got me. “I would be available,” I replied. “As a parent, wouldn’t you be?” In the meantime, Bob looked like he was going to melt into the woodwork. Despite my failure to convey respect where respect was supposedly due, I was hired.

The following week when I started, Bob was out for the day, and no one seemed overwhelmed with joy at my arrival or suggested that I join them for lunch. Somehow, I got through the day with nothing to do but wash the desk. I was getting good at that.

Commerce magazine was the publication of the Chamber of Commerce, which morphed into the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association (RCGA). The magazine had one mission: to promote the economic viability of the nine-county St. Louis region. While it was not an obvious PR rag, it sure never published anything negative. Bob ran it like a newspaper, which it wasn’t, and treated me like a secretary, which I wasn’t. I was floating in a no-man’s land between the secretarial staff and the managers who were all men. The secretaries barely spoke to me, and the managers didn’t know how to regard me, so they tiptoed around me.

In the outside world, my lack of status was not an issue. There was some cache attached to being the assistant editor of Commerce magazine. I could interview just about anyone, including the most exalted CEOs of the biggest corporations. This was not due to my competence, clout, or charm. It was because the most powerful people in town sat on the RCGA board. Once again, I had no illusions about my personal influence. It was zilch. And should I doubt it, there were always little reminders, the most dreaded being a note that would appear on my desk if I was five minutes late returning from lunch. The note said, “See me. REH.” To the people I was meeting or interviewing, I was a Brenda Star, girl reporter. It was really hard to tell them I only had an hour for lunch, and if I was late, there would be hell to pay. They just wouldn’t get it. I didn’t get it, but that was my reality for years.

Another part of that reality was my pitiful salary. I was communing from 25 miles west of the city to downtown St. Louis, buying lunch every day, and paying some crazy amount of money for parking. I had to upgrade my wardrobe. Living on what I made became increasingly difficult, especially when my daughters started college. When I asked for a raise the answer was either “no,” or the amount was too negligible to make any difference. Bob suggested that I do “what other divorcees did and brown bag it, get rid of my fancy car (a decrepit Honda), and pull my kids out of that expensive (public) school.” I was livid and stormed out of his office, but it didn’t do me any good.


“When the city’s day sounds begin to fade—the throb of jack hammers, the rhythm of typewriters, the ring of cash registers—the night sounds pick up the beat. St. Louis’s night sounds are made up, in large part, of its music. In the evenings, from Powell Hall and Kiel Auditorium to the Downspout and Duffs, musicians remove their instrument from cases, tune up, and provide St. Louisans and visitors with an almost staggering variety of music to suit every taste.”

1975 • St. Louis Commerce

When Bob told me he had a two-person writing staff, he meant it. But, in truth, it was more like one and a half. He was the half. He wrote less and less and managed more and more; and I researched and wrote, researched and wrote, one article after another. At the end of my tenure I had hundreds of articles, many of which had been reprinted. I wrote about everything: the arts, education, business, medicine, research and development, transportation, architecture, construction, world trade, the environment, people, every imaginable industry, and newsworthy topics on both side of two rivers, in an effort to get people to think of St. Louis as a region, rather than a city.

I also wrote about things that mattered to me when there was room in the magazine. This included some strange subjects for a very staid publication: an ode to railroads, the perils of physical fitness over forty, the myth of business travel, transcendental meditation of harried executives, and the first articles ever published in St. Louis on the tragedy and high cost of alcoholism. In some ways, I had freedom to explore just about anything I wanted to; in others, I was on a tight leash. We didn’t promote people or businesses. We didn’t write about causes the RCGA didn‘t endorse. All articles had to go through our narrow editorial sieve, but I became creative at squeezing story ideas through that sieve. If I could justify it, I could write it.


“The image of the harassed executive downing two martinis at lunch, bringing unfinished work home night after night, or being admonished by his family doctor to ‘slow down’ has become an American cliché. The caricature may be exaggerated but the pressures that created it are not. If anything, they are understated … Stress is one of the most serious problems facing the corporate world today and one that obviously demands a solution. That’s a tall order but apparently not an impossible one, for a tremendous number of businessmen have found a solution. They are among the 500,000 people in this country who practice transcendental meditation or ‘TM,’ a simple mental technique that allows the body to rest deeply so that stress can be released.”

1974 • St. Louis Commerce

The best part of the job was being able to write at home instead of in the office. I have no idea how I convinced Bob to let me do that. But I was fast. No matter how long or complicated the article was, I finished it in a day. The day could be anywhere from six to twelve hours, but by God, I didn’t get up until it was done. I still had my little Smith Corona electric portable and a huge roll of continuous-form paper that poured out of the typewriter. If I had to rearrange paragraphs, I cut up the paper and spread the story out all over the floor, then scotch-taped the paragraphs back together. My typing remained atrocious, which caused Bob to shake his head in dismay, but my writing improved. I guess that was all he cared about.

The worst part was writing something called “the back of the book,” which was filled with b-o-r-i-n-g news items about new construction projects, mergers and acquisitions, promotions, and appointments. They were tiny news stories, and I immediately proved that I was not up to the job. “You buried the lead,” Bob would say, and I would look blank. I was a feature writer, not a reporter. Feature articles don’t have “leads.” After a few years, he gave up and just wrote the back of the book himself.

I had a love-hate relationship with that job. I loved what I was doing; I hated everything about the conditions in which I did it. No money, no respect, hours on the road, especially when it snowed, a pendulum swing between pressure and boredom (I knew exactly how long it took the parking garage across the street to dry after it rained), and the feeling that I had gone as far as I could go. Bob would always be the editor; I would always be the assistant editor. I once asked him what the difference was between assistant editor and associate editor, which was how I wanted to be listed on the masthead. He said, “An assistant works for; an associate work with. You work for.” There I was, with no raise, no change in title, and no future. It was time to do something.

I hadn’t gotten too far beyond that thought when I received a call from someone I had once interviewed for a story. She said she was looking for “the best writer and editor in St. Louis” and had heard I was that person. I almost passed out. I had one interview and an offer of a salary I could actually live on. When I told Bob I was leaving, I cried through the whole conversation. After all my moaning and groaning, I didn’t want to go. “Give me a raise, and I’ll stay,” I said. “I can’t,” he replied. I really believe that, despite his completely patriarchal attitude toward women, there really was nothing he could do. And I could not live on $13,200 a year. No kidding. That’s what I was making after six years in what people considered to be the best job in St. Louis journalism.

My days of being “media” were over. I was going to wear suits, carry a briefcase, and work for a corporation.

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chapter Summaries

For some reason known only to the blogging gods, this post fell out of cyberspace and never appeared on The Writing Life. Thus, it is out of order unless I can figure out how to magically put it where it belongs, which is after the outline and before Chapter 1. If you are confused, I don’t blame you, and I do apologize.

When I teach people how to write a book proposal, I always link the outline to the chapter summaries. I attempt to make it a seamless process, but I realize it requires much thought and wordsmithing to go from bullet points to well-crafted paragraphs. The key is that outlines and chapter summaries are based on intentions—this is how I envision my book and what I intend to write. But a book is fluid and alive and may be quite different at the end than it was in the planning phase. Think of it this way: Your outline is the skeleton of your content, and the summaries are your first pass at putting some meat on the bones.

1. 1968-1972 • You’ve Got Talent

It began innocuously in a night school class taught by a newspaper reporter. I remember only one thing from that class: the teacher took me by the shoulders and said, “I know talent when I see it. You’ve got talent. You’d better keep writing!” I believed her and I struggled to learn to write, get published, and fill one small portfolio. It took me four and a half years.

2. 1972-1973 • Instant Editor

All it took to go from obscurity, writing at a picnic table in my basement, to being a sought-after edit or of a “city magazine” was someone crazy enough to hire me. I was barely a writer, and suddenly I was running a magazine. I knew nothing but was willing to learn from anyone who would teach me. The good news was that I launched a lot of talented writers, artists, and photographers. The bad news was that I never learned to read a profit and loss (P&L) statement. That’s a failing in someone who runs a publication.

3. 1973-1978 • The Making of a Writer

My next job was at St. Louis’s well-established business magazine. My title was a comedown (assistant editor); the salary was a joke; the working conditions were abysmal; my boss was an old-school patriarch; but I did become a “real writer.” I was a one-person writing staff, and in the six years I was there, I built a strong reputation in the community and filled volumes with my articles. However, I was treated like a secretary and didn’t make enough money to go to the gas station and the grocery store in the same week.

4. 1978-1980 • Corporate Culture Shock

I was not born with the corporate gene, and my first job in “big business” was a constant, often painful, reminder. The whole department was comprised of women (a mistake); the general environment was a political nightmare; but the writing and view of the park from the 17th floor made it bearable. The corporation owned 120 small companies, so the subject matter was all over the place. Eventually, there was a coup in the executive office, and our department was disbanded. We were out by 4:00, just before they locked the file cabinets and wallpapered over the door.

5. 1980 • Fear & Freelancing

I never liked job-hunting, but being a single mom with two daughters made it an urgent matter. While I was circulating my resume and making sure my interview suits were clean, I was landing lucrative freelance projects and making some great contacts in the St. Louis business world. It was a heady experience. I think I knew then that freelancing would be a great life, but I needed a real job with benefits. The prospects were not looking good.

6. 1980-1982 • Disappointed & Dejected

When I was just about losing hope, I had three job offers. I took the one that was the least chaotic and had the best salary. My boss made it seem like I was the best thing that ever happened to him … until the day I started the job. Lesson learned: interview your predecessor and check out your workspace before you accept the offer. Mine office was dismal, but it reflected the general mood of misery that pervaded the department, which was run by a paranoid, petty tyrant (I sure had a way of finding them.) Everything about the job was depressing except for the writing and photography. Once again, I was the whole staff, and I produced so many publications I could barely keep track. I was stressed out. I had to join a gym.

7. 1982-1989 • The Best of Times, the Worst of times

I was hired away by a company that seemed too good to be true, which, of course, it was. I had multiple job titles while I was there—writer, editor, account executive, and marketing manager. The crux of the matter was some doubt on the part of the top man that I could really write, despite having hired me because I was considered to be the best writer in town. So, I spent six-and-a-half years proving I could write, produced the best work of my career, and filled in the remaining gaps in my experience and education. I lost the battle, cleaned out my office, and spent the next few weeks trying to decide what to do. I was getting good at this.

8. 1987 • AMA, The Biggest Break

Hooking up with the American Management Association was the beginning of big things that created the perfect link between a full-time job and full-time freelancing. A colleague recommended me to write three “little books,” and they were little—only 50 pages each. They were like training wheels for being an author, and they led to much bigger books and many cassette-training programs. It was a great gig, while it lasted, but AMA eventually fell upon hard times.

9. 1990 • Going Solo

I had dreamed of being a full-time, independently employed writer since 1980, but it took being “terminated” to make it happen. After 20 years of loving what I did but not necessarily where I was doing it, I hung out my shingle. The freelance life in the ’90s was wonderful. There was plenty of work and plenty of money. Corporate magazines were paying $1.00 a word! I landed steady corporate clients, some of which lasted for years. My motto was, "You need it; I can do it.” And I did. It was an exhilarating time, despite no understanding of how to run a business. I still had no idea what a P&L statement was. That’s also a failing in an entrepreneur.

10. 2001 • The Bottom Drops Out

What goes up must go down, and life as I knew it ceased to be with a loud thud. The economy tanked in 2001; my clients (all very large companies) panicked and fired all their outside consultants; and I found myself with no work. That is not an exaggeration. I was already in shock when September 11th forever changed the world. The next four years were sort of a blur. I had to start over again, and this time it was going to require ingenuity and imagination. I started writing a training program on how to write a nonfiction book. The training program never materialized, but the material evolved into a workbook I used to teach classes at the community college.

11. 2005 • Reinventing Myself, Again

I was finding work again when life gave me a gentle nudge in a new direction. I was hired to write a book for the CEO of a large hospital system that had won the Malcolm Baldrige Award for Excellence. I knew nothing about the CEO, the hospital system, or the Baldrige; but I took a six-month crash course in all three and wrote the book. Suddenly, I was a ghostwriter, albeit one who didn’t know what she was doing. My little workbook got fatter and fatter; I landed other ghostwriting and editing assignments, and I began to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. The right person came into my life at the right time—a web-marketing guru who taught me the ropes. For the first time, I was truly marketing my business, and clients were finding me on the Web. It was finally coming together.

12. 2008 • Helping Writers Write

Defining one’s mission in a single sentence is not easy. Yet, in a way, I have always known mine. For most of my 40-year career, it was, I want to write. But as I find myself in a new and different place in life, my mission has evolved. Now, in addition to writing, I want to help other writers write. As a teacher, a book coach, and an editor, I have come full circle since my first real job as an editor that allowed me to publish talented writers. My students and clients are publishing their books, and one by one, they are being added to the “friends-of-Bobbi shelf” in my bookcase. I am prouder of those books than of any that bear my own byline.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chapter 1 • 1968-1972 • You’ve Got Talent

It is time to begin writing this book. I am so ready, I really can't put it off any longer. But first, I want to slip in a reminder and a thank you. The reminder is this: Every writer needs an editor. Every writer. No exceptions. The thank you is to my editor, who continues to remind me by the mistakes she finds and the great suggestions she makes that every writer needs an editor. Thank you, Judy!

Words have power. They can take an ordinary life and make it extraordinary in the time it takes to say them. In my case, words became a compass that pointed me toward my life’s work, though I could not possibly have known that at the time I heard them.

I was a 30-year-old housewife and mother. I wasn’t looking for my destiny; I was just looking for a night school class to take on Monday nights. Any class would do as long as it wasn’t yoga. My friend was taking yoga, and I thought that sounded ghastly. I read the catalog twice and finally signed up for something called “Writing for Fun and Money.” The teacher was a newspaper reporter who fit the stereotypical image of hard-boiled, straight talking, and tough. Writing for fun and money didn’t seem her style.

The first night she asked if anyone had ever made any money from their writing. I raised my hand; no one else did. I was embarrassed to admit it was only $25 for giving a book review to a women’s group. Still, that made me something of a star in our little class.

Looking back, I don’t think I learned anything useful about the subject. In fact, the only advice I remember was from a guest speaker who told us to “Write what you know.” While I was trying to think of something I knew, she described sitting in her children’s playpen and writing funny little pieces for parents’ magazines. I remember wondering where the children were while she was in their playpen. Other than that, I remember nothing … except, of course, the words that changed my life.

On the last night of class, we were all exchanging handshakes and hugs. As I approached the teacher to thank her, she grabbed my shoulders and gave them a good shake. “Listen to me,” she said. “I know talent when I see it, and I see it in you. You’d better keep writing!”

I had no idea what caused her to say that. We hadn’t shown her samples of our work or done any writing in class. But it really didn’t matter. She had said it and I believed her. Her words affected me so profoundly that for 40 years, “You’d better keep writing!” has remained a kind of sustaining mantra.

What comes after such a watershed moment? Well, certainly not instant success. On the other hand, I finally had some sense of direction, however vague. I announced to my husband that I was going to be a writer. He rolled his eyes, but to his credit, he helped me carry the picnic table from our minuscule patio to my new “office” in the basement under the stairs. And he did buy me an electric typewriter, which I used for 20 years until I got my first computer.

Okay, so I should keep writing; but I didn’t know what to write about, how to begin, or where to send what I managed to write. Write about what you know was the conventional wisdom. My life at that time consisted of cleaning, grocery shopping, doing laundry, cooking dinner, and taking care of little kids. This was 1967. Everyone I knew was leading exactly the same life. It didn’t seem worth putting on paper.

How to begin? When in doubt, read a book. Off I went to the library to arm myself with books on writing. The only books I found gave copious instructions on how to write fillers—little stories and clever observations on life—for women’s magazines. So, I bought every woman’s magazine I could find, read all the fillers, and struggled to write something scintillating. Unfortunately, the books didn’t provide much information on the mechanics of submission (paper, format, cover letters, etc.), and those things are not intuitive. I did everything wrong, but I think the biggest faux pas was using flimsy, erasable typewriter paper. Had I read even one article on the mechanics of submitting work to national magazines, I would have known better. Even worse, I made full use of the erasable feature, since I always was (and remain) a lousy typist.

Success eluded me, unless you count the colorful rejection slips that seemed to arrive almost daily. They came in all sizes, shapes, and shades of pastel. (They just don’t make them like that any more.) I considered each one a badge of honor and wallpapered one whole wall of my basement with them. They made a nice collage and at least proved I had been writing, even if my words never saw a printed page.

I didn’t seem to get the hint for quite a while that I was on the wrong track. If I had stayed on it, I probably could have wallpapered my whole house with multi-colored postcards. But at last, quite by accident, I did something right. I wrote a humorous article on what it was like to be handball widow. The title was “H.B.A.A. – Handball Above All.” It was very funny, if you like sports humor, and my husband urged me to send it to the editor of ACE magazine, the handball bible.


“Handball players are like no other sportsmen in the world. They are a breed apart, and they can locate or recognize a fellow fanatic a mile away. Put two handball players together, and they establish instant rapport, even if they have never seen each other before. A party where more than two of the guests are handball devotees is a certain disaster from the point of view of the unsuspecting hostess. They will gravitate together as if they were magnetically attracted. If this is allowed to happen (and just try to stop it), there is little chance of separating them before the evening ends.”

1968 • ACE: The Official Voice of Handball

ACE not only ran it, it did so in the issue that was distributed at the national handball championship matches that were held right here in St. Louis. I was an instant celebrity among the players, but more important, I was published! I immediately bought a portfolio.

That purchase may have been a bit optimistic since it remained empty for quite a while. This was my first foray into freelance writing, and with only one article to my credit, it was difficult to convince editors to take a chance on me. One at a time, however, I carefully scotch taped articles into my book. They were published in newsletters and free newspapers at first, but my first real break came when I was offered a job selling advertising space for a weekly newspaper called The St. Louis Jewish Light. “I really want to write.” I told the general manager, who didn’t need another writer. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “If you learn to sell space, I’ll find some things for you to write.” I took the job.

What he found for me were stories no one else on the editorial staff wanted to cover: meetings, programs at night, book reviews, short personality profiles, and little news items. If the subject was deemed boring or inconvenient, I wrote about it, slowly filling my portfolio with feature articles. Amazingly, ACE kept publishing my stories, first on notable local handball players and then on the emergence of racquetball as a serious sport. I interviewed many sweaty men in what looked like white underwear and became known as the “handball writer” around the courts. It was a heady experience.

I’d love to say that I made all my own breaks, and luck was not a factor; but that’s not true. Sometimes, just being in the right place when the right person shows up is like finding a four-leaf clover. I was still selling space, writing for the Jewish Light, and trying to interest editors of obscure publications to give me assignments or print my articles, when one of those right people came into my life. He was in charge of advertising for a company that owned, among other things, a small sports magazine for country clubbers. He liked my writing and introduced me to the editor, who paid my $50 for my H.B.A.A story. That was big money in 1970; in fact, it was the first money I had earned for anything I wrote. The editor hired an illustrator and published my “humor piece” in Replay. This was my second big break, and it turned out to be bigger than I could have imagined at the time.

Replay had a very short life. It was mailed free to a small, elite readership that had never asked for it to begin with. The publisher had a stroke of genius. He used Replay to give birth to a new city magazine called The St. Louisan. It simply appeared one month as an insert; the next month Replay ceased to be, and The St. Louisan was launched. I was launched right along with it.

Being able to write about subjects that were outside of the Jewish community was liberating. I wrote about a innovative day camp on a farm, a rehabilitation center for trouble teens, a relatively famous restaurateur, and my greatest challenge so far: kidney disease. I truly felt like I had died and gone to heaven, as I met more and more talented people. One of those people was one of the most talented photographers I have ever worked with. Portrait artist turned commercial photographer, Denny had a magic touch with people and pictures. From our first assignment together, we knew we had an unbeatable creative partnership. It was one that continued for a decade.


“Metropolitan St. Louis, with a population of approximately two-and-a-half-million people boasts two medical schools, numerous hospitals, and a reputation for being an outstanding medical center. Yet, only five short years ago, in the midst of all of this bustling medical activity and research, if a person was told he was suffering from kidney disease, he could be relatively certain that he would die. In 1966, there were two research units for kidney disease—one at Washington University and one at St. Louis University. The very small number of patients (two) at these centers was treated for education and research purposes only.”

1970 • The St. Louisan

In the meantime, I was still selling space, juggling a house, a family, and a large dog during the day, and writing almost every night. Ah, the energy of youth! That pace, as well as other circumstances, took their toll. I ticked off all the top items on the list of significant stressors—divorce, a major move, my boss’s untimely death, becoming a single mom, and a new job I was ill prepared to tackle.

Phase one of my writing life was coming to an abrupt end.