Since I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. As a little girl I wrote short stories about animals lost in the forest; in high school I wrote poems and essays about all my friends; and in college I took intensive writing classes and joined the staff of the Badger Herald to hone my craft and kick start my career as a budding journalist.
But when I graduated, I discovered that six months experience editing a college paper and an earnest desire to change the world were not enough to land me even the lowliest editorial job.
Resumes sent to the Sun Times, the Chicago Tribune, and countless magazines went unanswered and I quickly grew despondent. Except for a brief stint writing articles for a tiny suburban paper that only came out twice a week and didn’t pay enough to cover my gas bill, I spent most of my early 20s bartending and scouring the want ads for jobs. I drew the line at writing press releases, but would have been happy to cover cop beats or city council meetings, or even local calendar events. Anything for a byline.
But no jobs materialized. After a couple years of this, it became clear that without some serious – yet impossible to attain --experience, I wasn’t going to get my foot in the door.
So I gave up the dream. Maybe some day I’d still write the great American novel, but I clearly was not going to be a journalist. Instead, I went after the next best thing: I decided to become a professor of literature.
Sure it would take me at least five years to get my PhD -- and who knew how many thousands of dollars -- but in the end I’d have a title, and a clear career path that involved reading a lot of great books and inspiring a lot of mediocre writing by other eager young journalist-wannabes just like me.
My father agreed to foot the bill for my first year of graduate school – anything to get me out from behind a bar – and I started classes that fall at the University of Illinois, Circle Campus. Unsure of how difficult graduate school would be, I opted for a part-time schedule my first semester. I took two graduate level lit courses– one on great Victorian writers, and the other an in-depth study of Edgar Allen Poe.
I learned many things that semester, but the most important were these:
- Edgar Allen Poe was terrified of women, and he wrote the same story over and over again because he was paid by the word.
- Graduate school is not nearly as much fun as undergraduate school.
- Going to a 7 am class after tending bar till 4 am is a very bad idea.
Still, there was a bright spot in all of the drudgery. While waiting to speak to a counselor early in the semester, I spotted a flyer for an internship at Insider Magazine, which promoted itself as an entertainment focused magazine for college readers.
It was an unpaid gig, but it sounded interesting, and would at least give me a chance to experience a publishing environment – all right, I hadn’t totally given up on the dream.
So I pulled the flyer off the bulletin board – making sure no-one else would see it -- and made an appointment. The next day I drove to a dreary store front office in Skokie, a suburb just north of Chicago. The tiny space was bustling with 20-something writers, graphic designers, and sales guys, all very boisterous and friendly. After a bizarre interview with the managing editor, who spent the entire interview talking about how great the band Yes was, and how she loved my ideas about covering Yes concerts – I hadn’t actually suggested any ideas concerning Yes, but who was I to argue -- I was hired.
After that, I came to the Skokie office once or twice a week to participate in editorial meetings, pitch stories, and help out wherever needed. It was a weird little operation. Except for the publisher and editor, no-one really seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing, and everyone was younger than 25. The magazine got thrown together each month, often with glaring typos and last minute changes, but we all had fun doing it, and no-one had anywhere else better to be. I started hanging out at the office more and more, pitched and wrote a couple of book and movie reviews, and took over the job of getting companies to send us free stuff for our “cool gear and gadgets” section.
Things at school were also going well. I got an A on my Edgar Allen Poe final paper, and was looking forward to quitting bartending, and going to school full time in the Spring.
Toward the end of the semester, the day to register came. I loaded my bag with my course catalog, school ID, and tuition check from dad and headed to campus. But when I got there, I discovered that I had gotten the date wrong. Registration took place the day before, and I missed it.
I was shocked. My whole plan, my very future, was built around my new academic career path. Yet suddenly the door to that path was slammed shut. Making matters worse, the snippy registration lady informed me that because I had gone part-time the previous semester, I couldn’t sign up part-time again, even if I found a class that still had openings.
“It’s the policy,” she sniped. “No exceptions.”
In other words, I was kicked out of school that day, and not invited to come back until the following fall. That was almost a year away, which at the time was an unfathomable amount of time to wait. I’d been out of school for three years by then and was ready to get my life started. Waiting another year, to embark on another four or five years of school was too painful to imagine.
I was devastated. Even though I admittedly didn’t love grad school, it was at least a plan. Now I was planless. On the drive home I cried at the hopelessness of it all – I was that kind of girl back then. I called my mother to tell her what happened, and she comforted me with these words: “Sarah, when a door closes, a window opens. You just have to be aware enough to see the window.”
At the time it struck me as an empty platitude but I appreciated her effort to cheer me up. After hanging up, I regrouped. I wiped away my tears and headed to Insider, where I hoped my new friends might commiserate with my unfair plight.
When I got there the office was abuzz. The publisher it turns out, had just fired the managing editor – the resident Yes fan. He claimed it was a budget cut, but we all knew he just couldn’t take the crazy anymore. She never fit in with the rest of the team, and had packed up and left just minutes before I arrived.
At that moment, I could have taken my little cubicle seat, edited my review of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, and headed to a late shift bartending. It is what I would normally have done.
But I didn’t. Instead, in an unlikely moment of bold self-confidence, with my mother’s now prophetic words ringing in my ears, I marched into the publishers office and said “You should hire me to take over her job.”
He eyed me for a moment, and repeated his argument that he’d laid her off for financial reasons, and thus wasn’t planning to replace her.
“Fine,” I said. “Then make me editorial director, and pay me less.”
He arched his eyebrows, nodded and pondered me for a moment more. He and I had exchanged few words in my brief stint at Insider, but I could see he was intrigued.
Though I was only an intern, the Insider hierarchy was not so complex as to make such a leap out of the question. I was among the older team members – many were still in college – and the magazine obviously needed someone to manage the editorial. So he shrugged, and agreed. Right there, on the spot he made me Insider’s new editorial director. For a lavish $1000 a month, I made the miraculous leap from intern to head of editorial, and I once again had a plan.
I spent a year in that job, interviewing celebrities and authors, sending writers to the MTV Beach House, and turning the magazine into a slightly higher quality glossy version of its former self. It would never win awards, but it was good, and I was proud of it.
At the end of that year however, 10-hour days and the inability to afford groceries, forced me back to the want ads. Only this time, I had experience. I was the managing editor of a national magazine.
Within weeks I found an editorial job at a trade publication a few suburbs over. It wasn’t glamorous – the target audience was plumbers – but it paid more than twice what I was making at Insider, and they were thrilled to have me.
If I had been diligent, and registered for classes on the right day in 1994, chances are today I’d be a middle-aged professor at a middling midwest college writing a painfully dull academic paper on the contemporary implications of Canterbury Tales.
Instead I’m a successful freelance journalist. I write for half a dozen magazines and publishing houses every month, I just finished my first novel, and I have a new agent looking for a publisher.
Thanks to a stupid calendar error, I made all my dreams come true.