A smarter cookie might have suspected something dodgy when the head of Human Resources summoned me to her office one January afternoon. Was I going to be busted for asking a job candidate if she had kids? That had happened once, though as the editor-in-chief of a magazine linked to Lifetime Television, I wasn’t trying to eliminate mommies, but find one for the staff, to add what I thought would be a valuable viewpoint. But as soon as I set foot in Ms. H.R.’s office, I felt ill. I saw my boss sitting there, too.
Was she killing the magazine? No. Even worse, for me at least, she was there to deliver the odious phrase, “We’re going in a different direction.” Corporate-speak for “adios, sucker.” She’d recently extended my contract for two years, which most people would read as a vote of confidence, but no matter. I was expected to vacate the office that very day. Did she think I was going to steal a recipe? By four o’clock, I was home.
Dreadful Déjà Vu
I’d been through this before. Previously, I was the editor-in-chief of McCall’s. Remember McCall’s? I managed a big staff—really a small sovereign state—and supervised visuals, became an idea factory, and enjoyed visiting the White House, attending galas, traveling to Europe, going on TV, receiving discounts on haircuts, and entertaining guests on an expense account. People cackled at my jokes, and IT ran to my computer should it hiccup. And I worked hard. Towers of manuscripts followed me home each night. The pressure always pulsed. This was more than work—a 360-degree identity. Not bad for a shy kid from North Dakota.
I followed every Rx for landing a new job, and within months I got hired to invent a new magazine.
For eight years life was sweet. Then it wasn’t. Following Oprah’s lead, Rosie O’Donnell decided that she wanted to start an eponymous magazine. A newly hired president at the company where I toiled bought into this knuckle-headed notion. One Friday I left McCall’s and the following Monday the 124-year-old magazine re-emerged as Rosie. I was kicked upstairs to a faux-job, while the TV star moved into “my” office. Seven months later I was dumped. (Soon, Rosie beat her own retreat. A snarly lawsuit ensued, and my former boss, cross-referenced in the dictionary under jackass, got fired, too. But that’s another story.) I followed every Rx for landing a new job, and within months I got hired to invent Lifetime Magazine, a project I threw myself at with manic zeal, working late and every weekend, rarely taking off a day. I had never been happier or prouder of myself.
LinkedOut of Life
After being fired from McCall’s I’d been sportsmanlike, despite the indignity of being replaced by a celebrity hothead. Now I was out again, presumably benched by Kremlin-esque office politics. If this had happened when my kids were home, I’d have kicked up my mothering a notch, but my older son was long gone and my younger son was graduating from college soon, with plans to move cross country. That my husband had recently established an office in our empty nest made it seem as if we’d been flash-forwarded into antiquity. This was before we had all started to fritter away every spare moment on social media. I felt LinkedOut of life as I marinated in self-pity. After leading large teams, being in charge of only little-old-me made me feel diminished to the size of an amoeboid.
I was sure I would be judged harshly in an industry where a long resume is code for stale and the old boys’ club had morphed into the young girls’ club.
I was also physically uncomfortable, since I’d gone from a grand office to an apartment cluttered with boxes of professional ephemera. My computer, parked on a tiny bedroom desk, was one of those bubbled-shaped, jelly bean-colored models that could have been manufactured by Fisher Price. Without tech skills, when it had a meltdown, I did, too. My fear surged as depression gelled. How could I ever muster the stamina required for another job search? Remotely duplicate the position I’d lost? Convince employers that I was talented—and young enough? I was sure I would be judged harshly in an industry where a long resume is code for stale and the old boys’ club had morphed into the young girls’ club.
Don’t Give Me the “Window” Line
Friends invited me to lunch, for which I was grateful, but when the meal was over, I was stuck with myself. I had always loved to read and visit museums, but how dare I take valuable time away from job-hunting? The same thinking applied to the gym; it demoralized me to work out during the day, when my natural default setting was to be behind a desk.
Much of the advice people gave me was moronic, especially that of editors who quoted spiritual porn from their magazines.
Much of the advice people gave me was moronic, especially that of editors who quoted spiritual porn from their magazines: “When a door closes, a window opens.” Was I supposed to jump through it? Several people urged me to take a trip, and this sounded sensible. I accepted an invitation to ski in Colorado and planned to leave the day after an interview for—finally!—a swell job. As I was packing, I got a message that the interview needed to be rescheduled, which I did, for the day after my return. The morning of the appointment the following week, the headhunter who’d set it up called to cancel the meeting because while I was on the slopes the employer had found his dream candidate.
Back to Being a Student
Devastated anew, I started to see a therapist. Looking back on the experience, her goal must have been to get me to accept that I might never work again. Not the smartest advice. I’d have responded better to a drill sergeant. But in the end, it didn’t matter—because of two decisions. I started to meet a fireball of a friend three times a week at 6:30 a.m. to run. The exercise allowed me to begin many days with a sense of accomplishment and vigor, enhanced by her infectious energy. I also joined a writing workshop.
Former colleagues thought I was batty. Why be a student when I was qualified to teach a workshop? The answer was that I needed deadlines and regular exposure to other human beings. After thriving in a beehive, I found loneliness excruciating. I had to know that once a week I’d see people who weren’t my husband, therapist, or jogging partner.
The Plot Thickens
For the first writing session, what came out of my brain was a comic vignette, lightly fictionalized, about an editor shopping a Chanel sample sale. (Officially, the workshop was for “creative non-fiction” but our fearless leader let me break the rule.) One submission led to another, and every week I looked forward to the group’s meeting. The other members were New Yorkers who wouldn’t know a Birkin from a bag of bagels and reminded me in no way of my former colleagues. We’re talking orthopedic sandals, not stilettoes; frizz, not blowdrys. But not only did these smart people seem to love my writing, they respected the way I used my editor chops to ruthlessly evaluate their work.
Former colleagues thought I was batty. Why be a student when I was qualified to teach a workshop?
As months passed I spent less time job-hunting while my writing for the workshop assumed a plot. I allowed myself to think that what I was developing could end as a novel, telling the tale of a magazine editor who loses her job to a TV star. It took almost two years to complete my story, which I gave a happy ending, because it was fiction and I could. A top agent agreed to take me on and sold my manuscript. We called it Little Pink Slips.
After the sale I immediately began another book. This time it was not inspired by my own experience—the lead character was dead—and I had to spelunk into my imagination, as I did for the next novel, which was followed by a non-fiction book that took acres of research. My next novel, The Widow Waltz, was, however, about a woman who needed to reinvent herself. Once again, it was a subject I knew. Last January I sold my sixth book, Another Side of Paradise, out next May. Now I’m hatching book number seven.
My world doesn’t feel as public or enormous as my earlier existence, but I’m living large in new ways.
My world doesn’t feel as public or enormous as my earlier existence, but I’m living large in new ways. Since I know I need to get myself out and about to keep congenital shyness from mummifying me, I see as much as I can of friends, whom I make time to meet for coffee or entertain. Every Wednesday I babysit the newest addition to the family: my toddler granddaughter. When my computer implodes, I ring Apple. I still run, though now I also take mid-day barre classes. I teach writing workshops, coach private students, sit on panels at writing conferences, write essays as well as books and read constantly—I joined two book clubs—with the hope that other authors’ work will pollinate my own. I like my life.
No Single Path
Had I hung in and continued to look for a magazine position, I suspect that I might have landed one, perhaps at a lower level, at a less glitzy company or far away my home, but still, a job. Maybe I’d have reinvented myself in a digital direction, as many of my former colleagues have done in all manner of impressive ways. But then I’d never know what it feels like to finish a book, see it published, enjoy the frisson of critics calling it “witty,” and be told by readers that my story made them laugh or cry.
I had been sure I was born to be a magazine editor. Maybe I was, but I’ve learned that no one has a single path to fulfillment. I am a mix of work, play, and responsibility, much of it self-imposed. I have become Sally, the editor-in-chief of me.