In my 20s, I edited a print magazine about the online world titled Internet Underground. It launched in 1995, a time when newscasters would cite web addresses by slowly spelling out, “Go to h-t-t-p-colon-back slash-back-slash-w-w-w-dot-company-dot-com-backslash-information-blackslash…” and painfully over-pronounce the “ts” in Internet.
The final step in my editorial hiring process was simple: if you could figure out how to put your desk together from the flat box, you got the job. That’s what you do when you’re a twenty-something hiring other twenty-somethings and someone has given you only the name of a magazine, three pages of notes and 54 days to get the first issue to the printer.
For the first few weeks, our seven-member editorial team crammed into a single office in the Chicago suburb of Lombard, a nice enough place but even so, it was best known for its shopping mall. Despite our uncool geography, we decided we’d make the magazine funny and tech-y, kind of “Spy meets Wired.” We pretended that all of our reader mail was answered by a large man named Tiny. Later, he got a helper named Ovi. We ran house ads for Happy Fun Ball with the tag line, “Still legal in 14 States!” We wrote stories about people who made up online murder investigations, a guy who shared a photo of his nipple every day and another who kept a then-famous online journal about a loser neighbor. The layout was edgy and in-your-face.
I loved that job. Pity the magazine didn’t make any money.
A guy named Randall wrote me on Monday. He paid $150 for six pristine early issues of Internet Underground to complete his collection. He added that “the positively best day” of his 27th year was the Tuesday he won a “Box of Stuff” in one of our giveaways. Our “Box of Stuff” giveaways were exactly that: A motley assortment of truly valuable items (software, books) mixed in with some random promotional stuff we picked up at conferences, vending machine candy, staples from the office supply cabinet, that kind of thing. Apparently, I included a note that read:
“Dear Prize Winner,
Just because it’s stuff doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. Please take care when handling the Prodigy mouse pad. Rob Bernstein’s blood is on it. Why? It’s a long story. All I can say is that I doubt you’ll get any blood from a staffer at Wired. Yours, Kathleen.”
I miss those days. It was freeing to be irreverent. I had a reason to interview random people and a platform to share whatever I found interesting. I worked alongside smart, talented people. The web was a shiny new thing, its geography not yet mapped. We glorified quirky individuals others mocked, and then poked fun at ourselves. We went to conferences with names like “Internet World” and dove into the free food at the big corporate parties. We were funny, geeky writers with a 100,000+ circulation magazine free to do almost anything we wanted on someone else’s dime. We made words fun. Words were our amusement, our weapon, our future.
Looking back, I consider that the end of my youth. Microsoft recruited me away from the magazine a year after it launched. It’s hard to imagine this now, but it was cool to be a journalist working at the software company then. Michael Kinsley had just launched Slate. Linda Ellerbee, one of my heroes, teamed up with them to do an online talk show. They offered me the chance to work as the food editor for the prototype of the online city guide Sidewalk.com. What would you do?
I moved to Seattle. In three years, I spent $156,000 of Bill Gates’ money eating out and writing about it. I moved into a loft not far from the Sidewalk.com offices in Pioneer Square. But it was still corporate America. We had employee reviews, sales targets, marketing meetings. It was enjoyable, but not exactly Happy Fun Ball. When Sidewalk closed, I moved to MSN in London. If you’ve read The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry, you know what happened next.
This past weekend, I taught a class at IFBC titled “story and voice.” We stumbled on to the subject of rejection, a subject never far away when you’re around writers. I talked about something I had not shared in public previously. My publisher (and other editors) rejected my most recent book proposal. I’d been working on it for months. I failed to land a single magazine story idea that I pitched. In a year already marked by loss and grief, by July, I felt rather lost. On a losing streak.
Words are my product. A book may be art but ultimately, it’s a widget.
In August, I went on tour for my third and favorite book (so far). At first, I welcomed the tour as a distraction. But then it became much more than that as I talked to readers and booksellers. Editors rejected my recent book proposal with polite, respectful comments. By contrast, readers enthusiastically pounced on the idea. “I would totally be into that book! What are they thinking? If you had that book here right now, I would buy at least two copies!” remarked a woman in Petosky, Mich., echoing what I heard from dozens of people.
It took talking to actual readers to remember that just because someone rejects an idea doesn’t mean that it’s not any good. Just like the box of stuff. Among Randall’s most prized possessions is a cheesy promotional snow globe from that stash. He’s got it on his desk 19 years later.
So, I decided to publish that book independently. I’m going to follow the advice of one of my mentors, photographer Penny de los Santos. “Sometimes you have to give yourself that dream assignment,” she says. I’m gong to write the stories that no one bought. I’m working on proposals for not one, but two books. Both are still food-focused, but they’re fiction. One I started more than a dozen years ago but I didn’t think I could sell it. So it’s been gathering dust in a box. With other stuff that I’ve written and never sold.
Writing can be hard. The publishing world can be frustrating. But my email exchange with Randall reminded me that it’s important to think of writing the way it felt all those years ago. That words are fun. They remain my amusement, my weapon, my future.
At least, I hope they’re my future. I don’t think I could face another day job.
Win a Box of Stuff from My Kitchen!
In the spirit of my days at Internet Underground, I’m doing a giveaway of a “Box of Stuff from My Kitchen.” The truly useful stuff: Four boxes of Raincoast Crisps, handmade jams that I made this past summer, a signed first edition of my new book Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, a copy of my cousin Gary Flinn’s book, Remembering Flint Michigan (he just gave me a signed one), a galley of Lauren Shockey’s Four Kitchens, two bars of Moonstruck Chocolate, a jar of Hungarian paprika, and a shaker of original flavor Bacon Salt. The more random stuff includes a stem pulling gadget from IFBC last year, a kind of ugly plate that I waited too long to return to Sur La Table, some yellow napkins, a box of lemon-flavored Jello, and whatever else that I might find between now and when I ship out the book.
To enter: Let’s keep it simple. By midnight next Wednesday, October 1st, 2014, send a tweet and mention this post, share it on Facebook or send me an email. If you’re not on my mailing list, you’ll get added. (I’ll put everyone’s name into an Excel spreadsheet and then draw a number at random. If your name is on that line, you’re the winner.) No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited.
Disclosure moment: Moonstruck Chocolates sent me several chocolate bars out of the blue; this happens when you’re a food writer. Mike is probably going to be mad at me for giving them away. Legally I have to tell you that I didn’t pay for them. Lesley Stowe gave me the Raincoast Crisps and a small payment to help her promote them, even though I would have done it for free since I’m kind of obsessed with these crackers right now. I don’t remember why I have the Bacon Salt or where it came from. They might have sent it to me, too.