Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Remembrance of Fuck-Ups Past

Best Quote I Heard All Day
If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.--Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall is one of my favorite painters. I live by this credo. Writing, designing, gardening, cooking, whatever I do from scratch, it's got to ring true in my soul.

No doubt that's why I never became a great mathematician. Fine by me. I can do math for knitting and that's all I need, plus figuring out what the tip should be.

Life Redux
Unemployment has given me a lot of time to ponder years gone past. I suppose growing older makes you review memories. God knows my mother loves to talk about people only she and I remember, my brother and sister being too young to have known them.

I've put the book on hold because I need to put my energies elsewhere. The past week, I've been recalling my early years in publishing. I've never shared this with anyone, probably because I tend to play it close to the vest. Now, however, I'm back in the yarn industry, whence I first started.
It's 1983, I'm 33 years old, with a 14-year old and an 11-year old, and a husband who doesn't make a lot of money as a sales engineer. The nine years that I spent working as a psychiatric technician at Essex County Hospital Center, the largest county psychiatric hospital in the country, are over, due to my bad back. No more lifting sick patients and tossing 50-pound bags of wet sheets into a laundry cart.
No skills at all. I could type about 55 words-per-minute, had two semesters of college as a declared French major, and that was it. But I had to get a job. We needed the money badly.
One Sunday that January, reading the Times, I got it into my head that maybe there were jobs for knitters in the Times' classified section. I had been doing finishing work for the local yarn shops, teaching at one shop, knitting baby layettes and christening gowns for women at the hospital, so knitting was one thing I knew I could do well. As I've always said, you wouldn't want me to be your server for this evening.

In early February, I'm reading the classifieds and lo! There's an ad for an assistant knitting editor. Impulsively, I called the number in the ad (no resume was requested) and found out it was McCall's Needlework and Crafts, a magazine that I loved and bought consistently. Vogue Knitting had just restarted publication the year before. Threads was yet to come, as was Knitter's. Handmade was gone. Knitters had very few resources back then, compared to the ridiculous amount of books and magazines available now. So McCall's Needlework and Crafts was the gold standard. Holy shit! The picture below was my first issue.

The senior editor, a woman who became the bane of my existence, told me to come to their offices on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street in NYC for an interview.

The day of the interview, I was shitting in my pants. I hadn't been that nervous since I auditioned for a second violin seat in the New Jersey Preparatory Orchestra, the junior branch of the NJ Symphony. 

I couldn't stop shaking, all the way from Montclair to NYC, a half-hour bus ride. I walked into the hallowed halls, pulled myself together, and met with the senior editor, Betsy (last name conveniently forgotten). I was then ushered into the sanctum sanctorum of the knitting editor, Gena Rhoades.

While Betsy was the type of New York snot that I abhorred (I'm sure she wore white gloves when she wiped her ass), Gena was the exact opposite. In her early 60s at that time, she had been knitting editor for McCall's since the 1940s. She had run the yarn department of Wanamaker's department store downtown and was offered the knitting editor's position after the war, I believe. Despite her exalted position at McCall's (at least, to me), Gena was easy-going, down to earth, and kind. An expert crocheter, she hated editing knitting patterns so I was her girl. We both shared a love of crossword puzzles. As she said, "If you can do puzzles well, you'll be a good knitting editor." Well, that remained to be seen.

As a test, Gena sent me home with a child's sweater that had just been photographed for the upcoming issue. I had to figure out its construction and write up the directions, then return in a week.

Other than writing nurse's notes as a psych tech, I had never written knitting directions--just followed them. Poring over the McCall's format and then figuring out how the sweater was made, counting stitches, measuring the damned thing, and agonizing over every little detail, it took me the full week to pull together what was expected. I went back, met with Gena again, and left, hoping against hope that they'd hire me. They did and I was ecstatic. My dream job. Which would turn into a nightmare.

I was hired for my knitting skills but I knew shit about publishing. The assistant knitting editor had to do the directions layout because the art director, Gen Yee, was not allowed to do so, since he might accidentally cut out a piece unknowingly. So that was my main job, along with typing the directions and spec'ing them for the printer. Remember, this was before PCs, so everything was done manually.

The copy editor vaguely explained what point size and leading was. I was clueless. Every time I tried to do the layout, I fucked it up. The Fair Isle charts, the only charting done at that time, had to be sent out to be reduced by a reproduction shop. I used a special wheel that would give me the correct reduction percentage. I constantly fucked that up, too.

I loved talking to readers, who would call the offices for help. I loved having my own office, complete with needles and yarn. But Betsey was on my back constantly, turning me into a nervous wreck. I just didn't get the whole layout thing and she took it personally. Nobody had time to sit with me and really teach me how to do what I was supposed to do. Gena was sympathetic but she didn't know how to do layout either.

The final straw was a fuck-up of monumental proportions. As assistant knitting editor, I was responsible for putting together "specials"--reprints of old patterns, with the exception of the Barbie outfit specials, done by another editor. We did a Christmas special, an afghan special, and the infamous Fashion Bazaar, which was my downfall.

I picked out a bunch of sweaters for the Fashion Bazaar issue, going through the "chromes" (chrome alum was used to process the photographs). I worked untold hours on the layout, picking a lovely pair of his and hers Aran sweaters for the cover. Gena loved it. I was mentally confused...I felt like I had lost my grip on the magazine's organization. But out the package of manuscripts and chromes went to the printer because when you work in publishing, deadlines are sacred. "Late" ain't a word in your vocabulary.

The printer would send back the "blues" for the final corrections. These were, in fact, blueprints of the magazine as it would be printed. You could make last minute changes but they cost. I gave the blues a precursory look, Gena checked them, and Betsy reviewed them and signed off on them. Good to go.

A few weeks later, I walked into my office and there was the printed and bound copy of Fashion Bazaar. With a curt note from Betsey. "Come to my office immediately!" Oh fuck. What does the bitch want NOW?

Betsy's office was a place that I seldom frequented and avoided like the plague. However, the people who worked there then were by and large wonderful. Lola Ehrlich, a future Vogue Knitting editor, was the fashion editor and a sweetheart. She had incredible flair and selected terrific garments for every issue. Marjorie McMurtry, the publisher, was friendly and personable. The crafts editor, the copy editor, the AD, and the admin staff were all fun, even though we were too busy most of the time to socialize. Betsy was a thorn in everyone's side.

"Sit down", she ordered. I plunked myself into a chair. She threw her issue of Fashion Bazaar at me. "TELL ME WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS!" she screamed. I froze. The shakes began. What the fuck did I do?

It's what I didn't do that was the problem. Remember the lovely cover? I forgot to put the directions into the magazine. Even though Gena and Betsy had checked the issue too, I was the whipping girl. "You're on 30 days probation," she roared. "Get out of here and get back to work. You'll have to deal with the readers when they call about this." I walked out of Betsy's office, sucking back the tears. I was past being ashamed. I was devastated. 

Three weeks later, I resigned, heartbroken and traumatized. It was clear to me that I wasn't cut out for publishing. I wanted to hide forever. It was years before I could even talk about McCall's to anyone.

The next year, having been heavily involved in machine knitting since 1979, I began editing a machine knitting magazine called MacKnit, published by a couple in Englewood, NJ, the Cunibertis. They sold knitting machine books and the machines, so I was paid in books and equipment. Their art director, John White, had worked for Yankee magazine. He was a cool guy and I picked his brains, determined to understand the whole point size and leading deal. John taught me how to layout a magazine properly. Topeka! I got it! 

The three years I worked at MacKnit, before it went under, I learned how to work with a photographer, how to style knitwear, how to edit and write patterns, and how to write articles. I was on my way.

After all of the chaos, I never really gave up on editing and writing. Somehow, some way, I found the inner strength to do what a friend said I was born to do. Edit and write. Thereafter, I created and edited a craft magazine, left the craft industry and got into mainstream publishing. Towards the end of my NYC publishing gig, I was a managing editor of Doll's Magazine, and a financial editor for Standard & Poor's. I looked back on the disaster of 1983 and still couldn't talk about it, even after all of my successes. 

In 2000, I left the insane world of New York publishing so that I could spend more time with Jimmy and the kids. A good thing, too, since he died in 2002. The combination of my publishing experience and learning how to use a PC early on, in 1985, gave me the skills to become a tech writer.

I have that Fashion Bazaar disaster to thank. And now, I'm back writing knitting directions. The more things change, the more they stay rare and handy.


Bonnita said...

WOW! You should have kicked Betsy in the balls. Bitch!

Marilyn said...

Funny thing...I misspelled her name several times. What does that tell you? LOL!

janetd said...

great story, thanks!

Janelle (CCGAL) said...

Just wanted to say I enjoyed reading this. Kudos!

Pam said...

Very powerful post. Thanks, I enjoyed it tremendously.

Another sixty year old said...

I have both the Fashion Bazaar and the McCall's issue you cite in your post. I actually flipped through them about a month ago. There are still wearable classics in them. Your work was obviously solid. then and now. Good to know the back story.

M-H said...

My intro to publishing was working at Butterworths. "Publishers to the Professions". After a year as a proofreader I was promoted to the editorial department, working on a series publications called "Butterworths Annotations to the New Zealand Statutes.". Basically every month that Parliament sat we published a list of which laws had been changed and the details; lawyers subscribed to this loose-leaf service and replaced pages in their version of the statutes with our annotated ones as instructed. This was a job for someone who was really really good at detail: I had to write the instructions for inserting the new sheets, and proofread the actual annotations. The first month one of the acts that was amended was the Maternal Mortality Act (which was basically a list of some causes of death in or near childbirth that had to be reported to the Health Department). I managed to miss that the typesetter had written it as the Maternal Morality Act. We had a couple of witty letters from smart-arse solicitors about it - one of them wanted to know how he could get a job as a Maternal Morality Investigator) but of course most people didn't even notice. Except my boss, who didn't think it was terribly funny, strangely.

Julie Schuler said...

What a great story! I have lately become a collector of vintage McCall's Needlework magazines, and they seem so smiling and gentle. It is quite a contrast to hear about the cut-throat publishing side of things.

Helene said...

I spent several years as a factchecker for science magazines and books (also pre computers). I understand totally how easy it is for something to slip by. No matter how many writer's mistakes I caught, only the one I didn't catch mattered. I still remember the two big ones from 25 years ago. I called Chuck Yeagers plane that broke the sound barrier a jet plane (it was a rocket plane) and the speed of sound was in meters/second but the text said feet/second. Unbelievable how many letters we got more than happy to tell us we screwed up.