13 October 2010

"Dreams are for poor people."


That was my friend Andrew's response when I told him in August I'd decided to leave my position at ELLE and move back to DC.

Before you assume this, my final entry, is some kind of sanctimonious, "I've seen the light, and let me tell you" post-mortem of my 21 months working on the real-life set of that Meryl Streep movie, I promise you it's not....entirely.

But I did leave. After all I did to get there -- this blog, that show, those hours -- I ultimately decided to walk away. Because I won't trash specific people (publicly), it's not the juiciest story, but it may be revelatory for some, and it is one I want to share.

First, the positive stuff. My job at ELLE during the first year, as a junior editor, consisted of 2-3 month learn-the-ropes rotations with the fashion, fashion news, beauty, and features departments. On my first day, I was brought into the big corner office, asked what I enjoyed, what I thought I was good at, and where I saw myself "fitting in" at the magazine. Instead of being pooled with the interns, I was given every editorial first chance I wanted. And in that first year, I wanted.

Not knowing the proper protocol -- and only having held one previous job at an office where the director prided himself on running "a completely flat organization"-- I took my legal pad of ideas and walked into the offices of the editors who I thought were the right people for the pitch. Often, the right people, in my mind, were very senior people.

You see where this is going?

To my face, they were gracious. If they liked an idea they said so; if they didn't, they said so. I found it all very easy. Nothing like the stereotype.

The second year, Her Smizeness stopped paying my rent, but I was asked to stay on in relatively the same capacity. The only change was titular: I was now a contributing editor.

With the dumpster state of the economy, I knew how lucky I was to keep my tiny plot in that Broadway office. As one editor said to me in the elevator a couple of days after I'd gotten the offer: "Heard you got hired hired. Right now, that's like getting into Yale -- except harder."

This not-quite congratulations was followed by an eyebrow raise that communicated the one line from that one movie that by the end of my time at ELLE had replaced "This is all I'm capable of right now" as my least favorite eight-word movie line of all-time.

You know the one: "A million girls would kill for this job."

And judging from the hordes of unpaid interns logging full-time weeks every week, I knew it was true. We all did. It was like a storm cloud, always hovering above the rank and file, keeping us from dwelling on the ridiculously low pay, unforgiving schedule, and venomous middle-school antics.

Not that the work itself wasn't a major source of happiness.

Pretty much any idea I came up with, whether it had to do with fashion, film, books, pop culture, or the straight-up bizarre (to wit: a Q&A with The Human Centipede's director, Tom Six), I was given the green light to pursue, write, self-edit, and slap ELLE's slim Gothic font above it.

The hours were breakneck, but I was having fun for a living -- and becoming a better writer.

At the end of this summer, just under two years invested, I came to a hard realization: Regardless of how much I loved my work (and most of the people I worked with), my overall quality of life had deteriorated.

When you're 22, work is all about passion. Money is irrelevant -- more than that, it's vulgar. Be creatively fulfilled or bust! When you're 29 turning 30, however, living in Manhattan on a fashion magazine writer's salary goes from romantic to irresponsible to untenable pretty quickly.

The same goes for inter-office bitchery.

When you're new and unformed, there's a good chance you deserve to be spoken to in that tone about that mistake by that very senior person. That's how you learn and earn your thicker skin. Once you've been at the game for a while and you begin to recognize that the tone is never pleasant, the mistake wasn't yours, and that that senior person seems to spend most of their time undermining others, screaming at other people's children, and reminding the junior staff they're not allowed to sit in meetings when there are more than enough empty chairs, well, at that point, you have to make a decision.

So I did.

I love ELLE. I love the magazine, and I love that I had the chance to contribute to its history in a small way. It was there I learned how to report, edit, and find my voice as a journalist. It was there that I got my first byline, conducted my first real interview, and got my hands on copies of Milan Kundera's "Encounter" AND the Baby-sitters Club prequel four months in advance.

And, hello, I got to meet Carol Burnett and Amber Rose. At the same time. In a Beverly Hills bathroom.

So, for all the crying I did on my office floor, for all the shredded-cheese-on-Saltines pity dinners I endured, and for all the "Get me something cuntier!" directives I had to obey, there's nothing I would have done differently.

But it is mighty nice to be back in Washington.

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