Thursday, March 5, 2009

Return to the Mother Ship

I went to visit a Scholastic editor this week to talk about books, but that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because her office happened to be in the middle of Scholastic's news magazine group, where I got my start. I never even worked in these particular offices and, indeed, never visited 555 Broadway as a magazine writer. But seeing those glass-walled offices, their windows collaged with words and pictures that inspired the inhabitants -- including a life-size standee of President Obama -- gave me a funny feeling in the back of my throat. "I learned to write here," I explained briefly, blinked like I had something in my eye, and battled past the moment.

Maybe this kind of stuff happens when you get close to 50: you start to see your past with rose-colored glasses, and tear up at the weirdest moments. But I've had several months to think about Scholastic, and what working there meant to me, and I've reached the conclusion that those rosy views weren't just hindsight or my natural cockeyed optimism, but pretty darn close to the truth of the situation. I began considering the matter again last summer, after a lunch with my college student daughter in an outdoor cafe on Third Avenue threw Carol Drisko into my path.

Emily and I were talking intently when I glimpsed Carol striding along. I hadn't seen her for years, but she looked the same as she had when she'd hired me, long hair tucked into barrettes behind her ears, big tote bag, bright eyes not missing anything. I reached out and grabbed her wrist and pulled her toward me. "Do you know who I am?" I demanded, like an insane person. "You'd better!"

Carol is the editor who hired me, proverbially wet behind my proverbial ears, straight out of college, where I'd majored in education and written exactly one (1) story in four years. I'd heard about the job on the classroom magazines from a guy at a party one Saturday night, and called Scholastic to apply on Monday. It wasn't an easy job to get: first I had to do a 250-page feature on anything I wanted (I interviewed the owners of an ice cream shop. Then I had to write a history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 500 words. But later, after all that, Carol told me she'd hired me because she liked some drawings I'd done in high school, something I'd brought along on my interview in desperation because I didn't have anything else.

If the party conversation had piqued my interest, my visit to the Scholastic News offices inspired a major crush. Cubicles, sweet cubicles... as far as the eye could see. And each of them was decorated kind of like my bedroom: Every wall was covered in pictures and clippings, keepsakes and ideas. Weird stuff was stuck on top of the partitions: plastic palm trees, for example. Globes. Travel posters. People were talking on the phone. Everybody's office was a mess. Scholastic News magazine covers were stuck on doors and walls.

So this was publishing? I thought everyone looked interesting, funny, proud, and ambitious. My heart really did beat faster: life can really be like this, I thought. With all my 21-year-old drama, I thought I might die if I didn't get the job. Now I know that I wouldn't have died. Now I know that my life would have been completely different. And I don't know whether I would have become a writer.

To paraphrase the posters, everything I ever needed to know about the writing life, I learned from Carol Drisko and the magazine staff at Scholastic News.

For starters, I learned to write fast, accurately, and with what I hoped was style. We had to put out 40 issues of an 8-page sixth grade magazine each year, and there were only three of us -- Carol, the editor; Elaine Israel, the managing editor; and me, the newbie -- plus our art editor, Carol Dietz. They showed me how to plan, organize, cut, trim, rewrite, throw out, and start again -- all in one day, sometimes. Each piece had to -- it just HAD TO -- get finished and finalized and proofed and published. Start to finish, over and over.

But I had other teachers, as well -- the people who worked on the magazines for the other grades. They inhabited the offices across from and on either side of my cubicle. I hear their voices in my ears when I brainstorm, research, fact-check, and edit. Thank goodness our floors were linoleum and the cubie walls were metal: they absorbed no sound and let us all share phone calls, meetings, and conversations. From Mike, Holly, Amy, Jonathan, Denise, Andy, the other Mike, Lucia, Rebecca, the other Amy, Sue, Deborah, and the rest, I learned some of the principles that have guided me all my writing life. Here are my favorite major points.

There's nothing new under the sun.
Loosely translated, this means: who do you think you are, Shakespeare? In other words, do you think you're the first person in the world who had to come up with a new take on a Halloween story? Do it sweetly and originally and try to put your mark on it, but don't overthink it or get conceited about it or expect everybody else to go crazy over it.
To confuse things further, this means: Do your work seriously. But don't take yourself too seriously.

These days, I still struggle with this one, as I try to become God's gift on each subject I write about. Staying out of the way as a writer and just telling the story is a challenge.

Boy, are our faces red.
This sentence came into play when someone wrote in to tell us that they disagreed with something we'd written, or that we had gotten something wrong. The fact that my coworkers had this sentence at their fingertips showed me that, although perfection was something to strive for, falling short could be expected. Even The New York Times has a daily section for errors and corrections. I was reminded of this years later when my five-year-old son started learning hockey. The first thing they had the little guys do was to lie flat on the ice as though wiped out; then they taught them how to get up. They fell less because they weren't afraid they would fall.

These days, I'm still wrong a lot. 'Nuff said.

Call the White House.
Or NASA. Or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Or 20th Century Fox. Tell them it's Scholastic calling. Get the quote. Use the voice, Luke.

Was it the word Scholastic? The Big Scholastica, the mother ship of classroom publishing, book club pioneer, purveyor of magazines with circulations in the hundreds of thousands? Yes and no. Scholastic's name did (does) have clout. But what really had clout was KIDS. Besides learning to ignore the butterflies in my stomach, pick up the phone, dial, and deliver, I learned to say to interviewees, "This is your chance to tell children about your work." Yes, I still had to walk through the doors myself; but working on deadline on these magazines forced me to do it briskly, and taught me the power of writing for kids in the mind of the public.
But there's something else here, too: We wrote seriously, for kids. We did the same research, we believed, as Time Magazine. I learned that if I didn't make those calls, consult those experts, reach for the facts and swing for the fences, my colleagues and editors were going to call me on it.

These days, I recognize that butterflies in the stomach are a good sign, also that competition with other writers is something to learn from, not hide from.

What's green and red and goes 500 miles per hour? Low men on the totem pole at Scholastic magazines have the job of editing the back pages, where the jokes and puzzles are. And that means opening mail from kids and reading their favorite jokes -- an open window on the mind of American youth. Do you know the answer to the riddle above? Everyone on my staff did. Each time one of us received this joke -- by far the most popular during my Scholastic News tenure -- we would read it aloud over the cubicles. And back would come the sweet chorus of replies: a frog in a blender.

Okay, you're asking. What's the message of the frog in the blender? That kids like humor, even when (especially when) it's a little sick and twisted? That they pass jokes and stories around with an awesome vigor? That they like to be noticed, recognized, even published, just like we do? All of the above, plus something more: that they're alike in their individuality. The frog in the blender joke came from Native American kids in Alaska, from Sunday schoolers in Alabama, from a one-room schoolhouse on an island in Maine, from public schoolers in Queens. My friend Mike wallpapered his cubicle with their letters, reminder of the commonalities and the differences.

The frog joke may seem like a small thing, or a stupid thing. But when you're writing for hundreds of thousands of kids, they can become faceless, meaningless, charmless. For the most part, I don't write for hundreds of thousands of kids anymore. (I'm lucky if there are hundreds!) But the lessons I learned at Scholastic News way back when stay with me: Be original, but be willing to prove what makes you special, and don't be too in love with your ideas. Be accurate and expert, then move on. Get out of the way, quote experts, and let the voices of others be heard. And never forget your audience: if you can write to just one of them, instead of all of them, then maybe more of them will take an interest.

In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink suggests writing a letter of gratitude to someone who has helped you. I guess this is mine, written for the editor and the staff and the publisher that I loved first.


Sue Macy said...

Well said, Karen. Carol was my first editor, too, and I love her to this day. She once told me her parents read Scholastic Newstime because it explained the news in terms they could understand, better than Time or Newsweek. That helped me realize that writing for kids was an honorable profession. I haven't seen Carol for a while, but I did see Elaine a few weeks ago. She also looks exactly the same!

Melody said...

What a great post, both as an ode to Scholastic and a primer on writing for kids. Thanks for sharing.

Deborah Heiligman said...

I was there, too, and Karen couldn't have said it better. Whenever someone asks me how do you start writing for children, I always say there are many different paths, but in my heart I know that starting at Scholastic News was the best! Where else can you get this assignment: write about pac-man for 2nd graders--40 lines at 56 characters (or whatever that was) in the morning, and then write about pesticides for fifth graders this afternoon? And we really did learn so much from our editors and each other. I was just at a school yesterday and talking about sources, and how many sources you need... and I said, "When I was at Scholastic News they taught me...."
Yup. I'm tearing up, Karen. But I've already hit 50.

Anna M. Lewis said...

I just have to chime in here and say thanks for mentioning Dan Pink's book, A WHOLE NEW MIND.
Everyone should read it.

Oprah gave a copy to each member of the Stanford graduating class last year!

Anonymous said...

Wren, that was a great essay. I just sent it to my entire family so they can understand my life experience through you! Back then, people cared about producing quality work...and we had fun while working our asses off.
I'm turning 50 in June. When is your big day?
Best to Mark...hope to see you soon!

Holly A Hughes said...

You really nailed it, Karen -- those early days at Scholastic were the best training a just-out-of-college writer could have. I love your point about taking your audience seriously, even if it is "just" kids. Writing for "reluctant readers," as we called them in the language arts division, my wonderful editor Kathy Robinson taught me I could never assume that a student wasn't smart just because he/she didn't read at grade level. Our job was to simplify the language, not to dumb down the material. Learning the difference between the two was one of the most valuable writing lessons I could ever have had.

My favorite memory of the cube culture at Scholastic: hearing someone down the row begin singing, then the person at the next desk picking up the next line, until we were passing that song around line by line. That's how joyous working at Scholastic could be. And to think they actually paid us! (Well, not much, actually...)