Mary Dell writes: Sally Koslow is a friend and was my writing teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. The story of her success, including the publication this month of The Widow Waltz, and dark moments of her career are an inspiring story of reinvention. She spills all:
From Sally Koslow:
Once upon a time—a long time, 30+ years—I was a magazine editor, the job for which I felt I was born. A shy kid, I learned to manage that handicap as I scaled the consecrated trajectory of high school newspaper editor/college English major/hometown newspaper intern/college town newspaper obit writer/moony poet. By the time I presented my still-reserved Midwestern self to Manhattan’s Conde Nast–which I was too big of a yokel at 21 to realize was the ooh-la-la of publishing companies–I had a fat portfolio of clippings. They helped land a job at Mademoiselle, a powder puff-y magazine with a literary edge: Sylvia Plath had once been a guest editor and the masthead prided itself on back-in-the-day, publishing the likes of Truman Capote and W.H. Auden and at the moment, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Smiley.
In the 70s intense female ambition hadn’t yet reared its feverish head. No one expected to reach the top fast. Or ever. This allowed me to loll around MLLE until after having a child at 28, I became a freelance writer. When my son was four I returned to another magazine staff and began to rise in various ranks until McCall’s anointed me as its editor-in-chief in 1994.
This mosaic of a job went beyond writing and editing, tapping into skills I never knew I had: managing a staff of 50 as well as a multi-million dollar budget, working closely on visuals, and supporting the publisher as she trolled for ads. And dayenu—as if this weren’t enough–collateral minutiae offered panoramic razzmatazz: visiting the White House many times and interviewing Hillary Clinton, attending fancy dress events, traveling to Europe, representing McCall’s on TV and before large audiences, receiving discounts on Madison Avenue haircuts and designer clothing and entertaining guests on my expense account. Even on the dullest day I ruled my own tiny sovereign state, where people pumped my ego, cackling at my jokes at meetings I ran. When my computer malfunctioned, I whistled and IT set it straight. And did I mention the Beefeater of an assistant who fielded my calls, managed my calendar, and even—may God forgive me– completed insurance claims, so I could concentrate on loftier concerns?
If I sound like a diva, I assure you that on the spectrum I was an amateur. (Rent The Devil Wears Prada.) And I worked exceedingly hard at this job, which was as demanding as it was glamorous. Piles of manuscripts followed me home each night and the pressure was palpable. This was more than work—it was a 360-degree identity. I loved it.
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. I left McCall’s one Friday and the following Monday it re-emerged as Rosie. I was kicked upstairs to a sort of faux-job with no substance while the TV star moved into “my” office, the former staff trembling as they now reported to her, although she learned few names. Seven months later I was dumped. (Soon after, 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 went home. I was not, however, alone. My husband’s firm had gone belly up just as our 25-year-old son had returned from San Francisco and while he was staying with us, he learned that his company had met the same fate. The family that is unemployed is not overjoyed, yet one by one, we rallied. As for me, I followed every Rx for landing a job—cheerfully networked, even wrote a magazine article about resiliency and followed my own advice. Within months I got rehired into what for me was a dream job: inventing a magazine.
I threw myself at this project with manic zeal, harnessing my experience and latent creativity to imaganeer a template, then helped to beguile corporate boards, which eventually blessed my efforts. I was working late, going into the office every weekend, rarely taking off a day.
I had never been happier or prouder of myself.
I’m sure you see where this is headed, but I didn’t. After almost three years the head of human resources called me to her office. My boss was waiting and announced, “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.” Corporate-speak for “so long, sucker.”
I was stunned. Not only had my boss recently extended my contract for two years, she’d also just invited me to her top-brass-only holiday party, for which employees whose jobs were in jeopardy failed to make the cut. As I heard that I was expected to be out of the office that very day–did she think I was going to steal a recipe?—my eye drifted to the bulletin board where the HR director, a longtime friend, still displayed an invitation for my 50th birthday party. I stared at a picture of my formerly innocent three-year-old self as the future flashed before me. I saw…nothing.
I felt pulverized. Dammit, I thought. I’d been sportsmanlike about the first firing, despite the indignity of being replaced by a celebrity hot head. Now I was out again, presumably benched by Kremlinesque office politics. By four o’clock, I staggered away.
If this had happened when my kids were home, I’d have kicked up my mothering a notch, but my youngest was graduating from college with plans to move to California. My older son was long gone. That my husband had established an office in our empty nest made it seemed as if we’d been flash-forwarded into antiquity.
This time, I did not bounce back. After leading large teams, being in charge of only myself made me feel as if I’d shrunk to the size of an amoeboid. I marinated in self-pity, ruminating about my contaminated karma. The isolation was painful—this was before we all began frittering away every spare moment on social media. I felt LinkedOut of life.
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 bedroom tiny desk, was one of those bubbled-shaped, jellybean-colored models that looked as if it were manufactured by Fisher Price. I’d never had to develop many tech skills, so when it had a meltdown, I did, too. My husband, who knew nothing about Macs, had no patience with my kvetching.
As my brain replayed the articles I’d read about my firing in newspapers and blogs, my fear surged and depression gelled. How would I ever muster the stamina required for another odious, tip-of-the-pyramid job search? Remotely duplicate the position I’d lost? Would employers start to think I was untalented, or judge me harshly in an industry where a long resume is code for stale and the old boys club had morphed into the young girls club?
Friends invited me to lunch, for which I was grateful, but when the meal was over, I was stuck with myself again. I had always loved to read and visit museums, but I felt guilty indulging in those activities—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 is being behind a desk. I might be Jewish, but I, a daughter of North Dakota, am the queen of the Protestant work ethic.
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? But 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. Should I cancel my trip? That seemed extreme, so I rescheduled the appointment for the day after my return. As I was leaving the house the morning of the interview the head hunter called to say that while I was away the employer had found his dream candidate. The search was over.
Had someone put a hex on me? I felt devastated anew and realized I needed help. I started to see a therapist. I appreciated being able to vent to her instead of friends and family, though looking back on the experience, her goal must have been to get me to accept that I might never work again. In turn, this made me dial back my job-hunting efforts. I’d have responded better to a drill sergeant. But in the end, it didn’t matter, because of two decisions. I arranged to meet a fireball of a friend several times a week at 6:30 a.m. to run, after which we’d hit Starbucks. The exercise allowed me to start 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 in a workshop when I was qualified to teach one? The answer was that writing had drawn to me to magazines in the first place, and more than that, I needed structure and deadlines. After thriving for years 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.
For the first session, what came out of my brain was a comic vignette, lightly fictionalized, about an editor shopping a Chanel sample sale. One submission led to another, and every week I looked forward to the group’s meeting. The other members were a grab bag of smart eccentrics who reminded me in no way of my magazine colleagues. We’re talking orthopedic sandals, not stilettoes. But not only did these people seem to like the writing I turned in, they appreciated the way I used my editor chops to evaluate their work.
As months passed, I allowed myself to think that I’d started what could end as a novel, telling the story of a magazine editor who loses her job to a TV star. A top-notch agent agreed to take me on. It took almost two years to complete the manuscript. I gave my yarn a happy ending, because it was fiction and I could. This became my first novel, Little Pink Slips.
I had been sure I was born to be a magazine editor, but one true thing I’ve learned is that that no one has a single path to fulfillment. Had I hung in and continued to look for a magazine job, I suspect that I would have landed one. 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.
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 and family, whom I finally have time to entertain, especially since I’ve discovered my kitchen. Every Thursday, I babysit for my new grandson. When my computer implodes, I visit an Apple store—they’ve sprouted everywhere—and just yesterday I saw a Broadway matinée with my mother-in-law. I still run, though sometimes in the heart of the day, and I read constantly, with the hope that other authors will pollinate my own work because, lest it sound as if my existence is some version of assisted living, my work fully exists. I teach writing at a local college, coach other writers, and have published four more books.
After my first novel was finished I felt a void and 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. I am not the-editor-in-chief, but fully me, a mix of work, play and responsibility, some of it self-imposed.
My newest and fourth novel is about woman who must reinvent herself. Once again, it’s a subject I know.
Sally Koslow is the author of The Widow Waltz, and three previous novels, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, With Friends like These, and Little Pink Slips. She also wrote the nonfiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: How to Let Go So Your Kids Will Grow Up. Sally teaches at The Writing Institute of Sarah Lawrence College, and coaches other writers, both online and in New York City, where she lives. She invites you to connect with her on her website, Twitter @sallykoslow and her Facebook author page.
This article originally appeared as “Sally Koslow: Lessons Learned from a Midlife Pink Slip” in Psychology Today (June 13, 2103) in the column “One True Thing,” edited by Jennifer Haupt.
Sally was the very first person Lisa and I sat down with when we began to discuss launching Grown and Flown. We remain deeply grateful for her continued encouragement.