Forgiving failure

Everyone who comes to New York to get into book publishing wants to be an editor. It’s like going to Hollywood to be an actor. Very few people get to do it, and I was one of the lucky ones. I got to be editor for one book before I was fired.

I took on yet another dual role — editorial assistant and assistant to the publisher. (Yes, I know — I had learned nothing. Never, ever take dotted-line jobs. It simply means there’s not enough work to justify your existence.)

He was a charming man, and I liked him. I also liked most of the people on his team. This was for a division of Simon & Schuster called Brady Books. They published what were essentially third-party software manuals. Today they’re simply called Brady, and focus on walk-through guides for video games.

Simon & Schuster was (and still is) owned by Paramount, which means we also got to publish books related to Star Trek video games. That was cool.

The job paid $2k more than my position at Viking-Penguin, which was nice but not life-changing. My roommate and I decided to move to Brooklyn, where we could afford a decent place to live. We rented a two-bedroom apartment in Carroll Park, an Italian neighborhood, though our place was on the wrong side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which means we were near junkyards and warehouses that did some kind of business at 2 AM with big guys in track suits. Since we were on the top floor, sometimes we’d climb the fire escape and eat a pizza on the roof, which faced the docks.

The building was described to us as “pre-war.” I assumed that meant WWII. It meant Civil War. Brooklyn is one of the oldest towns in America, and unlike Dallas, they never tear anything down. That meant the five flights of stairs I took every day were only slightly wider than my shoulders. If someone was coming down while you were going up, you’d have to pause on a landing and let them pass, like trucks on a mountain road.

The commute to and from Brooklyn was brutal. I didn’t realize what a difference it made being able to walk 25 blocks to work, or take a bus and see daylight, compared to being in a fetid subway system for an hour or more, each way, patrolled by beggars and gang members. New York subway tunnels smell like orange peels and urine, and periodically catch fire (minor trash fires, ignited by the third rail) which adds a special tinge to the funk.

I started wandering around mid-town after work, instead of going home, then bar-crawling up the Upper West Side again.

Once I crashed a party at Columbia University. I still had my college ID in my wallet for some reason, and acted like I was visiting. I met a beautiful girl at a party and danced with her for an hour. Once we got outside, I realized she didn’t speak English. (She was French.)

She was the one bright spot in my life. Work turned out to be the same boring drudgery as the previous job, though in this case it had more to do with making lunch appointments at fancy restaurants and making coffee than filing. Still, I could hang on till quitting time because we’d go walk through Central Park or see a museum, she’d teach me some French and I’d teach her some English, and we’d do the things boys and girls do.

My roommate gave up on New York before I did. He went back to college to get a Masters in Avoiding Life for Another Three Years. I was jealous.

I had to move in with two other guys to afford rent, and they were assholes.

The woman who worked next to me, a fellow assistant, took all her meds and jumped off the George Washington Bridge. I knew she was sad, and that she didn’t talk to her family in the Midwest anymore, so it wasn’t a knockout punch, but it was a sock to the gut.

My girlfriend went back to France. That laid me out cold.

I started showing up to work late, taking long lunches, mentally checking out. I was in a fog. My boss said it wasn’t working out, and he was right. I didn’t want my job because I didn’t want his job or anyone’s inbetween.

I’d gotten to know one of the senior editors, and with 20 years experience and several big books under his direction, he made about the same salary as an experienced high school teacher, which is why he commuted from Connecticut. He guided me through editing my first and only book, and I thanked him for it. But the truth was, I didn’t want to be in that city any longer. I’d found publishing to be nothing more than paper-pushing in a tiny, crappy office, then going home to a tiny, crappy apartment (or avoiding it through drink). And though there were 8 million souls on that island, I found it terribly difficult to get to know anyone. I hadn’t appreciated how friendly Texas and California were until I lived in New York. It is a well-populated, but lonely place.

I got to be editor for one book, which still sits on my shelf. I look at it sometimes, and think back to my horrible introductory experience to the workforce. How much of it was my fault? How much can I put on others, or circumstances?

At 47, I realize it doesn’t matter. Blame is not a productive game. Only understanding is.

What I understand is that a young, naive man tried New York and hated it. He wasn’t inherently lazy, but he did become a bad employee because he was ill-suited to the work, he was underpaid for the cost of living in that location, and the culture of the location didn’t fit with his personality.

I forgive me for failing in New York.

I’m tearing up as I write this. That’s the purpose of these two blog posts. I needed to forgive myself for my failings, and with all my introspection and analysis, I hadn’t done that since leaving New York in the fall of 1989.

Understanding is good, but forgiveness is the most powerful thing in the universe.

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8 thoughts on “Forgiving failure”

  1. Thanks for sharing that story, Rick. It’s engaging writing, powerful because of the openness, and because it rings true for anyone who’s ever experienced any failure (i.e. everyone).

    I heard an author say recently that the more concrete, particular, and personal his writing, the more universal it turned out to be. I think that applies here, as well.

  2. By the way, I consider Editor–>Author to be a huge step up. From a reader’s point of view, the Editor looks like nothing more than a middleman, maybe a gatekeeper, or glorified proofreader. The author is the one who makes something of value. Congrats.

  3. Thanks again, and that’s a very good point. In college, I had heard stories of editors working with writers, so that was part of my inspiration to try being and editor. However, that role turned out to be largely mythical after the age of F Scott Fitzgerald. I remember asking Kurt Vonnegut (at a college speaker event) if he worked with his editor to craft his novels, and he looked at me like I was nuts.

    If the main point of “editing” is to ensure you’ve crafted something your readers will enjoy, I can get that kind of feedback by giving advanced review copies to a few fans (as I did for book three), and considering their feedback. Having a single paid editor just seems silly, nowadays. I had five reviewers last time, and each had different perspective (some focused on details, some talked big-picture) — and that was free.

    I hope to continue that pattern with my next book, a separate story which I hope to publish around Christmas — i.e. you’ll be getting a review copy around Halloween. 🙂

  4. ” I’d found publishing to be nothing more than paper-pushing in a tiny, crappy office, then going home to a tiny, crappy apartment (or avoiding it through drink). And though there were 8 million souls on that island, I found it terribly difficult to get to know anyone. ”

    Just so I understand this ‘”failure,” I’d like to review a few items that jump out from this.
    1. The jobs were 90% manual office work with little mental challenge or professional engagement.
    2. You had one good project with a mentoring editor.
    2. The career path was basically luck in connecting to the right person needing your help, during the (dark) pre-internet days.
    3. When your personal life became painful– as they do once in a while– you couldn’t keep up the positive attitude in a lousy, low-pay situation.

    You may not have not been perfect, but those company environments did nothing value your engagement or success. You experienced the misery that comes from being stuck in a job that pays just enough to let you live, but nothing else. Worse, you did this in a foreign place with no support connections, at a time when you are seeking some direction and meaning for your young life. Honestly, I think you associate the pain of that time in your life with an expectation that you should have done better, and that’s not fair.

    I get that it was a painful time, but I don’t agree that you carry the blame. Hindsight gives us all opportunities to see our mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we are guilty for not knowing then what we know now. I believe that you have done the one thing you are supposed to with hard knocks: you learned lessons that you took with you for the rest of your life. The rest is merely history.

    One more thing. You became published author leveraging the online media that is crushing the old publishing industry. No need for the baggage Rick; you’ve arrived.

  5. >Worse, you did this in a foreign place with no support connections, at a time when you are seeking some direction and meaning for your young life.

    That is a very good point. I used to think “I should have gone to Japan and taught English,” but with your insight there, I think I might have ended up in the same place (mentally), just in a more alien land. Drinking too much in Tokyo probably isn’t better than doing it in Manhattan.

    >One more thing. You became published author leveraging the online media that is crushing the old publishing industry. No need for the baggage Rick; you’ve arrived.

    It’s so, so hard to let that old crap go.

    I just finished Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, a collection of letters and journal entries organized by his widow and daughter. He didn’t have a best-seller until he’d written 262 books. I’m just going to keep writing, try my best to write good stuff, and see what happens. So much of it is luck, but like Picasso said, luck needs to find you working.

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