When I write post No. 36: The Fifty-Four Hundred), I am seven months into a radical stretch of unemployment. My thoughts are a wall of insane worry, at which something begins to tap persistently. Maybe this Something is Deep Instinct, maybe it’s Off The Deep End. But It tells me that going to Berlin with my family is a spiritual and artistic necessity.
Spiritual, artistic, necessity. This combo platter hasn’t been previously available on my menu.
The logistics form a daunting cluster. I have springtime dates in mind and I’m not really sure why, other than Clyde has spring break in the spring – it’s not an homage to Mel Brooks. I’ve let go of the idea that I need to wait for the decree from Cologne regarding my application for restored citizenship under Article 113, paragraph 2 of the Grundgesetz, because I don’t want to do assign God-like control to an authority figure of my own invention, even though I’m really, really good at that.
The springtime trip I want to take – two weeks or so in a decently appointed Mitte rental — will take about six grand I don’t have in a big way.
Yes, yes – I need a job. But I still allow myself an utterly free little brainstorm session, and it goes something like this:
- Travel grant, German corporation
- Travel grant, alma mater
- Apartment trade
- Hook-up via Berlin Jewish community
- German magazine assignment
A month later (see No. 42: A Cup of Ambition), I jump through multiple, spinning hoops to land a copywriting job at an in-house ad agency at the multi-national media conglomerate that recently got bought. It sort of rhymes with Embassy.
No longer being unemployed is a profound upgrade. I’m grateful. But that don’t mean I have an extra six grand lying around – or an extra two weeks.
(As a copywriter I earn exactly half of what I did as a TV staff writer.)
In order to grow my own writing life while working full-time pounding out TV commercials for wireless cell phone networks, mattresses, amusement parks, and pest control, I change my schedule. It’s the classic early to bed (9:30 PM) and early to rise (4:30 AM) that made Ben Franklin a household name. This arrangement creates two hours of writing time – truly gorgeous time when the world outside and inside my home is quiet and peaceful, the coffee, prepped the night before, greets me piping hot, and the light is flattering.
Cue the mourning doves. It is now my precious responsibility to apportion my precious two hours, about which I am suddenly greedy and protective. (My prehhhhh-scious.)
If I ever want another wildly lucrative job on a TV show, then my first order of business should be to finish the original TV pilot I started when the one before that got relegated to the Drawer of Misfit Scripts. It’s a workplace dramedy in the vein of a giant franchise you’ve heard of. And then there’s another idea that’s decided to cook itself up, a smoldering teen love story with a supernatural twist in the vein of another middle-weight franchise you’ve heard of. For the former, I’ve done considerable research and written several drafts of an outline. For the latter, I have interest from a smoking hot director with a hit on the air and a development deal at a major studio.
I have no problem with TV money. But — Spiritual, Artistic, Necessity. Can I get TV money up in there, and is that what I’m going to spend my two hours on? (My prehhhhhh-scious.)
Meanwhile, upstairs, over my desk, there’s a framed note from the New Yorker. I received it a couple of years ago, when I wrote a really, really long short story and submitted it on a whim. I never thought I’d hear. I just stood in front of the mailbox, kissed it up to God, and dropped the manila envelope in. I was remembering who I’d once wanted to be.
The note from the anonymous editor that arrives a few months later heartily praises my work and encourages me to develop my “novella” (Ohhhh — is that what it is?) into a novel. I burst into tears, frame the note, hang it over my desk, and ignore it. But now, at four-thirty in the morning, with my precious two hours, I return to the novel with tenderness and relief.
When I write TV commercials for casinos, insurance companies, and laxatives, I’m working fast and furious. By the time the scripts have been approved by the client, pre-production starts, and I get word that a client is thrilled with my work, that I’ve brought their five-figure ad campaign to an unheard of level, I’ve long forgotten what I banged out.
As I write my novel, I’m going slowwwwly, slowwwly. A paragraph at a time. The story I’m writing, about two young sisters in New York City in the early 90’s, estranged from their family and trying to make it on their own, will cover only three months in their lives. It’s not a sprawling epic, but I am going deep to tell it. Because I have a paycheck now, even though it’s not extravagant, it allows me to put the “oh my God it’s pilot season it’s staffing season it’s development season this better sell” on mute. I am left to my own devices.
My own devices want to tell you what Christmas eve in New York City is like for Jewish girls whose mother has cut them off.
In January, a feature I sold back in 2008 finally hits the stands in SELF magazine. It’s the hilarious, touching story of my 30-pound weight loss:
It run in the “Happiness” section.
On January 6th I get home from work to find a letter from Conde Nast.
“This letter serves as notice,” it says, “that your material, originally published in a United States edition, has been optioned by the affiliated publication referenced above. Love and kisses, Glamour Bulgaria.”
Whoa – really? Who knew? Glamour Bulgaria…is that where they give you tips on grooming your mustache?
But also – remember the part where I wanted a magazine assignment to fund my trip to Berlin?
I pull my contract from the files. It’s borderline incomprehensible on the subject of foreign sales, because there’s Syndication Rights, and Foreign Rights, and who knows.
Because we’re old friends by now, and because it’s relevant to my story, I will share with you that I was originally paid six grand for the feature. And, you know, six grand is the magic number.
I email the nice lady at Conde Nast whose name is printed at the bottom of the letter. She explains that the magazine has thirty days after securing the option to schedule the piece, and within that time frame I will be paid twenty cents a word. I think that’s what she said. And I think that’s about a grand. But after thirty days, if the magazine still wants to schedule the piece, it has to negotiate my rate directly with me, from scratch.
A few days later, another letter arrives from Conde Nast. My piece has now been optioned to Vogue Girl Korea. A few days later, Glamour Italy. Then Glamour South Africa, and Glamour Poland, and Glamour Mexico. That’s six magazines. At a grand a piece…
…if it runs.
And then it occurs to me.
Maybe Conde Nast owns a German women’s magazine…and…yup! There’s a German Glamour!
Maybe German Glamour would like to option my essay, too!
And then I can contact the editor!
And she can hire me to write a family/relationships/lifestyle/fashion/travel piece!
The Berlin Workout: Burn Calories and Get Toned With Emotional Reckoning!
Pecs In The City: How To Keep Slim, Groomed and Tan, LA Style, in the Land Of Sausage!
Keep Calm And Carry On: One Wheelie, Two Weeks of Inspired Outfits from Berlin’s Prodigal Daughter!
Berlin Roots: The Mitte’s Swinging Colorists Tell All!
So I email my Conde Nast BFF. Any signs on the horizon that German Glamour cares about my journey from size 12 to size 6? As it happens…yeah…nope.
Then, on January 13th, I get a message on Facebook from my oldest friend in the world, Rosie. Our mothers went to the same girls’ school in London and are still best friends, and Rosie and I grew up together, visiting one another back and forth across the pond since infancy. A few years ago, my dear friend from college, Blanche, was in London producing a TV show, and I made a transatlantic introduction to Rosie. Blanche and Rosie became friends. They shopped for vintage fabric on Portobello Road and made throw pillows, which is the sort of thing they like to do. Then Blanche had a dinner party, and invited Rosie, and introduced Rosie to Nigel. And then Rosie and Nigel fell in love, moved in, and had two kids.
“Hey lady,” Rosie says, “Nigel and I are being married 22 May Derbyshire and would dearly love it if you could come, invitations are nearly there not quite though. I am trying to get hold of Blanche as well. You are both responsible for this occasion so get your ass over here. All my love think of you lots Rosie xxxxxxxxxxx.”
Is that where my idea of a springtime trip to Europe came from? Did it already exist, pulling me towards it?
Rosie was at my wedding in 1999, and John and I spent party of our honeymoon in London with her family. Of course I will be there. Um, somehow.
And then something else occurs to me.
Now that I’m poised for my international debut…would any other magazines like a piece of this?
I send off inquiries, linked to this blog, to the Guardian UK, the international version of Der Speigel (written in English), and Exberliner, the Berlin culture weekly, also written in English, pitching a family/ relationships/lifestyle/travel piece.
Last week, one of my bosses at the ad agency calls me into his office. There is a young girl there with a high ponytail from Human Resources.
“Close the door,” he says.
He gives an enthusiastic appraisal of my work over the last three months. Then I am offered a staff position.
It is perhaps really weird to quote one’s own unfinished, unsold novel. And yet my 24-year old protagonist, Claudia Silver, articulates perfectly how I’ve felt about my myriad day jobs over the years:
“She was determined to perform her daily tasks with an ever-so-slight yet palpable indifference, which, when paired with her charisma, would keep her pointedly on the fringe of the operation and protect her from ever turning out like them.”
It’s explained to me that the employment package requires me to sign an agreement giving the multi-national media conglomerate some sort of rights to the creative work I generate while in their employ, including the various projects I’m working on outside of work.
I stare blankly at my boss. The sign on his desk says “You Work For Me.” The thought bubble over my head says, “You Have Got To Be Fucking Kidding Me.”
“We offer really, really great benefits,” Human Resources Barbie is saying. “Including two weeks paid vacation in your first year.”