As I organize my office, I have found all kinds of things on paper, from scraps of paper to old book contracts, mortgages, bills that I am not sure I ever paid. Some things surprise me and bring me back to certain memories while other things leave me stumped. I have pads of paper from work—meeting notes, to-do lists. I am looking at a to-do list now from 2008 and it says things like, “Visionary in K-12 market,” in a box, sideways, by itself, and “Design bundle” and “Figure is flexible.” Who knows.
Then I will find some piece of correspondence that is clear as a bell. A letter from a friend. Test results from a doctor. A detailed bill for a car repair. A rejection letter, maybe with a few encouraging words.
At some point I was apparently quite organized. I would query magazine editors with ideas. This was before email, largely. I believed at the time—correctly or not—that editors liked to hear about ideas this way, especially if you were an unknown. This was the conventional wisdom. (I was thrilled some years later when I cracked into selected magazines and realized I could just talk with an editor, bounce ideas around, before I went to the trouble of painfully crafting things.)
But there they are, staring me in the face—photocopies of letters, or maybe the original ones returned with a note from the editor. Some of them are stapled to form rejections. Some of them are stapled to custom rejections. Some of them are even stapled to the correspondence, and a photocopy of the article that finally appeared. There aren’t as many in the last category as there are in the first two, and there are plenty in the first one.
A few really caught my eye. I wrote to The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, and several other really fine magazines. I wrote a lengthy query to The Atlantic proposing a certain topic in computing, and had a really nice correspondence with an editor. I worked on it, but the topic was too amorphous. If I had the 30 year old me in a class today I would have told him that he was trying to boil the ocean. He still might not have pulled off the article, but he would have had a better chance.
I honestly am of several minds about these letters. I can’t decide if I am impressed with how ambitious I was, embarrassed with how naïve I was, or disappointed that I didn’t pursue things more. It’s a little of all of the above I think. I had some success. I developed some good clips, mainly from business magazines and career magazines for college students. They were good service pieces, and a few of them came with nice checks; I saved some of the check stubs. Nearly all of the writing I did then would be published on the web now. Some of it might not even be published anymore, at least at the length I wrote, replaced by blogs and free content on business sites. As just one example, I wrote several for a magazine called Graduating Engineer, which looks to no longer be in print. There’s still a website, but I don’t see a lot of fresh content there.
As I’ve given myself time to think about new writing projects, I haven’t gone so far as to think about where some of these things might be published. Are there magazines for the things I want to write? Websites? Is anyone paying anything for the kinds of things I want to work on? And if they are paying, is it pennies on the dollar compared to what I used to get? I guess I will learn these things over time.