On Magazines

and embracing ignorance.

Magazines were how I traveled before I traveled. They taught me how to write, what to listen to, what to go see. Not the ones meant for teenage girls—those ones convinced me I’d get toxic shock syndrome and that the most embarrassing thing that could happen to me would be that I’d get period blood on my school uniform in front of the cutest boy in school. But when I’d mostly outgrown those, I got my mom to buy me different ones at Borders Books & Music. I wanted British music magazines, like NME and Q. I wanted Filmmaker, because I’d gotten into independent cinema through IFC and Sundance channels. I wanted Paper and Nylon and Interview, because these were portals into the cultural world that was just a train ride away but still felt so far and out of reach. 

That the Borders—tragically closed like every location of the beloved chain, which was a real lifeline for the alienated suburban teen—was located in a town called Bohemia now strikes me as mythical. It was at a chain store in Bohemia that I learned how to embody the trappings of the bohemian; it was there, too, that I bought the Dandy Warhols’ album 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia with the cash from my first job. If the magazines were a portal, so too were the beige environs in which I accessed them. Right on Sunrise Highway, next door to a KMart.

I thought about this while reading Rachel Connolly’s excellent “Find Yourself a Tailor. It’s Not Fancy, It’s Freeing.” Though we’re nearly a decade apart in age, the markings of what mattered in adolescence are the same (it’s always Chloë):

My twin sister and I would read all about New York and London in books and magazines and watch films starring Chloë Sevigny with the zeal of any teenager living in a provincial place, convinced that the real world was elsewhere.

The magazines gave me elsewhere, in the confines of my baby blue bedroom, and I cut from them freely to decorate my walls and notebooks and lockers. This decor gave some of my peers the mistaken impression that I knew things, things beyond which band was playing at the local venue or the films of Parker Posey. I didn’t and don’t know how to buy drugs, but this taught me the social impact of an aesthetic.

The food magazines, I didn’t have to pine for. Through there being an American Express credit card in someone’s wallet, both Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure just showed up, month after month. I would simply read these; neither really inspired me to cook and I wasn’t going anywhere, but they gave me some of the language one uses to discuss these things and grounded me in whatever might have been trendy at the turn of the last century. My mom would buy Vogue a lot, too, which I would invariably and incongruently always read while taking refuge in the bathroom. What little I know and understand about fashion came from those moments.

All of these magazines taught me, and even if I had flights of fancy about other kinds of careers throughout my life, I knew that magazines were where I wanted to be. I dabbled a bit in the newspapers at high school and in college, but I’m neither that competitive nor a team player, so it didn’t really work. Internships weren’t accessible. I didn’t end up at a magazine until I was 23 (how old!), and then I was just a copy editor.

The inevitable happened: Working at magazines and writing for them destroyed a lot of the magic. Because I was a copy editor for a constantly updated website, I could barely go to the bathroom, much less get to know my colleagues and figure out ways to write. Like any other nerd, I fell in love with The Awl, and that’s where I got some of my first visible writing gigs.

Yes, working at magazines ruins the magic of them. That’s not surprising. But some magic re-emerged for me when the indies began to boom again, and now so many newsletters and websites, too, are filling the void left by vacuous corporate media. This was incredibly obvious just this weekend, as I read Daisy Alioto’s “What Is Lifestyle?” published herself on a Squarespace site, along with an Instagram account—utterly dynamic. Oh, and also when the talk of Twitter on a Sunday was The White Pube’s “I Hate Dishoom,” by Zarina Muhammad.

I launched this newsletter because my once-stable income from contributing editor and writer gigs had all but dried up at the start of the pandemic. My guaranteed monthly payments dropped 80 percent from the start of 2020 to May. I thought the newsletter would just be an outlet for personal or weirder writing while I figured out my next move, but it became something more. Through subscriptions, I’ve been able to do a lot less other writing and am only taking assignments I really care about while I also work on my book. The sudden popularity of newsletters, though, and this platform’s support of writers who had already found stable lives at established outlets has caused a bit of what you might call a “Twitter discourse.” Writers are feeling pressure to “monetize their brands.” I never did—this doesn’t make me special; it makes me a bit oblivious.

But it’s a very hard time for the industry, so I understand. There are few traditional jobs. Most freelance writing work pays shit. If this newsletter thing is a lifeboat that will eventually sink, which only works for people with strong “brands,” then it’s not that much different from every other late-capitalist enterprise, is it? I do resent the idea that because my work is being supported by readers and not by the Ivy League–educated editors of prestige magazines, it’s somehow lesser. No, it’s just survival. When the Village Voice, once a stable contributor gig for me, shut down, I took a job at a wine bar. When I started this newsletter, I thought I was heading toward being a baker again. I’m always at the ready to, I guess, “hustle,” but to me it’s just life.

For me, “success” is simply being able to continue surviving as a writer, which allows me freedom and, by extension, the gift of good mental health. This newsletter, then, is a success that I never have been offered by traditional media. I take on what would quite a few different jobs (writer, editor, social media manager, producer, audio editor), but I don’t really want to work another way. I like doing things myself. Magazines and traditional media were not providing me creative fulfillment or financial stability.

Some adolescent magic, though, has been restored for me by simply reading magazines in which no writers I know appear, and everyone is writing about something I don’t know anything about: art.

During the pandemic, I’ve reengaged with magazines in the old way. I’m enamored; I’m delighted. I’m going in new directions. I’m reading Frieze and ArtForum, and they expose me to new books, new work, new writers. I love that they have the international gallery listings, providing me some ambient awareness of what’s happening in the rest of the world. I’m looking up exhibitions from 1998, knowing they’ll reveal something I’ve been thinking about but didn’t know anyone had ever explored before.

While surely these magazines, to those who know what they’re talking about, are as shallow and dull and gatekeeper-created as I believe most food magazines to be… but I don’t know that yet, because it’s all new, like I’m a kid again, clawing my way out of sensory deprivation via thin, ad-strewn pages. I even feel moved to cut out quotes and images and glue them to my notebooks, make collages for the wall. In pursuit of professionalism and expertise in my one narrow lane, I’ve forgotten the sparks that can happen when ignorance—this word keeps coming up for me, without negative connotations—is embraced, reveled in.

In the cloistered world of quarantine, I have once again needed portals to new worlds. New ways of seeing, of writing, especially as I work on consistently putting out an essay every week. There is nothing I recommend more for the soul right now than the embrace of ignorance, of the adolescent thirst for the unknown. Because right now, for all of us once again, the future is quite a mystery.

On Wednesday, I want to talk about magazines and what everyone is reading to give them new life in the paid-subscriber discussion.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview features Alejandra Ramos, an editor turned blogger turned TV food expert. We discuss her career trajectory, how she’s coping in the pandemic, and the pursuit of pleasure.

Note: Annual subscriptions will continue to be $30 through the end of 2020. In 2021, they will go up to $50 per year. If you would like a free subscription, let me know.

For Pellicle, I wrote about getting food poisoning on a Cognac press trip last September. If you’d like to hear me talk more about awards, listen to me on the podcast “Hot Takes on a Plate.” If you’d like to hear me talk about colonialism’s impact on cultural understandings of food, listen to me on “Outside/In” from New Hampshire Public Radio. Here’s an interview I did with Harrison Malkin for his newsletter, Ongoing, focused on travel.

Finally, How to Do Nothing, as well as the short stories in The Review of Contemporary Fiction’s Moldovan literature issue.

I’m cooking a lot of pasta. I’m throwing locally grown radish microgreens on everything to make it “healthy.” I’m getting better at cooking rice thanks to Nik Sharma. I baked a chocolate sheet cake covered in too-sweet chocolate ganache, for my boyfriend’s niece’s fifth birthday. Remind me next time I want to bake a birthday cake in 70% humidity that it’s a bad idea.