Listen: Julie Phillips '86 Speaks with English Majors and Minors
In this talk, Julie Phillips ’86, Ursula Le Guin biographer, speaks with English majors and minors about freelance writing and journalism. More specifically, she touches on building a career in freelance writing, including book reviewing, blogging, book writing and filmmaking.
“I just never stopped trying to get it right," she says. "I remember being about 40 and realizing that all of these things that you do that you think are temporary, are all of a sudden your life. I think everybody has these."
"Do the things that you want to do, if possible. Try to create the economic conditions by doing what you want to do. Read the things that you want to write. Write to the publications that you like.”
Phillips is a biographer and book critic. She has written for The New Yorker, The Village Voice and many other publications. She is the author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the biography of Ursula K. Le Guin and is currently working on The Baby on the Fire Escape.
Julie: I think we can keep going for a while, but hopefully you will have things that you want to know about. You know, are you all English majors?
Speaker 2: I'm a little out of my element right now, I'm only a Freshman. So I'm thinking certain things about English.
Speaker 3: Pre-majors, yeah.
Speaker 2: But yeah, I'm in a first year seminar and our professor recommended that we come.
Julie: Yeah, I did not become an English major until my last semester here because I was a failed history major first. I was actually, kind of, a bad student. So, I spent too much time trying to figure out what I wanted to do and then I thought what I wanted to do was history because I thought somehow it was more serious than English.
But I could never formulate any of the questions for a history paper. I didn't really, I loved reading history and I didn't understand how to write it, which should have ticked me off, but it did not. And, eventually I failed a course that was required for my major and switched to the English department, which made it much better. And, then I didn't really ... I was also kind of in denial about wanting to write. I thought that, that would be nice but it seemed like, I seemed to be down here and it seemed to be up here and I didn't really see how you would get from here to there.
So I didn't do a lot of the things that you were supposed to do if you want a career in freelance writing or in journalism, which is write for The Phoenix or write for The Review, that kind of was...
Speaker 3: And there's a bunch of other, now, papers available for students online and/or in print.
Speaker 3: To write on.
Julie: And, I went out to Seattle afterwards where I had family and said, well maybe I wanna, you know, maybe I wanna do some writing or maybe I wanna be a journalist and somebody knew somebody who was working for Seattle Weekly, which is one of the alternative papers. It's a little bit weird because I, you know, the whole landscape of journalism has changed in a lot of ways.
I mean, the practice of journalism is still the same and still just as important as it was. One friend of mine a few years ago described the profession to me as swirling around the toilet bowl on the way down.
Speaker 3: Ouch.
Speaker 4: That's going to make everybody want to do it.
Julie: Which is, you know, in some ways it's a little bit better than it was, because I think people have realized the need for good journalism and are finding more ways to support it. That was Carol Cooper, who you know.
Michael: Yes, yes, I've been in contact with her recently.
Julie: Yeah. I asked her for her advice thinking that she was gonna say, oh, my god, don't do it. But she's also, she's an advisor for a high school student newspaper in New York City. And she said that she thought that developing good research and reporting skills is more important than ever now. And so, even though it's hard to break into the profession, the profession is still extremely important. I don't know if you guys have journalism in mind, or what? Or, you're still here and here.
Speaker 2: I mean, I just know that I love reading and writing and I kind of look for it in any form I can get it. So when it comes to journalism and freelance, I'll do it and I'll enjoy it. If it comes to book writing, which I hope it will get to, maybe a combination of the two. I've worked in all those mediums. I'm hoping to make a career that will combine those things because I really enjoy writing. So, just any form I could find it.
Michael: Shirley's done editing too at different stages.
Julie: Yeah, that was something I used to say. I graduated from Swarthmore not having learned anything about how to read and write.
Speaker 4: And ask dangerous questions.
Michael: Those are some very important things to learn.
Julie: Yeah, as it turns out, yes. I think you can go on learning them all your life. What this guy explained to me, worked for Seattle news, the managing editor I think, he said, what you need to do is come up with a clip file, which in those days was actually you wrote something and it got printed and you cut it out and the next time, and you xeroxed it and the next time you asked another editor for work, you sort of sent a proposal and you sent your clip. So you sent some of the stuff that you'd already done so they could see what you've written before.
Now you just send links or whatever. He was like, well you can start working for some of the little papers around town. And I got mad and I wrote some rant of an article that I've never, I'm not really a ranter, it sort of came out and I never was able to do it again since. But, that they published and they really liked and so they asked me to intern there and I ended up with a small stipend and I just ended up writing all kinds of things for them.
They would do these shopping supplements, I would go around and find out what stores were selling. I would, I remember somebody, an editor came up with the idea that we ought to write about elevators and so I had this really interesting time calling up the elevator repair company and asking how elevators were serviced, and repaired, and who sold elevators, and who maintained them, and that was fun.
Speaker 4: And those mysterious little certificates that are framed in elevators, at least they used to be.
Julie: And I wrote little capsule reviews of movies and books. And I moved to ... and started writing, wrote some longer reviews of movies and I moved to New York and I ... Well, two things happened. One was that I sent my clips to The Village Voice film editor and he let me write about movies for The Village Voice.
Michael: Like crazy.
Speaker 4: Yeah, RIP.
Julie: A dream job, but then I also wanted, I needed a day job and I ended up ... I probably, in retrospect, should have held out for a job in magazine publishing but I was offered ... Oh, I'd also interned at Seal Press, which was a little feminist press in Seattle. So the first job I was offered was at Pantheon Books, as an editorial assistant and I did that. I held out with that for about a year. Book publishing is strange.
Speaker 3: Julie, was it like the work that you did at Seal Press sort of came to the attention of someone at Pantheon, so you could make that switch?
Julie: No, I just sent a resume.
Speaker 4: Oh, to them.
Julie: And actually it turned out the editor that was looking for a new assistant was, one of her best friends was Marian Favor, who is a professor here who I'd taken a class from, and so she called up Marian Favor and said, what do you think of, and so that was just kind of serendipitous.
And I found it really difficult to be an editorial assistant. I didn't [inaudible 00:08:22]. One way to sort of, one really good way to get it, to develop a career, is to have a lot of patience and to do these things and to work here right. And I had a hard time being a sort of third wheel in the editing process where you answer the phone and you write the cover copy for books without knowing how to do it.
And you write letters and occasionally you talk to an author on the phone and I could always tell the ones who worked at home because they were the ones who wouldn't stop talking on the telephone. But I was, sort of I just, I was not ... you know, I felt sort of shut out of the process whereas I'd been in a newsroom and I'd been really in the middle of things. And so I said that I was quitting to go freelance and it was just at the moment that there was this whole kind of blow up in New York publishing where the editor in chief of Pantheon Books, André Schiffrin, was fired for not making enough, for having his particular division Pantheon not make enough money. The idea had been that Pantheon was going to be the quality division and the other parts of Random House, which is the overarching organization, were going to kind of bring in the money.
And then the German powers that be decided that all the divisions at Pantheon should make money, that Random House should make money, including Pantheon and he kind of balked and was fired. So, my editor who knew this was happening said, just wait a little while and, you know, as it turned out, the entire staff quit in protest. I quit in protest even though I was not actually quitting in protest, but I could stand out there on paper lawn, you know.
Speaker 3: It's like the coloring [inaudible 00:10:37].
Julie: Yeah, whether or not it did any good in the publishing industry, I do not know.
Speaker 3: I don't think so somehow.
Julie: Yeah. It led to the ... he went on to found The New Press which still publishes a lot of really interesting political stuff. He did things better in a lot of ways. He a greater commitment to sort of diversity and his publishing was and is a very white and a very limited field. And I think he did that better. So he established something or maybe established kind of a pattern of independent publishing that's better than what's out there, but he didn't really change the field of publishing as a whole.
And so I set out on my brilliant freelance career and then The Voice changed film editors and the new editor said, well, come in and talk to me about what you wanna do. And want I wanted to do was go on writing film reviews, so I thought, well, that's easy. And, then she was like, so, what are your proposals for this section? I went, uh, uh, uh, uh, and she didn't give me any work after that.
One of the things that I learned from that is it was good to ... if you're applying for a job, it's good to do some research into what people expect from you. And, you know, I had not. In this case, I hadn't picked up on signals, maybe I could have talked to a colleague who would have said, hey, what do you think the film section needs. I could have approached that differently in retrospect.
There was also a thing when I, right after I got the job at Pantheon, I was asked, I had sent a resume to The New Yorker as one does, and they asked me to take a test to be a fact checker. Of course, I wanted to work at The New Yorker, but I had just taken this other job and was kind of ambulant and so I went in there completely unprepared and took the fact checking test and did really badly because all they asked me was like, what facts in this bit of writing do you think need checking? And I said, well, that one, and that one, and that one, and then he took it from me and said, no, this one, this one, this one, and this one, as well as the ones you marked.
You know, you have to check spellings of the names, and you have to check the dates, and you have to find out whether this really happened, and, if I had had any sense, I would have done some research in advance and figured out that this is how you are a fact checker. And I did not and I did not get the job. So, this is, you know, this is my brilliant career.
Michael: Well, your career is more than that. I mean, you forwarded ... I gather you are currently working on a biography of [inaudible 00:13:52]-
Michael: And you had already done a biography of a much more, what would you say, dramatic character.
Julie: Yeah, a more, much more dramatic character.
Michael: Yes, much more dramatic. Life that ended in murder and death and, you know, all of these things.
Julie: God. Yes.
Michael: And now you're working on somebody who is sort of very, very, I don't know, what would you say? I think without using it as a denigrate, any kind of denigrate, derogatory is much more conservative in some ways. I mean, never lived a double life.
Julie: No, no, in the way-
Michael: Never masqueraded as a man, never killed anybody.
Julie: No, no, very ordinary.
Michael: Yeah, yeah.
Speaker 3: As far as we know.
Julie: That's one of the first things she said to me was, in fact, I've led a really boring life.
Speaker 4: As a point of pride.
Julie: Yeah, the continuation of how I get from here to here is that I kind of, I think at that point I realized I was gonna have to do something to make money and I ended up, I took a copy test at The Village Voice and did much better. And I became a freelance copy editor for The Village Voice, which gave me an excuse to sort of hang around the office all the time and ingratiate myself with various other editors and I ended up writing for all kinds of sections of the paper. I wrote, I did Sports writing, I covered the Yankees first season. I think I produced two articles that were about that long because the games were free. It was real fun. Roger Angell taught me, if you know who that is? He's like the greatest sports writer for The New Yorker, he taught me how to mark up the box scores.
Michael: And some of these assignments came in how? Just because you were there and could hear people meeting someone.
Julie: Just because I was there, you know. I made a nuisance of myself or made friends with somebody or ... and I mostly ended up writing for the book section. Here we are back to reading and writing and I was ... The way that my first biography came about, which is always a really disappointing story to people who think, oh, you found this, you wrote about this totally unknown writer, you must have found a cache of letters in great-aunt's attic or something like that or a secret box or a secret something. And what happened was, I was reading this publication called The Women's Review of Books because I writing for them and I-
Michael: Which still exists, still in print.
Julie: I think it's only, oh, it's bimonthly now. It's was monthly then. It was bigger then. It's still out there. You know, it filled a kind of, a perceived gap in the book review, in book reviewing. More books by women needed to be reviewed and if you ever read the New York computer books, you will see that there is a gap, there is an absence of reviewing by women. And it had most of its advertising was from academic presence and things like that.
Anyway, so I read an article about the Tiptree Award, which is an award that is given for science fiction writers who, kind of expand our understanding of gender. Have you been nominated?
Speaker 3: I have a retro tip for you.
Julie: Oh, good.
Speaker 4: Retro, oh.
Julie: Have you, Michael?
Michael: No, no.
Julie: No, never.
Michael: I live in fear of winning that award. You have to wear a little tight tiara.
Julie: That's right.
Michael: I am the [inaudible 00:17:31] person I know. I would die of embarrassment.
Speaker 3: You would look good in a tiara.
Speaker 4: Tiaras are back.
Speaker 3: Yeah, yeah.
Julie: Yeah, it was, they explicitly said, you know, when it was founded they said, it's a feminist award.
Speaker 3: Right.
Julie: But, it's open to men and women, but we're not in any hurry to prove it by giving it away to a man, but they have given the award to men [inaudible 00:18:00] times and you've been nominated.
Speaker 3: I've been nominated twice, yeah. John Kessel won it one year and walked around in a tiara.
Michael: He walked around with a tiara, yeah. [crosstalk 00:18:08].
Julie: Yeah, Geoff Ryman [crosstalk 00:18:10].
Speaker 3: Ryman refused to give it back. He was running around and people were trying to take it away from him. He refused to take it off.
Speaker 4: Alice Sheldon's laughing from the other side.
Julie: Sorry, Gordon. We're talking about the Tiptree award, which is an award in science fiction. The reason I ended up writing a biography of James Tiptree Jr., who was really a woman named Alice Sheldon, who wrote under a male pseudonym for about 10 years in the '60s and '70s without anyone ever catching on that it wasn't a man.
Michael: How did people catch on? When did people find out? Or, I guess-
Julie: Well, you had your suspicious I think, did you or not?
Michael: No, I went through the entire Women and Science Fiction symposium [crosstalk 00:18:57] under the impression that Tip was what we all called-
Speaker 4: Tip Tip.
Michael: Yeah, that Tip was a man.
Julie: Yeah, there was a fan [inaudible 00:19:04] that organized [crosstalk 00:19:05].
Michael: An incredibly conservative man.
Julie: I know, yeah.
Michael: [crosstalk 00:19:07] the one who, here's this collection of men and supposedly two men and a lot of women and a number of-
Julie: Yeah, you guys were the token men.
Michael: And we were very much the token men, yeah. And he was supposed to be, and he was the one who sounded in the first bunch of letters-
Julie: And she came in later. This is Samuel R. Delany.
Michael: Sure, Chip, everybody calls him.
Julie: But your bylines.
Michael: But that he was a, you know, that nobody knew what to expect from the man. But we, you know, I became, you know, this is the most important question, and they all went out of my way to sort of, you know, out do everybody else. And Tip sort of said, oh, it isn't really that bad. The only point Tip was actually it was a woman. And all the other women were, really lost patience with "him" very, very, quickly in this letter exchange that went on for over a year.
Julie: Yeah, he had a kind of skepticism about feminism that he could have gotten away with as a woman, but really could not get away with as a man. I wonder about, you know, did she, Alice Sheldon, realize how she was coming across?
Michael: I don't know, I mean Joanna had invited both of us initially to be part of the ... because it was something I was very, very concerned with before, you know, before the whole thing started. Can I ask you a question that is in some ways unrelated-
Julie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael: ... to what you said? I have a great deal of sympathy with biographers. I like reading good biographies and I, and yet I'm always haunted by the description that is, you know, a lot of biographers have had to live with. And you've probably heard it yourself. It's a bunch of uninteresting writers writing about a lot more interesting writers.
Julie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael: You know, and if you're gonna write a biography of anybody, that's what you're going to get and if I decided to do one tomorrow, I'd have the same, you know, I have the same problem, I'm sure. Because I'd wanna write about somebody whom I thought was more interesting than I was.
Julie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael: I was written extent on [inaudible 00:21:34], fairly excessively by [inaudible 00:21:37], again, who has a much more dramatic life because suicide at the end and all sorts of things like that.
Speaker 4: Dramatized [inaudible 00:21:46]
Michael: Right, yeah, exactly.
So, I mean, I was just wondering how you deal with that particular aspect of it? Especially with someone like Tip, whom I will go to my grave thinking of as Tip because that's-
Julie: Yes, yeah. uh-huh
Michael: When I quote, "knew him" unquote. Before I discovered that he was she-
Julie: Yeah. Uh-huh.
Michael: It was, a, I knew him as Tip. And, then the ending was so traumatic. I will never forget the day I discovered that Tiptree had killed her husband and herself. You know and, it was like, a weird. And you wondered if it had anything to do with the assumed identity etc. etc. etc.
Michael: For physiological reasons or what have you. And, the very, the day I did, I was walking around 82nd street, and I'm walking down the street and some guy blew his wife away on the street well, you know, across the street from me and knocked, you know, and she was knocked out of her shoes. And, her shoes left there. You know, it was a very violent day for me personally.
Julie: My gosh.
Michael: You know, it was weird.
Michael: I think if this is an a, they were in what? Washington.
Michael: You know, they were in Washington. [crosstalk 00:23:02]
Michael: Yeah and I was on 86th Street. Between Broadway and Amsterdam. What is it? Are the stars in a bad position?
Julie: I mean, you know, if you're a reporter, you're never really the main story. So, I think that there's reporter element in writing a biography. So it's a really, kind of a, a mixed genre, you know. I think if, I'm gonna talk about that a little tonight, about the carrier bag. Here [crosstalk 00:23:43] with literature.
Michael: Oh yes.
Julie: In the context of biography if it's essay vs. from dancing at the edge of the world. Where she talks about literature, you know, instead of the narrative arc of, you know, the death dealing, prehistoric era of, why not think of literature as being the prehistoric carrier bag? And, holding things in relation to one another.
Speaker 3: A bag full of scars.
Julie: Yeah. And, biography is definitely a carrier bag with some history in it. There's some literary criticism in it, there's some plane over [inaudible 00:24:24] in there. But, you have to, you know, you do have to think about what the story is.
The first time I tried to write an essay about Ursula Le Guin, it turned, it eventually turned into the piece cutter that I did in New York. I never thought I'd [inaudible 00:24:43] but the first version of it that I did, kind of, I was too in awe of her and of the material, to impose very much structure on it besides cinology. I showed it to various friends of mine including my friend Amal who lived in Scotland for a long time, and he said, this reads like the lives of the Scottish women explorers. It went, and this happened, and then this happened, and this happened. You know, read like kind of a bad amateur biography because I had not, sort of, you know; cinology is not in there.
And, so I still kind of grappling question about, you know, What is Ursula's story about? And, you know, I'll talk a little bit more about that tonight but.
Michael: Cause all of a sudden that makes certain facts more resonate or important than others all of a sudden.
Julie: Yeah. Uh huh.
And you know, a narrative, you get a kind of a narrative. There has to be a why as well as a what. And, when [inaudible 00:26:07] director of the documentary that's going to be screened tonight, she asked me to be an advisor on it but I think my...it says on the advisory board, along with some other woodwinds colors and Brian had a very [inaudible 00:26:31] would do a lot of work on fantasy. But I think my actual role is that we would sort of, email each other back and forth and say "what is this story about?" "What is the story of this story?" We came to slightly different but similar conclusions.
When I wrote the New Yorker article I started thinking about her, cause I know you have a lot of reservations about her work in various plays and think her work is conservative and [inaudible 00:27:06].
Speaker 3: I have a great deal of respect for the person.
But I started thinking about her as somebody who'd grown up. Guin's father was an anthropologist who was an expert on the Native American cultures of California and gone at, you know, learned Urock and talked to people all over California in the very early days of the 20th Century, trying to preserve the refinance of these cultures where 3/4 of the people had died of disease. War and disease.
And so, she was in a position to realize that, you know, some sections are a lot of colonial narrative in a lot of ways. It kind of, it draws on western, it's like, you know, so we went to that place and we explored it, and we colonized it, and we found some people there. And, this is what we thought about them. And, she understood that there was a counter merit, that there was the merit of the people who were already in that place.
And, she started writing science fiction for the point of view of anthropologists. And, what does it mean to come to a place and try to understand it from an anthropological point of view but then that gave her an opportunity to talk about the narratives that the people who were, already in. You know, so I thought about her as providing this American counter narrative and I don't, do you think that's a fair assessment? Do you think that's?
Michael: I haven't given it a lot of thought. I've given it exactly 30 seconds thought. I remember a very scary meeting of biographers that I went to. Buuts. And I just went to, because a friend of mine was there and having a birthday party and it was the, at the, somewhere on, Gramercy Park Hotel. And there were a whole bunch of biographers. And one of the things, and was sitting there, and I, a biographer [inaudible 00:29:33] friend named Mary Yee, and I asked her, do you ever? As a biographer, do you feel any responsibility to tell a story that the biographical subject would recognize as true? And she said, I've never given it any thought. And I thought, Wow! I would, especially if you're writing about somebody who for part of the time, you're writing about them. And I don't know when you started your biography with Ursula. I don't know when you started the biography with Tip. It was still a lot.-
Julie: Yeah. I talked to Ursula a lot. That makes is harder. That definitely makes it hard.
Michael: Makes it harder. Why does it make it harder?
Julie: Because you have so much respect for the person that it becomes harder to make the narrative your own and to apply your interpretation to it. And, she really didn't. I kind of pictured myself as this, some people really want themselves to be told to themselves. I think Alice Sheldon was somebody like that. She didn't understand the narrative of her own life but she really wanted somebody to explain it to her. Judith Thurman, when she wrote about Isak-
Speaker 4: Isak Dineson, yeah.
Julie: Said she felt like that. She felt like the person who could come and explain her to herself. I kind of identified with that. And that was the last thing Ursula have wanted. I would come, and I would say, Is your life about this? And she would say, No, on principle. She didn't really want to reveal herself very much, and she told me that. She said your job is to trick me into saying something about myself. Which, is this kind of interesting position to be in. But I would sort of come, and I would say; So, what if your biography is this shape?
The one time that I said something she approved of. There's a poem that she wrote about being a women, she was asked to write about being a women writer. About the writer at her work, I think was the title and so she wrote this poem. She talked about how in the 50's, she didn't know what to write. She hadn't really rediscovered science fiction. She couldn't find a way of writing that fit her imagination. And she thought, well I could probably write something that would be popular, and kind of cruddy, and people would like it but I want to do something. And so she said she found herself in the forest, in a dark place, and there were 2 roads and 1 said; to town, and the other didn't say anything. And she didn't know which one to choose so she chose the road that didn't say.
I chose the road that didn't say, I followed myself.
But what the hell does that mean? For a biographer, that's a pretty circular statement to make.
And she had this essay on merit. Where she's talking about the western legend of the hoop snake. Who supposedly is a snake that can take it's tail into it's mouth and travel while holding it.
Speaker 4: Sort of like Uro Buro.
Julie: Yeah, I thought that her biography was like a hoop snake. And she said I think you're on to something. And it was like, what? What? What? What? But that was all that I got. That was the only circular merit. It was the only one that she ever really approved of. I don't think even she knew what that meant.
Speaker 2: So what were some of the different ways you tried to figure out the life, and what it was, and what it meant, that maybe you rejected.
Julie: I tried to come up with things about conflict with parents and she got really mad if I said that. She really didn't want there to be a narrative of that. I came to see that that was true. That I think her parents had been truly supportive of her in a way that was really unusual for parents of that time. In particular, for parents of [inaudible 00:34:28]. She said that her father was very understanding and that her mother had these great phyco logical gifts and they were her first readers for years. She would send her work to them to read. And then she finally got her stuff published the year after her father had died. And I was like, Ms. Quin tell me. And she was like Grrr. There was no conflict with my father etc. etc. So you know, do you take this at face value? Do you suggest that there might be more? We pretty much agreed that I ought to be published. Although, her son that is now taken out of her estate said, why don't you publish it now? Why don't you hurry up and publish it now?
Why do you want me to do that? Why is it important to you? He didn't want to be the one to have to sign off on it. He would much rather have his mother sign off on it. She didn't want to be the one to sign off on it. She would rather leave it to somebody else.
Michael: Welcome to the complicated dealings with family.
Julie: I mean this is nicest and sympathetic people you could possibly deal with. There are horror stories about biographers. This is not one.
Speaker 2: I, as you know, did not know her well but I did team teach a class with her. And enjoyed it immensely.
Michael: What was that like? To team teach.
Speaker 2: I was the younger person and she was very supportive. She'd come up with great ideas and then I dupe them. Which is literally what happened. Once she talked about the fact that, and we talked about together, if you've got a bunch of eyewitnesses, and they all wrote their account of some violent thing that happened, you get very, very, different accounts. So, that's what we talked about for one time, during the time. We were both there and then she left for the last and I began my week alone. And I engineered this thing where I broke in to the class, where one of the students was known to be fairly heavily involved with drugs and what have you, and I said okay and he ran and there was a fight between him and the guy turned around him. Suddenly everybody, I said I want everybody to write what happened. Of course, it had all been planned.
Michael: It could have been an experiment on the class.
Speaker 2: Yeah, but it was the kind of thing they were all expecting. And, indeed, we thought exactly the predicted things. This tall, short guy with red and black hair came in and did. It did not hit, was hit high, and so forth, and so forth. And, which is to say, we got exactly the results that....so, on the one hand. There may have been no reason to do it. On the other hand, I think having done it brought something home to the students, that wouldn't have been brought home had they not been involved in it. So that was just the difference between and me as teachers. I was surprised how well.
Michael: Do you students have any questions you want to ask Julie?
Julie: Yeah, I was thinking this would be a good. I mean you can ask me anything. I used to kind of prepare these questions for interviewing. I would talk to her on the phone. I would talk to her from, I live in Amsterdam, 11:00 to 12:00 in the morning her time was 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. my time. And that was a really good time for us both to get together and have this phone date.
I would kind of carefully prepare sort of a sequential series of questions so that it became kind of a natural conversation. And at one point I said something about "but I have all these questions out of left field" and she said "I love the questions out of left field. I love it when somebody in the audience asks me a complete non sequitur question. That's always really fun."
So feel free to ask non sequitur.
Erica: It's more of a jobs-
Julie: No, absolutely. There's stuff about jobs and it's been completely derailed but I'm happy to give my wisdom.
Michael: Ursula did it.
Erica: Hi I'm Erica. I'm a senior. I'm an environmental and political sciences major and I'm applying for jobs. I like writing and I'm kind of thinking about, I haven't written for the College newspaper or anything but I do like writing. And, I'd be interested in writing abroad. Maybe in journalism or something.
Julie: That's actually a really great background for a journalist. Because you can report on those subjects, which are incredibly important subjects right now. So this is, I asked a friend of mine who, I know her from when I was freelancing at The Voice and she was a fact checker at The Voice. She went on to specialize in housing policy in New York City. For a housing newsletter and now she's an editorial writer for the New York Daily News, which is an entirely different world for her. I said, you're kind of a more conventional reporter, what do you do? And, she said, and I can send it to you. "Follow your interest. Take the time to build the body of work. Make sure you have wage earning skills so you can keep money coming in so that you don't have to rely on the writing to pay the rent until you've reached the point where you have the power to decide what you write."
Which is something that I would definitely emphasize. I was a freelance copy editor. That was one of the skills I learned at The Voice, and that is, I don't know if it's still true but a lot of the monthly magazines would hire a freelancer, one or two weeks of the month. When the copy kind of pouring in, to help out the regular copy editor and so that was in that paid pretty well. And, that paid the rent. I would work doing that maybe one or two weeks a month. I worked for Interview which was underpaid but it doesn't exist anymore. And I worked for Women's Magazine where I learned that recipes that recipes is a specialized skill. Not Women's magazine as glamorous as Glamour but McCall's out of Redbook, these things that you get at the supermarket check out.
Michael: The interview one was the [inaudible 00:42:21]. I associate interview by memories[crosstalk 00:42:30]
Julie: Yeah, now what's his name?
Speaker 3: Andy Warhol?
Julie: Andy Warhol.
Michael: That's what it is. Andy Warhol. Confusion of age.
Julie: It was not very glamorous but you pick up useful skills and they were a completely chaotic office. So I was often, fortunately they paid for whatever hours you were there. So I would be sitting around the office doing my own work and then I would have to stay late when the puppy came in. So I learned some of the basics of, they were one of the first magazines designed on the computer so they always looked cooler then everybody else. When everyone was still pasting up type, they were doing it in Cork. Which was the program. So I learned how to do basic things in Cork because all the designers would be gone and I would be sitting there with the editorial assistant going, Oh my god, lets put some better credits in here. If you have a fashion shoot, those are the credits that are like blah, blah, blah. Designed by blah, blah. Shop by.
Michael: Gutter credits.
Julie: Yeah, they're called gutter credits cause they're in between the pages and once somebody came running in with this magazine and showed me this magazine and the gutter credit read "Gutter credits to come, gutter credits to come" Hurry up with those gutter credits. I don't want to be here until 11:00 [inaudible 00:44:03] Oops and that had gone, into the magazine.
Speaker 7: I do have a question for you. Have you ever published a fiction or poetry and suffered the pangs of-
Speaker 7: No, what some of us writers from time to time suffer. [inaudible 00:44:32]
Julie: No. I have never published fiction. I went through a phase after the Tiptree book was done and I didn't know what I was going to do next. But I tried to write fiction and what happened was that I would sit there staring at the screen and occasionally typing a word and then I had. I went home and had horrible anxiety nightmares and after that they sort of got worse and worse. And finally I had one that I still don't understand that was sort of like, do you remember that movie Women in the Dunes? Kind of living at the bottom of a sand dune. I was at the beach and the family had gotten buried in the sand and I was running around trying to get someone to help dig them out and nobody would help did them out. I just like quit. I couldn't take it anymore. This was like the worst dream I had ever had. And, I stopped trying to write fiction, I'm sorry to say.
That was more my personal.
Michael: Did they parish?
Julie: I don't know. I woke up.
Michael: Oh this was a dream.
Julie: No this was a dream.
Speaker 3: The stories unfinished.
Speaker 2: I have 2 questions. One's a little more fun.
Julie: The end of the story that my friend said, she there are still decent opportunities out there and the trick is building the body of work in order to reach them. It's good to specialize if possible. Poke viewing isn't much of a specialty really, but I was never really good with specializing. Which was the great underpaid genre of all time. Get a grant. If you specialize in a particular subject, then you can build a body of work and then she says, alternatively for those who want to be reporters specifically. Report local for niche publications. You'll get paid badly at first but get an invaluable education. Just write for anybody. Online.
I was thinking about other people who are younger than I am and who've kinda come of age online era. And I just read Roxanne Gay's book, Hunger. It's about her writing career and it's also about her battles with depression and she had, she couldn't finish Yale. She was half way through Yale and she had a crisis and I think there parents wanted to move her to kind of have this perfect American life and perfect American dream. And that's an unimaginative career and she didn't know how to cope with that and she just kind of collapsed and she went to live somewhere out west and just started talking to people in chat rooms. That kind of developed in to writing for places online and now she's this highly respected columnist and essayist that came from working her way up through blogging and online [inaudible 00:48:17]
Michael: And through print.
Julie: There were fiction writers I met now we know that [inaudible 00:48:27] Really successful science fiction writer that, she started out writing fan fiction online.
Michael: Do you guys know the term clip file?
Erica: I don't.
Julie: Yeah I mentioned.
Speaker 2: I'm sorry I have to leave now. I have a meeting but it was wonderful listening to all of you and I really enjoyed this but. Maybe I could send you questions or emails?
Julie: Sure yeah.
Michael: Send them to me.
Julie: I'm happy to do it yeah.
Speaker 2: That's great. Thank you so much.
Speaker 7: Since you mentioned a book called, have you ever read the [inaudible 00:49:04]?
Julie: No I have not, I'm sorry to say.
Speaker 7: It was a great influence on people like Henry Miller, what have you. Who's book?
Julie: She put out her collected essays just called bad feminist.
Michael: Safe title.
Julie: Kind of. I mean she's not a bad feminist.
Michael: Very good. That's why I'm saying it's a safe title.
Speaker 8: So Julie, I have a question. I feel like you've really given a clear idea of what it's like to begin sort of scrapping towards a career. Taking up all sorts of assignments, creating a sign that's out of nothing. Finding that you've interviewed for a job where you didn't realize what was going to be asked of you. And, so coming out of that feeling like you had just hunted whatever. But its clear that all of that scrapping developed in to expertise. I guess I have 2 big questions. 1 would be how did you come to realize that this was where you needed to be? How did you come to realize that you had the expertise to continue on with this kind of job? And then you talked a little bit about how-
Julie: I just never stopped trying to get it right. I remember being about 40 and realizing that all of these things that you do that you think are temporary, are all of a sudden you're life. I think everybody has these. So, do the things that you want to do, if possible. So try to create the economic conditions by doing what you want to do.
Michael: And be persistent.
Julie: Be persistent. Have a lot of patience. Another friend of mine that I really go to know when she was at The Voice. She is now the fiction editor at Kirkus reviews. I should ask if she's interested in having a few students write book reviews. They do these capsule book reviews.
She followed a much more traditional path. She was an editor at The Phoenix, she got a job for Gale Publications which puts out these enormous [inaudible 00:51:51] of information, sort of the things that you can now look up on Wikipedia but you used to go to expert support. And, then got the job, became the assistant editor at The Voice, and then became the books editor of News Day. There are not very many people who have been able to consistently been able to work in the field as a books editor. She did it with, kind of, persistence. Kind of a combination of expertise and persistence and just kind of dogged patience. But you should also not have too much patience because people will exploit that. I saw that all in book publication. There were people who would be sitting in a back office working away at completely rewriting some manuscript or reformatting a manuscript. Whereas the people that came in and talked a good game. There has to be a combination of expertise and patience and not putting up with too much garbage.
I was sitting around The Voice once with Lori and there were a lot of people at The Voice who had gone to Yale. It was a really diverse. One of the things that I really liked about working there was it was a diverse workplace, where they had made an effort to bring in people of color. But they also had to be people of color that had gone to Yale. There was a lot of self confidence there and she turned to me and said, you know, I wish I'd gone to a college that made me think that I was smarter than I really am.
Speaker 9: Lori said that?
Julie: Lori said that. Yeah.
Speaker 9: Excuse me.
Michael: That's opposed to Swarthmore where you start questioning what you know.
Julie: Yeah, as opposed to Swarthmore where you feel that the amount that you know is like this, and the amount to be known is like that. And you're down here.
Michael: Oh, jeez.
Julie: Sorry, it's true.
Michael: I guess we've done our job well.
Julie: Oh well.
Speaker 9: You're talking a lot about a very new work sort of eccentric experience, which it seems like we've had. For people who people who want to go abroad, or be somewhere else, how do you connect yourself up to places that might be good places to publish the exciting things.
Julie: Read what you want to write. Read the things that you want to write. Write to the publications that you like. I would say, look for places online that are doing something. If you want to do straight journalism you'll probably end up in some tiny small town newspaper, as much as they still exist. That's you know, you usually have to do a long apprenticeship somewhere else.
Look around. I know someone in Amsterdam who's specialty is water rights journalism. And she is able to, there is enough NGO's that she can write for, that she is able to do that. I moved there. One of the good things about moving there was that they have affordable middle income housing. So my apartment kind of subsidizes my writing career. At the time, they don't have it as much anymore, but they had subsidized daycare which really subsidized my writing career. And, things like that are important if you can get them. You might do better in a foreign Country.
I am still taking. I ended up learning Dutch which turned out to be really usable ink because there aren't that many native speakers of english who can also speak Dutch. And, so business's will pay you a lot of money to translate things for them. Translation is usually a really badly paid job but there are certain things that you can translate.
I ended up. There are a lot of advertising agencies there. I ended up writing advertising copy for a while. You can't do it for too long. People who are full time for ad agencies are all really depressed because their souls are being sucked out of them little by little but you can do it.[crosstalk 00:56:26]
Michael: There's a show about that.
Julie: You can really make a lot. Using your creativity and actually be making a lot of money which is sort of. There are actually, and a lot of really good writers who have come out of advertising. Sometimes I think it's particularly women writers just because they're so empowering and make a lot of money for what you write.
Michael: We do have some-
Julie: Is that an answer? Is that? You might have more questions.
Michael: We do have some scotomagraph who make a living being a translator.
Julie: Oh good.
Michael: I'm sure it's a minority number but-
Julie: Apply for grants, apply for fellowships.
Michael: Other questions?
Julie: When you get to mid career, grants and fellowships can completely help.
Speaker 4: I have some questions about Ursula herself, that I'm wondering if you could answer? Should be leave those till later.
Julie: Maybe we should. I think, you guys might have career questions, and I've got a little bit more time after this.
Michael: Can you come to the event tonight?
Speaker 4: I'm planning too.
Julie: And I can, I'll come in with Philadelphia tomorrow and we can meet up tomorrow. And I'll try to go on at length about Ursula tonight although I have some of the screen the documentary side of it, so have to go on [inaudible 00:57:42]
Yes. Go ahead.
Speaker 10: Is there a particular way that you would recommend us, or at least some, attempting to explore the advertising copy. Like you said. I'm not sure how. Cause I come from and engineering/economics practice. So, I'm not sure how my skills will necessarily translate to that area.
Julie: Yeah. If you're studying economics you could think about journalism. There's a need for journalists who understand economics. There's a need for science writers, however, one thing that happens to business writers is that they spend all this time writing about business and realize that they can make more money and go to business school.
I have a friend who went for business school and subsidizes here life by working as a consultant. So, works part time.
You could know students who've gone in to advertising. I was translating for Eddie and they starting asking me to write copy. I worked for, I wrote for a little while for an engineering firm where they would have me call engineers. It was warehouse and logistics. Like how to do you redesign a warehouse so that it will work more efficiently? Or, how many trucks do I need to transport my goods? I would take to the engineers who would say, well yeah, this is why we put a conveyor belt here. And this is why we decided to do it all on one floor hear. Actually totally fascinating. It was really great stuff because you were learning all of this. You were getting in to a world where you would have not been otherwise have been. And that's kind of the fun of reporting.
Michael: You can also try sending some copy to ad agencies that are doing things. Or you think you could do copy for them. Be just be persistent and see what happens. Sometimes they are looking to hire.
Julie: Yeah. In that case, I would say. Go to the career office and say, Are there any Swarthmore graduates who are working in advertising? Who are interested in talking to me about how this works.
Michael: Cause your education will also be very word centered and using words powerfully. That the kind of thing they are looking for. Cause not everybody can do that. Can put a short punchy sentence together.
Julie: Different people have different gifts. I could not write, I can only write long copy. I can only write short copy.
Michael: It's hard.
Julie: It's really hard. I had a job. It was asking for a day once to write banners which are the little bits of text that you click on, on a web page to try to get you to go further. And, I had like the worst click through rate of anyone. I'd never done banners cause I couldn't figure out-
Michael: Yeah cause they test these sort of things.
Julie: How to interface people? Yeah they do a lot of. The reason there are a lot of ad agencies in Amsterdam is that they are really good at design. They have really great graphic design schools. So they will design they wonderful web pages. And, I haven't done it in a while. It gets harder when you're over 40 because all the people at ad agencies are like 25 and [inaudible 01:01:46]
Speaker 7: When you's turned down, were you scared?
Julie: Scared at which part?
Speaker 7: When you left college and went out in to New York City, to conquer the world.
Julie: I was in complete denial about the fact that I was going to graduate. And, I didn't know where to go. Stay with a friend of mine in San Francisco? Houses, all the rents were too high.
Speaker 7: And that was then.
Julie: My parents were out of the country at the time. And I went to live at my Grandparents. And a friend of my Mother's said, Oh, I'm moving out of my house to go live with my new partner. And, I'm going to sell the house but I've got, you know. I need someone to stay in my house for 6-8 weeks. Yes, this is the sign I have been waiting for. I think I should have done more internships when I was, you know, some were internships. I was afraid that, I was in denial about wanting to be a writer so I didn't apply for these internships or do all these things that I should have done, in retrospect. I mean I'm still afraid, I still worry. You still get rejected, you never really reach a point where sort of, they like everything that you write, the first time you write it.
Speaker 3: I remember years ago. WHO and coming to dinner mentioned that you just had a poem rejected from The New Yorker.
Michael: I was just thinking about that earlier today.
Did you ever teach?
Julie: It is not the field of glorious affirmation. I don't know what your experience has been.
Michael: I've been very lucky.
Speaker 3: Thick skin.
Michael: Did you ever teach?
Julie: No, I didn't know enough to teach. I think I could do it now.
Did you students have more in the last moments? Did you want to ask anything else?
Are you interested in writing fiction? You can talk to these guys about that.
Speaker 8: I'm more in to like, just [inaudible 01:04:20]. Ask about advertising as well. Especially advertising.
Julie: Yeah, I mean, blogging is a good way now to get your start. Your goal is to get paid for it eventually.
Speaker 8: Yeah. Having your own blog I think would be really nice. Especially if it gets a lot of attraction.
Julie: Yeah, I mean some people make a living that way. Do you do ads on your blog? I've never tried to do that.
Speaker 8: No, No. I mean, I would like to at some point but I haven't gotten there yet.
Julie: Yeah. I'm from just before the internet era.
Let's see. Yeah. If you're interested in, if you see somebody who is doing something that you like, you can try to find out what their careers been like. You can sort of, read interviews with them. Try to find out what it is that they've done. What got them in to
Michael: And Julie is right. The career services office here is an incredible resource for internships, externships, some of them connected to [inaudible 01:05:47] but not all. And it just takes time to dig through some of those resources. Different fields. Or parts of the Country, depending on what your priorities are.
You know, [inaudible 01:06:03]. He had all these fantasies about [inaudible 01:06:13] I think I thought about applying to Florence [crosstalk 01:06:15]
Michael: We have a bunch of students who wind up teaching English to Lake Junior High, or High School students in Countries. In Asia, or Africa, or Europe.
Julie: This feeling of having graduated and not being able [inaudible 01:06:30] not wanting to go abroad and so I'm actually very surprised that I ended up living there.
Michael: While you were mature enough to enjoy it.
Julie: I went to Amsterdam to visit a friend of mine from Swarthmore and he said. I said, don't you know any nice, single, straight forward, guys? He said, I know one.
Speaker 3: That was it.
Julie: Well it wasn't it. Of course, it was a while before we would admit to ourselves that we would possibly be considering that we [inaudible 01:07:10].
Michael: Okay guys. Thanks for coming.