Career Authors

Charles Salzberg on Why It Matters: Taking A Risk

taking a risk

by Charles Salzberg

I was talked into the job by a friend. “You were an English major. You like to write. You like to read. Magazine editor would be perfect for you.”

Sounded good, and I needed a job so, with a little help from a family friend, I started work in the mailroom at New York magazine.

It took less than a week to realize I’d made a big mistake. Editors worked long hours, improving someone else’s copy. How would this get me any closer to my dream of becoming a writer?

I knew nothing about magazine writing, had never even taken a journalism class in college. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I wrote up some ideas for the magazine and left them on the desk of one of the editors. Days passed and I heard: nothing. Finally, I approached the editor and asked if she’d looked at my ideas.

“Yes,” she said. “That one about agoraphobics sounds interesting. Why don’t you write that one? But I can’t promise we’ll buy it.”

I had an assignment! For the next couple weeks, I researched and wrote the article. I put it on the editor’s desk and waited patiently for her response, all the while going through the soul-crunching routine of my mailroom duties.

A couple days later, word came—that they wanted the chandelier in the executive dining room, where the legendary editor of New York magazine, Clay Felker, held his editorial lunches, shined.

My god, I thought. I’m a college graduate, with one year of law school under my belt. Is this what my life has come to? Shining chandeliers?

And so, without much (make that any) thought, I quit, with the vague notion that I’d make my living as a freelance writer. Looking back, I can only say, “what the hell was I thinking?” All I had was a few hundred dollars in the bank. I had rent to pay. I had to feed and clothe myself. Where did I think the money was going to come from?

I had no prospects. I hadn’t sold a single word I’d written, yet somehow, I believed I could make it as a writer.

That decision, made in haste, turned out to be one of the most important moments in my life. A week or two later, New York magazine bought the article on agoraphobics and suddenly, my dream was a reality: I was a professional writer.

Knowing what I know now, would I have done it again? Yes, I would have.

Because the two things I’ve learned over the years are 1) Take chances, 2) Always say yes. I think it was Thelonius Monk who said something like, “Sometimes I play things I’ve never heard before.”

That can’t happen unless you take chances and be willing to improvise. So, logically quitting was something I shouldn’t have done, but in the larger scheme of things it was absolutely the right thing to do.

 

Charles Salzberg is the author of the the Shamus Award nominated Swann’s Last Song, and three other novels in the Henry Swann detective series, Devil in the Hole, the novella, “Twist of Fate,” in the Triple Shot collection, and Second Story Man, to be published next March. He also teaches writing.