Career Authors

Jessica Strawser: Just Say Yes?

by Jessica Strawser

The job offer came before I’d submitted a single application, during the blissful months I was still trying not to think as far ahead as graduation, months away. It was 2001 and the economy wasn’t great; everyone was talking about a recession, though I had only a vague idea of what that meant. It might not be easy to get a job offer, I understood that much. And lucky for me, I had one.

There was only one problem

I was enrolled in one of the best magazine programs in the country, at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, and having made it as far as the top of my class, had my sights set where the magazines were. You know, the big, glossy ones. New York City. Chicago. Someplace where paying too much for too little personal space seemed the glamorous thing to do. And the editorial staff job that had come knocking? It was holding the door open for me in Cincinnati.

I’d interned there, the summer before, when any alternative to moving back to my parents’ corner of suburban Pittsburgh seemed like a better plan, and a college boyfriend in town had sweetened the deal. The position was with Writer’s Digest Books, and though I knew nothing about that kind of publishing, it combined two of my favorite things: books and writers. As far as temporary gigs went, it wasn’t bad by any standards, especially Ohio ones.

I soon found I’d come to the right place at the right time

Assuming custody of a tiny foam cubicle, I soon found I’d come to the right place at the right time: An editor resigned just after I began, and the remaining team deemed my work strong enough to take the sting out of being short-staffed. I was a little in awe of them all, at how brilliant and kind they were, at how they rubbed elbows with authors I’d read and loved. I worked my hardest; they took me under their wing.

By Labor Day, the Cincinnati boyfriend was an ex, and the Cincinnati gig was a nice little side trip, I figured, on my way to wherever I was going. But within months another staffer had moved on, this time from the magazine team, and I was tracked down and invited to interview. They might be willing to hold the editorial assistant job, they explained, for the right candidate, and I’d come highly recommended.

Later, the editorial director I’d interned for would tell me I stood out for my “moxie,” laughing that I’d had the nerve to stop into his office to say that I was bored of editing listings for a certain reference book and would like something else to do. I was horrified. I’d been asking for a new project on top of the other, not in place of it!

But I suppose it doesn’t matter how I got his attention, only that I did

(Also? Holy hell, were those listings boring.)

I interviewed. I got the offer. My options became to take what some saw as a safe path—a waiting job in a city where I hardly knew anyone and wasn’t sure I’d be happy long-term, but with a publication that drew on my passions far more than, if I was being honest, the contents of many of the aforementioned glossy rags—or to take a leap into the recession, following a dream into the unknown.

I’m big on following dreams these days. In fact, I do it for a living. As of this fall, I’m a full-time, independent author and editor.

And this is how I got here:

I said yes to the job. Even though it turned out to pay only $10.50/hour.

I told myself I’d give it a year and then do the bright lights, big city thing.

One opportunity led to another.

In Cincinnati. Which I kind of started to love.

In part, because I met my husband.

I moved on from Writer’s Digest to work in other areas of publishing, but the magazine kept hold of something in me. The talented contributors, the bestsellers who graced our covers … I can’t say I didn’t miss it.

Sometimes, I missed it a lot.

I said yes to another job offer, years later. Back at WD, as editor-in-chief.

I gave in to the writing bug the magazine had unearthed. I started writing fiction, after work, in the closet. I had a baby. A real one, not a #bookbaby. Though I had one of those around the same time—in manuscript form, anyway. I landed an agent. Failed to sell the book. Had another baby. Bid my agent goodbye. Got a different one. Succeeded in selling a novel, then another.

And then another.

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a safe path

It all comes back to that too true line about life happening while you’re making other plans. If I’d moved to New York after graduation, who knows, maybe I’d be on staff at O, or Vanity Fair, someplace amazing.

But I’m almost 100% sure I wouldn’t be a novelist. And if I could go back and do it again? I wouldn’t change a thing.

Another guest contributor to this series said he’d learned early in his career to say yes. It helps, too, to remember that there’s more than one way to achieve a dream. Maybe even that one buried so deep you didn’t dare say it aloud.

Jessica Strawser is the editor-at-large at Writer’s Digest magazine, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade and became known for her in-depth cover interviews with such wide-reaching talents as David Sedaris, Alice Walker, David Baldacci and Patricia Cornwell. She is the author of the novels Almost Missed You, named to Barnes & Noble’s Best New Fiction shortlist upon its March 2017 release, and Not That I Could Tell, coming in March 2018. She has written for The New York Times Modern Love, Publishers Weekly and other fine venues, and lives with her husband and two children in Cincinnati. She loves connecting with fellow writers and readers at Facebook and Twitter.