Let’s call it Throwback Friday.
This week I went through my first blog, Greenwoman Zine, looking for posts about starting my business. Words that described not only the process but my feelings about why I’m doing what I’m doing. By that, I mean sacrificing dollars, time, and sanity in an attempt to be a publisher in this genre of literature I love most—garden writing.
I found what I needed. Oh, how much more starry-eyed I was back then! Every victory was huge. Every discovery was full of sparkly-specialness.
Would I trade now for then? Today I would say yeah, probably. But ask me in a month or a year and it could be a very different story. I hope so. That’s why I keep on keeping on.
I’m sharing this old post because I thought you might find it amusing, and this week I’m revisiting the agony of straddling the gulf of business while wearing the hats of creator and “boss.” I’ve always felt I was a teacher, and at times a good leader, but being a boss is a very different manner. To be a boss, it sometimes seems that there has to be an inflation of ego (that I cannot muster) combined with a talent to firmly deal with those you’d prefer to tell to (insert imaginative insult here). That, too, is a skill I do not possess. So it’s a struggle and often I wonder if the Grace and Anna (you will read about them below) will ever be in balance.
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(This essay first appeared in Greenwoman Zine on June 14, 2011.)
At the end of last summer I watched the documentary September Issue with my daughter Lily. While I’m not a huge fan of haute couture (and Lily is) I appreciate the art of fashion and I’ve always dug Vogue‘s articles.
I’d also seen, and loved, The Devil Wears Prada, so I had a preconceived notion or two about the subject of the documentary, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. The Devil Wears Prada portrayed her as 1) shockingly insensitive to others’ feelings, and, 2) cruel and boundary-less when it came to using employees for personal needs. If you think about it, those were her only “crimes;” but for a woman they are felonies.
After watching The September Issue, about the time I started my own magazine, I didn’t come away with a negative impression of Anna Wintour. I, instead found myself in complete awe of her abilities. She also seemed a soft-serve version of the icy Prada-lady, but, then again, who knows the “truth”? Like any art, films are subjective. Though I was in awe of Wintour, I identified with Vogue’s Art Director, Grace Coddington. Coddington, a brilliant photographer and stylist, was fun, a bit impish, and she didn’t give a shit about being a fashion plate herself (defiantly wearing her signature black clothing, which Wintour had declared “out,” and comfortable sandals instead of de rigueur high fashion high heels). Most admirably, Coddington was fearless about questioning Wintour’s editorial decisions. This is what I connected with most—that questioning of authority, as that has been a major theme in my life.
It fascinates me how the “establishment” and the “movement” work against (yet ultimately for) one another—the establishment seeking to thwart evolution, the movement always pushing for it. That dynamic is clear in the film. Coddington (and other artists) push, Wintour reigns them in, yet also engages in the process (and progress). She evaluates and edits the forward push, serving both establishment and movement.
My surprise, recently, was to see my own shift. I now identify more with Anna Wintour—though I actually shook my head while typing those words, as it is such a newly emergent part of my personality.
Here’s how my sympathy for the devil came about. Now I’m doing basically what Wintour does, though, obviously, at a much different level. The point is I’ve become the person who must make decisions. I’m answerable to everything, which is, ultimately, the success or failure of my publishing work. As this enterprise has progressed I’ve come to the point where I’ve learned a single all-important lesson: I simply cannot, must not, fuck around. The magazine comes first. Emotional stuff gets in the way. Decisions must be made quickly and clear-headedly. If something isn’t working, it must be fixed, or dispensed with, immediately.
This is tough. In the last month I’ve had to 1) reject a small piece of art that I asked, as a favor, to be created from someone I didn’t know well—and then deal with a mini-temper tantrum from the artist; 2) find another writer, at the eleventh hour, to replace one who couldn’t fulfill her obligation; 3) make the decision to try to design the entire magazine myself, adding more weeks of training and work to my already overloaded plate, not to mention setting the publication date back a few weeks; 4) consider advice from a person notable in the garden/education field who wrote me suggesting that I should abandon my idea of a subscription magazine and, instead, create a free online publication (having faith the advertisers will come!); and, most harrowing, 4) go through a grant interview in which I had to lay my last 15-20 years of of a life immersed in art, gardening, and writing soul-bare, in order to try to make this project easier on me and my family financially.
All of these trials have had emotional costs, and my decisions had to be made quickly and on a single criteria—what I believe is best for the publication, and, by association, me. I surprised myself on how efficiently and quickly I met each challenge. As I told a friend, I could not have done the things I am doing now ten years ago.
Some of those trials were painful but the only one that really shook me was the grant interview. Although the people conducting it were wonderfully friendly, receptive, and genuinely engaged in my story, and the questions put to me were perfect, I have never felt so naked and vulnerable as then, sharing my hopes, dreams, motivations. The hardest part was doing it in a context that felt, ultimately, like begging. Please approve of me, what I’ve put my heart and soul into for the last two decades! Please consider my vision worthy! Won’t you slice off a little slice of that tasty philanthropic pie for my art? Later that day I wept while working in the garden, feeling angry at what I perceived as failure—that I didn’t have enough money myself to do things without asking for help. I was also angry that I had to expose my soul and ask for my worth to be validated.
My anger was soon replaced by defiance. At one point during the interview I was asked if I’d “accept less than I requested.” Immediately I chirped, “Sure!” Later, I thought, I’ve put in a lot of hours of work and have been through a lot of hoops doing this, endless weeks of waiting around, and I’m going to have to jump through more hoops if I get the award. My friend Edie once joked that we had the same personalities, we were like the little mouse that gives the hawk the one finger salute just as it’s about to be swooped upon and devoured. Hence my next thought: If I don’t get what I applied for, well, then, I don’t want any of it. It’s not worth it.
I know I may happily eat humble pie regarding that little proclamation. It won’t be the first time. Whether it would be selling out, or wisdom, or a bit of both, I’m not sure. What I do know is the very next day I went to the bank and took out a loan—and I felt better.
Last week my horribly unfashionable old pink Converse shoes were showing their wear. Faded, a couple of holes, unfit for wearing in public, though I was still doing just that. I have a weird attachment to this brand of shoes; it’s not just comfort—they also symbolize the girl-me who lives strongly still, who got her first pair (white) at age 11, and the whole rock ’n roll/Coddington-appetite for defiance. Lily, out shopping with me and somewhat scandalized by my lack of good taste (her inner Anna Wintour always in dominance), remarked when I gleefully spotted a new pair for $25: “Mom, you’re almost 50, when are you going to stop wearing those?”
“When I’m 90.”
At home I showed my husband my new shoes and took the old ones to the trash. He asked, “Aren’t you going to save those, to garden in?”
“Hell no,” I said. “I’m wearing my new ones.”
Anna Wintour is rising, but I’m glad the Grace in me is still going strong.
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