Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman. That was the slogan of Ladies Home Journal, iconic women’s magazine which after 131 years has published its last regular monthly edition. In her recent AARP blog, former Editor-in-Chief of Ladies Home Journal, Myrna Blyth, calls it a sad ending to America’s oldest women’s magazine.
Let me tell you about the time I had dinner with Myrna and what she taught me about pitching in the major leagues. Of magazines, that is. It was at the Aspen Writer’s Conference, back in the early ‘nineties. The conference was a weekend event focused on writing for magazines. This was back in the days before blogs and e-zines; a long-ago time when most people received their favorite periodicals in the mail every month or read them while standing in line at the grocery story. In the last century freelance writing for magazines was the way for aspiring novelists without an MFA behind their name to gain respect among editors. That was my path.
The two-day event featured talks and workshops by editors and successful freelancers, with plenty of networking and pitch opportunities. Saturday night was the gala event – a three course dinner with wine pairings at the Hotel Jerome. (On second thought, it was not held at the Hotel Jerome, but at a more modest venue, like the Aspen Holiday Inn. After all, it was a writers’ conference…)
Bob (my husband) was to be my guest at the gala event. He had spent the day hiking in the nearby Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness of the White River National Forest while I was listening to editors breathlessly describe the ethereal qualities of the perfect query letter. When he finally got back to the hotel room, showered, changed out of his blue jeans and flannel shirt, and into his chinos and sports coat, we were running a little late. In fact, we had completely missed the cash bar cocktail party. We gave our pre-paid dinner tickets to the doorman and stepped inside. Everyone else, already seated, turned to stare.
There were only two available seats remaining – two empty chairs at a corner table where the Head Honcha of Ladies Home Journal and her BBC journalist husband were sitting. How could this be possible? At most conferences the speakers don’t deign to eat with the rabble. But there she was, Myrna Blyth, albeit looking aloof and unattainable. But the only two empty chairs in the entire dining room were beside her and Mr. Blyth.
Bob and I sheepishly took our places, apologizing for our tardiness. After some very perfunctory, almost curt, introductions, I squelched any thought of pitching ideas and instead concentrated on buttering my dinner roll. It was clear the venerable editor was not the least impressed with conference attendees. I kept my mouth shut while she expounded on all the gaffs freelancers made, wondering why she had bothered to accept the speaking engagement if we were so hopelessly inept. Oh, right. It was Aspen. She and Jeffery probably were staying at the Jerome –at the writers expense. But perhaps she had endured an arduous journey from New York City, pestered by cab drivers, baggage handlers, flight attendants and thoughtless bellman who pummeled her with their story ideas. Myrna let it be known with bitter sarcasm, how tiring it was to have to deal with “you people.” I’m not sure if she meant the conference attendees or writers in general.
I nodded and continued to butter my bread. Secretly fuming. No way was I going to expose myself to ridicule by even mentioning my current projects or my past publishing credits.
Eventually Myrna paused for a drink of water and I gladly turned my attention to Mr. Blyth, an affable Brit. Bob asked him some conversational questions about current events and soccer and they chatted through the salad course. It seemed like I might make it through dinner with minimal damage to my ego. When the man-talk petered out, I asked Myrna about her writing, and she related how she had climbed the ladder to literary success. It was an impressive story.
By the time the main course was served, we knew quite a bit about Myrna and Jeffery, but they knew very little about us. There was no way I was going to pitch an idea for an article after the “you people should know” rant. No way was I going to talk about what I write, or even admit I was a writer. As for stooping so low as to pitch her a story idea, I’d sooner choke to death on my dinner roll.
But the accomplished writer and editor-in-chief couldn’t help herself; all good writers and editors are curious by nature. “So, what is it you people do?” She asked at last. I let Bob talk a bit about his studies in astrophysics and his being on the board of a family business dealing in railroad parts. Myrna and Jeffery were like, whoa. Suitably impressed.
Then Myrna turned to me. “What about you?”
“Linda,” I said, reminding her of my name. But what to say? I was a jack of all trades. How to explain my unconventional composite career? I had no “elevator speech” prepared and I certainly didn’t even want to remind her that I was one of “you people.”
“I’m a registered nurse,” I said, choosing the one topic that always works. “I work night shift in a Denver hospital emergency department.”
“Really?” Myrna’s entire affect changed. She leaned forward on a bent elbow and looked me in the face. “You know, we’re always interested in stories about nurses.” We, meaning Ladies Home Journal.
I would not be baited, but instead concentrated on forking a slippery slice of zucchini. Waiting for her to say more. She did.
“Nurses are one profession people trust. More than doctors, people trust nurses. Nurses and firefighters. We like those kind of stories. ”
I nodded. Sipped thoughtfully at my wine.
“I’d love to see an article, an information piece; What Nurses Know. Or, What your nurse knows that your doctor won’t tell you. Practical advice for readers from a trusted nurse. You know, things like…” She proceeded to outline the article for me and by the time the cheesecake and coffee were served, I had written it in my head.
Two days later, back in Denver, I wrote a query letter to Editor-in-Chief Myrna Blyth. Knowing a lowly intern would be reading her mail (one of “you people” undoubtedly) I began the letter by mentioning the lovely dinner we enjoyed the other night, and thanking Myrna for her direction. I queried the proposed article, using Myrna’s own words. Needless to say, I got the assignment. My article was published about six months later — What Nurses Know that Doctors Don’t Tell You by Linda Collison – and I was paid enough for that article to cover my expenses at the Aspen Writers Conference, with money to spare.
But it’s not all about the money. Being published in Ladies Home Journal was a credit that has always gotten concise, well-targeted queries past the intern and onto the editor’s desk. That article in Ladies Home Journal (along with publishing credits in other magazines) helped me get our first nonfiction book published (Rocky Mountain Wineries) followed by my first novel, Star-Crossed, published by Knopf. And I hope the article helped readers learn a few tricks for getting better health care. At the heart of it, that’s why “we people” write; to share our experience and to make a difference in someone’s life.
Here’s the take-home lesson: Attend writers conferences. When it comes to pitching your story, play a little hard to get. Make them want you. Never be a bore – don’t allow yourself to be classified as one of “you people.” Always arrive fashionably late to the party, and never ever underestimate the power of a woman.
Thank you, Myrna Blyth, for teaching me how it’s done.
And many thanks to Linda, for allowing me to re-post this really engrossing story.