When the phone rang in my Minneapolis hotel room in the early spring of 1994, I was busy reviewing my shortcomings. I was in the midst of a publicity tour for a book I’d written on adult sibling relationships, and that morning, I’d been a guest on a St. Paul talk show called “Good Company.” To my mind, I’d been anything but. Surely, I’d cited too much research during my precious seven-minute segment and hadn’t offered viewers enough concrete, on-the-ground wisdom. I imagined them curling their collective lips and flipping the channel mid-segment, wanting nothing further to do with this tedious author and her doubtless humdrum book.
I was smack in the middle of this self-flagellation session when I picked up the ringing phone. “Hello?” I said curtly, as though my caller had just interrupted an engrossing conversation, which in a way was true.
“Hi,” a deep male voice replied, in a tone that made me think he might already be smiling. “This is Rich Simon. I’m the editor of a magazine called The Family Therapy Networker.” He kept on talking, but I could no longer hear him very well, because my heart had begun to thwack loudly against my ribcage. The Family Therapy Networker?
I wasn’t a therapist, but I wrote a lot about psychology and behavior, partly because I’d been greatly helped by a few good therapists in my life and partly because I thought the nature of the human mind was just about the most fascinating thing one could ponder. How do people come to be who they are? If they want to change, how can they go about doing that? Can they even do that? All this is to say that I already had a subscription to Rich Simon’s magazine. Each time it arrived in the mail—and in my opinion, every other month wasn’t often enough—I’d burrow into a corner of my living room couch and read it cover to cover.
And now I was on the line with the editor of this magazine, and I was struggling to subdue my sympathetic nervous system, which was spewing equal parts euphoria and panic. I had to get a grip so I could actually listen to what the man was telling me.
“I have your new book on my desk in front of me,” Dr. Simon was saying, his voice warm and convivial. “I’ve had a chance to page through it.” He cleared his throat. “I’m wondering if you’d be interested in doing some writing for us.”
Haha! You’re kidding, right? Aloud, I said, “Yes.”
He zipped into editor mode. “We’ll have to try you out, of course,” he said, his tone still affable but now a shade more formal. He described my audition, which would be to review a speech that had been presented at a recent conference and transform it into a Networker-worthy article. Apparently, the talk had been delivered by a famous family therapist, but it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. “Let’s see how you do with it,” he said, “and then we’ll talk about what happens next.”
Frankly, it sounded like a breeze. I hadn’t had much editing experience, but I’d been writing professionally for a while, and I felt I knew good prose when I saw it. When I agreed to the tryout, he told me he’d fax me the speech as soon as I returned from my book tour. “Then you go ahead and do your magic,” he said. We agreed on a deadline and signed off.
When I arrived home four days later, my fax machine had already spit out the text of the therapist’s presentation. I’d expected a little additional guidance from Rich on the assignment, perhaps some notes in the margins, but all I got were a few outsized, handwritten question marks scrawled next to certain paragraphs. If punctuation marks were capable of looking outraged, these did.
I was confused. What were the actual questions? Was the material Rich had flagged inaccurate? Unclear? Dull? All three? I had no clue, and I was afraid to ask and be pegged a nuisance.
Instead, I got right to work, trying to decipher the question marks as best I could and retooling phrases and sentences to try to give them more pop and rhythm. At the same time, I was conscious of wanting to preserve the author’s voice, which seemed to be naturally serious and measured. So I tried not to go overboard on the verve-o-meter. I edited, edited my editing, and then edited some more, until I was satisfied that I’d done everything I could to help this therapist engage her readers while retaining her dignified, authoritative persona.
Pleased and relieved, I faxed the edit back to Rich. Within hours, my phone rang. I picked up.
“So,” he began.
My heart danced a little jig. This was the moment.
“Got your edit,” he said. There was a long pause. “You know,” he added, drawing out the words a bit.
No, I definitely did not know. What?
“It doesn’t work,” he said flatly. “I needed you to make the piece jump off the page. But it still sounds academic. It’s . . . boring.”
“But I changed it a lot!” I protested, my adrenaline surging. “Look at the sentences. I made a ton of edits. Not just the wording, but the tempo!”
“Okay,” he agreed. “You did make some sentences better.” In the silence that followed, I could almost see him shrugging. “But that’s not what the thing needs. It needs a total rewrite. Structure. The works.”
“But I didn’t know that!” I heard the desperation in my voice. “All I got were a few question marks!”
“I’m really sorry it didn’t work out,” he said. His voice was kind, almost avuncular. “But thanks for trying.”
I was stunned. Thanks for trying? So it was over? That fast?
At that point in my life, assertiveness was not my strong suit. But this felt like an emergency. “Wait!” I shouted. I had no idea what I was going to say next, but I heard myself blurt that, in fact, I had more experience as a writer than an editor, and I’d like to try to actually write something for the magazine, anything at all, totally on spec, no obligation whatsoever. “Give me another chance,” I said.
Now there was an even more protracted pause, and I knew we’d come to the end of the road. He was trying to figure out how to let me down easy. But then Rich spoke. “Okay, I hear you,” he said. “Sure. Let’s try again.”
I don’t remember what small piece he assigned me next, or whether I trudged through one mandatory revision or five, but finally, when Rich called to say, “I think we’re finally there,” I felt like a 10-year-old who’d just won a double-dutch jump-rope contest. I even shouted, “Yay!” which made him chuckle.
Over the next several months, I wrote a few more short pieces for the magazine, and then Rich called to say that the Networker was doing a special issue on friendship. How did I feel about writing the lead article? After I squeaked my assent, we had a brief conversation in which we agreed that it’d be a kind of lay-of-the-land piece on how therapists can help clients deepen or repair friendships. I dug in and unearthed every study on the topic I could find, conducted a dozen or more interviews, wrote and rewrote, and finally, proudly, submitted a 6,000-word piece.
Then the call came. “So,” Rich began, and my stomach clenched: I’d written enough articles by then to understand the trouble that could lie beneath that opener. “When you wrote this thing,” he continued, “what was it you were trying to accomplish?”
Just about everyone who’s ever written for the Networker can guess what happened next. After much heated protest on my end and much calm counterargument by Rich to the effect that we needed to tell a story here, not just cover a topic, we talked for an hour or more about what might make a really compelling tale about friendship. How about looking at the bond from a developmental perspective, tracing how it nourishes and challenges us in distinctive ways at different points in the life cycle? I had to admit that it sounded intriguing—more so than my cover-the-waterfront colossus. I retreated to my writing cave, scrapped my first draft entirely, and devoted another month to reporting and writing a new piece.
Late one morning I faxed it in, and spent the remainder of the workday hovering by the phone. When no call came by 5 p.m., I tried not to feel discouraged; it was a long piece, after all, and it might take days for him to get back to me. I abandoned my desk for the kitchen and started pulling things out of the fridge for dinner. Somewhere around 6:30, not long after my husband and I sat down to eat, the phone jangled. I shot up from my chair and ran for it.
“Got a minute?” Rich asked.
Swallowing a mouthful of chili, I said yes.
“You nailed it!” He sounded almost giddy with excitement. “This really works!” My heart did a cartwheel. And then Rich set about doing what he’d continue to do for the next 25 years of our editor–writer partnership, which was to read aloud various passages he particularly liked, and then describe to me, in great detail, exactly how he felt they enlivened and enhanced the piece. As he talked on, I wandered into my living room, thinking, You have to remember this moment.
In fact, I recall few of the actual words he spoke. What I do remember, and will always be able to remember, is the quality of joyful fire in Rich’s voice. His generosity of spirit astonished me. He didn’t need to go into such lingering, bountiful detail on my behalf. But he did. I took it all in, and it warmed me to my core.
Rich’s genuine enthusiasm for that piece, and for some others in the years that followed, didn’t mean that we didn’t continue to wrangle over articles, sometimes misunderstand each other, and occasionally even raise our voices in disagreement over drafts I wrote—drafts I believed worked perfectly well and expected him to think did too, except that he didn’t, not at all.
Over time, I came to decipher the inimitable Simon code: “Good start!” meant, “Prepare for a major rewrite,” while “We’re moving along” signified, “This isn’t as bad as your last attempt.” And it didn’t take a genius codebreaker to interpret, “What did you think you were getting at?” as “You need to start over.” Apprenticing to Rich was a demanding workout. If he thought a different storyline would make a smarter, more engaging article, he’d doggedly press his case. He always wanted to know what I thought, and I could feel him truly listening. But if he disagreed, he wouldn’t back down. Ever.
Yet working with Rich nearly always yielded a stronger, more thoughtful piece of writing. Over and over, he helped me dive beneath the surface of any particular topic to locate that murky, half-buried thing that waited below, hoping to be noticed—the thing that actually mattered. His mantra was, “What don’t therapists yet know about this subject that they need to know?” As for writing itself, he taught me the power of the present moment. “Put us in the room!” he’d urge me, over and over. “I don’t want a report on what happened. Show me! Quotes! Tone of voice! Body language!”
And when I’d relapse and write a first draft that merely narrated some state of affairs, he’d scrawl at the end, So what? Translation: Why should readers give a damn? It’s an excellent, even necessary question for every writer. Until Rich, I didn’t know to ask it of myself.
Maybe I should have understood it sooner than I did, but it took some time—and a gradually thickening skin—to recognize that our editorial encounters, both the difficult and the gratifying, weren’t mainly about me. Unquestionably, I felt Rich’s genuine caring for me, and his faith in me as a writer. But it would be many years and collaborations before I’d fully get that whatever else Rich Simon loved in this world, he loved language with a riotous passion, and with something more, too—something that might be called devotion.
The drumroll of a sentence, the unsettling metaphor, the phrase that sang—they held an almost sacred quality for Rich. Sometimes that reverence looked and felt like criticism, and, truth to tell, it wasn’t not criticism. But his appraising eye was only the other side of his fierce dedication to translating ideas into the kind of language that invigorated readers, galvanized them, and sometimes cracked open their hearts.
For years, while working as features editor of the magazine, I’d get a call from Rich whenever a new issue rolled out. “Have you gotten it yet?” he’d begin, his voice buzzing with excitement. If I had, he’d say, “So, whad’ya think?” And we’d go over the issue together, sitting in our separate offices in our separate cities, thumbing through the pages and poring over each feature piece—the story angle, the writing, the title, the layout, the accompanying art. We crowed over the stories that shone, and sighed a little over those that still needed tweaking. But mainly, we bragged on the issue as a whole, the fruit of so much hard work, and we laughed over our own, unabashed self-congratulation.
They were precious moments, those raucous little boast-fests. We were 150 miles apart, but it felt like we were sitting right next to each other, gabbing and hooting and horn-blowing like two kids on the bus home from school. And at some point, it began to dawn on me that being a writer wasn’t entirely about pushing, pushing, pushing to craft the better sentence, the silkier transition, the more stirring dialogue, while never giving yourself the space to recognize that some experiences are actually beyond words, and that all you can do with your writing is to approximate, as best you can, the living, breathing thing. Rich helped me understand that.
He showed me that in writing—and maybe in all worthwhile undertakings—there’s a time to strive, and even to struggle. But there’s also a time to let go, stand back, and breathe in what you’ve done. And then to whoop and holler with your whole, imperfect heart.
Illustration © James Endicott
Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.