Like so many bibliophiles, my nightstand is stacked precariously with half-read books and my house is littered with magazine towers I can’t seem to part with. I am a hoarder of the written word, collector of titles, procrastinator of my own writing because I just found a good read. No doubt I am responsible for my fair share of felled trees.
But not everything printed is a shining example of skill. Though I consume them with vigor, magazines in particular can harbor pieces that I skim over or altogether forget. And though the bad apples are never going to keep this loyal reader away, there are three incredible magazine articles I distinctly remember that left a permanent mark on my literature-obsessed mind. These were the pieces that are responsible for magazine stashing habit, that keep the hope alive that I will find the next great piece… or write it.
“The Coolest Girl in the World,” by Lucy Kaylin, Marie Claire I August/September 2007
I snatched a copy of Marie Claire on the way to my mother’s one weekend before graduating from college. On the cover, Ashley Olsen smiled from underneath a nest of warm, blonde hair. Since the twins had always held a bit of my intrigue, due in part to a younger sister who was infatuated with their movies and my own reveling at their morphing abilities since Full House, I took it home.
But rather than finding a teen queen ready to branch into a new generation of movies, Kaylin introduced me to a gritty, relatable girl who was ready to ditch film for fashion. Like the twin on the cover, my perception morphed drastically. I’d originally assumed she would have been a spoiled brat who grew up in the lap of sitcom luxury, but as I read I found myself respecting and admiring her struggle to adapt and find her true self in an often harsh, always judgmental world. In addition, Kaylin’s writing described more than the typical drivel about a person’s smile or the shoes they were wearing. You know what I mean… the articles that always start with the author’s anticipation as he or she waits in some swanky Los Angeles lunch spot. Then the interview subject waltzes into the establishment clad in an effortlessly chic ensemble they just “threw on” and tosses humorous comments over her shoulder gracefully to waiters or fellow patrons.
Kaylin seemed more concerned with writing the nitty-gritty, bringing sophisticated and powerful storytelling to a piece that could have been pure fluff. Granted, it still included a wealth of details regarding the starlet’s clothing and accessories and avoided showing bits of Olsen’s personality that may have been unpalatable to the reader. But overall, Kaylin, assisted by stellar photography by Ruven Afanador, drove home the notion that Olsen was more than just one half of a tween empire. Kaylin successfully conveyed Olsen as an individual, someone with a distaste in her mouth for the amalgamated character she and her sister were assumed to have. In addition, the reminder that they were watched with hawk-like eyes by an entirely separate community – horny men counting down to when they became legal – was sobering:
Years later I grew vaguely aware that they’d become the joint face of a tentacular empire generating Gates-size dollars in the sale of tween merch, from dolls to toothpaste. Then came the countdown on various horny websites to the days the girls would turn 18, with its rancid intimations of a kind of gleeful, pop-culturally sanctioned pedophilia. Ashley and Mary-Kate were, after all, that fetishized thing, twins – tiny, hot fraternal ones who happened to look identical.
It wasn’t so much the subject of the article but the way Kaylin changed my perception of it that took me by surprise. That issue survived several room cleanings and finally made it to my home in Idaho, where it resides permanently in my collection.
“The Clock-Watcher,” by Corrie Pikul Elle I February 2011
The summer before I got married I was waiting for my car’s oil to be changed on my lunch break. I picked up a lone copy of Elle and thumbed through it nonchalantly over the whine of automated drills and technician chatter. When I stumbled on this piece from Pikul I made an instant connection. Pikul wasn’t just describing her grappling with the question of motherhood (should she or shouldn’t she?), she was describing me and my exact feelings on the matter.
I want to be a mother, but I want to want it first; to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the right choice for me. Pikul agonized over the same question, viewing her collection of friends and their new babies as adorable, but unsure of whether the no-turning-back commitment of raising a child was for her. Why was she not feeling the often physical symptoms her own friends were feeling when they lusted after a bundle of joy all their own?
I have several friends who are adamant they do not want children and I have several friends who crave nothing but the day they become a mother. But I have few friends who struggle with whether might regret the decision to have a child.
Before I jump into motherhood, I would like my body to provide some inescapable signal that I either want children or I don’t so. I want to avoid second thoughts and have the same conviction my friends have regarding their decisions. It seemed that Pikul felt the same:
Like plenty of my friends and colleagues—happy moms who say they felt nary a tug of maternal desire before they had kids—Rotkirch is quick to reassure me that baby lust isn’t universal and that I shouldn’t wait for it. But the truth is I want to experience it. I crave the luxury of certainty. I’ve begun to fantasize about it the way some people fetishize romantic love.
One friend, the mother of a precocious toddler, recently fed my worst fears—that my indecision may signify maternal unfitness. “Raising a child is really hard, and you should be absolutely sure you want to do it,” she said. “If you have to give babies this much thought, and if you’re this worried about being a mom, maybe that means you shouldn’t become one.”
How many times have I thought the same thing over and over again? Was the fact that I question myself an indication in itself that I should not get pregnant? The piece jumped out at me from the page, a siren song pulling me deeper into a topic I was haunted by. I had to learn if she found a resolution. Please, I pleaded with Pikul, tell me that my body will make the decision for me…
Though the number of valid experts she interviewed was impressive, their responses didn’t point to one answer. The term “ticking biological clock” may just be buzz word with little truth to it, she found from one expert. Another offered that a woman’s lust to conceive, carry and nurture a baby may be a product of factors such as genetics, family history and cultural influences. It seemed there was no conclusive evidence whether the body will put out a welcome mat when it’s ready for the pitter-patter of little feet. Though I may not have gotten the answer I wanted, at least I could be assured that Pikul was in the same boat:
I still long to fall head over heels for The Baby in my dreams—to know without a doubt that he or she is exactly what I want and need—but I’m coming to terms with the fact that the wave of maternal desire may never happen. While it may be hard to love the idea of a child, I think it will be easy to love the real thing—if I ever have one.
To find a kindred spirit struggling with the same heavy question was the long soak in a hot bath that I desperately needed. And though I would have read the article because of its topic, Pikul’s writing blew me out of the water. I was in awe. I left resolved to connect with readers the way Pikul had connected with me.
“Death on the Path to Enlightment,” by Scott Carney Details I October 2012
After grudgingly putting Pikul’s piece back on the side table (I briefly considered stealing it since was no longer on racks), it took more than a year before I found the next enthralling piece.
Quite casually, I brought the mail in one day and began sifting through it on our kitchen counter. My husband’s copy of Details peeked out from the pile of livestock catalogs, Macy’s brochures and endless bills. I took it to the couch and began thumbing through it.
Carney’s article sat toward the end of the issue, immediately reeling me in with a visual optic of a title page and this halting teaser:
Every year, thousands of Westerners flock to India to meditate, practice yoga, and seek spiritual transcendence. Some find what they’re looking for. Others give up and go home. A few become so consumed by their quest for godliness that it kills them.
Soon enough I was traveling down Carney’s well-crafted rabbit hole, jaw gaping open and fingers clutching tight. I love a good mystery, but the story Carney was telling had a twist I’d never seen before – seekers of spirituality who were falling prey to the ideas that took hold of them so fiercely.
Carney painted the vast landscape that is India with master brush strokes, commenting so expertly on the country’s history of spiritual or religious pilgrimages that when he revealed he lived in India for roughly a decade, I nodded my head knowingly. He described the psychosis, India syndrome, deftly, with reporting skills so sharp the words sank into you like claws:
Some are drawn by accounts of the powers of dedicated practitioners – yogis who can levitate, breathe for months while entombed underground, melt giant swaths of snow with their body heat – believing that they too will be able to accomplish extraordinary things. This quest to become superhuman – along with culture shock, emotional isolation, illicit drugs, and the physical toll of hard-core meditation – can cause Western seekers to lose their bearings. Seemingly sane people get out of bed one day claiming they’ve discovered the lost continent of Lemuria, or that the end of the world is nigh, or that they’ve awakened their third eye. Most recover, but some become permanently delusional. A few vanish or even turn up dead.
When he detailed his first-hand experience with a student he believes was a victim of India syndrome, a student who took her own life, I gasped. I felt the heartbreak, felt the shock and befuddlement that must have descended on the group after.
Paired with Carney’s powerful writing, this question of whether the path to enlightenment for some is too intense or even deadly took powerful hold. When his article ended in the next few paragraphs, I began shouting from the mountain tops to anyone who would listen about this astounding piece of work. I found Carney on Twitter, then promptly ordered his book “The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers.” I have not been disappointed.
Carney’s writing serves to motivate me, illustrating how skilled journalists latch onto a story and pursue it with everything they have, crafting it so that the audience, too, will take up the cause.
I have a great love of pages, a relationship with the starchy feel underneath my fingers and a satisfaction at the crisp sound of another page turned. I have unmatched respect and admiration for the authors whose efforts can set a thousand presses churning and spitting out their finished products. And though it is a tough world to break into, and an uncertain one at that, I will continue trying.
These three writers taught me that amid humdrum there is gold to be found. They taught me that good writing alters perceptions, assuages insecurities, and motivates people to question, investigate further. As I look to build my career in the captivating world of magazines, these pieces are ones I will always refer back to, work to emulate and, essentially, thank for the solid example of how it should be done.
Not convinced? Read the articles yourself.