How I Became A Magazine Editor

The author grinding on edits

DEAR THE STONE MIND:  “Being an editor at Climbing Magazine may not seem glamorous to you by now, but to the ears of a penniless college student, it sounds like a pretty sweet gig. Did you deliberately set that goal and then take all the right steps to achieve it, or did you just sort of wing it and end up there? In hindsight, what were some key stepping stones or landmarks that you hit along the way to landing that job?”

DEAR PENNILESS IN COLLEGE: Thanks so much for writing. You ask a good question, and it’s one that a few readers have emailed to ask already, so I’ll answer you and, in the process, hopefully anyone else with similar curiosities.

I’d like to preface things by saying that being happy with where you are in life is the closest thing to success that anyone can really get. More practically, a good job is one that challenges you, inspires you to get up in the morning, and provides sufficient income to relieve you of the burden of daily financial worry. (No matter how cool your gig might seem, if you struggle to pay your bills, stress will slowly erode your stoke. Unless you’re a Zen master. In which case you probably don’t have a job anyway—just a robe and a bowl and big golden aura.) With that in mind, a gig that seems sweet from the outside can be pretty crappy on the inside. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book—or in this case, magazine—by its cover.

But since you asked, I’ll do my best to outline the trajectory that brought me into (and then out of) the climbing magazine world.

I discovered climbing at the age of 12 and was hooked right from the start. Similarly, I was a precocious wordsmith, winning an award in elementary school for an ode to dragons. Climbing and writing—these two loves, seemingly unrelated, could be logically combined in a climbing magazine job. Still, such a “career path” didn’t occur to me until I was done with college and casting about aimlessly for employment while living in a shabby railroad apartment in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg Industrial Park.

Being full of literally high-mindedness, I applied for internships and entry-level jobs at places like the New York Times, Penguin Books, and The New Yorker. I received no responses. I sent an email to the editors at Rock and Ice, and was similarly ignored. I can’t say I blame anyone who discarded my letters; I had no idea what being an editor meant. I had studied literature but didn’t know the difference between copy editing and proofreading, or what the hell “TK” stood for.

So I did what any middle-class college grad faced with grim job prospects and offensively high rent would do: I went back to school. Grad school. For poetry. I put in two years exploring the intricacies of the written word, but I never expected to end up working in the field. Not what anyone would call a career-minded decision.

Around that time, a friend of mine suggested I contact Urban Climber, a fledgling pub in search of writers willing to work for nothing but bylines and Red Bull. “I’m in,” I said without a second thought. I was following my interests and crawling through the windows of opportunity that appeared around me, with minimal regard to where it was all leading.

After grad school, I moved to Ohio (long story) and took a job through a friend of a friend at a consulting firm, doing basic copywriting and graphic design. Your typical climber might confuse a button-down desk job in the Midwest with one of Dante’s circles of Hell, but it was just what I needed. It wasn’t always a thrill ride, but I learned as much in three years there as I had in four at college, and the money flowed in a more favorable direction. In the meantime, I kept doing the things I loved: writing, climbing, and hanging out with friends.

I’d say that’s pretty important: always finding a way to keep doing the things you love, even if you have to do other things you love less (or not at all) to pay the bills. Never stop chasing that sense of wonder and excitement inside of you. As long as you are able, you have to find a way—it’s like a little rudder that keeps your ship pointed towards better things, even while you might feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction.

Eventually, I became a part-time editor-at-large for Urban Climber. Then Urban Climber’s parent company bought Climbing, and I started to work with both. Then, while out covering the Hueco Rock Rodeo one spring, I had an epiphany in the desert (power animal: javelina) and decided to go half-time at the consulting firm and half-time at “the mags,” as we called them. After working a sufficient number of nights and weekends for minimal compensation, I was offered a full-time position with the mags, editing and writing out of the new HQ in Boulder. I took the job and worked through varying stages of joy, frustration, and disappointment until I could bear it no more. Sometime in 2010, I quit and took a marketing job in the outdoor industry, which I still work, happily, to this day.

Chaos theory has shown that complex and organized systems can arise from relatively simple rules and interactions. This property is known as emergence, and some common examples are the ornate filigree of a snowflake or the beautiful oneness of a flock of birds in flight. Similarly, I think a life guided by little more than a few basic principles can, in retrospect, appear as if it was carefully plotted.

Looking back, things all seem to have flowed in some sort of purposeful direction, but it was never by any grand design of mine (not consciously, at least). Instead, I think it was by the action of a few guiding principles: always try in earnest to learn, grow, improve, stay positive, and work hard, even in the face of doubt, fear, or disappointment. That, and make time for your passions, as mentioned above. The rest, in some way or another, takes care of itself. Mostly.

Look, whatever clarity we might claim in this life rarely comes without a great deal of difficulty and confusion. Mostly it comes as a result of them. And so I think we should all probably rest a bit easier when feeling unsure of the world—it is only by such feelings that we can ever make sense of anything. As Robert Frost wrote, “I can see no way out but through.”

I’m sure this response contains far more words than you were expecting and far fewer answers than you might have hoped, but isn’t that always the way?

Best of luck,
Justin

The Rotpunkt Method

Last week I wrote about climbers who are afraid to admit they care. It’s a phenomenon especially common in teenagers, but many adults struggle with this fear, too. To care is to open yourself up to the frightening possibility of failure. It’s safer not to care —  send or fall, you’re meh either way. Of course, most people who pretend not to care do so because they care too much. If you really want something, then you run the risk of being embarrassed, demoralized, or otherwise disappointed if you don’t succeed. Better to keep the world at arm’s length and pretend you’re all good just where you are.

My friend Charley recently told me about a kid — let’s call him Billy — on his gym’s youth climbing team. Billy was naturally strong, but he never worked routes. Instead, he’d get on a climb, look good up until the crux, fall, and then move on to something else. One day after doing this, Billy’s coach asked him why he gave up. “I don’t need to get back on that route; I know I can do it,” was Billy’s reply. The coach called bullshit and ordered him back on the climb, where, not too surprisingly, he fell lower than on his first attempt. It was exactly as Billy had feared — he wasn’t that close after all. But the part I want to stress is that Billy could do the climb. Maybe it would take him one more try, or maybe 10, but if wanted to prove himself the route’s equal, he’d have to enter the difficult, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding world of the redpoint.

The german climber Kurt Albert coined the term Rotpunkt while climbing in the Frankenjura region in the 1970s. In a 1994 interview with Will Gadd, Albert recalled that climbers in the Frankenjura aided all the routes. “If you saw a piton,” he explained, “you grabbed the carabiner or put [an aid] ladder on it. So there was no free climbing for the sake of free climbing.” But after a trip to the Elbsandstein area, where people had been freeing routes for decades, Albert started climbing the routes of the Frankenjura without the use of gear for aid. When he freed a route, he painted a small red dot at the base, to let other’s know it was possible. Rotpunkt in German means simply “red point.” The name, catchy and with a colorful history, remains a staple of the climbing lexicon. For our purposes, the redpoint’s most important aspect is the process of working out the sections of a challenging climb — memorizing every crux, rest, and clipping stance — and then linking the sections into a whole, as a dancer executes a dance.

In life, there are few big challenges that don’t require a redpoint mentality. Alison Osius, Executive Editor at Rock & Ice, used a redpoint-like strategy when tackling her book, Second Ascent: the Story of Hugh Herr. “I really just focused on it chapter by chapter,” she said. “If someone ever asked me where I was in the process or how much more was left, I would say I couldn’t think that way. Or it would have been overwhelming. If the person would ask if I could say that I was halfway, I wouldn’t even touch that.” It’s how we must approach any project that, on its surface, is too big to swallow. The best way to eat an elephant, as the adage goes, is one bite at a time.

When a climber approaches the limit of his or her ability, the rehearsal period required for a redpoint grows longer. Martin Keller, for example, spent three years and over 100 days on a single boulder problem in Chironico, Switzerland. In a less extreme example, I worked Tuna Town, a long, pumpy route in the Red River Gorge, over the course of two seasons, failing, often miserably and near the end, dozens of times before succeeding. When I finally clipped the anchors for the send, the route felt easy and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why it took so long to happen. It is one of redpointing’s greatest wonders when a climb once so difficult comes to feel almost easy. Small holds feel bigger, big moves feel smaller, long sections climb themselves, scary clips lose their fangs… . In his blog post, Keller describes his feelings after sending his longstanding project as “something you can’t buy anywhere and there is no number to express it.”

There are few things more satisfying than a long-worked-for redpoint. You feel like you’ve done the impossible, almost like you’ve become someone else entirely — the type of person who can do a climb that difficult, or, thinking more broadly,  get into a school that good, or get that job, or what have you. When I climbed my first V10, Squeenos, in the Gunks, my friend Jason swatted me on the shoulder and exclaimed, “You did it, man! Today, you are that strong!” But I only made it there through a long and frustrating process of getting to know the problem — how much pressure to exert on each rough little crimp, which way to turn my hips, where to drag my toe for extra friction… . There were days when I couldn’t do two moves in a row on Squeenos, days when I couldn’t do the crux moves, and days when I couldn’t even get my ass up off the ground. I had to remain open to failure, unsure of success, and willing to keep trying. Working towards such seemingly distant goals can feel, as Keller describes it, like an act of hubris, but I can think of no other way to achieve anything worthwhile. It’s what we do when we care. But first we have to admit we care, and then we have to do the work.

It’s a simple (and as complex) as that.