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Confessions of a Bicoastal Writer

New York City may be the publishing capital of the world, but a Seattle-based freelancer proves it's possible to make it in the big city from 3,000 miles away.

By Sarah Jio - October 6, 2004

Moving to New York City would be so good for my career. I'd meet my editor friends for lunch, rack up those cherry assignments reserved for "local" writers and actually catch a glimpse of a real, live editor-in-chief. But as I look out the window of my home office in Seattle, I know I won't be packing my bags anytime soon.

When I left college with a journalism degree in hand, New York was on my horizon. Then I met someone—isn't that how it always happens?—and moved home to Seattle. But I still dreamed of making it as a writer, so I plugged into the local and national writing scenes. Before long, I had a job I loved working as an assistant editor at a Seattle-based magazine, and, in my spare time, I was freelancing for national publications. I began to wonder: Could I really achieve my writing goals and never live the Big Apple life?

Sure, I've considered the big move. Sometimes I wonder if I've settled for a comfortable, but less challenging, West Coast lifestyle. After all, if you'd dreamed of becoming a country star, you'd live in Nashville, not Cincinnati, right? Anyone will tell you that the same thing is true about New York City and publishing.

But how can I leave Seattle, where the streets are paved with quality espresso, strangers still smile at one another on the street, and I can wear sweaters for nine months out of the year? And at the mere suggestion of selling my turn-of-the-century Victorian and squeezing into a Manhattan studio, even my golden retriever stages a protest.

I'm not the only writer who, for whatever reason, can't make Gotham living work with their lifestyle. I know one California-based writer who swears that as soon as she opens her mouth about where she lives, New York City editors turn up their noses and refuse to take her story ideas seriously.

I'm used to that brand of snobbery, too. Not even from editors, but from publicists who email me singing the praises of their client's new Lower East Side tapas bar or Chelsea spa. When I politely reply letting them know that I live thousands of miles away, and no, I won't be coming to their opening, their response is usually polite but curt: "Oh, sorry. We thought you were local."

There's no doubt, Manhattan is the hub of publishing. But just because I have a 206 instead of a 212 number doesn't mean I can't play the New York City game. So how do we who are sprinkled across the country—Miami, Houston, Minneapolis, or San Diego—participate when we're thousands of miles away from the action? For the success of my writing career, I knew what I had to do: Become bicoastal—at least at heart.

That means rising before the rooster crows and getting online when editors are just rolling off the subway. I don't complain when the phone rings at 5 a.m. (and yes, it does). Most editors assume I'm based in New York anyway. It's a tiring schedule, but if West Coast stockbrokers can live and die by the hours of the New York Stock Exchange, I can certainly sustain the work day of your average consumer magazine.

But it's more than just being available; I have to be there. I'm not talking about catching a plane every few weeks, but rather keeping up with a daily dose of industry gossip: who left their job at X, how many half-caff cappuccinos the features editor at Y drinks on Monday mornings, who's having a baby in December, which beauty editor induces migraines in her editorial assistants, why one writer despises another, and what the extended weather forecast is for those editors lunching in Bryant Park. You get the idea.

An obsession? Nah. For me, it's just good business. Survival in a world where freelancers are about as high on the food chain as the copier guy means knowing how to read the delicate barometer of New York City media culture. I read a stack of newsletters, watch bylines and mastheads as if they were my lifelines, chat up writer friends, and try to get to know my editors beyond the assignment phone call. If I want to be up to speed in this line of work, I have to know which magazines are restructuring, hiring, or laying off staff, and which editors mingle together ('s party photos are a great resource for that).

So what do my efforts buy me? More than just the promise of racking up new assignments—I'm taken seriously because I understand how the city clicks.

Just take one morning last month. I woke before the sun, brewed a pot of coffee, and plugged into my double life. In my inbox, I found a golden nugget of inside information: "Anne," a notorious women's magazine editor was leaving her job for a new post at a big celebrity book, but the move hadn't yet been formally announced. Within minutes, I emailed a Manhattan-based editor acquaintance who had freelanced for Anne earlier this year. "Did you hear the news about Anne?" I wrote. "No way! Thanks for sharing," she replied. "How in the world did you find that out? Aren't you in Seattle?"

I am, I confess. And I'm staying put. But I will come clean about one thing: I've never even been to New York City.

Sarah Jio is a Seattle-based freelance writer. Her articles will appear this year and next in Self, Gourmet, Seventeen, and Marie Claire—all of which are based in New York City.

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