My First Job

Dare Porter

I was out of college, living at home in Katonah, New York, just outside New York City, looking for my first real job. Having double-majored in English and Philosophy, I decided to try interviewing with large publishers in the city. I knew very little about being an editor, but it seemed a logical direction to take.

At Random House, my interview went something like this:

“What sort of editor do you want to be?”

Blinking rapidly in confusion I answered, “Something like Bennett Cerf.” (A witty editor known to audiences of the TV game show What’s My Line?)

“Yes, but what kind of editor? There are copyeditors, acquisition editors, and production editors.”

“Sure, one of those.”

She smiled, suggested I learn more about being an editor, and thanked me for coming.

Having not landed a job by my fifth interview, I was suddenly hopeful at Prentice Hall in New Jersey when given a copyediting test, which I promptly failed. Spelling had always been a problem due to an as yet not understood dyslexia. When told I had failed, I begged to take a second, harder test. The personnel director smiled and asked, “Have you ever tried copywriting?” Grabbing at the possibility, “No, but it sounds very interesting.” Handing me a paper, “Go to this location in Marketing and ask for Bob Knott.”                                                                                                        

Bob gave me a book about Small Business Management, told me to read the jacket copy and introduction, write 60 words about the book, and design a brochure to put the copy in. This was my test and I had the weekend to work on it.

My father, a freelance illustrator for magazines in New York, turned down my request that he illustrate a small business for my brochure, saying instead that they wanted to see what I could come up with on my own.

I created a silhouette of a hotdog vendor and umbrella cart for the cover out of torn paper and crayon, wrote the copy, and returned with the brochure on Monday. I got the job. When they showed me my desk, typewriter, a loose-leaf binder with hundreds of amazing type fonts, and dozens of file drawers filled with photos, I could only smile broadly and say “Thank you.”

As time passed, I remembered what I thought my career was going to be. Many years before while in high school, we were each tasked with coming up with a career. After sitting in the library for most of a week thumbing through magazines, the obvious hit me. I went home and told my parents what I’d found:

“I’ve found a career!”

“Please, it’s not illustration!” my mother shouted. Illustration had fallen on hard times being quickly replaced by photography. Dad was floundering and Mom, a housewife, was seriously concerned about their future. Dad had always told me freelance illustration was tough — never enough work and inhabited by tight-fisted Art Directors.

“No. Something better, more exciting.”



“NO!” They both yelled. I’d found the one thing they feared more than Dad’s career.

Soon after, at a quieter moment a week later, Mom suggested, “You love reading. I think being an English Professor in a college would be a wonderful life.” And there you have the beginning of my dream job.

After a year and a half at Prentice Hall, I began applying to English graduate programs. My choice of universities was eclectic and not well researched — more of a dart thrown at a random list of notable schools. I was accepted at the University of Chicago; very prestigious and a surprise that made me giddy. Eventually I’d pay for my Master’s program by working for the UC Press as a designer. The sequence of events that brought this about is interesting and the basis of my belief that in our lives unexpected moments occur that shift our focus and change our life’s direction. I mean this on the magical, chance occurrence level.

As the Journals Advertising Manager, I occasionally needed to call journals to confirm the form and size our ads needed to be for submission. One day I called what I thought was the Journals Department at the University of Chicago. I got the Astrophysics Journals Department instead and spoke to a friendly Maggie who explained my mistake and then asked me how the weather was in New Jersey. She explained that Fort Lee was her hometown. I explained that I had just been accepted as a grad student at the University and might be looking for a job. She mentioned that the Art Director for the Journals Department, just across the hall, had been talking about leaving. Long story short, I spoke to the Department Director and was eventually offered the Art Director’s job. I announced my intention of leaving Prentice Hall for Chicago.

During my tenure as Journals Advertising Manager, I had designed many ads. One I was particularly proud of was about books on Ecology. I made the page black with one of the new shots of Earth suspended in space and all the text white. Unknown to me, Bob Knott had sternly warned against using white text against black before I arrived. At my going away party, Bob taped a copy of the Ecology ad on the outside of his door with the comment that this was an excellent example of breaking the rules. As I left, thinking my future was teaching in a university, my true career had already been decided, but it would take a few more years for me to recognize it.

Dare Porter is a graphic designer and longtime OLLI member. This piece was written originally in an OLLI memoir-writing course.