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What I Learned From Lisa Schwarzbaum

So Lisa Schwarzbaum is leaving Entertainment Weekly after 21 years. First Monopoly gets rid of the iron. Then the USPS stops delivering mail on Saturdays (which would have been a much larger crisis if this were, say, the ’90s, when, if I was reeeeeaaaaallly lucky, EW would arrive early, on a Saturday, and I’d go into anaphylactic shock).

Now this? How much more change can a guy take in one week?

In any case. Lisa was perhaps my favorite writer in a magazine teeming with many of them. I loved her wit, her welcome allergy to insipidness and cheap tricks and crappy misogynist fantasies masquerading as self-empowering chick-flick hoohah, and most especially her hilarious, self-effacing attitude toward the very art of film criticism itself. She has never been anything less than a joy to read.

I wrote Lisa a fan letter when I was 18 years old, explaining that I studied her writing closely in order to better my own. She wrote back, a kind note in which she thanked me and asked me if she could use it as her CV going forward. I was thrilled. I still have it tucked away in a box, one that I brought across the world with me when I moved to Sydney.

When I landed my summer internship at Entertainment Weekly in 1998, I began to wonder if Lisa would see my name in some sort of internal memo and think to herself, “Hey! That’s that kid who wrote me! I’ll have to have lunch with him someday while he’s here.” I had visions of us bantering in the hallway, maybe going downstairs to grab a coffee and being chummy.

I was delusional. Lisa wasn’t around the office much to begin with, and when she was, she tended to stay cloistered in her office, a Koosh ball always fumbling around in her hands as she worked on her writing. Her door was open, more often than not, but I got the sense she wasn’t one for casual drop-ins. As an intern, one of my duties was copy-running, a quaint practice whereby we’d stroll the halls of EW - back then, all three¬†floors of the place - distributing the latest version of a page. You could usually tell how somebody felt about a.) the current crop of interns, b.) their day and c.) probably themselves by the way they reacted (or didn’t) when you dropped off the page. Lisa never really noticed me, or said much of anything. I didn’t think much of it.

But I still wanted to meet her, and at least introduce myself. On the day that I finally worked up the courage to stand in her doorway and do just that, I got as far as “Hi, Lisa? My name is Nicholas, and I’m one of the current inter—” before she looked up and emitted a noise that I interpreted as “Nuh-unh. Not gonna happen, kid” as she waved me away.

Hyperbolic though it sounds, it was one of the most crushing moments of my life. I’d so badly wanted to get to know the person behind the zany, sharp words that thrilled me from under her byline each week. Surely she was nothing less than utterly fantastic! Surely she wanted to mentor me, to teach me some tricks! Surely she remembered me??? None of that ever happened, and I took it personally - really personally - for a very long time.

I would end up working at EW for a decade, and during that time I called Lisa a colleague - if not a friend. She was nice enough to serve as the de facto screener lending library every Oscar season (I do remember one e-mail slapdown in which she politely asked me to give her a heads-up before I went into her office and signed them out on my own accord, which I admit to having done a few times; oopsie! passive aggression is not the look!). After I returned from a three-month reporting assignment in the LA bureau, she stopped me in the hallway to welcome me back and tell me how much she’d enjoyed reading the weekly reports I had filed. And once, when a group of editors and writers were engaged in a furious e-mail discussion as we tried to finalize a list of the top 10 Sopranos episodes of all time and I laid out a quick defense of "The Second Coming" (e.g., the one where Phil Leotardo screams obscenities at Tony and Little Carmine from his bedroom window and yes what else needs to be said?), Lisa replied all with a simple: “What Nicholas said.” It was a proud moment.

Somewhere along the way, I got over my disappointment (and myself) to accept that Lisa’s indifference didn’t diminish the quality of her work - or, moreover, how I felt about her work. Do I still wish we’d become buddies? Well, sure. We all harbor hopes of knowing and loving and befriending our heroes, even when they prove to be something far different than we initially believed. I’d like to say I don’t remember that snarl and wave - “be gone, minion!” - but it remains all too clear, as if it just happened an hour ago.

Which is fine. It’s an important memory for me to have, because it so adequately crystallizes a lesson that forced me to grow up. Adoration isn’t a bad thing; nor is expectation. But when you heap both of them upon somebody who isn’t much interested in reciprocating either, you can’t really complain when you don’t achieve the result you so desperately want. That’s what meeting Lisa Schwarzbaum ultimately taught me. It hurt me deeply at the time; now, I can look back on it wistfully, and mostly just think, “Jesus, you were so young.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum’s writing - much like Lisa herself, insofar as I ever “knew” her - is by turns brilliant, hectoring, lofty and tough. She made me want to be a writer, and I’m thrilled to see what she does next. (Book! Book! Book!)

Now go read her You’ve Got Mail review. It’s my favorite Lisa piece of all time, not least because of the brilliant Meg Ryan takedown in the second-to-last paragraph. I’m sure going to miss these. A

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  1. ouizy posted this
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