Have you ever thought your dreams were so out of this world that you’d never achieve them? That’s what LA-based writer and editor Lisa Butterworth thought, before she quit her high-paying human resources job to take an internship at a magazine across the country. And she has never looked back.
Do you remember your first week in LA?
Yeah, I do. I didn't have a job, and I had just moved in with my boyfriend who was living out here. We had a place in East Hollywood and I remember I just did a lot of walking. I would walk to the Capital Records building, walk to Vermont Avenue and read all the magazines at Skylight Books. Things like that.
We had been in a relationship for a long time and had been doing long distance. I'd always known that I'd want come back to California. My family is here. I grew up here.
What were your goals when you went to college?
I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I thought that I wanted to be a journalist. I went to UC Santa Barbara, mostly because I wanted to be by the beach. That's what you think about when you are 17 and choosing schools.
Santa Barbara is a really theory-based university; they didn't have a journalism program, so I did a communications major. I started working at the newspaper my senior year and that was kind of when I was like, "Oh yeah, this is what I want to do."
After I graduated, I did an internship at the local weekly paper, covering really boring things like city-council meetings and stuff like that.
At that time I was really thinking more about where I wanted to live, less about what I wanted to do. So I moved to San Francisco. I always loved San Francisco. My grandparents took me there on a trip right before sixth grade, and I just remember thinking, "When I grow up I want to live here, because this place is magical."
I feel like it's one of those cities that has so many iterations. I go back now and it's totally different. Obviously, the iconic locations are still the same, but the feel is very different.
I moved up there in 2000, right around the first dot-com bust. Jobs were few and far between. So after a few months of barely eating and hardly paying rent, I took the first job that was offered to me. It was a part-time human resources assistant role. Then I ended up staying there for five years.
What kept you there?
The money. The people were great, too. I started as a human resources assistant and I just kept working my way up. By the time I left, I was on the executive team. I was the director of human resources.
That's crazy. You were pretty young, too.
Yeah, I think I was 27 when I left.
I find human resources itself is such a fascinating role to play in any company.
It's definitely a people position. I felt like a therapist. My office was just a revolving door of people coming in with their grievances. Oh, the drama!
How did you feel about pursuing human resources instead of journalism?
I knew it wasn't my passion. I was good at it and I enjoyed it, but it wasn't feeding my soul, to use a cliché like that. I was doing little things on the side, little freelance writing projects here and there. But, honestly, I just didn't know how to get into writing. That was probably my biggest obstacle.
What did you do about that?
I think I just sort of manifested my path. At the time it wasn't calculated. So, after I'd been in that company for about five years, one of my closest friends was moving to New York. I was at a bit of a breaking point with my company, so I asked the CEO if I could take a three-month leave of absence and just work as a consultant remotely from New York. They were so flexible and they said that was fine.
We drove across the country and when we ended up in New York I was like, "What am I going do for three months here?" So that’s how the opportunity with Bust started. Bust had been my favorite magazine for years and I'd written a couple of freelance articles for them. So, I emailed them: "Hey, I'm going be in New York for three months, can I intern for you?" They were like, "Yeah, sure."
So, I started as an intern there and basically never left.
That's crazy. How did an internship turn into a full-time job, and leaving San Francisco for good?
On the last day of my internship, [editor-in-chief] Debbie Stoller sat me down and said, "We have this part-time position opening up and I think you'd be really great at it. Why don't you stay on and do it?" I was like, "OK, can I do it from San Francisco?” I wasn’t going to quit my six-figure salary to move to New York for a part-time position at a magazine. They said, "Sure, we'll try that out." So, I went back to San Francisco. I was still working full time at my company, as well as editing part time for Bust on the side. I think I did that for one or two issues, and then they offered me a full-time job.
Leaving a comfortable job is a huge risk for people. What made you feel like it was worth it?
This is my dream job. This is a job I never thought in a million years that I would be offered. I couldn't have turned it down. I would've been insane. So, it wasn't a hard decision. I always knew I was going take it, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. Quitting that fancy job, leaving my friends in San Francisco, and leaving my family in California was a really intense decision.
Once you got to New York did you ever think, “What have I done?”
Not really. I mean, it was hard and it was kind of lonely. I left my boyfriend in San Francisco and we were doing long distance. I hardly knew anybody in New York and I was doing a job I didn't really know how to do, so there was this whole “imposter syndrome” happening. But I never regretted my decision.
It’s amazing that you made this dream scenario happen.
I know, and in the most accidental way. I didn't realize it was happening when it happened, if that make sense.
I knew I wanted to take some time off and really focus on my writing. I didn't know in what capacity. Working a full-time job, especially on the management team, is really demanding—I just didn't have time to think about my writing, or what I wanted to do with it, or where I wanted to take it. So I really wanted to use that break to figure that out.
So, how did you develop your skills in your new job? Were you editing or writing?
Both. I came on as an associate editor and I was in charge of two of the front-of-book sections: the fashion section and the real-life section, which is sort of like DYI and cooking and health.
It was a lot of trial and error. I feel really bad for the first writers that I worked with, because I did not know what I was doing. I wasn't very good at assigning stories, and I don't think I was very good at letting writers know what I was looking for. I wasn't even sure what I was looking for yet.
What is the role of an editor?
At Bust, we would have a story meeting with the whole staff. As the editor of my sections, I would throw out ideas for articles that I thought would be good, and then everyone would agree or disagree or give suggestions on how to make the idea better.
Then I'd take all those ideas for the 12 pages I was responsible for and assign the stories to different writers. Then those writers would work on it, send me a draft, and then we’d go back and forth through the editing process until the story was ready to go to the next round of editing.
How do you come up with story ideas?
That's the best part. Just walking around the world gives me story ideas, meeting people...
Despite not knowing what you were doing, did you feel like this was what you were “supposed” to be doing?
Absolutely! It was the best feeling to walk into that office and be like, "I am living my dream."
I feel like there’s this pressure to find that thing that you’re supposed to be doing.
I don't think there is one soulmate for everybody and I don't think there is one perfect job for everybody. I think that the job at Bust was the perfect job for me at the perfect time. I don't think I would move to New York to do that now. I don't think I would have the same feeling, and my idea of a “dream job” is always changing, but at the time, that was definitely it and it felt amazing.
Since you started at Bust to where you are now, how do you feel?
I have learned so much. I learned how to be a better editor, and being a better editor made me a better writer. I learned so much about pop culture and how to look at it through a feminist lens. Bust was started by two women who still own it and don't have any outside investment and are just making it work. I learned how to produce photoshoots and how to deal with celebrity publicists. It was like a whole lifetime of learning at that one job experience.
Do you have any interviews that you’ve done that really stand out for you?
Oh, so many. I got to interview the most amazing people. One of my first cover stories was with Miranda July, who I adore. It was the first cover story I ever wrote and didn't know what I was doing then, either. But, it was definitely a monumental experience for me.
I interviewed Carrie Brownstein. Sleater-Kinney was always an influence for me, so that was really exciting. And Kathleen Hanna, too—that was just last year—she was a role model for me, so getting to chat with her was just epic.
How do you interview someone you admire, without putting them on a pedestal?
That's definitely the hardest part. It's so weird to meet somebody that you’ve had this longtime relationship with—with them and their work and their views and their public persona—and then reconcile who you think they are with the person sitting in front of you. It's kind of a mind-fuck, to be honest. I definitely have to reel in my expectations sometimes.
So you came out to LA after New York?
Yeah, I came back to LA and tried to freelance for a while, but that was unsuccessful at first.
Because of the professional environment?
The environment, and I just didn't have the hustle down yet. Something I always need to work on is my hustle.
Do you have any tips for freelancers now that you’ve been doing it for a while?
Yeah. I mean, people email me all the time, especially younger writers, and ask, "How do you do what you do?" I write them these long answers and then I'm like, “I need to listen to myself. Why I don't do these things?”
The biggest thing for me is that I always have to remind myself that I need to ask for things. So often, I just think editors are going to find me or assignments are going to fall into my lap. There are still magazines that I'd like to write for, so why don't I email them and pitch a story?
So how did Tidal come about?
It's a total labor of love. About three years ago, my friend Anna, who is a photographer, called me up and said, "I want to start a magazine but I don't know anything about words. I only do pictures. Will you help me?" I was like, "Yeah, why not? Let's make a magazine." So we did. We still do it. We put it out twice a year. We are working on our seventh issue right now.
Yeah, there is actually pretty big team that makes make it happen. Anna is our editor-in-chief and her husband, Mike Perry, is the creative director. We also have a managing editor and a photo editor and a fashion editor. There is a whole team of people dedicating a lot of time and passion to put it together.
What made you choose print instead of a digital experience?
For me, there is just nothing that compares to being able to hold a magazine in your hands and turn the pages, take it with you to a café or curl up on the couch with it. Especially Tidal—the pages are so thick and it really feels a lot like an art piece. It's not something that you’re going recycle when you're done reading it.
Since it’s the start of a new year, do you have anything you’re looking forward to?
That's a good question. I wake up everyday grateful that I can be a freelance writer and make a living off my words and that people actually want to read them. The goal is to just keep that going. I guess make it easier. I mean, it would be nice if I could work a little less hard and still be making a living.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
No matter how farfetched your dreams seem, they could actually happen. Even if it's something you'd think is a million worlds away, and you don't have the talent or experience or knowledge or connections to make it happen, you actually can.
What does LA mean to you?
o many things. LA is my family; this is my home. My family is here, my friend family is here, the light is beautiful, the opportunities are amazing, the people I get to meet are fantastic. LA means home. Gosh, that sounds so cheesy.
To learn more about Lisa visit lisabutterworth.com
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©