On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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A man wrote recently to ask if I was thinking of retiring. After twenty-six years as editor of this magazine, he wondered, wasn’t I ready for something else? If so, he was offering himself as my replacement. He didn’t really know what to make of The Sun, he admitted. The editorial content didn’t appeal to him, and he couldn’t imagine why there was no advertising. But the idea of running a magazine intrigued him.
He might as well have asked if I was ready to retire from breathing. No, I would have said, inhaling and exhaling hadn’t become boring; I loved seeing my chest rise and fall. Still, I didn’t want to dismiss his letter out of hand. Maybe he was someone with a message I needed to hear, some kind of angel in disguise; maybe I was in a rut and didn’t know it. I tried to imagine leaving The Sun, sailing off to some island paradise. But try as I might to focus on fragrant breezes and swaying palm trees, my thoughts kept drifting back to the upcoming issue: Had I chosen the right material? Was the writing soulful enough? Did it celebrate life in all its complicated glory? Was it — oh, God — too sad?
It will take a more persuasive angel to wrestle me away from here. Am I married to The Sun? Of course. Is it a happy marriage? Well, after twenty-six years, I wouldn’t trade places with any other man. Even when I’m melancholy, even when I struggle to keep my heart open, The Sun calls to me like the better part of my nature. Years ago, when I was still living in New York City, I heard Graham Nash sing, “Make sure that the things you do keep us alive.” The next day, I quit my newspaper job, just walked out and kept walking. Better to be a pilgrim without a destination, I figured, than to cross the wrong threshold every day. A year later, I moved to North Carolina; a year after that, I borrowed fifty dollars and started The Sun. I’ve changed a lot since then, and so has the magazine, whose readership has grown beyond my wildest dreams. But I’ve never stopped being grateful for the opportunity to devote myself wholeheartedly to this improbable venture, even when that meant selling magazines on the street, or working seventy hours a week, or holding off creditors during the leanest of lean years. I imagine I’ll keep putting out issue after issue until The Sun runs out of money or I run out of breath.
In the meantime, while I’m still breathing (my heart is fine, too, thank you), let me share some good news: this spring marks exactly ten years since we took a leap of faith and dropped advertising from our pages — and The Sun, with fifty thousand subscribers, is shining more brightly than ever. Turning down advertising meant abandoning a lucrative source of revenue, one upon which virtually all magazines depend. But I didn’t want advertising to compromise the radical intimacy I was trying to create in The Sun. How heartening for readers to pick up a magazine with no ads begging them to do something, buy something, go somewhere. How rare for a magazine to walk away from advertising and, a decade later, still be standing tall.
But just as I try not to take my next breath for granted, I try not to take the continued existence of The Sun for granted. It’s true that we have a free press in this country, but it’s dominated by big money. Independent bookstores are fast disappearing, making it harder for people to discover a magazine like The Sun. Paper companies have ratcheted up prices, and the post office is planning to raise rates again for nonprofit organizations, though a strong argument could be made for lowering them instead. (But that would mean asking big commercial mailers to pay considerably more, a prospect that seems highly unlikely. Could this have something to do with lobbying clout? Could that be Victoria’s secret?) We’ve applied for grants from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. But grants are always uncertain when even modest arts funding is challenged by legislators who insist the Pentagon needs the money more. So, instead of depending on grants or advertising, The Sun turns to its readers each year for support.
By becoming a Friend of The Sun with a tax-deductible donation, you’d help us accomplish several goals: First, we’d like to increase payments to the writers and photographers who make The Sun unique; the money we pay now doesn’t seem commensurate with the extraordinary effort they put into their work. Second, we want to expand our program of giving free subscriptions to libraries, thus making the magazine available to many who can’t afford it. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every library in the country carried The Sun?) Third, we want to extend free subscriptions to hundreds of prisons, health clinics, battered-women’s shelters, senior-citizen centers, and other organizations. Finally, based on the response to our twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration last year, we’d like to underwrite a yearly conference that would bring together readers and writers for workshops, readings, and the opportunity to sit with other kindred souls and talk late into the night.
I had little idea what I was doing when I started The Sun in 1974, but perhaps some naiveté is necessary at the start of a journey. (Maybe we wouldn’t take birth if we knew what we were getting into.) There’s always been too much to read, too much to think about; at night, darkness gathers me up and scatters my questions like seeds. If I’ve become a more skillful editor over the years, I’ve also realized that I’ll never become as adept at this work as I’d like to be. No matter. As a Zen master once said, “Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, and still I go on.”
You may send your check to The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. You can also donate on-line at www.thesunmagazine.org. Your donation is tax-deductible and we’ll send you a receipt for your records.