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Mentor Monday: The Unusual Editor Who Opened the Publishing Door to Me

Editor Lincoln Millstein, Who Changed My Life

It wasn't much of a room. Just a mattress on the floor, a desk made out of a discarded door and milk crates. The closet was stuffed with dirty laundry. Washing it entailed shoving it in a bag and hauling it on my back a quarter mile to a laundromat that smelled like feet.

The house used to be nice, a three-story Victorian deal. It wasn't nice anymore. Shared by six college students, each camped out in one of its bedrooms. Adam, a funk bass player, had the room down the hall. Between us was Nate, a tenor sax player like me. On the other side of me was a guy who looked like a runny nose with a perm. His name was Paul and he was always laughing, usually because he was afraid. Big eyes. I don't remember what he did, other than laugh to avoid crying. He didn't got to Berklee College of Music with us. In the attic was a pinched and miserable person named Ellen who left passive-aggressive post-its on everything then scurried away. Downstairs was Kara, who weighed her food on a tiny scale and watched other people eating the way some people drive past fancy homes they can never afford. The house was a few doors down from another house that was now a museum because John F. Kennedy had grown up there. Beals Street, Brookline, Massachusets. Our house was never warm enough. The back yard was a tangle of trash and fallen trees. There was a sofa in one of the two living areas downstairs, stained and lopsided. No one knew who'd dumped it there. Someone long ago, before our time. You'd hear a mouse chewing things inside that sofa if you sat on it. We never sat on it. We stayed in our rooms.

I was in my room, running scales on my horn, when the call came. We didn't have mobile phones in those days. It was April.1992. I was 23, about to graduate from Berklee. I should have graduated in 1991, but I'd had to take a year off to work as a receptionist in a fancy office that forbid women to wear pants. My last two weeks there I wore pants every day. With turbans on my head. And huge, dangling, candy skull earrings. They fired me. I threatened to sue them for sex discrimination. They re-hired me. Then I quit.

"There's someone from the Boston Globe on the phone for you," said Kara, through my door. She looked excited for me, but guardedly so, like maybe she'd go back to her room and cast a hex on me so that the good thing that was about to happen wouldn't last.

The person on the phone was Lincoln Millstein, then the editor of the Living/Arts Department at the Boston Globe. He told me he'd gotten the essay I'd sent in blind to the paper. I said "Oh," because no one had ever gotten my essays before. I kept writing them, even though I was sure they were all destined for fancy trash cans. I was a music major, but I liked to write on the side. I'd always loved writing and music both, but chose to study music formally because I was worse at it. He asked me to lunch to discuss it. No one had ever taken me to lunch. All my friends were struggling musicians, poor. I wrote down the address for the restaurant, and trudged to the laundromat.

I took the subway to the South End the day of our lunch. I can't remember what I wore. Something I thought was nice but which was from the Gap, probably. Squinted at the piece of paper. Found the street. Then found the number. It was nice. Nicer than anywhere I'd ever been. Growing up, my family had only ever gone to three restaurants: Lucky Boy, a greasy takeout place; Baca's Mexican, also cheap, with red bumpy plastic water glasses; and Bella Vista, an all-you-can-eat fried chicken and fries place in the mountains, where my grandparents took the whole family once a month. This Lincoln-selected restaurant had white tablecloths. More utensils than I knew what to do with. Exposed brick walls. It was a small, narrow, fancy bistro in the heart of one of the fanciest neighborhoods in America.

It took me a second to realize the man waving at me from one of the tables was Lincoln Millstein. I hadn't expect a man with a name like Lincoln Millstein to be Chinese American. He was a handsome older guy, with glasses and a bow tie. His shirt was beautifully tailored. He waved with one hand and twirled a piece of hair on the top of his head with the other. I'd later learn the name for the disorder. Tricotillomania.

The menu was hard. A flake of wood. I'd never held a hard menu. Till that day, the menus in my life were on the wall behind the cashier, or floppy laminated plastic, or stained crumpled paper. There were only five things on it. I chose the only thing I recognized. It was ravioli. But filled with lobster. I'd never had lobster. I hoped it wasn't disgusting. Lincoln wasn't laughing at me, but I could tell he wanted to. Not a mean laugh. A kindhearted laugh, the laugh of someone enjoying the chance to change someone's life for the better. He read me like a book. My nervousness. My hopes. My hardships. My potential.

"The piece is great," he said, with a smile, leaning forward a little. Businesslike. "We'd like to run it. That okay with you?"

It was. It was okay with me. The ravioli came. There were only three of them. I was starving. I used the wrong fork.

"You drop a lot of bombs in it, though," he said. "But they're timely. It's a good piece. But we'll have to run everything through fact-checkers first. Cover ourselves legally. That okay with you?"

It was. It was okay with me.

Lincoln leaned back and tilted his head ever so slightly, studying me. Finding me odd. He told me it was rare to find writing talent like mine, even among trained journalists. He offered to hire me as a regular freelancer - music reviews, features, whatever I wanted. I told him thanks, but said I was leaving town as soon as I graduated, to work as a sax player in a big band on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Finally, Lincoln laughed. He told me many journalism majors would kill for the chance he'd just offered me. I told him I wasn't a journalism major and mopped up the last of the ravioli juice with fancy bread from the basket in the middle of the table. He smiled bigger, and offered up a toast to my travels.

The essay came out the week of graduation. Lincoln ran it large on the front of his section. The headline? One Woman's Story of Sexism at Berklee College of Music. The article was scandalous. All the talk at my school. Some guys I sort of knew tried to push me in front of a train for writing it. A female teacher who'd been nice to me till then told me she couldn't be seen talking to me anymore. But our commencement speaker, Bonnie Raitt, shook my hand on the stage, in front of the crowd at Hines Auditorium, as she handed me my diploma. She asked if I was the one who wrote that article. I said I was. She squeezed my hand harder, looked me square in the eye and said, "Thank you. Oh, honey, yes. Thank you. Let me just say, it's the whole industry, not just this school. It don't get any better out here, darlin'."

As I packed for the cruise ship, Berklee changed. Exposed to the world through my article, they added sexual harassment codes to their books, for teachers and students alike. They carpeted the practice room walls that for the four years I'd been there had been coated with misogynist graffiti and drawings of women's body parts. They added classes on women in music history. I sat there looking at my ratty suitcase full of dirty clothes. I had just changed the world, with words. Little nothing me from the middle of nowhere. And the editor who believed in me wanted me to do it some more. And was willing to pay me to do that.

I lasted two weeks on that cruise ship. I was seasick. The band sucked. We played for a drunk ventriloquist in the Americana Lounge. His mouth moved. His puppet was a perv. I went back to Boston, and started freelancing for Lincoln. I'd tasted the power of writing, and I wanted more. I applied to Columbia, to get a master's in journalism, so I could maybe do more than freelance. The day I graduated, Lincoln offered me a permanent staff writer job in his department. Union pay, full benefits.

For the next five years, Lincoln Millstein was my wry, caustic mentor. I found out he, too, was a musician. I would have liked to be his friend, but he was careful to keep a professional distance from his reporters. He was the first professional editor to see my value and worth. He taught me more than I had learned in any school. He let me experiment with the ways I told stories. Encouraged me to write long-form literary non-fiction. Let me write a news story as a poem once. By age 28, I was voted the top newspaper essayist in the nation by the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, and I'd been nominated for the Pulitzer three times.

I'd eventually leave journalism to write novels, and one of the first people to congratulate me would be Lincoln Millstein. I was on book tour in New York, my first novel was on the New York Times bestseller list. I'd just gotten a movie deal for it, with Jennifer Lopez. Lincoln took the train in from his new place in Connecticut to see me. He was now the Vice President at Hearst Corporation. He sat across the fancy restaurant table from me in the hotel my publisher had put me up in, with that same bemused look he'd had the first time we met. Only now I was old enough, a mother myself, to realize he wasn't stifling a laugh. That wasn't what that look was. It was a look of admiration. Fatherly admiration. He'd seen my worth, and now here I was, soaring. He was proud of me.

"I could never have gotten here, if not for you," I told him.

Lincoln took a sip of his coffee, and considered what I'd said, looking around the room. His gaze landed once more on mine, and he said, "Yes, you could have."

To this day, I disagree with him. To this day, I remain forever indebted to the remarkable editor who was willing to color outside the lines, who was willing to cultivate the raw, angry talent of a born writer who'd had neither training in it nor support from her family in anything, growing up. A kid who was putting herself through college because no one else cared if she went.

Lincoln, if you see this: Thank you. You are the most important professional connection I ever made. You took a chance on me. I owe you everything.

Lincoln is now retired and writes a fabulous blog about very local issues where he lives. Read more about him here.

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