A painting teacher once told me that “a line is not a line.” Later that semester I argued—amazingly, with some success—that by extension a deadline is, in fact, not a deadline.
At Sarah Lawrence, even the squirrels procrastinate. How else could a campus of so many writers produce so few publications?
In 1993, the summer before our sophomore year, my friend Michael Murray ’96 and I came up with an idea for a publication that could survive on a campus infamous for one-issue blunders: Dialogue magazine would have neither staff writers nor assignments—and there would be no deadlines to miss, just opportunities.
Between 1993 and 1996, we produced six issues of Dialogue, each of which addressed a single topic, ranging from campus concerns to globalization and geopolitical crises. Students and faculty members alike were invited to give us their take. The idea seemed in keeping with the school’s philosophy: Students and teachers live and work in the same buildings, and at the round seminar tables there is an Arthurian equality we wanted to replicate in print. And at what other college or university would professors not only write for such a publication, but actively support it? Philosophy teacher Elfie Raymond was a particular champion of the cause, adamant that we were onto more than we knew.
Our meager budget forced us to print on 35-pound newsprint, giving Dialogue a look and feel akin to The Nation, and in the end helped to achieve the serious and high-minded tone we were striving for. Submissions spanned the literary landscape: Carefully crafted, logically organized arguments were printed side-by-side with curmudgeonly rants, raves and fragments of conference papers. We decided to reserve space in each issue for fiction and poetry, figuring most student work never made it outside of the classroom workshop.
The magazine set out to “open the lines of communication at SLC through student/ faculty discourse.” In part, we were responding to the only other regular campus publication: the College’s newspaper, then known as 411. Dalton Ross ’93, 411’s editor, had a knack for striking a wonderful balance between the salacious and the absurd. (Who could forget “Lady Babe,” a column written by the College’s favorite emcee/transvestite?)
Looking back, neither Michael nor I had the slightest clue what an editor really did. This was years before—pulverizing my words beyond recognition—the real-world copy desk made me sing castrato. Instead, with what in retrospect was an excessively light touch, we hoped to preserve the ideas and grammatical wanderings of the authors. We chose to keep our opinions out of the magazine— as hard as it was at times— with the belief that this was the only way to create a free and open forum.
And, of course, in 1993 Sarah Lawrence did not have Internet access. We designed the magazine on classic Macs in the student publications office, which was located above the Pub. The office later moved into a windowless room above the Post Office in Bates, one that had recently housed a fitness center, and as a result smelled of stale body odor—a phenomenon known in the magazine world as Conde Nasty.
Not only did we conceive, edit and design the magazine, we also took photos and, in what was often the most stressful part, actually delivered it. Once, unable to borrow someone’s car to pick up the 1,000 copies of the magazine at the printing press in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, Michael and I lugged the bundles (in the middle of a blizzard) onto the subway and then onto the Metro North train and into a Bronxville taxi.
Dialogue magazine would have neither staff writers nor assignments—and there would be no deadlines to miss, just opportunities.
But despite such assaults on our muscles and senses, there was something immensely satisfying about seeing students, teachers and administrators thumbing through their copies in Bates or on Westlands lawn. And just what compelled them all to read Dialogue? Compared to now, the hot issues on campus and in the world 10 years ago seemed either salacious or absurd. Sarah Lawrence, like colleges across the country, was embroiled in what seemed the never-ending debate over political correctness. Our best cover was probably for the third issue, which tackled the issue of freedom of speech head on, portraying a staid Sarah Bates Lawrence with duct tape over her mouth. The issue includes pleas from historians Jefferson Adams and Francis Randall for an end to the debate, with Randall predicting that by 2003 “those among us who favored speech codes will be ashamed.”
The political correctness debate, like so many others, was ended by simply talking it to death. And I like to think Dialogue did its part.
As much as we hoped the magazine would continue after we were gone, Michael and I left the magazine in the hands of two friends who didn’t particularly like each other. As a result, there was more infighting than dialogue, and the magazine was never published again. I’ve been writing for newspapers and magazines ever since. But it was not until an editor slammed a dictionary down on my desk and ordered me to open it to the letter “D” that I learned, once and for all, that a deadline is, in fact, a deadline.
Jeremy Olshan is a freelance writer. His articles appear in Newsday, the New York Press and Playboy, among other places.