I still have the email I got back in 1997.
"hey. you can write. welcome aboard."
I don't keep all my emails. But this one was one in a million. I had followed the first few issues of Smug after finding it via a link on the site of my favorite band -- the guitarist wrote a column there.
Pop culture heaven.
Smug wasn't snarky, it wasn't attitude, it wasn't loud. It was just brilliant and cool. I read every piece, every month. Then one day I got the courage to send the publisher an email.
It started out as straight-up fan mail -- hey, this is really cool, i'm digging it, keep up the great work. But as soon as I signed my name, I reread it, deleted the whole thing, took a deep breath, and did the craziest thing I could think of.
I told them all the reasons why I could, should, and most definitely wanted to write for them.
I sent it and immediately regretted it. That was stupid. I'll probably get dumped into the stalker file and they'll find some way to block my access to the site.
Within ten minutes, I got an email back. From Leslie Harpold, the publisher.
"can you write?"
I sent in what would become my first column.
For the next three years I would pour everything I had into every column. They didn't always shine, some of them, meh, they sucked, but I loved it. I still devoured every piece, every month, but my focus was a little different.
There was Bill Barbot, Mike Watt, Todd Levin.
That's the thing of it. See, against those names, well, against any name really, I felt like a huge fake. I'd seen Bill Barbot and Mike Watt on MTV. Todd Levin was just starting to come into his own as a humorist and comedian.
I wrote stupid shit I thought was funny.
But Leslie always, without fail, validated me. I'd submit a column and within minutes get an email back.
"did you just say happy is the new black?"
Yeah, I saved that one too.
Smug went for quite a ride as the millennium wound down. It seemed like every month we'd be nominated for some kind of freshly invented web award. At one point we were getting 75,000 unique visitors a month, which was a pretty big number in those days.
And as the web revolution took hold of traditional media, the Smug writers got swept up in it. Suddenly Tripod started paying a few of us to do what was essentially a second Smug column but with no profanity. The LA Times called. The Chicago Tribune called. Our bylines were everywhere.
And still I felt like I was crashing the party. It was a bunch of really cool, really famous, and really deserving people... and me, who still sometimes falls back on tics like filling an entire sentence with the word "really" in order to communicate the passion that I... really... can't put into words.
Still, Leslie was there. She got me and she had my back. We talked regularly, we met in person a couple times when I got up to New York. All through it, she mentored and coached me, not only in writing, but in telling the story, and telling it with style.
Oh, and one more thing. She also happened to be a web pioneer and used the medium in ways no one had thought of until she did them for no reason other than to do them.
So we'd talk about that. She would dig into my brain for the technical or business stuff, and I'd quiz her on the communication and design stuff.
What would come out of those sessions, for me, would eventually become Intrepid Media. And when I got it all together and blasted everyone I knew and asked them to sign up and, you know the drill, I got a reply from her in about the standard ten minutes.
Leslie left us last weekend, unexpectedly.
If there's one idea I can drive home, maybe that one idea that carries on from those days, it's the words taken from that first email back in 1997 -- which have, in a way, become the founding philosophy of Intrepid Media.
you can write.
Thanks for letting me know that, Leslie. You will be missed.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
12.15.06 @ 11:55a
I googled your Smug columns. I couldn't find one that sucked. I'll keep looking.
12.15.06 @ 12:02p
sorry about the loss, very inspiring article
I think you may be my Leslie
12.15.06 @ 1:57p
Wow, sweetie, this is both inspirational and sad. But thanks for carrying the torch - I'm sure she'd be pleased with that, too.
12.15.06 @ 2:52p
Isn't it interesting how one person can have such an influence on our lives? Sorry for the loss of your friend, but thanks for sharing the story.
12.15.06 @ 10:08p
This column, and Intrepid Media, are a lovely tribute to her memory.
12.18.06 @ 12:44p
I'm sorry for your loss, Joe, and grateful for your beautiful column about her. One of my very best friends in all the world died last night, so I'm in a very mournful mood today.
12.28.06 @ 4:07p
Hats off to her and her contributions to this fine site.
Hey, Mike Watt, as in MM and fIREHOSE, from Pedro, works the 'thud staff'? If so, wow!