West Coast by Zoom

Alta’s first-ever editorial intern reflects on a California summer spent in New Jersey.


My typical workday ends in the middle of the afternoon, Pacific Daylight Time, but it’s already early evening in Montclair, New Jersey. You see, I am the sole staffer in what I’ve unilaterally elected to term Alta’s Very Official East Coast Bureau—a.k.a. my childhood bedroom. As the magazine’s editorial intern, I’ve spent the previous nine weeks immersed in heds, deks, fact-checks, and editorial meetings, cajoling an aging and increasingly mercurial MacBook into running Zoom, Slack, and myriad other tools that have substituted for a regular commute and office. This week is, sadly, my last at Alta.

I ended up at Alta circuitously, after an editor at a previous internship recommended that I apply to the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Magazine Internship Program. I spent long nights last fall combing through clips from my college’s alt-biweekly, wincing every time I came across a turn of phrase that I desperately wished my slightly younger self had thought to punch up before filing. In April, just weeks after my midwestern college campus shut down owing to COVID-19 and I returned home to New Jersey and our unfortunate new normal, I found out that I had been accepted into the ASME program, clunky clips and all.

Normally, ASME places interns at publications in New York and Washington, D.C. But this year, all work was remote. With location no longer a limiting factor, I found out that Alta had been added to the list of participating magazines. Seeing a literary-minded publication immediately piqued my interest. And besides, I hadn’t given the West Coast a fair chance in the past. I have family and friends in California, and I’ve only been once, four summers ago. Having reached, at 17, the conclusion that I didn’t want to live in any city whose name didn’t start with “New” and end with “York,” I had decided that California wasn’t for me before crossing a single state line. Enthusiastically accepting Alta’s offer, I was curious whether this summer would confirm or rebut that judgment.

The first thing I did after learning I’d be working at Alta was look at a map of California, something I’d never done in earnest before. It’s not like any state on the East Coast. For one, it’s simply bigger: San Francisco is as far away from San Diego as Richmond, Virginia, is from Savannah, Georgia. Looking at the Spanish place-names, I was reminded that California has a colonial and cultural history totally distinct from that of the states on the opposite side of the country with which it frequently finds commonalities. I understood that the reality of the Golden State was a far cry from the time when I touched down at LAX and drove up Highway 1. Looking at the state’s vast territory and imagining what it would be like to explore the mountains, deserts, beaches, and cities was like an invitation: “Come West.”

It’s been fascinating to split my time between two coasts while remaining on one. When I take the handful of steps from my bed to my desk, I am crossing four time zones. When I fact-check a piece, I’m suddenly tracking wolf packs across the Sierra or virtually stalking San Francisco’s streets in search of [REDACTED] for the fall issue. From Alta’s talented editors, I’ve learned about the many differences between East and West Coast media, how the L.A. writers’ scene compares with NYC’s, and who some of the West’s literary heavy hitters are—although, maddeningly, one not-to-be-called-out-here editor has yet to share with me her true-crime Berkeley Marina trivia. And, of course, reading Alta these past few months has expanded my understanding of the West’s history and culture tremendously. But if you’re reading this, then you probably already knew that last part.

I’m still figuring out for myself whether I have the facility for magazine writing; however, I certainly have the capacity to procrastinate at a high level. Most recently, my distraction of choice has been Draft No. 4, John McPhee’s masterful collection of essays on writing, a thoughtful gift from Alta’s managing editor. In it, McPhee recounts asking New Yorker editor William Shawn how he finds the time to give individual writers and their pieces so much attention while the magazine is perpetually barreling toward its deadlines. Shawn’s response is serene, almost Zen-like: “It takes as long as it takes.”

As COVID-19 has forced us all to renegotiate our relationships to time—I, for one, have no idea whether it moves linearly anymore—I can’t think of a better mantra for writing or living than Shawn’s words of editorial wisdom.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel to California and meet face-to-face with all the Alta folks I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the past three months working alongside and learning from. And I don’t yet know whether this summer will prove in hindsight to have been the start of a career, West Coast–based or otherwise, or simply a 10-week glimpse into a creative tradition that one Alta contributor recently described not entirely hyperbolically as the “Sport of Kings.” But what I do know is this: it takes as long as it takes.

Sam Schuman was Alta's 2020 Summer intern.
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