With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I wanted to keep The Sun alive, I told Karl — there was nothing I wanted more — but maybe it was time to call it quits. After five years, The Sun still had fewer than five hundred subscribers and was sinking deeper and deeper into debt. Maybe I was fooling myself. Maybe the world didn’t need another magazine.
I waited for Karl to say something.
I’d met him years earlier, when we’d worked for the same daily newspaper. An award-winning investigative reporter, Karl took his work seriously — more seriously than he took himself. He had the wry sense of humor of someone who understood a thing or two about human folly, and the humility of a man who knew he’d made some foolish moves himself. The first time I heard him laugh, I knew I wanted to be his friend.
Right now, however, he was being awfully quiet. Maybe he agreed with me, but was afraid to hurt my feelings. I asked if he had any advice.
“Advice?” Karl laughed. And what a laugh: warm and generous but slightly mischievous, as if he were in on some cosmic secret. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Those simple words were exactly what I needed to hear. In fact, they became a kind of mantra for me during the lean years that lay ahead. Every time despair, with its iron logic, told me to quit, I’d repeat Karl’s words to myself: Just keep doing what you’re doing. How glad I am that I did. Today, on the cusp of The Sun’s thirtieth anniversary, the magazine has more than fifty-five thousand subscribers, and we pay our bills on time. As an ad-free, independent journal, The Sun makes a statement just by existing. It’s a reminder of what can be accomplished without start-up capital, an M.B.A., or a business plan.
Does The Sun’s modest success mean I no longer get discouraged? Of course not. I still put in long hours. It’s a struggle to find the right balance for each issue. On days when I’m sad or tired, and another deadline looms, and my country lurches from bad to worse, it’s tempting to lose faith. Despair comes up behind me when I read the newspaper at night, each page brimming with grief. Congratulations, he says, putting his big hand on my shoulder. I hear you’re paying the bills on time. Then he gestures toward the headlines. But so what? What difference does it make?
That’s when I try to remember something Gandhi said: “What you do is insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” And sometimes, when I forget, the universe fires off a memo to remind me. Recently, one arrived by e-mail from Rikers Island Penitentiary in New York. Thanks to generous financial support from our readers, we’d given free subscriptions to hundreds of prisons across the country. A literacy instructor at Rikers Island had begun to use The Sun in his class. He was writing now to tell us the magazine was “highly sought after” by his students: “I even found one student copying, by hand, a rather lengthy article in the corner of the library. When I asked him why he was copying it, he started to cry. . . . This coming from a young man facing a murder charge.”
There are few things more gratifying to me than hearing how the magazine has affected a single reader — not a faceless reader, but a flesh-and-blood human, radiant and broken. Another reader once told me that he took issues of The Sun with him on business trips and found himself sitting low in his seat in the first-class cabin, wiping his tears discreetly behind its pages. If The Sun can be equally relevant to a corporate executive and a young man in prison, then my dream for the magazine is alive and well.
The stakes have never been higher for independent journals. The New York Times published a revealing study on magazine growth over the past year. Predictably, a celebrity gossip magazine reported the biggest percentage increase in sales. But several progressive magazines were close behind. Americans seem to be of two minds in these anxious times: shamelessly escapist and hungrier than ever for truth. The Times was quick to note, however, that in an increasingly monopolized media environment, even “successful” small magazines barely break even, and most rely on a steady infusion of money from benefactors.
This comes as no surprise to me. The Sun has always depended on gifts from readers. During the early years, donations kept the magazine afloat from month to month. Today we’re in a far less perilous position, but donations still mean the difference between surviving and thriving. With your help, we’ve been able to pay writers and photographers more. We’ve given away subscriptions to prisons, libraries, and homeless shelters. (We’ll expand this effort in the coming year.) And we’ve managed to keep The Sun completely free of advertising, making it a rare oasis in a world dominated by corporate dream-machines.
So here I am again, on an extravagantly beautiful spring day in North Carolina, writing to ask for your help as a Friend of The Sun. Your tax-deductible donation will make a tangible difference in the life of this magazine, and in the lives of those who read it.
To Karl: I did what you said. I breathed in and I breathed out. My heart kept beating and the seasons kept changing and each year I got a little older and The Sun got a little brighter. I worked hard, very hard. But The Sun, I discovered, is sustained as much by grace as by hard work. And grace showers down: a one-in-a-thousand manuscript lands on my desk; the right volunteer walks through the door; an unexpected donation arrives in the mail. And, through it all, I just keep doing what I’m doing — because the headlines don’t tell the whole story; because truth is a living force, more stubborn and resilient than any politician; because life is bigger and more mysterious than all our words for it; because, old friend, I still hear you laughing.
Editor, The Sun
P.S. You may send your check to The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. You can also donate online at www.thesunmagazine.org. Your donation is tax-deductible, and we’ll send a receipt for your records.
If you’re a subscriber, you may already have seen this letter in your mailbox. We publish it in the magazine for the benefit of our newsstand readers.