Leaping the Chasm

Editor Kurt Chandler’s final monthly letter to our readers. He leaves the magazine on November 13.

When Milwaukee Magazine publisher Betty Quadracci asked me to take this editor’s job, I knew I’d have to set my writing aside, a cross every writer-turned-editor must bear.

I’d left the magazine in March 2012 to complete two books – a memoir by late philanthropist Joe Zilber, and a biography of trial lawyer Bob Habush. The chance to edit the magazine was appealing. I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity, only to live with the unanswered question, “What if?” So I accepted Betty’s offer.

Sadly, Betty died four months later, in December 2013. I lost a trusted mentor and colleague.

Since then, as editor, I’ve found myself enthralled with the creative alchemy of putting out a monthly magazine, shaping stories with talented writers, working elbow-to-elbow with a staff of gifted editors, reporters, designers and photographers.

There’s a certain magic that happens at a magazine as deadline approaches, a mad rush of excitement and giddy panic as you pore over every image and word before sending the pages to the printing press, the culmination of a month or more of hard work.

But there’s a different kind of gratification that comes with writing. It’s an inside game, a solitary test of will and wits and wherewithal, a personal challenge to push the envelope. Above all, writing is a method of self-discovery. As the great New York Times journalist James Reston once said, “How can I know what I think until I read what I write?”

I’m a writer at heart. Writing is in my DNA, part of who I am. I’m feeling the pull to get back to it, so I’ve decided to leave Milwaukee Magazine and return to writing full time.

When I told another Milwaukee writer I was stepping down, he sent me this email: “Giving up the editor’s desk for writing is a decision I understand completely. Whenever someone I know moves ‘up’ to an editor’s post, I always wonder why. Why would you trade the open skies and craftsman’s delights of making something for the dubious pleasure of managing other people? Congrats, and welcome back to the big outdoors.”

I’m going back to the big outdoors. Once again, I’ll be pursuing books and long-form journalism. Maybe some occasional editing, teaching, who knows what else? That’s the wonderful mystery of life, not knowing what comes next.

There is a famous photograph titled Leaping the Chasm by H.H. Bennett, taken at Wisconsin Dells in 1886. It’s an image of his son, caught in midair, 100 feet off the ground, as he leaps from one rock formation to another called Stand Rock.

A copy of the photo hangs on the wall of my office at home. I look at it now and then to remind myself of where I’ve been and where I’m going.

I’ve made the leap many times in life. Not once have I regretted it. Each time, I’ve landed on Stand Rock.

* * *

Until a new editor is selected, Managing Editor Howie Magner will be interim editor. He’s a writer’s editor, and a pro. Readers can expect the magazine to deliver the journalistic quality that has been its shining hallmark for more than 30 years.

Kurt Chandler

‘Leaping the Chasm’ appears in the December 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the December issue on newsstands Nov. 30.

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Kurt Chandler began working at Milwaukee Magazine in 1998 as a senior editor, writing investigative articles, profiles, narratives and commentaries. He was editor in chief from August 2013-November 2015. An award-winning writer, Chandler has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, editor and author. He has been published in a number of metro newspapers and magazines, from The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Minneapolis Star Tribune, to Marie Claire, The Writer, and Salon.com. He also has authored, coauthored or edited 12 books. His writing awards are many: He has won the National Headliners Award for magazine writing five times. He has been named Writer of the Year by the City & Regional Magazine Association, and Journalist of the Year by the Milwaukee Press Club. As a staff writer with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and chosen as a finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Award. In previous lives, Chandler worked construction, drove a cab and played the banjo (not necessarily at the same time). He has toiled as a writer and journalist for three decades now and, unmindful of his sage father’s advice, has nothing to fall back on. Yet he is not without a specialized set of skills: He can take notes in the dark and is pretty good with active verbs.