Q: What's the story?
Worst idea ever…I moved to Los Angeles without money or skills and was trying to make it as a waitress, but you might be surprised at how difficult it really is for some people to move up from the cashier position. By some odd stroke of magic, a roommate’s girlfriend saw a note on her college bulletin board (this was pre-internet) about a horoscope writing job. The instructions were to send samples to a P.O. address, so I borrowed a computer and got to typing.
I don’t even know what made me think I could write horoscopes except that I had read a trillion of them in Cosmo and Seventeen mags. I guess my sample was ok because I got a call telling me to write more of them for such-and-such dates… I immediately went out and bought a computer on credit. I was a complete luddite (pathetic! But this was 1991.) I worked through the mail, sending in floppy disks and getting a checks in return from a “Linda Twitchell.” I didn’t ask questions. After struggling so hard to survive Los Angeles (it was a moldy bread meal situation, no exaggeration) I felt like the queen of Hollywood to be able to afford gas and groceries in the same week.
About two months into the arrangement “Linda Twitchell” called and said she wanted to meet me. She was looking for a personal assistant. I drove up to her house in the Hollywood hills and was legit-glamour struck by the gorgeous blonde woman who opened the door of her white mid-century modern style house overlooking the pool and, well, I guess I have a trustworthy vibe because within 30 minutes she gave me the keys to everything… house, pool gate, post office box. I thought these sorts of things only happened in movies and to other people.
As it turned out, “Linda Twitchell” was a pseudonym for “Joyce Jillson” who was an astrologer to the stars and best-selling author. Joyce had been an actress on Broadway, television and movies. I had read her hilarious book “Real Women Don’t Pump Gas” when I was a kid. And she was, at this time, a syndicated newspaper columnist. I was her ghost writer without having any inkling that something I had written was being published in papers all over the world.
Have you guessed that writing horoscopes en masse is no easy gig? It was too much for one person to keep up with and Joyce had several writers helping her at the time. My value to the operation seemed to be mainly willingness and desperation. The other writers were much more experienced and talented than I was, but I was the one who always there and game. She figured out that I really liked writing and used that. It was almost like I “got” to write the column when my personal assistant work was satisfactory.
After a few years, the other writers fell away and it was just me writing the column. I worked for Joyce Jillson for 13 years, until her death in 2004, at which time the column assumed the name Holiday Mathis.
The column averages 7,500 words a week. It’s about 900 words for each day of the week (which includes 12 horoscopes, a today’s birthday, an astrological question, an introduction heading and a celebrity birthday) and then another 1,200 for the week ahead.
At this point, I’ve been writing the column as Holiday Mathis for over 13 years. That’s an average of 390,000 words per year times 13… That’s 5,070,000 words published as Holiday Mathis and at least3,000,000 ghost written for Joyce Jillson. Let’s round that down to 8 million words.
To give some perspective on what 8 million words is, War and Peace clocks in at 587,287. The King James Bible is 783,137, not including the dedication from your Aunt Marge. All of the words in the seven books of the Harry Potter series add up to 1,084,170. And you can add all those books together and you’re not even up to 2.5 million.
Perhaps a more serious, talented or trained writer might find these numbers depressing. I have published over 8 million words, and what do I have to show for it? No best seller or movie version of the work. Not even a Wikipedia page. I make a modest living and I have never gone on an extended vacation. The horoscope deadline is every week. The only time I was able to get ahead of it was only by about 4 weeks… I busted ass because I was pregnant and hoped to free up some maternity time.
All of this is, of course, perfect. I am so fortunate in spite of, or perhaps because of, the relentless nature of this work, which I have come to see as a spiritual practice. I am like those monks who create sand mandalas to be briefly enjoyed by the passersby and tossed to the river at the end of the day. Well… I mean… my work isn’t intricate and colorful and gorgeous like that. And trust me, I ate a lot more than yak’s milk for breakfast. But I’m doing my best here, what do y’all want from me?
Everything beautiful is temporary. Not everything temporary is beautiful. But the fact that nobody is going to care about it tomorrow, or even an hour from now, that’s liberating. I can tryto make something intricate and colorful and gorgeous. Maybe I’ll succeed in some small way.
Q: Is there a formula?
It’s more of an intention. I want to create a tiny poem for each sign. (The irony is that I suck at poetry, pretty sure I don’t even understand it, and yet I have been known to send utter crap into The New Yorker just to get the prestigious rejection letter. I like seeing my name in that font. Hey, I never said I was any good at any of this! But I digress….)
My intention is your tiny poem -- nothing too profound, not every day at least, because if everything is profound then nothing is. But it’s some kind of small delight for you. A candy snack to set the day on a sweet note. A personal nudge toward levity or introspection or fun or kindness or wisdom. A reminder of what we’re doing on this planet together, all under the same stars.
Q: What about astrology?
The astrology is a given. I read the ephemeris and offer an interpretation. I used to do this like student reciting from a textbook but after years and years (and years!) the symbols have come alive to me in a different way. They are characters. Big Daddy Jupiter and the Venus the strumpet, or maybe she’s in her maternal mode, wearing a gown by Virgo… or a pantsuit by Capricorn. The symbols are playful invitations to do my best… they are chiefs in my pantheon of muses.
The single best thing about my job is that allows me to reach far and wide, searching for inspiration. There are no boundaries! No subject that can’t help me! My podcasts overfloweth, my library card is stuffed and popping, my internet search history is phantasmagoria!
Let me tell you about where I have been this week.
I have been to the 12 black holes of Sagittarius. (Yes, I know there are 10,000 more of you somewhere!) I have swung around the Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox, I’ve been to Marc Maron’s garage talking with Bill Hader about “Barry” (I’m working on my Henry Winkler crush.) I was in the “Hidden Brain” of Shankar Vedantam learning of the peaceful effects of a radio soap opera in Rwanda. I revisited the polka dot world of Yayoi Kusama, I checked in with Austin Kleon and went through the syllabus of Lynda Barry. I learned new beauty products and curse words from Samantha Irby, swung back to the art collection of Steve Martin, relied on the advice of the divination text of Zhou yi, I let Matthew Ogle break my heart with those damn poignant “Pomes” he keeps sending to my inbox. I swallowed what Kant had to say, laughed at the puppies in my living room, absorbed the advice of the former pick-up artist turned conversation coach Wayne Elise, hung out with Tricia Bobeda and Greta Johnsen on the Nerdette podcast, studied “The Hidden Life of Trees,” got particularly entangled in the fungal network, lost sleep over the thought of talking mushrooms, then remembered something I learned in the basement of the Scientology Celebrity Center and began comparing it to Buddhist theories as told by that Zen YouTuber ….
Heck yeah it's random! As random as the Big Bang. As random as whatever is getting sucked into the supermassive black hole of Sagittarius A right this minute (25,640 light years ago.) As random as my birth!
I’m sure a versed-science writer such as yourself is well-aware that humans are notoriously uncomfortable with randomness. Our brains have evolved to filter out most of it, so all that gets through are the threats, the changes, and a small amount of “other” which we are compelled to make order out of… look for a pattern, come up with a theory, construct a narrative, dig into a belief about…
I am just like everyone else, bringing all I know into looking for the pattern. The pattern I’m looking for in the context of the horoscope column is one that will help people settle in to a positive feeling about the day. One that will make people feel seen and understood. Make them feel like they belong in this cluster of humanity under one sky. The pattern I’m looking for is one that will make you turn up the corners of your lips. For the love of stars, I’m only trying to make you smile.
Besides, if I stuck exclusively to Greek Mythology, I’d alienate the readers. They don’t live there. They live where I do… in cities or suburbs with noisy neighbors and irritating family members and supermarket lines and crowded commutes and complicated love lives and children and bosses and the constant knowledge that our species has become the main pollutant of the planet…
Wait… let’s get back to the smiling!
How do you filter all that random inspiration into the actual words of the column?
The short answer is, I don’t know.
As a writer yourself, you’ve probably at times had the sensation that you’re not even doing it. The… where did that come from?thingy. There’s a lot of that sort of channeling. Then there’s the fact that turning in this column is how I buy food, and I like to eat. That helps. I don’t ever have writer’s block – I don’t even believe in it, because I can’t afford to believe in it.
I will admit that the muses favor me.
I believe the muses favor me for the same reason that Joyce Jillson did: I’m desperate. I’m game. I show up.
Ok Christie, I hope this helps for what you need. I appreciate your interest and the excuse to ponder my work for a second like this. I really hope you don’t throw me under the bus. (A serious science journalist interviews an astrologer, what could go wrong?) hahaha. Ha?
In all seriousness, I wish you success and fulfilment in your journey under these stars,