October 24, 2009

Keeping the Day Job

On career day in elementary school I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I “grew up” – I wanted to work in advertising, like Darren Stevens on “Bewitched”. As a young girl I’d sit inches from the television screen, waiting with great anticipation to see what kooky double entendre or pun Darren would pull out of his ass (always with Samantha’s help) at the last minute to sell in the “big idea”. I especially loved the applause Darren would receive at the end of his half-baked pitch. It was not the selling of unnecessary products to unsuspecting consumers that turned me on, rather it was the creative process – and Samantha’s magical powers were pretty dope. Once my little girl creative juices began flowing, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was going to be a writer, just like those people on TV.

Years later, still very much on the warpath of becoming a copywriter in advertising, I graduated college with a degree in Communications –the closest thing to Advertising the University of Maryland offered. Shortly after accepting my diploma, I took a train out west to follow my advertising dream (and a guy… always a guy). Unfortunately, I graduated smack dab in the middle of a recession and jobs were scarce – more like nonexistent. After sending out over 300 resumes, the only thing to show for my effort was a tall stack of rejection letters (I just dated myself with the reference to paper letters, didn’t I?).

Almost a year after graduation and my 457th resume out the door, I finally got a call. The shrewd lady with superior mind-control abilities miraculously talked me into taking a position as a junior account manager at a hi-tech agency, you know, to “get my foot in the door”. The position could not have been more polar-opposite than copywriter. In fact, there is a tacit war between the creative teams and account managers dating back to the late 1800’s. I was desperate and took the job. My hyper-neurotic tendencies kicked in and suddenly my goal was to become the best little account person those Silicon Valley geeks had ever seen. I plugged along, got promoted, and a couple years later I landed a management job (not copywriting) at the hippest, coolest, most creative agency in the entire universe (well, that was their mantra). In the blink of an eye, filled over with many salty tears, 16 years passed and guess what I was still doing? The smart ones reading this probably guessed correctly… management.

What? How in God’s good name did that happen? Trust me, I ask myself the same question every time I take on a new freelance assignment. I can safely attribute the decision to stay in management to that filthy 4-letter word – FEAR. It’s like a thief in the night, stealing away any inkling of courage and leaving behind a thick layer of denial. Fear caused me to break out in hives, or experience heart palpitations, and sometimes profuse sweating over the mere mention of a “portfolio”. Of course I didn’t have a portfolio of work – I was too busy busting my ass helping sometimes not-so-nice creative teams build their portfolios. Besides I was too terrified to have my work judged or worse, criticized. For those of you just tuning in – daily rejection is mandatory for creative people in advertising.

My dream of being a copywriter slipped further away as I matured into a well-refined account manager, until one day I realized it was too late to start over. With much angst, I came to terms with my sacrifice and started taking out my frustrations on the nearest innocent bystander, friends, spouses or inanimate objects… Finally after hitting rock bottom, I heard a little murmur telling me I needed to start writing again, and if I couldn’t be creative in my day job that I would be creative on the side, after work, on weekends and holidays… I listened to the voice (when I’m feeling really gay, I call that voice my heart) and made the choice to keep writing – no matter what.

Thus began the great divide… working in management and nourishing my creativity on the side. For years I felt like I was selling my soul to pay the bills… or I’d suffer not so much in silence, anguishing over the two voices inside of me - the dreamer and the worker bee - constantly fighting with each other to win the floor. I’ve learned to quiet the clamor by realizing that very few creative people are immune to this duality. If I really look into the eyes of one of those talented copywriters, I see that they aren’t completely thrilled. They’re under tremendous stress and have very little time to do what they truly desire – write about something meaningful, rather than cheeky headlines selling superfluous products to the herds. Looking at the big picture, my situation is not entirely horrible - I work for a few months and then take time off to focus on my creative work.

Most of my fears are absolutely false and utterly ridiculous, yet some have validity – warning signs or red flags that something isn’t right, or good or safe. I’m pretty sure if I ended up a copywriter, I’d be drinking copious amounts of scotch, pissing myself, screaming at young children and killing puppies. Nothing rolls off of my back and my sensitive soul would have crumbled up and withered away with all of that pressure and rejection. Fear swayed my decision to keep my day job in management, and oddly enough, playing it safe forced me to work more diligently and passionately on my writing and my music – even if it has been on the side. Very few people get to do what they love for the main course, and as much as I want to hate those bastard ass clowns, I give them props for finding a loophole.

I’ve learned to give my creativity room to grow, more than if I had been consumed with proving myself as a filthy, drunk, angry copywriter in advertising. After years of struggling, I’ve learned to find happiness on the journey. And I’m getting closer to accepting that where I am is exactly where I need to be until I get to the next place I’m supposed to be, and so on, and so on, and so on and so on… (yes, that’s an homage to Faberge Shampoo - one of my favorite commercials growing up – and the epitome the most effective advertising – word of mouth). The truth is, if I honestly wanted to be a copywriter, I’d be one.


Keep writing. It saves lives.