At this time over one week ago, I was sitting in my corporate cubbyhole tech writing for a prominent oil and gas company and going slowing crazy. How did I get here?
I am now “free” (which sounds so much better than “unemployed,” don’t you think?) and typing from the comfort of my own home office, but I still don’t exactly know the answer to that question. I do know it happened somewhere between me deciding not to go to graduate school in 1999 (hey, I needed a break) and a particularly violent coup d’état at an ad agency last year that included the firing of every writer except me. Small mercies.
You might think that is a good thing, especially since it included a small raise. You might be right, but the endless revolving door, reactionary management and the mercurial temper of the eccentric owner were getting unbearable and I jumped ship.
I was trapped in some sort of theatre of the absurd where every day we had to repeat the day before. Magazines, annual reports, ad campaigns were in a constant state of being “reworked.” Just before press time, they were scrapped so we could start the whole process again. Every passing whim and fancy of the company puppet master—and there were many—could be bankrolled, and they were. If the joy is in the journey, then we were in luck, because we never were allowed anywhere close to the destination.
On top of that, I had the misfortune of being a copywriter (and the first one in over two years to leave without being fired). To my surprise, I found that writers were not “creatives,” like the graphic designers and art directors. And I soon found out why. My job was more like a game of Mad Libs.
“I need three words about four letters long for this ad.”
“Can you write me three medium-size paragraphs about financial strength and potential?”
“The writing on this brochure doesn’t match what I envisioned for the layout. Can you delete two words per line in every paragraph?”
Um, I’d like to buy a vowel …
Instructions were usually impossibly specific, extremely vague or unreasonably absurd.
You see, I was not a “creative,” so I was not included in the planning or concepting process. In other words, I was not the idea man, I was the dictionary. I was simply the closer responsible for plugging in two adjectives, a verb and a noun that looked pretty before it went to press. Oh yes, and making sure everything was spelled correctly.
Nothing against graphic designers and account execs. Many of them are great friends and siblings of mine—and talented. But the exact nature of my job is often misunderstood.
What I mean is, everyone can write. Everyone can hold a pen. Everyone can put this pen to paper and make sentences. Ok, not everyone, but a lot of people. Many have taken a few English classes and had to write a paper or two. The difference between this and the skilled professional writer escapes a lot of people.
In my experience, people think that what separates me from the crowd is that I win spelling bees, play Scrabble really well and know what a dangling particle is. (And they would be wrong on two of three counts.) When I say I am a writer, I usually get either, “Oh, I have a book I want to write” or “I hated grammar in high school.”
Unlike nuclear power plants and computer technology, writing does not appear to require a trained professional because everyone with a high school diploma can do it (how well is another issue). And the more degrees they have and the higher up in the corporate food chain they are, the more insistent they are that they are, in fact, excellent writers.
And some are. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to get a shirt that reads: Professional Writer—Please Don’t Try This at Home!
So I gave up the Mad Lib copywriting career for a miscalculated move into technical writing where writing is all science and no art, no flow, no poetry. I guess it has to be that way but it’s not for me.
So here I am—free at last, free at last, and wondering if there truly is a happy place for the artist in corporate America. I sure hope so because I need to pay the rent.