Like many children birthed by the baby boomer generation, my parents got divorced. I was only twelve, so this sent me into an understandable emotional tailspin, complete with an all-black wardrobe, penchant for bands who sounded like a trash compactor set to a double-bass drum, and a therapist. Said therapist seemed to be perpetually in her last trimester of pregnancy, spoke in a grating monotone, and asked me a lot of bland questions about how I was feeling, most of which were answered with the word, “Shitty.”
After a few months of her growing exasperation at my unwavering state of clinical defiance, she suggested I start writing in a diary. You know, about my feelings. I suppose she imagined 80 college-ruled pages of scrawling “shitty”s written in aggressive cursive. Instead I started archiving my days, most of which were repetitive and filled with chronicles of chemistry class and half-assed wishes for suicide. That said, it was that therapist’s suggestion that gave me the first action of my teenage life that I could hang my hoodie on: I wrote every day for years. Even if it was just a paragraph-long entry about how much I hated the Marlboro-smoking cheerleaders in my sophomore class, it was something.
I’ve seen numerous self-help websites over the years profess to know the secret to relaxation and crisis management. When I’m hoping for some quick fix unrelated to drugs and alcohol, I usually find stock photographs of flocks of birds, clip art of angels, or sketches of cats in picnic baskets, along with the Comic Sans suggestion of, “Turn to Writing for Stress Relief.” To which I call shenanigans.
I write every day, and although I can’t always say that I knock it out of the park when it comes to originality, interesting content, or thought-provoking prose, at least I’m clicking the QWERTY. More often than not, this is because I’m writing for a client, or corresponding with a potential paycheck provider. What used to be my tiny vehicle for self-expression has become my personal monorail to a stocked pantry, on good days. On bad days it’s just a broken Ferrari with a half a bag of stale Cheez-Its in the glove compartment.
Given the amount of stress that has worked its way into my life of late, it’s no wonder that what once assuaged the tension in my life is now multiplying it. When my brain misfires under the duress of wondering what endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography is, or where the parking lot for the latest testing facility is located, I can’t adequately express my gratitude to Simon’s myopic little peepers. Sometimes stress makes the easiest jobs impossible. Which is why having a partnership is so imperative. Working while wrapping your brain around Serious Life Shit turns the learning curve from a basic bell into Kim Kardashian’s measurements. That said, there are three things I’ve learned in the past two weeks since my mother’s CT scan came back with what we swore had to be a sneeze on the film:
1. Just as with dating, diagnostics, folding laundry, and fisting, the most important thing to remember is to go slow.
The best copywriters take their copy one section at a time and work on just that section until they get it right. So start with your headline and make sure you’re happy with it before you go one step farther. Forget you even have anything else to write. For that period of time, the only thing that should be on your mind is the headline. Steven Wagenheim
I sometimes forget that the whole is the greater sum of its parts. I want so badly to turn my copy over ahead of schedule, which is usually possible when I’m not dealing with a family crisis several states over. Each line has to be combed over for errors. I can’t simply rely on my usual charm and wit to get me by, especially when I’m freaking out about something unrelated to the words I’m letting loose upon the world. But, just as with disease, prognosis, and treatment options, each tiny section has to be picked apart, perfected, and inspected before being sent on its way. Again, I can’t reiterate my reliance on Simon for this, he’s been the much needed jolt of word-polishing reality that my scatterbrained work needed. Even if it takes all day or all night, I have to make sure that my first draft is regarded as carefully as my last draft. I can’t lean too heavily on the production line we have set up, or the entire factory may break down. I need to take my time. Phone calls, boiling water for tea, watching the nightly news, all of those can — and should, and will — be sacrificed to make sure that the first round of text is no longer looking like, well, a first round of text. Thank you, Simon, for throwing the Elements of Style my way for the first time since college, when it was used to aid a drinking game known as “Drunk & White.”
2. You’re only as good as your most recent work.
I will never be a hip-hop dancer. I will never be a brain surgeon, or an oncologist for that matter. I can’t knit, manage a fish shop, or work as a dominatrix, all of which I know from experience. I can write. And so long as I remember that, and don’t take my work or my partnership for granted, I can turn over good copy every day if I work at it. This is not a desk job. I can’t jam up the Xerox machine and traipse away to take a coffee break, I can’t say that I hate my job or that my boss sucks, because this job is my life. Rita Mae Brown once said that you are your work. I believe it, but I would like to add that this only applies to you if you enjoy your profession. I am every missed comma, every verb tense that doesn’t agree, every misspelling, every image that could have been just a dust mite’s clitoris more clear. Writing is the most important thing I have, and when I do it well, I can say with confidence that I’m good at it. It’s more like a mirror than an occupation. If only the way that people handle themselves in professional situations was reflected in their appearance, we’d have a whole slew of doctors, baristas, and postal workers whose faces resemble the underside of Larry King’s scrotum.
I can’t rely on Simon to “spruce up” my rushed descriptions, even though he can and he will. As some dude named Stephen King wrote, “If you haven’t marked up your manuscript a lot, you did a lazy job. Only God gets things right the first time. Don’t be a slob.” Granted, he writes about prom queens, cats, and shut-ins, he can probably handle things that are frightening, like cancer, baldness, and Atlantic Southeast Airlines flights.
I need to treat each piece of copy with care (as per numero uno) and compassion. After all, I’m turning it over to the person who provides me with oral when I’m not busy arguing with him, not to mention that it will eventually wind up in the hands of a client. I wish each doctor that my mother has seen realized this, ’cause I’m convinced at least two of them don’t comprehend that in the privacy of their office, with the strangers they know as “patients,” they seem like pompous, ignorant dicks. This goes especially for the one who suggested that my mother had ovarian cancer. She had her ovaries removed five years ago. Read her chart. Read it slowly. Read whatever is the doctors’ version of Elements of Style.
3. Patience should be as highly prized as your porn collection.
This is the lesson I have failed to learn since I stopped puddling in my Pampers, and it’s the one that’s been beating me down for a month. Although it seems like episodes of House give a diagnosis with the aid of a white board, Hugh Laurie’s infinite hotness, and a single commercial break, finding out what’s medically wrong with a homo-sapien is hard. When completing a job, may it be pathology or proofreading, waiting for treatment assessments, edits, or emailed feedback, patience is, at times, the only thing that can keep you one shade shy of Christian Bale-level office rage. Although there have been times in the past month where I wanted to give up writing professionally and send a massive blast of my now-dated secretary’s resume out to the scant, crappy part-time positions out there, I’ve had to listen to everyone around me who has said, “Breathe. Be patient.” (Several of them have learned how to dodge a punch. One of them perfected the palm-to-assailant’s-forehead move that keeps little brothers from punching older brothers in the stomach.)
Moreover, I’ve had to apply my very fine coat of calm to doctor’s offices, phone calls to laboratories, and my own mother, lest I start picking up chairs and tossing them through windows, WWE-style. One thing is for certain, cancer and revisions both suck, but both have to be accepted and handled like a crying baby. You can’t simply ignore it, yelling doesn’t solve anything, and giving up is a crime.
I would like to drop at least one of my jobs off on the front steps of a church, though. See how the nuns handle SEO-heavy web copy.
Oh, and if I were to write a fourth tip that I’ve figured out, it’s to read Elements of Style. After all, my coworker is insisting on it, and I’ve got plenty of time to kill in the waiting room.
Drop me a line: AinsleyDrew at the gmail one. Thank you to everyone who donates. At this point most of it goes toward magazines and my mother’s ice cream sundaes.
Hire us. Put our process in your prognosis.
If, unlike me, you don’t feel like the path to giving up is pretty fucking clear, you can check out 101 Reasons To Stop Writing. Or you can take what some gray haired math nerd said and scrawl it in your notebook in place of shitty:
“Three rules of work: Out of clutter find simplicity; from discord find harmony; in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Einstein