I tried Hard Not to be a Writer

I would love to tell you that from the moment I learned the alphabet, I lived to write, that I craved it like I crave a Costco-size package of Dove chocolates. The truth is I tried very hard not to be a writer. Oh, I love words. I love stringing them together to make quirky sentences. I love reading, and I confess that in third grade I started a mystery novel involving girls at a riding camp, a creepy light in the woods, blushing crushes on boys at the camp across the lake, and lots of galloping horses on hillsides. That was the year I also wanted to become a nun and a spy. Some might imply that was a similar career trajectory. It was also the time when I discovered art.

I abandoned words and my novel, though surely it was destined to win a Pulitzer in the “Best Book by an Eight-Year-Old” category, and I dedicated myself to drawing cartoons. Shnickles the duck wreaked havoc in the barnyard and Gertrude the figure skating horse managed repeatedly to embarrass herself with her less than graceful spins and jumps. By the time I got to high school, I was knee-deep in oil paints, charcoal and ink and was more eager to create silk screen prints than to shop for a silk prom dress. Every brushstroke held emotion. Every painting, drawing or print revealed a secret. A story. Visual subtext. Of course, that’s me looking back. At the time, I was just flinging color on canvas.

At the School of Visual Arts, I discovered the perfect career for people who like to make stuff up—advertising. There was only one problem: as hard as I tried, I was a dreadful designer. Though I wouldn’t admit it, what fascinated me most were the concepts, the stories the print ads, radio and TV spots could tell. The product? Oh, yeah, we’ll work that in. After two years freelancing and later on staff at a public relations firm as the industry’s worst layout artist, a former teacher suggested I write some copy and repackage myself. A copywriter was born.

I embraced the writing life. People would ask, “What do you do?”

I’d stand straighter and say, “I’m a writer.”

“Really, you write books?”

“Advertising.”

“Oh.”

Apparently, I wasn’t a real writer. Real writers produced bestsellers. I was more drawn to…well…drama. I dabbled in playwriting and wrote scenes that made Eugene O’Neill’s work look like Neil Simon on laughing gas. I was trying to be deep, people. Isn’t that what a real writer does? Truthfully, it was pretty awful. So I stuck with advertising and learned to write tight, to edit ruthlessly, to tell a story in 30 seconds or in just a few sentences, to think visually, to hear music, sound effects, smell the scents around me, to write under pressure, to work as a team with artists, marketing people, directors, producers, audio engineers and, of course clients. I learned to compromise and adapt, to take criticism and offer advice. I learned to fight for a concept, and sometimes even just one word. I learned to take on the personas of the brands I sold and write in different voices. I learned that advertising agencies throw the best parties and creative people pull the best practical jokes. But that’s a whole other blog!

Eventually, I made my way on the stage first as a back-up singer, then performing improv shows, writing and performing sketch comedy. I learned about character, setting, conflict, scene development, timing, emotion, taking risks and most of all, that story is king. It has its own journey and I was there as part of a group to discover it. When I look back, I notice that every creative endeavor, from grade school cartoons to making up songs on the spot, was all about telling a story.

Still, I didn’t write fiction, until I read about “flash fiction.” A story in a thousand words or fewer? If I could entice someone to buy cookies in one paragraph, this genre just might be my cup of (fill in your favorite brand) tea! I realized as I created characters and allowed their stories to emerge, I was improvising. Only now my fellow actors were on my computer screen. The stories grew. They became a little more layered. I saw patterns develop and themes vibrate under the surface. How exciting. How painful. How funny. I didn’t plan it. It was organic. It was transformative.

Every blank page is waiting to tell a story. My job (and yours, if writing is your passion) is to start typing and trust that something will happen.

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  1. #1 by Roger on March 19, 2012 - 7:55 am

    Hey Darlene, NPR has a Flash Fiction contest currently running. You should submit something. I think the deadline is next Saturday. It’s 600 words and you have to include their “prompt”.

    Also, the girls at riding camp? I had the same idea.

    • #2 by wordimprovisor177 on March 19, 2012 - 10:26 am

      Hey, Roger, thanks for reading and responding! I entered the NPR contest a few years ago. I didn’t realize it was happening now. Thanks for the update. I’ll check it out. I love “prompts.”
      Oh, and I’m sure your girls’ riding camp story had a few plot twists not included in mine. :-)

  2. #3 by kelly macaulay on March 19, 2012 - 11:10 am

    Very nice……..

  3. #5 by Pat C on March 19, 2012 - 11:11 am

    Hi Da — I look forward to following your blog. Pat

  4. #7 by David on March 19, 2012 - 11:45 am

    You make advertising sound so dirty, so mercenary, so transparent – all good observations. Small wonder so many of us never get beyond that stage. Nice blog.

    • #8 by wordimprovisor177 on March 19, 2012 - 1:34 pm

      Oh, ouch! I certainly didn’t mean to belittle the ad biz. I love it! Actually, it’s a perfect industry for anyone who has a creative bent. Seriously, could I exist in any other corporate job? Hardly! The best thing about it is that creativity begets creativity. So many art directors and copywriters have personal creative projects outside of work. I suppose the perception has changed since I started in the business 10 gazillion years ago. Back then, and that’s the timeframe I was referring to in my post, it seemed every copywriter wanted to be a screenwriter and every art director wanted to direct movies. And people who had no clue thought writers wrote books and newpaper articles. Very few people actually thought about the person who crafted the print ad. I’m still a copywriter and probably always will be as long as I continue to get work. I enjoy it. There is no “beyond that stage.” There may be a different or related or even co-existing path, however.

  5. #9 by priceswrite on March 19, 2012 - 12:59 pm

    There are so many parallels between our stories – if you remove the horses and the artsy part and the flash fiction and the . . . oh never mind! But the more we share our stories the more I realize just how kindred our spirits really are.

    After our conversation about improv at the play the other night, I came to the same conclusion as the ending of your post . . . my characters improvise. So many times a character will say something and I scream, “Holy Cow! I didn’t know your wife was in the hospital, I thought she was dead.” And then I have have to write something in response and the dialogue continues.

    I absolutely love the image that every blank page is waiting for me to give it a reason for existence. Which means on those days when I just don’t want to write, those day when I ignore the page calling, “Please come play with me RIGHT NOW,” I have yet another reason to feel guilty for ignoring the craft. Yeah, thanks for that! ;)

  6. #10 by wordimprovisor177 on March 19, 2012 - 1:44 pm

    LOL! I went to Catholic school. Always willing to share the guilt! :-) I’ve had similar experiences when writing stories. For example, the story “Shiraz” that was just published by Three Rooms Press in their anthology HAVE A NYC (shameless plug, intended! Hey! I’m in advertising, remember?) I didn’t know the Shiraz character was Japanese until the dancer character commented on her name. Shocked the hell out of me!

  7. #11 by M.Steffanie on March 20, 2012 - 9:14 am

    Great blog post Darlene! Look forward to reading more in the future.I f you ever tire of writing which, I doubt, you become become the spy-nun with her companions, Shnickles and Gertrude, who together run a mysterious riding camp for former advertising creatives!

    Matt

    • #12 by wordimprovisor177 on March 20, 2012 - 10:11 am

      LOL! Thanks, Matt! I was considering a career change! And thanks for reading. Don’t forget to check out my fellow bloggers, too. :-)

      • #13 by M.Steffanie on March 20, 2012 - 10:15 am

        Ok…A quaking duck just flew over my house, (it really did!)…….??? Shnickels ???????……….

  8. #14 by talesfromahungrylife on March 20, 2012 - 9:16 am

    Oh Darlene, so many funny things here. I have often seen that sad, sorry look on people’s faces when I explain that I’m an advertising copywriter and they say, “Oh, so you’re not a real writer?” LOL. I also loved your description of your 3rd grade story about the horses. My 3rd grade story was about a little Eskimo girl named Lola, her Siberian Husky sled dog, and their quest for food. Some things never change. As always, I love your writing and look forward to more! Maria

  9. #15 by wordimprovisor177 on March 20, 2012 - 10:16 am

    Thanks for reading, Maria! We could collaborate on that 3rd grade story. I’ll move the riding camp to Alaska! :-) I appreciate your kind words and look forward to your next installment, too.

  10. #16 by priceswrite on March 20, 2012 - 6:15 pm

    Can you include my 4th grade story? (Clearly I was a late bloomer.) My little old lady with the planes could be the way you move the riding camp to Alaska.

    • #17 by wordimprovisor177 on March 20, 2012 - 6:22 pm

      Most absolutely, Linda! The little old lady can be their chaperone and of course, the girls will get up to all kinds of shenanigans, thinking they’ve pulled the wool over her eyes. But she’s a tough old biddy, and wise, too!

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