By Darlene Cah
This month we’re taking a look at the teachers who influenced us as writers. From the crotchety nuns of my childhood to long-haired hippie types in high school, all the way to the laid-back creatives of art school and grad school, so many teachers have affected my work and my life. One, in particular, changed the course of my life.
It’s been decades since I’ve seen him, so I can’t even describe him. My impression is that he was big, physically, but mostly in personality. Las Vegas big. Mob boss big. With big ideas, and a big voice. I believe, he lived large. Lester Colodny. Even his name had presence. Cue the laugh track! The man was funny.
As I approached my last semester at the School of Visual Arts in New York, I needed a few credits to graduate in January rather than May. My theory was that I would get a head start on a very competitive job market. Basically, I got a head start on unemployment, but that’s another story! Anyway, I figured I would just take something easy, a “throwaway” class, get a passing grade, get out there and start winning Clios. There was only one advertising class I hadn’t taken, that seemed relatively easy: Copywriting, taught by Lester Colodny, a writer at Needham, Harper & Steers on the Xerox and Amtrak accounts. Fine. Sign me up. I was a graphic designer, an art director. I just needed to come up with concepts and layouts. Someone else would deal with the body copy. I survived the class, graduated and hit the street with my portfolio and hot-off-the-press BFA.
After months of freelancing, I landed a job as a layout artist at a public relations firm on a dreary street in the East 40s, hardly the glamorous advertising career enjoyed by “Mad Men” just a few blocks uptown. The work was tedious with hardly a hint of design involved. Creativity was not encouraged.
One day, I got a call from the Chairman of the Media Communications Department at SVA. They were offering a master class in advertising, meeting once a week at an ad agency. The workshop was by invitation, and there was a spot for me if I wanted it. The teacher was Lester Colodny. Clearly, I needed some kind of creative jolt. My portfolio was not opening doors. The class was more like an intense internship. For the first time since graduating, I felt alive. I loved coming up with concepts. Every ad was a story, a revelation. At the end, when Lester said the agency was hiring a writer on the Amtrak account, and asked if I would write copy for the ads in my portfolio, I bristled–momentarily. I still saw myself as an artist, but it was time to see myself as who I really was—a writer. I wrote the copy and got the job, and a few years later, those Clios I was so eager for as a new grad.
So what does advertising copy have to do with fiction? This is a blog about creative writing, after all! For one thing, I believe every genre of writing—copy, included—is storytelling. In fact, it’s the latest trend in marketing, these days. But I would never have dreamed of writing short stories or flash fiction if it hadn’t been for that one teacher who told me to just write a few ads.
Thanks, Lester, wherever you are. I hope you’re doing big things.