Wednesday, July 11, 2007


I was once told by my Creative Director in New York: "Being a writer is not an easy life. It takes thick skin." I had asked for her feedback on an ad campaign I wrote for the Museum of Sex in Manhattan. She had told me the ways that it failed, and my disappointment must have showed.

I remember her big office in the sky with two corner windows, the way that people and cars looked like mechanical grids below. I remember feeling about as small as the ant-people below after getting her reaction. Maybe I've mentioned in a posting before but this interaction in particular stewed in me as I was spit out on the streets of Madison Avenue, feeling unworthy. I had wanted to impress my boss with my wit and muscled sentences. I was 23, maybe 24, newly graduated, and thought everyone would be dazzled by my words. I wasn't one of those people who thought she might kind of wish to be a Copywriter. I was a Copywriter who could turn any phrase on it's side, draw on pop references in a split second, create compelling brands. Or so I thought. On the subway to Brooklyn, I was sweaty from the summer humidity and miserable. This was punctuated by the sounds of clanging and screetching in the tunnels, the rickety cars held together with cable and steel, but seeming like they could come undone, just like me.

At my apartment, I decided to call my college Journalism professor, Ann Maxwell. Her steady advice had gotten me through the rough patches. This was before cell phones were prevalent, and long distance calls were a big deal. I went to the bodega on the corner and bought a "calling card" from a Puerto Rican pock-faced man, who checked me out in the creepiest way when I approached the counter.

I spoke for a long time to my Professor about my meeting. I described how hard it was living in Brooklyn, and how things were happening fast, but not fast enough for me. I was on a "career track" in advertising and felt after six short months, I wasn't meeting my milestones. My professor listened carefully for awhile, then paused. "Well," she said. "I guess you have to ask yourself something."

"What's that?" I asked, eagerly.

" 'Am I willing to be a beginner?' " she said. "You have to ask yourself if you're willing to start again each day with a beginner mind. You have to pace yourself to be open. Because this is the important stage. Right now. Being a beginner."

That was the most solid advice I'd ever recieved. She was right, I was so concentrated on the next step that I wasn't focused on the work in front of me. I looked at my Museum of Sex ad. I could see with fresh eyes that it really did suck. I wrote twelve new ads and produced four of them.

Now, here in Iowa City, I have to be in the spirit of giving and recieving feedback. It's a generosity that can be a challenge for some writers, but I feel like the next draft and the next can only improve. Even so, the truth hurts. I sat in Java House today, punching out a new story, when one of my classmates voices made me look up from my computer. "Hey, I didn't see you," she said.

I was "in it" and didn't notice her either. "How ironic. I'm reading your work now," she said.

This scared me because she was hands down the most critical of the writers in my workshop. Just yesterday she told a writer up for workshop, "There's no story in this work." or "I wanted to like these characters." or "I looked for the plot." I was essentially scared of this innocent, curly haired Midwesterner. She waxed philisophical about classic writers and stretched her hands behind her head to display her hairy armpits, giving her credibility somehow.

There was an uncomfortable pause, because I had work to do and didn't know what to say to her. She spoke first: "How do you spell 'awkward'?" she asked.

"A-W-K-W-A-R-D. Awkward," I said like a Spelling Bee finalist.

"Oh. Okay," she said, nose down. I went back to my work, looking up at times to note her fierce underlinings on my manuscript. That's when it hit me.

"Did I just spell awkward for you so that you could write that on my manuscript?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said with non-challance. "Is that okay?" she asked me like it didn't matter, I had no choice.

I inhaled and nodded, biting the inside of my mouth accidentally. She went back to her critique and I went back to mine. "Are you willing to be a beginner?" jumped in my mind, like God herself whispering in my ear.

"Yes," I told her, even though she wasn't listening.

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