Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Creative is the Power

I was watching Mad Men the other night and having a nice bit of joy at the power Don Draper wields as a creative director. In my life as a creative (adjective become noun) in advertising, the account team has always held the power. My contributions are respected but, when it comes to a break point, I lose.

I'm freelance, so my power is limited. But it's really not the freelance vs. staff member dichotomy. It's the profit vs. idea/creativity/art dichotomy. The point of any ad agency is to make money. And, like it or not, satisfying a client is how an agency makes money. Sometimes it's just not worth it to the account team to force a creative idea at a client who would rather have a standard idea.

In the world of Mad Men, Don Draper shits on clients who want a standard idea. Maybe that's a 1960s thing; most likely it's a fiction thing. In today's world, safe ideas often sell better than creative ideas.

And the thing is ... I'm okay with that.

I'm okay with the idea that what I do for money is not always art or even creative. I'm okay that I sometimes am asked to push work that is less than my best work. It's not that I'm just in it for the check (I'm not; I always love a truly original campaign), it's that commerce is commerce and profit is profit and you either accept that or you make yourself miserable

In my fiction, I can do whatever I want. I can be as wildly creative as my brain is capable of being. But in copy writing, I'm a tool of a greater system. Creativity is only valuable in its ability to appeal to clients and, ultimately, sell product.

What I don't know is whether making my money this way is a bad thing or a neutral thing. I lean to neutral but some days I wonder. Some days I just want to be creative and not, for a moment, worry about the earning possibilities behind my work.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"A People's History of Martin Zansamere" in MAR

So, if you haven't heard, the new Mid-American Review is out. This would excite me no matter what. But it's extra-double exciting because my story "A People's History of Martin Zansamere" appears in the issue.

I love all my stories. But this one holds a special place in my writing life. I wrote it a little over a year ago at a time when I was really struggling with what kind of stories I wanted to write. I had been trying very hard to replicate voices like Alice Munro and Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and Edward P. Jones -- all wonderful writers, for sure, but my immitations were falling flat. Instead of writing what came up from within me, I was writing what came down from outside of me. If that makes sense.

I was only sort-of aware of this problem. And when I wrote "Zansamere," I didn't have any kind of ah-ha moment about my writing. In fact, I worried that the story was too far removed from what I should be writing. Then a mentor at Antioch was kind enough to read 15-20 of my stories all at once. "Zansamere" was his favorite. It was very different from everything else I showed him and his appreciation of the story got me to thinking: other than "Zansamere" being non-realist, what the hell had I done differently?

The answer, I realized, was stupidly simple: I'd written "Zansamere" because it was fun to write. The idea for the story had struck me while folding socks (yeah, socks play a part in this story). I wrote the story in a week or so without care for anything other than making it the kind of story I'd like to read.

That realization changed my writing life. Almost everything I've published was written after I wrote "Zansamere." Sure, I've written reams of crap since then, too, but I haven't written any more blatantly imitative stories. In fact, I don't write anything that I don't enjoy writing. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.

I have no idea why it took me so long to figure out such a simple truth, but there it is. And I wanted to share. Because, you know, this is a weblog and all.

Friday, July 2, 2010


Last Sunday I officially finished my MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. Since Antioch is low-res, the week leading up to graduation was a beautiful mess of lectures, readings, drinking, talking, tears and toasts as my fellow cohort members and I (the Cobalts) rushed through our final residency.

I could make this post snarky. Be all ironic and detached and throw out nothing but shrugs and grunts. But that wouldn’t be what I really want to say. Here’s the inside of it:

Thank you, Antioch, for changing my life, for giving me the direction and confidence and wherewithal to turn a passion into something tangible, something I can see carrying me through the rest of my life. Thank you to all the mentors and workshop leaders and fellow students who made these last two years two of the most transformative years of my life. And thank you to my family who not just tolerated but supported me ceaselessly through this degree.

I leave Antioch a vastly better writer. I leave with friends I know I’ll have for a lifetime. And I leave with writing habits that I know can sustain a career. There’s that pejorative use of “MFA story” that I hear bandied about. I know what people mean when they say that. I’ve written stories like that. But Antioch pushed me to write away from that, to find my own voice, to write what is true to me rather than reaching for the simple, the artificial. And they taught me how to do that as not just a hobbyist, but as a professional.

I wouldn’t be where I am now in my writing career if not for Antioch.

That’s truth.