Running with Scissors: A Memoir

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Got an MFA? Need a Job? Consider the Creative Agency

When I graduated with my MFA earlier this year, I routinely fielded the various versions of What are you doing next? Of course, what people really wanted to know was what I was going to do for a job. Frankly, I’d never considered doing anything other than what I had been doing — planning and creating communication packages at the creative agency where I’ve worked for the last decade. The guys in Mad Men did it. So could I.

High school teacher and poet Nick Ripatrazone recently wrote an article encouraging MFA graduates to consider careers outside the traditional adjunct faculty route — for better pay, better benefits, and better peace of mind. He made a great case for teaching high school. “You have,” he writes, “other options.”

You absolutely do. Teaching high school is just one of them. Working at a creative agency is another.

Agency employees have long been known to write stories and novels on the side. In fact, it used to be a kind of trend — at least in the middle of the 2oth century. Familiars like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) worked at agencies and then wrote in their spare hours. Heller continued to work after Catch-22 was published. Even more recently, writers like Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End) and Rosecrans Baldwin (Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down) have used the agency experience as the basis for books. Augusten Burroughs (Running with Scissors) wrote his first book while still in the ad agency world. Suzanne Finnamore did the same (Split).

Today’s creative agencies do a lot of different things: advertising (the Mad Men kind), publications, websites, branding, or communication strategies. Usually, an agency has a niche, but some choose to combine it all. Mine happens to do a little bit of everything so I’ve been able to interview illustrators at Disney, write copy for major fundraising campaigns, and research Africa’s best new authors.

Though agency outputs are different from literary outputs, there’s quite a bit that can be gleaned from the industry. And not just how to drink multiple Old Fashioneds. You don’t even have to be like me, who was somewhat established before I took some time off for my MFA. You can be freshly diploma’ed and still a strong candidate:

You know how to write a sentence. A really good sentence. You’d be surprised at how many people can’t do that. Clients are constantly telling us they’ll handle the writing for a specific project. More often than not, it’s wordy and dry and confusing and they’ll come back and ask us for help.

You can articulate why certain ideas work and others don’t. Writing workshops have provided great training with this. You can’t get away with saying: Oh, I just don’t like that. You have to figure out why and then communicate it to your fellow writer. That’s hard work and an extremely valuable resource for employers.

You can think outside of a box. You may take this skill for granted, but how often do you have a character stuck in a corner that you must reconcile? Or you’ve got a line in a poem that you really love, you’re just not sure where to go next? It’s uncomfortable but somewhat familiar terrain for writers — figuring out solutions to complicated situations.

With those skills in-hand and a few others, here’s what could be in it for you should you decide to look into agency work — for more than just paid vacations and health insurance.

Jobs: Depending on what you are willing to do, a look at job listings sites shows there are lots of opportunities. Salaries will vary depending on locations, but the median for entry-level jobs is $30,000-$40,000.

Editing skills: Salman Rushdie learned to say a lot in a little from writing ad copy: “You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images and you haven’t much time. All of that is, I feel, very, very useful.”

Nerve: Stephanie Bane has an MFA and is working on a memoir of her time in the Peace Corps. She also works at an ad agency in Pittsburgh. “I’m impervious to insult,” she says. “Advertising is a team sport. Somebody — or several somebodies — weigh in on every word I write. My ideas are edited, altered or outright rejected on a daily basis. When it comes to seeking publication, rejection letters still sting, but my day job makes it easy for me to treat them as a routine part of the business.

Imagination: Joseph Heller felt he’d been trained by the limitations he learned in his copywriting work. “They [ideas] come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie. It may have something to do with the disciplines of writing advertising copy (which I did for a number of years), where the limitations involved provide a considerable spur to the imagination. There’s an essay of T. S. Eliot’s in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.”

Publishing: Most likely, you’ll get something published in the agency world far sooner than you will in book publishing. Even if it’s just the Dental Association of America reading it, it’s still out there. (And when you come home to yet another rejection from The New Yorker, that’ll matter. A little.)

Discipline: Balancing a 40-hour work week and a writing life takes dedication. Another thing Rushdie tucked under his belt from the advertising world: “…it taught me to write like a job…. You can’t afford temperament, you can’t afford days of creative anguish; you have to sit there and do your job and you have to do it like a job, get it done on time and well. I now write exactly like that. I write like a job. I sit down in the morning and I do it. And I don’t miss deadlines.” Anastasia Edel is a producer at Frog Design in San Francisco. She’s also finishing up her MFA in fiction, which makes for a very busy life. “When you really want something you find the time,” she says. She writes between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Exposure: You’ll likely interact with a lot of different artists — other kinds of writers; designers who will show you a whole new way of looking at the world and will likely give you expensive taste in almost everything; photographers who can argue that a picture may very well be worth 1,000 words (and you might be compelled, at times, to agree).  There’s an energy that can come from this kind of community. Edel recently collaborated with a colleague to lead a creative meeting that explored the heart of the creative process. “If there is a way you can leverage what you’re studying with your lifestyle,” she says, “you’ll get energy from that.”

The agency atmosphere isn’t for everyone. There are bad days and good days, as with any job. You have to set boundaries. You have to work hard. You have to play well with others. And in order to write you have to say no to some things (like going out with your new colleagues for drinks after work) and yes to others (like getting up several hours before work to write). But you just might find that the skills you honed while pursuing your MFA have a much wider range than you ever imagined.

 

Image Credit: Flickr/photologue_np

The Oracle at Google, or Bible Dipping for a Disenchanted Age

As anyone with a Gmail account knows, to send or receive an e-mail through Google’s electronic mail service is to have the impression that someone else is reading your mail. Mention the military in an e-mail – even disparagingly – and you will see, in the sidebar, beside the composition window, an ad for GoArmy.com. Mention Premier League football and you’ll get links to a panoply of stores selling Newcastle and Arsenal jerseys. This feeling of being watched and plied with goods and services that someone or something thinks you are likely to desire is rather odd at first (perhaps even creepy in a post-Patriot Act era). But it abates. You become a jaded “old boy” and don’t even notice the sidebar ads attempting to draw you in by ‘reading’ your missives. (Except, perhaps, for the odd time when, in writing to a student about plagiarism, the Google sidebar offers you a variety of online warehouses apparently chock-full of the same sort of stolen merchandise you are attempting to rail against.)At least until recently. A few weeks ago I began sending myself pieces of my dissertation as a means of backing them up. The sidebar’s offerings were unremarkable for several weeks (so unremarkable that I do not remember them and so cannot share them with you so that you too might remark on their unremarkableness).But this past weekend, something changed. As before, I attached the chapter, a Word document named Chapter 2, and wrote “Charke” in the subject line. (“Charke” refers to Charlotte Charke, a notoriously outlandish eighteenth-century actress famous for cross-dressing on and off the stage, whose autobiography is the subject of my chapter.) I pressed send. And suddenly my sidebar was INNUNDATED WITH ALPACAS: “How to get free Alpacas,” “Alpacas for fun & profit,” “Are Alpacas profitable?,” “Enjoy an alpaca lifestyle!”In that moment (a moment that has been repeated now several times – every time, in fact, that I send the Charke chapter to myself again), my whole concept of Gmail changed. I believe that Gmail is trying to tell me something about my future, and that future involves alpacas. What that future seems not to involve is recuperative literary analyses of neglected autobiographies by marginal eighteenth-century actresses.In that moment, I realized that the Gmail sidebar might be much more than we all thought it was. It might, in fact, be just the thing to fill those gaping holes in our post-modern psyches. Like the oracle at Delphi, haruspication, and all of the other delightful methods of divination devised by the Greeks, bibliomancy in the Renaissance and 18th century (aka “Bible dipping” for those of you familiar with Running With Scissors), seances in the 19th, and the Magic 8 Ball in the eighties and nineties, (not to mention tea leaves, crystal balls, Jim’s hairball in Huckleberry Finn…), the Gmail sidebar might just be the medium – I mean the clairvoyant medium – of our age. And it’s so much tidier than haruspication.I’ve got alpacas (free alpacas no less!), how bout you?

New & Alluring

It’s a good time for books right now. In my year and half at the book store, I haven’t quite figured out the nuances of the publishing calendar, but it seems like spring is always the best time of year for new books. I suppose the publishers anticipate that people will have plenty of time to read during the summer. There were several interesting new releases this week: Dry is Augusten Burroughs’ follow up to last year’s Running with Scissors a memoir about his growing up in the care of a profoundly disturbed shrink. It is hilarious until you remind yourself that it’s a true story. Not sure if Dry will live up to Running with Scissors but it’s certainly worth reading if you enjoyed that book. Several great books about baseball have come out this spring (including Game Time a collection of essays by one of my favorite baseball writers Roger Angell). This week’s baseball book is Moneyball by Michael Lewis which strives to explain how the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane, have managed to become successful while sporting one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This has easily been the most interesting story in baseball over the last couple of years so it’s not at all surprising to see a book that focuses on it. The big novel release of the last week or so was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood author of, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin. I have never read Atwood, but several of my trusted fellow readers are most devoted to her work.Heard on the RadioNPR often broadcasts gushing reviews of the world’s blandest music. In fact, their review of the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was unequaled in both the reviewer’s unabashed worship of the band and the grinding dullness of the music that accompanied it. Which is saying a lot, since typically I don’t really have a huge problem with the Chili Peppers. On the hand, NPR regularly devotes air time to some very worthy books, and last week was no exception. Morning Edition devoted a long segment to interviewing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc author of Random Family. To write this remarkable book, LeBlanc spent more than ten years spending time with a family in a decaying neighborhood in the Bronx in order to chronicle their lives. She was able to draw a masterful picture of one troubled family among many. In her interview, it was especially interesting to hear how the assignment to write a single article for Rolling Stone blossomed into a ten year odyssey in the writing of her book. I also caught a tidbit of an interview with Mary Roach the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which chronicles, in a light hearted way, the numerous ways in which society has been advanced by putting the dead to work. There are the obvious medical examples, but some rather strange examples, as well. Apparently, the first crash test dummies were actually dead bodies, strapped into cars and rammed into walls. Pretty bizarre. I also caught an interview with a couple of the guys (I’m not sure which ones) who put together the book Temples of Sound. This is a fun little illustrated encyclopedia of the most storied recording studios of our musical century. Fantastic pictures accompany text filled with the magic-moment-of-creation stories that all music fans love to read about. Temples of Sound, by the way, is put out by Chronicle Books, which accounts for its great look. When perusing the shelves look out for books put out by Chronicle; they are always interesting or funny and they are beautiful visually.Yes, but is it Art?The art book that caught my eye this past week is a monograph on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark who is most famous for slicing the facades off of derelict buildings. In keeping with the style that made Matta-Clark famous, Phaidon, the publisher of many popular art books, put out a book from which a section of the spine has been cut away to reveal the bare structural binding of the book. It is a wonderful tribute to an artist who died very young as well as a triumph of creative book design.What I’m Reading NowIn Nine Innings Daniel Okrent writes about a single baseball game. In the early ’80s he followed the Milwaukee Brewers for well over a year in order that he would know this team more intimately then even their most rabid fan. Then he picked a single baseball game and used the knowledge he had gathered to write about it. The book is both a microscopic look at the elementary unit of America’s pastime and a study of the many individuals involved with the game as a backdrop. A grand book, especially for a baseball fan.

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