How I finally became what I wanted to be when I grow up
One of my first dreams in life was to be a writer. English was my favorite class in school. I loved reading poems and novels and dissecting them for their meaning. By high school I’d started compiling my own collection, filling journal after journal with typical teen angst and the first awkward stabs at poetry. Somewhere along the line, I set my sights on becoming a novelist. Or a poet. Or at the very least, a short story author. No way would I become some corporate drone, chained to my desk eight hours a day. I was destined for way more than that. I just knew it.
Surprise! In college, I learned that being a novelist or a poet or an award-winning short story author is hard. And competitive. And financially unstable. And my inflated sense of destiny simply didn’t match the level of dedication I was willing to put forth. So after I graduated, I took my English degree and did what I’d always dreaded: got a 9–5 job.
I wound up in the marketing department of a scientific publisher — a bad position for an aspiring writer because there was no actual writing involved. I’d love to say that I really hustled and wrote a lot in my free time. But what I really did was party a lot, put writing on the back burner, and plug along the next four years. When I grew tired of doing a job I wasn’t crazy about for so little money, I went and got a different job I wasn’t crazy about, for a lot more money. Once in a while, I’d look into MFA programs, convinced that an advanced degree was the ticket to kickstarting my writing career. Even with my plumper paycheck, it was a ticket I couldn’t afford.
Shortly before I landed that new job, Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs hit the bestseller list. I devoured the book, then the follow up Dry, in which the author lands a job as an advertising copywriter at a New York ad agency. This was fifteen years before Mad Men schooled the nation on how advertising works. I felt as if a lightbulb had gone off.
Writing ads and commercials? That’s a job???
I got to see the job up close and personal at my new company, where I worked much closer to the creative team. So close in fact, that I began crossing out headlines and rewriting copy myself. As the marketing manager, this was not my role. Not even a little bit. But scribbling in those margins made me feel more like myself than analyzing data in a spreadsheet ever would. Suddenly, I was a writer again. Not the writer I thought I would be, but once I let go of the notion that there are only a few ways to be a writer, I found a way to actually write. After years of treading water, copywriting gave me an actual direction to move in.
When I started looking for a copywriting job, I had exactly zero years of copywriting experience. I’d worked in marketing for more than five years though, which was enough to at least get my foot in a few doors. I landed two promising interviews. One person said they knew I’d do a great job, but it just wouldn’t fly with HR since my resume didn’t say “copywriter” anywhere. The other company offered me a position, but it looked a lot like the marketing manager job I’d left behind, not the creative role I was hoping for. Still, I considered it. Maybe they’ll let me do some copywriting. Then I’ll have it on my resume. It seemed like a solid plan…but something told me that if I was going to make this happen, I couldn’t afford to wait for anyone to “let” me do anything. By the time my next interview rolled around, I had a resume that said “copywriter” on it and a portfolio of pieces I’d written for places that didn’t exist. I finally got my first copywriting job. It was a little agency, and my biggest break.
That first copywriting job turned out to be my last. Not because I got fired for lying in my interview, but because I had the unbelievable good fortune of winding up with a boss who brought the best out of me as a writer and a person (and who forgave me for lying at my interview when I finally admitted it years later). Over the years, that little agency grew into a place that I never wanted to leave.
The happy ending should be somewhere around here, right? I loved my job, I enjoyed my work, I got to use the talent that matters most to me every single day. Still. After more than a decade of writing ads, websites, commercials and all sorts of other things for clients, part of me started to feel like I wasn’t really, you know, a writer writer, in the same way that poets and fiction writers are. Was I really doing what I was meant to do? Or settling for some watered down version of it? One person could answer that question.
At twenty-one, I looked to the outside world to tell me what I could be. A poet. A novelist. A marketing manager at a scientific publisher. A copywriter. These were titles handed down from on high and defined by someone other than me. Now, at forty-one, I’ve finally realized that I don’t need anyone’s permission to do what feel like doing. I don’t need a publisher to be a poet. I just need to write a poem. I don’t need an MFA to write fiction. I just need to think up a story and the words to tell it. It took a few decades, but I’m finally the writer I wanted to be when I grow up. While it looks nothing like I imagined, it feels exactly as I always knew it would.
What Does This Have to Do With You?
If you’ve made it this far, first, thank you for bearing with me while I rambled on about myself. Second, I’m glad you stuck around, because I’m willing to bet that you’ve got a dream too.
When it comes to achieving our dreams, sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to follow a certain path and get to a certain point by a certain time. And when you don’t, you get discouraged, sometimes to the point of giving up the dream entirely. I know I did, for a little while. But the truth is, whatever dream you’re chasing, chances are that it’s not going to be a straight and steady march towards fulfillment. It’s going to be a glorious mess of surprise turns, sudden dead ends, mysterious forks and occasional switchbacks. You will stumble. You’ll probably get lost. You may have to elbow your way into (or out of) a few tight spots. And some days are going to just plain SUCK. You might start to feel like you’re never gonna get where you’re going. But you will. As long as you keep moving. And oh yeah — keep an eye out for signs. They’re there, if you want them.