Becoming a Writer

But not looking for my dream job.

One morning I woke up in a Vegas hotel room that was spinning like a ceiling fan.

I groped my way towards the undulating bathroom door, barely making it to the toilet before the drinks I’d had the evening before sloshed into the bowl. As the tile trembled, I stared down, puzzled. I’d had a fun night but not that much fun, I thought to myself in the shower, where I threw up two more times. It didn’t make sense.

When I stepped into the casino the carpet rocked below me. I wobbled to the nearest slot machine for support, shrieking when it shuddered in an explosion of light and color and dingdingdingdingdingding. It was all so very Fear and Loathing. I was on my knees, on the Strip, crawling in cigarette ashes and spilled whiskey sours, and I could not stand up.

I began to consider the possibility that this was not a hangover.

At the ER, I awaited my diagnosis on a gurney, where I had to brace one foot on the floor to prevent the walls from twirling.

“You have something called Labyrinthitis,” the doctor said, as his face slipped in and out of focus.

“Like David Bowie?” I squeaked.

He raised one eyebrow as he jotted more notes on his chart—likely adding delusional to my symptoms. The truth was, it didn’t matter what I had because I already knew what was wrong with me: Looking for my dream job had made me sick.

In the past three months I had traveled to five metropolitan areas, met with dozens of human resources representatives, and left several hundred voicemails.

I had been offered a single, unpaid internship.

It was with great relief, actually, that I accepted this inner ear virus as my fate. With my sense of balance eradicated I couldn’t even walk, so I went home to my parents’ house and pulled the sheets over my head. I settled in for a new routine that consisted of an anti-viral pill, an anti-nausea pill, an anti-vertigo pill, Valium, and some kind of steroid. Labyrinthitis, I decided, would buy me some time while I figured out a new plan.

My entire life I had wanted to be in advertising. The neighborhood kids wanted to play house; I wanted to make fake dog food commercials. Armed with my Sony Camcorder I wrote, directed, produced and edited hours of ads, which are preserved in the Walker Family film archive on VHS tape. I loved the idea of 30 second-theater. I wanted to get paid to write clever sentences that made people laugh.

In fact, my vision of my grown-up self for most of my life is pretty much identical to what we now know as Mad Men. I wanted to be Peggy Olson. Not the secret pregnancy part. But winning Avon and Maidenform in smart wool suits, living in Manhattan and drinking Manhattans, on the 30th floor of a glass high rise with a gold plaque on my office door that proclaimed WRITER.

I wanted a beautifully engraved business card so thick it could cut cheese.

As I was finishing a fancy ad school in Atlanta my timing seemed perfect. Agencies were giddy making commercials that felt like Saturday Night Live sketches, starring sassy sock puppets and airborne gerbils. As my time in school came to a muggy close, the market began to heat up. One particularly sticky day, a friend announced he was leaving school early. Pontificating under a crepe myrtle to a sweating congregation, he told us the iron was hot, the time was right, the internet boom was about to blow the top off the industry. He was heading to San Francisco to work on a $100 million dot-com account.

Agencies doubled, tripled in size, doled out Razor scooters and Palm Pilots like Halloween candy. All my classmates were flown out of town for interviews, where they eventually got corner offices and shiny pink iMacs. We heard stories about fast-talking recruiters who lurked outside graduation ceremonies.

I couldn’t wait.

But by the time I graduated, signs were already pointing downhill. During the 2001 Super Bowl I had watched the E*Trade monkey wander the abandoned alleys of Tech Town. While my non-industry friends laughed around me, I saw the fate of my not-even-begun career. I was doomed.

After I got better, I joined the rest of the bubble burst victims wandering the country aimlessly as we settled for ill-paying temporary gigs. Was my dream job out there somewhere? I didn’t know. I was writing bad marketing copy for a garlic-themed amusement park in a town that prided itself on how far away it was from San Francisco. With people who wore Tevas with socks.

Eventually, lured by the promise of a somewhat stable economy, I moved to L.A. I kept looking for my dream job but while I did, I took a day job at a production company. But we all know what happens with a day job—it slowly consumes both your day and your night—and I eventually stopped looking for advertising work. I slowly gave up on my writing career.

After three years I saved enough money and vacation time for a trip to Europe—my first trip out of the country and my first time traveling anywhere alone. I spent weeks walking through ancient cities, hunting down flea markets, drinking wine at lunch. I had never felt so alive. I wrote long tales about my travels, published them with photos on my .Mac page and emailed them to all my friends back home.

“Wow, these are really good,” responded one of them, who had only known me from my production company days. “You should be a writer.”

I really should, I thought.

The next day, on a quiet square in Italy, I realized that nothing was really stopping me from writing clever sentences that made people laugh. The only thing that was stopping me was that I didn’t have, well, a business card that said as much.

This moment was so sudden and so earth-shattering, I named my new freelance writing company after the stracciatella and pistachio cone I was eating (my fourth serving of the day, I might add). I named my company Gelatobaby to remind me, every day, of how it felt to finally understand what I was meant to do.

Luckily I wasn’t in Paris or it would have been Escargotbaby.

I built a website, put only the work up there that I really loved and promoted the hell out of it. I started a blog where I could write stories like the ones I wrote on my trip. People started hiring me for all kinds of writing, not just advertising. Soon I was writing articles for magazines about walking through cities, hunting down flea markets, drinking wine at lunch. Guess what—I liked it even better than making fake dog food commercials.

And the funny thing about that dream job? It no longer exists. Sure, the ad industry ended up recovering, but it looks nothing like it did back then. I got left out of it because I was actually the one with the narrow vision of what advertising was supposed to be.

We talk a lot about entire industries needing to change in the face of adversity, but what we don’t realize is that the only thing that really needs to change is us.

We can’t go on being the same advertising copywriters, the same graphic designers, the same creative directors we always dreamed of being. We probably won’t have that door plaque or parking spot or even health insurance. But that’s the beauty of it. A recession can make a corporation cut those things called jobs but it can’t stop really talented people from making a name for themselves. Especially now since we have the tools to be whatever we want.

We get it drilled into our heads at an early age: “Follow your dream. Follow your dream!” But no one ever told us to be willing to make drastic and necessary changes to that dream as schools and technology and the world changed around us. So follow your dream. But whatever you do, don’t you dare waste another minute looking for your dream job.

I can call myself a writer now, but it’s something no door plaque has ever proclaimed for me.

And it turned out that I didn’t need those fancy business cards at all, either. All I needed was a gelato spoon printed with my contact information. And a funny thing happened after I first started to give them out. I began to get emails from people all over the world asking if they could have one. I mailed off so many I ran out of ones to give out in person. I’ve made friends and gotten jobs just because they heard about my spoons.

I’d say that’s better than anything engraved with the word “writer.”

Alissa Walker is a writer, a gelato-eater, and a walker in L.A. Read more at awalkerinLA.com

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