The two most beautiful words in the English language are “check enclosed.”
— Dorothy Parker
As an ink-slinger who has sold words in the past, I know a little about what Ms. Parker is saying here: artistic satisfaction alone does not pay the bills. I have been away from this blog, focused upon selling what I write elsewhere; please excuse my inattentiveness of late – trying to raise my return on investment is currently proving to be a challenge. I will expand on this more, as time and energy permit, in future posts.
That’s what I often try to do, at least, when I’m not satisfied with the one I’m given. I don’t rewrite their endings, I just… addonto them, if I find I’m wanting something more. This is not a special privilege, for us ink-stained wretches alone; you can, and perhaps ought, to do the same: I have found it’s more than just an excellent writing exercise.
Last night, I remembered, a million or so years ago, having wished I could do this with a newspaper cartoon I’d read. It eventually came as a genuine revelation to me, to work out that it was well within the “unspoken rules” of the writer-reader relationship to ask, “And then what happened?”
I read this cartoon, as I said, that portrayed a middle-aged fellow, working in a service-industry job, who reeled off the educational and other credentials he possessed, to disbelieving customers. The point of the piece, of course, was to evoke support, even outrage, for this poor, fictional man, who’d had to accept a job that paid him less, in dollars and in dignity, than he had been trained to earn. At first, of course, I felt sympathy, because I had done the sort of minimum-wage job he was doing; I didn’t like it, either — of course, I didn’t have the graduate degree, and years of white-collar work experience, the character possessed.
Later, after knocking about, trying to gain some wisdom, I grew to feel empathy for him (which, as I understands the terms, is more about identifying with another, not projecting support at him or her), as well as for his current work situation. I realized that he wasn’t, as my adolescent brain must have envisioned him to be, a victim, after all; his life was still underway. He was healthy, employed, and certainly, not frozen in place. Then I remembered that I hadthe power to imagine what came next. Maybe, I mused, he grows to like the lower pressure of his service job; maybe, he even likes his coworkers.
Then, one day, a woman who used to date one of his high-tech, white-collar coworkers happens into the place, and she’s pleasantly surprised to find him working there, of all places. Soon, she’s coming in a couple of times a week, to grab a quick dinner and just maybe, to keep his spirits up… which works only too well, when he decides he’s not getting any younger, and he asks her out. Her response is “I thought you’d never ask.” Once they’ve been dating a while, who knows, perhaps he sees no reason to leave the position in such a hurry, after all… or perhaps, at her urging, he starts his own business. You may be thinking: Pie-in-the-sky thinking, right? Particularly in this economy? Sure; this is my ending. I’m saying you can write your own, too.
Empathy is the thing I’m getting at; it’s the ability to inhabit another person’s predicament. Philip K. Dick devised a machine that could test for empathy, or the lack thereof, in his brilliant science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?(though you may know it better under its cinematic title — Blade Runner). Fiction isn’t the only place that rewards and requires empathy, both for and from the characters; advertising rises or falls on it, if you think about it, because it’s a lot harder to feel much of a desire to buy a product or a service if you feel a distance from the seller. This is not “dishonest”, by the way; it’s our abilityto grasp what others are experiencing, positive as well as negative, that gives us common cause with them. We want to buy a product, indeed, because we want to feel what the person in the advertisement feels (which is empathic), not something like it (which is sympathetic) — notice the difference?
The man from the cartoon, and the girlfriend I invented for him? They eventually get married, of course, a little over two years later. It’s not the story the cartoonist envisioned, of course; it doesn’t pack the punch s/he wanted to throw. it’s just something Iwanted for the man in the cartoon to experience: a bit of success.
So: my writing background is rooted in fiction. As a kid, first I wrote about heroic spacemen; as I grew older, I expanded my interests to include heroic spacewomen (art imitating life). I knocked around a while longer, learned some more, and took to also writing about folks living here and now, on planet earth.
Alas, we fiction writers who lack wealthy relations and/or representation have to earn the means to eat some other way. Copywriting seemed like a viable means of feeding the beast, but early in my studies, I struggled with a new “skill set”. This seemed a bit too much like having a job in sales, which I’ve never felt that I could do all that well.
It took a recent conversation – with one of the smartest guys I know – to set me straight. I was explaining how tough I found it to write a pitch for something. He has done some sales – enough to know that it involves engaging people’s emotions. “It seems to me,” he said, “that an ad is like a short story. So, just write that.”
I have to agree – and not just because he’s my father. It makes a good bit of sense to see dramatic, or story-telling, possibilities in any sort of writing – it all drives towards the same thing: communication. I’ll post “spec” ads on the Wares page.