Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

I Broke Up With Writing (And It Feels OK)

I'm torn on advice. Sometimes you're given some and it matters right there on the spot. Then there's the advice that sits alongside pathetic life-as-lit, lit-as-life devices—think fantasies of watching your own funeral or accurately narrating your life as it unfolds. This is the kind of advice that, either in the moment or as memory, arrives perfectly formed and quotable, a single well-turned line that turns your life into a teaching tool for all humanity. And then there's the advice that slips by unnoticed at the time, that you cull meaning from only in retrospect, out of metaphysical necessity. How did I get here, anyway? Someone must have told me to do it.

This year, I discovered a new form this slippery, if useful, devil can take: advice that is no advice at all. We all want cues, validation, and support as we make our way through that perilous thicket of choices that is adulthood (there's not much need for it before, when decisions tend to follow the responsible/irresponsible binary). But sometimes, you take a leap without any encouraging shove. You move forward as if you knew exactly what you were doing and why you were doing it, when really, there's nothing but hot air propelling you. If that.

Enough with the abstractions. In 2011, I became a father; in 2012, I decided to give up freelance writing for an honest job in the world of advertising. It's not like I surrendered my soul for a cubicle in the nearest accounting firm. I still get to think up weird shit for a living and the place I work is hardly a button-down police state. Plus, I was never an ace with reporting and frankly, coming up with laudatory campaigns for athletes is probably closer to my strengths than that all-elusive "features writer" status was. The fact remains, though, that at the drop of a hat I gave up the only thing I've ever been particularly good at, the only gig I've ever really known, and the source of pretty much anything I'm known for outside of my immediate circle of friends and family. I don't have time to write and if I so much as touch the topic of sports, all sorts of potential conflicts of interest crop up. It's a strange transition to make—one day, I'm working on another book proposal, then suddenly it's in the rear-view. I helped found The Classical, which specializes in the kind of thoughtful writing about sports I've always valued most and now I'm effectively off my own pet project.

I don't feel like I fell from grace, though. Anyone remotely acquainted with the realities of publishing—especially for those of us who sprung up from the muck of blogs and other online writings—can see why the wind might have blown me in this direction. When the last few rounds of meal tickets were passed out, I wasn't on the list. The phone wasn't ringing, I stink at pitching editors, and really, I was driving myself insane trying to get by on seasonal work and a slew of web pieces that, if you added them all up on a good week, might—might!—be enough to get by. The thrill was gone, something had died inside, and when a job in advertising came along, I was especially receptive. At that point, I could just as easily have been swayed by the right cult or elite armed force recruiter.

There's really no regret or anger here; nor does it require you give a flying fuck about what I did qua writer. The fact remains, this kind of career shift (quasi-retirement, dashing of long-held dreams, whatever) feels big to me. I did one thing, in an all-consuming way, and I turned away from it. The part worth mentioning? It just sort of happened. There wasn't any dramatic consultation with my very first mentor. My agent was happy for me. I scarcely felt torn. I don't remember any particular argument made for (or against) the move. And, asshole that I am, I barely checked in with my wife about it, even though it required us moving all the way from Seattle to Portland. I guess I was exhausted, disgusted, and even then looking without quite being aware of it for whatever next thing came along. There was no rational process or emotional tug-of-war. It was more like an invading army had landed and I was glad, not heartbroken, to welcome them. It took me several months to really explain to my Classical cohorts what had happened. I still haven't made a point of explaining the situation to the people who kindly contributed all that money to The Classical over Kickstarter, where I was the principal cheerleader.

Actually, there was one particular conversation, with a journalist I respect immensely, after I had already signed the paperwork to join the agency. Twitter is the ultimate place to attract attention without ever risking much personal investment; that's pretty much how I let people know that I was now out of the freelance game. She responded to my tweeted announcement, and, after a few emails, we got on the phone. I explained my situation and how little writing was working out for me. She talked to me about potential leads on work and feelers she could send out on my behalf. I eventually had to explain that this was a done deal; maybe, I joked, I should have been even more of a squeaky wheel all along. She continued, unabated, to ask me if I would consider such-and-such gig. I said yes to many she mentioned. And then a funny thing happened: as she went on mentioning different opportunities, I started to turn the conversation toward my own private list of complaints, including the kind of grudges that any longtime professional knows better than to name. That wasn't the point of this call, and we said goodbye a few minutes later.

No one ever got in touch with me about the gigs she'd mentioned, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this journalist never put my name forward for them. Anyone who listened to me talk about freelancing for more than thirty seconds could figure out that, through whatever combination of objective conditions and my own highly personal interpretation of those conditions, I had poisoned that particular well for myself. Maybe not out in the world, but in my head: I had turned the field into something that no longer felt particularly enjoyable or promising. Was that call my bit of wondrous advice? If so, it wasn't something I didn't already know. Instead, it was like a mirror held up, one that reflects inevitability back at itself—no questions asked, no alternative seeming present.

Previously in series: What Is This?

Also by this author: The Condition: Chronic Self-Disclosure

Bethlehem Shoals is a copywriter at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland and the founder of the Twitter account @freedarko.

13 Comments / Post A Comment

Matt (#26)

So your advice is 'don't write'?

Shoals (#7,895)

My advice is that sometimes advice is a lack of advice because the writing is on the wall.

Lead by example. Duly noted.

RonMwangaguhung (#3,697)

It is a major career shift and I wish you luck. When you start a family those concerns are, I imagine, far more important than living the uncertain, sort of romantic but impoverished life of the freelance writer. Baby's got to eat. Any artistically inclined person who has struggled to take care of himself or herself financially in pursuit of the Muse can understand that. The fact that you felt the need to explain this in writing shows that it is still in your blood. You are still of the tribe. Just because you are no longer solely earning a living by writing doesn't mean that you can't harbor future ambitions — a novel? — for someday in the not too distant future. Or maybe your family now fills the hole in your heart that was once filled by crafting syntactically perfect sentences.

But to those of us who still persevere, writing to earn our daily bread, I say: labor on!

P.J. Morse (#232,627)

You broke up with writing, but I'm not sure that writing broke up with you. Writing sometimes asks you on a date when you least expect it.

That said, you landed what seems to be a good gig in a bad economy. Own it, and give the job a proper whirl. I thought I knew my career path for sure, and then I stumbled onto a new career that I like so much better.

vanderlyn (#240,462)

I hear you, Bethlehem, as I was recently in a similar position. I lost my (poorly paying, but high status) job as an editor for a great publication after a couple of years, and after filing for unemployment and lamenting my sad state for a few days, I had a choice to make: seek another low- to mid-level editorial position, become a "freelance writer" somehow, or go for a big reset. I chose the last option. I'd always been interested in cities, had a good head for numbers, and after two years of grad school, took a job in real estate consulting. Meanwhile, I maintained my contacts with a couple of publications I'd freelanced for when I worked full-time as an editor.

The result has been better than I could have expected. My "day job" works a part of my brain than never got worked as an editor, and puts me in touch with a whole ecosystem of professionals from whom I've learned a lot. I still contribute one or two articles a month to a couple of magazines, usually writing on the weekends and at nights. I find that my writing is better, since I can focus more clearly on a single assignment, and the money (when it comes, months later) is more of a cherry on top — call it "mad money" — than something I need RIGHT NOW to pay the rent.

To that end I would encourage you to do two things, both of which have helped me greatly and neither of which was particularly intuitive for me. One, consider yourself a writer no matter your day job (or lack thereof). Writing requires no money or professional licensure, only a little bit of time. My new gig has inspired so many ideas – for books, journal articles, etc. – that I never would have had otherwise, and I hope to see some of them through. Sure, I don't tell people I'm a writer at parties, but that's okay, those people don't need to know anyway. Second, try not to characterize office jobs along a fake scale of "accounting" to "advertising" as if one were inherently more creative and inspiring than the other. It's really about one's own preferences, and I know many people who find "soulless" number-crunching to be intellectually stimulating in a way that, say, writing copy would not be. For them. Not you.

For me, there was freedom to be gained by earning a more comfortable wage, getting paid on time, and working within an organization and profession that allows upward advancement. It left the remaining hours of my days and weeks a little less fraught and panicked, gave me a bit more balance, and allowed me to plan for life in 5, 10, 20 years. This has only helped my writing and my self-definition as a writer.

scrooge (#2,697)

@vanderlyn Good advice. You're a better writer for knocking around the Real World for a bit.

You may have broken up with writing, but if you keep at that novel in the night and after hours you will essentially till have it as a fuckbuddy.

Sutton (#1,490)

Ha, Ron thinks that when you have children you can do things "in the night" and "after hours." As for writing, wait to do it again until you can't bear not to. (Not when you can't bear not to be perceived as a writer, which is tempting enough, but until there is a particular thing you can no longer bear not to write. I'm on this path myself. I figure the irresistible project will probably come along in no more than ten or fifteen years.

Freddie DeBoer (#4,188)

It feels even better for the rest of us.


vmaverick (#1,977)

So has the Awl given up on writing? Things have certainly been getting sparse lately.

just4keys (#240,502)

@vanderlyn Good advice. For me, there was freedom to be gained by earning a more comfortable wage, getting paid on time, and working within an organization and profession that allows upward advancement. win7, thanks!

Warren Johns (#240,516)

Bethlehem Shoals could expand this into a book that's like the Anti-Artist's Way. As a former freelance magazine writer still trying to reckon with how I got where I am, this piece was enough to send me out to Jamba Juice for a Pomagranate Pick-Me-Up, where it continued to eat at me.

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