I Broke Up With Writing (And It Feels OK)

by Bethlehem Shoals

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.