I can freely admit that the last entry was a bummer, and that someone trying to eke out a little motivation to keep writing might have read it and thought, damn, that guy sounds a little dark and down today. So this time I want to talk about the successes, or at least the lessons.
Let’s start with a simple premise that I think we can all probably agree on: life is damned weird.
Whatever you think success is, whatever your expectation is for the future, whatever you’ve managed to wrap up into your identity or dreams or whatever.. yeah, that’s likely not going to happen. Or, at least, it certainly won’t happen the way you thought it would. And if you want to keep rollin’, you gotta keep rollin’, ya know?
I started out thinking, hey. If I could see my name in print from time to time, and make enough money to keep a roof over my head and some food in my belly, that sounds pretty good. Yeah, I’ll take that. This was somewhere back in ‘02, I guess, because no one had yet told me that being a working writer wasn’t a single steady job, but more of a cobbled professional mess of stunts you tried that shouldn’t have worked out but inexplicably did. Nothing worked the way you expected, but enough things worked to keep you going.
Life is damned weird.
So what does success look like? Oh, hell if I know. But when I look over my writing career and think about things and can point to specific moments that make me feel like I’ve accomplished something (even if something idiotic) as an errant scribbler, some of these stories come to mind.
The Schoolhouse Landmark. Way back in the early years, I took an assignment from Florida Monthly magazine to do an article about “strawberry schools”, which were rural Florida grade schools, back pre-WWII, whose schedules were built around the strawberry harvest season. Because, see, you needed kids out workin’ the fields, pickin’ them strawberries, because child labor was cheap and their hands were teeny-tiny and that mattered more than them city folks and their modern ideas of fancy schoolin’. (Seriously, that was a fair summary of the fiery debate at the time in rural Central Florida.)
Anyway, post-war state school standards came in, which pushed these rural schools into the modern age, and let me tell you, by the early 21st century it wasn’t easy to find anyone who still knew anything more about them. I spent quite a bit of time driving around the Plant City, Florida area, chasing rumors and asking nicely for leads, until I was finally pointed to a local historian who just happened to be sitting on a treasure trove of strawberry school history. He told me the story of a nearby schoolhouse, one of the last of its kind, and local efforts to have it declared a protected historical landmark.
I got everything I could, thanked him profusely, wrote what I thought was a decent but probably uninspired article, got the nod from the magazine’s managing editor, and took my meager check a few months later when it hit the stands. It was one of my first few published pieces, I felt pretty happy about it, but I was already trying to figure out my next gig. I didn’t think much about that piece until my phone rang a few years later. It was the historian who saved my bacon, and boy howdy, he had a story to tell.
Turns out the landmark advocate group took my article, used it to rally another push in Tallahassee, and after over a decade of trying were finally able to get it done. The schoolhouse was now a protected landmark. On the strength, he said, of my article.
I remember sitting at my desk, staring at the phone, dumbfounded and more than a little humbled. Something I wrote actually made a difference somewhere in the world, a real difference for real people. I never looked at writing the same way again.
The Dot-Com That Saved The Cat. Once upon a time, back in my single years, I lived with a cat that I had grown particularly fond of in a sort of Rocket Raccoon/”don’t shoot that” kind of way. He was my bud. And one day I discovered that he had cancer in his bones, and I had very few dollars in the bank. But I told the vet to go ahead and do all the tests and we’re going to fight this battle, and I’ll just have to figure out the money, which wasn’t nearly an easy thing to say when you’re a freelance writer with no idea where the next gig was coming from. Maybe not the best business decision, but it was what I had to do.
The very next day, I get a call from a South Florida startup with a plan for what they thought was a bold, new social media concept (it really wasn’t), and they needed lots of stuff written: website copy, press releases, articles, the works. I sold the hell out of that job. After a certain point, once they realized how much money they were on the hook with me for, they pitched back an offer for me to work for company stock. Uh, no: just pay my bills, thanks. And they did, and the job went on for quite some time, and the vet got most of the money.
The cat with the three-month cancer prognosis went on to live another five years, and I’m pretty sure that my vet was the only one to ever see any reasonable coin from that startup.
The Buzzword Bingo Client. This story’s a little tough to tell, because the people involved are still around and I don’t really bear any of them ill will. So if you’re reading this and wondering if this is about you, just assume it isn’t, okay?
I once had a regular writing gig doing email-based monthly newsletters for a particular business that shall remain nameless. Part of the deal was that I did most of my own research (not unusual), and so what I really tried hard to do was write something of substance each month that subscribers would find interesting and educational, while also putting the business in the best expertise-based light (i.e., make them sound smart).
And every month, the Creative Director of this outfit hated my topic proposals, pushing back with a demand for more fluff, emotion, and buzzword bingo. Wanting to keep the job – and operating from my core axiom that the client knows their needs better than I do – I started giving him exactly that, coming up with increasingly asinine angles about the spiritually revolutionary destiny of social media platforms or whatever. Every month, I thought, would be the last, but it just kept going, each month getting weirder than the last.
It started becoming almost a game: how completely hallucinogenic can I make these articles before this client would call me on my crap, giving me an out to steer this back into some value-based copy? Turns out, there was no bottom. Seriously, I cringe about this now, ten years later, but the worse the topics got, the more this CD loved them and the worse feeling I got from the whole situation.
I realized after some time that I was documenting this guy’s mid-life crisis, and that he was likely making actual business (and perhaps life) decisions based on the “market intelligence” that I was creating from whole cloth in his own newsletter – fictional nutrient-free buzzword nonsense that he, in fact, insisted upon reading.
It ended when, one day, the CD told me they were shutting down the newsletter, and were starting up what amounted to a porn website, and asked me if I wanted in. Nope, I said, not my deal, I’m off at this station, thanks a million. I’m content to watch this one from a safe distance.
Epilogue to the story: the porn site was basically a failure, the business went back to their bread and butter, and they resumed the newsletter on an in-house basis (i.e., I’m not writing it). They’re now doing research-based articles that focus on practical utility for the customer. So go fig.
This was the single weirdest experience so far in my writing career, and it taught me an important lesson. No matter what you may want to think, the message rarely matters as much as the mirror. Ultimately, that’s what we’re doing as writers: making mirrors. And you can still do a lot with a good reflection. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to inadvertently get someone to take a closer look at themselves, and to move things along.
.. and ..
My Greatest Writing Success. Oh, and most importantly, a few short but labored-over sentences once helped to win me a wonderful wife and a happy marriage. (And no, I’m not going to reprint them here.)
My point is, if you’re wondering what success looks like in writing, or despairing at ever seeing it yourself, don’t limit your imagination to publishing contracts and royalty checks. Those are nice. They help pay the bills, pad out the resume, and keep your self-esteem afloat in hard times. But if you’re limiting your vision to the commercial compensations and social accolades, you’re really missing all the best stuff.
Writing makes a real difference in the world. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.