Sometimes It’s Good to Bring Our Worst Selves to Work
I learned a lot about fiction writing from my brief, inglorious career as a radio ad writer
Before starting a job as a radio copywriter, where I frequently wrote ads for strip clubs and sex shops, I worked the counter at a small bakery near a college campus. Many customers were professors who made small talk while I sliced their olive loaves. On occasion – not daily, but enough to see a theme – they would point out that my job, to serve them, was beneath the standards of respectable work. “Where did you go to college? And why are you working here?” one woman asked me after we discussed the books we were reading.
The bakery owner had offered me a job when she noticed my daily purchases getting cheaper and suspected, correctly, that I was running out of cash. The city was a place I had moved to in order to support someone else’s ambition. There I found myself friendless, jobless, and unmoored. Visiting the bakery was a bright spot in my daily routine and I was happy to work with the interesting, creative people who owned it.
Later, some millionaires wrecked my car. One afternoon, I found it had been totaled where I had left it parked near the small one-bedroom apartment where I lived with my wonderful cat and my terrible boyfriend. While I inspected the damage, a passerby told me that the couple who lived across the road had smashed into it and left without leaving a note. They were surgeons, the passerby told me before leading his dachshund away. When I knocked on their door, Mrs. Surgeon frowned at the inconvenience of my visit and remarked that I would probably be happy to take the insurance money and upgrade my twenty-year-old Honda. When the windfall—a couple hundred bucks—arrived, I used it on rent.
Not long after the car wreck, I applied for corporate advertising jobs. I was tired of the constant remarks about my job, the lack of respect I was afforded as a service worker, and even more importantly, I was tired of being broke.
The job interview was a writing test: I was put in a room with a client brief and a laptop. The brief may have been for shirts or for air conditioners: just a basic ad mentioning the client’s business, the type of product for sale, and the street address and phone number of the business. In a few minutes, I opened the door and told them I was done. They called back the next day to offer me the job of junior copywriter, starting at $18,000 per year, reporting to the sales manager.
Each day, I sat in a gray cubicle next to a part-time country DJ who told me about the Vietnamese food he had once eaten in Seattle. I reviewed the briefs that landed in my inbox and typed up scripts. Five stations transmitted from antennas on top of the art deco skyscraper, which sat above an enormous lake. The clients who bought ads were local bars and clubs with themed music nights, gas marts on the nearby Indian reservation, and restaurants with discount game day menus when the local football team played.
The ads for sex shops and strip clubs aired on the station that played a “shock jock” program during morning drive time. Client briefs for touring strippers sometimes included photos, but often were a list of bullet points detailing the woman’s achievements in the previous few years: Miss Nude Miami. Miss Redhead Oklahoma. Miss Topless Atlantic City (Runner-Up). Some ads followed a template that made the job more like transcription than writing. Name the stripper, list a few titles, then mention the dates of her local performances, the venue and its address. And mention the wings. Every strip club sold chicken wings, and each club’s wings were—according to the club itself, which I dutifully repeated—famously the best in town. On a given week, I wrote anywhere from two to eight ads for touring strippers.
Sex shop ads were looser and weirder. Often, the client would have an idea for how to frame the advertisement; for example, two friends chatting by the side of the pool and deciding to reroute the day’s events toward the dildo aisle. At no point in my position did I argue for creativity, realism, or even novelty: if Forbidden Fantasies wanted “Jessica” and “Katie” to pour a couple of white wines by the pool and then, out of the blue, agree that the best use of the afternoon would be to purchase latex outfits before the return of their husbands (who were, presumably, watching Miss Topless Atlantic City, runner-up, while eating the city’s best wings), who was I to argue?
While I was writing these ads, the job seemed like a blip on my resume that wasn’t as interesting as the trajectories of my friends who were studying in graduate writing programs or editing fiction. Now, though, I see how the job – both the impetus for applying, and the work itself – played into the writing of my debut novel, Housebreaking, which is about a working-class young woman who does something profoundly stupid, and then keeps doing it past the point of reason.
Let’s say you don’t want to earn $18,000 a year writing about Miss Redhead Oklahoma just so that you can turn out a debut novel more than a decade later. No worries: I’ll tell you what I learned.
Bringing My Worst Self to Work
Once I sat in the audience while a writer I admired said that the best writing ought to reflect the qualities and personality of the writer herself. He went on to praise a writer friend whose kindness and generosity bubbled up on the pages of her short stories. Well, I thought, slumping in my seat. There goes my novel-writing career. I knew then, as I know now, how shitty my personality actually is. I’m impatient, quick to judge, and have a remarkable ability to imagine the most catastrophic outcome of any action. As if that list weren’t long enough, beneath my smile you’ll find an underlying class resentment that would prompt the Titanic’s iceberg to float out of the way in deference.
The summer before I started sixth grade, my family was homeless for several months. During that period, we remained in my hometown, living in a kind of shadow society: my mother drove us to a different bus stop so that we didn’t board at the homeless shelter and we shopped at a different grocery store where there were no familiar witnesses to see us paying with food stamps. I didn’t tell my friends what was happening, and no one asked. I felt judged, secretive, and angry. In the cell of my brain that ought to remember to pick up eczema cream at the pharmacy, there is instead a filmstrip, on permanent loop, playing the time my high school friend’s mother called my family trash. (Fuck you, Janet.)
While for too long I shunned the idea of exploring my anger and resentment in fiction, I enjoyed the benefits of surreptitiously airing my grievances on the radio. The surgeons’ first names appeared in multiple ads: a raft of toys from the autumn sale at Sinful Sensationz might bolster Mr. Surgeon’s underperforming dick, while at dollar wing night Mrs. Surgeon’s children praised the heavens that they skipped out on another miserable, silent family dinner at home.
The advice to reflect yourself in your writing sounds a lot like the corporate maxim to “bring your whole self to work”—and in fiction, I didn’t want to. I wanted to bring the appealing parts, the traits I would have trotted out in an introductory meeting with a new boyfriend’s parents. Writing my novel though, I couldn’t help the bad parts bubbling up. My protagonist, Adela, isn’t a stand-in for me: she’s more of a loner, more stubborn, and less conventional. Her family situation is nothing like mine. But the themes of my book, the black hole at the center of her adolescence and the social failure that spins out from it, are subjects that she and I could talk about if we met for coffee (after which she’d pick my pocket while I paid the bill).
With the novel, I had a chance for context – a benefit of length, really – and a level of maturity I didn’t have as a young copywriter. My novel isn’t a burn book, nor would I want it to be. My feelings about my own childhood are more complex and nuanced than they were when I was an adolescent, and that hopefully translates when imagining my protagonist and her choices. Nevertheless, anger follows the laws of matter: it hasn’t disappeared or been destroyed, it is only rearranged. (Still, forever, fuck you, Janet.)
Cutting Out the Fat
In my undergraduate writing workshop a couple years before my radio gig, I was a perfectionist who labored over every metaphor. Zombie drafts continued to rise from the grave years later, commas spirited away, adverbs defenestrated. But there just wasn’t time for that kind of attention when I might write twenty ads in a day.
The nature of a radio ad relies on brevity and compression. “Scene building” – insofar as it exists – might only be a simple sound effect laid over the background. Ads might only be fifteen seconds, especially around the election cycle when the cost quadrupled as candidates fought over airtime, and yet client briefs were never actually very brief. When client instructions were Foster Wallace, I turned out ads that were Forster: direct, simple, logical. With fiction, I had to realize that I was precious about my own writing in a way that did not matter to my audience. The information – the story – mattered. Characters mattered. The style mattered to me, and should matter, but the way I used to write, taking years to develop a paragraph while arguing with myself over each word, would have precluded me from ever writing a novel at all.
This wasn’t a decision not to care about sentence-level writing. Rather, I learned to accept the audience’s reaction to my work while being less emotionally attached to it, and to ensure that I did pay attention to those aspects that were critical to my reader but were perhaps less interesting to me. When, later, I turned the opening of my novel over to a trusted reader and she told me that it was meandering and unnecessary, I lopped it off and moved on, because she was right.
The Lady and Her Ego
Imperfection and a sense of humility underpinned my job, which I knew to be ridiculous. While I took myself extremely seriously as a fiction writer who produced little and published nothing, I was all too eager to play up the silliness of copywriting, in which I was paid to produce work that tens of thousands of people heard and with a job title that would have earned approval from the same people who thought my bakery job beneath me.
I sent my friends tapes when I incorporated their names into spots and told them about the ridiculous characters at the station, like the DJ who wore a ten-gallon hat and loved to talk about #ranchlife yet was a born-and-bred suburbanite who had never been within a thousand miles of a cowboy.
The radio job also made clear that there were both necessary and unnecessary audiences. In my position, the salesperson and the client were necessary. If they weren’t happy, I had to do the spot again. Others, like the DJs or production team, were the equivalent of Goodreads or the guy in your workshop who has always hated your work: operating in the background, always opining, yet best blocked from notice.
I wrote my debut when I was thirty-nine, and regularly thank the gods that I didn’t get a publishing contract in my early twenties because I would have been insufferable. The stupidity of the radio job and seeing the disconnect between the regard that it earned balanced against what I actually did on a day-to-day basis helps me to see public validation for the trap that it is, although it’s a trap I still fall into from time to time.
Being published was very different from my expectations. The glory of signing a contract fades too easily as books are sorted out into the “most anticipated” and … everyone else. The everyone else pile is enormous. And even having a massive hit might not provide the kind of validation that I would have expected, or desired, as a young writer.
A couple months ago, I spoke to a friend who has had every type of external approval that I thought a writer could want: money, awards, famous friends, a permanent place in the public sphere. Despite all those things, it can still feel like not enough, even for people like him. Success, he told me, must be measured between the book and the reader. Whatever else you seek from the outside world inevitably feels cheap.
At the time I write this, my debut hasn’t been published yet, and I expect that it will be a modest seller. Who knows how many people will read my novel, but it will pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who heard my radio ads, which were neither artful nor important.
And yet a month after I left my radio job, every trace of me had been recorded over. Who knows what will happen to my book, but I would like to imagine that whatever libraries look like in 2040, my book might be in one of them.
When I think about writing my book—with speed, with purpose, and with a sense of humor and humility about the whole enterprise—I’m taken back to that gray cubicle in the skyscraper above the enormous, frozen lake, with a brief to write a thirty-second conversation between Jessica and Katie about their unusual plans for the afternoon ahead.