Forty years ago, author Madeleine L’Engle was throwing shade. At fellow writers, no less.
In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (an otherwise excellent book), her love of words leads her to warn about language that becomes exhausted, and how a diminished shared vocabulary can lead to injustice and dictatorship. So far, so good.
Then she takes off the gloves.
“I might even go to the extreme of declaring that the deliberate diminution of vocabulary by a dictator, or an advertising copywriter, is anti-Christian.” (page 39)
I’ve been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Right out of college, I got a job in department store newspaper advertising, writing about perfume and clothing and furniture. It was incredibly boring (to me) and lasted a blessedly short four months. But I’m glad I did it because it led to a much better job in medical publishing, writing about books, periodicals, and conferences for doctors, nurses, and others in healthcare. Which led to a long-term, part-time job doing much the same thing, only at home with our children, which was where my husband and I both wanted me to be.
For the informational benefit of those in the healthcare field, I’ve written direct marketing copy, web copy, back cover copy, email copy, ad copy, letters, brochures, and more. Over the years I’ve branched out to write all kinds of curricula, and I’ve added editing (which I love) and proofreading (which I don’t love) to my repertoire. But the core of my work was in marketing for many years, and I continue to do this work today.
So what Madeleine L’Engle had to say about advertising copywriters was a low blow. But I wasn’t surprised to read it. Sure, I was stung, a little hurt, knowing that other writers would read her words and smile to themselves, feeling grateful that they had never sunk so low as to write advertising. But no writer of any kind would be honestly surprised to see L’Engle’s disparaging comments about advertising copywriters, who surely occupy the lowest rung of the writing hierarchy.
There’s a linguistic hierarchy, too, that’s shared by both writers and artists (perhaps by other creatives, too, I don’t know). Every writer or artist knows about this hierarchy: the perceived difference between “writer” and “author,” or the perceived difference between “illustrator” and “artist.”
I’ve had the writer/author discussion many times with my daughter, who at various times calls herself an artist, illustrator, or designer. We’ve talked about the immensely talented Norman Rockwell, who was all too aware of the artist/illustrator question. Throughout his life, art critics never considered him an “artist,” but merely an “illustrator.” When he was asked to comment on the artist/illustrator question, he replied, “I call myself an illustrator because my pictures tell a story….Of course, if someone calls me an artist, I don’t argue. Art should be involved in life … Michelangelo … told stories with his art … the Sistine Chapel is one big story. I don’t put myself in his class but this was illustration—yet nobody calls him an illustrator.” (www.nrm.org)
You can google “writer or author” all day long and never get an iron-clad definition of either one in relation to the other. Personally, I’ve called myself a “writer” from day one because I’ve always connected being an “author” with writing a book, which I’ve never done.
But I’ve never seen being a writer as less than being an author—in fact, I love the title of writer because that’s exactly how I see myself: “writer” is a hardscrabble kind of word, a word that says you are in that chair regularly, facing that blank page, and the words are coming or they’re not, and you deal with it regardless. If you are getting paid (my “real” work), you learn to write—through the blocks, through the fog, through any disinterest in your subject matter—and you learn to do it well. If you are not getting paid (my blog), you have more leeway to simply abandon your post until inspiration strikes—albeit consumed by guilt at not writing and by fear of never having anything to say ever again.
Still, “author” has its allure, and it’s no doubt just as challenging and exhausting as being a writer, in different ways and on a different timetable. And being an author leaves no doubt as to your professional status. I’ve idolized authors my entire life, and seeing old pictures of Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, or C.S. Lewis sitting in front of a typewriter still gives me chills.
So, much as I really do like and respect Madeleine L’Engle, lately I’ve been getting my writing inspiration not from her book on faith and art, but from—wait for it—a marketing guy. I’ve read Seth Godin’s The Practice: Shipping Creative Work twice in the past two years. It’s not just for writers; it’s for anyone who wants to use creativity in their work, whatever it may be. In 219 short, to-the-point readings, Godin reminds me over and over to commit to the process, be of service, not care about success, seek joy, run from mediocrity, be generous, learn something, embrace discomfort, show up, and ship (share) the work. It’s a pep talk I crave—it both reminds me to be proud of writing mere marketing copy, and inspires me to continue writing blog posts. Writing is a lonely profession, and I appreciate the empathy and motivation I’ve found in this little book.
Back when I was an in-house copywriter, I had a boss who wanted me to go into management, like she had. She had started out as a graphic designer but was now the Direct Marketing Manager, making a lot more money and supervising many people. It was tempting, but I didn’t have to think about it for very long. I declined. She said to me, “You’d still be creative! There’s creativity in management, too!”
But Boss, you don’t understand. I want to write. Even for less money, even for very little prestige, even through the angst of self-doubt. I just want to write.
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