7) Walking away from music, part one of two.
1989, I was about four years out of college and two out of music school
and it was time to, pardon the pun, face the music. Truth be told,
despite all my effort — years of practice, a pricey guitar school in
L.A., stints with multiple bands — in my opinion I was still not good
enough to be a success, not as a performer and not as a songwriter. Was
it just insecurity getting the best of me? I don’t think so. Regardless,
my mind was made up and now there was one question above all others I
needed to answer: what to do, what to do, what to do.
How do people decide what to do in life? I really have no idea, save for this: you chase an interest and if you love it, have a talent for it, work hard and get lucky you ultimately go pro. Failing that, you can also simply end up somewhere, for better or for worse. I did not want to just end up somewhere. But with music off the table, what was left? For me, the answer seemed to be writing. Ever since I won a short story contest in the 3rd grade I have fancied myself a writer, and over the years I have tried my hand at short fiction, poems, lyrics, a whole lot of letters, blogs. I’ve taken classes and read countless books on writing. I’ve also read Hemingway, lots of Hemingway, and once found it encouraging that he was morose and liked to be alone, just like me (depressingly, I later learned that this was not true at all).
Though my decision to pursue writing instead of music was made sometime in 1989, I had already started the process a few years before. I remember I was in my West Hollywood apartment and writing a letter to my sister and before I got very far along I realized I really couldn’t write worth a damn. Oh, I could put words on the page, compose complete sentences, even spell most articles and prepositions correctly, but write? Hell no. This was sad. I had an English degree from a good school, I had written countless papers and poems and lyrics and other stuff, but as I sat there pen in hand and unable to express in words what was on my mind, I finally understood how I had been simply going through the motions for eons, probably ever since third grade, and had never truly thought about writing and how to do it well. I put my letter to my sister on hold and headed off to a bookstore to find guidance. The book I bought has been my favorite book on writing ever since. It’s called The Writer’s Art and it changed my life. I read it cover to cover, read it again, and have referred to it way too many times to remember ever since that fateful day I first opened it.
So there I was, a year or so out of guitar school, a few years out of college, lessons of The Writer’s Art fresh in my head, my musical dreams fading as I played in bars with The Distractions, my job in a stereo store now in the past, my job selling books door-to-door no more, my job selling timeshares mercifully cut short when I just got up and walked out. Either I could get yet another meaningless job to support my music, or I finally, for the first time in my life, try to get a job I actually wanted and that would lead to even better jobs. Given that writing was my only interest besides music, I began to scan the Sunday paper for opportunities. After several thank-you-but-no-thank-thank-you letters, I finally got an interview.
The job was a weird one. I was interviewing to be an Indexer. “A what?” you ask. Well, back in the days before the Internet, all content had to be indexed so it could be looked up using keywords, etc. and I was to be among the legions doing it. Basically, it was a slight step up from data entry, but I actually liked the work because mostly what I did all day long was read magazines and newspapers. After about a year of this, I was promoted to write abstracts of articles about the computer industry. I loved writing abstracts because I felt very Hemingway as I stripped things to their essence. I also liked learning about all the stuff that was going on — Apple, Sun, Microsoft, IBM, DEC, Compaq — and for awhile there I could recite from memory the complete product lines of tech’s leaders and what was good about them and bad. But... the burnout factor came fast and hard; besides, I knew writing abstracts was hardly what I had in mind for a career.
I can’t recall how I became aware of copywriting as a profession, but after about a year of writing abstracts, I started taking copywriting classes at the UC Berkeley Extension in SF. I can’t say I showed tons of promise, but neither did anyone else in my classes, so I figured my chances were okay. After completing my second class, I began religiously reading the Sunday classifieds for copywriting jobs that looked to be not only within my reach, but also at least a little bit fun sounding. There wasn’t much, but one day, there was an ad from The Sharper Image (TSI).
I had been reading The Sharper Image catalog for years and genuinely liked it and believed I could write good stuff for it. I also loved gadgets. But while my hopes were high, my expectations were not. After all, I was simply answering a newspaper ad, an ad I later learned had also been answered by about 100 other people, and I had no personal connections with TSI and not much in the way of writing samples. Still, I wrote the best letter I could, finessed my resume, printed both on carefully selected linen paper and mailed them off. When I got the letter requesting that I come in for an interview, I was more stunned than thrilled. Me? Are you sure? The whole interview process was grueling and took three months, complete with copy tests, as TSI narrowed the pool. When they finally offered me the job, I could not believe it. I still can’t.
Maybe I had found my calling, maybe writing was it, maybe all those years of fantasizing about being like Hemingway were indicative of an innate talent, something to believe in about myself. I could not say, still can’t, but what was my choice? Possible vs. impossible? Pretty much. And the practical North Dakota blood in me wanted possible hands down.
I accepted the job.