How I make lemonade.
If you’re in advertising or were until recently, you’ve probably heard of a new movie called Lemonade, written by Eric Proulx, which is about adfolk around the country who have turned the lemon of being laid off into a sweet, refreshing elixir.
I cannot wait to see this movie.
True, I was not laid off in the traditional sense, but I did lose my job after my brain injury, and I can completely relate to the experience of losing one’s livelihood and career and even sense of purpose in an instant. More important, I can relate to the feeling of “waking up” to realize that there is a whole world out there beyond the typical cubicle of adland, a world that awaits and rewards creative thinking. Obviously, those rewards aren’t always monetary, but they are rewards just the same: a greater sense of well being, the luxury of spending less time in a state of fear, the joy of doing something creative (anything!) besides advertising. This last bit — the joy of doing something creative besides advertising — has been especially relevant to me. For I was not the classic creative director: I did not have a sheaf of unfinished screenplays in my desk, or a novel-in-waiting deep in my hard drive or a studio filled with finished and sketched paintings. I had advertising and nothing more.
But after my brain injury, I suddenly had something I hadn’t had in years: free time. And I mean truly free time. I was not consumed with worry about my boss’s Machiavellian streak, I was not fretting over campaigns past, present and future, what to do about the weaker players on my creative team, how to reward the stronger ones, whether I would ever win a Pencil or do a Superbowl spot, and on and on and on. Instead, in those early days, I worried about whether I could get to a toilet or bucket in time, should I have to throw up (a frequent problem), I feared stairs of all kinds, and I wondered, somewhat casually, when I would feel better (little did I know).
To pass the time I started playing my guitar more. Then something truly strange happened. Suddenly, I started writing songs. The first totally new song I wrote, one that did not attempt to build on a past riff or lyric, was Demons & Saints. I remember I was watching a DVD my friend Toby gave me about one of Tom Petty’s Fillmore runs, and mid-film I took a break to walk down the street to a get a cup of coffee at my local Peet’s. Walking back, I was struggling, weaving along the sidewalk, constantly touching trees and walls for balance despite having my trusty cane with me, and the line and melody for what would become the chorus of the song (almost verbatim!) popped into my head: “too many demons and two few saints”.
Every writer has his favorite instrument. Every photographer has his favorite lens. Every artist his favorite tool. For me at the time, my favorite guitar for noodling was my Steinberger. It’s small, never goes out of tune, sounds good unplugged and is comfortable to play when one is lying on a couch, as I mostly was. So when I was safely back on my couch, coffee on the table and guitar in-hand, I worked out the chords to the melody I had just heard on my walk home and then, and this is really amazing, damn near finished the music for the rest of the song. Before that fateful moment, finishing was never something I could do. I would get discouraged, get distracted (by an ad?), I would hit a wall. And the song would languish in limbo for the rest of eternity. But not this time. And since that fateful day, songwriting has been my lemonade.
I wish I could say I had INTENTIONALLY made the change from being all consumed by advertising to consuming lemonade, but I can’t. It just happened. For me, the catalyst was an accident, for others, chance of a different kind, but chance just the same. And all I can say to all of you out there who have been pushed from the creative castle of advertising, before you attempt to storm the castle once more, make a batch of lemonade, take a sip, and ask yourself if you really have to go back. More important, ask yourself if you really want to.
Oh, and visit http://www.pleasefeedtheanimals.com/, the blog that goes hand-in-hand with the movie Lemonade.