“Anyone who says dishwashers can’t be fabulous hasn’t seen these…”
That’s the prompt I was given for a blog post I have to write today about a premium brand of dishwashers.
Yes, I write about dishwashers for a living…and refrigerators, and coffee machines, and drapery cleaning, and much more (you can learn about that aspect of my professional life here). Of course if I had my way I’d only write creative stuff, but the truth is I have not been paid for any of the creative work I’ve published (the lack of compensation offered by most cash-strapped literary journals is an issue that both the writers and the journals struggle with). I have been paid for freelance journalism and for a few articles that skirt the line between reporting and personal essay. And I received compensation for an interview I wrote for The Writer’s Chronicle. But most of my creative life is spent slaving away at prose that will never earn me a paycheck (at least not unless it gets published in book form, and even then…).
The thing is, the bills have to be paid. So over the years I’ve worked at a wide variety of jobs, most of which were connected in some form or other to my skills as a writer, proofreader, and editor. I’ve written for newspapers, businesses, and non-profit organizations. I’ve been a full-time reporter, a full-time PR and marketing writer, and a part-time or freelance version of any and all of these.
I’ve also done bookkeeping, managed a music business, taught fitness classes, and served smoothies to the wealthy patrons of a high-class tennis facility.
The other day I was talking with a friend who is not a writer, and she was worrying about what she might do professionally during the next phase of her life. This friend was a competitive swimmer for many years, and she earned a college degree in sports fitness. Since that time she has worked at a variety of jobs, gotten married and raised a lovely daughter. Her daughter, in fact, is rather brilliant — she earned a scholarship to attend three years of high school at Exeter Academy and has just been accepted early admission into Columbia, where the crew team also recruited her.
But my friend, who is highly intelligent in her own right, didn’t have the same educational opportunities when she was young, and she never carved out a specific career. So she is wondering now, in the middle of her life, what to do next. Her husband recently earned a doctoral degree and is starting a new career as a chiropractor. My friend wonders exactly “who she is,” because she knows that our society tends to be focused on your “title” and professional accomplishments, along with the size of your bank account.
I felt the same way about my life for many years, although in my heart I always knew I was a “writer” (whatever that meant). The few times I worked at corporate-type jobs I had a nice salary and comfortable benefits, and I knew that if I remained diligently on that path I could eventually have some sort of title that people would respect along with a nice paycheck and a big 401(k). But I was restless and miserable sitting in a cubicle all day, and my mind was often bored. I spent 40 hours of each week feeling that way, and then spent the weekends dreading Monday morning. After my last experience at a full-time job, during which I experienced a conflict with a supervisor that caused me a tremendous amount of stress, I decided I was done. I have worked at home ever since, without a fancy title or a nice salary or a 401(k). And I have devoted more of my time to creative writing.
You’d think the moral of that story would be to choose the path that inspires you so you can end up in some happy state of bliss. But my life hasn’t really worked out that way. Like I said before, the bills must be paid. My husband is pursuing a PhD in Social Work and works with people at a mental health clinic. The most generous thing one can say about the compensation in the mental health field (at least at this stage) is that it is higher than the pay for creative writing. So I have to do something…and what I do to help pay the bills is write press releases and blog posts and web copy about dishwashers (and clothes washers, and house cleaning, and…). I also tweet and maintain Facebook pages for small businesses.
You wouldn’t think that type of work helps my creative writing; you might even think the formulaic aspect of a lot of it hurts me. And it’s true that I sometimes make fun of the things I write about, although I can’t stress enough that I appreciate the work and always — if I dare say so myself — do a cracker jack job for any company I work for. But interestingly, I’ve actually found that there is value to this type of work that carries over into my creative writing.
For me, writing press releases and blog posts and web copy is like practicing scales when you play a musical instrument. It’s the same basic process as the creative aspect of the playing. In terms of writing, I still have to come up with ideas, do research, lay down a first draft and then improve that draft at both the structural and language level. I have to determine if the draft is cohesive, and if the most important points are coming across. I have to edit out the passive tense and make sure punctuation is correct or has a very specific reason for being incorrect. And because I go through this process over and over, day after day, that part of things is like clockwork when I wake up in the early mornings and work on personal essays.
With the basics, the scales, the rudimentary stuff so heavily practiced, I am freer to get to the hard stuff — the creative part.
For example, one of the first things I have to do right now, since I’ve spent my morning hours working on my latest essay and have just about finished blogging, is to alter the prompt at the beginning of this post into the headline or first sentence of a blog post:
“Anyone who says dishwashers can’t be fabulous hasn’t seen these…”
Do I really want to use the word “fabulous?” It’s so cliché in our current society, and it doesn’t really match the content I need to develop. I need to write about dishwashers, and the audience isn’t necessary looking for a dishwasher that’s “fabulous.” What word can I substitute?
And so the process — the basic C scale — begins.
I’ve been feeling this same pain, on the down days, since leaving my last full-time ‘corporate’ job…which will be 12 years in June. It’s tough, but when I look back, I always reach the same conclusion: staying on that track was the death of the soul. As long as I can eat, I’d rather enjoy life and not be defined by “what you do.” I instead define myself by “what you know.”
Hey, if you think writing about appliances and other mundane objects can’t produce it’s own kind of art, remember that Kate Bush wrote a song with “Washing Machine” repeated in the chorus. For that matter, Joe Jackson wrote an entire song honoring instant mashed potatoes. So you’ve got some creative work to measure your own efforts against.
Good point, Chris. A lot of art comes from the extremely ordinary.