Pose for the paparazzi. Autograph your books.
Write like a dream, promote like a rock star.
Fame and fortune are yours!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Making the transition from corporate to creative writing

Writing stars, I was in college when I found my calling: New York Times best selling novelist. I would spend countless hours in a daze, fantasizing about the stories I wanted to write and imagining rows and rows of my books selling by the truckload at the book store.

Remember "book stores?" Times sure have changed.

Anyway, I was a freshly minted young adult, and the need to make cash was my most urgent priority. So my dream to be a best selling novelist took a back seat to paying the bills. I sold my creative soul to Corporate America. Little did I know what a deal with the devil that would be.

Immediately upon graduation I got a job as a copywriter for the Sears catalog. This was my first writing job, and I was too excited to be making $16,000 in the real world. After making minimum wage at various campus jobs, 16 big ones seemed like a fortune.

I worked at Sear's Tower (now called Willis) in downtown Chicago, then the tallest building in the world. Everyday I'd take the train downtown along with the rest of the unwashed masses and, in my little gray cubicle, would "write" about men's shoes.

I learned that a particular type of slipper was popular in the South.

I think this was the men's slipper that was popular in the South back in the day. Fascinating, huh? Your homework: write descriptive ad copy that will make men literally salivate at the sight of these beauties. Your hypnotic writing must make men reach for their credit cards and buy buy buy.
I also learned how to squeeze punchy, pithy, persuasive, promotional words into a tiny square inch of space. I called it mathematical writing, and I wasn't very good at it. After six months I quit, but the damage had been done. I was now a marketing communications writer and over the years got several jobs writing corporate newsletters, training manuals, brochures, proposals (for profit and nonprofit), press releases, Power Point presentations, reports, web copy, etc.

I still fantasized about writing novels, but when I got home from work, I never seemed to have enough energy at the end of the day. Whenever I attempted to write creatively, the words never "sounded" right. My writing had become as stiff and boring as a tax return. Along the way I had a couple of kids, and whatever energy I did have left, they got.

Now there is one high point in this sad story of mine. In the early '90s I got a job as an editor at a small publishing house in Chicago. For three glorious years, I worked with my first love: books. And I developed my skills as an editor. After I left, I made it a point to stay involved in the publishing world as an editor. A few years later, I was laid off from a writing job when the department was closed out. I decided to go for it. I got an agent and published some books. My books were nonfiction, not fiction, but they did allow me to indulge my creative side in long form.

So my career has long run on parallel tracks: marketing communications writer by day, ghostwriter and editor of books at night. Then one day last year a life-altering event occurred. I was laid off my writing job in mid life. During my younger years I could rebound quickly, but now it's not so easy.

Today I find myself standing in the crossroads, and to tell the truth, the juncture is pretty crowded. Middle-agers and seniors are being systematically excluded from the marketplace even though we still have so much to give. I have seen more older people working at Target, Burger King, and Trader Joe's than I can remember. We're trying everything we can think of, including going back to school and dabbling in entrepreneurship. Oh, the places I've gone and the online scams I've seen.

[Note to Starbucks: I'm a coffee drinker who could inhale coffee fumes all day long. If you could use a coffee lover with great communications and customer service skills and a strong work ethic, I'm your barista!]

When I was first laid off, I was devastated. I felt I had been put out to pasture or sent to the glue factory where old horses go to die. Now, I'm not so sure. From a spiritual perspective, and there's nothing like the threat of financial ruin to either make or break your faith, I'm now thinking that this was the best thing that could have happened to me. I never wanted to work a 9 to 5 job. I always wanted to be a financially independent writer and entrepreneur. And now, nothing's stopping me. Believe me, this change of heart was hard won.

In addition to rebuilding my self-esteem (an ongoing process), I had to work through the "loss" of my authentic creative writing voice. It was never really lost, only deactivated and put on hold. I have often felt like Peter Keating in Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead. While Howard Roark was being true to his vision as an architect, no matter what it cost him, old Peter decided to put his artistic heart aside to make money and gain power, and his art ultimately died, stillborn.

I simply wanted to survive using my writing skills, but in doing so, I became bloated with jargon, corporate writing tricks (laziness), and sterility over the years. Corporate life had sterilized my writing. My writing had become so boring that I couldn't stand to read anything I had written. If culture in society is expressed through language, corporate culture is expressed through white papers and Power Point presentations.

So now I'm on a mission to reclaim my writing mojo, but to get there I've had to go through my own dark night. I don't have a lot of answers to this dilemma because I'm still working it out, but this much I do know. To reclaim your voice means you have to remember yourself. You have to reclaim your soul. To survive in the workplace, you have to deactivate parts of your soul. You may be a wild, tattooed woman, but you have to tone it down from 9 to 5. I once knew a young graphic designer who was so raw in her soul's expression that she admitted to me she had undergone some sort of a tantric ritual. I was fascinated. I asked her to tell me about it, but she said if she told me she'd have to kill me. Years later when I saw her she looked like any other working stiff. Locks were shorn, spirit lacked spark.

I've wanted to write about my journey from corporate to creative writer for some time, but felt I didn't know enough to share. I hadn't gone through enough for this piece to be legitimate. Well, over the weekend I wrote a children's story. I was so happy with it I nearly cried. It appears I'm finally on my way.

Writing stars, if you're finding yourself in a similar predicament, just know that the more you inhabit your true self, not the corporate mask you may be wearing every day, the better your writing will be. Also, be true to your calling. Even if there's no money on the table, write anyway.

Ghostwriters, your profession is literally designed to make you lose your authentic voice. If you're good at what you do, that means you have a knack for putting your own uniqueness on the back burner so that others can shine. Make the money, but don't lose yourself in the process.

If you're writing for The Man but also want to write creatively, you must set aside time everyday to work your craft. Morning is best, even a half hour before work will help. I know you think you can't possibly squeeze in anything else to do, but try. In the morning you're still fresh. After work your mind will be cluttered with corporate words, corporate ideas, corporate jargon.

Next to my computer are Ernest Hemingway's famous words, and they've nurtured me throughout my recalibration: "Write drunk. Edit sober." Getting that super critical corporate manager out of my head has been a chore, but I like the idea of writing drunk, writing with total and complete abandon, corporate manager be damned. No inhibitions. This takes courage, but that's what it means to be a writer.

Donna Marie

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Curls Gone Wild | Illini Edition

Ayanna Nzinga, my daughter and U. of Illinois econ/sustainability senior, interviewed her fellow Illini students about their natural hair raising experiences. Enjoy!


Donna Marie

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Writing to serve, make money or both?

Writing stars, I have to admit that I'm often usually focused more on survival and making money than writing to serve, entertain, and inform. But today I read an article by Dharmesh Shah, the founder of HubSpot, that got me thinking about my profession in a different, much better way. He says,

Stop thinking about making a million dollars 
and start thinking about 
serving a million people.

I love that. Just this one thought is challenging me to write to serve. That's a totally different mindset.

Providing a service and making money don't have to be mutually exclusive. Look at Deepak Chopra, Stephen King and Toni Morrison. They're amazing writers serving the public in different genres, and they're all providing a service, and they're all wealthy. Whether writing to inspire, educate, or entertain, you're providing a service to readers. As these celebrity authors have demonstrated, service and making money can occur at the same time, but if you're singularly focused on one or the other, your work will be out of balance.

Starting now I'm writing to serve millions and to make the same. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Donna Marie