I worked for a while at an advertising agency, writing ad copy and brochures and lots of direct mail (an art form that the unwashed masses sometimes call junk mail).
One day on my way home from the office I drove past a man checking his mail. It happened to be trash day, and he had wheeled his trash can out to the curb, right by the mailbox, so there he stood pulling junk mail out of his mailbox and depositing it directly into his trash can. I couldn’t help imagining my own carefully crafted prose meeting a similar fate in trash cans throughout this great country.
In short, writing brochures and junk mail wasn’t what I had in mind when I first thought about getting into the writing racket (though I should point out that if you’re hoping to get paid for your writing, you might want to skip juvenile swamp fiction altogether and go straight to junk mail).
But I digress. I bring up my stint at the ad agency because during that time I learned a lesson that has shaped my work ever since. Every day at the ad agency I was faced with difficult writing problems, usually three or four per day, and each usually with its own unreasonable deadline. Before lunch I might write a letter explaining why the reader should join up with some professional membership association that I had never heard of before that morning. After lunch, I might have to come up with three ideas for an ad campaign communicating why Bank X is better than all the other banks out there. I could usually come up with one decent idea relatively easily. But three? I would sit at my desk and write fifteen terrible ideas–a few bad puns, a few staringly obvious and/or overly literal statements of fact, three outright lies, and a couple of things that made no sense at all. Then, about the time the post-prandial slump came upon me, I would do some soul-searching and wonder whether I was frittering away my gifts. I would decide the jig was up, that I was never going to have another idea about a bank or a professional membership organization or anything else, and I might as well turn my writerly gifts toward composing a letter of resignation. Then I would think about my wife and children, and their need for daily bread, and somehow, out of nowhere, a second decent idea would flutter in. More soul-searching, some Google searching, a conversation or two with colleagues, and somehow, minutes before we had promised to send our ideas to the client, a third idea would come. Every day I thought it was going to be impossible, and every day the ideas came.
That’s a lesson in itself: if you put your butt in the chair and leave it there, the ideas come eventually. But that’s not the big lesson I mentioned earlier. That lesson is now coming into view. Because the next day, the client from the bank would call back, and she would say thanks for the three campaign ideas, but none of them were quite right. Could we send her three more?
Three more interesting ideas about banking! I considered it a minor miracle that I had come up with ONE. I had strained every fiber of my imagination to eke out three the day before. Where was I going to get three more?
But eventually I put my butt in the chair, and do you know what happened? I came up with three more ideas. And if I had been called upon to come up with three more the next day, I could have done that too. So could you, by the way.
Here, at last, is the big lesson, the gift that resulted from my time at the advertising agency: I eventually learned to trust that when it comes to creativity, there’s always more where that came from. You think you’ve done all you can do; you think you can’t possibly have another good idea. But then you do.
Creativity isn’t a reservoir or a tank of ideas that get depleted as you use them. Creativity is a river. True, sometimes it slows to a trickle and sometimes it’s in flood, but if you stay in the chair, creativity will always flow. It’s just how we’re made.