If you want to work with copy for a living, you have a lot of awesome options, like writing a bestseller and getting rich and famous HA HA HA HA HA, writing award-winning screenplays, crafting hard-hitting pieces of journalism that change the world, and so on.
Unfortunately, relatively few writers wind up with cool gigs like that. In fact, fewer and fewer writers and editors can make a decent living these days without supplementing their finest work with a little lowbrow freelancing action.
Let’s talk about those less-ideal assignments. They generally involve one of more of the following:
1. Selling stuff.
2. Editing/writing copy a fourth-grader could understand so that a broad demographic can read about parenting, fashion, or another widely held interest.
3. Writing copy a fourth-grader could understand, except this time it’s about which celebrities are going to jail or having babies or kissing each other.
4. Writing sweet blogs named after trephines to a chorus of critical acclaim but for no money, so this option sadly doesn’t count.
I don’t necessarily think that selling stuff is bad, or that writing copy for fourth-graders is bad. Having done a great deal of both in my writing/editing career, I will say that sometimes it feels dirty and evil (you need this lip gloss, ladies! or you’ll be ugly and no one will love you!), and sometimes it’s sort of pleasant to compose bland paragraphs that won’t change the world but won’t overexert any brain cells, either, including mine.
We all need our articles to flip through in the doctor’s office. I understand that. The world would be earnest to the point of being tiresome if every article were rife with meaning.
But I will say that over time, I’ve become more sensitive to how my work aligns with my own values. In my relatively thoughtless youth, I was far more willing to encourage people to buy something they don’t need, or write the sort of vapid copy that would now make me feel lonely in some way that’s difficult to articulate.
Simply put, I’ve come to realize that everything I do has consequences. I’m not saying they’re necessarily significant consequences. I am simply saying that they are mine, and I want to be proud of them. I explained this realization here (in #1), so I won’t describe it in detail again, but this feeling has only gotten stronger:
“I’m not saying I’m important, or not important, because those semantics become impossibly tangled impossibly quickly. I’m saying that, like it or not, I’m a shareholder.”
And often, when I was writing or editing professionally, ethical neutrality was often the best I could hope for. Sometimes, I got to contribute something to humanity by polishing up a textbook (I’m helping people learn!) or selling a product that really was greener, more economical, and of better quality than the big-box competition (score one for the little guy!). Sometimes I got to fight for good things.
But a lot of the time, I didn’t.
A lot of the time, I contributed to societal values I don’t agree with. They weren’t abhorrent values — I’m talking about words that subtly endorse materialism or gossip or the idea that we will all be happy as soon as everything in our lives is organized into artfully stenciled cubbies, not words that make up the KKK Monthly Newsletter or anything — but they weren’t mine.
I think that those of us who care about social change naturally focus on the big problems, the Steubenvilles and the Newtowns. Meanwhile, when I stop and really contemplate it, I’m convinced that the little things matter more, those tiny exchanges we’ve popularized into invisibility. A lot of written media is steeped in those subtleties … or, as the case may be, not-so-subtleties. (10 Surprising Ways To Trim Your Tummy So You Can Finally Manage To Scrounge Up Some Worth As A Person!)
I never became miserably plagued with guilt or anything, but I was uneasy.
I think that’s why I didn’t fight for my career when times got harder. I wasn’t sure whether I was okay with what I was doing. Jostling other people out of the way with both elbows just for a chance to continue on that path was more effort than I could justify.
When I knew layoffs were coming, I was afraid, yes. But I didn’t have it in me to seek out one more desk to sit behind while I carried out assignments that I often suspected of making the world just the tiniest bit worse by making you think, just one more time than you would have, about what you look like or what you wish you had or who you wish you were.
So I didn’t wait to get laid off. I quit with the announcement that I was going to become a programmer.
I based this decision on about three weeks of studying, and on the fact that people I trusted had assured me it was possible for someone like me to get hired even without a computer science degree. I haven’t blogged much about my boyfriend, Andy (well, uh, except to mention that one time we decided to move to California together a few years ago after having known each other for three weeks), so this would be an excellent time to say that he did everything right when it came to encouraging me. He saw how desperately jealous I was of his ability to write code (he’s an engineer himself, which is part of the reason I was wildly attracted to him), and how unmoored I was in my career. Before I had even seriously considered going for it, he was sending me links to tutorials and schools and anything else that might help me learn.
He believed, and if you were starting a journey like this and I could grant you one thing, it would be someone who believes in you as wholeheartedly as he did in me — enough to not only support me financially, but to talk me off the ledge anytime I became convinced that the entire endeavor was a huge mistake, a realization I was particularly fond of making right around the time that he would very much like to go to sleep.
On my last day as an editor, I said goodbye to coworkers awesome enough to make me a little teary-eyed. Then I carried a box of my stuff down a sunny San Francisco sidewalk, and I did my best to believe, too.