The ninth post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series. A Monday feature. Next up: “I Thought I Was the Next Robert Collier.”
Call me lazy. I go where the jobs are. I go where the path offers least resistance. I go where the data indicates. That data being my feelings of wanting to land a job, and then get back to life …
To what I love (poetry). That was my attitude back then. Towards career. Towards life.
Here is how I left the job with the television evangelist: I asked a close friend to review my resume. I said I needed to find greener pastures. My last raise — after 18 months — was for 17 cents an hour. That’s like I earned less than a penny an hour for each month I was there. If I was going to provide for my family, I was going to need more than that.
My friend accepted the invitation to review my resume. Then he invited me out for dinner. At dinner he told me that he and his partner were doing quite well after five years of near poverty-level living. The real estate market had taken off … and their company with it. And to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor (and actually take a vacation), they were in a hiring spree. And they were looking for a writer. Was I interested?
Was I interested? The job was two miles down the road. I would be writing vast amounts … but a particular kind of writing. Direct response writing. I shrugged, “Yeah, baby, sign me up.”
“Then we need you to write us a sales letter — selling you.”
“Consider it done, baby,” I said, slamming my ice water down. “Consider it done.”
I got up and left.
When I got in my car, I nearly panicked. Up until this point I’d never written a sales letter. I wasn’t even sure what a sales letter was. So when I got home I jumped online and started to study. I immediately felt a little icky.
“Sales letter,” turns out, was another word for “infomercial.” At least that’s what I ran into online. Whatever. I wanted away from the 40-minute commute one way to the television evangelist, days of empty-handed production, and copy-cat product descriptions.
So I wrote the sales letter.
It wasn’t that great, but had potential. That’s what I was told when they hired me. I didn’t care. I’d learn how to be great.
My first day on the job I met my boss. He was a kind man, tall, studious in his glasses, but casual in his faded orange polo and cargo shorts. I was in love with his office … a bookshelf-lined room punctuated with giant windows.
I was thinking, “Excuse yourself and let me dig through those books, baby.”
We chatted, I shared my experiences, he shared his vision. And then he handed me a book.
I turned it over in my hands. The book jacket was white with chunky blue and gold letters declaring the title and author. On the back I scrutinized the photo of the writer.
“How do you pronounce his name?”
He pronounced it. I winced.
“When you finish that book, I’ve got more from where that came from.”
“Okay. I look to read, baby. I look to read. I’ll be back.” I winked and zipped out of his office. When I reached my desk I set the book down and hovered over it. I curled my lip and my stomach churned.
“What a loutish, brain-boiled excuse for a book,” I snarled. “Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion … a tome for idiot-worshippers.”
But because I was a loyal and dedicated employee — and because I’d committed myself to being done soon — I sat down to read it. From page one I fell in love with it.
Who couldn’t love a chapter called “Weapons of Influence”?
… and the opening story about a jewellery store owner (trying to unload a stubborn shipment of turquoise pieces) orders her sales lady (in a note) to “sell everything at 1/2″ then heads out for a short vacation …
Only to come back to learn the entire turquoise inventory sold out in a matter of days because, instead of discounting everything by half, the sales lady, misreading the note from her boss, doubles the prices.
O my, I thought, what is this mysterious power that influences people to pay more for items they ignored at a lower price? What is going on here? I blew through that book in an afternoon. And then read it again.
A few days later I returned to my bosses office, handed the book back, and asked for another. He gave me Joe Sugarman’s Advertising Secrets of the Written Word. My reaction to the book was less violent than before, but I could still feel the book snob was still alive in me.
Wounded, but still alive.
After Sugarman I read The Robert Collier’s Letter Book, Ogilvy on Advertising, Tested Advertising Methods by Caples.
I then read the books, sales letters, and blogs of living copy legends like Dan Kennedy (The Ultimate Sales Letter), John Carlton (Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel), and Gary Halbert (the “most valuable website on the internet“).
I then dove into the ancient works of dead legends. The guy who made Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People a best seller in the 1930s (Victor Schwab). The father of scientific advertising and ceaseless promoter of “reason why” copy (Claude Hopkins, circa 1904). And the copywriter who Rodale press supposedly paid $54,000 for four hours of work in the 1950s, and … has the most stolen book from the library (Eugene Schwartz).
The impact on my own writing was massive.
Over time I learned how to write clearly. No more obscure meaning, clunky sentence structure, or dense copy. No more flowery detail or five-syllable words. Out with the conflicted, constipated, meandering professor … in with the relaxed, liberated, gun-slinging outlaw.
A few months went by and, by chance, I looked at my old poems. The ones I was so proud of. I furrowed my brow, flipped them to the side, and shook my head. I stared at the volumes of Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound on the bookshelf. It was obvious: I could no longer write like that … I could no longer depend on being obscure, ambiguous, or circular … making the reader work for the meaning … earning the right to read me … a languid genius the world didn’t deserve …
What happened was I finally left that cave, walked down the mountain, and into the village below to join the rank and file. To live amongst their sweat, their dirt. The carts spilling corn cobs as it wobbles down the road, the sulphur odor spilling from the smith shop, the shouting of the leather merchants, the gossip of the cotton seamstresses, the swarthy taste of figs and pork dishes.
I drank coffee with the accountants, the electricians, the veterinarians. I hung out in Las Vegas with soldiers and real estate developers. I grilled coders and dentists in Miami. I watched screaming children play in a fire hydrant gushing water. Jobless youths smoke and skateboard. The elderly sneeze and break their hips on the edge of a table.
I wanted to be plain spoken. Simple. And persuasive as all get out. Then it happened.
After several months at the new job I swore that I would never return to poetry. To complexity for complexity’s sake. I couldn’t see how it could happen. I’d been awakened to a realm of writing that demanded clarity and potency. That forced me to look at people and figure out their hopes, dreams, and fears. I would board up that old place. Allow it to grow over with weeds. And hitch a ride to new spaces full of people and warm-blooded relationships.
If only it was that easy.
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Image source: Four-Color Process