on writing well

An Ending I Didn’t Have To Change


I’m a writer, so I spend most of my time rewriting. In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that “very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” How true.

Paul Simon writes great pop tunes. On his last album, there’s a song called Rewrite. The title caught my eye, and the melody pulled me in to the lyric. That’s where I discovered the song’s wisdom. Sometimes, we’d like to rewrite our past, just as we rewrite sentences.

One night after listening to a Celtics game, my father told my older brother and me that he and my mother were separating; the following morning, he would be leaving. I was nine years old. The news filled me with dread. I loved to spend time with my dad, listening to games and talking about music or school. What would happen to us now?

There was a rocking chair in our living room. When no one else was in the house, I rocked in the chair and rewrote my parents’ separation. Things were better in the rewrite.

The Vietnam vet in Paul Simon’s song takes refuge in the same escape. In the final verse, the vet plans to eliminate the pages about the father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm…”

         Gonna substitute a car chase

         And a race across the rooftops

         When the father saves the children

         And he holds them in his arms

*          *          *

Two months after moving out, my father is driving me home. It’s a Saturday – that’s when we see each other now. Gray clouds scud across the sky. We stop at Giro’s in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father has a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That’s good.

It’s pouring rain when we leave. On Route 95, gusts of wind slam our car, pushing us out of our lane. My father turns off the radio. The wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they are no match for the deluge. Blurred brake lights report an accident up ahead. Cars pull over, flashers flickering. “I’m going to get off the highway,” my father says. We splash down the next exit ramp.

We’re in Warwick. I’m not familiar with the area, but my dad is; he lives there now. Rain still pounds our car as we creep along, but my dad is in control. I see a sign for Route 1. My father lights a cigarette. “Don’t worry, Big John,” he says. He puts the radio back on and asks me about school.

It’s still raining when we get to my house in Providence. I run up the driveway and dash through the back door. As my father pulls away, I head for the rocking chair. I’m relieved, and not simply because I’m out of the storm. My dad got us home. He is happy, and so am I.

No rewrites today.

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Advertising

Do you hate advertising? Before you answer, click here. And here. And here.

OK, back to my question: do you hate advertising? Depends on the ad, I suspect. The above links show you ads I like – they are entertaining and convey a clear message. Those are good qualities in an ad.

It’s the idea of advertising that irks many people, i.e., being targeted for a sell job, which is often intrusive. (Can you say pop-up ad?) According to the groundbreaking Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of all consumers “are interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also said they enjoy advertising. So what’s going on?

I tell clients that people hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh, saves them money, solves a problem that they have, or connects them to a cause.

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that engage us with wit, style, and simplicity. When ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker copy and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote or turn the page.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising. Ideas may come in a flash, but there are hundreds of refinements that stand between a creative spark and the ad you eventually see. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys.

I’m addicted to Mad Men, AMC’s outstanding series featuring the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad agency.I love the braided story lines, the brilliant set design, and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

I especially enjoy when Mad Men focuses its lens on the ad industry itself. The show is currently set in 1966, the middle of a golden age on Madison Avenue. If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during that era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. Mad Men has referenced DDB several times, including its famous “Lemon” ad for VW. The agency’s creative visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising. Just as they hate bad movies, bad music, bad advice, bad anything.

And then I’ll add that I am sure they appreciate good art and good writing, which are at the heart of any good ad.

How A Father’s Letter Led To The Writing Life

I replace the spongy step on the front porch because it may give way and land Steve the mailman in the hospital. I don’t enjoy the work – I’m not handy – so I recruit my brother (who is) to help me. We fix the step and get the desired result: no broken bones.

I write to get results, too. But unlike fixing steps, writing I enjoy. For me, writing is its own reward.

I also write because it’s my job. I’m a copywriter. Every day, I go to work and use words to sell stuff for clients such as Washington Trust, South County Hospital, Schneider Electric, and the Greater Providence YMCA.

Like many English majors, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took the copywriting position at an ad agency, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made we write every day. “Writing is a craft, not an art,” William Zinsser points out in his great book, On Writing Well. “Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.”

How true. There is always a gap between what I want to say and how my first draft says it. T. S. Eliot tells us that “words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision.” A line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is more direct: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” But I keep trying.

Because when writers do bridge the gap between writing and reality – when they write so truthfully that we taste the food (Ernest Hemingway) or laugh with abandon (Peter Farrelly) or have our eyes sting with empathy (William Trevor) – we feel the connection, made possible by words.

My parents separated when I was nine years old. I saw no warning signs – no kitchen table arguments, no slammed doors. But one night I walked downstairs to the basement and found my father sitting at a desk, writing. He didn’t hear me. And then his hand lashed out at the ashtray on the desk, hurtling it to the tile floor where it exploded. I went back upstairs.

The next day my father was gone and I found out what he had been writing – letters to my brothers and me. Mine began:

Three pages of gentle words, solace, and assurances followed. In the sea of my sadness, my father’s letter was the raft. And that’s when I fell under the spell of words beautifully expressed and deeply felt.

The writing life beckoned.

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