This is the text of a presentation I gave at The Writers’ Community of Durham Region’s monthly breakfast on April 9, 2011.
Have you ever seen A Chorus Line? I mean the Broadway musical or the movie that was made from it.
Now, there’s a show for a triple threat. You know, someone who can act, dance, and sing. There’s one great tapdance number in it – you might know it: “I’m watching sis go pit-a-pat, Said, ‘I can do that, I can do that.’”
That’s actually a pretty good guide to becoming a triple threat. In publishing. You know, writing, editing, design. By design I mean layout – desktop publishing. “I can do that” is also a good guide to getting to earn a living doing these things. And there’s a corollary: a good way not to get as far is to say, “I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”
An actor who’s a triple threat gets more work, even more plain old acting work. And a publishing triple threat gets more work too. If one person can just write for a client, and another can write and edit and lay out their newsletter or other document, well, who has the edge? You may think you’re not interested in doing that kind of work. But it can be more interesting than you suspect… and it can lead to even more opportunities for interesting things. You can also use the skills for your own independent purposes – like a one-man show.
Now, in A Chorus Line, the plot is that each of the contenders for spots in the chorus has to tell how he or she got there. And that’s what I’m going to do here.
So why should you care? Am I am famous author? Not yet. Am I famous editor? A what? Am I a famous designer? No, please… But I’m making a good living at it all and I enjoy what I do. My work doesn’t come with a lot of cachet, but it comes with a lot of cash, eh! And my work is read… and the ink on my balance sheet isn’t.
Of course, like probably most of you, when I was a kid I fancied myself becoming a famous writer. Made up a magazine that I distributed to my brother and my parents. Wrote some short stories that no magazine was every insightful enough to publish. And so on. And then, seeking an even less realistic route to fame, I went into theatre.
And that’s actually where I got my real start in publishing. Not through acting, mind you – although I did design posters and programs for some plays I produced – but through the academic side that I returned to after finding that few directors were, uh, insightful enough to cast me. As part of my graduate assistantship one year, when I was studying for my PhD in theatre at Tufts University, I was house manager for the theatre on campus. This meant overseeing the ushers, seating the audience, so on. But it also meant editing the newsletter for the theatre. And that also meant laying it out. Which meant learning PageMaker.
You know, it’s amazing how many people come into editing and publishing through a side door. A lot of the chances to learn that I got came around when I thought I was doing something else, as you’ll see. I thought I was studying theatre history and theory – well, I was – and I thought I was helping make theatre happen… well, I was. But I was also learning about what happens when you tell a theatre professor he has 450 words to describe the play he’s directing: he gives you 600, and when you try to cut it he complains bitterly because it’s all essential, and finally you work out a sort of compromise and make 500 words fit. And guess what? Theatre professors sure aren’t the only people like that. Editorial experience! (I also got some good experience grading papers. Look, there’s a whole lot that’s actually useful experience.) And I was learning how to do layout in PageMaker (hint: read the manual. And then play around). I was also getting really good at writing academic essays, but let me tell you, that’s like picking up a thick accent that you’ll have to unlearn if you want to talk to normal people.
And when, disillusioned with academia, doctorate in hand, I came back to Canada, and I needed to find a job, I saw in a newspaper an ad for an advertising copywriter.
Did I mention that I had been doing ad copywriting too? No? That’s because I hadn’t. But, you know… what did I have to lose? Would it keep me from getting that great job that someone was just waiting to give me? Ha – I could always quit if something better came along, and meanwhile, I needed to eat. So… “I can do that. I can do that!”
Is it normal for a guy with no experience to get a job like that? Not really, no. But I had three great advantages: First, the guy who was hiring was an entrepreneur who sold cell phones. He wanted his own in-house writer so he wouldn’t have to get freelancers all the time. Did he really know much about the advertising business? No, he just knew about selling, and he assumed that someone who could sell himself confidently could do the job. My second advantage was that I had acting experience – the guy had an idea about doing a regular staff training program like a TV show with a host (in the end, we only made one episode – too expensive). My third advantage was that I was willing to walk into the interview and have fun. Hey, I was a writer, wasn’t I? Besides, I was lucky as an actor: I always enjoyed auditions. It’s a captive audience! And I had nothing to lose. “I can do that. I can do that!” So I did that. (A fourth advantage, by the way, was that 33K a year sounded good to me. I’ll tell you I make a lot more than that now!)
And when the other guys I was going to work with said, “We mostly work in QuarkXPress – you know Quark, right?” what did I say?
Well, hey, I knew PageMaker. How hard could it be? I took the manual home and read it. And then I played around with it. They also had Photoshop. I took the manual home and read it. I played around with it and watched the photography guy use it.
And this is an important sidebar here: Many people say, “Ew, computer programs. Oh, I hate computers. I don’t want to have to learn that stuff!” Which is like saying, “I’m an actor. I don’t do that movement stuff. I don’t intend to be a dancer, so don’t bother me with physical details.” As if actors never have to move! It’s also like saying, “I don’t want to be too useful. I don’t want to have too many opportunities. And I’m not willing to believe that something that sounds unfamiliar might be fun.” Remember: the best way not to have more to do is to be unwilling to do more – to say “I can’t do that. I won’t do that!”
So anyway, over time, through trial and error, and sometimes through just being told outright, I got good at these computer programs. Someone mentioned the idea of a company newsletter, and I said, “I can do that!” Interview people, write stories, take pictures, lay it all out? You bet! You can often steer a job towards what you’re interested in. People see that you can do something interesting well, and so they ask you to do it.
But what if you don’t have a job that just tosses opportunities your way? Volunteer. Volunteering is not just noble; it’s advantageous. I happened to belong to a couple of associations that had newsletters. When one of them needed a new editor, I leapt up and volunteered. “I can do that. I can do that!” I later did the same with the other one. What if you belong to an association that doesn’t have a newsletter? Would they like one? How about a website? Or even a blog? But don’t just do it because you’re trying to buff up your résumé. Do it because you enjoy it. It really is fun. Time-consuming, sometimes, but normally fun. Do it because you don’t want to see somebody else screw it up. That was a big motivator for me. And if you get tired, hand over the reins.
And what if the newsletter comes with a website to work on too? Well, there’s your chance! Don’t know HTML? You now have an excuse to learn it and to get experience using it. That’s how I learned HTML. It’s not actually very hard – I mean, really, you have a mastery of the sick and twisted intricacies of the English language. A straightforward and logical thing like HTML is dead simple. And very useful! It’s a deciding factor for me when I’m hiring freelance editors, I’ll tell you that. Take a course if you must, or take some online tutorials. But above all, take the opportunity. Come on: “I can do that. I can do that!”
Now, I did get tired of the advertising job. So I decided to look around and see if I could get work somewhere as an editor. And you know, I made some mistakes of the “I can’t do that, I won’t do that” kind. I was picky about where I would apply to, and what I wanted. Maybe this is because I still had a job, so I felt at leisure. …And when that job disappeared out from under me, I found myself somewhat more motivated.
I also had a bit of luck, I confess. After I joined the Editors’ Association of Canada, someone on the association’s listserv mentioned they were looking for someone to do layout on a literary magazine, the Literary Review of Canada. The previous designer had decamped. So I said, “Hey! I can do that!” They had me come in and talk to them about what I could do. I brought examples of the newsletters I’d done at my previous job, and of the rather more magazine-like newsletters I’d been doing for one of the societies I belonged to. And it didn’t hurt that I was already a friendly acquaintance of their copyeditor from the EAC listserv.
By the way, make friends. Don’t “network.” Nobody wants to be a tool, a rung on the ladder. If you make friends, you have friends, and friends are worth having. Intrinsically. It also happens that people are more inclined to work with friends and to pass work on to friends, but that’s a silver lining. Whereas if you make connections, all you have are connections, and they’re not as good connections as friends would be. And friends will introduce you to their friends, but will connections introduce you to their connections?
But, ah the Literary Review of Canada. It also didn’t hurt that I had a PhD. Never mind that it wasn’t in Canadian literature. Whatever you have that impresses people is good. Look, my wife, when she was a graduate student needing a summer job, got a supervisory position at the CN Tower partly because she had been a professional figure skater for several years and had also spent one summer (the worst of her life) as a costumed character at Ontario Place. These details were somehow relevant. Also memorable. Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Well, I say make your weirdness professional. Along with “I can do that” there’s also “Guess what I can do!” and “Guess what I’ve done!” Look, I’ve hired several people, and I can tell you that things that may seem irrelevant can actually make a person stand out.
So, for instance, I got my next full-time job – the LRC is a nice gig but it’s pin money, really; I do it for the parties as much as for anything – I got my next full-time job in part because I had taught prep classes for standardized tests: the GRE, the GMAT, the SAT, the LSAT. The fact that I had tutored students who were preparing to take the Law School Admissions Test was a plus to the guy who was interviewing me. What was the job? A website that connected homeowners with contractors. The guy thought that I might be useful in the legal details. Now, the LSAT isn’t really a test of legal knowledge – it’s a test to get into law school, it’s not the bar exam – but it impressed him. But of course I wouldn’t have gotten the job if I didn’t know HTML.
Ah, yes, HTML. Which I had learned just through volunteering and playing around and making my own website. So in this job, I was editing, but I also found a way to do some writing. And of course I was working with HTML. And on the side I was doing layout for the LRC – and also for a charitable organization, and of course those society newsletters. I still lay out the LRC. And it has side benefits. Last month I made an extra hundred bucks for photographing an event they put on. Now, I’ve been keen on photography since I was a kid, but it’s a terrible thing to try to make a career at, so I do it for fun. But I’ll do it for money, too. And that hundred bucks they paid me gave me justification for writing off seven hundred bucks worth of camera equipment that I bought last year. The LRC has also gotten me a couple of little writing gigs: I published a poem in it, and I’ve also written some reviews for it, on books to do with design or with language – oh, did I mention that for the better part of a decade I’ve been taking linguistics courses? Knowing more about something that interests you is always better than not knowing more. And do it because it’s interesting, not because it’s advantageous. What advantage is there in getting more of something you don’t like? It’s like the difference between networking and friends.
Now, when that website job went the way of so many web startups, it was two things that got me my next job: HTML and “I can do that!” What was the next job? A friend of mine said he knew someone who needed someone right away for a short-term contract inputting HTML corrections for a website. So now, here I am trying to find myself a good job, and there’s this contract work – that’s not what I was looking for! Why should I do that? Well, how about because it was paying work and I had nothing better banging on my door.
So I called up this friend of my friend and told him what I could do, and he said come on in. I walked in and we looked at each other and said, “I know you!” We’d met at a party at the house of our mutual friend. Anyway, while inputting the HTML corrections, I mentioned that there were some typos and similar errors that needed fixing. “Oh, yes, please, do that.” Do you have any other proofing work? Oh, yes. And by the way, I see you have websites that need some content. I also write. …Don’t be shy about saying what you can do and showing your experience and interests! If you’re in the door already, showing them something else you can do is like saying, “Here, hold this kitten for a moment. …Oh, by the way, would you like a kitten?”
You see, I’m still with that company. Eleven years later. I was hired on salary five months after I first walked through the door. Now I’m senior editor, I have three people reporting to me, I’ve done so much editing, writing, HTML, and print layout for them… I get to do some interesting things – and sometimes avoid some irritating things – precisely because I can do so many things… Look, I’ll tell you, one time several years ago we wanted to get another person to do the same stuff I was doing, and so we made up the ad listing all the things we’d like to see the person do – all the things that I was doing – and we actually got hate mail saying our expectations were ridiculous – who does all those things?
Look, why be limited? It’s fun doing new things. It’s also fun pursuing things you think might be fun! And it’s fun making money. Really it is.
Do I miss creative writing? How can I miss it when I do it every day? Not for my job, although I do do some writing for that on occasion. No, I have a blog. I wanted to do something that would build me an audience and that I could do regularly and enjoy and not run out of material. I happen to be a wine lover, and one day, on the way to doing more wine tasting at the liquor store, it occurred to me that I could taste words, one a day, and never run out. So I write a new word tasting note every day, usually last thing in the evening, giving myself perhaps a day off each week. I’ve written over eight hundred blog postings so far. You get a lot of visits when you have a lot of content. It’s also potential material for a book. Does it pay? Not yet, but it doesn’t need to. I have a decent job. So I like what I do for money, and I can afford to do what I do just for fun.
And the layout and design helps me there too. My personal equivalent of the one-man show – all singing, all dancing – is my book, Songs of Love and Grammar, a collection of salacious poems about English usage. Agents and publishers all loved it – and all said they had no idea what to do with it. So, thanks to on-line on-demand publishers, I’m doing it myself, and I’m doing the layout and design myself, because I can. Save money, get better results. It will be available this summer – check back at my blog, sesquiotic.wordpress.com.
And you never know but what you do for fun or interest might turn out to be worth some money too. But if it never is, so what? It’s like having friends. Friends are intrinsically worthwhile, and so are things you like to do. And what can you do? “I can do that… I can do that!”