This is a post about me, and for me. I’m not going to even try to write a clever lead to entice readers to follow me – which is, after all, the point of blogging. No. It’s my Come to Jesus moment and you are free to join me, if you wish. If it resonates with you, that’s great.
But it’s all about me.
So. “Proud to be a Peggy.” What’s that about? Are you a “Mad Men” fan? Oh, how I loved that television series! The delicious Jon Hamm playing advertising genius and complicated ladies’ man, Don Draper. The dramatic and sexy and troubling and hilarious antics of everyone in the early 60’s New York advertising agency was must-see TV for me and millions of other fans around the world.
And right in the thick of things with her own compelling story line, evolving from administrative assistant to successful copy writing chief was the character of Peggy Olson, played by the talented Elisabeth Moss. And here’s why I’m calling myself “a Peggy.”
Although I entered the work force about a decade after bright-eyed, innocent Peggy stepped into the advertising world with bigger dreams than being a fast typist, the workplace for women was barely more progressive in the mid 70’s than it had been then. I remember job hunting in the ads in the big Sunday Plain Dealer when jobs were still classified under Men’s or Women’s positions.
I started out as a teacher (hated it – left after three years – you’re welcome, kids), then segued from one job to the next, with five years off early on to have a baby and raise my son before getting divorced. Former enthusiastic editor of the high school newspaper and ace college term paper writer, I naturally gravitated toward work that involved writing. And from associate editor on a trade magazine to public relations manager for an internationally-known company to eventually veering off to event and meeting production, (corporate, then for more than twenty years of my own business) writing in various forms has played a key role in my working life.
So, I’ve written magazine articles for trade publications. I’ve written press releases and stories for corporate newsletters. I’ve done freelance writing of all kinds – including website copy, advertising copy for brochures, and humorous “Machine of the Month” stories for clients of a Cleveland advertising agency. I’ve written marketing materials, promotional pieces, instructional manuals. One of my favorite things, late in my career, was writing speeches. I think I had a real talent for understanding and expressing a message in words that felt very natural coming from that individual. To hear someone else’s voice, their cadence, accent, inflections in your head and make that match the written words was an incredibly satisfying challenge. It’s one of several elements in my life that, if it had arisen years earlier, could have changed the course of my career. But, life unfolds as it will.
Anyway. I was a Peggy. A talented commercial writer.
I was a damned good Peggy, too. But therein lies the rub.
For many who made their living writing for commercial enterprises, there has always been a certain stigma about it being “hack” writing. Behind every Ad Man/Woman, no matter how gifted in their jobs, a “serious artist” was lurking. Write the copy for the new nursing home, write the story about must-have summer accessories, write, write, write whatever they want so you can pay your bills.
But at night, or on the weekends, or when you retire . . . then you can finally write from the soul. You write your novel. Or your poetry. You aspire to be the next Erma Bombeck (I went to two workshops – great fun and terrific teachers) or Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, after all, was a PR “hack” for General Electric, later an English teacher, and so on, before he found acclaim as the writer of classics like Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.
While I really enjoyed so much of the writing I did for work, I became focused on the idea that after I retired it would be time to finally write about whatever I want to write about. Through writing workshops, I made new friends who are gifted writers and came to believe that the many versions of commercial writing I successfully did, didn’t really count somehow. This was not in any way implied by any of those friends, by the way. No, this was a conclusion I reached myself, drawing from the fairly common belief that “real writing,” again, is either more creative, like writing novels or poetry – things pulled from your imagination – or very serious writing, like investigative journalism or exceptional works of nonfiction, exquisitely written memoirs, brilliant screenplays.
So, in the back of my mind, maybe twenty, twenty-five years ago I started thinking about what I would write when I had the time to choose any topic or genre at all. I played with travel writing and blogging. I started a novel a few years ago. I have a concept for a nonfiction book that, admittedly, is unlikely to appeal to many people besides myself – which might explain why I haven’t seriously done any work on it.
And as the years crept along, this “real writing” I was going to do when I retired was something safely set on the shelf, waiting for that future day when I wasn’t working full time.
Then a year ago I retired.
And I fucking froze.
I had false starts. I’d decide to blog every week and did that for a little while. A few months ago I revived my travel blog and thought I’d try to make that work. Nope. The thing about blogs is that you have to write regularly, predictably, if you want to build a readership base. You have to work at it – yeah, like a job – and you have to want to do that enough that you make it a job and diligently apply yourself to it.
I still might even splurge and have someone build me a better blog site and combine the personal and travel into one place, but being totally honest with myself – I don’t want to turn it into another job. And I’m not going to force myself to come up with topics to write about just for the sake of writing and trying to get people to follow me. I don’t care. I do care. I don’t know.
I’ve written a chunk of a novel. Do I care enough about it to keep going? To pick it up again and finish it? Again. I don’t know. What puts me off more than maybe figuring out how the story ends is that if and when someone writes a book, then it becomes your full time and most likely very frustrating, if not impossible job to sell it. If you find a publisher, or self-publish, you then devote your life to promoting the damned thing. I have friends who have worked their asses off promoting their very good books to achieve a modicum of acclaim and very little money in their pockets. I don’t know if I have it in me. And it’s hard to get excited about writing a book that you have no intention of sharing with anyone because you abhor the idea of having to sell it. I guess if I were passionately convinced that my story was meant to be shared with the world and for posterity, it would be a different story. I’m not and it isn’t.
Does it come as any surprise to you that I’ve spent the last year being depressed a good part of the time? Reality bites sometimes.
Then last week I met up with an old work acquaintance who I hadn’t seen in probably twenty-five years. Let’s call her Rose. I’d say we were work friends, since we occasionally had lunch together and enjoyed chatting when we were at the same corporate events. I always liked Rose, but I’m pretty sure we never got together outside of the office until last week. We’ve been Facebook friends for a long time, but really, our knowledge of each other’s lives was limited to whatever we respectively chose to share online.
When we met for lunch and shared a fun little adventure last week, I learned what she’d been up to over the last two decades – and it was a tough story to hear. After the company we worked for was acquired by another, Rose accepted a position working for one of our suppliers while I’d started my own business. When the bottom dropped out of the market, she lost that job and couldn’t find another, despite years of experience and success. She eventually lost her home, ruined her credit, lost everything, really. Her sister, who Rose supported, died of cancer, and then she dealt with a debilitating cancer of her own. Rose is currently recovering from hip replacement surgery and living alone in a modest little house, lovingly tending her garden and spoiling the birds and squirrels who flock to her for handouts of the walnuts she buys in big Costco-sized bags.
Where am I going with this? Well, among many topics, we talked about retirement and I brought up my own confusion about what I’m “supposed” to be doing. And here’s what I learned from my new/old friend: there is value and you can find pleasure and satisfaction in whatever “work” you do every single day. It doesn’t matter if you’re weeding your garden or walking the aisles of the grocery store to choose the food you’ll eat for the week. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a book or cleaning the bathroom or enjoying popcorn and a movie on Netflix. You can find satisfaction in every act and every situation if you look for it.
There was a little sign on the wall in her kitchen that said something to the effect that we are more than the result of the things that happen to us.
I went home from spending time with my friend feeling uplifted, but still unsettled.
The next day I received a rejection email from an ezine passing on the humor story I’d sent last week. Still haven’t heard from another ezine I’d sent a piece to about two weeks ago.
I was in the middle of writing an angst-y email to my editor friend, Jane, when it hit me.
Was there really any satisfaction or joy in this process of pushing myself to come up with ideas for articles or essays, only to be rejected? Granted, the rejection element is huge, but isn’t that just as likely the result of sending out half-hearted attempts at humor that don’t really mean anything to me? Am I trying to get published because that’s what I think I should want to do, now that I’m retired and can finally be a “real writer” and all?
I didn’t care about those stories. Oh, they were kind of fun to write, but I sure as hell am not passionate about them.
And then I completed the circle in my thoughts with this revelation – maybe my commercial accomplishments were where my talent truly lies. I loved writing those things! I was really good at it (and still could be, in that realm, if I chose to look for that kind of work).
I experienced deep satisfaction and pride in my career. If I was a hack – I was a damned good hack!
Not every writer has the ability to be a poet. Not every poet can succeed as an investigative reporter. And not every novelist can translate her story into a screenplay. We all have different talents, within the writing world and within every genre of work, the arts, sports – you name it.
I’m a Peggy Olson. Not an Amy Tan. Not an Erma Bombeck. Not a Maureen Dowd. Not a Nora Ephron.
Today I’m so grateful for the talent I was blessed with. In so many ways, I’ve had a delightful career. And while I may keep blogging because I will ALWAYS love to write, it will be for me. Come along if or when you wish, but I’m happy to report that I don’t care anymore.
Thank you, my old friend, for leading me to this insight. May each of our days offer contentment and satisfaction in actions big and small.