Reflections On Being A Writer In The 21st Century…Part 1

O&U HindsightThis is the first in a series of pieces I am writing under the theme “Hindsight, Insight, Foresight”. These are very personal, but hopefully the points made here will be useful to everyone.

I’m not very good with the past. If I were I would probably have been a novelist. But that was not my calling. I have, however, been a writer for the past half century. For the last forty years, I have been a card carrying professional. But that didn’t matter. Because if you’re a writer you write. Getting paid to do it is merely the icing on the cake. If I had been a bricklayer or auto mechanic or short order cook, I would have still been a writer.

Writing Is A Mistress

I never questioned writing. I never argued with it or wrestled with it. I never let it become an unhealthy obsession. I never wrote to the exclusion of everything else, which is what I am told you should do if you are to be considered a great writer.

I never cared about greatness, because I have always believed there is too much pain attached to it. I never even cared, and still don’t to this day, if anyone ever actually reads what I write. I have never struggled with the futility of finding an audience because my constant audience was always me. I know that sounds rather self-centred. But it’s something that all real writers understand and most accept. There are some don’t. They need the audience. The adulation. The respect. The accolades. The glory. Not me.

Advertising Vs Real Writing

I never considered my professional writing to be writing. It was advertising and there is a difference. Writing advertising is a craft. It has a shape and parameters and expectations attached to it. It is a discipline.

You don’t have to be a writer to be an advertising writer. You just have to understand the rules and be intuitive and always be mindful of the fact that what you are actually doing is selling. I never considered writing advertising as some sort of lower form of writing. I just considered it different. In fact, I derive a lot of personal satisfaction from it,  because it’s directed at helping an individual or company market themselves or itself. It’s one of those things that helps the wheels of commerce keep turning. It’s important work. And I respect it a great deal.

There was a time, back in the day when people you would meet would tell you that you had ‘sold out’ by writing advertising. I had a very simple response for these people. Go fuck yourself. People who think that writing should only be directed at changing the word and righting all the wrongs that society has created  are naive to a fault. They are usually playing back some left wing dogma they have picked up from some misconception they have developed about the way the world works. They don’t really understand that writers who write advertising or public relations or corporate communications are doing it because they simply don’t have an image of themselves as starving artists, sacrificing everything for the written word. ‘

If You’re A Real Writer, You Have To Have A Real Job

I’ve always been a very practical person. Having a family will make you that way. I chose advertising because it paid well and after I had done it for a while I found out that I was good at it.

I chose advertising because ad agencies, at least back in the day (1970s and 1980s), were great places to work. The people you worked with were all intelligent and having a good time. They were also as competitive as professional athletes and that kept you sharp. The work was always challenging. The gratification factor was always tangible. But the most important thing, for me at least was that it kept my mind stimulated, and that stimulation spilled over into my personal writing.

The Couch Potato Chronicles

In 1998 I started to write a column which I called The Couch Potato Chronicles. On the surface it was a movie/TV/sports/book review column. But as it grew, it became the principal vehicle for all of my personal writing.

Over the course of the next 10 years I wrote about 500 columns, of anywhere from 3000 to 5000 words. In a way, it became a chronicle of my world and my thoughts about living in it. In addition to reviews I also wrote about my wife and kids, my dog, my folks, my friends, my job, the way I saw the world around me. I posted song lyrics and treatment ideas for moves and TV shows. I wrote op ed pieces on advertising and the media. I wrote about anything I wanted to write about. It was pure freedom and unbridled joy.

At one point during this decade I reckoned I had about 7000 readers. Not much by today’s standards. But it was a lot to me. And it was a lot of work as well, because this column was being emailed out relayed as a PDF file. At its peak, it sometimes took longer to organize all that than it did to write that actual column.

Social Media…The Beginning Of The End

Around 2008 I started to participate in social media, mostly Facebook and LinkedIn. Even though I had a WordPress blog for my column, I found myself shrinking my writing to accomodate these new media. In retrospect I see that was not a good thing to do. For three or four years I was content to write little bits and pieces of what I thought and felt, just so they would fit. I wasn’t sure why I was doing it, because social media has that effect on just about everyone. And very few people ever ask why.

Enough Already!

One day, one of the better days of my writing life, I had a bit of an epiphany in that I realized my effort to fit into the constraints of social media was really making me unhappy. I felt kind of like one of those wild mustangs that roam around the badlands of Wyoming, who one day gets caught and broken, and then spends the rest of his life as a vehicle for someone’s recreation. Complete with bridal, saddle and spurs.

So I said screw that and re-opened The Couch Potato Chronicles on a new WordPress blog. It was one of the most energizing experiences of my life. I was back in the badlands roaming free, and not caring one bit about who was reading what I was writing. Because I got back my old audience. Me.

Since then my writing has morphed into its present form. This is mainly a rather long series of focused posts on communication. This was a conscious decision on my part. Because the world of communication is so much different than it was before the advent of digital media and I believe that my experience on both sides of this great divide is a good arrow in my quiver True Audience

My 21st Century Mission

My social media writing now has a mission. And that mission is simple. I am trying to do what I can to help people become better at dealing with the communication issues that have emerged along with the digital world.

A lot of people simply don’t understand what’s going on. I hear their frustration every day in the various groups I belong to on LinkedIn. I sense their fear and trepidation. And I can see that they feel this is a world they are uncomfortable with. And you know what – I am too.

But the real joy of writing for me has always been to rage against the machine. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. But always with the purpose of not letting anyone ever slip a bridle over my head and use me for their recreation again.

Thriving in this new world which, to intelligent people, can seem a bit ‘dumbed down’, requires equal parts chutzpah, irreverence, wisdom and stubbornness.

Assuming that anyone knows the rules to this game is your first mistake. The only rule is to be true to yourself and you will find your voice and your audience, because that honesty is what attracts people. And how well you can do that, how patient and persistent you can be, will make the difference between success or something less going forward.

I don’t know if anybody is reading this. I hope a few people are. And I hope that maybe a little light bulb ignites in your head when you read this. But as I said, I’m writing this to help myself get a better handle on what’s going on here. You’re free to come along for the ride.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jim Murray, (that’s me), is a professional communication strategist, copywriter, art director & blogger. I write about communications and the world we live in, because believe it or not, they are hopelessly intertwined.

Direct Line: 416 463-3475
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