Remembering my big break

I got an unsolicited e-mail yesterday from someone I don’t know, asking for my help. This time it wasn’t a Nigerian prince needing to transfer funds. It was another local writer, fairly new to the biz, seeking to network and get a little advice. He must have gotten my name from one of the online Pittsburgh “creative” directories. His e-mail sounded sincere, and legit. I didn’t worry about checking out his site to see what he had posted (school projects, he cautioned), and hoped I could offer some words of wisdom.

I’m always ready to help a fellow writer, especially someone just starting out. My own “big break” came in one of those door closes-window opens moments. I was losing my job as an administrative assistant at a local nonprofit. I had just bought my first house a few months earlier, so now had a mortgage and home ownership to contend with. I was 26, and panic-stricken.

A coworker — older, wiser, very much a woman-about-town — knew I loved to write and suggested I contact someone she knew who was a principal in a local graphic design firm. “Use my name,” she said. At that point, I’d done a fair amount of writing on the job, including editing the organization’s newsletter, writing an employee manual, and ghost-writing for my boss, but I had very little to show in the way of a portfolio. I really had no business asking for a job as a writer at an established, successful firm.

But I did anyway. I was shocked to get an interview out of my query letter, and intimidated the second I walked in the door — an artsy, industrial space in a converted factory. I distinctly remember thinking, “I can’t work here. People who know how to draw work here.” It was the strangest interview, with all three principals gathered around a conference table asking me atypical questions (e.g., “What are you reading?” Fortunately, being unemployed, I had time to read and could actually answer. Naming a nonfiction book to boot, which I practically never read [and probably only half-read at the time]. My boss later told me my answer had impressed him. Talk about lucky.)

They took a chance on me, and I spent four great years there learning more than I ever had in my life. I left there for my next job thinking I could write anything. And then I learned a ton more at that job — in corporate marketing, so a very different environment. After several years there, I decided to take the plunge and work for myself. I’m still learning how to do that well.

So here I am. A lotta years later. Grateful. Experienced. And ready to “pay it forward” by sharing what I know with a newbie.

Except…I didn’t really like what I saw. Out of 15 or so projects (all ads), only 2 or 3  impressed me.  I didn’t see a real spark. Some good concepts, but not great execution. OK, so “student projects” explain some of that. But the writing itself was so-so. And this from someone 10 years out of college (with an English degree) and having taken a couple years of copywriting courses along the way.

I so wanted to be encouraging. But I had to fall back on the old, “If you can’t say something nice….” So I’ve said nothing.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I don’t get his stuff because I’m not an “ad gal,” didn’t grow up in an agency, and wouldn’t want to. It’s another world, and not one I favor.

I suppose I could try to offer some concrete advice — Here’s what I see. Here’s what I think could be better. But I don’t really think that’s what he’s looking for. He has what he has, and he wants it to lead somewhere. I don’t know of any other classes he could take to learn how to write brochures or do technical writing (another request). I can’t say, “Try calling XXXXX. They’re looking for someone.”

So, for now, the best I can think of, on the advice of another writer friend, is to recommend a basic and very helpful book on breaking into the freelance writing biz. I’ve recommended it before, but feel bad I can’t do more. I know how lucky I’ve been in my career.

My big break all those years ago made all the difference in the world. I hope someone out there has the right advice (even hard advice like, ummmm, maybe this just isn’t the career for you) to give him one, too.

Those who have succeeded at anything and
don’t mention luck are kidding themselves.
                                                   ~ Larry King

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