In the River of Watered-down Oatmeal
I didn’t correct him at the time. How could I? We were barely friends. It was a message overheard, like some piece of rotten seaweed floating in the river of his discontent, and I wasn’t about to fish it out then kindly request he stop telling lies. And was it even a lie? Anything can be a lie if it diverts from your idea of truth. Here’s (basically) what was said:
I’ll never write for a brand again, no matter how many times they ask. Writing for a brand is like watered-down oatmeal. There’s no creativity in it at all.
When it comes to writing, my feelings get pulled in two obvious directions: There’s the business side, which these days wins out a lot, and it takes an analytical bend. Words are wielded for the end goal of a client. We test configurations within sentences, grind ideas down to their essence and work on seven different versions of a headline before we find the one that fits. In tandem with our clients, we follow their particular brand voice (or create one) to achieve a seamless echo between the products or services they offer and how those things get explained. I’m sure this part is the watered-down oatmeal in question.
The other side to writing is a gentle mix of nuance and creativity. It’s the blog posts, the short stories, the unpaid fun. There are no invoices attached to this kind of work. It happens when my brain wants to give word to the wordless. Like right now. Like today.
I understand the statement he made but here’s why it’s false: the business of writing and the fun of writing can coexist. They always should. If they didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have a company called little word studio. My writing would read like slow, boring rain puddling outside a door nobody would ever want to open. At the base of the door, a bowl, and inside it would be oatmeal, tastelessly watered down.
That’s if business and fun couldn’t play.
In the real world, and not the one where empty breakfast metaphors dictate the craft, a writer can turn anything into something good. They can take a request to write about the expanded touchscreen size on their client’s automated blender and shape it into a story about performance-enhancing technology blazing beneath your fingertips. They can transform a memo from a CEO explaining a planned, widespread service price increase into a narrative swirling with the freshness of change. Starting over. Getting to a shinier place tomorrow that’s far better than where you were at today. Good writers can make a grocery list sound interesting to read.
The trick when seeking a hearty balance between creativity and commerce is to constantly twist the fun with the business until you don’t know where one starts and the other ends. You wake up in the morning and write. In the thick darkness of 3 a.m., you turn on a flashlight and open a blank notebook. You write when you feel inspired and not just when someone tells you to. Or you don’t write and let your mind breathe. I met a surf shop owner who told me every time he’s overwhelmed with the business of surfing, he’ll go do something else – hiking, sailing, running – until he misses it so much, he has to return.
A writer, I’d imagine, shouldn’t see an assignment as a trap to water-log creativity. It’s a chance to take what they’ve got and empty it out onto the page, tasty enough for readers to devour every time. There’s no difference between writing for a brand and writing for you. If you can’t maintain the same imaginative spark for both that’s your problem, not the big brand’s. I think, I hope, any writer given the opportunity to write professionally, snags it and doesn’t let go. In an inspired writer’s brain, there’s no room for lazy excuses about watered-down oatmeal. There’s just the work and how well you do it. Yes, it’s challenging to get your words approved by meticulous compliance managers (honestly their comments are very productive) or follow stringent brand guidelines and still find your particular shine. But as a mentor of mine says, it’s the hard that makes you great. It’s the hard that separates those unwilling to do the tough jobs from those who do. Or those who just post complaints about watered-down-oatmeal writing from those who just write.