In which I commit professional suicide.

To every employer who has hired me, fired me, or may hire me (and fire me) in the future,

This is a hard letter to write.

I think most people believe that I speak without a filter, that honesty is something I wield without reservations or fear of consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth. I speak when I am most fearful. I gamble with my reputation because I dread insincerity more than I do censure. And I know I can’t demand of others that which I am unwilling to give.

So this is probably stupid. But here we go.

I am not a good employee. I know that.

I wasn’t a good student, either. It’s sort of always been this way. I don’t work any harder than I have to. I am easily distracted. I am abrasive. I have difficulty waking up in the morning and getting where I need to be on time. I daydream. I resent the authority of those I perceive to be less intelligent and more disingenuous than I am. In procrastinating, I often create more work for others.

I’m sorry for all of this. It’s not you. It’s not your business. It’s not the system. It’s me.

I’m especially sorry because I love to write. I love to be paid to write. I am a good writer. I take so long to write anything because I cherry-pick my parts of speech. I vacillate over comma placement. I begin to research your project and end up half a dozen Wikipedia articles deep into the wheres and whys of the thing that makes your project go, because the gears that drive the machine are so much more nuanced and interesting than their sum. I love to read. I love to learn. I am the only one in your office who knows how a semicolon works.

I don’t want to be a word robot. And I know. I know. This is the real world. Deadlines don’t wait for artists and prima donnas. Sometimes you need a word robot. You need someone who can produce great language and do it fast. I can’t. I don’t want to. And I’m so sorry, because I’m not going to change.

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that it is not good enough to merely excel at a skill. This makes perfect sense to me. Economies aren’t driven by earnestness and good intentions. Nature tends towards chaos and entropy – it is only through a concerted effort of Sisyphean will that anyone succeeds at anything at all. In cellular biology, this is called active transport: a substance that, through impulsion or propulsion, penetrates a cellular membrane into an area of high pressure – a little like shoving your way past a bouncer into a packed club. It’s the same sensation I experience every time I have to interrupt a lucid dream to wake up and make it in for a 9 a.m. meeting. I realize this is not your fault, either – what must be done must be done. But I am not good at doing it.

So I admire the single-minded gumption necessary to make a business thrive. It is not in me to navigate the niceties of commerce; I simply do not have the energy. The prospect of being a creative director, or a “senior” anything, makes me feel tired and anxious. Even my low-level peers seem to have a knack for doggedness that eludes me entirely. I just can’t put my head down and work all day. I don’t know how anyone else does.

But I am a good person and a better writer. I am intelligent. I take chances. I am insightful. At times I have been known to be pretty goddamn funny.

I don’t want to be stigmatized as a lazy know-it-all who doesn’t pull her weight. Okay, fine, it’s true. But I am so much more than that. I just need a little help.

Please don’t leave me to twist in the wind. Please help me understand what you need me to do. I want to have a job. I want to be an asset. I know that I’m a pain.

But when you say to me, “You’re a brilliant writer, but we’re just not feeling it” when I am feeling it; when you say, “You’re not happy here” when once I was happy, and could be again if you’d just take me off the fucking demos and let me write something brave and weird and new; when you presume to tell me what I should be instead of letting me be what I am – fierce and curious and funny and pedantic – then you do damage to me. You obliterate my trust in you. And you teach me not to strive for more.

You cannot make me what I’m not. But you can help me be a better version of what I am.

I am angry with myself for not working harder. I am angry with myself for not having more patience. I am angry with myself for my crappy time management. I am angry with myself for not being able to see the writing on the wall, time after time after time after time.

But I am angry with you for telling me to make bricks without straw. I am angry with you for withholding critical tools like information and empathy. I am angry with you for cutting me loose with phrases like “I’m sorry” and “This is hard for me, too.” I am angry with you for misrepresenting your faith in my abilities. I am angry with you for enticing me with a future you never meant for me to reach.

I am a shitty employee. But you are a shitty manager. We both could have tried harder. We both should have done better. I hope you have the wherewithal to ask yourself whether you did everything you were supposed to.

And yet, for all of that, I still really want you to like me. And I want to like you, too. We are not bad people.

I want to be the kind of person who can own her foibles – who can try to make the most of her shortcomings by turning them into something positive; or who, failing that, can at least exist without regret. Perhaps this is a deluded, unrealistic expectation. Perhaps I’m just gilding my albatross.

But for all of my failings, my optimism persists: I can survive as a creative writer in the right environment. I will probably arrive at 9:15 instead of 8:59 (and I will be proud of myself for not arriving at 9:30). I will use every last minute of my allotted deadline time (and I will want three days more).

But here are some things I can promise:

  • I promise to write my heart out for anyone who can get used to the sound of “I’m sorry.”
  • I promise never to give you words that I don’t believe in; I will agonize over them. They will pour out of me in a fever the last thirty minutes of Friday afternoon.
  • I promise to argue over my adjectives with any tight-assed, perfectly manicured project managers who think they know the first damn thing about writing—and I will gladly do so to the detriment of my reputation, because all that matters is the words, all that matters is being right about the fucking words.
  • I promise to make your clients say, “I never would have thought to phrase it that way.” I promise to hate you if you let your clients do my writing for me.
  • I promise not to take criticism personally if you can provide thoughtful and reasoned criticism. “Just because” or “I don’t like it” are not reasons.
  • I will go to battle for my words. I will go to war. Just tell me what to do, and then step back and let me do it.

I am weird and unpredictable and crass and forgetful. I am incorrigible. I am insufferable.

I am at your mercy. Let me write for you.

-Charlotte,
who should probably start practicing wrapping trout in old newspapers (whatever those are)

Comments

  1. That … was freaking awesome. I’ve been considering writing something along the same lines, though with sole focus on me as a person and my aspirations and frustrations, and less on what I think of management. Mine was to be titled “I’m not a cog”. Even though there’s some rather brutal truths in your post, I would definitely hire you. You’re a real person. There is still a spark of life in your that has been stamped out in so many other employees.

  2. Bob Howes says:

    Hmmm. I wonder though.

    A good friend of mine (and one of the best writers I’ve ever known) once said of our work at a TV news agency “Script writing here is to journalism what brick laying is to architecture”.

    I realise the need to earn a living but I also wonder if you’re really cut out to proof read the copy from other writers or have a 500 word introduction to a corporate brochure done by noon.

    You’re a great writer. You have great ideas. Start writing for yourself, whether its an SF novel or a film script or an opinion column for a local paper that may eventually be picked up and syndicated. Take a job if you must but only because that’s expedient and you need to pay your rent. In the longer term, though, know what you want to do then do it.

    I’m probably just being an opinionated old git sticking my nose where it’s not wanted so I’ll sign off now.

  3. Don Rutledge says:

    I think Bob Howes is right, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be an either-or proposition. I write marketing copy for a large company, and often encounter clients who think they know best and produce a steady stream of jargon, malapropisms and just plain jibberish. I tqke a certain pride in helping to educate them, while sticking to my guns as the “expert” in areas in which they are not. However, at the end of the day, if, after several attempts to reach them with reason (and the weight of revered sources), my client really wants to use “leverage” as a verb, if the company’s style guide doesn’t prohibit it, I must allow them to live with that decision. After all, they are paying for the end product, and they have a right to expect to receive what they want.

    It’s always best, if you’re a paid copywriter or editor, to have a creative outlet outside of work — preferably one that eenables you to express your thoughts and ideas without fear, as this blog serves to do for you, Charlotte. Know that you do not struggle in vain, or alone. We all must deal with the impositions of time (insane deadlines), space (who can write in a cubicle?) and the forces of evil (clients and management who may not value or be capable to appreciating the need to be precise, as we do).

    • “they are paying for the end product, and they have a right to expect to receive what they want”

      See, that’s the funny thing. If only they could put their egos aside for a moment they’d realise what they *want* is to draw on your expertise in order to develop something that will maximise ROI and build positive brand perception. When they fail to shelve their ego, they interfere and in a self-defeating cringeworthy circus of stupidity end up diminishing the value they get out of the process.

      But damnit, at least they got to exert control and can sleep soundly at night, comfortable in the knowledge they are still the boss and can do whatever they want; damn the consequences of their arrogance!

    • Charlotte A. Cavatica says:

      Having a life outside of work is of such paramount importance to me, it’s why I recently turned down a full-time contract position with a well-known company in favor of a 3-4-days-a-week stint at the same place. I NEED a day or two every week to decompress — or at least be available for other freelance, to keep my work varied and interesting — and I need it so badly I will take a pay hit to get it.

      But of course, having to choose one or the other — money or mental stability — is not ideal, and it’s a huge part of my frustration with marketing and advertising in general. Agencies brand themselves as playgrounds and creative havens, yet their promises of work/life balance are nearly always pretense: sure, you CAN only work 40 hours a week, but not if you expect to be promoted, rewarded, or respected in the long term. It’s a proposition I find both daunting and unfair, especially considering I’m only PAID to work 40 hours — if I’m salaried, any time you get after that is for free.

      I’d rather eat beans and rice than feed into a system that expects me to give my all and then some for the right (the RIGHT! Honestly!) to feed myself.

  4. Jim Moore says:

    Charlotte,
    Your piece encapsulates the feelings of so many of us who have chosen the writing life over other income-generating options for which we might have been educated and trained, but which will simply never substitute for the satisfaction of crafting a well-cut, highly polished diamond of a sentence, composed of just the right words, and shining with ineluctable meaning. Most of us—if we are as honest about our foibles as you are—fit this description: “I am weird and unpredictable and crass and forgetful. I am incorrigible. I am insufferable.” If a writer is not those things, or at least most of those things, I have a built-in avoidance mechanism that steers me around them and their products.

    As I read along, picturing the companies you’ve written for and the employers who have sent you away, I began to wonder just how many people I’d written for, As it turns out, over the past 46 years there have been three newspapers, five members of Congress (three House, two Senate), three congressional committees, six cabinet secretaries, two federal agencies, two national political committees, five books, and a variety of magazines. And that list is probably off by a few random assignments, and it doesn’t include personal writing.

    Of all the companies, committees, agencies, and individuals for whom I’ve written, only one person, one of the cabinet secretaries, ever said, “Write what you think is best,” and then, after that assignment, followed up with, “That was just what I needed. Thank you.” Only one. In nearly half-a-century of writing, just one open-minded person figured out that this weird, unpredictable, incorrigible, and frequently forgetful writer (I’m not particularly crass, though I must admit to some insufferability) would be happiest, and most creatively productive, when left alone—and entrusted—to accomplish the task. That’s in stark contrast to: a cabinet secretary who threw a speech back at me in a meeting of other writers and staff and then made my professional life so difficult that I wound up in the hospital with through-the-roof blood pressure; in contrast to a Senator who, in front of a committee hearing, delivered an ad-hominem, unflattering, mean-spirited comment about a line I’d written in his opening statement; and in contrast to a managing editor who told me, in a busy newsroom, that’d I never be a good writer and that I should just quit.

    Most of the time, my clients and bosses tolerated my carefully scripted forays into the wilderness of good writing; occasionally, they even put up with pointedly-critical editing. But that was as rare then as it is now. Part of the problem is that everyone thinks they can write, and everyone thinks they can edit. Compounding those myths is my own observation that business leaders and managers (and I limit the term business to small to medium-sized companies; many Fortune 200 CEOs and other leaders are well-known for their reading lists) don’t read for pleasure. Certainly not reading which demands critical thinking, comparative analysis, historical perspective, and senses of irony and humor. They don’t embrace Jim’s maxim, “If you don’t read, you can’t write,” and Jim’s corollary, “If you don’t write, you can’t edit.” And these are the very people who hire writers to do the work they believe they could do if they only had the time.

    The other part of the problem is that civil discourse, candor, risk-taking, respect, and trust are nowhere to be found in the Business 101 syllabus. The very tools you need—the tools you expect—a prospective employer to have when he or she is interviewing you and then taking you on are absent from their suites and their HR departments.
    You just have to keep doing what you’re doing…pushing your work out there, creating your own brand, and laying the groundwork for your independence from worker-bee companies where conformity is the buzzword, and creative exceptionalism gets you shoved out the front door.

  5. I think I want your dad, Charlotte. He is a wise man. :)

    As someone who is a writer to some lesser degree than you, struggling to attain a business degree to go with my years of survival in the business world, and as a manager by nature, I have learned that there are rarely bad employees. There are usually managers who do not know how or don’t want to try to utilize employees in ways that play to their strengths. If they would simply learn or try to do this, they would have happier and more productive employees, and a much higher quality end product, regardless of the actual product. You do not tell a painter how to paint, and you do not tell a writer what to write. And if you have to correct either, or any artist, you do it respectfully and with care for what they emotionally invested in the piece.

    If I were a publisher, I’d hire you in a heartbeat. I’d do it even if you weren’t a talented writer because you have qualities that I value much more: honesty, integrity, a willingness to fight for what you believe in, and a willingness to invest yourself in producing the highest quality whatever it is you’re working on – whether it is art, sculpture, ripping a new sphincter on some deserving soul, or writing.

    Unfortunately, the road you need to take is not an easy one. I am fortunate that I can tolerate being a undervalued and underappreciated cog in the wheel if it means a steady, reliable salary. You could never accept that because you are too talented, individual, and unique to fit any mold but your own. I admire that because it takes a hell of a lot more guts than I have to stay true to yourself and your dreams when it can be so risky in this economy.

    Keep being true to yourself and what you need to be happy. In the end, that’s all that really matters.

    And if I ever win the lottery, I’ll start my own publishing company. You’ll have a permanent job then, writing whatever you want with no one looking over your shoulder. :) I’ve considered doing an online publishing company anyway, except I really don’t like and am not qualified to edit. :)

  6. And I *would* hire you, just on the basis of this post. Because for me, the no-crap, highly creative person is exactly who I want to work with.

    I too loathe structure and drudgery in my work, but let me explore and be a bit freer, and you’ll get amazing things from me. I am not a good employee, because I also often look like I’m kicking back doing SFA, but actually my brain is working a gazillion miles an hour and something awesome will result if I’m just allowed to do it.

    This is the reason I started my own company, and why (as an employee for someone right at the moment, I struggle).

    Keep doing your thing. It’ll work out.

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