Writing for a Living: The Cold Reality of an 8 to 5

Dr. Michael W. Cox, my undergraduate mentor, a brilliant author and professor, said something to the effect of: it’s great to write and publish books, but you still need to keep the lights on.

A valuable lesson though it was, my hopeful, squishy 18-year-old writer’s heart was broken. What did he mean I couldn’t make a living as a novelist?

I suppose it’s something we all know and choose not to acknowledge: being an author doesn’t keep the lights or the heat on, it doesn’t fix your car or pay off your student debt, and no matter how full beautiful words make your soul, they will never fill your stomach.

It’s this lesson, handed down by others whose hopes have been dashed, that pushes most of us – the artists and the dreamers – into 8-5 jobs at corporate offices with bitter coffee and a cubical labyrinth. And it was this hard, cold reality that led me to working for an auto parts company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Fresh out of undergrad, about to conclude a PR Writing Internship in downtown Harrisburg, I was a lost soul wandering job site after job site. I didn’t have enough experience. There was always someone older in front of me. The marketing and lobbying firms in Harrisburg are so small, most weren’t even hiring. If I couldn’t work for one of them, what was I going to do? Of course, working for an auto parts company wasn’t what I had in mind. It wasn’t my first choice – or my second, third, so on and so forth – but they agreed to meet with me, and when you have bills to pay and no stable income in the near future, you take the interview. To my surprise, the Senior Copywriter and HR Director who interviewed, and later hired, me at CJ Pony Parts weren’t motor-heads or intimidating grease-monkeys. The atmosphere in the office was relaxed – jeans and t-shirts, bags of snacks, the sound of sales people on their phones and clicking of keyboards. I found my bearings at CJ’s quickly. It was refreshing not doing my makeup every day or wearing dresses and heels, especially in the winter. After some in-depth training and a lot of research, I got pretty good at writing about upholstery, wheels, carburetors, and various engine hoses.

The seven people on our copywriting team wrote product descriptions for CJ’s website. We’d receive information from the Product Development Team (which may or may not have been helpful and/or accurate) and made a webpage for the part. We had to write the headline and short description, both of which followed stylistic formulas, as well as the metadata for SEO purposes and search engine previews. The description or “body copy” almost always included a product’s features, benefits, physical description, and the reason someone would want to buy it, blah blah blah. Some parts were easier than others. Sometimes it was simple to tell fitment, design, material – other times, I spent hours trying to create one part, switching between the PD information, the vendor website (if there was one), and other distributors just to figure out what the hell the part did.

It was an exciting life, Reader. Take my word for it.

There were positives and negatives with this position, as there are with any job, but the negatives weren’t what you may think. Most of my frustration came from working with others who either had no respect for the English language or who put very little effort into their own job, making mine more difficult. Product Development was often uncooperative or incorrect, the sales people (with whom we shared an office) were boisterous and angry, and the copy was repetitive (at times, I used “aggressive” more than thirty times a day) and left little room for artist liberties. The upside to the latter (because I honestly have no positives for the former) was that I had plenty of creative energy stored by the evening to use on my own writing.

What I’m trying to say, Reader, is that my problems weren’t with the job. In fact, it taught me a great deal about technical writing, CMS, SEO, and other integral marketing facets. I didn’t mind writing about auto parts most days – I actually came to enjoy creating wheel and tire bundle pages, figuring out new ways to describe what is essentially an aluminum circle with spokes. I worked at CJ Pony Parts for just over a year – this past September, I left them for a Social Media Coordinator position at Ameritech Media. My work now is a bit more creative – it involves writing emails, social/graphic copy, and working with different industries. This is what I envisioned coming out of my internship. This was the marketing I’d trained for (and being a millennial certainly helps when you’re running social media campaigns).

It’s only the adult – the curious innovator and scholar of language that can be so optimistic about car parts and Facebook ads. Deep inside, the writer still cringes away from the office environment. My heart aches for my study, for my reading chair and my notebooks, for the worlds of my own creation. The college freshman is still broken, dreaming of becoming an author, of never having to work the 8 to 5 again.

This is the price we pay, Reader, for a place to live, a stable income, an opportunity to pursue our passions. Some days, it may seem like too high a price. Some days, the thought of sitting at your desk might kill you. Carry on anyway. Find ways to make the work your own, opportunities to advance your skills. Don’t be afraid to jump into something you don’t know or something you’re not sure you’ll like. There’s always something to learn, always somewhere to go, always something to say, even about car parts.

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