Once upon a time I made my living by writing copy for advertising. Until I fled from it, screaming.
I was in my early twenties, and worked for an international agency whose Australasian offices were on the frontier of an empire of crap. We were like the French foreign legion of crap. I was a tiny cog in a vast crap-making machine. It was a terrible time in my life.
I’d wanted to be a writer since I was fourteen, and this job scared me away from ever writing for money. However, I’m an okay writer when I can make myself interested in the work, and there’s a pleasure in doing anything you’re good at that can make up for the silliness of what you’re doing. Especially if you’re being paid. So I’ve recently returned to it in a very small way. This time without the creative lectures from professional motivators, or the lunchtime corporate volleyball, or the art directors who shoot paint balls at me. (Because being shot in the back is obviously going to make me into more of a team player.)
Once upon a more recent time I purchased a number of one-dollar ski-lift passes from a website called “Living Social”. I wasn’t meant to purchase these bargain-basement lift passes. The website is for Australians, and I’m a New Zealander living only a few hours from Mount Ruapehu, whose snowy flanks they were auctioning off for peanuts. But no-one seemed to care. In the end I gave every lift pass away and never even visited the mountain.
But because of that purchase Living Social now sends me a daily email, each email resplendant with a brand new offer, each offer a newer and shinier solution for living. For living some sort of life anyway. I can’t even imagine the socialite whose social life is rapacious enough to need to take full advantage of the bizaare whirlwind of crap that they clog my inbox with : Home Surveillence System; Lip Plumper; Ultrasonic Slimming; Ezy Pest Control; Four Super-Dry Hair Towels; Sydney Harbour Jetboat Ride! It goes on and on and on and I get filled with a kind of wonder at how the world is so full of useless things.
I also wonder about the poor shlub or shlubbette sitting in some cubicle in some open-plan office somewhere in the light-industrial part of some Australian city writing all this inbox-clogging crap.
Because I’ve been that schlub, and amongst the offers that Living Social sends there’s the odd inspired attempt to make pointless things sound wonderful. And then there are these sort of desperate gems that someone in the gray depths of commercial despair must have slipped past their editor:
“So how do you differentiate yourself from the masses? You have two choices. You can program your ringtone to sound like a screaming child, which is unlikely to make you friends, or you can create a customised, one-of-a-kind…”
“You used to be an upright citizen, but long days stooped over the office desk have left you bent out of shape. Straighten up with this deal from…”
“The journey of a thousand miles is said to begin with a single step. But when you’re chained to your office cubicle you probably can’t remember the last time you stepped out anywhere…”
I suspect that there’s a person writing this who is on the point of snapping. The avalanche of nothing that they’re required to be incisive and inspirational about has become too much, and a brutal cynicism has begun to develop.
I know how this works. A close friend of mine completed his masters in English recently (the exact same qualification that I have) and discovered (just as I did) that he’d been rendered unemployable for anything but teaching and commercial writing. So after years of studying Nabokov and Joyce, he’s now gainfully employed as consumer reports editor for a mystery shopping company. He drinks a lot, his laugh has developed a sick edge, and I’ve heard him describe what he does as “Taking badly spelt bullshit and correcting the spelling”.
His cynicism is so robust and fierce that sometimes I want to bathe in it. Or drink it neat.
So it’s not because I’m hungry for bargains that I’ve kept reading the emails from Living Social. It’s for the little whipcrack ways that some of their bargains are, in their copy, expressing a sort of deep bipolar outrage at their own pointlessness. I love this. I love a world where tiny pieces of commercial crap fight against their own brief in the sort of way that conscripted soldiers in the Spanish civil war used to fire over the heads of their opponents. The people who design crap and market crap are, for the most part, aware that it’s crap. You don’t often get a job selling things with words or images unless you can at least pretend to be clever, and if you’re half-way clever you’ll know that what you’re doing is crap.
It is, by definition, an empty life.
So the time I find that I go deepest into Living Social is after a day of commercial writing. My copy deadlines tend to be at five, so by five-fifteen everyone in the office is sitting round looking at the mistakes we’ve all made and wondering what we can do about them overnight.
By five-thirty someone from our studio has wandered along the street to buy beer (usually crap beer, but that fits with our theme) and then we sit around drinking and checking our emails for the final time and wondering how all the creativity we had at fourteen has faded into this gutless commercial whimsy. I tend to drink one beer while just not thinking of anything, as Hemingway would say. By my second beer I’ll be clearing out my spam folder, doing the electronic equivalent of unblocking the shower drain. And there amidst all the other bits of gunk I’d rather not see are those Living Social offers.
And now each offer I’ve received begins to seem more rich, more full, more interesting, and more bespeaking of the better life that I should be living. I quickly forget I’m meant to be hunting for guerilla copy hidden within the commercial whole and just begin to bask in all these luxury bargains. This state reaches it’s glassiest around the third beer, when weird products that belong in a life I can’t even imagine achieve their own kind of poetry.
And it’s somewhere after this I can lose myself completely within the hypnotic nothing of the Social Life. My senses float unachored in pale regions of commercial stupor. My (implied) partner and I are infiltrating the Seven Course Japanese Banquet disguised by Two Full Body Shaper Suits and the Complete Hair Makeover Package. We board the Scenic Helicopter Flight incognito. I slip into the cockpit and incapacitate the pilot with the One Day Introduction to Massage Course while my (implied) partner dominates the other passengers using her One-Hour Hypnosis or NLP Session training. We bring the helicopter down on the Island Getaway! and I use Three Sessions of Hydroxi Body Shaping on the CEO until he breaks and gives me the secrets of the Online Writing Course, which I store safely on the Magnet Heart-Shaped Crystal 2GB USB Flash Drive. Hah! I laugh, slipping it into my (implied) cleavage. They’ll never suspect that. The CEO’s bodyguard is already incapacitated thanks to the 90-minute Wine-Tasting Session For Six, so we wreck the helicopter completely with the Revlon Romantic Makeup Pack, unfold our Three Folding Water Bottles, and then my (implied) partner and I escape the island on the 90-minute Paddleboarding Course For Two, dissappearing into the untraceable chaos of the Two-Hour Floristry Course and Flower Market Tour.
Whilst writing this I’ve been reclining in the Gold Coast Jaccuzzi Special wearing my Crystal Birthstone with Swaroski Elements and considering seeing Icehouse LIVE in the Barrossa Valley because their Great Southern Land was my favorite song when I was fourteen and foolish enough to want to write for a living.
Well, if all thoz darkies workin 80 hour weeks in call centres & saving for scooters or wotever wanna call us up for once & ask us how we got our jobs when we’re too thick to speak Bengali, if they want our 4wds, ipads, townhouses, weekends & degrees in making up the rules, if they wanna reverse the charges or the tables on us well it’s too late, mate, innit? Cos they have to stop bein selfish now wid their exploding populations & tiger economies & wotnot becuz the worlds fucked & we all have to share the responsibility togetha, eh?
In some arts circles “Craft” is a dirty word. Circles of idiots, I fear. If you wish to understand a medium, work with it. There is no way in which working with your hands makes the work your head does less valid & the best practicioners of the things we term fine arts speak of what they do as their craft. I don’t trust architects who can’t build, writers who don’t read, or artists who can’t realise their own work. Those who scorn craft scorn it in the same way that the illiterate scorn literature. It’s not scorn. It’s ignorance.