Surgery is no joke. I get that. But when I found myself confined to quarters for a couple of weeks last year while recovering from (completely scheduled and non-life-threatening) hip surgery, I couldn’t immediately work out why. After all, I’m just a copywriter. My day job really doesn’t require much action from the waist down. Still, I wasn’t about to look at a few weeks off work, say “No thanks” and hand it back, was I?
And that was the problem. Work had become an optional extra for me. I struggled to recall the last time I just couldn’t be bothered going there and doing that. Sure, there are plenty of times when work is really inconvenient (like when the swell is running, or your kids want to go for a ride or the love of your life has plans to take you out to dinner), but that’s different. I had arrived at a place (and it was a new place for me) where work wasn’t holding my attention. Trouble was, I had spent so long giving all my attention to the job that, when it wasn’t reciprocating, I felt a bit lost. I’d forgotten to build something that was, creatively, just for me.
“If you really are a writer, you really should write”
That there was the voice of the love of my life. I was hoping she was going to invite me out for dinner, but she was telling me that while I was on my literal arse, recovering from surgery, it was the perfect time to get off my metaphorical arse and start writing that book. This is not the book that I was always threatening to write. This is the book that I had given up even bothering to threaten to write. It had been so long, I had forgotten it was the thing I really wanted to do all along. Crazy, huh? Truthfully, I hadn’t forgotten, I’d just constructed an elaborate excuse: I’m an advertising copywriter, when you boil it right down and so I had (mistakenly) assumed writing fiction was fundamentally the same as my day job. Why would I want to come home from a day of writing to do more writing? Now that I wasn’t writing all day at work, the excuse didn’t hold much water.
“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”
That’s one of Zadie Smith’s 10 tips for writing and there are times when it makes sense. For me, however, the internet helped me find The Singapore Writers Group and also online fiction writing courses offered by Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA Extension writers’ program. All three of these gave me the structure that simply steamrollered any ennui or procrastination or fear that might have been lurking at the heart of my inability to write anything other than marketing copy or powerpoint decks. Once you sign up to come to a meetup or be part of a class, the commitment starts to drive you. It’s a task like any other and, provided laziness is not your issue, you find yourself automatically responding. You do the work.
It’s been about a year since I limped out of hospital and now my side project is starting to bear fruit. The first visible sign is my contribution to a book called Rojak: Short Stories from The Singapore Writers Group. Inspired by a gift given to the group by award-winning New Zealand author Andrew Fiu, we’ve written, edited, designed and now published the group’s first annual short story anthology. My story contribution is titled New Guinea Gold, in which a student lets his ambitious girlfriend talk him into smuggling guns and drugs. Rojak became available this week on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.
Also coming out in a few weeks is another short story, this time in Cuttings, which bills itself as an interactive journal of new Australian writing. Available only on iPad, it takes a more inclusive approach to writing by pairing the words with photography, sound and animation. Issue One was as much fun to navigate as it was to read. My story submission included images and time-lapse film created by friend and amazing photographer Martin Ollman. His side project is now his vocation but, with images this good, you’d have to call it a calling.
I also dabbled with a startup, inspired by a collaboration that occurred in the UCLA writing class I was taking, that aimed to match genre fiction writers with specific experts from certain technical fields. Crime writers could get anecdotes and procedures from a street cop, for example. Historical fiction writers could find professors, erotic novelists could find BDSM mistresses and so on. The service was slated to be called The Fictional Bureau of Investigation and would begin as a simple matching service, progressing all the way to full-blown for-fee manuscript reviews. In between the difficulties of remote managing web development and the growing importance of my own actual writing, I put this project on hold. Besides, you can probably find what you need on Quora or LinkedIn, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
A novel idea.
My ‘real’ side project is a novel of contemporary literary fiction. The idea for it kind of snuck up on me and tapped me on my shoulder while I was exploring these side projects and looking for ways to bring the energy back to my profession. As of this writing, I am midway through the second draft, having spent a fair bit of time studying the art of story structure. I won’t give you the synopsis just yet, except to say the pitch is “Twighlight Zone for the sharing economy”. I am currently looking for serious beta readers for a round of feedback and constructive criticism. If you’d like to offer your time and energy to help me with this side project, I’d love to hear from you.
What she said
I came to it late, but I revisited Tina Roth Eisenberg’s talk a couple of years back about “The importance of side projects”. Her advice boils down to: Love what you do. Don’t be a complainer. Trust your intuition. If an opportunity scares you, take it. Find like-minded people. Collaborate. Ignore haters. Inspire others with what you do. I feel reassured that I’m following most of this advice as I pursue writing in a setting outside of advertising.
And it’s working. These various project kept me creatively alive and engaged, driven and interested in the world around me while I walked through a fairly unsatisfying mid-career valley. I realised that I had outsourced ‘creative satisfaction’ to my career for (what is now very clear to me) far too long. I also realised that no one is managing your career except you, so if you aren’t doing it, no-one is. I’ve brought the craft of writing back into the office and am currently working on some new training and facilitation programs that help teams build genuinely engaging Branded Stories and to uncover the possibilities of Data Storytelling.
Which is a roundabout way of saying this post marks my last day with Ogilvy & Mather, my last day working on the IBM account and my last day working in Singapore. All three of these things have been important to me (and they’ve occupied 13, 6 and 2 years of my life respectively), but they are not important enough to allow you to forget what it is that you love doing.
I love writing, communicating and persuading. Now that I’m back in the groove, I’m looking forward to new challenges, in new locations, with new partners.
About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He was recently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+
About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.