Thursday Jun 01, 2023

Critiquing Joan Didion in High School Turned Me Into a Copywriter

So, most of my regular readers know my primary bread and butter is non-fiction writing and editing. I write a lot in the legal tech / law office management space, business / law / criminal justice educational arenas, and I do a lot of editing. I’d like to think that I’ve done just fine for myself from the professional perspective. I mean, think about the number of people who say they want to work from home as a writer of some sort versus the number of people doing it.

I Started Writing When I Was Eight Years Old

I spent an exorbitant amount of time alone as a child. For various reasons, really. I still spend a lot of time alone and I’m okay with (most of the time). Back in the 1980s, it wasn’t common to be tested for any number of delays, sensory issues, etc. When I was about four years old, I underwent my first test for abilities. I remember quite a bit about it (which my mother says is strange because she hardly remembers it and I can recall things from a much younger age). I was asked to complete patterns. I was asked to compare photos to point out missing items. I was asked to draw certain things.

I was in a special needs pre-school. I remember going. I remember going to OT. I remember learning how to balance. I remember all kinds of things. I started reading at 3 years old. I was removed from that school and placed into a mainstream school. All I wanted to do was write. Hold a pencil and write. It was the 80s…very few people owned a computer of any kind. I don’t remember seeing my first computer until 3rd grade (Oregon Trail, anyone?).

I wrote my first short story, about a dog, when I was eight years old. I drew some images to go with it. I remember where we lived. I remember my teacher. I liked writing

6th Grade’s Most Likely to Be a Stephen King

Somewhere between then and sixth grade, my brain took a nose dive. I dunno. I like creepy things. I still like creepy things. I guess I was goth before it was a word in my vocabulary. I started writing short horror stories in sixth grade. Several students decided I was most likely to be like Stephen King. I rolled my eyes. I had already read most of his books.

But…then I saw another market. Teenage boys. They were fucking suckers. They were always in trouble with their “girlfriends” and trying to get back into their good graces. That’s when I started writing for money. Apology notes, poems, whatever. You needed it to get out of trouble and get her to kiss you, and I could supply it. It was a good game. And it was far more lucrative than horror at that age.

Looking back, the differentiation between writing needs played an important part in what would eventually become my career: adaptation. Sure, I liked creepy things…I liked gory, scary stuff. Not everyone did. That wasn’t a judgment call – it was a fact. I was a poor kid growing up in very poor neighborhoods. I was offered what essentially was lunch money to get people out of trouble.

Joan Didion and 11th Grade

I did not have my “holy shit” moment until 11th grade. I was in an AP literature class…which is a weird designation for a course that required you to write an essay every day. But…whatever. I admired my teacher, Ms. Grove. She loved the written word. It made me love the written word even more.

Every day, we were given a prompt. The weird thing was that it seems, to my recollection, that the majority of the prompts given were from Joan Didion. We had to analyze her work. I still have every single essay I wrote in that class. That class gave me a ridiculous amount of pleasure. I learned to love non-fiction and op-ed. (Of course, I don’t write a lot of op-ed now out of choice.) I learned how to truly look at what’s written and begin to read between the lines. I say “begin” because not all authors are saying more than what’s on the page (I’m one of those authors – and so reading into certain works is pointless and mildly insulting).

I learned how to get attention using the written word. That was an essential lesson for someone who now makes a living out of copywriting. I learned how to spot passive writing and how to correct it practically 100% of the time. (It wasn’t until I took Legal Research and Writing I that I learned how passive voice can help in certain instances). I learned how to convince people. That was another essential lesson for the birth of a copywriter.

Was Didion right about her ideas related to individualism, breaking away from society, and how it affects the collective set of morals primarily followed in America? Hell, I don’t know. But, given an hour, I could convince you either way. Why? Because she was taught, along with analysis, in my 11th grade classroom.

Didion and my 11th grade instructor were two of my primary influences for becoming a copywriter. (And this post has absolutely no point, by the way. I randomly thought about 11th grade and learning to critique Didion’s work. I still love Didion.)

Sound off: what caused you to get involved in your profession? Answer in the comments!

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