Back when I was in my twenties, the man with whom I was in a relationship (now and for years a literary figure of some repute) told me that those who say they are writing for themselves are just–how shall I say this?–gratifying themselves.

In subsequent years, I have discovered that his statement is true. And not true.

Many of us who write have two careers at writing: the one that feeds the undeniable demands of our souls, and the other that stands between us and the wolf at the door. For me, that second career is actually the one that takes the most of my time.

I’ve written since I was seven. I wrote my first “book” at nine. My brain, from birth it seems, was tuned by nature to two things only…the music of music and the music of words. Words were then as they are now, the expression and definition of myself. The world I create. The world that’s realer than real.

When I was 18, the other world inserted itself. I stumbled into advertising, via a summer job in the mailroom of one of the (then) largest ad agencies in the world. I hated it. After two years, I fled for my life, vowing never to return. So much for vows.

Writing for advertising and writing for life have many similarities and many profound differences. To see the shape of an idea, to find the most compelling way to color in that shape: Those things are common to both worlds. There the similarities end.

Advertising (and this will come as no-news to anyone who has ever worked anywhere near it) is dependent upon clients. 100% of those clients had, at least, high school English. And 99% of them believe that their experience makes them experts at the language.

Writers in this field are regularly told what words to use, what punctuation, what sentence structure. We are told these things in no uncertain terms, often without recourse or the ability to reply. They know their products and their brands; you know how to give them voice. That ought to be the basis for a fine and satisfying relationship for all parties. Ya think?

Advertising is not art, although it may wear some of art’s clothing at times. Advertising is commerce. And, make no mistake, fiction-writing…that’s commerce, too. If you’re smart, you’ll listen to your editors, your publishers, your agents–the folks who have more perspective than you do. The other side of that is a certain amount of self-determination. A yes-no-yes-no debate often falls in your favor. Soaring language is permitted to discover for itself how high it can fly.

Fiction writing soothes and strokes–and yes, torments–as nothing else can. Fiction writing saves souls. Fiction-writing giveth, advertising taketh away. Fiction-writing is life. Advertising…well, that’s something else. Entirely.

If one could only learn to live on words and air, I would be the happiest person alive.

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