(I’m the One That’s) Cool

It’s not a big secret that I have a huge lady crush on Felicia Day. I mean, I have a huge lady crush on a lot of ladies — Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Christina Hendricks, Morena Baccarin, Jenna Mourey, Michelle Obama, Queen Rania of Jordan, and my friend Sarah are all on the “The only drink I’d need before hitting that is orange juice” list. But Felicia gets top billing.

Yes, Queen Rania. She’s beautiful AND SHE WANTS YOUR DAUGHTER TO READ MORE.
You know what that makes her queen of? My pants.

The short version, for the troglodytes among you: Felicia Day is a writer, actress, and musician who first showed up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and co-starred with Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Not too long after that, she started her own (very successful) web series, The Guild; this eventually became a cornerstone of the YouTube channel Geek & Sundry, which Felicia — with her own lady friends — launched in April of this year.

The very VERY short version is that she’s the Queen of the Nerds. And I don’t want to say, necessarily, that we were separated at birth, because that might be a violation of my restraining order. But there are clearly similarities. SEXY ones? I leave that to you. (There are. There are sexy similarities between me and Felicia Day.)

Examples: I, too, am a translucent redhead (coughnotnaturallycough) who enjoys the dorkier things in life. I, too, carry tunes not in buckets, but in those purse-friendly tampon sizes (compact AND absorbent!). I like to be a source of comedic Schadenfreude. We both look pretty rad in elf ears.

It’s Us Weekly‘s “Who Wore it Better: Lord of the Rings Edition”!

But the thing I appreciate most about Felicia is that she’s self-possessed, diversely talented, and makes a lot of her own shit — with help from a dedicated group of very creative friends. She’s not a Hollywood Barbie doll fresh off the assembly line. She spends as much time in front of a keyboard as she does in front of a camera. And with nearly two million Twitter followers, hers is a big and important voice.

Right. So what the fuck does this have to do with copywriting, Charlotte? I hear you. Slow your roll, Sassy Sally.

This afternoon, as I was on my way to my favorite cafe to muddle my way through a growing pile of freelance, I put on the song “(I’m the One That’s) Cool” from The Guild‘s latest music video. An anthem for nerds everywhere, the lyrics crow about geekdom’s tightening hold on popular culture, and gets up in the faces of every “asshat jock who beat me up in school.” It’s liberating and it’s catchy as hell. But it also struck me as timely.

Riding with me is exactly like this.

I’m coming up on one year as a freelancer. It has been exactly as tough and nerve-wracking as everyone says it is, but it has also been immensely rewarding. I’m not tied to a desk five days out of the week. I get to juggle some technical work with lighter, more creative fare (my bread and butter. My heroin and dirty needle, really). And, most importantly, I’ve had time to make shit for myself.

Nothing I’ve made is going to win any awards. My one real success — and a drop in the bucket by internet standards — is months behind me. One project I felt very strongly about never saw the light of day. And a third project that I had great hopes for, and worked very hard on, was — if I’m being honest with myself — disappointing. Okay, fine, it flopped. It looked great. It just never reached the niche I wrote it for. C’est la vie. This is how we learn.

I’ve also taken some risks with my professional life. Not unprotected-sex-with-Lindsay-Lohan risks, but risks that made me nervous in my strongest moments and had me questioning my sanity in the weak ones. This very blog constitutes a formidable risk, and while I don’t hide it outright, I try not to mention it to employers unless I’m asked directly. You know. Like a cold sore.

And yet, this blog has occasionally earned me work; as I see it, it weeds out the weaklings and leaves me with the good-natured folks worth writing for.

Subj: Want to write for us?/Interest in side work…

“Hey Charlotte.

As you may or may not know, we have an active blog, and are always interested in our contractors being contributors.We thought about the idea of you contributing to a “series” for us.

I checked out your site and was welcomed by Ms. Spread Eagle. :-)

Caught me off guard for a second, that’s all.

You’re a great writer by the way.”

–Literally the greatest email ever written

Then there are the risks I took in pursuit of being a better creative writer. I submitted a story to Clarion West, for example, in the hopes I’d get to spend six weeks getting protips from George R.R. Martin and Chuck Palahniuk. I didn’t make the cut. Yet, in applying, I finished something of significance. I proved to myself that I can. And that’ll be good to know if I ever get around to applying for grad school. I haven’t yet decided if I hate myself that much.

I was also asked to contribute an essay to a memorial book for Anne McCaffrey — the day it’s printed will mark the day I am a real, published writer. I’m confident that my part will be complete garbage. But I wrote it anyway. It felt awesome.

I also got my first tattoo. It hurt less than writing the essay.

In the last year I’ve had opportunities to apply for, or to take outright, jobs that made my soul curdle. Technical manuals. Pretentious social media doublethink. I didn’t take them. I probably should have. But I’d rather be broke (and believe me, I am broke) and well-slept than slightly-less-broke with both wrists draining. In fact, I’d rather dance the Gangnam Style horse dance while singing “Call Me Maybe” OH HEY I DID THAT ALREADY.

So much of being a writer is fighting tooth and claw for tiny inches of ground. And when that’s all you ever do, it feels like you never get anywhere. Turning down jobs a two-dollar whore would thumb her filthy poop-encrusted nose at leaves my brain free to ruminate or rest as necessary — and when I do have to go to bat for an idea I think is worth defending, I feel less crushed when I lose the battle. By picking my battles before they’re even fought — by passing on jobs I know are wrong for me — I spend a lot less time feeling demoralized on the whole. So who gives a fuck if some suit didn’t like my headline? I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Other jobs to do.

Finally, I think the dumbest and most rewarding thing I’ve done lately is to straight-up ask for work.

Recently, I got turned down for a job I thought I was perfectly qualified for, one I was really excited about (which was, in hindsight, my biggest and dumbest error. The universe never gives you shit you think you actually deserve, or else how would you ever get in over your head?). I woke up on a Monday morning with a “Thanks but no thanks” email sitting in my inbox, exactly as terse and unsympathetic as you dread those emails will be. After crying for a few minutes and dragging myself, mopey and bare-assed, from the bed to the downstairs couch, I decided to quit being such a goddamn pantywaist and move on to something else. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I have to earn a living somehow.

I mean, at least it wasn’t THIS bad.

So I shot a tweet off to a guy I figured would laugh in my face. And what do you know — he replied almost right away, and a few weeks later, I had some work to do. Really, really fun work. Work that I’d probably be pissed off and jaded about after a few months or years, but work that, for now, tastes all the sweeter for my having gone after it myself. I’m like the anti-Charlie Sheen!

And all that’s to say that lately, I feel like I’m coming into my own as the cool kid. Paradoxically, I feel the most confident when the popular kids are hanging me up by my underpants — after all, nothing clears the mind like the icy burn of cotton biting into your anus. I think the Buddha said that.

I hope that someday I’ll have the kind of career Felicia Day built, something I hammered out with skill and stubbornness and my baddest badass friends, equally stupid in their unwillingness to take advice from people who supposedly know better. And then I shall be the feisty ginger leader of the nerds, but without all that talented violin playing and with much, much less sex appeal.

Shut up. It could happen.

My head. Jesus. Look at it.


The Writing Process, aka I Just Shart a Vlog

I have been wanting to do this for a week now, but for an unemployed person, I have been busy as hell the last week or two.

Also, did you know it’s really, really hard to make a video when your only tools are Audacity and Windows Movie Maker Live on a 5-year-old PC? Because it is motherfucking impossible. Also, I didn’t eat anything. At all. I sat on my couch and toggled things, and dreamed about a world in which I had money and time and a program that doesn’t just arbitrarily decide my audio files don’t work anymore so let’s restart the whole thing and keep our fingers crossed it all cues up in the right order without any data lost because there is no EASY way to cut this or save this or do much of ANYTHING, in fact, and also, could I eat my own fingers? Would those be sustaining and delicious in the right sort of sauce?

…so anyway, I made this idiotic video. There’s like five frames in it where I’m making out with my boyfriend. I don’t know if that works for or against me here.

Even though I’m poking fun (poorly; so, so poorly) at the writing process, it does contain a grain of truth with which most writers will already be familiar: it is impossible to just sit down and goddamn write something good. Or even something bad. Or anything at all.

There are always distractions — especially if you’re the kind of person who has loads of interests and hobbies (e.g. “a good writer”). Sometimes you’re tired, sometimes you’re busy, sometimes you’re just fucking bored with the stupid assignment. Sometimes you just don’t wanna. The litany of excuses is long and glorious, but half-assed or not, they pose real obstacles to the process of actually creating something. This holds true whether you’re a freelancer or have a full-time professional writing gig: words come when they’re damn well ready, and if they’re not damn well ready, you have to drag them out kicking and screaming and digging their obstinate little meat hooks into the orbits of your eyes, your deadlines and desires be damned.

<pause to allow you to go read Wikipedia or jerk off or draw boobs on your meeting notes or whatever>

There is no telling what mood or frame of mind will be most conducive to writing. Obviously, everyone has their own rituals and preferred environments and so on, but sometimes your best efforts don’t amount to anything. If I get a week to write 500 words, you can pretty much count on them all spilling out in the last three hours of the last day of that week. But every once in a while, I’ll get a spark of something even when I’m not supposed to be writing anything at all, and if I’m feeling really diligent, I’ll set that idea aside, and have it ready at an opportune moment — in which case I will feel like a fucking superhero.

What matters is that you get your shit done, and that you at least leave yourself enough time to revise it enough that it doesn’t suck. For me, the second and third drafts of a project are much easier to manage and focus on: the angst is over, the ideas are on the page. Now all I have to do is organize and refine them. Piece of cake.

Your mileage may vary. But I suspect most of you are like me. Don’t be ashamed! We can all be fucked up together.

Now stop reading and go get yourself some ice cream or something. You’ve earned it. All that not-working is hard work, am I right?

Yes We Can revise until our fingers bleed.

Full disclosure: my dad is a speechwriter for a cabinet secretary (I won’t tell you which one, but it’s not hard to find out if you really really REALLY want to know), so I know a little bit about How A Speech Is Made™. Everyone does it differently: some people let their writers do all the speechifying and don’t see the final product until they’re actually standing at the lectern; others prefer to write their own speeches, and use their writers as glorified proofreaders. The writers themselves don’t particularly tend to care which method their bosses prefer, so long as said bosses don’t mispronounce anything too egregiously and the paychecks clear every two weeks.

It is well-known amongst federal writers, politicos, and creepy stalkers that Barack Obama tends to have a lot of control over his own speeches. It’s also well-known that his senior speechwriter, Jon Favreau (not to be confused with the guy who directed Iron Man), is one of the brightest and most influential political writers in the world.

Fun fact: Jon Favreau began writing for Obama’s campaign when he was 26 years old. He was one of the guys responsible for the mantra “Yes We Can,” easily one of the most memorable slogans in American political history. When I was 26 years old, I was pretty stoked if I had a Facebook status update that got more than 10 likes in an hour. Or at ALL.

This kid makes esoteric socioeconomic pontification sound GOOD, brah. And he STILL won't pay off his student loans until he's 46.

As with any piece of writing worth a damn, dissecting the genesis of a presidential speech can teach us a lot about the mind(s) behind it. And whatever you think of Barack Obama, the general consensus is that he crafts one hell of a speech.

So I always get a little tingle in my writerly no-no parts when a shot of one of POTUS’ drafts ends up on the White House Flickr page. The most recent example is Pete Souza’s shot of Favreau hanging on to a draft of the 2012 State of the Union. It was available at a tantalizingly high resolution, so of course I had to download and rotate that bad boy to see what the President of the United States thinks is crappy enough to merit drawing lines through.

Click to embiggen.

Big red circle is my own addition.

So here’s the paragraph as it WOULD have read without any revisions:

These achievements have been the result of many things: Courage. Selflessness. Teamwork. At a time when many of our institutions have let us down, the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces have exceeded all expectations. They aren’t concerned with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences with one another. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. They do their job.

Not too bad, right? Short, bold sentences, good use of the rule of three, lots of ethos and pathos. I’d feel pretty proud of that paragraph. A concise 66 words.

So then POTUS got a hold of it. Yes, that is his handwriting.

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of our men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. At a time when too many of our institutions seem to let us down, they exceed all expectations. And perhaps that’s because they aren’t consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences with one another. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together. They do their job.

See what happened there? We’re up to 72 words now, but they’re better words than before. He axes the use of passive voice (“these achievements are” vs. “these achievements have been the result of”). He adds sympathetic language (“our instutitions seem to let us down”), though it muddies the subject of that second sentence (our institutions let us down, but they also exceed all expectations?). Our Armed Forces ARE concerned with personal ambition — of course they are, we all are — but they aren’t consumed by it like some of those bourgeois wankers on Wall Street.

Passive vs. active. “Concerned” vs. “consumed.” Do you begin to see where words matter?

Incidentally, the final draft, the speech as given on January 24, went like this:

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness, and teamwork of America’s armed forces. At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations. They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.

54 words, the shortest iteration yet. “They do their job” was left by the wayside. The first sentence was shortened and the subject of the second one was clarified. Short. Sweet. Strong.

This is not meant to be a political statement about Barack Obama’s super-sweet editing skills (though I admit it’s why I want to start punching whenever I hear the phrase “teleprompter-in-chief”). Rather, it’s an example of how “good” can ALWAYS be made better — no one is exempt.

Writers often lament that our work is like our children. In some respects, this is true: our writing can be loud, messy, and belligerent. It is typically birthed in a haze of tearful, drug-addled pain. Writers and parents are both likely to ask themselves, “WHY. WHY HAVE I DONE THIS.” But the difference between writing and children is this: while you may want to, you will probably never have to actually kill your own children.

If you’re lucky, they’ll grow up to be writers — in which event they’ll probably just off themselves.