Wild Women, Mad Men: Day Jobs and The Artist

It’s been a month of Getting Stuff Done here at Too Much Personality. And by getting stuff done, I mean the stuff that other people are paying me to do, rather than the creative projects I’d like to be doing.

It’s a common story for artists – the Day Job-versus-My Own Projects dichotomy. Strictly speaking, a dichotomy means there’s no overlap, but there has to be, right? Otherwise we’d never get anything finished; almost certainly never get anything off the ground.

Today I’ve got a couple of approaches to consider, from two quite different creatives. One, a human rights lawyer who has transformed her time in Afghanistan into a brilliant new career (several careers, in fact). The other, a multiple Golden Globe-winning writer who paid someone to make him feel bad in order to get his personal project off the ground.

TIME ON!

The first approach is the ‘chuck it all in’ solution. Otherwise known as ‘time off’. Or, what I’d like to reposition as ‘time on’, because I think the idea of taking time off from so-called real life and day jobs in order to focus on one’s art belittles the art itself, by putting it in the ‘off’ rather than ‘on’ corner.

For those not already following her, allow me to introduce the Zen Peacekeeper, Marianne Elliott. Some time ago, she started

writing all kinds of personal things in a space as public as it can possibly get.

At the time, she was in Kabul. Months later, Marianne had moved to a more remote location, where her fledgling blog was beginning to find its purpose:

Professionally and personally this crisis has stretched me. I’m out of my depth and trying to learn faster than I suspect is possible without making potentially deadly mistakes.

What I want are people to talk it over with, and all the people I would usually talk to are far, far away and this week the phones are not my friends. I’m missing the connections, or the moments I have free to talk turn out to be the middle of the night in whichever continent my loved ones are sleeping.

So I’m blogging.

Four years on, in one of those story arcs that a lazy journo might describe as an ‘overnight success’, but which is generally the result of hard slog and harder decisions, Marianne’s blog is now the basis of a memoir in its first draft, she has a New York agent, and her reader database forms the backbone of her growing yoga clientele and consultancy business for human rights workers. Along the way, she’s blogged the process of writing, learning to write, learning to silence her inner critic, learning what to leave out. Many of my favourite posts of hers along these lines are collected here.

Although she’d been Getting Stuff Done from the moment she began her blog (earlier, even), Marianne gave herself a massive push in the second half of last year.

She quit her day job, and dedicated herself to finishing the book. It wasn’t an easy decision. There were concerns about money, questions about guilt. But, in the end, she got to this glorious point, representation by an agent, all by giving herself ‘time on’. Nice one.

THE GUILT FACTOR

At the other end of the scale, we have the story of Matthew Weiner, a writer who was being paid to write full-time by other people, but could not find the time to get his own ideas on paper.

Mrs Joan Harris (nee Holloway)

Weiner created Mad Men, one of my all-time favourite TV shows. The series that brought to life Joan Holloway, and brought to the screen Christina Hendricks.

The delicious aesthetics aside, how many ways do I love Mad Men? Is it the pace of the series, that it slows me down for an hour of good-looking television? Is it that my dear departed Dad loved it almost as much as he loved The West Wing, and I cherished the nights we’d spend dissecting what Don and Betty Draper weren’t saying to each other? (How he would have loved Series 3.) Is it that, the more one watches, the more satisfying it is to watch the little bombs go off that have been planted along the way?

Advertising people I know hate it. But they’re allowed to. It’s not about advertising. It’s about the ways in which we don’t talk to each other, at a time when everything is changing around us. That, and it’s also a show about petty office politics dressed up in a snappy suit.

These and many more are reasons that I was eager to spend a few days in Matthew Weiner’s company, when he was in New Zealand late last year for the annual SPADA conference for local producers. He had two sessions during the conference. One was with the incomparable Kim Hill, in which they talked mainly about themes and undercurrents and sexy things like that (she even stroked the floral display whilst asking him about fetishising the sixties, it was great!). A similar version of that conversation can be heard in Kim’s subsequent radio interview with Matthew, here.

The other session was with writer Fiona Samuel, who focused entirely on process (yessss!). Much of Matthew’s story, and the story of Mad Men, is well known by now. The fact that it’s inspired by his own family. That he walked around for years with the pilot in his pocket (he wrote it in 1999). That it got him his job on The Sopranos, but that not even The Sopranos’ creator David Chase could influence the networks on Matthew’s behalf. That it was turned down by almost every network he approached.

All of these factors are good reminders that great work often takes time. But how do you find the time when you’re already writing all day on a sitcom that’s putting food on your family, but isn’t what you want to do with your life?

Weiner’s solution was to pay an assistant to guilt trip him into writing.

Seriously, the guy would work a full day, often until 11 o’clock at night. Then he’d come home and have waiting for him his wife, his children, and an assistant, Robin Veith, to whom he’d dictate the pilot of Mad Men. He told us that the main reason he paid the assistant was “to make me feel bad”. In other words, to ensure that he’d show up in his own office and get something on paper. Some nights, nothing would happen. Most nights, something would come. There was a lot of “… and then Betty says… and then Don says…”.

Eventually, it got done. (It also made a writer of Veith, who’s featured in this article about the women writers behind Mad Men.)

Read more about Weiner’s all-encompassing process as both writer and producer in this illuminating Telegraph story.

So there are two ideas for getting it done – chuck in the day job, or add to it. Either way, don’t ever think it’s the end of the storytelling journey. As his SPADA talks wrapped up, Matthew was asked what’s next for him once Mad Men reaches its inevitable conclusion (somewhere in the 1970s)? He told us, frankly, and a little honestly,

I have some other ideas, but I never expect this to happen again.

In other words, it was a magical combination of timing, energy and family support that brought Mad Men to us. As for Marianne:

Every time I sit down to write, I start all over again. I hear the voices of fear. What if I have nothing to say? What if all my writing is crap and no-one has been honest enough to tell me? I tell those voices that I don’t have time for them. I’m too busy reaching deep inside to find the stories that demand to be told. I’m too busy feeling love for the people who trusted me with their stories, and who trusted me to share them.

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3 Responses to “Wild Women, Mad Men: Day Jobs and The Artist”

  1. jeklo

    I sometimes wish I could be one of those people who puts in a day’s work and is satisfied, but that’s not me. I often feel like giving up because I’m not where I want to be – but I know if I can just hang in there, dedicate those extra hours to “my stuff” – someday I can be the person I want to be and accomplish what I want. Thanks for the reminder that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”!

    Reply

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