Copywriters: ghosts of their writing selves?

Guest post by Manuela Boyle I write five days out of seven. Some weeks maybe more. Original prose no less; raw materials plucked from different vocabulary sets and arranged into a new word order.

But here’s my dark secret: I write for other people. What am I talking about? It’s not a poetry collection or a longed-for first novel that keeps me out of trouble most of the time: I’m a copywriter. Better out than in, folks.

I’ve been copywriting at a wonderful design agency for five years now and am in a position I’ve dreamed of since I was a wee thing, when I’d make my own miniature books like the Brontes did: writing for my living.

I have an open-plan desk of my own and more than £500 a year, a portfolio I’m proud of and but still one question haunts me: can I be a copywriter and my own woman? Can I write on demand and to deadlines all week then switch pens (well ok, PC to Mac) and craft a magnus opus in my spare time?

Of course, what we’re talking about here is the age-old creative’s dilemma: art won’t pay the bills, but it’ll keep your soul nourished and your practice keen.

Trust me, I’m a writer

And there are lots of us writers who make their living doing the thing they love; and yet as a result, don’t make their living in the way they’d really love.

Make no mistake, there are as many sorts of wordsmiths as there are doctors: witty folk are columnists, pedants are copy-editors, sparky types ad copywriters and nerds manual-writers …hang on a minute, maybe that last category expired in the seventies.

What I’m trying to say is that the writing skillset is like France: much bigger than you thought when you get there, and that if you’ve got talent, then hell, make like Simon Cowell and put it to work.

But let’s pause and think about the writer’s gentle soul awhile. Some of the copywriters I know have literary or non-fiction ambitions; others quite simply, don’t.

Some are lazy when it comes to that magnus opus, some think they’ll eventually get round to it, and others know their own creative practice is good for them, like greens are, but don’t want to participate.

A handful – and here’s the type that impresses me most – do both. They write copy in the day, and create worlds of their own by night.

The editor of this very blog falls into the latter category, dear reader, and he has my utmost respect for it (he’ll try and edit this sentence out, but I’ll exercise my creative temperament if he does).

Poetry please

Here comes the second confession: like a schoolgirl, I need pressure and deadlines to motivate me. I need the teacher to say ‘Hand your essay in tomorrow and no dog excuses’ to put pen to paper.

Does that make me a bad writer? I don’t think so, but it probably explains why I chose poetry over other creative writing forms when I first began to write.

I don’t know about you, but I like quick fixes, I like an immediate sense of completion, I like to see the end in sight. We’ve all done the clean the house/clear your desk trick to get an instant reward whenever something bigger and harder is looming.

Of course the poets among you will rightly cry: ‘poetry’s no walk in the park’ and you’d be right, but then my ill-assorted olla podrida of poems from the past 15 years ain’t going to win the TS Eliot in a hurry.

Peaking early

I did have a glimpse of What-Could-Be aged 19, when I came runner-up in a national poetry competition, got to meet Mr Roger McGough and record my poem for Radio 4.

Years later, when I with anxious heart sent a bundle of precious poems to my old tutor and esteemed poet himself David Constantine, and got told to work harder, I kind of put down my pen there and then.

Lucky for me, a group of us writers from work (including your goodly editor) set up a spoken word night in Sheffield, Words Aloud, which ran successfully for two years, a broad church that saw a crazy radio spectrum of writers bare their battered souls in a darkened room to like-minded ears.

Suddenly I had regular reason to write again, and I wasn’t the only one. But soon life got in the way, and I resorted to reading other people’s work and not my own. The ‘bad writer’ cloud reappeared again.

Spring clean

It lifted just in time for spring last year when I decided to enter the Harper’s Bazaar short story competition and produced a short story I was happy with.

That time of year’s come around again, and as sure as the crocuses are coming up, I’m stockpiling my tools and readying myself to knuckle down to it once again.

So where does that leave our copywriter conundrum, readers? The premise that what’s good for the wallet ain’t so good for the soul?

I sure know I need to eat my greens more often to dispel that damned cloud, but what about you? Is writing for someone else effectively ghost-writing or can it shape your practice and make you a better writer?

Or do you need to lock yourself in that garret and eat beans from a tin to hit the creative jackpot?

Order, order! Your comments please.