The eight post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series.
You’re not going to get her name out of me. Only her dress. The prom dress. And the big hair. The powder-white columns on the stage. The elaborate arrangement of purple and pink fabric flowers. The see-through plexiglass pulpit — all dragged around the country in a caravan of trailers twenty-four times a year to cities like Allegheny and Gallup.
That’s all you’re going to get out of me.
That and the topics she taught on — positive self talk, addictions, how to hear from God. Over the five sessions spread over a three-day conference she would work through a topic with a heavy dose of personal story, life application, and Bible verse.
She’s a magnetic speaker. Animate expositor. Profound master of the human condition. She had suffered a lot in her life.
Every conference was recorded and then shipped back to headquarters where they were edited for radio, TV, and digital products. I was hired straight out of college to proof the copy on these shows.
I wanted a job. My wife already worked there. It seemed like an easy in … as long as they would promote me when a writing position opened. They promised as much.
As video proofreader I zipped through videos to proof the ads, critical points, Bible verses that went across the screen.
“You don’t stop being God’s child when you mess up. God knows your heart and He loves you.”
“Anger and unforgiveness can ruin lives, but you don’t have to let them ruin yours.”
I was stuck in a dark back room of a warehouse with five other guys who did basically the same thing. Jack Wheyface, the lumbering, suspender-wearing snorer to my left. Evan Pumpion and his shiny shoes sat behind me. So did Raymond Cur, one of the musicians in her travelling band. Raymond carried his flute in an alligator skin backpack everywhere he went. Evan worked on the road, too, which meant he and Raymond were out of the office approximately half the year. That left me with Jack and Manfred Ballsbane, the greatest individual who ever lived.
Manfred wore designer sweaters, pressed corduroy pants, and a collection of cadet caps. He claimed he could levitate and eat apples whole. Best of all, he greeted you with both hands, a grin and nod, but cursed you in some pleasant turn of language, “Thou fusty boil-brained scut,” under his breath as he turned away.
I introduced myself immediately.
“Your reputation precedes you,” I hissed.
He grinned, grabbed both my hands, and snarled, “You unmuzzled beast.”
He taught me his foul language — perfectly within the boundaries of religious behavior since it originated from Old English. I felt loose, alive.
“Sell your face you degenerate and base gudgeon!” I shouted into the hall.
“Shh, my man,” Manfred said, “It must be under your breath. Under your breath.”
Eventually I took to calling him “Manfred the Mole” because he looked like one (but dressed much better than one), but, more importantly, behaved liked one. He was always ducking under his desk when a superior walked in the door, or slipping into the bathroom. He worked hard not to have to work.
At any given moment you could catch Manfred wrapping Christmas gifts at his desk, fitting together a flower arrangement for his wife, or writing birthday cards. He was generous to a fault with his affections and money, as long as it was at a distance. We got along great, and I even wrote a poem about him being a mole. I read it aloud to Manfred, in front of Jack, Evan, and Raymond. During the course of the reading Manfred’s face turned black, and he curled his lip when I finished, stomped to his desk, and muttered something under his breath.
I had beaten him at his own game.
For the most part I spent my time in the dark back room blowing through the videos, writing poems, and cleaning off old radio cassette tapes we had to send to the radio and television stations. It was solitude work, so I enjoyed it, by myself, away from everyone else, like my time in the warehouse.
Eventually we moved to the new building — a massive three wing, three-story glass building on a sprawling campus with a long road snaking up a manicured hill lined with flags from every nation she supported with some kind of humanitarian aid effort — replete with a brick-and-mortar guard station and wrought iron fence surrounding the grounds. It had been under construction for three-and-a-half years. All of us were stupid happy to get out of the cramped quarters and explore the decadent delight of 121 Mercy Way.
And explore we did. The halls were decorated with period furniture and paintings with catchy phrases and uplifting Bible verses. You could admire everything — as long as you didn’t get caught. Security questioned every aimless person. Those quick on their feet would point to the department they were headed, and scamper away, the guard jotting something in his notebook. Harmless really. It was management you had to fear. Management of any level — from supervisor to her. Caught alone in the hallway, marvelling over the Charles Lock Eastlake settee, on a floor that wasn’t yours, would get you a rigid smile, and a word from your manager not to waste time in the halls.
Just a few weeks of being at the new building I was finally promoted to a position as a copywriter. I waved good-bye to Manfred, who bid me off with a flick of his fingers, and a curse under his breath. I got my own cubicle in a wing with its own bathroom, meaning I could go without asking.
My job was to write product descriptions for her tapes, CDs, and VCR products. Simple enough. But there was a hitch: it couldn’t be original. I had to use her words.
Here’s how it worked. You first find the transcript of the conference (usually hidden away in a storage room lined with file cabinets), read it (about 74 pages), and yellow highlight interesting (entirely arbitrary) parts. Then you would take those highlighted parts, drop them into Word, and tinker with it until you got some coherent message out of it.
Do you feel like you like confidence? Do you hate yourself for something you did in the past? Well God has forgiven you. And now she is going to show you how to forgive yourself in this series on regret.
What SHE does to combat anxiety
How SHE controls her moods
Why you shouldn’t listen to the devil
And then close it out with a Bible verse or catchy saying. Routine stuff.
Each product description needed three things: Bible verse (you had to choose one she used in the transcript — no going out and getting your own), introduction, and three paragraphs. No more, no less. And like I said, you had to use only what you were given.
Of course you could modify words here or insert a transitional sentence there … but nothing more. And don’t think they didn’t check.
It would take me about four to six hours over a couple of days to read the transcript. Then about an hour to jiggle her sentences together. After that I printed it out, labeled a folder (which would grow in size and get defaced during the approval process … you’ll see why in a minute), and hand it in to my supervisor, the editor.
He would review it alone, and then call me in to his office. The first words out of his mouth were always, “These are all her words, right? And this Bible verse … she does actually say this in the transcript?”
Don’t get me wrong: he was very nice about it, and handsome. Except for his skinny neck and sprawling fingers (like he were the love child of an ostrich or something), he looked gentle, agreeable, in his black jacket and flower tie that worked well with his tan, requirements for all men (the jacket and tie, not the tan).
“Yes,” was always my response, whether it was true or not.
However, sometimes, because I felt guilty, I would point out sentences I made up even though I could easily get away with it.
“Now, I did have to make this sentence up … otherwise it just wouldn’t make sense.”
This always stumped Will. He would rub his chin, and work his teeth side to side, holding the copy in front of his eyes. His jaw would grind away as he thought. Sometimes he would pick up a pen and chew it. Sweat broke out under his nose.
Finally, after a few moments, he would sigh, and say, “Let me see what the manager thinks.”
And then I wouldn’t hear from him for days.
Once he came back, he handed the folder to me and said, “Jamilah wants to know if you can re-work this sentence so it’s more like something she would say.” It wasn’t a request. It was a command.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
A few hours later, agonizing through the transcript again, my hands dry and lips chapped from the dusty pages, to find something she said fit into what I wrote, I would eventually land on something awkward, but did the trick. I would hand it in, and Will would go through the mental deliberations again, announcing several minutes later in his agreeable voice, “I think it will work.”
I was flabbergasted. It was the most deformed transition sentence in the world. Better make her happy at the expense of clarity, I guess. I got up to leave.
“So who does this go to now?” I asked at his door. “Do we run it up the chain?” I did the little quote mark gesture with my fingers, raised my eyebrows.
“Well, drop it into Jamilah’s box. He will have to initial it, and then we’ll send it up to the executive office for approval.”
“Hamilah has to see it again? Why? And the executive office? W-w-ho has to see it from there?”
“It’s Jamilah, with a ‘J’. And then executive. Margaret, Marvin, Iris, their oldest son, their youngest son, Pagen, and her.”
“What do you mean they have to see it?”
“They have to read it and initial it.”
“Oh. And how long will that take?”
He bites his lip. “That’s a good question. Two or three days.” Keep in mind Jamilah spent four days looking at it. “But we need to get it in before they leave for the conference. If not, then it could be late next week. Or longer.”
I then sat at my desk and waited. I wouldn’t have another product description to write for another two weeks. I bit my fingers. Looked through more transcripts. Stared at the ceiling. Read a book about healing. Read a book about prayer. Read a book about anger. Lingered in the bathroom, looked at myself in the green marble tiles in the kitchen, taunted Manfred. Talked to other writers. Watched the sun set through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Ate lunch in the cafeteria. Walked through the garden path in the heat of summer.
When the copy returned four days later I was giddy. But then I learned “they” asked to change the very sentence I’d changed in the first place. The one Will asked me to change, the one Jamilah approved. They said it didn’t make sense.
I raised my eyebrows. “Oh, didn’t make sense? But she said it. I mean she said it one of her conferences … it’s in the transcript. I can show you now.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense.”
I slumped in my chair, stared at Will. “What should I do now?”
He shrugged. “Find another quote?”
“Really? Find another quote? Like something she said?”
He nodded, and shrugged.
So, I went in an inserted the sentence I used the first time around — the one I made up so it would make sense — and said, “Here you go.”
I should’ve known better. He came back and said, “Isn’t this the one you changed? It works. But why did we change it in the first place?”
“I think you said something about … oh, oh … you said it … it ….”
He bit his lip.
“I think, uhm. I think you said something about it has to be her words. I think that,” I pointed to the folder he was holding, “I think that wasn’t her words … for the most part.”
“For the most part?” He raised the folder up to his eyes, pulled out the page. “For the most part?”
I stood up and shoved my hands in my pocket. My eyes were wide and my hair follicles were hot. “Let me point something out to you: she used those words. I can guarantee you she used those words. Maybe not in that order … but with the over 60,000 words she speaks in a weekend … I bet you she used those words.”
He bit his lip.
I grabbed the folder and said, “I’ll find a new one.”
Several hours later I came up with another try. It was hopeless. It was another awkward transition, something you might get out of someone second grader.
“I think I got it.” I tossed it on his desk, and slumped in his chair.
He read it a couple of times and said, “I think it will work.”
“What? Really? Okay, so what next?”
“We send it back up to executive.”
“What?” I stood up. I had a feeling I was going to have to fight him. My hair follicles were hot again.
“We have to get approval on it before we give it to the designer.”
I threw up my hands. I was exhausted. I was exhausted from just thinking about this process. I was even too exhausted to fight. I grinned, waved half-way, but smiled like an idiot. I shuffled over to the window, shoved my hands in my pockets, and stared up at the monstrous left wing and groaned, “Somebody shoot me.”
“What did you say?” Will said.
I smiled, and walked out of his office. Then an idea struck me.
I snuck over to the designer, the one in the yellow poodle dress. I eyed Jamilah’s door, making sure he stayed behind his desk as I walked to her desk. I leaned inside her cubicle, a signed photograph of the televangelist hanging over her laptop, and said, “Psst.”
She jumped, hurriedly reaching down to put her pumps back on. “I’m so sorry. I need to take them off to rest my feet.”
“It’s okay. I won’t tell. Listen, Flower … ”
“You’re welcome. Listen, so I’m working on some copy for a product description … once you designed the cover for the product, do you have to send it up for approval? And how long does that take?”
She looked up, and then whispered, “Yeah, yeah. It, uh, can take a while.”
“Like how long, Flower?”
“It can take three weeks … or longer.”
“My gosh,” I squealed.
She put her finger over her lips.
“Sorry.” I stood on my tiptoes to see if Jimilah heard me, but it looked like he was busy staring out the window. I turned back to Flower. “So, what do they do with it?”
“Well, they will want the whole designed reworked the first time, the font changed the second time, the color changed the third round, and probably the copy changed on the fourth.”
“The copy? They’ll want to change the copy?”
“Oh yeah. If they get another shot at it, they’ll change it.”
I dragged myself back to my desk dispirited. Will this approval process never end? I was a young writer without confidence, and I hung on every moment I waited to hear back from the executives. But it was crazy long, and not unlike dying from the nibbles of a thousand ducks.
What was I going to do?
I got up, walked to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. I wondered how long I could endure this. Once, twice? This would surely prematurely age me. I locked myself in a stall, and cried.
Turns out I’d endure it about seventeen times. I’m a slow learner.
Image source: You Just Watch by Thomas Hawk