On myth, taboo, and the making of boys

One of my favorite shots of my boys (age 6) and me (not age 6)

When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.

In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).

Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.

Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.

What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.

Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.

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5 things writing junk mail taught me about writing everything else

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Dear <<future customer>> / <<future donor>>,

I hope your last contact with us left you feeling all the feels you want to feel–and none you don’t.

Please consider paying those feels forward by purchasing our <<product>> / <<affiliation>> / <<service>> / <<whatnot>>…

You get the picture, right? Junk mail? Or maybe you don’t.

Truth is, most junk mail gets thrown out unopened, landing in the recycling bin before its myriad literary merits can be appreciated.

Yep, you guessed it. I’m a junk mail writer. And I am not ashamed. (OK, I’m a bit ashamed.) I don’t often talk about my day job here at Rust Belt Girl–I’m a compartmentalizer–but I got my start as a communications and marketing writer creating junk (ahem) direct mail for a large insurance company we will nickname Lizard. In the ensuing years I’ve found my niche in article-writing for universities and health systems. I tell the stories of students, alumni, professors, doctors, patients and donors. But I cut my teeth on junk. So, here they are:

5 things writing junk mail taught me about writing (in descending order for big feels):

5. Formulas are formulas because they work. As a student of creative writing, I eschewed formulaic writing. I ascribed to the whims and meanderings of the muse! In the business world, I learned that, just as no one wants to read a blog post that meanders for 5,000 words, no one wants to read a direct mail solicitation that strays from a tried-and-tested path. And so here we have one five-paragraph formula for direct mail appeals: #1: Lead; #2: Introduction of signer and idea; #3: Exploration of idea and connection to the reader; #4 Ask; #5: Wrap-up and thanks. I dare say we could apply this same formula to blog writing even–with the ask not for money but for time. Stick around my blog; I’ll show you why you should. Which brings me to…

4. Persuasion is an art worth studying. Oh, Aristotle. I’m sure my former English 101 students tired of me fawning over the big guy of persuasion, but I’m still not done. By thinking about Ethos (Greek for “character”); Pathos (Greek for “suffering” or “experience”); and Logos (Greek for “logic”) in our writing, we can convince our audience of just about anything. (OK, not a geocentric universe, sorry Aristotle.)

3. We write to one reader. There is much talk of lists in the direct mail world. Basically if you’ve ever connected with any company or organization anywhere, you’re on a list. (You don’t have to be up on the news–Cambridge Analytica anyone?–to understand that lists of personal data are big business.) However, even if I’m writing to a list of thousands of people, those people are individuals. Likewise, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received as a newish blogger is to write to one unique reader: you.

2. Go ahead and try funny. I like to think I’m funny. I haven’t quite convinced my kids of this, but that doesn’t deter me. Funny on paper is even tougher. Still, it’s worth a shot. What? You don’t think funny when you think direct mail? Example: I was tasked to write a Valentine’s Day-themed appeal to former insurance customers. How to get the reader who had moved on to a new carrier to open the envelope from their ex-carrier? A “teaser,” basically a catchy lead printed on the envelope. My boss had us copywriters come up with dozens of teasers before we selected one, but this one came to me instantly. (I mean, how different is a former customer from a former lover, right?) Baby, come back. (Ok, maybe it’s not funny funny, but it still makes me chuckle, and if you too now have the 1970s Midnight Special song in your head, you’re welcome!)

1. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett wrote that, and he knew what was up. I admit it is with some trepidation that I write this post. It might fall on deaf ears; it might bomb. This, after the WordPress editors chose “My Interview with FURNISHING ETERNITY author David Giffels” to appear on WordPress Discover (cue the late, great Sally Field’s “You like me!” Oscar speech). Still, we can’t succeed if we don’t give it a go. As for direct mail, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I explain that the letter you receive from the president of your alma mater, your favorite charity, or your car insurance company was written by somebody like me, which makes me a ghostwriter of sorts. And anonymity can be freeing! How much of our writing would be better if we could forget ourselves and concentrate on our reader?

How about it? Have some writing advice to share? I’d love to get your take.

Want more writerly advice? How about literary publishing advice? Book reviews? My handy dandy categories make it easy to find what you’re looking for.

Yours <<truly>> / <<sincerely>> / <<with everlasting gratitude>>,

Rebecca