Two Years Ago Today, I Said Goodbye to The Greatest Copywriter that Never Was
Today is the two-year anniversary of my dad’s passing.
The ‘polite me’ feels the need to say, “It gets easier over time,” or “We’re just happy he’s in a better place.” But, no. It sucks. The only sugar-coated saying that has actually resonated with me is, “We’re thankful for the time we had.” Because, if not for him, I wouldn’t be a writer.
Dad is pretty hard to define. The best I’ve come up with is a mixture of the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World and Lt. Joe Kenda, Homicide Hunter. Basically, a weird combo of being incredibly intimidating, but also the coolest person to hang out with ever.
Growing up, he had a vault of these wonderfully weird, puntastic, and off-the-wall sayings.
If we said anything dumb: “Bless your pointed, little head.”
If we said anything he disagreed with: “Wrong-a-mundo, buffalo breath.”
If we were playing catch in the backyard: “Hum-babe, hum-nort, fire that pea!”
And he didn’t just call me Anna. It was Bonan the Barbarian (/bō NAN/ - a derivation of Anna Banana that somehow morphed into what I’ve always envisioned as looking something like this).
We used to have marathon phone conversations about my work life. (He was a financial adviser, so I rarely returned the favor.)
“I’m sure you need some help with work ideas ...” he’d say — then rattle off some truly terrible puns, off-the-cuff jingles, and other things that would make copywriters all over the world shudder in their indie beanies.
When he thought he’d struck copywriting gold, he would say “You can have that idea. No charge.”
But, despite his lack of advertising prowess, I wouldn’t be where I am without his teachings. He taught me how to channel my inattentive, haphazard and, at times, irresponsible ways into an actual career. So … in no particular order:
#1 Don't just write words.
Presenting is one of the most challenging aspects of advertising. It’s not just about calming your nerves or un-fumbling your speech. It’s about the anticipation of how it will be received. When I was a wee high schooler, I remember rehearsing before I’d ask Dad if I could go to a party. “Yes, parents are there. No, there’s no drinking. Here’s their number for you to call.” Etc.
Same thing for clients. What’s one concern you can anticipate the client having? What are three ways you can squash it? And how will you wrap up the conversation to go in your favor? Dad instilled this in us every day. Probably why my sister became a lawyer.
#2 Be fun.
Whenever I came home to visit the fam, Dad was always into something. Trying to fix his latest gadget, cooking up some mega meal or even pulling his cat through the snow in a laundry basket. There was never a dull moment. It felt like a sitcom at times.
As basic as it sounds, no one likes being around a boring curmudgeon. Find ways to make your office fun every day. Keep your comments positive. And be the reason that today is different and more interesting than yesterday. Having cute pets doesn’t hurt, either.
#3 Take in everything you can.
Dad always taught us, by example, that the people who deserve the spotlight most are the ones who never seek it (he’d be mortified to know I’m writing this blog post). He was an incredible listener. To everyone. So, whenever he did talk, everyone listened.
It’s amazing how much you can get your point across if you choose when and what to say, wisely. And half of being a good writer is the ability to absorb everything around you. I’ve learned over the years that nothing I have to say is cooler than what I could learn by opening my ears.
#4 Don't let things go unwritten.
I remember riding in the car with Dad, seeing random things on the side of the road — like an elderly man holding a tennis racquet and walking a leashed ferret, for instance — and he would say “I’m sure there’s a good headline there.” Then the two of us would go back and forth, exchanging lines until there was a clear winner.
Just because you’re not writing it down, doesn’t mean you can’t be writing. Take every opportunity to flex your creative muscle, even if it’s just a quick fun email. If nothing else, it might just wind up making someone’s day.
#5 Duh... but treat people like people.
There’s a difference between doing this and just being nice. I was once just a poor student trying to bartend/waitress my way to portfolio school. And it was only because of customers like Dad that I didn’t succumb to some terrible life of selling insurance, or something like that. Whether it was his waiter or his friend, people loved being around him because he showed that he loved being around them too.
“Please” and “thank you” are just the baseline. Make someone’s day by going a step further and including them in actual conversation. You may be surprised by the caliber of friendships you can make in places and circumstances you’d least expect.
#6 You're gonna break some shit.
When I was 11, I hit a softball through our kitchen window. I still remember the horrific sound and the complete and utter feeling of “Dad is going to kill me.” But, when he got home a few agonizing hours later, he just smiled and told me stories about all of the peoples’ windows he had shattered playing golf over the years.
I’m a firm believer that you can’t become a really good creative without seriously pooping the bed a few times. Be humbled by that — and willing to help someone else by sharing the story of your dumbass mess-up. I’ve got a lot of those stories … if anyone is interested. But that’s a whole other blog post.
#7 Gain on it today.
… i.e., get shit done. That was his opening question to his happy hour buds. “Did ya gain on it today?” His favorite go-to watering hole even had a sign made after he passed.
Life doesn’t always hand out lemons. Sometimes it hands you a shit storm, but you’ve still gotta to make the damn lemonade. And, if you’re blessed with creativity, there’s something you could “gain on” every day.
Dad beat cancer twice, but we all knew this third time would be different.
He planned one last adventure with each of us. It was the kind of outing where you tell people all the things you have to tell them before you say goodbye. For some reason, Dad and I settled on Joe’s Crab Shack for our conversation that day.
It was a comedy of errors, as Dad would have called it. Us in our lobster bibs, unshelling buckets of crab legs and going back and forth between laughing, crying and that cringe-worthy, weird mixture of the two. I’m sure we scared that poor waiter good. But, to me, it couldn’t have been more perfect:
It was clear he’d rehearsed.
We had so much fun.
He did most of the listening.
We “wrote” headlines about the seafood decór.
We chatted with our waiter.
We spilled a drink.
We left there knowing we’d gained on it today.