“Can you be here after lunch?”
It was the creative director on the Coke account. “We need ideas by tomorrow,” she said, “so hopefully you can deliver some gems fast.”
I was 26, a newly minted writer-for-hire, and thrilled to be called. But the instant I walked into the conference room, it was clear that I wasn’t there because I was any good. I had simply been available. Two veteran freelancers had ideas already on the wall. The agency was throwing everything at the Coke campaign theme—even this babywriter they barely knew.
I wrote fast to show I could keep up. “How’s this?” I’d call out to the other two. Or, “Here’s one.” Each idea was met by a shrug or silence. My confidence slid sideways.
Our custom soon became to meet every idea—not just mine, but everyone’s—with a cool “meh” as fast as someone suggested it. Our egos sparred silently, denying each other joy in a game called “If I can’t win, you won’t either.”
The flow of ideas slowed as the afternoon wore on, as if someone turned off the creative oxygen, snuffing out every promising spark and constricting our ability to even think. As the sun set, a handful of unremarkable ideas decorated the wall. I asked if I could work from home—though, in truth, I felt incapable, uncreative and incompetent, and wanted to be anywhere but here. I mumbled to the creative director that I would have more lines by morning, though I wasn’t sure I could make that happen. One of the experienced writers grinned victoriously my way; I had tapped out.
I went home to face my yet-to-be-paid-off computer and, because I wanted to pay it off, tried again.
In a half-hour, I had three pages of ideas. In another hour, I was done.
I was, of course, incredibly relieved to have the dead weight of failure lifted off my writerly dream.
More than that, I was stunned by what I’d learned. Working on my own, it didn’t matter if I plowed through mounds of clichés and piles of awkwardly phrased half-thoughts. I could be infantile and erudite as I grappled for the right words and a good rhythm. I could be gloriously, laughably bad. By shaking out every terrible idea, I could get to the good words I needed.
But back at the agency, where we ruthlessly flicked away each other’s best efforts, we held everything back because we were afraid of being awful. We had all sucked because we weren’t allowed to suck.
We had all sucked because we weren’t allowed to suck.
This new understanding unlocked a writer level for me, a level I had to earn the hard way. “Suck more” wasn’t advice that would have helped me as a novice. I just didn’t have a good nose for what stinks (and I still sometimes can’t smell it). I had to struggle at writing long enough to comprehend my deep capacity for crummy, and the goodness that sits nestled somewhere within. Now, when ideas aren’t coming and the page is stubbornly blank, “be bad” is the permission I need to push on.
I’ve also discovered that our natural human capacity for incompetence is particularly powerful when we can be bad together. Had it been safe at the agency to offload the dreck our brains dredged up, I’m sure the three of us could have enjoyed Coke. It would have been exciting. Hard, yes, but in a let’s-get-the-astronauts-home kinda way, where the team stays friends for life. Instead, we ended up undermining great ideas and each other.
I also think about the importance of public failure in my writer critique groups. The essential ingredient of these gatherings is not the ability to write. It’s the ability to be vulnerable in front of each other as our latest valiant attempt sparks and smokes before bursting into flames. It’s tough, but we need to welcome these moments of flaming failure.
I believe, when we sift through the ashes of our efforts, the gems will be there. So the faster we flail, the better.
P.S. – There is another happy ending to this story beyond just the discernment that I can competently suck. One of the ideas from that evening became the theme Coke used for over a decade. I’m still glad I had the guts to be lousy.
(This story first appeared in Epilogue on Medium.)