Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Writers

09/27/2016 11:29 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2017

Lately I've been having accounting fantasies. I dream about a career where there is a definitive answer. Where numbers either add up or they don't. That simple.

My actual day job is writing the communications and marketing for a synagogue. The big project occupying my time is a glossy 32-page magazine which thanks congregants for volunteering and donating. It will be handed out on a fast day, a day when we abstain from eating or drinking for twenty-four hours.

At the synagogue we have a catering department which could use some more business. I put an ad in this holiday magazine. It was a beauty shot of a plate of baked chicken, cooked to a delicious, shimmery, golden brown and adorned with delicate sprigs of rosemary. The headline: Hungry? The subhead: Call Catering Tomorrow. Ha! Right?

At a staff meeting I went through the magazine; 32 pages of photos, text, and graphics. People commented. A lot. I took notes furiously. One young man, early thirties, a transplant from sophisticated New York to our Midwestern city, shouted above the din, "You know what would be better?" he asked, pointing to the ad.

Better. Now there's a loaded word.

"No. What would be better?"

"Hungry Today?" he said, emphasizing the second word. "Do you see the parallel with call catering tomorrow. Today and tomorrow work together. See?"

Yes. Brilliant, I thought, but only sarcastically.

I'm self-aware enough to know I have thin skin. So, after the meeting, I mocked up the ad with both headlines and conducted a focus group of two: my husband who writes web content and my Dad, a retired advertising copy guy. Think Don Draper fifty years on.

Without saying which ad I preferred, I emailed them both and said, "Choose."

My husband answered first. Which is impressive because he knows he's only got a 50% shot of having the right answer. I get that he was trying to be honest and supportive without getting in trouble. He messaged me on Google chat, I like Hungry Today? bestest.

Because he he chose wrong, the "bestest" did not help.

"Hungry Today?" I messaged back, "is a compound thought. Using only the word Hungry? reads faster. It's not Got Milk today. Right?"

Whether he actually agreed with me or simply hoped to get lucky later that night, he answered. "You're right. Hungry is better."

I called my Dad. "What do you think?"

"Frankly ..." he said, pausing to turn down the radio. He and my 89-year-old Mother keep NPR on 24-hours-a-day at the volume of a jet landing. "I don't like either. I'd say. Kitchen Closed."

Exhale. Knock head on desk.

This is what the creative life is like. Whether you're a writer, a graphic designer, a jingle-writing musician-if you work for someone else, there's always another opinion that's just as right as yours.

Outside of work I write novels. I have a monthly critique group. One of the men in the group is writing a story about aliens who live under the earth and steal human bodies. He interweaves figures from history with his fictional characters so that in one scene an alien and Mamie Eisenhower get into a fight over the wait service at a State Dinner. The aliens are altruistic, trying to save earth from the horrors of World War II, but they are also trying to get lucky with earthlings.

This man has told me the novel I'm writing, which examines a contemporary woman and how her life would change based on one crucial decision, is too far out to be accepted by readers. His last comment to me was, "I will be curious, once you publish and start getting feedback, what your readers have to say. I think they'll agree with me. Keep me posted."

I googled online accounting classes.

The sad truth is, no matter how much I fantasize about a career where there is one right answer, most science and even simple math are beyond me. Plus, I'm likely two-thirds of the way through my working days. So I will continue to write. I hope in the end I come away with more fans than detractors.

Back at work, I got my way on the Hungry? ad. I went to my boss and said. "Here's the headline I'm going with."

"Absolutely," he agreed.

Vindicated, I stood to leave. As I reached the door, he stopped me. "But, don't use the picture of the chicken. It's not pretty. Go with salmon instead."