Small Moments, Big Impact

Brand new grandma Thea Devine here.

Back in the “Mad Men” days, I worked for a multi-national advertising agency, first as a copy secretary and later, the assistant to a Creative Director whose name, coincidentally, was Don. Those days, there really were two hour (and more) lunches, and big celebratory parties. Lots of office affairs. Major secrecy and seclusion when pitching big accounts. Profit sharing vested in one year. Bright young college grads grabbing any salary to start as bottom rung junior copywriters or artists just to get a foot in the door. Corporate clients wielding power over all.

And there were endless rewrites of copy. Back then, we had to type print ad and tv scripts, an original and seven carbon copies, on clunky old Royal manual typewriters. No cut and paste. No click to print. I worked for two women copywriters, one of whom was gentle and cozy, the other, a beautiful razor sharp no-nonsense blonde.

I remember asking her one day, as she was rewriting a tv script for the fifth or sixth time, “how do you know?” By which I meant (remember, I was very young) , how do you know what to change and whether it would work.

She said, “I just know.”

I never forgot that. Because now I know, when you’ve been writing long enough, you do know. Lesson learned long afterward: there are any number of ways to approach a piece of ad copy or a piece of fiction. You know to trust your instincts, trust your gut. Trust yourself. You know how to move around a manuscript and when to change things and when not to, and that there are many ways to write a sentence. You just “know.”

Then there was the Creative Director. No slick Mad Ave type was he — he was from Vermont, had started in the mailroom, worked his way up to Creative Director, a pragmatic and plain-spoken man whose advertising philosophy I characterized as “demonstrable practicability”.

One day, one of his junior copywriters brought him a revised piece of copy to review, and I could hear the CD saying, “What’s this? I don’t understand that. What does this mean? This makes no sense,” and at the end of a grueling five minute critique, the copywriter came out of that session with the CD and jubilantly said to me: “He LOVED it!”

Let us all cultivate that attitude. The copywriter wound up a vice president of the agency. Lesson learned: love what you write. Defend what you write. Adjunct to that in my writing life: the editor (the Creative Director) is wrong. (More on that in another post.)

What I remember best about the CD was every morning he came striding into the office, saying, “Tell me something wonderful.” I mean, who wouldn’t wrack their brains to think of any small thing that could be construed as wonderful? It started the day on a positive note and things theoretically could only get better from there.

Sometimes he would say, “Tell me everything.” Tall order. But people do — tell you everything, I mean. All you have to do is ask. Except, I tried saying that to a cousin of mine I hadn’t seen in many years and he looked me dead in the eye and said, “NO.” But that’s another story for another time …

So tell me something wonderful. Do you trust your instincts? Do you love what you write? Was there some small incident that made a big impact on your writing life? What do you “know?”

Thea Devine’s The Darkest Heart was a June release from Pocket/Gallery. She’s currently working on the sequel.


20 thoughts on “Small Moments, Big Impact”

  1. While I’m in the actual writing process, I am so absorbed in the trees that I have to be careful not to forget the forest. By the time I get to the end, I am convinced that it’s all a horrible pile of messy slop.

    Then I start re-reading for revisions and, inevitably, I look at what I’ve written and think, “Hey, this ain’t bad. I actually like my own story.”

    So I do “just know”…eventually.

  2. Let’s see … something wonderful. I know! Thea’s a new grandma! Congratulations! I do try to trust my instincts, because I find that when I don’t, I nearly always regret it. I don’t love what I write as I’m actually putting fingers to keyboard, but I’m usually pretty happy with it afterward. As for a small incident that made a big impact on my writing life, without question it was when I finally screwed up enough courage to walk into a writers group meeting at the public library and met J Monkeys. That one meeting laid the foundation for me to actually start writing rather than just thinking about it. Later I met Casey, then PJ, who led us to CTRWA. That’s where my world expanded exponentially and I realized I might just be able to do this writing thing.

    1. There is that moment. When I got my first contract and was working on the manuscript I had this “aha” moment: it was like, “of course.” Like you always knew how to do this, but you didn’t know until you sat down and wrestled it out. We are so blessed we can do this.


  3. Like Toni, I’m often surprised at what I find in my horrid first drafts…just a little line that I forgot writing where I say, “Oh! So there she is!” meaning that in all the mess, there was the heart of the story, just waiting to be found. I’m getting better at trusting my instincts, only because I’ve done this a few times now. The more you write…etc.

    Congratulations on the grandbaby, Thea! Can’t think of anything more wonderful than that!

  4. Congrats Thea!

    I loved your copy editor story. You have lived an interesting life and have come a long way, baby.

    I’m still learning to trust my writing. i analyze it to death, even as I’m writing. Although I am learning to accept that first drafts are meant to be a mess. When I first started writing, i listened to everyone’s critique and it made me crazy trying to weed out what was “right” and what was “wrong”. I like to think I’m open minded enough to take constructive criticism and learn from it. But now, I’d say that I’m just stubborn enough to know when I need to stand firm in a conviction and when something needs changing. Once I realized that everyone else will have certainty about my writing and what THEY would change, I realized that I needed to be true to myself first. So far, that hasn’t steered me wrong.

    1. Exactly! I’m probably a renegade in this respect, but I’ve never understood giving the power over what I write to someone else — barring an editor. And even then — what we do is so powerful, everyone wants to do it. And everyone can’t.

      (reveling in second day grandma-dom)

  5. Congratulations, Thea, make sure to bring pictures to the meeting. I to am surprised when I read the story for revisions but before then I have several critique partners and beta readers read it to reassure myself that it wasn’t garbage. Talk about insecurity but having you as a mentor really helped me move forward. Thank You, Marian

  6. I’ve got something wonderful to report: my twins came through tonsil/adnoid surgery with flying colors. One of them is typically mopy and whiney – the other one is as wound up as usual…the doctors laughed, they’ve never seen anybody like him! 🙂

  7. A new Grandma! 🙂 Congratulations! That’s wonderful. And so is your post. I loved hearing about this time in your life. So fascinating.

    Trust my instincts…funny, because my character in my wip doesn’t trust hers, and I am questioning my own. But in rereading it I can see the mess I need to search through to find the story. Thanks for the push.

    1. I am always happy to nudge, Katy! You always knew what you were doing. When you let go of the idea you don’t, the heavens open, the angels sing and all is right with the world.


  8. Congrats on the Grandbaby, Thea! So exciting!!!

    I don’t see clearly sometimes in the first draft, only later, when editing, and I read my own stuff I “see” it, do what feels right, and then step back and wonder how the hell I ever pulled it all together. The whole process is still one glorious mystery that I am figuring out how to unravel a little every day.

  9. Thanks for a great post Thea. I loved your news story. Inspiring to see others trusting in their writing. I am learning to trust my writing, as long as my critique partner okay’s it. HA! Guess I got a long way to go. Isn’t everything a winding road, art, writing, music, tennis, design. Once you have done it, won some, sold some and succeeded you begin to trust. My interior design students would say to me, “when will I not be afraid?” I would answer when you understand what you are doing. All those classes really make a difference. Same thing…Thanks Thea! Congrats re the grandbaby. Grandkids are wonderful and amazing. We have 12 1/2 of them from almost born to 25. God’s gift.

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