How I Went from Writing Ads About a Stoned Puppet to Writing a Memoir
"I’d Never Tried to Sustain a Single Narrative for 200 Pages"
The same year I began work on a collection of lyrical fragments that would eventually become the memoir Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, I also helped write an advertising campaign for a fast-food product called the Munchie Meal. I’d been working in advertising for just under a decade at that point and had risen through the ranks at my small agency from junior copywriter to creative director. While I loved getting paid to goof around and think about hamburgers, I longed to use my writing to create a conversation around the topics that truly interested me: love, desire, partnership, and ambition.
During the recession, my colleagues and I had come up with the idea to create a late-night happy meal for Jack in the Box’s stoner clientele in an effort to boost sales. With the help of my boss, who not only created the Energizer Bunny, but also the iconic advertising campaign that brought Jack in the Box back from the brink of bankruptcy in the 90s, we talked our clients into owning their reputation as a post-partying food destination. They knew this about themselves, they had research that told them, but they were a little reticent to admit it; to embrace their identity.
I was also a little bit reticent to embrace my own identity. My husband and I had just moved back in together and recommitted to monogamy after spending three years on opposite coasts in an open relationship where I mainly dated women. I was proud of the work we’d done individually and together—the ways we had grown and changed—and wanted to share my queerness more publicly, but I was still pretty cagey about it, especially at work. And so I began to write, hoping that someday my book would be evidence of who I was, and a way to start conversations with people about the struggles we all face when it comes to intimacy and self-realization.
The idea of writing a book-length work of fiction or nonfiction was incredibly daunting. I’d written hundreds if not thousands of 30-second television commercials, print ad headlines, billboards, corporate manifestos, social media updates, and radio ads, but I’d never tried to sustain a single narrative for 200 pages.
By day, I wrote TV scripts for Jack’s Munchie Meal. They chronicled the stoned antics of a puppet version of Jack Box, the company’s fictional founder and pitchman, and his buddies, who represented our target demographic of slackers in their 20s. The puppet, although not explicitly stated, was a fiction of a fiction: a hallucination on the part of his couch-mates’ in the commercials.
Puppet Jack: If you could be any dinosaur, which would you be?
Puppet Jack: That’s dumb, cuz when you’re hungry late at night your little T-Rex arms couldn’t stuff your face with my new Chicken Tater Melt Munchie Meal.
Stoner: Ok. So, what would you be?
Puppet Jack: A long-armed T-Rex.
At night, I wrote about my pattern of looking to a lover to define my identity.
We reached inside each other as though reaching into our mothers, trying to pull our long-lost twins out by the hand. Come! Come! Our voices echoed. I cannot face this world without you. The air is dry. The mirrors are glass. I need your gaze to show me who I am.
Although the prose I was writing felt more gratifying than the advertising, I’d decided against pursuing an MFA in creative writing. I didn’t want to let go of the steady paycheck and health insurance my job provided. And I knew that after I finished an MFA, I’d have to rejoin the “real world” and figure out how to fit writing into my life again, so I figured I’d just skip that step and keep working and writing.“It didn’t matter how difficult it was to publish a book, how little money there was in it. I wanted to do it, and so I put my mind, my body, my time, and my relationships on the line for it.”
I took evening and weekend writing workshops. I amassed snippets of prose and poetry that didn’t feel particularly cohesive until I found the work of Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson. In Nelson’s Bluets I found a model for the type of book I wanted to write, and I studied it closely. It wasn’t the first book I’d used as a guide. As I’d embarked on my advertising career at age 24, Luke Sullivan’s advertising classic Hey Whipple, Squeeze This had been my bible.
Whipple showed me the importance of being direct and persuasive. It also taught me not to be precious with first drafts (Say it straight, then say it great, is one of Sullivan’s mantras) and how to get over writer’s block. Sullivan suggests that if you’re struggling with how to write a pithy headline for an ad, that you allow yourself to ramble at first. “Begin your headline with: ‘This is an ad about . . .’ And then keep writing . . . you might find, by the time you get to the end of a sentence, you have something just by snipping off the ‘This is an ad about’ part.” I frequently used this technique when writing ads, but also when I felt stuck on my book. I’d just narrate my stuckness to myself and eventually I would figure out what I wanted to say.
I often disparaged my advertising writing as “not real writing,” but once I realized that writing ads people actually enjoyed watching or reading was perhaps harder to do than a lot of the writing I held in higher esteem, I became flush with confidence. You are not writing a novel somebody pays money for, Sullivan says of writing for advertising. You are writing something most people try to avoid. This is the sad, indisputable truth at the bottom of our business. Nobody wants to see what you are about to put down on paper. I think, subconsciously, this was the same way I approached writing a book—that is to say: defiantly. It didn’t matter how difficult it was to publish a book, how little money there was in it. I wanted to do it, and so I put my mind, my body, my time, and my relationships on the line for it.
I took a one-day workshop with Sarah Manguso, who is a self-described concision obsessive. Her way of writing made sense to me because it was what I did all day: distilling ideas down to the fewest words possible. Cutting everything you could. Leaving a lot of white-space on the page. I don’t know if concision is my natural mode—the reason I gravitated towards advertising, or if it’s something I learned over the years of having to cut down my sentences to fit on a billboard that is meant to be read while driving by at 50 miles per hour. There should never be more than six words on a billboard is the unspoken rule among creatives, even though clients rarely let you be that spare. Make a Late Night Foody Call™ started as one of these humble billboard lines before it became a full-on trademarked tagline.
In Whipple, Sullivan describes an advertising concept coined by the writer Rosser Reeves: a unique selling proposition. “It was a simple, if ham-handed, notion, he says. ‘Buy this product and you will get this specific benefit.’ The benefit had to be one that the competition either could not or did not offer, hence the unique.” My boss had a similar credo: “The job of advertising is to persuade people to prefer one brand over another,” he said. “People can’t have a preference if they can’t see a difference.” Differentiating our brand from all others was the crux of our job—to give our brand an identity all its own.
The love (and sales) Jack in the Box enjoyed after owning their reputation as stoner-fare bolstered my confidence even more. Our ad campaign for the Munchie Meal helped boost Jack in the Box’s sales in the first quarter of 2014 by nearly 20% and their stock price by 80%. I finished writing Vanishing Twins a couple of years later, got representation, and sold it rather quickly. I owe as much to my literary idols and their references to Wittgenstein and Mallarmé, as I do to a book that takes its name from a toilet paper commercial and the deep thoughts of a stoned puppet who’s craving fried food.