Guest blog by Hillary Jordan, author of
Hillary can be found online at hillaryjordan.com
Before I was a novelist, I was clever for a living. I was an advertising copywriter for twenty some-odd years, first for various agencies and then, eventually, freelance. I'm in recovery now, although I confess I still take on the occasional assignment when I need a quick infusion of cash. In my long career, I conceived, wrote and produced TV and radio commercials, print ads, billboards, web banners, table tents, door hangers, and sundry for everything from Acura to Zoloft: cars, batteries, chicken parts, dog food, sneakers, shampoo, Champagne, paper towels ("It's quilted once, then quilted again!"), perfume, tortellini, vacuum cleaners, blue jeans, tacos, antacids (one of my favorite spots for this product was a horror spoof called "Children of the Corn Dog"), men's leisure wear, chocolates, home theater systems, hair gel, beer, banks, sanitary napkins (the dreaded briefing for that one took place on what I called "Tuesday Bloody Tuesday"), Texas Tourism, an English cider, a Korean cosmetics line, a Russian oil company, and various prescription drugs ("Side effects may include dry mouth, insomnia, sleepiness, nausea and diarrhea"). And this is just the tip of a massive adberg.
I didn't start writing
fiction until my mid-thirties, and when I finally made that leap and enrolled in
the MFA program at Columbia, I felt behind from day one. I was older than eighty
percent of my classmates, some of whom were barely legal drinking age. Why, oh
why, had I wasted all those years writing ad copy, when I should have been
writing Lit-ra-ture? And how could I keep my finely honed commercial instincts
(which were as sharp as ever, because I was still freelancing to pay the rent)
from infecting my fiction writing? I decided I would put a wall - a high, dense
hedge of wicked thorns - between those two parts of my brain. I would keep my
bag of marketing tricks zipped firmly shut. I would not think about my potential
readers and what they wanted to hear. Above all, I would not allow myself to be
When I finished Mudbound, I believed I had succeeded in leaving every vestige of my advertising past behind. The book was published, and I started getting feedback from readers and reviewers. Many people commented on the succinctness of the novel, and some even complained that it was too short. "A spare effort that wastes no words," wrote one reviewer. It sounded suspiciously like the description of a good ad. Sure, I'd been trained to tell a story in thirty seconds, but that had no bearing whatsoever on the writing of Mudbound. "Sucks readers in from its opening scene," wrote another reviewer. Well, certainly it's true that with an ad, you only have a few seconds to capture someone's attention before they change the channel or turn the page, but again - nothing to do with my extremely literary novel. Equally irrelevant was the praise I received about the authenticity of the dialogue in Mudbound. So what if I'd written, cast and recorded literally thousands of scripts? And as for comments like, "A package of smooth, accessible storytelling that goes down easily, sticking to your ribs," and "Hillary Jordan is happily a writer who puts her duty to entertain first," well, those were just plain hurtful.
Could it be that my hedge of thorns was less impenetrable that I thought, and that all those years in advertising not only influenced but actually benefited my fiction writing? What an absurd notion.