Monday, August 19, 2013

This Writing Life – the Drunkard, the Hook and the BML

I’m a freelance writer, which means I will write anything, including a grocery list, if someone will pay me money to do it. When I am feeling professional and composed, I tell people at networking luncheons that my work “includes a lot of variety.” When I have a glass or five of wine with my girlfriends, I say, darkly, “I never know what’s going to happen next – or not happen,” and because they know me, they know that this is not a good thing. But still, I show up at the keyboard every morning, including most weekends. There is a mortgage, and there is college tuition, so nobody’s asking for your opinion, I tell myself. And then I sit down at my desk and get ready to meet the next deadline, whatever the next deadline is.

Here is how my writing life went last week: on Sunday morning, I got up early and noticed a frantic email message from an agency account person. So I had a conference call with her at 7 a.m. (yes, on the Sabbath), then spent the rest of the day doing research and writing snappy magazine-format copy for a leave-behind for a pitch to a major telco that was going out the door the next evening. On Monday, I talked to three different pediatric neonatologists for a story in a U of M publication about optimizing infant brain health, and because no question a journalist asks can ever be called stupid (to her face), I got to ask the head of the pediatric department what is was that red blood cells are supposed to do, anyway, and he told me all about it without calling me a moron (because he is very polite, not because I’m not).

On Tuesday, I pulled together a big mess o’ “fun facts” for a nonprofit theater company for which I volunteer, because a local magazine had agreed to run a feature on our twentieth-fifth anniversary season. It was fulfilling and time consuming, which might describe whole big chunks of what happened to me last week, except for the parts that were scary and frustrating, which was the rest.

On Wednesday, I interviewed district mangers for one of my customers about a program they have called BAM, which, it turns out, is about customer bulk orders, and has nothing to do with the Flinstones, even though I kept toying with the idea of “BAM BAM!” as a headline. (Really, I was having a hard time stopping myself.) On Thursday, I did more research for my upcoming MN Parent story on how to cope when your child gets a mental health diagnosis, and started ramping up all the sources I needed to contact for a piece on upcoming trends for a meetings and events trade magazine article that will appear this winter.

On Friday, I had an interview for a profile of a woman who is the new President and CEO of the oldest and largest women’s small business assistance center in the country, based in Chicago. Then, at the end of the day, I had an unsettling phone call from a couple who had been sources on the mental health story, who decided that they didn’t want to be quoted after all. It involved shouty talk on their part, the kind I hate. When I finally hung up, I realized that I needed to write an email to my editor about the situation, so I got that done. But still, I wanted to cry, especially since one of the chief reasons it’s good not to work in an office is that my coworkers aren’t around enough to make me cry (just my family, but that’s another story).

And then, just as I was thinking that surely, surely, I could stop for the day, I saw an email from a friend, whose subject line indicated the need for a favor. It was a writing favor, I knew, before I even read the message, because that’s the only favor anyone ever asks me to do. The other things I can do really well besides writing – worrying, going to bed early, reading too many books, worrying some more – don’t tend to be things for which people really require extra assistance.

Writing is one of those things that people think just naturally happens, until they have to do it themselves. I’ve had friends who try to gloss over the enormity of what they’re asking me to do by saying, “it’s already practically written,” or using phrases like “wordsmithing” or “polishing up.” I hate that. I’m not a polisher, I’m not a smith, and if the thing were actually already practically written, you wouldn’t be coming to me. This friend, though, was honest. She knows that I don’t have a Disney-princess cageful of writing pixies to unleash on my projects, and that putting all those nouns and verbs together in an actual working order does tax my increasingly diminishing brainpower to a significant degree.

Still, she really needed help. She’s single, she wants a kid, she’s been investigating adoption, and she’s at the point in the process where she has to write what is called a BML, or Birth Mother Letter. (Too bad, I mused, thinking about what I’d written on Wednesday, that it’s not called a BAM, or I’d already have a great headline.)

I am, myself, an adoptive mom, but my little girl was sitting in an orphanage in Wuhan, China, when we started to create the paperwork mountain that made her part of our family. The Chinese government was not interested in Birth Mother Letters, which are essentially chatty, cheery “pick me” acts of desperation that make online dating profiles seem like the height of authenticity. The Chinese government wanted Proof of Income and Guaranteed Payment in American Dollars, and that was pretty much as far as it went. (Later, after Emma had come home, they added restrictions to the effect that the adoptive parents’ combined ages couldn’t be over 100, and that they couldn’t be morbidly obese, but back in 1995 China, things were pretty much wide open for the ancient, the fat, and the generally infirm, as long as they were toting the correct number of greenbacks.)

In 2013 Minnesota, I discovered, not so much. There are rules, a lot of rules, and they are clearly rules written by women who went into social work because teaching first grade wouldn’t give them enough opportunity to boss people around. My friend attached a five-page set of instructions she’d been given on how to create this letter. I’ve answered enough RFPs in my life that I am usually just fine with reading a long list of requirements on what I’m about to write, so I scanned through the directives. The horror quickly mounted, as did the exclamation points: Three-dimensional decorations, like ribbons, it turned out, are strictly forbidden, but be sure to show your creativity! (All I could think was – ribbons? Who would ever do that?) Everyone in all your pictures must be smiling! But there can be no pictures of you in your wedding dress because -- um, well, you know, seemed to be the general gist on that one.

Then I read this gem [punctuation theirs]: “If your letter has a winter theme, be sure to change it in March to a summer theme! The opposite is not true; a summer themed letter is still appealing in winter!”

Did they conduct focus groups with birth moms to find out which seasonal clip-art was most appealing, I wondered? I felt so terrible that my friend had been forced to subject herself to the sort of people who clearly saw the adoption process as a good opportunity to slip in some of the wisdom they’d picked up in those marketing classes back in community college. In 1988.

No topic was too small not to be the subject of the written equivalent of a shaken finger-in-the-face. After pointing out in an underlined directive on page four to “Run spell check on your computer each time you’ve made changes,” the instruction-giver switched things up by repeating the Exact Same Information, but this time reaching for the big formatting guns – italics plus multiple exclamation points. This accounts for page five’s perky admonition: “Reminder: spell check your letter!!” Was there no formatting mish-mash to which this person would not stoop?

I began to get a picture of what my friend had been going through, because I just knew that someone had made her sit in a badly lit conference room this letter was read aloud, slowly. I knew this because someone who would write this many instructions would really enjoy adding to the torture by reading them aloud to a captive audience. I could picture myself in my friend's situation, only I’d be sitting in the back row, doodling on my paper and not paying attention, then livening things up with some smartass remark like, “So, Ms. Halvorson, how do you feel about spell check? Do you think it’s something we ought to consider doing And where do you stand on exclamation points, by the way?” 

It was clear that no one would ever let me adopt a baby these days, not with my sassy mouth. But I had what my friend needed to possibly reach her baby goal, so I got to work with the notes she provided and starting writing a letter. I began, as I usually do, with some research, checking out the other prospective parents on the agency’s web site. Happy. Very, very, very happy people. Lots of cheeks pressed together, as if there had been tragic superglue accidents just moments before the flash went off. The three most common words in the introductions were “Suburban,” “Married” and “Christian,” not that I have anything against Suburban Married Christians, or Christian Married Suburbs, but I saw what my Urban Single pal was up against.

I took a long walk and thought about her, and how much I admire her and and enjoy her company, and what a good mom she would be. Then I went to bed. I got up at dawn and started writing. I tried to think about the person who would be reading these letters. I doubted that she would care very much about the hobbies that the prospective parents enjoyed, which seemed to be a big part of every letter. Really? Kayaking and jigsaw puzzles -- hopefully not at the same time, right Kayla and Chip? (Not their real names!  Just the most Christian ones I could think of at the moment.) Desperate for a place to start, I tried to remember the last time I had read a stack of applications for anything, and that was when we had interviewed for a nanny 15 ½ years ago this very month. It was hard to keep track of all those forms from the nanny agency, not only because every single girl’s name ended in “i,” but because they all just seemed so drearily similar. One of the questions was about alcohol use, and each of  the girls wrote something to the effect of, "I never let demon rum touch my lips." Only Leah wrote (and I still remember her phrasing):  "I like a beer now and then."

It set her apart. It made her seem refreshing and truly authentic. When we were arranging the interviews with all the “i” girls, my husband kept saying, "When is the drunkard coming? I want to meet her." Saying she liked a beer now and then was Leah’s “hook.” It was the only thing that made her stand out from a sea of sameness. Granted, Kayla and Chip (not their real names!) would have been horrified by her, but we liked her. And then, of course, we loved her, and still do, but that's another story.

I tried very hard to strike the same tone in my friend’s letter – real-for-true, not Happy Happy Happy. I mentioned a homemade gift she had made for a kid she’s close to – at the time I saw it, it embodied for me the kind of person she is – supportive and silly and so full of love for that child, who is supremely blessed to have her in his life. In my letter, I described the gift and its significance. For the mom in me, it was a heartwarming moment. For the writer in me, it was my drunkard hook, the thing that would make my friend stand out.

It must have worked, because when I reread my draft of the letter, I cried, and heck, I had written it. My friend said she cried too. Now we just have to get some scared and pregnant teenager to cry when she reads it, and we’re home free.

Who can say what will happen? This whole business sounds like a total crapshoot. But maybe there will be one Birth Mom who is getting really sick of Kayla and Chip (not their real names!), and maybe she will read this letter and decide that her baby belongs with someone real. And maybe someday, like about nine months from now, I will run into my friend, carrying a squalling baby in one those ridiculous front-loader carriers, and she will look exhausted, and happy, and complete.

And I will think, words did that. Words helped her get there.

And I will be very, very happy.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fifteen interviews, one brown box

I’m sure there are many ways that my “freelance women in communications” networking group is not like a room full of feral cats, but, when someone mentioned “going to work full time at a corporation,” at our lunch today, I swear I saw some hackles being raised under those pretty print blouses. And when the stories of “HR encounters I have known” came up, several members of the group were practically hissing.

There were two especially great stories. One woman talked about working a short-term contract gig that, because it was for a massive conglomerate, required her to trek across town to St. Paul for an interview with someone who had no day-to-day role in the location where she’d be working. The interview went fine, she thought, and they signed her on. But at the end of the gig, her manager was required to conduct an exit interview, and, referring to the notes from six months back, shared that the bigwig in St. Paul had “not appreciated your wearing open-toed shoes to the interview.”

You could practically see the black thought bubbles over the heads of the freelancing feral types in the room, most of whom consider clean pajama pants as “office dress up day.”

Then the conversation turned to a “can you top this?” beaut of a story.  Another woman told us she has a friend who works in HR, and when they’d met for coffee one day, the woman had seemed especially harried. Pressed for details, she revealed that she had passed along what she considered to be a very well-qualified candidate to a hiring manager in her company. On the way over to meet my friend, she’d gotten a phone call from the manager, who had told her she’d need to see more people, because the woman hadn’t liked the way the candidate “had held her purse on her lap.”

THAT started some lively conversation among the felines, let me tell you.

I’ve been working in the freelance world for more than ten years now, and it’s provided me with interesting work, terrific clients, lots of variety and decent, if occasionally a bit too sporadic, pay. It’s also eliminated by several muck-bucketfuls the amount of manure with which I must deal. The interview process in my line of work is usually pretty simple: “Help! Can you work over the weekend?” The way I know  I’ve succeeded is when I get called back the next time they’re in a panic. My performance reviews are my paychecks, and all anyone ever cares about is that I can get the work done well – I don’t need to be a team player, a good brand ambassador or a drinker of any particular flavor of Kool-Aid.

As much as I have thrived under this system, I’ve been watching several people of my close acquaintance struggle mightily of late with the giant cluster-cuss that is the current trend for the interview process in the corporate world. The first thing I have noticed is that, unlike in my world, no one, ever ever ever, is hired on the first interview. I’ve heard reports of as few as three and as many as fifteen for these all-day-interview-slash-soul-crushing-sprees that entail having a “chat” with everyone in the company, except (so far, anyway) the guy who empties the trash cans at midnight.

The interviews, I hear, are always positive, all-smiles affairs, but they contain unexpected land mines that can destroy a candidate for reasons as obscure as toe-revealment or purse deportment, as mentioned above. And, once you’re out of the running, no one ever calls to say, “Sorry, we picked another candidate. Your second toe is longer than your big one, and that creeped out the head of HR.” Instead, the phone simply stops ringing, and your upbeat emails (Subject line: “I’d love to come in for even more evaluations of every aspect of my personality!”) go unanswered.

It’s as if corporations are the teenaged boys of the working world, and the candidates are the girls of the sophomore class, waiting endlessly by the phone. It’s enough to make you wish that every corporate logo would suddenly sprout acne and floppy bangs that get in their eyes, but that sort of poetic justice will never come to pass, I fear.

Why do companies do this to people, you may ask – make them return for round after grueling round of interviews, smiles pasted on their faces and sweat stains spreading in their underarms? Here’s my theory – Because They Can. When you enjoy unlimited power, why not spend whole big chunks of a workday making other people miserable? Sounds good, right? Well, not to me, that’s for sure, but I imagine a group of people sitting around a conference table, reviewing the “next round” of candidates who have made it through the previous six, eight or twelve rounds of job interviews. Someone picks up a resume. “Ooooh, I HATE her!” the staffer says. “She uses ampersands, and I HATE ampersands, plus I thought her pearl earrings were too small.” “Shall we tell her she’s not going to be hired?” asks a well-meaning colleague. “Of course not! Maybe she’ll have to buy another new navy blue suit for the next interview. She really pitted out that one she was wearing last time,” cackles the woman, reaching for the phone to “schedule availability” with the doomed ampersand lover.

And so it goes. Here’s the part of the process, though, that causes me to experience what they like to call “a disconnect” in certain, annoying circles – if it takes fifteen interviews, a personality test and lunch with the president to decide if someone is worthy of being asked to “join our family,” how long does it take to decide that, due to “deselection,” or “a reduction in force” or “rightsizing,” that this very same person is going to lose that job? My observation: ten minutes, or as long as it takes the HR person to uncover the stash of cardboard “personal effects” boxes from the secret storage shed hidden behind a painting in his office, then press the red “Outta Here” button that summons security to the revolving-door conference room. Oh, and some Kleenex. It might take an extra minute or two to grab a few of those.

Once that sad sack is out of the building, the only thing left to do is sent the secret “Shunning Memo.” I have never actually seen one of these, but I’ve witnessed their principles put into action so often that I’m sure they exist. They must go something like this: “Dear Colleagues, We fired Suzy’s sorry ass today. Her earrings were always too small, anyway, and don’t get me started on the shape of her toes. If you call her, text her or communicate sympathy with her in any way, you will catch Unemployment Cooties, and you will be next. I just got another shipment of cardboard boxes delivered to my secret storage shed, and I’m not afraid to use them. Make it a productive day! Your HR Director.”

This is just one feral freelancer’s opinion, but, given the current state of our economy, there are only two growth industries that any of us can truly count on these days – sweat-proof interview suits and cardboard boxes.