Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Mrs. Chapin, Robert Caro and the only thing that matters.

From my earliest days as a "writer," I've had the great good fortune to have had other writers who took me aside and pushed me. 
Mrs. Chapin was probably yelling at me when this photo was taken.

The first was Mrs. Chapin, my tenth-grade English teacher. If everyone in the class had six or eight books to read in a given semester, Mrs. Chapin gave me 14 or 22. Long before communication was easy--before you could tweet, or text, or email, or whatever--Mrs. Chapin wanted to know, almost every day, what I was reading and writing and what I was thinking about what I was reading and writing. 

She kicked me in my ass and she showed me she cared and like a beadle from Dickens, she twisted my ear if I fucked up, which I did with great regularity. 

Since those polyester 1970s high-school days, I've had many other ear-twisters along the way. Chris Rockmore, my boss at Bloomingdale's. The sharp-penciled Marshall Karp and Harold Karp at Marschalk, later Lowe. The meticulous Ed Butler at Ally & Gargano. And a raft of Ogilvyites, most prominently, Steve Hayden, Chris Wall and, later, the unrelenting Steve Simpson.

Also, of course, people I emulated from awards books. They're really too many of them to mention.

But of all the writers who have pushed me and inspired me and taught me, the one I've learned the most from is Robert Caro.

Caro is 85. He writes every day on one of his ten old Smith-Coronas.

Caro is required reading.

Not just for copywriters.

For everyone who wants to learn to think better and express themselves with more clarity. For everyone who finds information, forms arguments and expresses those arguments to others. 

For everyone, in other words.

Last Sunday, in The New York Times, there was a long article on Caro--and how the New York Historical Society is archiving his papers--in an attempt to capture his unique and persistent approach to writing. You can (and must) read the article, here. 

Almost two years ago, I wrote about Caro in this space. I had summed up some of what I learned from his books and his lectures this way:

I said: Writers do these things. (None of which are remotely permissible in a modern-holding company ad agency.)

1.           We know how to concentrate. We know how to keep turning pages. So we can uncover things others may miss.

2.           We find out how things work and then explain them to people.

3.           We know that time equals truth. We might take 
six months to describe one-mile of highway. We take the time to tell the truth.


I've read almost everything Caro has published in book form and scores of articles about him. I've also gone to a dozen or more of his lectures. My admiration for him now that I'm in my 60s is much like my admiration was for Mickey Mantle when I was six. 


In this Times article, I read something I never read before. And it struck me to be a lesson worth learning. Or barring actually learning, then a lesson worth thinking about.

What matters.

Dan Barry, the Times' writer wrote, "He [Caro] said he often keeps a note on his desk-lamp that reads, 'The only thing that matters is what is on this page.'”


A lot of us in our business forget that for all the team work, for all the HR-induced bridge-building, for all the "playing nice in the sandbox," and collaboration which is today's shibboleth of mediocrity, "The only thing that matters is what is on this page."


If it sucks, it sucks. 

If it's on the page and it sucks, it sucks.


The viewer doesn't care what the brief said. Or about the 47-minutes of caveats someone vomited before the 92nd client review. The viewer doesn't care how "aligned" your work is to the 128-page deck. Or how many nods your work received, each one a mushy compromise.


The viewer or the reader doesn't care about any of that. The viewer either notices your "page" or ignores it. If they notice it, they either like it or they don't. They either remember it or forget it. It either changes their heart and/or mind or it fails to register.

The only thing that matters is what is on this page.

I'm going to think about that for a while.

It might be the only thing that matters.


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