Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Prometheus on copywriting.

If you’re upset about your local lockdown and what seems to be the never-ending requirement of social distancing protocols, you could do worse than take a moment to think about my favorite Titan, Prometheus.

Depending on whose retelling of the story you prefer, Prometheus, was one of the Greek Titans—beings who were the supreme arbiters of the world in the times before the Greek gods emerged.

Prometheus, in the parlance of today, really pissed off Zeus, the capo dei capi and father of all creation and the grandest fromage of them all. You know, kinda like a guy who runs a holding company.

Prometheus had a soft spot for humans. How stupid. Seeing them naked and cold, he snuck into the workshop of Hephaestus and Athena on Mount Olympus. There, he stole fire (and the knowledge of how to work with it) and hid it inside a hollow fennel-stalk. Then he telecommuted back to earth and gave fire and a how-to guide to making s’mores to Man. And by Man, I mean women, too. #ERA.

When Zeus found out—and Zeus always did find out—he was pissed—as in you’re-late-on-nine-timesheets-pissed-and-we’re-trying-to-close-the-quarter. Not merely content to shut Prometheus out of email as a punishment, Zeus divined something harsher, harsher than even going through 17-rounds of copy changes on a series of 11 social tiles in 7 different sizes for six sets of bosses and eight sets of clients due before ten tomorrow, that no one will ever see.

Zeus had a knack for punishment that surpassed that even of my harridan of a mother—or was she a virago? You decide.

He took Prometheus far to the east, like over by the UN where the traffic is always backed up and chained Prometheus to a rock. Now that’s social isolation.

But that wasn’t enough for “No Excuse Zeus”. Next he dispatched an eagle to Prometheus who was ordered every day to peck his way through Prometheus’ promethean abs and gnaw out his liver. I’ve got two words for that, no picnic.
From the Franklin Mint's "Let Me Eat Your Liver" Collection.
Yours for three easy payments of $99.

To put the icing on the cake, or the honey on the baclava as it were, Prometheus’ liver grew back each night and the eagle returned each day to gnaw it anew. Or new it a-gnaw, whichever comes first.

That’s how shitty Prometheus’ life was until Heracles flew by one day and killed the eagle with one of his heat-seeking arrows and then freed the now-chastened Prometheus.

I think about Prometheus now and again because to my mind Prometheus is one of the great sufferers of all time.

That suffering, however, taught Prometheus some things—and me too, for that matter.
 The Splendid Splinter in action.

Number one—actually number one through about number one-hundred, is that stamina is about 99 44/100ths of any game. As a young ballplayer I remember reading that the greatest hitter of all-time, Ted Williams, would take so many batting practice swings that the friction of his arms against his side would abrade to the point of bleeding. I’ve read about how Michael Jordan or Steph Curry would take something like 6,000 practice jump shots a week. At ten shots a minute, that six hours of just shooting.

There’s a thing running around some of my social networks now—I think it might be called “an ad a day,” or “a strategy a day.”

This is wrong.

This is not how we learn and get better.

I can still type 140 w.p.m on my Smith-Corona.

I’ve been making a living tapping away at my Smith-Corona for 40 years. (I started writing catalog copy for pay on May 19th, 1980.) Even today when I have headlines to write, I usually submit ten or fifteen to whomever I’m presenting to. That means I’ve probably rejected 100-200 as I’m working.

That’s how work works. Despite the chorus we hear nowadays of “We have a meeting in 20 minutes.” Find a way to write and write and write and write. Then step away for an hour or two and come back. Then cross-out and cross-out and cross-out and cross-out. Then write and write and write and write some more.

There’s no way around this if you want to be good. Every once in a while, you might knee-jerk a good headline from a spontaneous blurt. But to last, to become good, to survive in the business, you have to chain yourself to the rock of your desk like Zeus chained Prometheus. Maybe each headline that you write is one-peck from that nasty eagle.

As my old man used to say, “you can’t turn it on an off like a faucet.”

If you want to do the crime, you’ve got to pay the time. Or something like that.

General Curtis E. Lemay.
Some say the archetype for Stanley Kubrick's General Buck Turgidson.

One more discursive story, about General Curtis E. Lemay. Lemay was a WWII Army Air Forces general who became the head of the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War era. You don’t have to admire a person’s morals to admire their work ethic.

During WWII, in an era before computers, Lemay would sit at his desk with giant blow ups of reconnaissance photographs. His job was to find places to bomb and the best routes to get to those places. Legend has it, he could sit for 30 hours at a time doing his work.

His staff noticed and gave him a nickname.

“Old Iron Ass.”

We all need a little Iron Ass in us. The ability to work, really work. To do the job. To write the hundred or two-hundred lines to get a couple that are good.

Or something similarly Promethean.

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