There are things that you want to do, and then there are things you do so that you get to do the things you want to do.
There are a lot of perks in my job. I get to make goofy videos and call it “work”. I get to participate in a monthly video show, too. And Podcasts. I’m asked to speak at conferences. My company flies me all over the globe to meet our customers as part of conventions and user groups. And I get to write. A lot. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it. In fact, the lion’s share of what I do is writing, whether it’s for external publications, or in the community forums, or the scripts for those presentations and webcasts I mentioned earlier.
Like any “staff” writer, I don’t always get to pick my topics. Most of the time, I discuss potential ideas with the publisher and we settle on something that I find engaging and the publisher’s audience will find interesting. Sometimes, however, I’m asked to write pieces purely for the search-engine value. These SEO-driven pieces are done simply to capture the zeitgeist of a set of high-ranking keywords. When the SEO-du-jour feels stilted, when it appears the only reason I’m writing is to appease the Google God and feed the clickbait beast, that’s when the worry begins to creep in that I’ve sold out. But a conversation with a hero of mine many years ago taught me that’s not the case, and thinking that way does a serious dis-service to everyone (not the least of which being my bank account).
In college, one of my required classes was a lecture where various luminaries of the theater industry came to speak to the 500 freshman slogging through our first year of the NYU theater program. To say that the department didn’t skimp on bringing the big guns was an understatement. Week after week, we heard from everyone from Frank Rich to Linda Hunt to Marvin Hamlish to Vaclav Havel – before he became president of Czechoslovakia, and was still just a dissident playwright and actor, using theater to undermine the corrupt political system.
And then there was the day Elizabeth Swados came to visit.
A gifted writer, composer, and director, she produced the musical Runaways as a community service project that, against all expectations, moved to Broadway and ran for over 280 performances. In the process, she became one of the youngest playwrights to have a work produced on Broadway. I was delighted by her fiery personalty, blunt responses, and quick wit. She put her feet up on the table to show us her orange converse sneakers. When one of the students in the hall announced, self importantly, “All I want to do is be on the stage. That’s all I want from life.” Ms. Swados insisted she come down and sit next to her. After a couple of minutes of sitting there silently, she asked “Is this what you pictured? No? Then go sit down.”. Whether she was directing a rehearsal or visiting as a guest speaker, Elizabeth Swados took no prisoners.
And when another student tried to ask a “hard hitting question”, she gave an answer that has stuck with me since that day.
Riled up by her no-nonsense dialogue, and perhaps feeling a bit disillusioned that the woman who nurtured a cast of Harlem public school students to Broadway wasn’t the motherly Mary Poppins they had imagined her to be, the ersatz investigative reporter demanded of her, “How can you sit there and tell us to devote our lives to our craft, to use every experience as a source for our art, when you’re making ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ commercial jingles? Isn’t that just selling out?”
The room went deadly quiet. Being accused of selling out was, to our young minds, the very worst insult that could be leveled at a True Artist. And if our guest had been combative before, we couldn’t imagine what this challenge to her artistic purity bring.
Not the forced smile of someone who is holding in anger, or faking amusement. It was the smile of an adult at the inexperience and hubris of youth. Speaking slowly and patiently, so we wouldn’t miss a single word, she explained,
“Writing Strawberry Shortcake jingles is what pays my rent. It’s what feeds my body. It’s what I do SO THAT I can take time to create “Lullaby and Goodnight”, and “Jerusalem”, and “Runaways”. And that’s what feeds my soul. But yeah, sure, if all you ever aspire to do is write Strawberry Shortcake jingles, then you would be a sellout.”
It was a very adult lesson that most of the freshman in that lecture hall on that fall day in 1985 were nowhere near ready to fully grasp, myself included. Even now, sitting at my desk at 10pm in 2019, as I put off starting one of those SEO-driven articles, it’s a lesson I clearly have not completely come to terms with. And yet…
And yet, the similarity between Strawberry Shortcake and SEO is not lost on me, nor is the fact that for every SEO post I do, I’m given the chance to do many essays, scripts, videos, or conference talks. Feeding my mouth, feeding my soul.
I believe Liz would approve.
*- Elizabeth Swados lost her fight with cancer in 2016, at the age of 64. May her memory be for a blessing.