Tag Archives: Mad Men

“That’s the story we’re going to tell”

3 Jul

In the season six finale of Mad Men, Don Draper is making a pitch to Hershey executives that the chocolate bar is synonymous with affection. He threads a familiar yarn about his middle class father who rewarded his yard-mowing with a Hershey bar.

“That’s the story we’re going to tell,” he tells the executives with authority.

Don Draper is always in control of the story. He’s spent his whole life creating that narrative. His career in advertising was built on telling the story people want to hear.

Only it’s not real. It’s a fabrication that tastes like the rush of sugar candy. After the initial buzz, all you can taste are the artificial flavors. After too many Pixy Stix, you feel sick and full of regret.

Draper didn’t have the stomach to control the campaign anymore. He interrupts the satisfied executives with the truth that he was an orphan raised in a whorehouse. He ends his anecdote explaining that the Hershey bar was “the only sweet thing in my life.”

*******

Today the art of professional branding has crossed over into our personal lives thanks to social media. We think we’re in control of the narrative because we craft it so carefully, but is what we’re saying true?

After spending two weeks with journalism advisers as an Association of News Editors (ASNE) fellow in Austin, Texas, I was reminded how much of journalism is listening. The talking heads and hyper-posters seem to miss this. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the less I feel I should talk. This works against my extroverted talky-talky nature. I had to work at this. What is natural for me is listening to people’s stories. But the writer in me needs to write it down.

[The] facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like.

                                                       ********

That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story.

Maya Angelou

In April, I started interviewing people for a personal project on community. I’ve been transcribing these interviews into my Moleskin and trying to decipher them for patterns. This project is a long-game. I don’t know what will come of it, but it’s fascinating to hear people’s tales; I’ve learned more than can be articulated clearly yet. The most important thing this project has done so far is invigorate my love for interviewing and storytelling in general. I am interviewing to understand.

People are relieved to tell their story if they think you want to hear it. I find most people don’t think their story is important or that it’s relevant. Others worry that the truth sounds bad. They’re afraid to say it.

Don Draper’s confession comes at the crux of his own alcoholic breakdown. It took him completely losing control of his own contrived identity to create an honest moment. It was as hard for him to tell as it was for his audience to hear. But never has an audience felt more about a Hershey bar than in that moment. The story told itself precisely because Draper let go of the reigns.

The question then becomes how do you let go? From a journalistic perspective, you can’t have an agenda. You have to listen. If you think you know the story before the interview, you’ll miss the best stuff. My favorite interviews have been with people I didn’t know well, or in some cases had just met. This means the comfort level isn’t there to facilitate free conversation. It forced me to listen deeper. What are they not saying? What do they want to say but are afraid to? What do they need permission to say?

My personal interviews are purely for research and I won’t be citing people specifically in whatever I write in the future. Even in that anonymous context, people still hesitate. Sometimes they feel like they have to make excuses for how they feel. The hardest thing for a person to do is just speak the truth. That’s why stand-up comedians are so important to our culture. The good ones stand up in front of large crowds and say it straight. That’s their selling point. We laugh because we can’t do that. When they hit that nerve we’re relieved.

“She said it so I don’t have to.”

I’m a fairly open person now, but I grew up an incredibly private one. Most of my real thoughts were never spoken aloud. I imagine that’s true of many of the young people I teach. What is not said keeps me up at night.

This is why I’m excited to advise my school’s newspaper next year. I want my staff to tell the real stories of our school. Not the sanitized versions, not the two-minute interview snapshots. The stories that first make people uncomfortable, but eventually help them understand.

One of the first things one of my colleagues said on the first day of the ASNE institute in Austin was “Students aren’t looking for more information. They’re looking for more ways to connect.”

In that moment I knew I didn’t have to change into some kind of Twitter-happy news hound to advise the newspaper. I could be myself and help the kids tell honest stories. As a young yearbook adviser, I didn’t have the perspective I do now. I was more concerned with not offending people, and pleasing everyone in the school. I’m sure I missed many chances to connect because I saw the book as a publicity tool instead of communication tool.

Stunned by Draper’s childhood admission, one of the Hershey executives asks, “Do you want to advertise that?”

Draper responds, “If I had my way, you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”

We all know. We just need to see it in print.

 

Mad Pen: a blog year in review

24 Jun

In the Mad Men season four finale, Don Draper’s steady girlfriend Faye tells him (after he dumps her to marry his secretary): “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”

I’m a little late to the season four party (thank you, Netflix), and while that kind of writing certainly keeps me watching, it’s also given me a chance to realize that I’ve surpassed the blogging honeymoon period: I’ve maintained this blog (while at times only monthly) for over a year now. While almost everything has changed since my first post, many things have come full circle. A year ago, I worried about finding a new job once I moved to Florida.  After getting a new job that I have now been laid off from, I’m hearing a familiar soundtrack.

As this blog is about transition, here’s a closer look at mine over the past 365+ days of navigating my way through change:

Pre-blog landmarks:

September 2008: Met Aaron at a mutual friend’s wedding in Blacksburg, VA; long-distance relationship ensues.

January 2010: Aaron applies for job in Fort Lauderdale, says he won’t move without me, or ask me to move without a “bigger commitment.”

March 2010: After a request from Aaron, I get sized for an engagement ring in New York City (was there for a journalism conference with students); Aaron accepts job in Ft. Lauderdale; I tell my principal I’m leaving at the end of school year; principal cries (not really, but I like to think he did on the inside).

April 2010: Aaron asks me to marry him over my Spring Break in Blacksburg (yes, please!); Aaron moves to South Florida (aka SoFlo); decide on August wedding; planning commences.

A blog is born

June 2010:  I create blog to maintain sanity; write through gloom and more gloom; end bittersweet school year; visit Aaron in Florida and suddenly moving there (here) becomes real (cut to me crying on a golf cart).

July 2010: Start cleaning out my house of six years (emotional roller coaster ride unleashed); try to be a low-maintenance bride.

August 2010: Engage in some pre-wedding self-deprecation, and then some more; get married in Virginia; move all our possessions into a truck for a 15-hr-driving honeymoon to SoFlo.

September 2010: Return to Virginia for final house-on-market preparations and cleaning (and to pick up my car); reunite with childhood penpal (fresh from the Alps); parking garage beats me in hand to hand combat; search for new teaching job in Florida and pretend to be a housewife by baking a pie.

October 2010: Land and begin new teaching job; meet new and awesome teacher friends; adjust to educational politics in the Sunshine State (standardized testing on steroids); my parents visit their old vacation spot (which is now our home).

November 2010: Spend Thanksgiving in Richmond with Aaron’s family and my friends; continue to survive Florida drivers.

December 2010: Learn that when you communicate effectively, marriage is less compromise, more growth; spend Christmas in Virginia with my mom, dad, sister and family, Aaron’s parents, and our hometown friends.

January 2011: New year, new challenges: Transition sucks. And then some. What’s this positivity you speak of?

February 2011: Realize I’ve stopped comparing myself to others; celebrate six-month-a-versary right after Valentine’s Day (which was accidentally incredible); forget every monthly anniversary after this, despite our best efforts.

March 2011: Get fired up about blogging teacher who got publicity for all the wrong reasons; Aaron’s sister and family visit during Spring Break and we are reminded of why we want (yet fear) children.

April 2011: Survive my first voluntary crafting project;  forget the rest of the month because I didn’t blog about it!

May 2011: Get laid off from job, then can’t stop writing about it;  Aaron leaves the country to fulfill a childhood dream; I try to do my best despite challenging circumstances; rely on strengthening friendships with grounded colleagues to see me through.

June 2011: Aaron returns home with Ecuadorian roses; I end another bittersweet school year, this time on the beach with beer; Aaron and I take our first cruise (to the Caribbean); I start cooking again (every day, with mangoes, which have taken over our lives).

* * * * * *

So it turns out I’m more than just beginnings. I relate more to Birdee Pruitt from the movie Hope Floats than I do to the stylized and trendy Don Draper. No surprise, Don is pretending to be someone he’s not while Birdee is growing into her true self. She says to her daughter: “Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts the most.”

It was the middle of this blogging year when I realized no matter how scary the beginning was, or how sad the end becomes, this adventure is helping me grow. Because in the worst of times, I have the best of what matters.

Don’t fear or bank on beginnings: sometimes they’re exciting; sometimes they’re terrifying; but they’re always temporary.

For the first time in months, I’m content with transition. I’m happy with my middle.