Page Bare? Don’t Care
My pickup was rolling north on U.S. Route 441 somewhere around Zellwood, Florida, when this text came in.
There was no way for me to know it at the time, but that simple request from my buddy Michael would lead to an awakening about how I do my job. I needed a few minutes to mull over the offer, so it's fitting that I was on Highway 441.
Driving up and down that road over the last 30+ years has given me a lot of time to ponder. The highway runs nearly a thousand miles from Miami to good ol’ Rocky Top, Tennessee. But two sections in Central Florida are most notable to me. The first time I ever heard of 441 was long before I lived in Florida, when I was a teenage kid in a flyover state listening to Tom Petty sing about the stretch that runs through Gainesville:
It was kind of cold that night
She stood alone on her balcony
She could hear the cars roll by
Out on 441
Like waves crashin' on the beach
I also have a relationship with the 20 or 30 miles of 441 that connect the “Golden Triangle” towns of Mount Dora, Eustis, and Tavares to Orlando. I’ve driven thousands of miles on that stretch. My loose math puts it somewhere around 20,000.
When I lived in Mount Dora and Tavares in the ‘80s, that road was my path to Orlando for work, live music, indie movies — and my future wife. Then after moving to Orlando, I made trips in the opposite direction to visit my parents.
I didn’t make those trips to see Mom and Dad often enough. Although the pace picked up a lot in 2010 when I drove back and forth pretty much every day during the last five weeks of my mom’s life, and then again in 2015 when my dad’s health was failing.
I’ve done a lot of thinking on 441.
Fast-forward a few years, and it’s the November morning when Michael texted to ask if I could carve out some time to help him. I can tell you exactly what I was thinking during that trip up 441: "You should say no to this, bro."
My week was already pretty stacked. I was on the way to have breakfast with another friend about a project he needed help with, and I had a deadline late in the day for a different client.
But I like working with Michael. He’s creative, supportive, and fair. Someone I enjoy hanging with both socially and professionally. He’s the perfect example of why it’s good to work with buddies.
I was almost at the diner in Tavares when I gave Mike a quick call to get some details. Turned out he had a 3 p.m. script deadline for a high-profile client that was shooting a video a few days later. My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to be at his office by 11 a.m. and then spend the next four hours collaborating with him to knock out the dialogue and shot list.
Hopefully I sounded confident on the phone when I told Michael I was in. Because the truth is I was scared shitless.
I’ve never considered myself a “creativity on demand” guy. My usual MO when I’m writing for a client is to interview them, get all the input and raw materials I need, and then sit down in my home office or a coffee shop to do the work. I need solitude when I write.
We didn’t have that luxury on this gig.
With this one, we had to go from blank page to polished script in four hours — while surrounded by the regular day-to-day hum of an agency machine at work.
On the way there after breakfast, I was already suffering from what my pal Kevin Montgomery calls, “the paralyzing fear that comes before creativity.”
I knew we’d carry the ball over the goal line by 3:00. There was no question about that because, somehow, this stuff always works out. But that’s my logical side talking. The emotional side lives in a different reality.
T Minus 4 Hours and 15 Minutes
I got to Michael’s office around 10:45, settled in at the conference table, pulled out my laptop, and was ready to dive right in. But let’s be real — you rarely dive right in.
No words will be written or pixels vectored before you fix a nice coffee and decide what you’re ordering for lunch. That’s an easy 30 minutes.
T Minus 3 Hours and 45 Minutes
WOW! That half hour flew by. But at least we’re caffeinated courtesy of beans from Lucky Detroit. And the sandwich order is placed. I won’t give you the blow-by-blow account of what went down over the next 13,500 seconds, but what’s material is that Michael told me how the video would be used, explained the message we needed to get across, and then split for a few unexpected phone calls and other business.
So there I sat with a bunch of notes, a basic framework, and a blank Word doc.
After a couple of minutes pondering how the narrator should open the video, I wrote the first few lines. That led to a few more lines, and then a few more …
About 15 minutes in, I realized it all sucked and started re-writing from the top. I kept refining, moving things around, and playing with different words until, after about an hour, I had a decent first draft.
By the time Michael rejoined me, I had the draft printed and ready for him to review.
He finished reading, dropped the paper on the table, and said, “That’s it. We’re done.”
Not quite. Mike had some fantastic ideas about how to punch up the script. I spent another half hour on a rewrite, and from there we made a few tiny revisions before putting the thing to bed at 3:00 when he sent it to his client.
Something From Nothing
For a long time, I would beat myself up when a client didn’t fall in love with my first draft. I had this crazy idea that if my “round 1” version wasn’t immediately re-labeled as “final,” then I had failed.
Things got a helluva lot more comfortable when I learned to put ego aside and graciously accept input from the people paying me. The trick is to balance that with knowing when to push back. After all — clients might know what they want, but they don’t always know what they need.
Now, thanks to that day with Michael, I realize there’s a another scenario. Sometimes my only job is to give them something. To create a starting point.
In the case of the video script, Michael would have been fine without me there as a collaborator. However, by writing the first draft and providing a solid foundation, I freed him up to come in with his tribal knowledge of the client, so we could put the script through that filter and make it even stronger.
The blank page can be intimidating, and the longer you stare at it the more it taunts you. Fortunately, that stopped bothering me a long time ago. I can stare it down and go to work with a lunchpail attitude. Dig in and build the wall brick by brick.
I've always said my strong suit is this knack I have for simplifying complex messages. But now I'm starting to think the best thing I bring to the party is my ability to transform a blank page from nothing to something — which a lot of people struggle with.
It's cool that even at this stage of my career, I can still experience an a-ha moment. I hope that never goes away.
Apparently I’m still learning to fly.
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