Thursday, February 07, 2008

Will Work For The Work

From the moment I found out I had to arrange an internship for the third semester of my MFA program, it was on my mind. It was a full year away then, but I realized here was a genuine opportunity. In today’s job market, access is everything. It is hard to imagine there was ever a time when you could carry your portfolio “door to door.” Now, if you are not a cousin’s friend’s sister’s brother-in-law, you can forget the warmth of a human handshake.

When I was an undergraduate at NYU, I was too young to realize I should have gotten the phone number of every classmate. Facebook had yet to teach the collective youth that the most casual acquaintance in your life could and should become a colleague in pixels. “You there, on the bike, do you play Scrabulous?” Western Connecticut State University, however, was going to force me to work for free. I had to give, at the very least, a day of my time, each week, to someone somewhere, for bupkis. This had to get me past security. I almost applied noxious marker to corrugated scrap and got out on I-95. “Will work for the work.”

The first question was where? Los Angeles would be tough to swing. Despite my best mental efforts, the city seemed to be out of the running too. I could barely afford the Metro-North when I was commuting to and from a Manhattan salary. I applied to the NPR This American Life internship in Brooklyn after I discovered they paid interns three grand a semester. A pipe dream most likely, a dream pipe bomb to be sure, they didn’t inform us hopefuls that there was only a single stingy slot to be filled until we got the thin envelope. Jerks. Filling the application had taken as much time as a grant. No doubt it went to someone’s kid brother.

In the intervening since my last undergraduate internship at New Line Cinemas, working for nothing had become almost as elusive as working for something. There were waiting lists at places like NBC and TBWA.

The second question was also where, but more specific. Did I want to work at a talent agency? I did that at NYU too, writing coverage on screenplays and manuscripts. The only thing to be had was bad writing and agent’s names. I have agent’s email addresses at this point; the honest truth is I just have to write something they want. Production? Perish the thought. I also did my time fetching Starbucks and holding back fan crowds. And this was really my whole problem. I didn’t want to intern for free; I wanted to work for free. For my time, I wanted real experience. I certainly didn’t want to be in a program with a bunch of twenty-year-olds building their character one Xerox sheet at a time. The first thing I ever did at New Line? I poured over and made copies of Page Six and similar Gotham gossip columns every time a studio VP’s name appeared there, whether it was them being seen with a star in a bar or punching out a star in a bar. Uh-uh. No sir. Not again.

I figured the best local internship that I could hope for was someplace where I could make both connections in production – local producers and crew – and put some new pages in the old portfolio. It was going to have to be advertising. Agencies split creative work into two positions, the graphic designer and the copywriter. I was hoping I could trade on my production skills for some writing work.

Optimism has always been my weakness. No matter how difficult it proves to make any strides in the creative world, I always think it is going to turn out okay. This may sound positive, but it rarely lights a fire under your ass when your ass could use a little Fahrenheit. As I mentioned, I started thinking about this internship a year ago, but here it was, closing in on 2008, and I had bupkis for my offer of bupkis. One agency said they only took undergrads for their internships, but they might want to hire me. Damn their normal way of doing things!

I ended up making a fresh round of cold calls the day after Christmas. Even then I was still picky, judging books by covers and only picking the places with the best-designed websites. Of the ten or so creative boutiques that I called, the secretaries in each one were still off making merry. But in a stroke of luck, in two cases, the owners picked up the phone instead. Finally, here was access. I should have groveled at this point. I should have taken anything. Instead I tried once more to explain exactly what I wanted. Damn optimism!

James Offenhartz is one of the creative pair that came up with the slogan, “What’s in your wallet?” He took Capital One credit cards from oblivion to the seventh most recognizable brand in the country. He is now creative director at his own agency in Stamford. His penthouse offices on the Stamford docks are full of space and light and long views of Long Island Sound. There are new Mac stations everywhere. There are friendly, creative people milling about. The moment that James greeted me in a tracksuit, I knew I was home.

We sat down at a glass conference table and I reiterated my hopes. We looked at my portfolio and he liked that it was eclectic. His major concern was that, occasionally, he might not have enough work for me to fill a whole day. I volunteered I could work on my own work, as quiet as a laptop. Looking around at the ads in progress, scattered across the table, any time there would be worth it. Again, I didn’t need handholding and direction; I needed assignments and criticism. He said he would try to give me mostly copywriting work, but there might be production too. I couldn’t have been happier.

A second interview, an hour later with the second agency, was doomed from the start. A perfectly respectable outfit that worked on local brochures and newspaper ads, it just didn’t have the same presence. An older gentleman in a bowtie took me through a maze of gray cubicles. A tiny Asian girl looked out from one of them without a smile, a sign over her aging PC saying something witty about being anywhere else. I met with four department heads and they were all more interested in what I was doing than in what they were doing. I just wanted to get back to that glass table and the skylights and those Macs.

The first day, James met with me for ten minutes. He showed me a print and video campaign for a university in New York, gave me some new drafts they were working on for the school’s graduate division, and said, “See what you can do with this.” Since I left New York to pursue writing and my master’s degree, I have worked a number of temporary jobs. Working in “Office Spaces,” in retail positions, the work is so often repetitive and micromanaged that I can’t even find the concentration to do it correctly. Even if this internship is just an internship, being in a situation again where someone gives you little to no instruction and expects the best from you was like stumbling on an oasis.

And I knew what to do. The college’s original slogan is “Matter.” For the graduate program I just changed one of the letters and made it “Master.” My ads were going to be about moving from being an apprentice, an employee, an underling somewhere, to being a master, of a skill, of a discipline, of one’s future. Opening up my own Macbook Pro, bringing up Illustrator, I wrote copy for four different mock-ups. I even pulled comp photos off the Corbis site and redesigned the ads too. I wrote, tossed words around in my head, surfed, got more coffee. At the end of the day, James said he’d take a look and we would talk the following week. Immediately though, he liked the new photos.

As I left for the day, the sun setting over Stamford, the scene reminded me of my old office view of downtown Manhattan. If an internship is an experience that prepares a student for the workplace, then I’ve achieved the goal already. My writing was sometimes my only connection to my hopes these past few years. The slightest taste of being in control again, creatively, with all that I have learned in the meantime, made me realize that the risk and the effort and the wait was all worth it.

Damn optimism.

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