Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

How I Conquered the Country, Grew Fat on the Blood of my Subjects, Tired of Absolute Power, Abdicated the Throne, and Returned to my Ancestral Home

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

This essay was written in 1994 and appeared in Volume 1, Issue 1 of The Inner Swine.

(Or, South Dakota and Back in a Few Short Days)

The trip cross-country is an icon of the American Experience, a dream which has lost none of its attraction with the aging of culture. The Unites States’ Interstate Highway system never fails to fascinate, the concept of going anywhere never fails to boggle the mind. You could fit Europe inside the U.S., and we can drive from one end to another, any time we want. I know it made me giddy. I suppose I had the same romantic vision most people have, just me and Jack Kerouac motoring down empty roads bathed in pure sunshine, eating local food and making new friends, laying the local girls and somehow burning my name into this cold land of ours. I guess I figured it would be like the end of that movie How I Got Into College, where the hero’s friend gets picked up by a group of gameshow hostesses driving around the country in a pink convertible with a U-haul attached full of unclaimed prizes. At some point, I thought, MTV would be secretly filming me for use in one of their videos.

And if not that, then I would have the sort of intense experience that bring about books, that bring about movie rights for the complex, moving tale of a young man finding himself in the heartland of America. I could entitle it Wild Country or Dark Roads or something like that and be hailed as the brooding new artist of the shadows, writing biting commentary about our fellow Americans while still managing an epiphany of wisdom, of sorts. I would come back a changed man, I thought: how could I not?

I’ll tell you how. Because there are more Bob’s Big Boys out there than local diners, because no one living out there gives a shit that you’re driving cross-country and finding yourself, because the cops are all pricks when your license plates aren’t local, because gas is too fucking expensive and the local girls don’t fuck the drifters prowling through like thinned wolves looking for a fire to lay down next to. Because the closest things to friends I made were two drunk guys named Todd and Marty who owned a Chevy Malibu with a rusted tailpipe and a trunk full of beer, because the closest thing to an epiphany of wisdom I managed was the realization that there is absolutely no reason to ever, ever enter Nebraska.

So, I suppose in a way I learned a great deal by attempting to drive cross country, since I now know better than to ever want to do it again.

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Process and Plot

Walled_coverAs I mentioned last week, I’ll be returning to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in August, once again giving a presentation called TAKE YOUR PANTS OFF AND WRITE! THE BENEFITS AND PITFALLS OF PANTSING VS. PLOTTING A NOVEL.As you might guess, the subject of the presentation will be plotting out novels, and the different approaches you can take to the problem. After all, it’s easy to come up with a clever premise. It’s much harder to create a story that doesn’t simply make sense, but keeps your reader guessing in a good way, surprising and challenging them but hanging together in the end.

I’m not a particularly experimental writer. For a while, in my youth, I thought I might be, and I played around with POV and narrative technique a little. Even today I’ll work in some little bits of experimentation from time to time, just to give myself a jolt of energy. For example,when I found myself missing Avery Cates and suddenly filled with ideas about a new set of stories set around that character, I could have just wrote a fucking novel or three and been done with it, as I usually do. Instead, I decided to try something new: I pieced it out.

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

I already had a stray short story on my hard drive starring Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears. It was the germ of my new ideas for the character, so I simply dusted it off, ran it through editing, and published it myself as a digital-only short. Threw it up on the online stores, and then set to work–writing more short stories. What I mean is, I took about three novels’ worth of story and carved it up into short segments, and began working on them individually. When I finished the second one, The Walled City, once again I ran it through the editing machine and published it, then began working on the next segment, which will be titled The Pale and will be out in a few months.

It might seem like a minor change in process, but it’s really kind of a big change, at least for me. I don’t usually outline my novels much before writing, but this time I plotted the whole sequence out first, one long story. Then I divided that story into three, and then I divided each book of the resulting trilogy into 4-6 sections. Instead of writing the whole story, I’m working on quick sections of it, getting it ship-shape, and then publishing it. The danger is, I can’t go back and change anything if I have an inspiration or realize I’ve plotted myself into a corner.

But the fun is, it’s a fast, dirty way of working that’s kind of exciting. If this was how I always wrote it would just be my process. But since it’s different, it’s exciting–and often that’s the key. You just have to shake things up, sometimes, to get the rusty plot gears turning. The big question, of course, is whether or not I’ll be able to finish all these connected stories and put out the complete novel versions. Gosh, that would be embarrassing.

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The Inexorable Sadness of Pencils

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

Y’know, fiction and films and TV shows are supposed to entertain. And also inform and expose us to ideas and lifestyles, but for a lot of people entertainment is primary, and that’s fine. As a result, a lot of the stuff we consume–even the dramas and tragedies–are more or less uplifting, in a way, even if only by allowing us to be smug for a moment. After all, you might be bored and unhappy in your life, but at least you weren’t diagnosed with terminal cancer which inspired you to start baking meth, becoming a monster-god that destroys your whole family.

Sometimes, a particular aspect of our entertainments bothers me: The depiction of work. As in, jobs and careers, not, y’know, barn-raising with the community. With a lot of exceptions, a huge swath of entertainments depict careers and jobs as incredibly positive and life-affirming: People on TV shows (especially TV shows) and films are often shown either loving their jobs, peacefully co-existing in their jobs, or seeing their lives changed for the better simply by getting a job.

And in real life that’s very often bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong: Jobs are necessary. And if you’re unemployed, getting a job is the most important thing in your life. And everyone should have a way of contributing to society, and for most of us that’s going to be a job: Performing meaningful labor in exchange for money which you then use to keep the economy’s plates spinning.

But, as someone who has worked jobs and who knows a lot of people who have jobs, I know one thing for sure: Jobs are much more frequently soul-killing boredom machines or even destructive stress factories than glorious life enhancements. Your job is much more like to suck than to be a wonderful place you can’t wait to get to, or even a more or less benign activity that fills your day and gives you beer money. And yet our entertainments constantly try to tell us otherwise.

Job as Adventure

You see this a lot in situation comedies, where a character who needs an arc winds up lusting after a career, and then gets a lot of A, B, and C plots depicting their struggle to get credentials, to netowrk, and finally get that job! And once they get that job, their lives change for the better. We could call this the Rachel Green Effect, from the Friends character. Rachel was a humorously aimless woman for much of the show, and in later seasons found her calling and pursued a career, and was therefore happy and fulfilled and mature.

Bullshit, of course, as anyone who actually has a job–much less gotten a job after being out of the corporate world for years, like Rachel was. Jobs suck. They eat up 8-12 hours of your day depending on your commute and other aspects, they force you to socialize with other people (shudder), and they put you under the thumb of other folks who may or may not be sociopaths or incompetents or boors. Yay job! Jobs erode your will to live and can ruin huge chunks of your life with misery.

Another trope in fictional careers is the Easy Button Job. The EBJ occurs when characters are given jobs that they are effortlessly and preternaturally skilled at and enjoy 100%. This is where it gets really awful, because characters with the EBJ are usually depicted as loving their career, and spending all their time on it because it’s just so goddamn enjoyable and fulfilling. They stay late, work weekends, are very successful and sought-after, and yet somehow also are usually depicted as having copious free time, lots of friends, and a lust for life.

Fuck that noise. Of course there are people in this world who “love what they do.” Of course there are people who work very hard and don’t mind and are rewarded as a result. That’s great. Most of us watch the clock until 5PM and then leap from our chairs with a song in our hearts, and when we’re on our deathbeds we will regret every moment we spent staring at a computer screen, selling our time off for pennies a minute.

Job as Salvation

And, of course, careers are frequently used as easy ways for troubled characters to find themselves, often with the implication that all anyone needs to settle down and start enjoying life is to get the right job. Or any job, for that matter. How do you know you’ve found the right job? Generally, you will be magically competent at it without any prior experience or training, and it will make you very happy and eager to leave behind your troubled past.

That first part, the ease with which fictional characters often pursue careers, is part of the entertainment factor, of course: No one wants to see Jimmy embark on his new career only to immediately become mired in training seminars, night school, and weeks, months, or perhaps years of being junior and shit on by the higher-ups. That’s understandable in a fictional work where the career is just a prop and not the point. But it’s still insane, because very few people decide out of nowhere to be, for example, salespeople and simply start killing it on day one. Most sitcoms present a white collar fantasy where you go from unemployed and possibly homeless or couch-surfing to working in a nice office almost instantly, and of course you’re always super excited about your new career.

Again, this is bullshit for most people, for whom a job is a way of not starving to death. Jobs can be stressful, boring, and restrictive–but even when they are interesting, fun, and exciting they’re still a matter of selling off your time for money, and I wish more TV shows and movies would address the fact that rather than being healing, transformative wonders that save souls, jobs suck.

The Illuminati Again

Of course, this is all part of the plan: Work is always celebrated in American culture, and no matter how hard you’re working you’re likely not working hard enough. We get very little vacation or other time off, yet the conversation is usually about people not working hard enough. Careers and work in general are celebrated as the solution to just about any problem. Depressed? A new career! Broke? A second job! It’s obviously beneficial to society as a whole that we all sell off our time in service of other people’s goals, and therefore a lot of media celebrates being a workaholic and devoting your life to your career, your job, the labor you’re doing for other people.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Some people do sincerely love their work. I love the work I do now–though it’s not a job, as I’m a freelance writer and author. When I did have jobs, I kinda sorta hated them. Admit it: So do you.

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Speaking @ The 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

Me Smart.

Me Smart, circa 2014.

As some of you may recall, I conducted a seminar on plotting a novel at last year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, which was a smashing success. Or at least I was not chased from the building, pantsless and weeping, as so often happens when I am invited to things.

Welp, surprisingly, they invited me back to offer my insta-classic seminar Take Your Pants Off and Write! The Benefits and Pitfalls of Pantsing vs. Plotting a Novel once again.

http://www.writersdigestconference.com/index.php/schedule

What will you learn at this amazing seminar? Many things! I’ve written nearly 20 novels and published 9 of them for money, so I can obviously string fictional events together into a story. If you’re struggling with that aspect of your writing, I’ll be exploring the two main plotting processes writers use (pantsing vs. plotting), the advantages of each, and how they can be combined into something I have dubbed plantsing.

You will also learn how sweaty a grown man can become in public, how often his wife interrupts him so she can “tell the story right,” and how many times he can mention the fact that he’s published nine novels. Also, I’ll be lingering around the rest of the day, lurking on the edges of the events until the cocktail reception, at which time the pants come off and my inner John Belushi comes out.

Pass this on to anyone looking to improve their writing! Or anyone who wants to insult me in person.

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“Orphan Black” Has a Villain Decay Problem

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

That Orphan Black, the SF show about a woman who discovers she’s one of many, many clones produced by a secret and unethical experiment, has over the course of three seasons become almost insufferably complicated. What was once a fairly crisp story about a woman struggling to save herself and her child while dealing with the horrifying realization that she’s a clone has spiralled into territory familiar with anyone who has watched TV shows based on a “mystery” premise: The audience wants answers, but if you actually give them the show is over, so you pull a trick wherein you explain a mystery while setting a new one in motion.

This can work for a while, if you’re skillful, and Orphan Black, in fact, seemed to pull it off in its second season, expanding the world and complicating the mystery while delivering a continuously interesting story week in and week out. This past year, though, things have come off the rails a bit. There are still pleasures to be had, mainly in Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performances, but the story itself is slow-moving hogwash, to use a technical term. The main problem is that Orphan Black hasn’t met a villain it can’t destroy in a few quick episodes. In fact, the show has had so many it’s solution to the malaise at the end of the last season was to circle back and recycle a villain from the first season.

Villain Decay

In the beginning, there were the Neoloutinists, a cult that believed in “self-directed evolution” who backed the cloning experiment and sought to control the clones, manipulating their lives and monitoring them. There was also a religious cult that saw the clones as abominations, and trained one of the clones to be an unstoppable killing machine, Helena, who was basically a serial killer of clones.

But the clones managed to turn the tables on the Neolutionists, maneuvering one of their allies into a position of authority at the institute set up to monitor the clones and removing the evil clone who’d been working with the Neolutioninsts. Also, Helena, once depicted as a crazy and incredibly dangerous person, was turned into a cuddly if sometimes murderous piece of comic relief as she became affectionate towards her clone sestras. So a new threat was devised: A separate military project involving male clones, which caused a bit of trouble until, again, the female clones managed to completely neuter it and render it impotent. And so, in the third season finale, the show surveyed its field of limp and defeated villains and came up with the idea that the Neolutionists, seemingly defeated for a very long time, were actually embedded in all of these other organizations and running the whole show secretly.

Much of this seems to have been done in the service of surprise: Build up someone as a Big Bad, then shock everyone when they are defeated much sooner than expected. This kind of writing gimmick is like crack: It feels good, but has diminishing returns and leads to your show being canceled.

The problem here is twofold: One, it’s hard to take these villains seriously when all it takes, usually, is a few episodes for them to either be utterly destroyed or brought over as allies; two, the new villains are always just permutations on the conspiracy the clones have been fighting against since Day One. They’re nothing new, just new versions of the same enemy.

A Glimmer of Hope

It’s possible that the bloodbath that was the Season 3 finale was a purposeful clearing of the decks, bringing back the original villains who will now be coherent and focussed. Instead of more and more variations on the “someone is secretly making and modifying or killing or spying on clones!” riff, we might get a real purpose to everything, and perhaps a single face for the enemy. That would go a long way to excusing Season 3’s disastroys meandering. Only time will tell.

The TL;DR version for writers is simple: When you’ve got a mystery-driven storyline, do two things immediately: a) have an exit strategy that involves and overall explanation for everything, and b) don’t give in to the temptation to destroy your villains on the regular just for the story shock value.

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The Power of a Classic Lack of Choice

Visual Representation of Most People's MySpace Pages.

Visual Representation of Most People’s MySpace Pages.

MANY BOTHANS DIED TO BRING US THIS INFORMATION: So, over at US Weekly (don’t ask how I came across this) they did a little piece on Kim Kardashian’s old MySpace account. You can Us Weekly on KK’s MySpace Monstrosity, and view the pink horror of Princess Kimberly and her 856 MySpace friends. This was in 2006, two years before Facebook arrived on the scene, so people can be forgiven for having a MySpace page. However, I think there’s a lesson here for writing and writers — no, seriously, wait, where are you going? Come back!

So, here’s the thing: Forget Kim Kardashian, just look at that hot mess of a page. Then compare it to Facebook. On the one hand, MySpace should have been the more popular. People can customize their pages, changing colors, adding graphics and music. Facebook is like the Dystopian government of social media: You get one shade of blue and one shade of white and fuck you if you don’t want to see promoted shit. And yet, Facebook is dominant and MySpace … well, people are generally confused to discover that MySpace still exists.

The lesson here for writers is: When it comes to worldbuilding, classic and clean is usually better.

See, back in 2006 you might have been forgiven for assuming that the world of social media and online profiles et al would go the way of MySpace: Increasing customization, increasing personalization. People had some hideous, hideous and horrific (but very personal) MySpace pages back in the day. Don’t believe me, just Google “ugly MySpace pages” and see them in their eye-straining glory. But if you were trying to imagine the kids using the intrawebs back in 2006, or trying to envision what the Super Internet of the future in 2015 would look like back in 2006, you might have used MySpace as a jumping off point and imagined a world where everyone had complete and awful control over the aesthetics of their social media.

Instead, of course, Facebook came along. Like a stern older executive at your company, they don’t allow customization, really. Everyone gets exactly one shade of blue, limited control over what they see and who sees what they post, and generally a uniform and bland visual experience. And people love it. Or at least like it better than the nightmarish universe that was MySpace.

The Lesson

So, the lesson: Be careful when imagining where the world will be — and also when cherry-picking the details you use to establish time and place when your story is set in the present. If you published a novel in 2006 that went on and on about someone’s MySpace page, then welcome to that awkward moment when everyone in the universe will have a moment of eyebrow-raising disruption when they come across this nugget in your story.

Now, we all get things wrong, sometimes. And heck — you might use Facebook in a story today, feeling fairly confident that its 7-year reign of terror over us all will go on forever. But like Kubrick’s use of Pan Am in 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the most established and seemingly rock-solid organizations and corporations can fall, leaving your work sadly dated. This would argue for limiting such references as much as possible. After all, your reference to Facebook might lend your scene a verisimilitude today, and make it feel ancient and outdated three years from now. Keep it classic and clean — which means concentrating more on what your characters are doing rather than the corporate channels they’re using.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t have a MySpace page. I actually thought I was too good for social media until 2010 or so, which might explain why I’m so unpopular.

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On Reading Everything

Holy shit this book is awful

Holy shit this book is awful

So, as many may have noticed, I’ve been doing a lot of writing about books lately over at Jeff Bloviating at Barnes and Noble and Jeff Bloviating at About.com. It’s a lot of fun, and since I am one of those people who lives in constant danger of being buried under his immense piles of books that he keeps around his house like some sort of over-educated hoarder, it’s a perfect fit. But it’s also a job, so I am often expected or encouraged to read outside my normal taste, including some things I frankly would not choose to read of my own free will. And you know what? It’s been fantastic.

Here’s the thing: Most books have something to offer. I really do believe that — even the books cynically created by marketing divisions to absorb cash from gullible morons, even those books have something in them that you haven’t seen before, or, if nothing else, are edifying in their sheer monstrous evil hollowness. Reading widely doesn’t mean reading an occasional book you haven’t heard of. It means reading shit you would rather walk on glass than read. It means reading shit by political commentators and authors who resemble corporations with divisions pushing novels out of the corporate colon several times a year and reading immensely popular phenomenon novels that appear to have been written by a drunk superfan of other overwrought phenomenon novels.

It means reading everything.

Not all this stuff is good, of course, but it’s all interesting if you find the right angle. And I’ve found myself reading a few books that I would never have otherwise read that turned out to be awesome and incredibly enjoyable books, and as long as that rate hovers somewhere above 0%, I’m pretty much winning.

The Rut

I’m a man of ruts and habits, deep, deep habits that tend to get ossified over time.If left to my own devices I would be reading nothing but classic novels, old science fiction, and old-school detective fiction, repeated endlessly. If I were to design an experiment to encourage me to read more widely, I might create something like this: One third paid assignments, one third rando recommendations from people, one third drunk shopping on BN.com. Maybe a bit more of the latter, depending on how drunk I am that week. Which, judging from past weeks, is typically pretty drunk.

Anything that breaks me out of my usual routines is a good thing. And reading everything — including some hair-raisingly bad books — and then figuring out a way to comment on those books intelligently (or so I kid myself) has been a blast, and will likely continue to be a blast. Some people act like reading a book they know is outside their wheelhouse and is also probably pretty badly written will somehow infect them and ruin their palette for good books. That’s ridiculous. Read the bad books. Think of something smart to say about them. It’s good for you.

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Orphan Black and The Doom of Men

All the same actress.

All the same actress.

Orphan Black is a nifty little Sci-Fi show shown on BBC America about a young woman, a snarky grifter-type from the foster system, who sees a woman who could be her twin jump to her death one night. Stealing the woman’s purse, and eventually impersonating her, she discovers that she’s one of many clones — identical physical replicas raised by a variety of parents all over the world.

There are, as you might imagine, conspiracies.

The main takeaway everyone has about Orphan Black is that one actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays all of the clones. For the most part that means she plays five distinct characters on a regular basis, and she’s played several other clones to boot. Even more impressive, she often depicts the clones impersonating each other, which is kind of mind-bending, if you think about it, because she finds little tics and ways of making it clear that this one distinct character is impersonating another distinct character. The acting she does on this show is nothing short of amazing.

That said, Orphan Black is one of those sci-fi shows that relies on a central mystery and dozens of satellite mysteries for its narrative focus and energy. That means that the first season, which was occupied with introducing the mythology of the clones, the clones themselves, the bad guys, and several double-crosses and unexpected twists, rolled along like a bus on fire. Since then, the show has suffered quite a bit from terminal Exponential Complexity.

Nesting Doll Plotting

The problem is simple: On a show like this, you can never actually solve the mystery. If you solve the mystery, the show is over. Lost was like that, and like that earlier show Orphan Black faces a problem: People want the mystery solved. We watch, at least in part, because we want the mystery solved. We can tolerate a slow solution, we can tolerate twists and heel turns, but eventually we need to feel like the story is moving forward to a solution that makes sense.

So, Orphan Black is doing what a lot of shows before have done in response to this problem: They solve a mystery here and there, but introduce two more at the same time. So, while in a sense the audience knows more about the universe of Orphan Black than they did back in Season One, in fact they know about the same proportion of information because the writers keep introducing new aspects that come with their own mysteries.

For example, in the first two seasons we were aware of the female clones, known collectively as Project Leda. At the end of Season Two it was revealed that there were also male clones from the same genetic material, known collectively as Project Castor. So while we know a bit about how the Leda clones came to be and what they’ve been up to, the Castor clones were a whole new mystery.

This strategy works for a while, but eventually becomes cumbersome. At this point in the show, the main character, Sarah, hasn’t had a good night’s sleep or a normal day in what seems like forever. It’s been a never-ending slog of investigation, impersonation, capture, torture, escape, shocking revelation, and the occasional clone dance party (Google it). It’s exhausting to imagine her having even more adventures as time goes on, only to continuously reveal even more mysteries, even more powerful villains who outrank who we previously thought were the Big Bads, and have to laboriously retcon story decisions that don’t make a whole lot of sense otherwise.

Eventually, it simply becomes untenable. Eventually, we can’t suspend disbelief any more. I don’t think the show is quite there just yet, but it’s inevitable. The British system of treating shows like one-off miniseries would be better: Tell a story, finish the story, and then, if there’s interest, set a wholly new story in the universe. It would save us all a lot of sadness.

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SMRT: Welcome to the Age of Faux Expertise

dumbOne of the most painful aspects of growing older is the slow sinking realization that I am not so smart. When I was a kid, school was easy and adults were always telling me how smart I was, and man did I believe them. I believed them hard, and my ongoing ability to achieve academic – well, success is too strong a word, more like mediocrity – despite a lack of interest, effort, or even reading the books I was assigned just reinforced it.

As I’ve gotten older, though, one thing has become very, very clear: I may not be stupid, but I am also not smart. Also, I am lazy and have no fashion sense, but these facts have never been in dispute and have also never been controversial in any way.

However, despite not being very smart, I am smart enough to know when commercials and other advertising is wanking me off. And it’s irritating, especially this new breed of Faux Expert come ons.

(more…)

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Two Cents on Mad Men

Just give me five minutes, and I'll be golden.

Just give me five minutes, and I’ll be golden.

I CANNOT HELP MYSELF.

I know that writing endless blog posts about a TV show is silly, really, but at risk of annoying the folks who cannot comprehend how you can spend so much energy contemplating a work of art, I have thoughts about Mad Men and the finale. In a nutshell: The whole show is about the fear of losing that creative spark.

Let’s start with the pilot episode: Don Draper, in a sweat because he has no ideas. He spend the whole episode in a sweat, worried he’s lost his gift, worried his brain will, finally, betray him and leave him with nothing to offer in the pitch session with Lucky Strike. Creative folks know that sweat: Every time we take on a new project, we worry that the Idea Machine in our brains will abandon us. Trust me. I’m still haunted by a brief period in college when I came up dry on story ideas and feared my best was behind me at the age of twenty. Stop laughing. This shit is serious.

Over the course of the whole show, we’ve been watching Don Draper fade. Season One is where his two most memorable and most-quoted pitches occur: Lucky Strike and Kodak. Since then, what truly great pitches has Don managed? None that I can think of. Well — maybe the Accutron Pitch in the first episode of Season Seven. That pitch kind of rocked — but, notably, Don wrote it, but he didn’t pitch it. And while it’s an arresting piece of writing, it’s not exactly a creative triumph that has people rushing from the room in tears. It’s just a solid, well-written piece of marketing. Don is a pro. Losing your creative spark doesn’t mean you lose the skills as well — he can still write, and write well. But he has no new ideas.

That’s not to say he wasn’t still creative. Or smart. Or cool. But we’ve been watching a Don Draper who is less and less creative as time goes by. In the season four episode “The Suitcase” Don’s big idea at the end is a simple steal from the iconic photo from the big fight. Also in season four, Don wins a Clio for his Glo-Coat commercial, but not only is it not an especially brilliant idea, it’s also largely stolen from Peggy. In the season six episode “The Crash,” Don, high on speed, claims he has a great idea, but can’t even articulate it.

Don retains his “cool” until his disastrous pitch to Hershey in Season 6. In the final season of the show, Don is relegated to creative grunt work, and even when he regains his executive authority, there are no good ideas. Don Draper goes from a creative genius in 1960 to a man still coasting on past (and long gone) creative glory in 1970.

Until rock bottom. Until Coke.

Once again, in the finale, Don is up against it. While he hasn’t been officially tasked with coming up with a pitch for Coke, we know he’s been assigned to the Coke pitch. We know Jim Hobart wants Don on Coke. And throughout the last few episodes, Don has been seeing Coke everywhere: At the meeting for Miller Beer he walks out of, on the road as he wanders the country. Many of the details at the retreat end up in his commercial pitch, and even rando Leonard’s speech about being unnoticed and wondering about love — the speech that moves Don to embrace him and break into tears — reminds Don of Coke (think about it – the whole bit about the dream of being in the refrigerator).

Don finally has a good idea again. No — a great idea, because no matter how you feel about advertising as a creative medium, the fact is that Hilltop Coke commercial is regarded as one of the most effective and most creative ads ever. After nearly ten years of stagnation, Don manages one last flash of genius. And that’s why Don will be okay. It has nothing to do with his familial obligations or failures, or his money, or his libido. Don will be okay because he’s found his creativity again.

Or, yanno, it was a TV show and they made it up as they went along. Shut up.

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