Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sovereign state of mind

Twenty years ago last weekend, I declared independence.

Like all revolutions, it was messy, poxed throughout with romantic puffery, and deficiently planned. Also, it fell short.

So far, anyway. Trying is still a hell of a lot of fun.

And, like all revolutions, it sprang from an epiphany, a vision so gleaming and complete, a Brigadoon from the mists, that I had to do or die.

Or die.

The epiphany came at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, the ocean crashing through dark rocks upon the sloping beach, and our son, not yet three, completely drenched, still trying to best the chasing waves, still squealing with delight, win or lose.

"somerset" for our street.
"somerset" for "somersault,"
with a playful "e" for good
measure. "somerset" dissected
into pronunciation guide form,
reinforcing the idea I'm a writer.

He was freedom. He was the tiny master of his fate, calling his shots. I was his logistical support, unhappy at work, and feeling the press of wanting to be happier so he and our daughter could be happy, of figuring out ways to be more available as a dad.

This high-contrast image from a photo of that camping trip became the symbol for that independence, a business called somerset words and pictures co. (yes, lowercase.)

It took two more years from that trip to make somerset words and pictures real.

In what passed for a business plan, mostly in my head, I would write advertising and promotional copy (I had become active in a club of graphic designers and illustrators, where writers were rare and needed) and slowly build a transition to freelance illustration, for which I wasn't trained or known.

The idea was that I would write when the illustration gigs slowed, and vice versa. Also, I could write and draw and design all on one project.
Paul Vega designed my card, in which one end
folded over to hide my address and reveal
my business symbol, our son. Bob Dahlquist
set the type as only he can do. Ironic, I know,
given this is the stuff I was proposing to do
for a living. But it's true, I got by
with a little help from my friends.

I'd always have work!

That was the plan.

My friend Bob Dahlquist and I still refer to the validation of The Culligan Man, from the early days of my independence when I'd drive around town on some non-paying errand, wondering what hell I had just made for myself.

I'd see service and delivery trucks idling at the stoplight in the next lane on those hot non-paying summer days, and think, "That driver has a good job. A good steady job that pays. Just drives around getting stuff to stores. Fixes stuff. I could do that. I could be a driver."
I still owe our daughter a symbol
to represent what she has meant
to my declaration of independence,
resolute determination. To be fair,
she made it onto my stationery.

Our financial guy probably also thought I should be a driver, or anything other than what I was planning. He mustered all his stern emotion to tell me what a terrible decision I was making. Twenty years on and I still hate that moment, hate his impudence.

He was right, of course. I guess. I won't deny it has been a struggle, almost always. I am not a business mind and I lacked a good business plan.

I have always needed someone to scout gigs for me, especially when I was in the midst of a meaty project. At the height of fun is when I needed most to search for the next project, which I found out many times the hard way.

At moments somerset soared, with good contracts which bolstered the illusion I was doing something right. Mostly, though, it has been small jobs which I had tried to string together as frequently as possible into something substantial: My real business plans.

Over time I took a variety of jobs elsewhere, even became a teacher for a couple of years, with another year of teacher school.

All along, I kept the business, in sickness and in health, maintaining steady freelance relationships, finding new ones on occasion.

somerset words and pictures became shawn turner illustration. Copywriting had grown frustrating, my work too often unrecognizable from the words I submitted. Clients couldn't tamper with illustration, I reasoned, until one client actually did. For the most part, clients hire illustrators because it's something they can't actually do. Everyone, of course, is a writer.

Despite it all, I won. This is my victory party, my anniversary celebration. I got to be around the house as our kids were growing — in a corner of the badly converted garage of our first home, in my own space with its own closable door in our current home — and go to their games and recitals and orthodontist appointments.

It was often madness, trying to avert their attention on weekend mornings and begging them for an hour or two so I meet a deadline; getting up at 4 a.m. for quiet time and space; screaming curses into the closed confines of my car when the world had fallen around my shoulders — curses aimed at The Culligan Man.

The back of my card.
I have gotten to do what love, pursuing my passion. I would wish it on anyone — do what you truly love, follow it, work hard for it, focus on it, but plan. Plan your work and work your plan. Trite — but true!

I won. I'm delighted, win or lose.

Happy Independence Day.

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