Always be opening
You probably remember the scene: A few middle-aged real estate salesmen have been summoned to their dank office in Chicago, for a come-to-Jesus meeting. A steady rain pelts the windows, foreshadowing doom. Alec Baldwin yells at Jack Lemmon to “put that coffee down!”
Hours-ago cold, that perk is just for closers.
Then Baldwin, a foul-mouthed sales trainer called in to motivate, delivers the classic "Always Be Closing" speech. "Only one thing matters in life," he seeths. "Get them to sign on the line which is dotted."
Fifteen years ago this month, I completed the MFA program at the Bennington Writing Seminars. The poet Liam Rector directed it then. Tall as a grizzly bear, with a voice like thunder, he was a force. Years later, he would take his own life in the most gruesome of ways—by gunshot.
At our welcome lecture, I recall that Rector dimmed the lights and played that scene on a massive screen. It was from the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, based on David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. So sure, it had literary chops.
I guess he chuckled as we cringed.
I think his point was this: To succeed in the world of arts and letters, we would need "balls of steel."
But he did not mean we would have to fight over a finite number of good leads.
Indeed, we celebrate when our classmates succeed. When their novels become TV shows (like Dietland by Sarai Walker). Before we could share on Facebook or LinkedIn, I published a handful of short stories. But after a few years I put them aside.
Some of my creative energy went toward raising my son and earning a living. The rest, evidently, I was storing up.
These days, my work invites a self-calibrated balance of writing, selling and serving clients.
And the rule I live by—Always Be Opening—is my own.
But Baldwin's four sales principles (with a kinder, gentler spin) still apply.
(Pay) Attention—If you are fully present in the world, you will spot opportunity.
(The world is infinitely) Interest(ing)—Therefore, ideas and business will flow.
(It's your) Decision (where to focus)—Not every idea will be a winner, so you will need discipline. Be willing to kill whatever little darlings no longer serve you.
(Take) Action—Trust your gut and be willing to fail.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a cutthroat tale, about the lengths people will go to convince themselves that their work matters.
But that’s not the world we have to live in.
Putting words on the page does matter. To the writer. To the reader. And to the clients who want their stories told.
And there are an infinite number of good ideas.
That’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.