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I escaped from a cult

An English major and a Marketing guru walk into a bar … ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

Maybe cult is over-stating it. I’ll let you decide.

In 1985 I was a college freshman, majoring in English Lit.

Many of us in this cult aspired to being novelists, poets, and playwrights.

We were learning that great writing is difficult and dense and allusive and multi-layered—for the trained eye only, not for the masses who don’t “get it.” Great writing is for posterity, not for money or markets.

We did what we were taught to do. We wrote the way the great writers of the past wrote, to get the attention of other people in the cult.

Skip ahead three decades, and a small portion my generation have had moderate success as artists. Most struggle.

Some have day jobs. Others are broke. Their marriages have fallen apart. Some are homeless.

The worst thing is that the people in the cult don’t even support one another. They tear one another down, terrified of being left alone at the bottom of a hole.

We all have choices to make.

When things aren’t working out, you can try something different. You can find better friends and seek out support. You can decide to reinvent yourself.

Or, you can say “It’s fate” and turn to alcohol and cynicism and self-loathing and resignation and what Thoreau called a life of quiet desperation. In the cult, these are all very popular options.

I don’t judge anyone, because I know how tempting it is to decide you’re a failure when nothing is working, and that there’s nothing to be done.

When your life is invested in the ideas, and ideals, of the cult, things get twisted. You hate yourself for being “a failure,” but perversely failure becomes a sign that you’re doing it right.

In the cult, it’s called “being misunderstood.”

So how did I get out?

It was a slow, long process.

First, I admitted that I had been indoctrinated. I’m not saying that my education was worthless, only that it had put some ideas into my mind that were not helpful.

Next, I accepted the fact that what I was doing wasn’t working, and that I needed help. I sought out people who had the life and career I wanted, and I paid them to teach me everything they knew.

I scanned the Internet for free material to help me chart a new course.

I discovered something incredible. The people giving me practical guidance had themselves escaped the cult.

One of them was Clint Arthur, a fellow who studied under Frank McCourt and aspired to write a novel as beautiful as Angela’s Ashes. Clint was driving a cab in LA. He was miserable. So he burnt his screenplays and started over.

Jon Morrow

Another is a fellow named Jon Morrow. Check out his amazing story here.

They’d not only escaped, they’d created beautiful, brilliant new lives, based on helping others. And (bonus) they were making tons of money doing something they loved.

I wanted out, too.

So I spent a year thinking about new ways I could use my skills to communicate, connect, and make a difference.

I realized I needed to study business and marketing, the two dirtiest words in the cult, because most of what I’d learned about writing in university was wrong, or, at best, useless.

Whether you are a journalist, a blogger, a novelist, or a poet, your education is likely not preparing you for the reality of what you are going to find. Sure, you know it’s tough out there. But how much help is that?

Maybe you’re the Voice of Your Generation, in which case you’ve won the lottery and nothing I say applies to you.

The other 99% of us, however, need to find another way to make a difference. Books on writing are going to be of limited help. Maybe they’ll inspire you—and that’s good and fine.

So you’re inspired. Now what?

Find something you love. Then, figure out why it matters to your audience. Write with honesty and passion. Have a business plan and a marketing strategy. Learn about product funnels and content marketing and branding and networking. Don’t accept poverty and suffering as the natural, inevitable conditions of your craft. Treat it like a business. If what you’re doing isn’t getting the result you want, be flexible. Adapt and try again.

Remember: you are conducting an experiment. There are no limits or rules.

Escape the cult.

Running explained


RUNNING WAS INVENTED 4,600,000 years ago by our human ancestors, Australopithecus. In the 34th Century BCE, ancient Sumerians called this activity Naputu—a verb meaning “to not get yourself eaten by wild animals.”

Four thousand years ago, religious festivals led to the popularization of running as sport. Even before the first Olympic Games, human beings were running in honour of the gods—in particular, Muffinius (god of love handles), Wardrobius (god of things languishing in your closet) and Januarius (god of the three-month GoodLife membership).

I can has more? Click for more!

My Grade 11 English Teacher, Mrs. Joyce, Marks Christmas Carols

Jingle Bells

Obviously the bells jingle: that’s what they are made to do. Try “bells, bells all the way.” (See Strunk and White, “Omit needless words.”) Also, does the protagonist have some sort of objection to a multi-horse and/or closed sleigh? If so, explain; if not, cut. C-

Let it Snow

Do you really mean to say that the weather outside is filled with fright? If so, this is a pathetic fallacy. And who exactly is going to “let it snow”? Who could stop it snowing? Use the indicative mood to invigorate your prose. C

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

What is the significance of the chestnuts? You open the scene with them but don’t do much else. Remember: if there is a gun on the mantle in act one, it must be fired by act four. Perhaps the roasted chestnuts could explode and disfigure Jack Frost, or the reindeer could eat them and lose their powers of flight. This would create an interesting narrative problem for Santa to resolve. “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir” should be “a choir sings Yuletide carols.” Avoid passive voice. D+

Little Drummer Boy

What on earth is a pa rum pum pum pum? Does the drummer boy suffer from some kind of compulsive tick? Is he trying to communicate an important message. Is the pa-rum-pum-pum-pum akin to the “ou-boum” of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India? Explore. D-

Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer

If the nose is said to glow, then it is implicitly very bright. Show, don’t tell. D

Silent night

Silent? With the quaking shepherds and the streaming glories and the singing hosts. Do you know how many people are in a host? And they’re singing. Try editing this one with a view to making it about a rowdy night. C

O Christmas Tree

Twenty-four lines to establish that it’s a nice tree, because it has green and sparkly branches? Remember: brevity is the soul of wit. D-

Winter Wonderland

Too much going on here. First there are bells, then glistening snow. Why has the bluebird gone? And what is the significance of this “new bird”? Why even bring birds into it? Clearly this story is about a couple who are so eager to marry that they’ll let a snowman “do the job,” as you so vulgarly put it. The rest is just confusing. Cut. C-

Away in a Manger

The baby is either away, or else in the manger. I don’t understand how the protagonist can be in the barn, and then looking down from the sky—all within a few lines. This is fine if you are writing in a genre, such as science fiction, that allows for teleportation. Perhaps you could re-write this as an extra-terrestrial carol about futuristic travel. C


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