People always tell job hunters that “it’s all about who you know.” I think that goes double for the advertising industry. It’s ALL about who you know. Who you know can essentially create a job, when there was none previously available. That said, who you know can also introduce you to someone who can introduce you to their wife, who happens to be a kick ass creative director at a huge agency, oh and a talented published author on the side and also happens to be named Bree Housley.
Bree is another huge role model for me. Writer #goals, basically. And I feel so honored she took the time to respond thoroughly and honestly to all my seemingly random interview questions, which I hope you’ll enjoy right about meow…
What attracted you to writing? Or, when do you first remember being interested in writing?
In third grade, we were asked to write a story on this weird flimsy paper where ¾ of the page was space to draw and then 4 lines were available to actually write words. My story was 25 pages. The rest of the class averaged around 5. I was pretty proud of that. Especially cuz I sucked at Heads Up, 7-Up. (Starting off early with the Midwestern references. Everyone played that, right?)
Tell us a little bit about your journey to this point—go as far back as you’d like!
I really started to love creative writing, especially dialogue, in Jr. High. But there was no Don Draper at the time, so I wasn’t really sure where that passion could lead in the “real world.” I mean, Angela Bower from “Who’s the Boss” was a pretty badass ad chick, but she was an Account Executive so my glimpse into the world of the creative department didn’t happen until much later.
When I graduated from Iowa State with a degree in Advertising/Marketing, I was completely unprepared. I had no portfolio. No connections. And only ONE copywriting class under my braided leather belt. Fortunately, I’d learned about Miami Ad School (MAS) through my summer internship in Fort Lauderdale. With a little help from my Floridian aunt and uncle, I was enrolled by the following January.
My plan at 21 was to finish MAS, get an amazing copywriting job, maybe invest in some pencil skirts, work at the same place until I turned 30, then become an author and make millions writing from my cottage somewhere by a lake. Wearing pants only sparingly. In reality, I stayed at MAS long enough to build a portfolio I was proud of, took a job at a mediocre agency with a few amazing people that mentored the shit out of me, got hired at a super cool Chicago agency, and just kept climbing my way up until I reached the point where I could freelance at all the big shops in town and control my own career.
Oh, and I became a published author at 33. And did not make millions. But I do wear pants only sparingly.
What was your family and upbringing like? Was creativity part of your childhood?
My family and childhood felt a bit like a Norman Rockwell painting, but instead of puppies and milkshakes, it was Jarts and Chef Boyardee. Oh, and I was sporting a major party-all-the-time mullet. (Special recipe: bang perm in the front; straight, long, and unbrushed in the back.)
My mom and dad were very hard workers, but never missed sitting down at the table for family dinner. We didn’t have much money, but I had no idea we didn’t have much money until later in life. If that doesn’t take creativity on their part, I don’t know what does. My dad is outwardly creative. He makes all kinds of whimsical sculptures out of scrap metal and you can always find doodles on anything resembling paper around the house. My mom has always been funny. But she’ll be the first to tell you she’s not. She’s also a big supporter of the arts and signed us up for dance classes when we were barely old enough to tie our own tap shoes. Again, this was when we were driving a tiny car that seemed to only run on Tuesdays and every other Saturday…but we felt like we had everything because we had shoes with taps on them!
We camped all over the Midwest on summer weekends. Marshmallow sticks, bubbles, and some woods to get lost in. It’s all we needed.
Who has had the biggest impact on your life as a writer thus far?
That’s hard to say. The writers I covet write nothing like me. I relish in everything Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, and John Irving. I suppose it’s more about how their writing makes me feel. It’s deep, darkly funny, and sometimes quite juvenile. I’d like to think that’s my style, too.
On a more personal level, there’s a good chance my memoir would’ve never been published without the unexpected support from New York Times Best-Selling Author, Jeffrey Zaslow. I reached out to him, completely blind, and asked if he’d consider writing a “blurb” for my book before my agent submitted it to publishers. (Yeah, welcome to the publishing industry. You have to beg established writers to give your book praise before a house will even pretend to take it seriously.) I got rejected or ignored by plenty of other authors who weren’t nearly as successful as Zaslow. He immediately responded, read my work, and wrote a blurb so beautiful that I forgot it was even about my writing. He stayed in touch as my book deal got finalized, popping in to get updates from time to time, and then one shitty Midwestern winter day, a few months before my book was released, my husband saw the following headline: Jeffrey Zaslow, ‘Last Lecture’ author, dies in car crash at 53.
The blurb he had written for my book:
“Bree Housley tells a story that is touching, funny and completely inspiring. Reading it, we can’t help but think about our own resolutions, our own losses, and the friends and loved ones who’ve given meaning to our lives.”
Indeed. I still think of him often.
Yes, I’m from a very small town in Eastern Iowa called Walcott. Don’t be fooled, it might be small in size, but it’s the “World’s Largest Truckstop.” (There’s a billboard and everything. Right next to the Truck-o-Mat.)
I attribute a lot of my creativity to growing up in a town where we had to create our own version of fun. In the summer, we’d spend the afternoon walking the railroad tracks, pretending we were on a journey like our crushes from Stand By Me. Except the only exciting things we ever found were pennies and trash. Oh, and we saw dead possum once.
I would never say living and working here hindered my creativity, but at the same time, I do think leaving for a bit added another level I couldn’t have unearthed if I’d stayed here my whole life.
How was Miami Ad School? Highly recommend for aspiring ad creatives or…pass?
I would not be where I am right now without Miami Ad School. At the time I attended, portfolio schools hadn’t really caught on yet. It almost seemed like an experiment. Class sizes were tiny and I learned more in a week than I’d learned in 4 years at ISU. It’s grown quite a bit since then and portfolio schools are practically a requirement to land a good job in Chicago. But like everything else in life, you can tailor the experience to your needs. I didn’t technically graduate from MAS. It was expensive and I knew I’d gotten what I needed after the first year, so I jumped out and started looking for a job instead of paying for another year. (“Jumped” sounds so much flashier than “dropped.”)
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring copywriters looking to break into the industry?
I sound like an old fist-shaker when I say this, but don’t expect too much too soon. This is a highly competitive industry, and with good reason. We get paid to make tiny movies. To write tiny books. To entertain the rest of the world by spending large sums of other people’s money. It’s a pretty great way to spend your days.
Also, listen to people who have been at it longer than you, but don’t be so intimidated by them that you don’t speak up when you have an idea or a new way of doing something. They are excited to learn from you, too. Especially in a time when new apps and computer-y things are popping up faster than you can say, “WTF is SMH?” (I thought it was “shit my head” for the longest time.)
Is freelance life good or do you miss the stability of a full-time gig?
Freelance is perfect for me. After you’ve been in the business for awhile, you learn a lot about your process and what works best for you. When you find it, you need to do all you can to protect it. Personally, I do not thrive in big brainstorm meetings or open office floor plans. Solitude is my best friend when I get an assignment. Well, solitude and sweatpants, anyway. Distraction works for some creatives. It cripples others.
Also, if you do it right, freelance can feel just as stable as full-time. It’s just a different kind of stability. I find comfort knowing there’s an exact start date and an end date. For the most part, YOU decide what’s next when you’re a freelancer. The rug can be pulled out from beneath you at any time when you’re a full-timer.
Best places in the Midwest to get inspired?
It’s easy to get inspired in Chicago. All you have to do is look out a window or go outside. Walking aimlessly while listening to music or finding an empty bench where I can stare at people for hours is like striking gold.
When I’m doing partner work, I enjoy bars vs. coffee shops. There’s a bar called the Pepper Canister downtown. Something about the dark Irish vibe, the server who gives you a knowing look when you pull out an assignment brief, and the frosty chalices of beer. Makes work not feel like work at all.
Anything you’d change about the creative community here in the Midwest?
I can only speak for Chicago at the moment, but I feel like sometimes agencies try so hard to implement “creative” ways of working that they actually take a lot of creative freedom away from people. I’m a big believer in letting people work in whatever way results in the best ideas. Trying to capture creativity is ass backwards. Though I have a feeling that’s happening everywhere and not just the Midwest.
Do you think the Midwest influences your work? In what way(s)?
Very much. Midwesterners are extremely empathetic. It’s an invaluable tool I employ constantly in my writing. When concepting ideas for a campaign, you should be able to jump into the mind of pretty much anyone and figure out what will inspire them.
I worked at a truckstop restaurant for a few summers after high school. Figuring out how to talk to every kind of weirdo that walked in there was like the greatest bootcamp in understanding humans ever.
Would you ever love to write full-time or do you prefer the balance between an advertising job and a creative side hustle?
That dream of writing pantsless in a cottage on a lake will never fade. It would be my ideal. However, when it comes to advertising, there is something addictive about the instant gratification you experience when you think of an idea, sell it to the client, go on an amazing shoot, and then see it out in the world in a matter of weeks/months. I also love the kind of people you meet in advertising. Most of my best friends are ad junkies. Sometimes I don’t give the ad world enough credit. It’s stressful as hell, but the good times…they can be a kind of magic you can’t get anywhere else.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?
Despite what the grown-ups say, it’s okay to be shy. One day you’ll make a career out of those weird thoughts bouncing around in your head.
Favorite part is that it truly became a big part of my healing process in relation to Shelly’s death. When she died so unexpectedly, I went blank. And then I tried to jump right back into my life and not let it slow me down. Grief is a bastard and no one knows how to deal with it. Dedicating a full two years to thinking/writing about her and facing things I’d felt deeply guilty about was the therapy I didn’t even know I needed. The day I received the final pages of my manuscript, I sat next to her grave with my laptop and read her the first chapter. I wanted her to be the first to hear it.
Not-so-favorite? That would be the anxiety of putting all your shit onto 256 pages and knowing you can’t erase any of it later. After it was out of my hands, I had so many sleepless nights worrying that I remembered things incorrectly or that I’d accidentally offend someone. Thanks to Facebook, it’s not like the old days when people from childhood eventually dissolved into the ether. They know where to find you. And where to call you out for referring to them as a “butt munch.”
Any plans to publish another book?
Yes, I’d love to get book #2 out there. I’ve written a rough manuscript, but I need to find time to shape it and explore publishing options. I parted ways with my literary agent so I’ll be starting from square one. Enter whiskey and procrastination.
Don’t talk about it. Do it. It will take a lot of time and rejection, but if you truly have something to say, get it out there. Some people think there is a specific path to getting published, but that’s not the case. I literally bought Getting Your Book Published for Dummies and started there. I know other authors who swear by going to workshops. There are a million ways to go, but standing in one place just talking about it gets you nowhere.
Do you think the publishing industry is dead? If given the opportunity, would you have self-published or did you enjoy working with a publishing house?
I’m torn on this subject. As a reader, I’ve been burned by self-published books full of errors and shoddy storytelling. I think it still needs some sort of “gatekeeping” system, but at the same time, that would go against everything it stands for.
I don’t think publishing houses are the perfect answer either. In recent years they’ve kind of been forced to turn against those who have always supported the lit world by choosing to publish “celebrity” memoirs over books written by talented, unknown authors. Sadly, it’s all about money. The week my book came out, I believe Brandy Glanville’s memoir took the top spot on the Bestsellers List. Or was it Snookie? Either way, you get my point. Excellent writers are getting turned down every day for something worthy of a spread in Us Weekly.
Amazon reviews sung the praises of your memoir. How does it feel to write a work that resonates with a wider audience?
Oh, how I wish I were one of those people who doesn’t care what others think. But alas, those reviews are everything to me.
I love nothing more than waking up to a new positive review or email from a fan. Learning that my words have helped someone get through the death of a friend or, on the other hand, brought them back in touch with someone they hadn’t talked to in years…that’s it. That’s everything.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind?
The fact that I can’t answer this is slightly worrisome.
Is the Midwest home?
Probably. I’m glad I’ve moved around in the past because I think it builds character, but I’m happy to be all nice and Midwest-y once again.
Are you creatively satisfied?
Yes. Every once in awhile it occurs to me that I’m being paid money directly for my brain. No better feeling than that.
How do you stay inspired?
Books, movies, music, podcasts. I’m a pop culture junkie. Live for it.
Bubbler or water fountain?
Thin crust or deep dish?
Deep. Though I’d also marry a Tombstone Pepperoni if it asked.
Stop light or traffic light?
Is this a trick?
Anything we missed that you’d like people to know about you, your life and/or career?
I accidentally kissed a reporter on the mouth at a book reading event. Ahem, with an open mouth. So even when you feel like you’ve made it, you’re most likely about to do something real dumb. Embrace that.
Where can we find you?