Clara Smoot To The Rescue
By Dave Hurlbert

A Self-Examination Followed By A Short Prayer


        About a year ago I opened up the monthly mailing from my bank, extracted the credit card statement and, with habitual contempt, tossed out the pile of accompanying inserts. These pieces, known in the advertising industry as "statement stuffers, " are slick and colorful slips of propaganda used to push financial products. It suddenly occurred to me that this time around something wasn't quite right. I stared down into the trashcan. Those cheerful little ads I'd thrown out looked eerily familiar. In a moment of panic, I realized I'd written every single of them.

        That queasy moment was a turning point in my life as a writer. Until then I'd been able to hold onto the belief that my professional work was somehow important, something to be at least vaguely proud of. Now, peering into the rubbish, I was forced to acknowledge the hollowness of this belief. The jig was up, if not the whole cotillion.

        I've spent the last year questioning my gift as a writer, considering the ways in which I use and misuse this gift. In spite of occasional doubts over the extent of my talent, I know for certain that it's given me a good livelihood. My work in advertising has also been gratifying, the way completing crossword puzzles can be. I solve problems using a painfully developed craft, and then get to see my ideas in print, on boxes of food, in gas stations and on the sides of airplanes.

        My mother and father in South Carolina take great pride in pointing out FedEx trucks to their friends, every last vehicle emblazoned with "The World On Time," my tagline for that company. To them, and I think to many other people, creating a national brand is a holy act, just next-door to creating a celebrity persona.

        Over the years I've become a minor celebrity myself in the small, cold world of advertising, spinning out names for high-tech companies, writing campaigns for banks and telling CEO's what to do with their national brands. I travel across America, I stay in expensive business hotels, I advise stern-faced executives, and I feel in the end that I've achieved something, especially upon those occasions when I finish my room service dinner, muse upon my notes for the morning's presentation, and sigh at the weight of my own importance.

        Then I snap off the bedside lamp, and the anxiety sets in. What in the world am I doing?

        Because, you see, there is an alternative presenting itself to me, another way to use my writing, away from the corporate world. And it's not to write about religion or social justice. That would be an easier, nobler choice. Fact is, I'm writing a novel, an outrageous undertaking that features a cast of characters who seem to be, well, purely comical. I laugh out loud when I write about them, typing away in the bright mornings on the terrace.

        I believe God's challenge for me these days is to accept this happiness that exists with downright abandon in my private life - to trust it and act upon it. Understand, however, the stakes are high. To believe in this happiness requires me to pit a choleric Chihuahua named Señor Tico against a bank re-positioning and an evil handbell chorister named Clara Smoot against a salty, fat free snack containing an ingredient named Olestra.

        I've tried and tried to dissect God's challenge. Shall I stay where I am, giving thanks for my success making a good living off my talent in a society where so many people are forced to consign their true talents to homely weekend hobbies? Or shall I give myself up to the fantastic machinations of the strange little characters I love and celebrate?

        I already know what Olestra thinks. I decided to let Clara Smoot offer an opinion. I value her advice, since it's not intended kindly. In fact, her gifts for analysis are based on her predilection towards harming others.

        Clara is more than happy to set me straight. Chain-smoking, she pulls up a chair.

        "You know, Honey, what I could never abide is whining. (exhale). I don't understand the problem. Write what you damn well please, and stop takin' up all of our time with your eternal soul-searching. You say God wants you to write, then you just write like a son-of-a-bitch. Write about all of us, I don't care. You got your salty snacks, you got that yappin', rat-faced little dog, and you got me. Do what you're gonna do (big mean stare) and if that means killin' me off, then you just go ahead, 'cause I'm getting tired of inhabiting the Land of Limbo."

God, and Clara, your wills be done on Earth as in Heaven. I guarantee I'll type and type. What I don't know right now is what to do about the world of advertising. The one thing I do know is the truth will emerge. I just have to give it time.


        I love you, Clara Smoot. You're part of me, mean as you are. When I stop writing about you, I'm hushing up a big, rasping, nasty voice somewhere deep inside. And I think I'd be turning my back on my big gift from God. "Surprise," He says, confidentially, during prayer. "Your gift is not as noble as you'd like it to be."

        You're right, God, it is not so noble after all. I've come to understand that what I've got going for me might be a quest for delight, always guaranteed to be a rather flimsy undertaking, something like cutting up colored tissue paper to make a fancy party decoration. But this quest is still noble because it requires me to locate my heart.

        I'm trying to find it now; I've got a search party out. A shameful hunk of my heart resides in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where I stay when I meet with FedEx. I write my speeches and presentations there, understanding my dollars-and-cents value as a writer. This is writing that produces results right away, on the tails of jets, or on the sides of envelopes.

        That other part of my heart lies with Clara Smoot. It's my memories. It's the voices I hear, the ones that dictate stories to me when I sit down at the computer. There's no tangible proof of success or power here, just the sense of happiness I feel talking to my creatures.

        Now I have the option of leaving the corporate world for the private one. I can say goodbye to Olestra and spend sunny afternoons with Clara and her kind. I have not yet responded to this strange invitation, and I'm not sure what my response will be.

        God, and Clara, your wills be done on Earth as in Heaven. I guarantee I'll type and type. What I don't know right now is what to do about the world of advertising. The one thing I do know is the truth will emerge. I just have to give it time.


Dave Hurlbert is a member of St. Gregory's. He lives in San Francisco.

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