BEING SOMEONE YOU'RE NOT: SURVIVING GAY CONVERSION THERAPY
Our mission at Free Range is to pull the curtain back from the portfolio, to get to know the personal stories behind the work. As much as we want to know how you make beautiful work, we're more compelled by who you are. It's a privilege to create content for, and with, such a supremely talented group of people, and we are continually honored by the generosity with which you share your stories.
WNW Member #4249 Shloimy Notik is one such member. He's a copywriter with a long line of top agencies to his name. His current project? A book about his own experiences in gay conversion therapy. Coming out to his Orthodox family was one thing, writing a book about it another. Shloimy writes of his self-discovery with clarity and deep honesty. Ultimately, Shloimy realizes, "It takes too much energy to be someone you’re not. You live once. And there are far too many interesting, amazing things to accomplish, that devoting any mental or emotional real-estate to other people’s ideas of who or what you should be is a total waste of time."
Tell us a little bit about your background. Who is Shloimy Notik and how did he get here? How did you become a copywriter?
I grew up in Seattle, the second-youngest of 7, in an Orthodox Jewish home. I didn’t go to college. In the winter of 2003, a close family friend, WNW Member #3187 Aron Fried, visited Seattle with his wife. He was in school getting his book together at the time. When Aron’s trip was over, he accidentally left behind a copy of Luke Sullivan’s bible of a book, Hey Whipple Squeeze This. I read it twice. And then again, just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, and this was indeed a career path one could pursue.
From that moment, I knew with extreme certainty I wanted a job in advertising. When I found out my web designer brother had installed Photoshop on our family computer, I toyed around with pixels and layouts and quickly developed a thing for graphic design and typography. So in the beginning, I considered myself an art director.
We didn’t have the cash for one of the more popular portfolio schools, so I signed up for night classes at SVC, the School of Visual Concepts in sunny Seattle. There was a surplus of us art directors, so I had to write my own headlines and body copy.
Putting my book together became my main focus. I enrolled in another class, got obsessed with blogs on creative advertising, and started knocking on doors to get whatever opportunities I could. Knock after knock. But nothing. Until I knocked on the door of Williams-Helde Marketing Communications. Even though the spec ads I showed on my interview left something to be desired, Marc Williams had a kind heart, and brought me aboard for a paid internship.
So by day I was working on real assignments with a small, but hugely talented group. And by night I was in class getting feedback on my student work. I couldn’t get enough. I would stay up until sunrise writing and rewriting headline after headline trying my very hardest to nail the insight. I’d then abuse the family printer to see which typeface was right: sans, serif, or slab.
"I would stay up until sunrise writing and rewriting headline after headline trying my very hardest to nail the insight. I’d then abuse the family printer to see which typeface was right: sans, serif, or slab."
After a few months at Williams-Helde, I got a gig at another small shop, DeLaunay Communications. Pete DeLaunay and his wife Wendy were tremendously patient with me. Looking back, it amazes me how they never lost their cool, even when I’d present a 5th round and the work still sucked. Now I was making a few local ads, but I continued taking night classes at SVC.
Eventually, I moved to New York and landed a gig at this tiny shop, K+Z Creative, in Borough Park, Brooklyn. If you walked by the guy who ran the place on the street, with his Hasidic garb, full beard, and side-curls, you wouldn’t think he was a kick ass creative director with a wicked mastery of design. To this day, I can send him a picture of a font I love and he’ll immediately respond with the name of it, or the font file itself. He is the walking, talking version of WhatTheFont! Only, he always works.
One of our clients at K+Z was the owner of Pomegranate, a beautiful grocery store in Flatbush Brooklyn, that a writer for the New York Times said, “looks like a really nice Whole Foods.” Our client pulled me aside for coffee, pitched me his vision, and the next thing you know, I’m working for him, upstairs in the office of his store.
From there, I put in a year at Daylife, a startup that was funded by Getty Images and the New York Times. When I hit my year mark, some SVA night class teachers of mine (Hey Lisa! Hi Steve!) told me there was an internship starting at DDB, the agency they were working at. After a few weeks of working on my book like a crazy person, I managed to get 1 spot of 6 in Matt Eastwood’s LaunchPad program.
I was partnered up with art director #3488 Manuel Aleman (Manuelington), and together we sold through a huge campaign for Tropicana. Our work covered Grand Central, Penn Station, and the Times Square shuttle. Clearly the internship was named well, because this campaign truly launched my career.
I landed at Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners, where I made my first spot, radio campaign, and a handful of other ads. That’s also where I met my better creative half, #4298 Chad O’Connell. Together, we surfed the agency waves from Kirshenbaum to Publicis to 360i to Ogilvy, where I just left.
How old were you when you first started attending gay conversion therapy? How did you wind up in these sessions?
I was 20, five months away from turning 21. The headline is that when I came out to my parents, who are rockstars and exemplary people in all of their roles, they simply did not know what to do. Would their dear son Shloimy be happy? Would people bully him? Would he not have a fair shot at marrying a nice Jewish girl, settling down, and having a family? They put out some feelers and quickly discovered JONAH, “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality.”
While I didn’t have a problem with being gay, and coming out felt like dropping a million pounds I was carrying around for so long, it made sense to me that being straight would be an easier path. And this place JONAH said that change was possible. They even touted men who had “successfully” gone through the program. I figured what’s the worst that can happen, and started going. I often tell people, yeah, my family suggested it, but it was me that took the train to Jersey City twice a week for 8 months. Accountability. It’s a good thing.
But again, this is all just the headline. The body copy will be the book. You hear a lot that people don’t read body copy anymore. We shall see.
"While I didn’t have a problem with being gay, and coming out felt like dropping a million pounds I was carrying around for so long, it made sense to me that being straight would be an easier path."
As you delved deeper into the therapy, what kind of realizations did you discover about conversion therapy, and yourself?
I was able to ask lots of questions. And just like in advertising, questions lead to clarity. The more I delved into who I was and how my family felt about it, the more I learned about the theories of “conversion” or “reparative therapy,” the more I twisted and turned the Rubik’s cube and looked at it from every angle, I began to see very clearly what was right for me and what wasn’t.
Also, while going to JONAH, I met Mordechai Levovitz, the Executive Director of a support group called JQY (Jewish Queer Youth). My parents and the co-founder of JONAH felt attending JQY meetings and events would “distract” me from the “hard work” I had to put in at JONAH. But I saw it as part of the experience. It gave me the ability to compare and contrast the different thoughts and feelings I had in these seemingly opposite worlds. Ultimately, after 8 months at JONAH, I left the group and my private sessions.
"I was able to ask lots of questions. And just like in advertising, questions lead to clarity. The more I delved into who I was and how my family felt about it, the more I learned about the theories of “conversion” or “reparative therapy,” the more I twisted and turned the Rubik’s cube and looked at it from every angle, I began to see very clearly what was right for me and what wasn’t."
When did you realize that your experience was something that you needed to write about?
Throughout history, writing has always been used as a tool to bring difficult aspects of life and some very hurt people to a place of peace. By writing about it, I’m allowing myself to face the next portion of my life in an entirely different way. My writing has been a huge step towards living more peacefully, more lovingly, more compassionately. Seeing life through the lens of my heart, rather than my ego. In a weird way, I see writing this book as closing one chapter so I can turn to the next. Because, just like reading a book, we can’t really open the new chapter until we’ve understood the old one. Writing is thinking, so it’s a way to understand ourselves.
I’m inspired by one of my favorite authors, Augusten Burroughs. He also had a career in advertising before he started writing books. After multiple reads of everything the guy has published, I can tell you that his words continue to make the world a better place and help people through difficult times in their life. They do for me.
At first the writing was just for myself. Affordable therapy. But then I was listening to Kevin Powell being interviewed by Christopher John Farley for the Wall Street Journal. Powell said, “We have to confront who we are. All the hurt, all the pain out there, in spite of what our careers may be, because we’ve got to move this world and this country toward real peace and real love on a consistent basis and that’s not going to happen if we’re not brutally honest about who we are and where we come from.” His words spoke to me. And I thought, I should publish a book.
"As Mark Twain famously said, 'Write what you know.' I know going through 8 months of conversion therapy, because I lived through it."
Tell us about your decision to go public about this: what has that experience been like? What’s been the response?
In advertising, I’ve been telling stories on behalf of brands. Our clients – the visionary ones, at least – give us lots of money to isolate a truth and then build a whole story around it. It’s a ton of fun going through that exercise, and I will continue to freelance because of the joy this creative process brings me.
But as Mark Twain famously said, “Write what you know.” I know going through 8 months of conversion therapy, because I lived through it. And instead of sharing a teeny tiny isolated nugget of truth about my experience, I think it’s perfectly okay to share the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Not just okay, but actually very necessary. Plus, remember what Edward Norton says in Birdman, while sitting on the roof with Emma Stone? “The truth is always interesting.”
The response has been amazing. I posted a ‘life event’ on Facebook about leaving my full time job to focus on the book. Immediately there was a huge flood of people reaching out with support and letting me know how excited they are to read it. What’s crazy though, is that even people I’ve never met are messaging me and sharing their deeply personal stories.
"My book won’t be an instrument of revenge, but rather a deeply personal first hand account of my journey to understanding."
Only one person has criticized me by saying history has already been written in this field and that it feels dishonest of me to portray myself as someone who cares about making a difference. But this only confirms for me why I need to share things from my point of view. Based on a lot of the narratives that have surfaced in the press on this subject, it’s very likely this individual and many others assume I have an agenda to put people in their place, and prove that I was right and they were wrong.
But that’s far too simple. It’s a somewhat more complicated story. People can love you, want the best for you, and still end up unintentionally hurting you. And we can only play the victim card for so long. Because, YOLO. Allan Hunter, author of “Write Your Memoir” once said in an interview, “We protect ourselves by blaming other people, by making them the problem, and not realizing that if we were there, we were part of the problem too.”
So yeah, I don’t plan to humiliate, shame or punish anyone. My book won’t be an instrument of revenge, but rather a deeply personal first hand account of my journey to understanding.
"It takes too much energy to be someone you’re not. You live once. And there are far too many interesting, amazing things to accomplish, that devoting any mental or emotional real-estate to other people’s ideas of who or what you should be is a total waste of time."
What is some advice you can give to fellow WNW members who might be feeling similar pressures to be someone they’re not?
It takes too much energy to be someone you’re not. You live once. And there are far too many interesting, amazing things to accomplish, that devoting any mental or emotional real-estate to other people’s ideas of who or what you should be is a total waste of time.
Working at a bunch of advertising agencies, I’ve learned that everyone has their own idea of what the right answer is. It’s important to be open to other perspectives, but it’s also perfectly acceptable to believe that our own POV is the right POV.
I’ve become somewhat addicted to shattering my preconceived notions. Because when I realize things aren’t how I always thought they were, it gives me permission to dream bigger and accomplish things I probably hold myself back from doing.
What do you do when you’re Not Working?
I read a lot. Mostly memoirs. I have a very busy mind. So even when I’m “Not Working” I’m working. My main focus right now is the book I’m writing. When I need to step away from that for a breather, I switch to redesigning my magic logo and website. On weekends, I’m big on brunch. And I’m trying to travel more.
How did you get into magic? What kind of magic do you do? Where do you perform?
One of my older brothers was really into card tricks growing up. And my grandpa, may he rest in peace, was also fascinated by the stuff. I always loved their magic, but my gut told me the premises could be pushed. And the amazement dial could be turned up.
I started renting magic books from the library. My mom and my aunt would surprise me with magic sets and instructional VHS tapes. And my dad, being cut from the same passionate and creative cloth, would drive me hours away from home to perform a paid gig for a kid’s birthday party, a company Christmas event, or a 50th anniversary dinner.
I networked with other magicians in the Seattle area and would regularly “jam” with them, trading ideas, methods, and presentational tips. There’s nothing better than being utterly fooled by a fellow magician. It reminds me how my audiences must feel. I love not knowing how something is done.
I’ve spent thousands of dollars on push-button props and one-time-use gimmicks, but all of that stuff now sits collecting dust in my parents’ garage back in Seattle. For me, it always comes back to sleight-of-hand. There’s something so wonderfully simple about being at a party, when someone hands you an ordinary pack of playing cards, and you fry everyone’s minds and create a moment of mind-boggling astonishment.
Unfortunately, most of my shows are for private paying clients. I’ve hosted a handful of improv shows, and plan to do more of that because it’s fun, and gives people who want to see my magic a chance to catch me perform.
"Magic audiences watch in constant doubt of what is being sold to them. Learning how to manage that kind of objection was a good skill to pick up before pitching ideas to creative directors or a room full of clients."
Does being a magician inspire or inform what you do as a (copy)writer?
For sure. The great Dai Vernon, known in magic circles as “The Professor” repeatedly said during his lifetime that “Confusion isn’t magic.” The same goes for advertising. Too many messages, and you’ll confuse your audience. If your premise isn’t simple, it won’t stick.
No matter how amazing or thoughtful or conceptually interesting a magic trick is, it’s nothing if it doesn’t entertain. As magicians, we don’t call them tricks. We call them “effects” because ultimately the most important thing is the takeaway – the effect on the audience. Again, true for advertising.
I’m also very comfortable standing up in front of people selling them on my ideas. Magic audiences watch in constant doubt of what is being sold to them. Learning how to manage that kind of objection was a good skill to pick up before pitching ideas to creative directors or a room full of clients.
It’s also been a fun way to get to know the higher ups in advertising, like CCOs. Sort of helped me level the playing field and gave us something to connect over beyond just advertising.
I’ve done magic for many key decision makers at the offices of BMW, Oscar Mayer, American Express. Nothing diffuses the formality of a meeting like asking your client to think of a card, and then pulling that card out of your mouth.
"I’ve done magic for many key decision makers at the offices of BMW, Oscar Mayer, American Express. Nothing diffuses the formality of a meeting like asking your client to think of a card, and then pulling that card out of your mouth."
Who are some other WNW members whose work you admire, and why?
I’m a big fan of #34 Jessica Hische. When I look at her hand-drawn lettering, it fills my belly with such a satisfying gleeful hum. I first heard about her while interning at DDB. She was doing some beautiful stuff for New York Lottery at the time.
Lots of respect for #2120 Jeff Greenspan and #63 Andy Tider. Their personal projects constantly prove that the skills we pick up in advertising can (and should) be applied to create more meaningful conversations.
As a sucker for type, I really love the work of #3096 Juan Carlos Pagan. Sure, he designed Pinterest’s logo. But all of his stuff feels fresh, is hard to stop looking at, and leads you to believe he had a total blast making it.