Personal Branding as an Act of Authenticity

As an author on social media, a content creator, brand consultant, and a digital marketing specialist, I get asked the same question pretty frequently: “how do you brand yourself?” This broad, sweeping question usually has some other smaller questions nestled within, like “how exactly did you decide how to present yourself online”, “how do you stick to such a strong aesthetic sense across platforms”, or “how do I do what you do without feeling fake about it?”

I’ve condensed my varied responses down into one article based on my own experiences that I hope will help people integrate their own values and sense of self into a dynamic, authentic personal brand that others can connect to. This isn’t so much of a quick-and-dirty-social-media-hacks guide as it is a philosophy of personal branding in the internet age, and a discussion of my own strategy for content creation.

Cultural Context

Let me start by saying that “personal brand” is a concept that is being pushed hard right now on people, even very young ones. We live in a society where its not only possible but encouraged to curate your online presence into a recognizable essence, often with the unspoken aim of getting people to like and trust you so that someday they can invest in you financially or pick you out of the crowd for a job or project. This is not an inherently bad thing, and can be very fun and useful if leveraged in a healthy way! But it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you need to brand yourself to exist and that you need to live up to the color-coded, curated, narratively unified version of yourself that exists online.

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Suggested Reading

Before I continue I want to direct you to two amazing video essays about this issue, Lindsay Ellis’ essay on the way creators manufacture authenticity, and Natalie Wynn’s Ted Talk on how performing a hyper-stylized versions of different philosophical opinions on her Youtube channel have helped her protect herself from as much harm as possible. They’ve both been really helpful to me in A.) branding myself and B.) learning to see myself as separate from my “brand”. Let’s continue.

Creator Identity

I am a creator in the age of the internet. To be specific, I am an author and a poet and occasionally a public theologian. For me, my ~aesthetic~ is yes, a way to express myself, but it’s also the way I let potential readers get to know me, my vibe, and my writing. All of this serves a purpose, so that when I announce I have a new book out, my audience already like and trust me enough to buy it, and they already have a sense, however nebulous, of what they’re getting into. I hope this doesn’t sound callous; I have a very meaningful intimate relationship with my readers that I see as having spiritual value, but I also know what I’m doing when I post selfies or chat posts that go with the witch-saint-loving aunt thing I have going on Twitter of Instagram. And I think that people who aren’t trying to connect the right people with what they have to sell, artistically or in terms of services or otherwise, have to worry about branding a lot less.

I’ve been maintaining a social media presence as a writer for almost ten years now, and my brand has become more streamlined as I have grown into myself as an adult woman. I love this woman and respect her enough to know that she may change tastes and change her voice as she ages, and that’s fine too, but one thing that I’ve been moving towards in my mid-twenties is having what I call a “partially opaque” brand.

Opacity

A non-opaque brand is one of total messy off-the-cuff realness with almost no boundaries between creator and fan (Amanda Palmer does this well) and a totally opaque brand is put forward by a person who seems so unified, so separate, so enigmatic, that the lines between creator and fans are quite stark (think Donna Tartt). I used to have pretty much the same aesthetic that I have now but a brand that was almost entirely non-opaque; I posted my feelings and opinions on everything, talked openly about every single update to my religious, mental health, sex, and social life, and was 100% accessible at all times to readers. In an effort to protect my time, energy, privacy, and art as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to have more boundaries, but I still post selfies and life updates (generally with a bit of an ~aesthetic~ veneer but not always) and encourage people to ask me  questions because being warm and accessible and loving is important to me. It is, additionally, part of my brand. 100% opacity is not right for me because I want to be able to show up at book cons and hug fans and answer life advice asks and be honest about things like burnout or spiritual doubt or personal branding (how’s that for meta). I think if you are a creator on the internet it is very important to decide from the get go how opaque you want your brand to be.

For me, adding more opacity helped me distinguish my own life and value from what people on the internet thought of my work or my opinions, and it helped me to stop giving an excess of energy to places where I wasn’t getting it back. Being a bit more of a mystery at times has opened up space in my life for leisure and getting back in touch with who I am when the lights go down and I am no longer on a virtual stage.

The Fragmented Self

No one out here, not even the most deliriously aesthetic dark academia blogger with a watertight color scheme, is just one thing. When we brand ourselves (and yes it can be an intimate act of connection and self-revelation when done right) we bring forward things about ourselves that are important to us and have narrative cohesion. When I do branding consultations for small businesses like Fratres Dei spiritual direction, we do long self-exploratory sessions to determine which facets to bring into the light. But all of us contain multitudes and oftetimes our lives don’t have the sense of narrative cohesion the internet thrives on. Sometimes we can leverage that (I learned early on that there was no hiding my love of traditional religion and of experimental esoterica, my heavily spiritual life and my wildly doubtful faith. They were already so present in my writing that I stopped trying to hide it and Lo and behold I found the right readers) and sometimes we can’t, and that’s okay.

I suggest locking on to the things about yourself that you feel are most essential and have the most vitality, and then putting them into conversation with each other and trying to find connections. If there are ones that don’t connect to the others, that’s lovely, that’s a holy thing, but it may not belong in your online personal branding. Maybe that’s a private thing for now to be enjoyed between you and loved ones, to germinate until it can find a place in your public life, or to stay blessedly secret.

My advice? Always leave a part of yourself at the end of the day for yourself. You don’t own this internet hellscape every ounce of you.

In summary, a successful brand is an authentic version of yourself, just a little bit more tailored, and part of that success is deciding up front how much of yourself you want to share with others.

Ten Things They Don’t Teach You in Your Undergrad Writing Workshop

After getting asked a couple times this week for my advice to early career writers, I decided to throw everything I didn’t learn from my BA in creative writing into one handy reference. Many of these lessons have to do with emotional resilience, self discipline, and self care. Some of this advice is more pertinent to career writers than hobby or intermittent writers, so feel free to select what is helpful to you. And it’s okay if you’re in one category one day and another the next; identity is nebulous.

  1. Talent is only 30% responsible for success. During my time in my program, I saw incandescently talented writers languish in obscurity because they didn’t make the time to work on their writing, or because they didn’t think they were “good enough” to submit their work for publication (we call this self-rejection, which is another name for the devil). Other writers, objectively less talented and less experienced, ended up getting the grades and the acceptances because they wrote and submitted relentlessly. By my senior year, a colleague who I had written off as mediocre had won the departmental fiction award and had been published in a literary magazine with an acceptance rate lower than Harvard. That sobered me up real quick.
  2. There’s nothing you can’t fix in post-production. Okay, there are some things you can’t fix in revision, and some projects do require you to rip out the seams and start again from an entirely new pattern, but that’s rare. Your first draft should be you putting color on the canvas, or chipping a rough form out of marble. I used to be a habitual edit-as-I-went type and it became crippling. I could never finish a first draft, and would spend ages re-writing the first 17 pages. Don’t be me. Lean into the discomfort of not-perfect and keep pushing through.
  3. Don’t spend eons working on the same project. At least not without working on other things too. True, some writers spend ten years agonizing over their debut novel which is published to much acclaim, but they are outliers. Allow yourself to try new forms, tell new stories, to play and grow. This will build up your portfolio and give you more things to submit while you chip away at that magnum opus. It will also making getting said magnum opus published 500% easier since you won’t have emerged from the vapor, unheard of and unproven.
  4. Listen to criticism, but don’t write by committee. In order to graduate from my program, we had to write 50 pages of a novel and commit to working them over with twenty people weighing in on our progress every week. It was incredibly easy to become a slave to other people’s advice (which would inevitably conflict) and lose yourself rushing to appease every opinion. We refer to this phenomenon as “writing by committee”. Know who your trusted critique partners are and be vulnerable to them, but don’t invite everyone in. You can’t be all things to all people.
  5. In order for some to love your work, others have to hate it. Not everyone is going to love what you have to bring to the table (ex: I recognize Brandon Sanderson is an excellent writer and I adore listening to him talk writing, but I don’t enjoy his books) but having people divided on your stories is far preferable to having everyone shrug and say “they’re alright I guess”. Nothing to write home about”. A few bad reviews are always worth making the statement, taking the artistic risk, or being honest to the story you want to tell. An exception to this rule is being belligerently dismissive of other people’s constructive critique, especially if that critique sounds a little like “you’re being an ass”.
  6. Routine is God’s gift to writers. If you want this life to pay you like a job, you have to treat it like a job. That means carving our regular time in your schedule to write, setting project goals with deadlines, and seeking out critique partners and beta readers who will support your journey and keep you accountable. For the last few years, I drifted from project to project, only submitting when I felt like it, and I had not been published for years. In October of 2017 I made myself a promise to start treating my writing like the career I always wanted it to be. I set daily word goals, wrote down submission dates on my calendar, researched marketing and self publishing, and spruced up my social media. It is now September of 2018 and I have self-published my first novella and had a short story published in a traditional anthology. Attitude makes a world of difference.
  7. Read where you submit, and then read their guidelines twice. I’m sure you’ve heard this one but it bears repeating. Take the time to get a real feel for the magazine or publisher you’re swinging for, then tailor your cover letter/query letter to their tone and specs.
  8. We’re literally all faking it. Neil Gaiman? Lied about his experience to get his first publication. F. Scott Fitzgerald? An absolute disaster who couldn’t spell. Donna Tartt? Committed to her authorial brand before anyone knew her name. The only thing that makes someone a writer is their decision to do the work and call themselves a writer. You do that long enough, and soon other people start calling you a writer too. When I first started posting my writing on Tumblr way back in ye olde 2012, I posted my poems in quotations with my pen-name at the bottom like a ~real~ author That created the social proof I needed for people to search for my name, ask my questions about my work, and encourage me to keep going.
  9. Imposter syndrome does not go away when you get a byline. If not being published is eating up at you, so will not being published in the “right” magazines, or not getting a high enough advance, or not being invited to conventions, or not selling enough copies of your first print run. The earlier in your career you can get a handle on that little demon called Not-A-Real-Writer that lives in your chest, the better.
  10. You will need to rest. This is a tough lesson for us go-go-types, but you can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t create when you’re burnt out, poorly fed, badly rested, or stressed to the max. There are seasons for pushing through the exhaustion to the accomplishment on the other side, but this can’t be your normal. Don’t forget to check in with your body for captured tension (in grinding teeth, tight shoulders, shallow breaths) and please nourish your flesh vessel with brisks walks, cold water, long baths, snooze buttons, and comforting fresh-from-the-oven goodies.

We’re out here together hustling and trying to pull words together into stories worth sharing, so no matter where you are in your writing career, I believe in you!

What are some lessons about writing you wish someone had shared with you sooner? Leave them in the comments section below; I’m curious to know!

On Writing Southern Gothic

Today over on tumblr, someone asked me for “tips for writing about those foggy marsh drenched southern gothics”, and I decided to share what I had to say with ya’ll as well.

Gothic genres are squarely situated in their geographic locations, so the best way to get a feel for a Gothic genre is to get a feel for the land. If taking a trip to the bayou or Piedmont is prohibitive, read the greats. I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s entire body of work, the Anne Rice novels set in New Orleans, and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”.  You can also check out  My Blood on the Scrarecrow Southen Gothic inspo tag.

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Photo courtesy of Rodney Harvey

As far as craft advice goes, avoid dialect. Dialect is phonetically rendering words the way they may sound in an accent (nuthin’, wassat, sho’nuf) and it tends to be distracting to the reader and insulting to the speakers of the accent you are invoking. You can invoke an accent through word choice and placement instead (see my use of vernacular terms like “best believe” in the prompts below) and the best way to learn these turns-of-phrase is to listen to native speakers

Similarly, steer clear of tropes that have now crossed the threshold into hurtful stereotype such as the ignorant redneck, “magical negro”, Jezebel, mammy, or in-bred mountain family, unless you have a very good reason. Odds are, unless its intelligent subversion, your reason is not good enough.

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Still from AMC’s Preacher.

I still feel like my Southern Gothic writing is bit of a caricature in many ways, because the first breath I took wasn’t muggy and magnolia-sweet, but after a decade of my formative years spent in the mountains of western North Carolina, I’ve got an inkling. Here are some jumping off points for you:

  • If you don’t leave this town by nineteen years old, you won’t leave at all. If you try, you’ll find all roads lead back to your now-abandoned high school.
  • You can do all the brutalizing, cheating, and bloodletting you want inside this house, but God help you if the neighbors hear about it.
  • The forest takes a couple of human sacrifices a year, lost hikers or fresh graduates who had a little bit too much to drink at the homecoming party. It’s simply the way of things.
  • The cicadas do the screaming for every neglected child, battered wife, and dispossessed son who can’t shout for themselves.
  • Everyone sees the sinful things their neighbors drag across their backyards in the middle of the night. They just have the good sense not to go around letting on that they know about it.
  • Heredity is horrifying. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things you can inherit.
  • You’d better not break the heart of the wrong local girl, because there’s a good chance she’s got a granny witch living up in one of the hollers who’ll stick your name in a mason jar with some piss and pins and make your life a living hell.
  • If you cut the magnolia trees, they’ll bleed red as you or me.
  • It’s not a matter of if the preacher man has seen the devil, it’s a question of whether or not he greeted him as an old friend.
  • When you finally meet Jesus, you best believe he’s going to be carrying a list of crimes for you to answer for.

If you’d like to hear more of my  overgrown,God-haunted thoughts on the subject, check out my Southern Gothic story REVIVAL in the Fiends in the Furrows anthology! This story is my homage to the South, and it’s got snake handling, brave little girls, and fiendish prophecies in it.

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