When Keeping it Real Online Goes Wrong

If you’ve ever researched making a name for yourself online then you’ve probably been told to build a brand, to simplify your complex personhood into a nuanced little niche that’s easy to digest. If you found yourself having trouble attracting an audience you’ve been told you need to be more authentic, share more of yourself, and get more real.

A lot of writers take this to mean they should chronicle their failures while attempting to make it as an author. Master Yoda does say, “The greatest teacher failure is.” Why not leverage yours to endear yourself to your readers?

But what happens when you volunteer too much information? What happens when your blog becomes your therapy cushion? What happens when you tell everyone your career is fraught with long bouts of depression, nights spent quivering on the floor of your apartment, running the bathroom fan so none of your neighbors can tell that you’re sobbing?

At what point does your depression become your brand?

Are You Building a Toxic Brand?

I started writing when I was 13. I’d always had a slight serotonin imbalance, but when those hormones entered the mix there was an explosion of inspiration. For me writing wasn’t a calling so much as a venting of toxic fumes.

What I lacked in structure I made up for by being sincere. My grammar was false, but I kept things real, really real, shamelessly real. I over shared. I didn’t have the life experience that other poets drew from, but I had a surplus of intrusive thoughts to quote. So I formatted my negative self-talk into stanzas, filled notebooks with my feelings, and passed them around the classroom.

It was all crap, but it was sincere crap, sincere as an exit interview with a cheating lover, sincere as a tell-off speech at an electrocution, sincere as a drunken sermon. I kept my stance firm and my tongue loose.

A year into my writing career I started broadcasting my cries for help online. I put my journal on damn near every social media platform, tagged my humiliation for better search optimization, and made an archive dedicated to my sins. I wasn’t hiding behind an alias like some chump. I wanted it all on the record. I was building a brand, a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of a brand. I wasn’t worried about criticism. I assumed my brutal honesty tapped into something so universal that it shielded me from judgment.

It didn’t.

When I posted my work in professional writing forums I got my ass burned by some veteran flame warriors.

It took me a while to grasp why. I figured my real wasn’t real enough. (Yes, I just quoted an Arianna Grande lyric, deal with it.) I figured I had to get even rawer and more intense for readers to think I was being genuine.

What I’d failed to grasp was that there was hyperbole in my desperate pleas. I was never really as low as I was on paper. Behind the scenes I was developing healthy coping mechanisms, but on the page I was circling the drain. My pursuit of sincerity had made my writing inauthentic.

I’d become a charlatan about my depression.

Your Brand Can Bite You in the Ass

I’m concerned about addressing my depression in public forums because it could become a talking point in interviews for years to come.

This has happened to artists I admire, case in point when Trent Reznor was interviewed by Terry Gross for Fresh Air. For twenty years Reznor has been the mastermind behind the angst fueled rock band Nine Inch Nails. Reznor’s depression was such a fixture of his brand that photographers posed him crouching in corners with his head in his hands.

At the start of the interview Reznor seemed to be in good spirits. His life had been on the upswing. He’d gotten sober, gotten married, had children, and won an Oscar for his score for The Social Network, but host Terry Gross kept coming back to lyrics Reznor had written 17 years prior.

“Don’t you think a lot of your listeners have heard songs like Hurt… and think… Trent Reznor, he cut himself.”

“Did you get to that point of seriously considering suicide?”

“Is depression a big issue for you now?”

Gross never asked Reznor what it was like to work with director David Fincher, win an Oscar, or be a father. She wanted to discuss his history with depression and Reznor clearly didn’t.

“I haven’t been asked that question for a while. I’ll have to refer back to my twenty-two year old self to see what was going through my head… I don’t regularly spend a lot of time thinking about the darkest period of my life because when I do it tends to throw my day off.”

Despite Reznor’s protests Gross kept right on prodding. Reznor was haunted by his brand.

Should Artist’s Toggle the Truth?

John Lennon once said, “Gimme some truth.” Emphasis on the word “some.” How much is too much information for the Internet? How much does it take to poison a background check, a job interview, or a first date? How much does it take to insure you could never run for office?

People like it when you keep it 100. It’s when you keep it 150 that they question your sanity.

When I was younger I typed with reckless abandon, certain my success would vindicate my decision. Now I wonder what future employers will find when running my name through a search engine. That’s why most of my blogs have been advice for writing fiction.

When I write fiction my focus is on the characters’ motivations. I know the major plot points before I get going. Writer’s block isn’t much of a concern, but when I’m blogging I take the first idea that comes to mind, because I know if I spend too much time weighing my options I’ll get nothing done.

Sometimes the first idea  is a How to Speed Write for National Writing Month, something useful for everyone, and sometimes the first idea is an essay like The Depression on My Shoulder. That’s the type of blog inspiration has been giving me lately, which is inconvenient because I have a book to sell you.

I ought to be writing top 10 lists on 2017’s best horror fiction. You know, keep it on brand, but every so often my brand backslides into depression and I’m not trying to sell that to you.

I wish I could tell you my erratic blogging over that last year has been a reaction to the toxic news cycle and this Orwellian administration, but really I just didn’t want to taint my brand with everything that’s been on my mind.

Some Questions for You

What about you fellow WordPressers? How many of you struggle to filter yourself for the sake of your career? Can you keep it real and on brand at the same time? What’s your advice? If any of you have blogged about exactly this feel free to share a link in the comments.

Thanks.

19 thoughts on “When Keeping it Real Online Goes Wrong”

  1. I’m always aware that my friends and family read my blog – as I’ve decided to make it a ‘public one’. My mom subscribed to the email version, so she’s notified whenever a new post goes life on my website. I’m constantly wondering how much to give away and how much to keep to myself… but, I still strive to be as honest as possible, but there’s always one face of the truth that I have to keep hidden for the sake of family and friends.

    1. My mother has called shortly after I’ve posted something (sometimes even with my fiction) to ask if something is going on. I envy people who can blog without filters. Filters can be suffocating. But yeah, I get where you’re coming from. It’s not always a great idea to turn something you’re feeling in the immediacy of the moment into something permanent, something accessible to your family and friends.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. I have been attacked by my husband’s family over my writing! I once wrote on a previous blog that my husband had cried a year after we lost our baby in the 2nd trimester. His mother broke the door to our trailer to burst in and call me a “damn liar” because no son of her’s cries!
    Since his arrest and everyone but myself turned against him, I stopped caring what they all think. It’s freed my writing. I do have to guard certain areas though. I don’t speak much of my daughter. She chooses not to be in my life and I chose not to make her be in my writing either. I’m careful about my husband’s location. Goodness knows he doesn’t need the kind of “support” others give!

    1. Wow, thanks for sharing this story. I’ve always thought that anything I’m going through internally is fair game to share online. Even if it has affected my professional life. As writers it’s tough to draw the line between sharing information about ourselves and information about our relationships. Especially when some of the most impactful stories involve other people. Sorry to hear the extended family took issue with what you shared.

  3. Thanks for your honesty, and to answer your question, yes, I think hard about what to share on the internet because in the past it has caused me problems. I won’t go into detail, for obvious reasons, but I learned a hard lesson about TMI in public when not everyone has good intentions or can handle the truth. People can be totally malevolent, for whatever reason, and if digging up negative stuff will hurt you or slow you down and that’s what they want to do, why give them all the ammo they need? There are friends, therapists, family who might want you to share your deepest fears and pain, but the public does not have a right to that, and being real can also mean being private about private stuff. If people want more and get too nosy, they can basically just fuck off, as far as I’m concerned. Mind your own business is still a good line. I hope your future isn’t damaged by your past sharing. It’s good you figured it out and I hope you can balance truth with privacy. I learned the hard way and suffered a great loss because of my big mouth. Your post might prevent others from doing that. So, thanks.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story. This is a problem for our generation and every generation after (unless some kind of worldwide electromagnetic pulse shuts down all electricity, in which case we are the last generation that will have to deal with this). I’m sorry to hear something you shared in a public forum lead to a public shaming.

    1. It’s a constant debate. I have something mildly political ready for next week and I’m already going through the “Should I post this phase.” I still overshare here and there. I draw the line at talking about other people in my life.

      1. Yeah, this particular “political” article is kind of a joke. It’s called “How to Get Out of Conversations about Trump by Pitching Your Fiction.” It’s technically about avoiding politics

  4. I believe there are ways in communication and presentation to convey just about any thought without entering into the negative or offensive. I also think people are generally closer on issues than they realize. That being said, people can flame or overshare if they will. They will still attract an audience. It may not be a healthy one, but that’s their choice, There is also no way to know how someone will receive the information you put out there, regardless of your intent

    1. That’s an excellent point. I’ve shared things that I thought were very measured and restrained only to have coworkers ask, “Are you sure you want to have that out there?” I’ve always hoped the sincerity of the writing would shield it from judgement but in reality that doesn’t translate. You can’t predict how people will read it.

  5. I have struggled with this. I eventually revealed in my blog that I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It was a tough decision, but I soon discovered that it was freeing. I have not regretted being open about it.

    1. That’s great to hear. A lot of people are getting used to fact that we live in public in the information age, but there are still growing pains. As long as we’ve made piece with what we admit about ourselves I think that ought to resonate with others.

  6. Good day!I have been wrestling with the Hydra they call depression for some time.When I was working I told only a few people about it.Partly due to a lack of confidence I have also had to walk alongside for my whole life.If someone wants to beat you up for being you then I feel sorry for them,and kinship with you.Depression will make you feel insincere even if you’re about to take a dive off the skyscraper.At times I felt like I had to prove to my own doctor that I was indeed very depressed,but since I lost my job (largely due to that which I had no control over)I think there might be a few more that are convinced that I was having a hard time of it.I decided to retire early,and I am starting to come around,I think.Believe me,anyone who has been down more than up understands your situation.I wish nothing but the best for you,and I hope you can climb out of the pit of despair.You have a lot of friends in your corner.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. For the most part I’ve developed some healthy coping skills for getting by (this blog being one of them). I too have struggled with outing myself to friends and coworkers in the real world and I too have struggled to get people to believe me. Sometimes I have a lot of energy, bouncing around like Tiger from Winnie the Poo. I crack jokes at every turn. I keep most conversations light, but yeah, there’s always something keeping me up at night. The blog has been a great space unpack things. I’m glad to hear things have improved (or become manageable) since you retired. Thanks so much for sharing.

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