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.
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.