Why do we have this thirst to go out and “make a name” for ourselves? Why does it matter how we present ourselves to the world? Why use a package, a simple wrap-up that’s easy to pick up and retain? Why not just let people figure out WHO and WHAT we are through experience?
Shakespeare once (supposedly) wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Deep, right?
To anyone who has ever come in contact with a rose, smell is a HUGE part of their personal notion of what a rose actually IS. But it’s not EVERYTHING, is it? Ask anyone to fill in the blank for “Roses are _____,” and they’ll undoubtedly respond with “red.” But not ALL roses are red, and not all red flowers are roses. So now we’re back to wondering, what IS a rose?
Then again, if you tell your wife she’s getting a dozen roses for Valentine’s Day, and you bring home red flowers that smell good but are NOT roses? I guarantee you she’ll be disappointed. That’s the thing about branding. When you get it right, no one notices why it’s right. But EVERYONE notices when you get it wrong.
For all intents and purposes, roses are a brand name. Because to most people, roses ARE red. Roses smell sweet. And if you buy a woman roses, you’ve either done something very right or very, very wrong. Enough about roses, though. Let’s talk about YOUR name.
Why your name needs a BRAND to go with it.
To a certain extent, a name tells us what to expect. It doesn’t just tell us WHAT, but WHY. Why go to someone named Doctor Jones when you’re feeling ill, instead of someone like Helen, your neighbor who went to nursing school and did an internship in Africa caring for diseased orphans, who also works at the diner on weekends to raise money for dog shows, where she sometimes wins with her prize poodle, Macy?
Because it’s not just about the name, or the experience, it’s about how you PACKAGE it. It’s about the LABEL.
And when it comes to labels, it’s not about comprehensiveness. It’s about CLARITY and COHERENCY.
Growing up, we’re first taught that labels help us identify things. “A is for Apple,” or “STOP means you look both ways before crossing the street.”
Nowadays, kids are learning a slightly different alphabet. Google the word "apple" and tell me whose logo comes up first. I'll bet it's not a surprise.
Notice anything else? When you look at the logos of successful brands, they all share a certain simplicity. Also, if you look at them very small (thumbnail size), you’ll notice that it’s easy to tell them apart at a glance. Because, as simple as they are, no one logo is exactly like another.
You might not have realized the point of all this yet, but here it is: YOU are also a brand. Your life, your experiences, your personality, every little detail that makes you an asset or a burden to the world around you is operational detail in a corporation of one. Every time you build a relationship with someone, it’s a mini merger. Every time you gain a new skill, that’s a new department in your company. But that doesn’t mean you can just waltz out into the market and start doing whatever it is you do. Because, while you might have everything it takes, you haven’t yet BRANDED yourself.
Think about this:
Apple doesn’t share its developmental schematics with the world at large, until after they’ve been prototyped and perfected.
Amazon didn’t start out by “doing it all.”
And twenty years ago, when I was a kid, nobody knew what a Google was or what you were supposed to do with it. But today Google is now officially in the dictionary as a noun AND a verb.
All of these companies started with a clear, coherent brand. THEN slowly, over time, they grew to let the world see more and more of what they were capable of. But not until they’d first been recognized for doing ONE thing, and doing it very, VERY well.
It’s time to SIMPLIFY. Who ARE you?
Like any important process in life, this one begins with taking a serious, honest look at yourself. Then you’re going to ask yourself some questions.
Starting with the most important one: WHO?
Who are you? (Hint: you only get three words to describe yourself.)
1. What is the ONE word that encompasses the most dominant characteristic of your personality? Take your time. Really think about it. Grab a dictionary if you have to.
Example: I am a calm, rational person who prefers common sense over risky, flashy solutions. I am a PRAGMATIST.
2. Where do you currently stand in the world you want to live in? How long have you been a butcher/baker/candlestick maker? Are you experienced? Eager to learn? Bored because you’ve been doing the same thing for long?
Example: I’ve been a grunt worker for years, but I’m ready to step up and take the wheel. I am PREPARED.
3. What makes you different than any other person/company in your community?
Example: Unlike many of my associates, I know when to fight and when to concede. I am DIPLOMATIC.
Now, condense those answers down and put them together:
Who are you? You are a pragmatic, diplomatic candlestick maker who is prepared to prove yourself in a managerial position.
Boom. Done. Next question: WHY?
1. Why are you doing what you’re doing? (i.e. How did you come to do this?)
I started making candlesticks in college, and found I really enjoyed it. (KEEP IT SHORT.)
2. Why do you like what you’re doing?
I like working with wax, and enjoy the way it can be shaped into anything you could possibly desire that is also made of wax.
3. Why do you want to continue what you’re doing?
I can’t fathom leaving a life of wax. I am far too passionate about it.
Note: This “why” part might seem unimportant, but it’s actually the MOST important part of this whole exercise. Because if the answers to these questions aren’t inspiring to you, then they won’t be inspiring to anyone else. The lesson I’m leaning toward here is that you CAN’T build a brand out of just doing something because you’re being paid to do it. Or because it provides you with the illusion of stability. Nothing is ever truly stable, and security is NOT a mission statement for a happy life. (Unless you’re selling security systems, I suppose, in which case I apologize for my sweeping judgments and please feel free to carry on.)
1. How are you going to do what you do from now on? (This is your #1 goal, for the present time.)
2. How are you going to grow into doing MORE than what you do right now? (Five year plan time, folks.)
3. How do you see yourself impacting the world as a whole, at the end of your life?
Put those three sentences together and you’ve just written the first draft of your personal mission statement.
What is your BRAND NEW mission in life?
Whether we’re talking about your career, your family life, your personal passion, it doesn’t matter. Well, actually it DOES matter. It’s really ALL that matters. And here’s the secret: All of those things are and should be one and the same. There is no more work/life balance. There is only LIFE.
All of these questions apply to EVERY aspect of your life. Which is why your PERSONAL BRAND should also apply to every aspect of YOU. But it doesn’t have to be the other way around.
When you become a brand, you are suddenly the perceived equivalent of a ROSE. You might not always smell sweet, or be red, or come in bouquets of twelve, but that’s what people think, when they think of you.
As the saying goes, “perception is reality.” Reality might be messy, convoluted and always changing, but branding is the opposite.
So let’s simplify your life by creating a brand that you are always 100% clear on. One you feel confident with. A brand of your OWN.
Ever heard that saying? No? Yes, you have. (Liar.)
“There’s no such thing as BAD PRESS,” they said. “Oh, yes there is!” you scoffed. “Like, remember the time when Miley Cyrus donned a Trojan bikini and gyrated on that Beetlejuice guy at the VMA’s or whatever, and it totally destroyed her career?”
Except, wait…no it didn’t.
“But okay, how about that crazy Trump guy with the ridiculous hair–OMG, so ridiculous, like the bleached armpit hair of an orangutan quilted into a lopsided mop? Right? It’s awful. And the crazy, ludicrous things he says, just terrible. No one will ever take him seriously as a human being, let alone a candidate for the highest office of…wait. Seriously? SERIOUSLY???”
And yeah. Maybe those were both freakish examples of the ONE time–no, the TWO times–when crazy tactics like this made a crater on public regard without totally destroying the career of the cannon-baller (ballee?) who took a risk and made a dent.
I don’t believe there IS such a thing as bad press. However, I think 99% of people who disagree with that phrase have no idea what press actually is. It’s not the content of the message, but the delivery. It’s not what people are SAYING about you (or your message), it’s the fact that they are TALKING about you (or your message) at all.
Bad content is bad content. Good content is good content. But not all good content gets delivered to where it needs to go. Not all heartbreaking works of staggering genius make it into the light of day, to be lauded or picked apart by the vultures of our time.
Here’s where this rant ties into writing. Bad books get made into bestsellers all the time, and great books bomb. I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter, because it does. But press for the sake of press is often as effective as dropping the ultimate bomb of truth and beauty on the general public. Hoopla is hoopla. It will draw a crowd, pretty much no matter what you’re selling.
Carnivals have taught us this principle in spades. Otherwise, we’d never spend $40 trying to throw a whiffle ball into a fish bowl to win a stuffed frog that cost $0.40 to make somewhere in Asia. Hype sells, press works, and pumping up the volume on the message DOES guarantee that more people will hear it–and ultimately care more (whether for good or bad) about what it says.
PRESS, friends. Much like Magic, or The Force, it is neither good or evil on its own. But damn if it isn’t powerful.
It’s not the nauseating twerking of a newly-plucked chicken, but video of said chicken twerking which is so morbidly fascinating, it garners a billion views on YouTube.
It’s not the bombastic, nasal, and bald-faced-and-technically-also-headed lies. Or the so-over-the-borderline racist comments delivered with a trademark zero-f***s-given savoir faire. It’s the delivery of said viscera on every channel, several times a day.
Press is power, influence, reach, popularity. There is no such thing as bad power, or bad press. Depending on how you use it.
Twice in the last week, I’ve been called a show-off.
This is nothing new for me, but it really ticks me off.
Especially now, with all that’s happening.
Let me tell you why.
Even before I started school, I loved to read. Books were my only friends, for a long time. I was a weird kid.
Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price. These were my heroes.
Although I was arguably a bit young for some of those, no one had ever told me about reading levels. Yet.
So I went to school, and proudly read aloud in my first grade class, without stumbling once.
My teacher called me a show-off, and said I was making the other kids uncomfortable.
I wasn’t allowed to read aloud in that class anymore.
Before high school, I loved math. As Vanilla Ice would say, if there was a problem, yo I’d solve it.
For me, it wasn’t about proficiency, but the thrill of discovery. Back then, like reading a new story, figuring out how numbers worked was like a mystery. I would go from despair to ecstasy in a single moment, every time my brain felt that magical click--wait a minute, I think I’ve got it!
In freshman algebra, there was this girl named Rachel. Everyone called her Britney, though. She was pretty, in that bleach blonde way that was huge in the 90s. Britney--I mean Rachel--her catch phrase was, “I don’t get this.”
“I don’t get this!” she’d cry, as if making an important announcement. Every guy in the room would turn to look, including the teacher. None of them bothered to help her, of course, but they loved to commiserate. "Oh, Rachel. It's not your fault. You're probably not going to ever use this, anyway." Conversely, when I’d answer a question correctly in front of people, or finish my homework early? There it was again. Discomfort. Resistance. Unease. Especially on the part of the boys in the room.
Not long after that, I stopped doing math homework. I’d half-ass my studies, particularly in male taught (and historically, male dominated) subjects like math and science. Eventually, I lost that feeling of challenging myself, of seeking to dominate those thought processes that didn’t come easily to me. Ironically, no one ever corrected me for not trying.
Here’s why I’m especially pissed off about this: I can guarantee I’m not the only girl with a dozen stories like this. How do I know? Because it keeps happening, year after year.
As women, we are told that it’s not okay to be more than good at something, and proud of it. When women excel, we’re told to be humble. Gracious. Don’t publicize the results of all your hard work. Make sure to mention how difficult it was, while you’re at it. Stop “showing off.” Let someone else have a turn. Nobody wants to see you being excellent. It will make them feel uncomfortable.
But why? All my life, I’ve looked up to excellent people--especially women. Especially, especially the ones who made me feel like I was barely trying by comparison. Because, unlike men, our egos aren’t based on a sense that we have to be (or at least appear) to be the best in the room. As women, our self-esteem comes from what we know, deep down, to be true: that we are capable of true greatness. Not just goodness, or better-than-others-ness, but conscious, continuous evolution from the person we used to be.
Sometimes we forget this lesson, or it’s actively un-taught throughout our lives. But women have this unique ability to inspire greatness, merely by striving to be great. Maybe it’s in spite of what they tell us, or maybe it’s because of that. I’m not really sure.
I’d rather be the person who makes someone want to try harder and be better. I would rather NOT be the person someone else looks at to say “well, at least she can’t do it, either.” Call me a “show-off” if you want.
You’re not qualified for that job.
Well, neither is he. And look--he applied, and got it, anyway.
You shouldn’t brag.
What is “bragging,” exactly, if not just saying true things which happen to also be accomplishments?
(Also, have you ever noticed that “bragging” tends to be considered bad for girls, but normal for boys?)
Girls should be ladylike.
Spoiler alert: You can do anything, as a lady, and guess what--it’s ladylike.
Nobody likes a show-off.
Actually, I do.
“I know how to take care of myself,” she said.
They assumed she meant that she could harm someone who was trying to harm her, and that was true.
But it also meant that she knew how to buy herself flowers when she was feeling like the world was devoid of beauty.
She also knew how to stay in bed when she was sick, how to make herself a cup of tea when she was feeling fragile, or pour herself a drink when she was tired of processing all the bullshit she’d been handed.
It also meant she knew how much pain she could handle, and how far and fast she could run, and when to keep going, and when to say “when.”
It meant she liked herself, even on bad days. Even when no one else seemed to notice or care.
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
And even if they doubted it, she knew she would be.
Because she would absolutely take care of herself.
Author’s Note: I wrote this for myself, but you can adopt it, if you want.
This past year has been sobering for a lot of people. A lot of us, particularly in the United States, have been forced to take a good look at the way we participate in society. Many of us, particularly in creative industries like publishing, have started to rethink the way we do our jobs. All of us, I’m hoping, will take a step back and reevaluate the way we live our lives.
For my part, I hope I can adjust my daily behavior to align more closely with my big picture goals. That I can more clearly define my core values as they relate, not just to my life, but to the lives of those who may be positively or negatively impacted by those values. I’m hoping to make a change, not just to myself, but to the world. A world I may not have helped build, (at least not in any notable historical sense–yet) but am undeniably and inescapably a part of.
We’ve all heard the joke:
Today’s young people are better prepared for a zombie apocalypse than they are for “real life.”
Well, thank god for that.
As we have seen, are seeing, will see, the world is an increasingly baffling and hellacious place. Human sacrifice? Check. Dogs and cats living together? Check. Mass hysteria? …Oh, shit, you guys. It’s official.
Houston, we have apocalypse.
Of course, I jest. It’s my favorite coping mechanism. But let’s get real (ish) for a sec. No one can argue that this year has been like a dry run for Satan’s second coming. (Or is it the first? Seventh? I haven’t finished binge-watching every season of “Supernatural” yet, so please, no spoilers.) From the ongoing tire fire that is Brexit, to the abandoned Burning Man port-a-potty that is the alt-right movement, to the sudden peacing out of a metric f**kton of our favorite celebrities, to the actual–now literal; thank you Donald Trump and Steve Bannon–Shit Show that is this year’s election…2016 is the most apocalypse-adjacent reality I have had the pleasure of experiencing. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. (In fact, in the words of High School Musical, “We’re all in this together, you selfish motherf***ers.” Or something.)
For those of you who are still in denial that the world is ending (a popular life choice these days; #NoJudgement, Judy from Facebook), don’t worry. We, the Millennials, have got your back. Or, at the very least, we’ve got a comedically-timed bitch slap of reality with your name on it.
So here it is, future casualties and survivors. The truth bomb you’ve been dreading (and we’ve been preparing for) for as long as we can remember:
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.
Still struggling with that whole denial thing? Ah, it’s okay Judy. If it makes you feel better, you can keep pretending I’m talking about “The Walking Dead” on AMC 9/8c–#NotMyWinchester. Personally, I’m a big fan of that one line from the Bible (?) “…and the truth shall set you free.” So.
Here’s what’s true in the case of post-apocalyptic drama (and also–incidentally–true today):
Here’s what we know WILL help:
Cardio. Because, realistically, fatties will be the first to go. And I’m not just talking about physical fatness. If you were waiting on New Years, swimsuit season, 2020, or your next high school reunion to lose whatever is bogging you down in life and/or cramping your style…maybe stop waiting. Like, do it now. Right now. Today. Because here’s the thing about an oncoming apocalypse: it waits for no one. So lets write down our goals, schedule those appointments, double-knot our shoelaces, and get our asses in gear. Start doing every day what you want to be doing next week, next year, ten years from now. Start today, and do a little more each day than you think you can. This is not a drill. We’re training for the Shit Show Olympics.
Being All You Can Be. As an extension to above, the best hope you have in the world is to be your best self. Take a power nap. Get a snack. Stretch–physically, mentally, socially. But also be honest with yourself. Don’t allow yourself to believe that just because others aren’t doing as much, as well, as fast, etc. as you are, that means you can relax. With great power comes great responsibility. Sure, but power is obvious. IMO, with great potential comes an even greater responsibility. The thing is, only you know what you’re truly capable of. I believe in you, but I can’t tell you where your greatness truly lies. That’s your own damn job.
Working together, even when it seems like you could be better off going it alone. I mean, I get it. Making friends in an apocalypse is hard. Someone stole your favorite shoes and lit them on fire, for seemingly no reason. Your best friend called you racist. Suddenly, your wife gets more upset than she used to, when you treat her like a second-class citizen. Even though you personally may have done nothing to deserve this reaction. (Spoiler alert though: you probably did do something to deserve it, at some point.) Doesn’t matter. Getting butt hurt is pre-apocalypse. Come together over shared world goals and basic human survival, if you want to live.
Guns are a dumb weapon. They attract the zombies, and in the wrong hands, you could lose a finger. God forbid, more than a finger. Also, haven’t you always really wanted a sweet ass katana anyway? Yes, you have.
Zombies are not Nazis. Granted, due to some crazy off-the-book experiments, there may have actually been some zombie Nazis. And yes, that would make a totally kick ass movie. But let’s stop a) comparing modern times 100% to pre-Nazi Germany, or b) calling people we don’t agree with Nazis, or c) equating idiot orange Buff Puff headed bigots to historical landing strip mustached bigots. Because: a) it’s not the same–we have the internet now, which massivelyshakes up the global and geopolitical climate, not to mention speeding up the time table for potentially beneficial and/or catastrophic changes in world view, b) you really can’t fight hate with hate; also, a lot of people’s Bubbies are already FTFO right now–stop making it worse! Think of their blood pressure! c) Trump is a symptom of our time, our vices, our secret shame. We created him. If you try to destroy him, another Stay Puft hate mogul will just rise up in his place. Also, VIP: there is no equivalent to America (back then) that’s going to step in with a huge army of Elvis types to help us defeat him (even if Justin Trudeau looks a bit like Captain America, that’s just wishful thinking.) The only way to defeat Trump is to starve him out. The only way to do that is to stop feeding the zombies our time, talents, brains, etc. Take that brain and invent something instead, like a solution to save humanity.
The Cure Doesn’t Happen Overnight. Also, it won’t help us if we’re all dead, because we killed each other fighting over resources, petty slights, or the moral high ground. I firmly believe that every person–even people who were temporarily infected by zombie madness or human selfishness–can be saved, if we’re creative enough. And if we work on having more discussions (figuring out WHAT is right) vs. arguments (figuring out WHO is right).
Knowing When to Walk Away / Save Yourself. A cadaverous caveat to above: trying to save other people from being zombies should NOT come at the expense of your own safety. We’ve all seen the movies, the shows, and some of us have even read the books. There’s always that person (usually a woman-again, -f*** you and your cruelly accurate stereotypes again, Hollywood) who refuses to abandon a loved one that has gone full zombie, at her own peril. Inevitably, if she doesn’t create a safe distance between herself and the infected, that tender-hearted lady falls victim to its poison. Even though she had the best intentions, even though she was just trying to be a good wife/mother/sister/coworker/significant whatever. Kindness is important, yes, Jane Dogooder (not to be confused with Judy Facebook). But so is survival. You don’t have to hug a toxic person, or tell them it’s okay to be a zombie, even as they’re eating the faces of your friends.
Creating vs. Destroying. As I mentioned above, looting and/or razing shit to the ground for its own sake is not helpful. You may feel a momentary sense of godlike satisfaction after laying waste to a Bed, Bath & Beyond (because f*** that place)–but seriously, why? You’re just creating one less safe space for someone else to hide in when they need shelter from the zombies, or a quiet place to regroup between battles. Unless you need it for firewood or it’s actively blocking you from escaping the carnage, leave it standing for the future, why don’t you? What I’m saying is, DON’T knock other people’s coping mechanisms, or burn their comfortable little hovels to the ground, just because you think they need to feel just how bad things really are. DON’T just f*** the world up; f*** the world upward. (BTW: Judy, I’m sorry for using the f-word so much. You can block me if you want, because I’m not going to stop saying it for a while.) DO try to see things from another point of view, just to make sure you’re not guilty of the same mindset the zombies have. DO set a good example so they’ll see there’s a better way. DO try to shed light, instead of blood.
*Author’s note: I edited the word “fuck” out of this post, because for some reason certain people (aheh, Judy) find asterisks less offensive than the letters U-C-K. Fuck if I understand why.
Entitlement is a funny thing. Hard to recognize, especially in ourselves. Difficult to escape.
It’s not just a mindset we develop during our best times. Not only a set of behaviors adopted out of carelessness. For some, it’s like a religion, or an inheritance. A way of life passed down from father to son. Some marry into it. Some spend their lives trying to get away from it, only managing to trade it for a different type.
In this country, entitlement wears many faces. It can be the wolf in tailored designer wool, prowling the floors of Wall Street. A college student who worries about debt while partying with their friends on a weekend’s worth of tips, because rent is covered and they have no one else to feed. The public school teacher who skips classroom prep, because most of her students probably won’t take advantage of their education anyway. The congressman on his fortieth year of tenure, who considers the suggestions of lobbyists as a normal part of balancing his obligation to the people against the financial demands of his lifestyle. The journalist who doesn’t check his sources, who fabricates a story, knowing people will believe whatever he tells them. The rapist who argues that his victim’s dress spoke for itself.
The best way I can explain the feeling of entitlement, to someone who hasn’t given much thought to this topic before, is what happens when you attend a party.
How secure do you feel, when you walk into the room? Maybe you’re personal friends with the host, maybe not. Maybe you’ve been there a ton of times before, and you know your way around. Maybe you’re on a first name basis with everyone in the room, or maybe you’ve never met a single person. Is your clothing appropriate for the occasion? Did you have sufficient time to get ready? Are you looking your best, or having a bad hair day? Does the host’s mother like you? Maybe you’re co-hosting the party, helped pay for it, or worked hard to decorate it. But it’s still not your party–not really. How comfortable you feel in that party setting is entirely based on how entitled you are to be there. If you feel like you deserve to belong, whether people accept you as one of their own, or not. It’s a double edged sword, because you often have no control over the reception you get. But you also tacitly accept treatment according to what you feel you deserve. And what’s worse, you tend to exclude based on that feeling, treating others who are less (or just differently) entitled as Less Than. Less familiar. Less special. Less welcome.
Why does this happen, in the party that is our society? When did contributing to the party make you less–instead of more–obligated to treat every guest with kindness and respect? How did “great power” somehow come to mean “less responsibility,” instead of greater?
Though it’s not always directly, obviously, or immediately harmful, entitlement slowly blunts our ability to empathize with others. It blinds us to their motives, their dreams and desires, turning them into a faceless and inhuman Them. Turning us into Us, a club of fellow similarly entitled people whose motives are always unquestionably above reproach.
Simple and effective, these degrees of entitlement remove complications when deciding the following questions: Which stranger will you most likely get along with? Who can you trust? Who would you hire? Whose children should be allowed to play with your children?
Who deserves a vote? Who deserves freedom? Who deserves to live?
Entitlement is a funny thing. A dangerous, selfish, near-sighted thing. If we aren’t careful, it will blind us, and we will fall.
We’ve all heard the stories. Legends, more like. About how J.K. Rowling wrote the entire first draft of Harry Potter on a napkin at her local Starbucks (or whatever place that sells what passes for coffee in the UK.) Or how E.L. James was just writing Twilight fan fiction one day…until bow-chick-a-bow-ow…international lust storm, followed by legitimacy, movie deals, and money falling from the skies. Jamie Dornan’s autograph on a personalized FSOG pillowcase. Red Carpet dreams and Louboutin fantasies…fulfilled at the drop of a hat. (Hat, pants, whatever.)
Some of these legends come from the author’s own lips (or online lips, anyway), like when Colleen Hoover sort of live-blogged her “overnight success” as a self-published New Adult author. Most self-published authors today would turn increasing shades of murderous as they read the depressingly plucky account of how Hoover watched with growing shock and awe as her self-published “just for my family and friends” book with a stock photo cover shot up the Bestseller lists. From tens to thousands of sales per day, without lifting a finger to market herself or spending a penny to advertise. Or, so the story goes.
Even more common, there’s those tales of authors who are magically plucked out of obscurity during their first attempt at querying. Forget the rejections, if there even were any. Suddenly, they’re blogging about how they got an agent, and less than a month later, they have a publishing deal! How dare they, first of all. They haven’t been in the query trenches nearly long enough to be scarred by the carnage. What makes them so special, so lucky, that they didn’t have to put in the time and suffer the pain of rejection after rejection? “Wait. You’re telling me you won a pitch contest, without ever having queried in your life!??” *Sharpening sword, preparing to go out the Samurai way, in a bloody blaze of glory* “Maybe after I’m dead, I’ll finally be a success,” you’ll mutter, laughing maniacally.
It’s the same in every industry. Actors who get “discovered” waiting tables, who’ve never been on an open casting. Models who get contracts off of their Instagram feed. Social media stars in general. Athletes with natural talent, who don’t seem to practice as hard as the others. Musical savants.
Over and over–almost always after the fact, I might add–we are bombarded with this idea that success just happens. That those who earn fame, fortune and glory didn’t earn it at all. That they were just lucky–or at least, luckier than us. That’s why it didn’t take them as long, why they struck gold on their very first project, why they didn’t have to work as hard or feel as utterly dejected and purposeless as we feel when we’re in the midst of #TheStruggle.
But that’s the thing about #TheStruggle, kids. When you’re in it, you’re usually too busy surviving to talk about it. So much of that pain goes undocumented, not only for P.R. reasons, but because it sucks so bad we literally can’t even. The world doesn’t want to hear about how hard it is, anyway. Especially before the success, while the suck is still happening. It seems magical, but it isn’t. You just weren’t looking hard enough, and you got caught up in the Prestige–just like Hugh Jackman in that movie. In the end, he paid the price, and so did everyone who dared to say that movie was in any way better than The Illusionist. But I digress. (As always, sorry.) Rejection is a necessary part of the journey, and everyone–I don’t care who you are, or how you earned your success–has to pay dues to get there. If it’s not time, it’s money. If it’s not money or time, it’s something else they had to give up. Personal relationships. Fun. Netflix. You might never know what it was, but everything comes at a price.
Even, and maybe especially, this so-called overnight success. In fact, if you look closely at those that most seem like they’ve had things “handed to them,” you’ll begin to notice a trend. Either a) they go silent for long periods of time, fall off the world’s collective radar, only to reemerge months (or even years) later with a seemingly effortless product of their silent suffering, b) they succeed big, but also fail big, and it’s usually about 50-50 when you average it out, or c) they only SEEM to be successful, because of very good P.R. and our collective inability to care about complexities that lurk beneath the surface. (Otherwise, why were the Kardashians allowed to happen?)
Let’s be honest (for once, at least): we’re all really too busy #Struggling, working to make ends barely meet, angsting, drinking, crying, drowning in envy, whining, watching Netflix and/or YouTube, and occasionally (maybe) writing to really and truly do our due diligence into the price of others’ success.
And what a waste, at any rate, because even if we did fully understand that success we could not ever hope to recreate it in exactly the same way. So, why bother? Instead, let’s spend our time focusing on what makes us feel happy. Fulfilled. Amused. Proud. No one can take those things away from you, unless you let them.
Success, on the other hand, well…I’ve heard that’s a one night stand with a very fickle mistress. Or something.
I know I’ve talked about this before, but this past year it’s kind of become a major theme in my life, so I’m going to write about it again. Here it is, children. What I’ve learned in 2015: You have to do what you have to do, when you have to do it–and not when you want to do it–in order to get it done.
Recently, at #HippoCamp2015 in Lancaster, PA, I made a joke about being a gigantic softie–when I wasn’t a shark. Because sometimes I read a submission that just makes me fangirl flail, and other times I’m gleefully crushing dreams by telling writers their story won’t sell itself. (Sorry, kids. It really takes a lot of work, a pragmatic attitude, and smart marketing. Among other stuff.) The sea life analogy wasn’t really intentional on my part, but well, sometimes when I’m talking, thoughts just come out of my mouth hole before I can stop them. It’s the zany, creative and not always socially appropriate part of my personality. (Or, in other words, the jellyfish.)
Even though it’s a ridiculous visual. I think we’re all part jellyfish, part shark in a way. Sometimes we cry at Pixar movies (or…all the time.) Other times, we reach into ourselves and find an ironclad backbone, which we use to go out into the world and fight for what we believe in–even if it’s difficult, or embarrassing, or supposedly impossible. We roll our eyes back into our heads, turning our pupils black and soulless for a moment, while we tear things up. And wow, this analogy has descended into very graphic, late night Discovery Channel territory.
Anyway. The trick is, I suppose, knowing when it’s time to be the jellyfish, and when it’s time to be the shark. Especially when it comes to your own work. Of course, we’d all like to do nothing but drink foamy lattes and cuddle with kittens and be creative and take naps. But that’s not realistic, and it’s not at all the lifestyle of a successful writer.
Sure, a lot of writers joke about that stuff on Twitter. “Isn’t my kitty cute? Don’t you wish your life was as simple and stress free as mine? Look at my fluffy coffee!” But let’s be honest, that’s just good PR.
Meanwhile, most successful authors I know are furiously writing, marketing, and giving themselves ulcers with high octane (but cheap) coffee behind the scenes. Their eyes are often bloodshot from lack of sleep, haunted by the dark memory of all the bastard darlings they’ve killed. Scary creatures of survival, yes. But creatures with an undeniable purpose: write, market, eat (to live, or maybe just stop the screaming for a moment), write, (maybe) sleep, sell stories, write, market, repeat.
And above all, their writing is lethal. In a good way. Never precious or cute for the sake of being cute. Neither frilly or decorative, it does exactly what it’s meant to do, and nothing more. It captures, enthralls, terrifies, and inspires the reader, even as it lures the reader into the depths with the intention of emotionally crippling her for life. (Hunger Games, looking at you.)
That focus, dear children, is the difference between being one more fun-colored fish in the sea, and a literary predator who will survive for centuries.
Thanks to the season, I found myself feeling violently inspired to write about a rarely lauded struggle which I believe all literary folk in general–including the “successful” ones–ultimately face:
I call it The Eternal Shame of Relatively Obscure ROI.(ROR) < Pronounce this like a dinosaur, for optimal fun. (ESoROR works too, if you do it in a Spanish accent and roll the Rs.)
For those of you who have never been forced to take a business or finance class, ROI is a common acronym which stands for Return On Investment. In terms of stocks, bonds, and other fiscal things, the meaning is pretty clear. How much did you make vs. how much you paid? In other things, like real estate, it’s a little more complex. But the basic formula for starting value + time and effort = added value (hopefully) still applies. How much did you buy it for? How much is it objectively worth, if you wanted to sell it later?
Unfortunately for all of us in the fine arts section, this formula RARELY applies to literary or artistic pursuits–at least not in any way that’s clear to the simple observer. And YET, for some reason, sooooo many people expect it to.
Which brings me back to the Eternal Shame part of the equation.
Resurrected at every family holiday, high school or college reunion, Tupperware (or adult toy) party, etc. ad nauseum, this fresh hell is brought on by the above-referenced (inaccurate) assumptions + the soul-crushing obligation to pretend like we care about the intimate lives of people we can’t even bother to text on a bi-yearly basis (unless it’s a mass text that says something like “Happy Turkey Day! Gobble-Gobble Motherf***ers!” of course) + alcohol and the artificial camaraderie that demon liquid somehow produces + lack of inhibitions and let’s face it, no longer really giving a damn about “real life” = Writer Meets World at the speed of a fly hitting the windshield of a 1997 Dodge Caravan.
The World: How many words have you written? Wow, that’s a lot. When will your book be finished?
The Writer: Hard to say, Aunt Gladys. I may harbor some doubt that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but I have a deep and burning testimony of the fact that word count does not directly correlate to completeness and/or coherency of a story. Quite the opposite, in fact, if your eggnog-fueled ramblings can be used as precedent. Less is more, Gladdie. Have another glass of lightly-dairied rum, why don’t you?
The World: How many books have you written?
The Writer: Are we talking mentally, or like, physically typed? Mentally, I average about ten new stories a day. From short stories to scenes to anecdotes, sometimes they fit in the greater scheme of the Project of Note…but more often, not. Oh, you didn’t mean mentally? Fine, ye puny imagined thing. I have written exactly three attempted books since last August, when the moon waxed crescent. (I remember, because that was when I most recently shaved my legs.) The first was more of a larval effort, but I have high hopes that it will pupate into something glorious during the revision phase. The second was a half-hearted ripoff of Twilight fused with Doctor Who fan fiction. I can basically guarantee that if I can revise that in time and find an agent to represent it, I will be a ridiculous bestseller and household name by next Christmas. New Years. Fourth of July, tops. Did that properly answer your question, Tiffany? No, I don’t want to hear about your kids, or your husband’s car dealership. Now for the LOVE OF GOD Tiffany, would you PLEASE JUST PUSH DEBIT OR CREDIT?
The World: How many have you sold?
The Writer: Uhhhhhh…. (Funny story: most authors don't get to see their actual/exact sales numbers but once or twice per year, if they're lucky.)
The World/The Internet/Life: Aren’t you getting any better? Obviously, the harder you work at something, the more money you should be making at it. Right?
The Writer: *drinks, cries, writes harder, repeats*
Fellow Writers: How hard do you write? I bet that I write harder than you. How high is your word count? How hard do you work? How hard do you market your stuff? How successful are you? Why doesn’t your effort or result ever seem to match what all these “successful” people are doing? Why doesn’t your success make sense to anyone, including you?
BECAUSE MATH IS STUPID, AND NOT A VERY GOOD METHOD FOR JUDGING YOUR LIFE. (There. I said it!)
Talent. Responsibilities. Resources. Time. Personal goals. Definition of success. All of these things are relative, and nebulous, and ultimately, fleeting. There is no one pathway to perfectly write the perfect book, just like there is no perfect pathway to perfectly sell that perfect perfect perfect perfect *slams head against desk, several times* Whoo! Sorry about that. Where was I?
Oh, yes. I think Chuck Wendig said it best when he said “The thing that defines a writer is that the writer writes.” We are judged by what labels we decide to let define us. So. In my opinion, here’s how this conversation should always go:
The World: How’s that whole “writing thing” going for you?
The Writer: Awesome. I spend all my free time doing what I love most in the world. Sometimes, I write for hours at a time. My personal best moment this week was when I realized–after only six hours straight of wallowing in self-pity and despair–that I knew EXACTLY how to fix the plot hole I discovered (and subsequently fell into) the day before. Such triumph has never been experienced on this mortal coil, Gladys. Your “ultra absorbent and somewhat discreet” Depends could not possibly hold the amount of pride I felt in that moment.
The World: How many books have you written?
The Writer: Many book units, Tiffany. It’s all very complicated and writerly. I’m not sure you’d understand. By the way, are you aware that your immaculately-dressed toddler is dangling from the bottom of your shopping cart and licking the floor?
The World: How many books have you sold?
The Writer: Not as many as the countless hours of my life I freely traded away, for dubious returns, working at that soul-sucking desk job for a corporate monolith whose principles I neither believed in nor cared about. Speaking of which, I heard you made middle-manager at X Corp. Congrats on that, Doug. (Zing!)
_________________________________________What’s the point?
The “bottom line” isn’t money or success, it’s this: being better than everyone else. (Just kidding!) You work hard because you want to do something you love the best you (personally) can. You want to learn, and grow, and become better than you were yesterday. That’s kind of…like the point of life. Writing should be the same way.
You write harder, better, more, because it teaches you things about yourself and helps you understand the world in a new way.
Not because you want to (finally) be able to tell the world you wrote a book, or publish/sell that book, or get rich and famous and finally tell Cousin Courtney and her supposedly perfect life to SUCK ON MY GREATNESS, CHOKE ON IT, AND WALLOW FOREVERMORE IN YOUR BLEACHED CROSSFIT PURGATORY AHAHAHAHAHA…*ahem* again, sorry…like I said, that’s NOT a good enough reason to devote your free time, your life, your eternal soul (or temporary incarnation, as the case may be) to doing something as crazy as putting funny little squiggles on a page.
I’m just saying.
Writer. Agent. Lover of wine and smelly cheeses. Solver of problems. Drinker of coffee. Champion of real life HEAs.