Dolly Parton once said: “Find out who you are and then do it on purpose.” I think this might be the best advice I’ve ever read anywhere about anything. I quote it a lot.
Success is a tricky thing. We crave it. Pursue it. And, like a dog chasing a car, have no idea what to do when we get it. It can be a monstrous thing, a dangerous thing with its own momentum, its own dangers, and, often once you’ve gotten it you’re thrust into the public eye, trying to figure out what to do without the cover of anonymity.
Writers are celebrities. Maybe not Beyoncé levels of famous, but for fame to be felt, you don’t have to have a reach beyond one’s own community. The way your friends, your Twitter mutuals, that Facebook friend you haven’t talked to since high school, how those people see you is felt as much as being recognized at the grocery checkout line. Your personal life, your words, your decisions are up for scrutiny more than they ever have been. The space you have to say something complicated, to be messy, to be unclear or unclean in your opinions shrinks to a pinhead. What was once a safe space to work out ideas forces a retreat to a group chat, a backchannel, a Slack conversation. As your world expands it also contracts.
There’s no way to be fully ready for the discomfort of being in the public eye. For the demands made of you by people who like your work. For the expectation of availability, the intrusive examination of your words, your action, your dress. People love the thing you’ve made and they want to love the person who made it.
But the reality is that they don’t know you. They have a glimpse of you, through a certain lens. Through a photo, a tweet, a manuscript, and interview. They are building a you in their minds that only bears a tenuous connection to the person you are behind closed doors, in the vault of your own mind and your own heart. And their vision of you can not tolerate the messiness of the fullness of yourself.
Having a brand is about editing. It’s pruning back the parts of yourself you don’t want to show so that the world sees the parts of you you do want to show. Maintaining a brand, a public persona, is made easier by being true to yourself. But a purposeful intentional version of your truth. Find out who you are. Do it on purpose.
People want to know you, so let them. Let them get to know an aspect. Your love of a hobby. The food you’re excited to eat. The media you consume. Show them your garden and your cat and the corner you’ve set up to write in. Show them your wall of books and your new suit and tell the story of the cute thing your kid did. Talk to them about how hard it is to write books. About how great it is to see fanart. To meet them at book events.
Don’t show them your address, the faces of the people in your life who don’t want to be known or can’t consent to be known. Grab a sharpie and cover up the label before you unbox those new books. Turn off your location metadata. Get a PO Box.
You can show people your heart, your history, your trauma, your family if you want to. Just make sure you want to. Make sure you’re ready for someone to say you’re doing it wrong. To say you’re a bad person. To say they love you, when they’ve never met you.
And do this early. Want to be a writer? Great. Think about your brand. Think about what you want to share and what you don’t. Before your debut blows up, before your third book hits the list, before you ever get a movie deal, do the work of finding out who you are. Do the work of learning how to do it on purpose. Because you don’t know when that moment will come, when eyes land on you and you feel naked and exposed.
A lifetime of livejournal, tweeting through it, doing it for the vine, instagramming the minutiae of your life will not prepare you for the moment when you cross some invisible rubicon from being online to being known. From being part of the crowd to having a Wikipedia page. From being a person to being a persona, an object for consumption.
Everything I’m saying might seem like a nightmare to you. And it can be. I’ve seen it from the inside. The joy of it and the hate that can come with it. I’ve seen the death threats, the slurs, the violence. I’ve been subject to it in small ways. The way the space that was your home can turn in an instant to a trap. The way a community becomes a demand.
And so I hear all the time from people who want to refuse, to opt out. And it is possible, but not if you want to be commercially published. Not if what you crave is sales, recognition, awards, and an income. That’s the cost. That’s the price of entry. Even if you stay off the internet. Even if you do no events. Your own refusal will become your brand. Your own lack of engagement will be the story.1
So if you’re gonna do it, you might as well do it on purpose.
Edit: That story doesn't preclude success. There are massively successful authors who have never done public appearances. Who refuse interviews, who don't have the means, or the interest, or even the ability. Being online, being at bookstores, being at conferences is not essential. Everything is situational. Not being able to access the traditional publishing publicity engine doesn't mean that you won't have a brand. A brand is inevitable, but how you engage is the important element.
You need to control your story, not let it be controlled for you. ↩