Branding for Nonconformists
Self Assessment in Author Branding
“Your new series on branding is making me uncomfortable,” a friend messaged me after reading the last installment. “So that means it’s good.”
I feel uncomfortable too, which is exactly why I’m doing this. Say it with me, folks: No one is “pure.” We all have to fill our bellies, we all have to pay the rent, and the vast majority of us have to make squicky compromises (including Amazon buy links on our book pages, for instance) in order to fulfill those basic needs. We need to “sell ourselves.” We’re all hypocrites. The artists whose work interests me are artists willing to acknowledge their hypocrisy. That’s the kind of artist I’m always striving to be: candid, focused on improvement, and only just realistic enough to sock some money away for the retirement I hope I’ll never have to take.
And so we shall continue to squirm together through this first round of self analysis: two exercises intended to clarify what corporate types call “core values.” Ordinarily I skip over these sorts of exercises in self-help books because they seem so hokey and contrived and unnecessary, but maybe that’s just my being lazy. (Okay, okay. It is totally my being lazy.) We have to do this self-reflective work. If I haven’t articulated my values to myself, then how can I effectively articulate them to you?
This is a long one, but I feel confident you’ll gain several new insights about yourself if you do these exercises along with me. And if you’ve been curious about this series and thought, “But I’m not an author,” that doesn’t matter—these are ultimately personal growth exercises, so absolutely everyone can benefit by them.
Exercise #1: Three Essential Traits
In that excellent podcast episode I mentioned last time, the hosts of Writing Excuses suggest we come up with three essential personality aspects, traits, or interests we are comfortable sharing publicly and that aren’t too directly related to any one of our books in particular. For herself, co-host Mary Robinette Kowal lists historical fantasy, mentor, and theater person. Here are mine:
1. stitching cozy things
2. kindness to animals
3. making impossible things feel possible
Whoa. That’s like 85% of my personality inside of eleven words! (I told my friend Dan about this exercise over dinner the other night — he is a librarian though not a writer himself — and for him we immediately came up with seltzer, cats, and church. Now you know him almost as well as I do.) As I see it, the practical result of this exercise is what comes most naturally (and is therefore “on brand”) to share about yourself on social media. It may also inform your personal style, so save this list for later.
Now that we’re warmed up, let’s do an exercise that requires a more rigorous level of self analysis.
Exercise #2: Guiding Principles
If you find the prospect of teasing out a concise list of principles completely overwhelming, start here: how would you ideally-yet-realistically like your readers and colleagues to describe you to a third party? What would they say you specifically care about?
Or: if you were a golem, what would be the magical words written on your heart that would guide your every decision?
You should feel passionate about each of these values, and the benefit to your readers should be readily apparent—but don’t overthink it. Write down everything that comes to mind and refine it later.
Here are mine:
1. Complete and consistent kindness.
I believe every sentient creature — any-body who feels fear and pain and pleasure—has innate dignity and deserves complete bodily freedom. I believe that humanity must cultivate a sense of humility in relation to ourselves, animals (especially those we’ve traditionally bred for our consumption), and our natural world if we are to move on to our next stage of evolution.
2. Everybody’s a somebody.
I am so sick of snobbery, whether it’s on social media or in real life. Have you ever met an author who gave you the distinct impression that they are zero percent interested in you or your work because they think you have nothing to offer them? I want to be the polar opposite of that person. (I know I wrote about “bandwidth as opposed to snubbery” in Life Without Envy, but in this case I am actually talking about snubbery.)
3. Tell the truth whenever I see complacency.
See item #1 in particular: if you eat cows, pigs, chickens, and fishes, please don’t be surprised when I call you out for saying you love animals.
4. In order to grow and evolve (professionally and personally), I need to be willing to prove myself wrong.
If I convince myself that I understand every single thing there is to know about a given topic or situation, then I’m done learning. Conceited people do not make good friends or community members.
5. When people interact with me — no matter the circumstances — I want them to feel safe and seen and validated.
An extension of principle #2, but important enough to stand alone: this is my primary definition of what it means to be a successful human being. (We’ll be talking more about this principle when we discuss presence: what it is, examples of who has it, and to what extent it can be cultivated.)
Every book I write, everything I post on social media, everything I say in YouTube videos and at book events must align with these core values — but of course there’s more to it than that. It would be very easy for me to post this list on the Internet and call it a day, but I have to be frank with myself about the extent to which each of these values are aspirational. Let’s see how well I’m currently living up to each principle:
1. Consistent and complete kindness?
While I practice ethical veganism almost as consistently as it is possible to, I do need to continue educating myself on food justice and other human rights issues, reading and promoting the work of vegans from marginalized communities.
2. Everybody’s a somebody?
I’m almost always able to live up to this, and the one time I didn’t (five or so years ago) still haunts me: I was at an artsy social gathering, in conversation with someone who was kind of getting on my nerves. While this person was still in earshot, I turned to another potential new friend (whom I liked very much) and said, “We should hang out.” I had not said this to person #1, and I immediately felt like an asshole. Maybe I was being “authentic,” but I was definitely not being kind. I must continually remind myself that wanting to be an anti-snob does not mean I am never a snob myself. (See also value #5.)
3. Tell the truth?
This one is still 80% aspirational. I tell the truth in Life Without Envy and A Bright Clean Mind, I tell the truth in my YouTube videos, but when it comes to one-on-one in-person interactions I am still way too polite and accommodating to culturally-sanctioned baloney.
4. Willingness to prove myself wrong?
I’m pretty good at this, but I can certainly improve, especially when it comes to meeting people I don’t like and figuring out a way to change my own mind about them. (To be clear, I’m not saying it’s right or useful to try to make a friend out of someone who rubs me the wrong way — it’s simply a matter of taking the time to wonder what circumstances and challenges may be resulting in this person showing up as they do, and in what ways my reaction may have more to do with me than with them.) In which areas of my life and work do I feel resistance or exhibit even mild avoidance? Are those the areas with the most potential for growth? Which limiting beliefs are ready for deprogramming? (Throughout this series I’ve been writing in opposition to one example: the persistent thought that my work is under-appreciated and probably always will be.)
5. Making everyone I meet feel safe and seen?
It requires no effort whatsoever to be a kind and welcoming person to people you already know and love, and it’s pretty easy to be that person to those you respect. I find it much more challenging to create a safe and welcoming space for people who seem to be stewing in their unhappiness, are desperate to please, are posturing in an attempt to mask their insecurity, or otherwise seem to lack self awareness or basic social graces. This is when the real showing up has to happen — where I have a chance to be truly compassionate (within a set of appropriate boundaries, of course).
It’s also not enough to be frank about how much I have to grow in order to live up to my own values; I have to come up with a plan for following through on each of these principles on a consistent basis. And if I’m somehow unable to deliver on a promise I make to my readers, then I need to be completely up front about that in order to retain the trust they’ve placed in me. Here’s a list of specific ways I can live the five principles I’ve articulated:
1. Spend a minimum of twenty minutes a day reading the work (or about the work) of writers and activists from marginalized communities (especially vegans), leaving a supportive comment and sharing whenever appropriate.
2. Each day, read and signal-boost the work of a writer at the beginning of their career.
3. Recruit veg-sympathetic friends to help me with role-playing scenarios, so that I can get better at telling the truth without alienating anyone. (In the meantime, work on the slideshow and lecture notes for my first-ever Vegfest appearance this fall.)
4. Daily journaling: where am I feeling resistance?, identifying where my beliefs have calcified, and turning it around à la Byron Katie.
5. Choose one (ideally more than one) complete stranger per day and give them my complete attention for however long is appropriate (ideally in person).
This list goes at the front of my journal (with a copy posted on my bedroom wall) so I remember to do most (if not all) of these on a daily basis. The logical next step — list upon list upon list, I know! — is to journal a self assessment at the end of each day. Realistically, I am not going to get around to this every day, but I intend to review these goals each morning and journal this self assessment at least three nights per week.
Why do all this work in building an author brand? So you’ll never have to look in the mirror and see a phony looking back at you, that’s why. Not only is the potential for personal growth pretty huge here, but most of these follow-throughs also foster community in a relatively organic way. In my next post in this series we’ll be diving into social media and community building — with more eyeballs on your work only as a secondary benefit.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation (forthcoming in October 2019). If you liked this post, you can subscribe for updates (and to thank you, you’ll get a link to two free sample chapters from Life Without Envy).