How to Find your Brand

Finding your brand—voice, approach, look, message, identity—is not as hard as some make out. Rather, it’s a question of gathering lots of data. That’s first. And then, analyzing it with an open mind.

One small concrete example is provided by this blog. When I started, my mission was to address any and all things related to the art and craft of the written word. My focus was and remains on process—that is, the how of something, the blueprint—delivered in short, narrative weekly bursts, and with two telling photos to put things at a glance.

My brand, on the other hand, was not something I had figured out. Brand is what is special about what I was trying to do, what separates it from other blogs. It’s the way you know it’s me. And that took some data gathering, took some thinking.

This is post number 112. Looking back, studying the metrics of what worked and what didn’t, I noted that the best posts shared a particular voice. Let’s call it friendly, though not necessarily chipper. I would also call it enthusiastic, both confident and  encouraging. The voice and approach convey the idea that if I can do it, you can do it (the gospel truth!), and what’s keeping you, and here’s how to go at it. I also noted that the wackier stories are among the best, as are the personal ones, especially those derived in foreign places. 

Could I have told you this much about these posts at number 14, say, or even 40? Could I have defined the specific elements—the special taste, color, tone, look, message, and texture—the things that mark me as me? Not nearly

To discover zebra strips, you need volume and an arm’s length distance to consider what’s working. After that, it’s just a question of working with it and making it better.  It’s your brand, whatever it is, and no one can do it quite like you.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: fingerprint by blvesboy Jose Luis Agapito; zebra by Annemieke de Bondt.

Does a Writer Need Hope?

We all have our hobbies. I can’t resist a good criminal trial.

I’ve followed, for example, the Bernie Madoff case from the get-go. Now, nearly fifty years in the making, we’re up to sentencing of the convicted mastermind of the most sweeping Ponzi scheme in history, Judge Denny Chin of the U.S. District Court presiding.  Defense counsel Ira Sorkin’s last pitch for his client probably looked something like this:

Okay, judge, he’s something else, this guy, a mind like no other. All the superlatives are in this case: the biggest, longest, most massive, most sweeping, most stunning.

But a 150 year sentence? A 71 year old man? How about 12? His projected life is 13 years. How about hope that the last year of his life might be spent in the sun? Would you deny a man hope, your honor?

Whatever Sorkin’s exact words, his plea failed.  No hope for Madoff. Judge Chin gave him life.

What would life be like without hope? What would happen to your writing?

Nothing good, says my vote, as it’s the possibilities that drive the process. It’s the wishful thinking. It’s the idea of something terrific coming from your own labor. No hope, and the thing dies.

150 years vs. 12.

Hope vs. no hope.

I’m very glad that Judge Chin, not me, was assigned to weigh it up and arrive at a sentence. But, when it comes to a writing life, that is something I could decide, or at least this is where I draw the line: go to work with hope that your labor may bear fruit, or go get coffee instead and contemplate your more promising options.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Bernie Madoff portrait by Yan Pei-Ming at the San Francisco Art Institute, photographed by Steve Rhodes; youngster’s expression by Lolita 8.

A Daily Rhythm

You have a working life, and another life. For this writer, anyway, it’s really best if the two don’t merge or things get muddy, neither side of a day managed with the crisp efficiency I prefer.

Real life, it seems, is a raucous, wild, wonderful, tragic, crazy thing with ups and downs that can curl your hair. A writing life is a fragile, quiet thing, like a robin’s egg carried in the pocket, completely one’s own, and a wonder as well.

What’s needed to sustain a real life?  [insert answer here]

What’s needed to sustain a writing life? Success often hinges on finding a daily rhythm.

What time of day is best for you? When do you feel the freest?  How many hours do you have of this unencumbered time, and how many do you need to serve your well-considered writing goals?

If the math doesn’t work, what can change in your real life?

One answer:

Up early. 5:00. Coffee. A moment in nature. And a quick pass through e-mail.

And then, the household pin-quiet, I write.  

I use a near-paperless office. I never do administrative tasks during writing time.

If it’s going well, I’m so relieved that I stay at the desk: 6:35. 7:10. Can it really be 9:25?

If it’s not going well, I wander to the kitchen. Refill the mug. Sit in the garden.  Skim yesterday’s news, still on the counter. And if something pops, I go back to my desk and try again.

Once the real life part of the day kicks in, I put the robin’s egg back in my pocket and carry on. I also carry pencil and paper.  And a lot of writing goes on in my head.

Later, 2:30, 3:00, 4:00, I might go back, try again.

Day after day, a daily rhythm, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, and work gets done. There are a million rhythms in the world, maybe more. What’s yours?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: robin’s eggs by Bart Hanlon; metronome by Vlasta Juricek/Vlastula.

A Post Gains Weight

Where does a blog begin?

For me, it starts with something that catches my attention, nothing big usually, just the seed of an idea, but something interesting, or confusing, or intriguing enough to rouse me from the quotidian and bring me to my desk.

I try a few lines. A few more.  I make a couple of notes.  Hey, how’s this for a working title?

I go away. I do other things, get some distance, water, fertilize, dig around, understand the concept more fully, and feeling feisty, feeling hopeful, come back and write a little more.

And if the idea still holds up—

1. a concept worth telling

2. a discrete, single thought

3. an interesting way to go it

—I bang out a first draft.

Refine, delete, stake, feed, rearrange, revise, pick off the bugs.

And at last, a plump little blog post emerges.  

But here’s what I never anticipate and what surprises me still. Over time, it continues to gain weight. Readers check in. Tweets accumulate. Comments. Pingbacks. Trackbacks. Rankings. Mention. Lists.

I might be done and even long done, but that little blog post keeps growing. That’s the wonder of the written word: it takes on a life of its own.

The Writer Cries Uncle

Anyone who’s ever come up against Mother Nature knows that she always wins, no exceptions.

My place provides plenty of examples. The poison ivy will always best me, and every spring, I can count on gaping holes in my screen room from fierce winter winds. This spring, I also found the ceiling fan ripped from its perch, the blades sent flying clear through to the garden. And then there are floods, so strong and untamable that four feet of the bank is gone this year and left behind are gnarled masses of exposed roots, rearranged rocks, silt deposits, and driftwood so large and strange the Ark comes to mind . . .

It’s crazy out there where Mother Nature rules. And if I insist on a particular vision of a piece of the property over which she reigns, I will lose.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

A writer would do well to recognize a losing battle, cry uncle, and go with the impossible, instead of against it.

If you can do that, wonders unfold.  Like the unexpected crop that pops up where you didn’t plant it—the tomato plants in the compost pile, licorice in the spearmint. Like the damage to the screen room being just the excuse needed to paint, and the driftwood repurposed into cool furniture, the rocks into an altar, and the mass of twisted root into—well, I’m not sure yet, but the cat is having a good time.

If you go with your writing, no expectations, everything looks different. You can even tackle the difficult stories, the ones that never worked before and yet somehow still seem urgent to you.

Sometimes failure is what we need to usher in the new. Throw up your hands in resignation, and you’ve changed the game. It’s no longer about winners and losers but about the possibilities. This is power in your hot two hands when a minute ago, you were just a loser.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: give up sign by abradyb; frustrated fellow by supersimbo.