Everyone wants it. That silver-bullet brand that shoots you to the top of search engines, amassing legions. I do. It won’t happen. Does that mean I stop producing, shutter my little vanity project and give over to the inevitability of anonymity? It wouldn’t matter to anyone but me, but the point is, it matters to me.
I’ve left, returned, gone away, come back, failed to produce a consistent practice that builds a career. Yet, here I appear again. This time it’s different. I know why I write. I’ve meditated and journaled each morning for a number of months now. Not for self-improvement. Ask my husband. Not sure there’s been much. I did it to finish a creative piece within five months. Digging deep, telling truth, finding organic characters whose complicated desires drive plot — well it could take years. I didn’t have them and wasn’t willing to sacrifice those standards. Your subconscious has all the answers, neuroscientists argue.
Each night I asked myself to solve the day’s plot hole. Each morning I’d rise, meditate for 10 minutes and mind dump into a journal working out the problems from the prior day. The answers arose, every time and I began a new habit that carried me back to my original purpose. Write with confidence, surety, insight. Write without apology.
There’s a cost, of course. People only pay for well-branded script. Still, I remain unbranded. That’s ok. I continue to write for hire, now I also write for me. I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. I want to be celebrated like my heroes: Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Maya Angelou, August Wilson, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Hunter Thompson, Flannery O’Connor, to name a few, in the order that I discovered them.
They grabbed space on a hostile stage and found an audience who needed to be heard. (The white men, the exception. I’ll get to those.) Their fight was more difficult than ours, in a way. We fight search engine algorithms from our living rooms. They played their works to tiny drunken audiences in grimy bars, or wrote tirelessly for a page-10 space in their local paper.
Yet we share the same struggle, growing an audience from a handful of people to a throng. For ego? Sure, but it’s a mixed bag. If you’re any good, you struggle to right wrongs no one else addresses. In that way, you can make a contribution hefty enough to transcend trends and withstand time.
For many of us, writing is a populist medium. In the vacuum of pedigrees, expensive educations and introductions, we write to those who need our voice to make theirs heard. We, the writers who emulate the greats with slavish devotion, understand early that great magpies grow into visionaries.
Hunter Thompson wrote plainly, and created violent prose. He transcribed Hemingway, Fitzgerald and others at his typewriter hours a day, until he heard their rhythms in his head. They unlocked his voice. He unlocked mine.
You’ll notice, at times I drop verbs or articles. Write in fragments. Misuse grammar. I hate any tense of “To be.” Passive, lazy, “To be” smacks of early drafts and single thought arguments. Sometimes however, it’s unavoidable. This technique, entirely self-invented, allows the heart of the idea faster passage to the reader. I hope. But we struggle for common ground, you and me.
Language is fluid. Grammar, when you know it, can be broken. I break grammar well. Maybe that’s my brand. Well, I’ve a lot of competition there.
Thompson, Pinter and Mamet demonstrated a powerful efficiency in emotional expression. They arrived at the heart of the matter, fast. I saw subtext emerge and the depth of human experience visible through craft in a way that gave my own voice permission. Mamet, for example, translated the language of thought. The words emerge in broken phrases, stunted, forceful, speakers overlapping one another, to dominate, control, harm and sometimes soothe. Words, he demonstrates, frequently fail us, often betray us and generally speaking, prove inadequate to translate the truth. His characters live in this constant frustration.
Often the most profound revelations require the fewest well-chosen words. All three men told on themselves and the culture, revealing the flaws at a time when people needed to tear the system down. Yet, they all suffered from a misogyny blind spot. Heroes are problematic.
Brands aren’t. A good one makes you impenetrable, unstoppable, a going concern. Yet truth, conversely, defies branding. It’s unclickable, uncommodifiable, uncomfortable. The writer must choose. The energy and effort branding requires cannibalizes truth’s pursuit every time.
You might’ve noticed, when I introduced my favorite authors, I mentioned the white men first. It’s not because they deserve it, but because they don’t. Their contributions proved valuable to me only after I discovered the others on that list. They helped me with the “how,” Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, August Wilson, Langston Hughes, helped me with the “what.” Collectively, they revealed the harrowing truth about my country and my race. In short, they challenged the infrastructures of my narrow paradigm and white-washed education. They spoke and I grew more empathetic, in effect, more human. Truth-tellers, ball-busters, tear-it-down-to-the-foundation storytellers, they each revealed the power of truth-writing. Fearless, justifiably angry, they spoke what generations before them suffered, piercing through millennia of lies and forced silence.
Truth, if you seek it, grabs you by the throat and makes you listen. Fact: great art emerges from great suffering. The privileged classes make pretty things that shine briefly. What do they know? Ease? Comfort? Intellectual pursuits at best. What do they have to say?
My suffering bonafides? That’s a lot to unpack. Here, if you’re interested. I’ve said all I’m going to say on it, for now. What really matters, do I say what I say well? If I do, does anyone need me to say it? Ah, the rub. The truth about branding — without one, I may never know, I’ll never be found.
Well, in the words of Billy Budd, “That’s alright, sir,…I’m content.”