Brand New World

I work hard to integrate marketing and branding into my identity as a writer. In the process, I’ve lost part of what made me a good writer to begin with: my uninhibited love of storytelling.

What is my brand? Who is my audience? What do I represent?

These questions cloud my mind and bind my creativity. I know, it’s trite. It’s laughably stereotypical for a millennial woman who went to art school and dreamed of being a published author since age six; it’s the epitome of a first world problem. But it’s still a problem — especially when there’s so much turmoil and sadness in the world. Writing used to be my outlet; I filled ten journals throughout high school and my first two years of college, I’d scribble poems on coffee shop napkins and restaurant receipts.

And now that I have a platform and urge to write, the act of forming sentences to articulate the chaos in my mind seems impossible. Typing these words feels like water-walking out of a lazy river. Sluggish. Cumbersome. A rigorous effort to force myself out of the driftless current.

In my junior year of college, I published a blog called Gen Why Not. It was the capstone project for a class on feature writing. I blogged about unpaid internships at Conde Nast, cultural appropriation, Coachella, attending parties at the infamous EI fraternity, composting, and the death of Peaches Geldof.

It was super random, and I loved it.

At first, I couldn’t identify a tangible brand for the site. Most of my classmates had no problem finding a particular niche to cover: travel, trespassing, clairvoyant cats, etc. I felt like there was something wrong with me, not just as a writer, but as a person.

I scoured the internet for inspiration and saw how easy it was for so many people to blog about specific things. There were hundreds of unique ideas covered by bloggers who weren’t necessarily great, or even decent writers. Craft and vision didn’t seem to matter as much as expertise and experience. The most successful bloggers covered subjects like fitness, motherhood, and travel. Food blogs. Gamer blogs. Nature blogs. Professional advice blogs. The list goes on.

For some reason, these are the things most people want to read about, and if you can legitimately conjure up 300-word posts on any of these subjects, you can be a blogger. And if you are truly engaged with what your blog is about, you can define your brand, and maybe even make some money. It’s hard work, but the concept is simple. As long as you can define your interests. Which, for me, is the challenge.

I find the world endlessly fascinating, but I’m not deeply passionate about any particular topic to operate this way as a blogger. Sure, I could come up with an interesting angle on health and wellness, but I wouldn’t be able to write more than one or two stories about it. But I had to produce content for the assignment, so I simply wrote about whatever resonated with me, at any given moment.

Typically, I found inspiration from social media, newspaper headlines and drunken conversations with my friends. Ideas came to mind when I was brushing my teeth. Letting myself blog without a purpose was an intoxicating freedom. Gen Why Not became my passion. I raced home from class to blog; I blogged at parties. I was intrinsically motivated to churn out 2,000-word, in-depth articles as if I worked in a newsroom at the New York Times.

Gen Why Not was my mind’s mood board. And though eventually I had to present the site to my class with a marketing angle (I chose millennial insights) it was still the digital blueprint of my personality. I knew Gen Why Not wasn’t marketable in its current form; I knew other millennials — many other millennials — wouldn’t care or think about the things I found so mesmerizing. This didn’t invalidate the fact that I had found my voice, and hopefully, my personal brand.

When I interviewed for my current role at Viacom, I included a link to the blog on my application. The hiring manager later mentioned this as a key component made me stand out from other candidates. He encouraged me to channel the sardonic and confident tone from Gen Why Not into my corporate writing. This usually helped me break through whatever creative block I was facing, and I was able to fuse a voice that authentically represented the company and my personal style.

Aside from that, I didn’t really think about Gen Why Not. I knew it existed in cyberspace, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I was too focused on work, grad school, my new apartment, etc. to revisit the content I had written in 2014. That is, until this February, when I was sick with bronchitis for two weeks and found a link to it on an old resume, and started reading.

My initial joy of finding these stories and reliving the momentum of that project was quickly shattered by newfound editorial vision. There were copy errors. Inconsistent typeface. I misspelled the word MILLENIALS on my millennial-oriented blog.

The content was even more jarring. I recoiled at the way I covered serious matters: sardonic, explicit, unapologetically opinionated (and heavily influenced by the tone of my favorite publications at the time, Gawker and Vice). Using dark humor to deflect from the magnitude of injustice isn’t just a writing mechanism for me; it’s how I’ve coped with every traumatic event in my life.

When I wrote my think piece on EI’s illegal fraternity, the Me Too movement was years away, and I didn’t view the post in the larger context of rape culture and institutionalized misogyny. The story was rooted in my naivety as a college freshman; I focused on the irony of finding out about the frat’s rape scandal after wholeheartedly believing they were misunderstood; the most harmless members of Greek Life on campus.

Although my writing was grounded in factual evidence, personal recollections and free of offensive rhetoric, revisiting my unfiltered opinion on a public site in 2018 was horrifying. This is the most poignant example, but it prompted me to take the blog offline until I could audit the entire site and screen my words for anything that could be misinterpreted as offensive. It’s been more than six months since then, and I’m still putting it off.

This brings me to my current dilemma — I am at a juncture where writing has become my livelihood. I have achieved a lifelong dream, and it feels like a waking nightmare. I am hyper-aware of how I handle my online presence, knowing my reputation as a writer is couched in my ability to build an audience.

I’m hesitant to publish personal essays, even though I have had the most success with that medium. For a writer looking to establish herself, oversharing is the kiss of death, especially when you have a full-time career in addition to freelancing. God forbid your employer stumbles along a post about drug use or mental illness — even if those topics align with your personal brand, they can be diametrically opposed to your job’s vision and values.

Company ethos aside, determining my online credibility and brand identity is a disheartening labyrinth. Composing anything, whether it’s a blog post, tweet or freelance article seems futile unless it’s going to bolster my personal brand.

An idea comes to mind for a pitch, immediately followed by the question — “What does this contribute?” What does this contribute to my brand, and what does my brand contribute to the world? I have not figured this out yet, and so I write less and read more about young people who have figured it out and subject myself to the constant barrage of self-loathing that is scrolling through Instagram. (Self-loathing and scrolling go hand-in-hand).

Perhaps this is just my experience as a millennial working in the media industry, connected on a superficial level to the latest trends in tech and society. I’m part of the generation that knows nothing and everything at the same time.

Perhaps if I had the foresight to develop a deep understanding of one facet of this fast-paced, hyper-innovative world, I’d stop thinking of myself as a jack of all trades and a master of none. But I never considered the future of journalism when I was honing my skills in college; I didn’t foresee the media landscape as it is today. I just wanted to tell stories that could resonate with other humans. I just wanted to be a writer.

But writing is inherently tied to marketing, and writers who can’t adopt to new media are left behind. I work hard to integrate marketing and branding into my identity as a writer. In the process, I’ve lost part of what made me a good writer to begin with: my uninhibited love of storytelling.

Again, I contextualize this as a generational struggle. But perhaps this ennui isn’t due to my age, but to my chosen profession and lifestyle. I know many artistic 20-somethings who have found their calling outside of traditional jobs in publishing and media. I have friends living outside of major cities, seemingly content in their professional and personal lives. A few friends from high school still live in our suburban hometown, about 90 minutes out of New York City.

Other friends moved to Oregon and Washington; one person moved to Missoula, Montana, and claims it’s the new Brooklyn. It seems like a utopian existence — working in a creative field, free from the suffocating pressure to be on the barometer of trendiness that comes from living in Los Angeles or New York. And some friends have eschewed artistic employment altogether, working instead as bartenders, or clipping pot on a farm in Colorado. They probably produce more art than I do in their free time without worrying about whether or not it will matter to the larger world.

That’s what I’ve lost. I haven’t lost my drive to create, I’ve lost my drive to create anything for myself.

Perhaps the need to preface these thoughts with a disclaimer that “perhaps this is just my experience” sums up the essence of why I cannot write the way I used to. Why do I feel obliged to explain everything? Why am I preemptively discrediting my thoughts and feelings by stating that they are my thoughts and feelings? How can I claim to be in tune with my generation if I am constantly questioning the validity of what I truly feel to be a collective experience?

Because I don’t want somebody else to question it first.

At heart, branding makes me feel inadequate. A personal brand makes me feel like a product. I could write for hours about myself and what I like and dislike and what I care about and what makes me angry but I cannot sum it up in a catchy title or twitter bio.

And I think that’s what makes me authentic, because people are not tweets or taglines, we’re complex beings who are constantly changing based on the multitude of experiences we’ve had in our lives and how we react to external stimuli based on these experiences.

We cannot expect ourselves to wash away every vestige of self that doesn’t match some arbitrary brand identity. Brand identity has become more valuable than personal identity, and this is fundamentally wrong, Successful artists must become, in some way, a commodity. I find this idea deeply disturbing, yet I ascribe to it in some way because I’m still holding out hope that perhaps one day it will click and I’ll find a simple way of showing off my terminal uniqueness and win the unwinnable game.