chaosIt began with a contentment-producing ritual.

Weather permitting, most Saturday mornings, I stroll a safe and pleasant three miles to the mall where I visit the library, the bookstore, and the grocer. I pick up fresh produce for dinner—the more salad-makings the better—then loop around and head home.

On the way back, I’m usually euphoric, flush with endorphins, time outdoors, and the knowledge that I’ve facilitated my family’s health and made a minor contribution to fuel-conservation.

But on one recent occasion, as I waited for a pedestrian light to change, a marketing concept inserted itself into my brain.

Brand as Constrictor or Liberator?

At the time, I was puzzling over the concept of branding, which, like most marketing principles, remains an elusive and scary prospect to me. I know it’s too early to be worrying about this for my fiction, but I’ve been blogging for a few years now. I still don’t know what promise I’m making to my readers in that venue. (My tagline is Art. Attitude. Vitamin C. Screams “unique value proposition”, doesn’t it?)

If branding is this unintuitive a process for blogging, what does that mean for my fiction? Will I inadvertently shoe-horn myself into an ill-fitting concept and have to start all over again? If a little forethought can save me from obvious errors, why not see if I can figure out an approach in advance?

So it was then, as I casually looked down and viewed myself as if through a stranger’s eyes, when I thought, The most accurate tagline for my appearance would be “hot mess”.

“Hot” in the sense of “active”, because despite being married to an engineer, I don’t have one of those Rube Goldberg machines which wake you, clothe you and transport you via conveyor belt to an already-prepared hot breakfast.* No, I chose my outfit. I chose what to carry. There was nothing passive or hands-off about my image whatsoever.

As for the “mess” part of that analysis, let’s begin with my twenty-year-old green sweatpants which taper at the ankle. My daughter considers them a fashion faux pas of the worst kind but I keep them for a quality seldom found in contemporary clothing. Specifically, their lining doesn’t pill after ten washes so that you realize at the end of the day—when you’re crabbier than an overheated PMSing honey badger—that, from the waist down, your skin has been abraded by the equivalent of 5000 scouring pads.

At the same time, I was wearing new, state-of-the-art hiking boots and a trendy fitness t-shirt. I also carried a reasonably up-to-date iPad.

And what kind of media was I carrying in my backpack?

  • A P!nk CD from the library, in which she muses that her younger self would punch-out her lover’s detractor.
  • The book Loving Kindness by Sharon Salsburg, dealing with principles of Buddhist meditation around compassion to self and others.
  • And in my earphones was the voice of Eminem, kindly advising me to shizzle his wizzle, y’all. (If you’re assuming this is Dr. Seussical code for a sexual act involving tonsils, you might want to check your assumptions at the door. Rappers don’t ONLY talk about getting laid, getting high, and bathing in the kind of champagne we laypersons can’t afford to drink. Hip hop frequently tackles deep issues such as racism, overcoming a legacy of poverty, and most critically, how the rapper’s ho looks sliding down a stripper pole.)

But I digress.

What Would Dan and Crystal Do?

The point of this post is that, in that fateful moment at the stoplight, while I took stock of my clothing, I also thought of the kind people here on WU who’ve tried their best to explain authorial marketing principles. If given a glimpse of my appearance and asked to help brand me, I wondered, what would Dan and Crystal do? (WWDaCD?) Would they be struck mute and run? Or would they see me as a challenge and begin a Pygmalion-like transformation in which I emerge as a marketer’s dream and they gain undreamed-of authority within writing circles?

Dan? Crystal? Interested in the latter? Give me a call.

But that afternoon, in the absence of a steadfast mentor, I persisted.

Holding the mental snapshot of me of me in mind’s eye, I started brainstorming descriptors.

Here’s what emerged.

  • Love of irony
  • Love of incongruence and contradictions
  • Earthiness
  • Edginess
  • Lifelong learner
  • Celebrate communal spaces, esp. if facilitates learning
  • Music
  • Humor—contemporary, sexual, inappropriate (!)
  • Health and comfort over appearance
  • Function over form
  • Playfulness and spirituality
  • Interests in the outdoors, the environment

You get the idea. I’m sure you can see much more.

But here’s where it became relevant to brand:

Though my fiction’s tones and themes appear unshaped and chaotic to me, if I have any ability to self-assess, many of these same attributes are detectable within my fiction and blogging. (For example, here’s a recent post on the time I went to a meditation class and provoked the instructor.)

Further, rather than shrinking from these labels and feeling the cold, clammy hand of rules creep up my spine, they excite me. If this is what branding is about, I think I could be happy. I think I could breathe.

Is this so surprising, really? After all, the moment I chose to examine was a suitable microcosm of me, expressing bone-deep values, or my quintessential Jan-ness. Much the same way I can readily conjure iconic images of the ToolMaster which would symbolize his humor, self-sufficiency, playfulness, quest for excellence.

If I were to carry this exercise further, I imagine I’d identify the most dominant and exciting values on this list and try to convey them to my readership in a way that makes a promise to them. Read a piece by Jan O’Hara and expect_______. Then the goal would be to maintain consistency in that presentation, which is obviously easier to do if it’s authentic and gritty and representative of the unfettered self, not the personas we don for public consumption.

So for fun and the sake of learning, are you willing to see if this applies to more than me?

Think of yourself in a time and place where you’re grounded, content, and nakedly yourself. Visualize your clothing, your surroundings, your possessions. Think of the qualities and interests they represent. Now take a moment to jot down the items and their descriptors, as well as the values you’re engaging in the moment.

Do you see these attributes reflected in your voice and in your writing, no matter the type? (Published, unpublished, poetry, prose, essay, etc.) If so, how? Do those descriptors feel confining or liberating?

To those of you who’ve worked with a publicist in any capacity, what process did you use to identify your core promise to your readers? Please share in the comments below.

PS: I’m traveling today but I read all my comments and will do my best to reply when able.

*This is a cool page-turning R-G machine.

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.