Today’s guest post is by creative coach, writer, and editor A M Carley (@amcarley). Her company, Chenille Books, is offering a guided self-study course for writers, 30 Days to Becoming Unstuck, during May 2017.
Back in the day, ancient Roman theater introduced the persona, or mask. Some say it was used as a means of protecting the anonymity of influential citizen-actors who didn’t want the public to see them on stage.
As writers, we don’t always know how much of ourselves to share with the public. I believe it behooves each of us to create and curate an author persona—the public face for our work. When we become published authors, get our first podcast interview, our first guest post on a well-regarded writing blog, our first press interview, our first book event—somewhere along that path the thought occurs: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What am I telling the world about myself and my writing?
Wise choices count here. On the one hand, if we don’t reveal anything, we may curtail our exposure and success. However, if we splatter too much personal information in too many places, we confuse our potential audience.
In other words, just like the Roman aristocrats, you have choices about what the public sees. Not a fake mask to hide behind, your persona is a filtered subset of the great array of attributes, quirks, and appetites that make up the person you are, along with the characteristics of the creative work you produce.
Doing our best creative writing is not our only mission. Why? Because most of us want readers. And if that’s the case for you, then you’ll benefit from considering how you present yourself to others. We’re in the world, surrounded by other writers who want to be read, and readers hungry for cues about whose work to read next. We need to keep an eye on the marketplace for our published work. How will these new readers know who we are? How will we tell them enough about ourselves to make them want to know more?
Are you clear about your writer persona?
For starters, your writer persona is not as comprehensive as your entire self. Your writer persona is a bit like a character you craft in your written work (nonfiction or fiction). It’s not as comprehensive, or confusing, as the totality of you. It’s your public face, formed from carefully chosen aspects of your whole identity. How do you narrow it down?
Here are some considerations:
- Who does your reader connect with? What aspects of you do they care about?
- Look at your published work and works in progress. What traits and narratives about you fit with those written works?
- In light of your work, what tone of voice, degree of formality, use of vernacular, popular culture references, and clothing choices do you adopt for your public self?
- Does your author bio note that you are skilled at inhabiting characters who are quite unlike you? Or do you prefer that your readers not know how different from your protagonists you actually are?
- Do you prefer podcasts over video interviews, even if the conventional wisdom stresses video’s superiority as a marketing and publicity tool? Is it that you have something to hide, or is it more that you guard your privacy?
Choose based on how you want to be seen—on a really good day. Your public persona isn’t a fun-house mirror. It’s you at your best. And it’s a member of your staff, so to speak. As Steven Pressfield puts it in Turning Pro, “Madonna does not identify with ‘Madonna.’ Madonna employs ‘Madonna’.” (Emphasis added.)
Your persona helps you cultivate ongoing relationships with your readers. You’re still you, still the creative person who wrote these stories, books, and articles. And, recognizing that you’re a producer of content for an audience, you come to accept that there’s nothing sleazy about this process of definition.
Curating your author persona
As writers, we have choices about how much we share about ourselves. An introverted author is likely to want to direct focus elsewhere: Read the book! Listen to the interview! Why look too closely at me? A more outgoing person may have other concerns, like: Yikes, photos from every party I ever went to are all over social media already! I’ve made too many enemies! My outspoken political opinions may narrow my reading audience.
Does all this remind you of dating sites? Me too.
Being specific helps. Once you know how much privacy you’ll protect, consider which good details are shareworthy. For instance, does your author bio tell the world you enjoy walks on the beach? Great. Here are some follow-up questions to ask yourself.
Do you add that you live in the mountains and see the beach once a year for your annual retreat near Cozumel? Or is it the Alabama Gulf Coast or Lake Ontario? Or Lake Como with your good bud George Clooney? Or Haiti where you volunteer in an orphanage every year? Do you want people to know any of those details? Why?
- If you’re in a primary relationship that you choose not to publicize, how much do you reveal in your author bio? What if you’re single, live alone, and don’t want creepers stalking you?
- Are you shy and introverted? Or is everyone drawn to you when you walk into a room?
- Does writing comes easily to you? Or do you struggle for every paragraph?
- Do you write to understand the world; to advocate for a cause; to explore a lousy chapter in your life; to donate the proceeds to hungry children; to further your career in business?
- What about your headshot? Do you want to be smiling and open? Half-obscured by shadows and a long-brimmed hat? If you have medical issues that just added forty temporary pounds to your normal appearance, do you want a recent headshot, or one without the puffiness from your meds?
Ask the experts
A time-honored technique for building your public face involves consulting the people who know and love you—your close associates, friends, and relatives. It can be as simple as asking them for a handful of words that describe your work, and you as a writer. From those lists, you can do a lot to create the overall mood, tone, and look of your writer persona. For instance, if you hear words like sharp, classy, glamorous, witty, and urbane, you’ll probably want your author photos and book covers to feature night skies, high-contrast Deco architecture, and evening dress, rather than galoshes and a sun-dappled cow pasture.
What does your reader already know?
If you write fiction, you can share only the likes, dislikes, and causes that point in the direction of your invented plots. Compare that to memoir. If your book is derived from your own life story, you are going to make choices as to which parts of your life you are prepared to share. Your private life, your family of origin, your schooling—depending on the focus of the memoir, all those and more facets of your history may become public. And if you want your memoir to succeed, you’ll benefit from coming to terms with your choices and keeping them well defined and consistent.
If you’ve been in the public eye for other reasons besides your writing—your career, a famous relative, a news item, an award, or your military service, for example—you won’t be able to erase those parts of your life. Do some searches for your name—all the possible versions of it—and incorporate into your author persona the awareness of these existing mentions. You don’t need to include all of them but you probably want to be consistent with them.
Generally, once information about yourself gets into the great data flow in the ether, you can’t pull it back. Google and the other search engines will find any indiscretion you release into the public stream. Even if you wish you hadn’t.
The material you present to the public through social media, your email signature, your headshot, your blog entries, book events, promotional materials, the media kit on your website, the interviews and online book tours you engineer—and in every author bio you place on every book and reader website—all of that is within your power to create (if you make it) and curate (if someone else makes it). For instance, if an interview goes horribly wrong, you can leave it out of the links you list on your website and share on social media. You can’t eradicate it but you can choose not to publicize it.
Do you cultivate your persona?
If you already have a working version of your public face, revisit it and check to see how recent events have changed anything. Have you won an award, published something new, given a presentation, joined an organization, spoken on a panel, written about a recent illness, become a parent, or been in the news? Do you need a new headshot? Your persona will be in evidence online, in person, and in all your direct communications, by phone, video, email, letter, and decoder ring.
Keeping up with your public face is a great work-related distraction when you’re not writing. It can also be an effective pattern interrupter. If you’re struggling with feeling unconnected from other people, this work grounds you by reminding you of your role in the larger community and your part in the shared human experience. Maintaining your public persona brings you home. On the other hand, if you’re overwhelmed with connectedness, this work reminds you of the importance of defining and maintaining your own unique identity as a writer.
Once you’ve formulated your writer persona, use it and keep it current. Whatever news you decide to share, run it past your defined writer persona. Is this new information consistent with your carefully defined writer persona? Does it add to the impact you and your work are making in the world? Does it protect your boundaries, and those of your close family and friends? Or is it time to update your persona to fit these recent changes in your life and work?
If you ever want your book to become known by people outside your immediate acquaintance, you’re no doubt already aware that you’ll be doing your own marketing and promotion. This is true even if you have a contract with a major publisher, and is essential if you do not.
Each time you do an interview, each time you appear in a newspaper or blog, each time your website is linked from the website of an influencer you admire, you are building the infrastructure you’ll need for the rest of your writing career. Remain conscious and keep track of your intentions. Then, when you and your work do hit the bigtime, you’ll have it made in the shade. You and your public persona will be ready.
For all these reasons, it matters how you present yourself. And because the internet remembers everything, it’s smart to make the decisions as early in your writing career as possible. I call it going public, by design. It happens bit by bit. It’s not just for celebrities, either. Here’s a personal story on that last point: A few months ago, I launched a handbook for writers about becoming unstuck, and yet, when it came time to draft this blog post, I realized I had gotten stuck on this very topic—going public as a writer.
I’m not well-known, outside my community of clients, colleagues, fellow writers, and friends, so it’s presumptuous of me—I told myself—to advise anyone else about going public, right? If I were world-famous, I might have credibility on this point, but until then, not so much. Then I saw things more clearly, and realized that I’ve been gradually going public for some time. Each of us benefits from cultivating and curating our public persona as a writer. This is true whether we’re just starting out, somewhere in the great middle, or established in the public eye. You’re the curator of your writerly identity. Take your responsibilities to heart, and you’ll enjoy adding to this identity as you build your career and your creative life.