By Anna Hoeschen.
I read an article in McSweeney’s recently about personal branding: biting, pithy, in step with the publication’s signature voice. The author decried the murky concept of personal branding. I laughed. I mused. I got a little sad.
Consistent messaging, uniform tone, beautiful imagery—arguably, these are good things. I love a good brand, and I love the editing process. Tease my thoughts out and breathe new life into them; you have my unequivocal support. Since we’re on this train, I’ll admit I like filtering tools (see: VSCOcam) just as much as the next bloke.
But the ideas of branding and editing, as they’ve morphed and ballooned, give me cause for pause.
It’s disheartening that the word “edit” could be preceded by a weighty modifier: self.
When I think about how much self editing there is to be done, I want to take a giant nap.
I’m energized by people who show slivers of madness and blissful disregard; those who chase things independent of how it will appear, seem or look. I’m not one of them—but I’m learning to be. At Handful of Salt, I get to read about people who are deeply and unabashedly themselves: decidedly nuanced, wildly creative, wholly complex:
A wood-turner relishes severe climes: “I’m a big guy; I’ve had a beard since I was eighteen, and I thrive in the cold. The heat kills me. Just having it be more extreme is kind of exhilarating and focusing.”
A fashion designer dresses her apartment in an antique rifle and skull candles and explains her beginnings: “I didn’t grow up sewing and designing. I went to University of Michigan thinking I was going to be a lawyer. Then I took my first Political Science class and realized that wasn’t going to work!”
A mother-daughter duo evokes images of dancing in the kitchen while preparing a pitcher of rhubarb margaritas: “And once the sun went down, there would also be fireflies (obviously). And a fire pit. And so many stories that the evening rolls into midnight just like that.”
Likely, you’ve noted that heightened refinement often manifests aesthetically, as well: there are so many books, articles, and images that shine with the merits of minimalism. Don’t get me wrong; I wholeheartedly support simplifying your space and being mindful of what you consume. One look at my apartment and you’d assume I subscribe to asceticism.
Yet, I’d like to think my things are a reflection of who I am as a person, not a sterile set of rules I’ve absorbed. I’d love for my place to be more frivolous and cheeky, like here, here and here, because these spaces are ebullient, brimming with life. But when you share a room with your little sister for the majority of your childhood, you learn not to get too attached to any one thing. You sacrifice your stuff for the sake of sisterhood, and you try not to get too pissed when your favorite t-shirt goes missing.
The idea of turning myself into a brand seems clinical and prescriptive—and life is not like that. Life is getting your car towed due to negligence and burning your mouth on hot coffee (maybe in the same day). Life is losing someone you love and, as an unintended consequence, drawing nearer to those who remain. It’s a constant edit—taking a big, fat red pen to your days and blotting them with slashes, appendices and notes. I think that’s where the decisive break with “personal branding” occurs. You cannot meticulously curate or methodically plan life. You simply grip your red pen like a sword and brandish it; you try to reconcile and make amends.
As evidenced above, I’m a sucker for interviews. The really, really good ones. Whenever I get my hands on a glossy magazine, I immediately flip to the profile, paging through tutorials and events until I land on a person.
One of my favorite interviews of all time is with Lauren Hutton. Guy Trebay wrote about her in a 2013 issue of Town & Country. He executes the piece beautifully, and I love the part where he describes her family’s move from South Carolina to the swamplands of Florida. She deadpans:
“There were a lot of snakes,” Hutton says, fishing in her bag for a homemade cigarette. “You like snakes?”
She’s looking at you. Can’t you hear her barreling right through the mud and the muck, the filters and formalities, straight to your heart?
Straight to how it—and who she—really is. Her incalculable and unedited response reveals that neither personal branding nor the lens crafted an icon—the woman standing behind it did, simply by being herself.