palette Spring Cleaning

by Alexandra Panic

Published in Issue No. 264 ~ May, 2019

A lot has happened in my (writing) life during March and April. Many thoughts and information and stories have settled in my mind elbowing one another, bickering over what would take up more space. The conversations I had with other writers during the AWP 2019 conference in Portland and the conversations with my hometown friends at my best friend’s wedding I flew to in March are still on repeat mode. I hadn’t had time to take one event fully in because the next one followed right after. I hadn’t had time to unpack my luggage after a trip because the new trip followed the weekend later. I read new books; I discovered new voices. I listened to new artists, I watched the new season of American Idol.  On April 5, I published a short story Dandelion in the Wind, on April 14, I got certified as a yoga teacher. It has been windy in Seattle and Portland and Leavenworth, and I seem to have embraced the element of wind, moving swiftly with its gusts.

It is difficult for a mama writer to find enough space and time even during periods of the quiet. The lack of time and space for writing arouses storms of anxiety.

What I usually do to calm my anxiety is the opposite of what I should do. Instead of taking care of myself by finding balance and grounding, I clean. I take everything out of our closets and cabinets and shelves, and I purge — all with the idea to create more space in our two-bedroom condo.

I have started my habitual spring tiding-up in between two Portland visits. In the beginning, storing away winter clothes and taking out spring and summer wears seemed easy. I thought I would be done in no time. But the spring clothes smelled musty, so I washed and ironed everything. Now piles of the lavender-scented refolded clothes were everywhere around me – on the desk and our dining table, on the counter where I most often write, on armchairs. But I let those towering piles surround me, and dove into another remodeling project – that of my writer’s website.

I have grown as a writer and a teacher since I first made my website and the pages no longer seemed a truthful portrait of who I am today.

A good friend of mine who is a marketing consultant offered me valuable advice on the matter of personal branding. She also sent me a document with a questionnaire designed to kick start my process. My answers to the questions would help me create a solid brand.

I was able to answer none.

Every attempt ended with a suffocating dissatisfaction that led to more and more dissatisfaction until I could no longer breathe. Do I know myself at all?

When a question troubles me, I write an essay, or a story, or, for more difficult questions, an entire novel to find the answer.

Capturing my whole persona (that I know as complex) into an Instagram bio became the most challenging assignment I have ever received. And I wasn’t at all excited about the challenge. I was bored. The idea of self-branding became equally dull as changing seasons in one’s closet.

The question I proposed instead was, Is this process necessary for a literary writer?

What I rarely tell people is that I have a lot of experience in the field of branding. In my twenties, I had worked as a copywriter for big-name brands like Coca-Cola, L’Oreal Paris, Lexus. I had worked on a few launch campaigns where we successfully introduced new products to the targeted market. During my time in advertising, I was devoted to studying branding, I worked with eminent experts, I attended conferences and workshops, and I was, in particular, drawn to the concept of Sensual Branding and the process of national (re)branding. If a young woman can involve herself in a project of (re)branding her country in her twenties, sure she can dare brand herself in her thirties. But the question is: should she?

To find a satisfying answer, I’ve conducted research.

1.)    I traced (not always successfully) the writers I most admire on Instagram or Twitter, and I followed the writers that sell most books according to the New York Times Best Selling List.

(I have also included European writers).

2.)    I tried to be more active on my Instagram account to see what will happen.

Amid this trivial process I was irritable because:

a) I still had little space in the closets and piles of uncategorized clothes all around the house.

b) I wasted time I should have spent writing.

c) I wasted all that time I should have spent writing.

The hours I spent figuring out Instagram added to my overall anxiety – now I had one more problem to deal with – the unstable number of my followers.

However, my favorite writers don’t seem to be overly present in media (some are absent). They have some or solid following on Twitter or Instagram and websites that are not at all fancy like I envisioned mine should be. Their Instagram pages capture their writers’ lives, and their words are about the writers they admire, the books they enjoyed, the places that took their breaths away.

The bestselling writers I surveyed, as I had anticipated, have enormous and growing numbers of followers on all social media platforms. Interestingly, their feeds and stories capture:

a)    Moments of their everyday lives including pictures of their pets, boarding passes, plane seats, meals, coffee or cocktails.

b)    Always more pictures of them signing books.

c)    Pictures of their tattoos, beach pictures, bathroom selfies, closet selfies (closet selfies are of them trying on clothes, sometimes even bathing suits!).

d)    On Twitter, I could learn what TV shows they watched and what music they loved and what presidential candidates they favored.

The crucial difference: the feeds of the writers I look up to were about art, and of writers most followed were about themselves — not as writers but as people who eat and drink and dress (and undress) and travel.

The other part of my Instagram research was minding my Instagram page. I found this a chore I kept forgetting to do. The most interesting learning was that my “most liked” posts contained a picture of me. The posts I liked best contained my thoughts on #writing. The new followers came to my page when I #yoga or #Nespresso or #joyspotting or #moon or #sunrise.

On top of everything I took an online course on Instagram, but I couldn’t listen to the instructor’s voice longer than three minutes. #voice is what connects me to the artists I love.

#voice is the essential feature of a writer. #voice is always authentic. But how do we #brand a #voice? How do we create a website that will showcase a writer’s #voice and not #image?

One of the most authentic voices I’ve spent time reading in the last five years is one of Elena Ferrante. Italian novelist who, before the publication of her first book Troubling Love in the early Nineties and long before the era of Twitter and Instagram, had claimed absence in the media and refused to engage in any promotional activities.

“I do not intend to do anything for Troubling Love,” she wrote to her publisher Sandra Ozzola in September of 1991. “Anything that might involve the public engagement of me personally. I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.”

The author of My Brilliant Friend couldn’t have known then how precious a gift she would give to the world. “It is not at all necessary for me to publish this book,” she said. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”

I have been attending literary conferences around the United States since 2012 and listening to the different opinions about promotions, publishing, marketing, and here in question self-branding. Every new information or a case study has brought me more confusion than clarity.

An Isaak Newton’s thought came to my mind, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”

Elena Ferrante proposed the most straightforward approach to her publisher: Print my book and put it in the bookstores. Let the book seek the readers.

However, the media (first in Italy, then in Europe and the United States), puzzled with the author’s decision to distance her life from the lives of her books, mistook her authorial absence with the idea of anonymity.

In the interview that appeared in La Repubblica in December 2015, Ferrante stated, “My books aren’t written anonymously; they have a name on the cover and have never needed anonymity. It happened simply that I wrote them, and then, avoiding common editorial practice, I put them to the test without any protection. If there is a winner, they are the winners. It’s a victory that testifies to their autonomy.”

So, the word #autonomy now reverberated alongside the words #authenticity and #voice. How can a writer show her authentic voice while preserving its autonomy?

Thanks to the interviews with Elena Ferrante collected in the book titled Frantumaglia, I found my truth again. “The author is always there, in the text,” Ferrante reminded me of what I knew well. Readers do not need to look elsewhere, outside the perimeters of a writer’s work. And a writer, first and foremost, needs to write the best book she can.

a) The piles of neglected clothes are still occupying my living space.

b) I wasted time I should have spent writing.

c) I wasted all that time I should have spent writing.

During my spring cleaning, I filled bags with the clothes that no longer served me, that do not flatter the woman I have become.

When creating brands, it is important to be consistent with what your audience knows and expects from you. But, for a writer like I am, committing to a steady form means imprisonment. My life’s work is to always go beyond the limitations of a country, of a language, of the notions of place and time. My life’s goals are to break the conventional rules and practices; to “free myself from my books” as Ferrante explained and not to become their servant.

The beauty of life mirrors in our freedom to reinvent ourselves, to find new forms and meanings, unique nuances of known colors, new ways of doing what we have done.

I used the platform called Ingram Spark to publish my short story Dandelion in the Wind that now can be bought as an e-book but also as a tiny paperback through Barns and Noble and other booksellers. I have no intention of promoting it. I published this unusual story of a coastal wind that falls in love with a woman the moment I found it an adequate form and I am letting the story live on its own and find its readers.

Spring is the right time to clean our environment on both external and internal levels. Detoxication is personal and always internal. The body absorbs toxins, but it is wise enough to get rid of most. The mind, however, keeps everything. Letting go of the conceptions that no longer serve us is a big step forward.

“The editorial marketplace is in particular preoccupied with finding out if the author can be used as an engaging character and thus assist the journey of his work through the marketplace. If one yields, one accepts, at least in theory, that the entire person, with all his experiences and affections, is placed for sale along with the book,” wrote Elena Ferrante.

Stamping one’s persona with any label is everything I have always been opposed to. I am not a person who can commit to a brand strategy because the Moon and the wind govern me, and my only constant is change. I do not need a sister word to describe what kind of a writer I am. I am striving to be the best I can. And that should be enough.

I feel lighter.

My house seems more spacious.

I know that I need to write.

account_box More About

Alexandra Panic lives with her family in Seattle, Washington, where she writes and teaches creative writing. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, a BA degree in Italian Language and Literature, and she is a Certified Yoga Teacher. She had three collections of poetry published in the Serbian language, and she wrote her first novel in English. Her words have appeared in The Pitkin, The Writer in the World, and Pif Magazine. Dandelion in the Wind, A Love Story is available as an eBook and paperback.