It is true that I don’t like labeling. I don’t just mean in the racial-profiling, gender-stereotyping, bigoted kind of way. Nobody likes that (well, nobody is supposed to like that, but that’s another column). I mean, I physically dislike labels.
I don’t wear T-shirts that advertise camps, causes, resorts or sports teams. I don’t carry handbags that have MC Escher-like patterns of the designer’s initials interlocking all over the leather. I don’t have bumper stickers that tell the world where I’ve traveled, what my politics are or the honor roll status of my children.
When I buy dishwashing liquid, I empty it into a glass bottle with a pouring spout. I peel off the label on the baby oil so that it is just a clean transparency. I recycle old jam jars for my herbs and spices, soaking the labels off before I’ll use them. When the kids were growing up I didn’t bother identifying them. I knew what tarragon, thyme, nutmeg and paprika looked like. I could tell the difference between oregano and basil, cumin and coriander by smell. Anybody who can’t spot turmeric on sight probably shouldn’t be in the kitchen.
But once the girls grew older and began to learn how to cook for themselves, they balked at my system and I had to give in. I put tiny little Sharpie-marked labels on the jars—no more mixing up the dried mustard with the ground ginger.
Why this aversion to labeling? I don’t know. Maybe it grew out of forgetting to take my name tag off after a conference and having the Stewart’s shop-keeper greet me just one too many times with “And how are you today, Pastor Page?”
Or maybe it’s that I like the simplicity of not feeling that I am being perpetually marketed to even in my own home. I don’t want Folgers in my cup; I want coffee.
That said, I’ve been told that these days what a person—in this case a rapidly aging writer—has to do to get some career leverage is to brand oneself. And this has nothing to do with what befell the title character in The Story of O. It’s kind of worse.
You have to make yourself a product—an authentic, credible, as large-as-life-or-larger product. This means, to quote the title of social theorist Erving Goffman’s 1959 ground-breaking study, to pay attention to “the presentation of self in every-day living.”
You get to live your own sales pitch.
Because how we each individually present ourselves is about the least objective enterprise we can undertake. Why should anyone believe the truth of what we say about ourselves? If we’re branding ourselves to effect some outcome—either to come across as a viable, marketable writer or a fetching, alluring lover or a cool-but-organized parent, who is to gauge the accuracy of our own self-presentation?
I mean, isn’t that why biography holds such an enduring fascination for readers? I’m much more interested in reading Joe McGiniss’ portrait of Sarah Palin, The Rogue, than I am in reading her own memoir, Going Rogue. As readers we know that she’s going to tell us only what she wants to. But McGiniss might reveal things she wouldn’t want us to know!
I just finished a looong biography of the former star of the Royal Ballet, Margot Fonteyn. In the pictures I saw of her growing up, she looked ethereal, other-worldly, refined. But in her biography, it was great fun to see shots of her sunbathing topless, smoking cigarettes. What fun it was to hear of her affairs, both before and after her marriage. Hey, she’s still a great, refined, fabulous personality—made even more so for being a little bit stripped of her self-made branding.
And yet, the capacity and the willingness to be self-marketing has apparently become de rigueur. It’s a little bit like putting on a name-tag and intentionally not taking it off.
It means embracing the fiction you make of yourself.
OK, you might be thinking I’m sounding just a tad cynical. Maybe you’re thinking I’m just not into this whole shtick at all.
But guess what? You would be wrong.
Because I’m standing here at my mental water cooler, metaphorical glass of Kool-Aid in hand:
I’m working on my brand. I’m designing my website. I’m starting up a blog. I’m going to learn to upload photographs and create links and I’m going to do this in spite of the fact that I’m a technophobe and a techno-peasant, but I will round this learning curve and scale the heights and make something of myself.
You better believe it!