I just finished this book, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. It’s about a lot of things. It touches on our twisted social media landscape, scam artists and how we celebrate them, personal brands, reality TV, social media influencers, weddings, drugs, the twists and turns and complications of feminism, and a bunch more.
The subtitle of the book actually sums it up quite nicely: Reflections on Self-Delusion.
What’s really sticking with to me, though, is a brief thought early in the book about the act of writing itself, and how it messes with our sense of ourselves:
“Writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them. A well-practiced, conclusive narrative is usually a dubious one: that a person is ‘not into drama,’ or that America needs to be made great again, or that America is already great.”
I write for a living as a copywriter, which means what I do on this website might impact potential clients’ or employers’ early impressions of my writing skill. A few weeks ago, and partly inspired by another writer/marketer friend, I decided to say fuck it and just start a regular writing practice here out in the “open.”
Reading Jia’s book made me think about why I write here, which at first was just to work the writing muscle. Since this site is also part of my personal brand or whatever (UGH) as a copywriter, I was conflicted for a while about whether to do this in the first place.
Good, polished writing, whatever that is, takes a ton of work. It can be really excruciating, stressful, isolating work sometimes. And in a copywriting practice for websites, ad campaigns, or anything for a big brand, it also means hours of research and hemming and hawing over even just a couple of sentences. It can feel like a mad pursuit of perfection.
But that kind of polished writing doesn’t truly represent how I think. The more I refine my writing, the more it becomes a forceful, know-it-all, maybe convincing, but definitely inaccurate representation of myself.
And I suspect it’s like that for a lot more people than would care to admit it.
So I figure, even if my writing here is far from flawless, at least it gets my more honest thinking across, which I’d like to imagine counts for something. This is also just how I talk.
Work for a client doesn’t just involve writing exactly the way you want anyway, and having everyone see it and after one round be like “wow I love it let’s launch it right now!” You might start with a set of brand voice and tone guidelines which says you have to come across as
- CONFIDENT but not BOASTFUL.
- FUN but not SNARKY.
- FRIENDLY but not SLANGY.
Or something like that. Then the work goes up the chain through internal stakeholders, the legal department, maybe some others in-between, and the final product is very far what you would have written if it were all up to you.
(Now, I’m not poo-pooing the process, when this is done right you get Mailchimp. or Oatly. Or a range of other really great brands that have a strong core personality that carries through all of their writing.)
For this reason, I’m not precious about my work. I’ll fight for the things I really think need to be fought for, but it’s important to pick battles. And when you don’t see the people that provide feedback through an adversarial lens, but rather as people with an important perspective to share (even legal!) then you can compromise and everyone can sing Kumbaya and the thing does what it’s supposed to do.
But I digress.
Trick Mirror made me feel even more proud of the work I’ve done in my career so far, compromises and disappointments and all. It also made me feel more comfortable presenting an unvarnished version of myself online.
I imagine some potential employers or clients might be turned off by the imperfections of this kind of writing here. It’s certainly not an exercise in strong, tight, cohesive personal branding. But haven’t we seen enough of how toxic and dishonest that sort of “performance” is? This was something else Jia nailed in the book:
“Selfhood buckles under the weight of this commercial importance. In physical spaces, there’s a limited audience and time span for every performance. Online, your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end. (You can essentially be on a job interview in perpetuity.)”
I mean, think about how people write about shit on LinkedIn. Those BROEMS. You know the ones. Here’s a taste.
Like, come the fuck on.
Maybe someday soon I’ll try and write a big long polished thing that I feel really great about. But for now, I’m just going to put myself out here bit by bit. I’ll share the books I’ve been reading, the music I’ve been loving and DJing, my thoughts about the climate crisis because we all need to be talking about that a whole lot more, and probably lots of other things.
This way people reading get to know me a little more, for real, see how I think, and hopefully, imagine how we might get on together while working on something. Because all of that stuff we create all day in our respective businesses, however polished and perfect it might look in the end, was just the product of a bunch of people who (hopefully) like each other, trying to figure the shit out together and being really unsure of themselves most of the way through.
P.S. A few other brilliant and brutal nuggets from Trick Mirror:
This line about the flaming pile of shit that was the Fyre Festival, and the resulting media celebration:
“The internet snorted each dispatch from Great Exuma like a line of medical-grade schadenfreude.”
And this takedown of the modern wedding vibe:
“And then, in the 2010s, came the elaborate monoculture of Pinterest, the image-sharing social network that produced a new, ubiquitous, ‘traditional’ wedding aesthetic, teaching couples to manufacture a sense of authenticity through rented barns, wildflowers in mason jars, old convertibles or rusty pickup trucks.”