I can still remember the day when my mom brought me to Mountain View Academy to register me as a high school freshman. Part of the registration process was getting your photo taken for the “Funnybook” and adding a word to describe yourself. I couldn’t–or wouldn’t–give them a word, but after I left that table, my mother told them to put the word “clown” to describe me. I was mortified. Like most beginning high schoolers, I was desperate to fit in–and not stick out. That became my mantra for most of my high school years. Even though I never was one of the crowd, never a typical student, I wanted to appear so. Why? I wanted, like everyone else at high school, to be “popular.” Being popular meant doing whatever you had to do to believe that people liked you, even if it meant acting different than who you really were.
That mindset continued through college and even into my career. I started working in conservative Christian institutions, and even though I really was different than the typical worker, I was afraid that if I was tagged as “different,” it would hold me back in my career. Even though my situation was with Christian companies, fitting in isn’t unique to those institutions, as you probably know.
As I got older and more established in my career, I got more comfortable and worried less about how I was perceived. But as my writing career (or avocation) took off, I started worrying about popularity again. This mindset was encouraged by the marketing people, who wanted to sell not only the books I wrote, but me as well. Those who write know what I am talking about. Even indie authors know that the bottom line of success comes down to establishing your name as a brand and selling that brand.
And so it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking for the path that will make you and your books the most “popular,” even though “popular” is such a nebulous term that a person can go crazy trying to figure out what it is and how to get there. Instead, I propose a different path, one with three landmarks. Instead of being “popular,” I advise writers to look for three things in their writing:
1. Be authentic. One of my fellow editors (back when I was an editor) encouraged authors to pursue “honest” writing. For a long time, I struggled to determine what he meant. I have come to the conclusion that it meant to get rid of what I call “stained glass” language, stop writing what you think people want to hear and start writing the truth–as harsh, as painful and as embarrassing as it might be. By doing so, you not only will be helping your readers prevail in the real world, but will draw more attention to your writing.
2. Be original. This doesn’t mean what I thought it meant as a high schooler. I thought if I did the exact opposite of what every other student did, I would be original, get people’s attention and be “cool.” Trouble is, I ended up following all the others who were trying to be original. What it really means it steering away from cliches, thinking about what’s important but not spoken about, and then stepping forward with courage and talking about it.
3. Be significant. I could talk about details of my life that I consider important, but unless they are something that other people share, they will probably not be interested in hearing about them. On the other hand, there are many details in my life, things I struggle with, that thousands if not millions of other people struggle with as well. If I am open and honest about these things, talking about them authentically, even if I don’t have an answer for those issues, I will develop an audience who identify with me. The challenge is looking at our lives and determining what is significant. Life is too short to focus on details that no one cares about. Instead, learn to look for the bigger issues behind the daily challenges that face us all.
Somewhere along the line I heard the saying, which now makes a lot more sense to me: “When you are 20, you worry what people think about you. When you are 40, you stop worrying about what people think of you. And when you are 60, you realize they were never thinking about you at all.”
It’s a waste of time to focus on being popular, and you will get a lot more mileage if you just determine to be the best you you can be. A smattering of authenticity, originality and significance, peppered with a helping of confidence will go a long way toward making others realize you have something to contribute to the world.