I want you to close your eyes and imagine an amusement park. What emotions do you remember feeling the last time you visited one? What experiences do you recall?
The last time I visited one was on New Year’s Eve of this year, and my husband and I took our 3year old son. I’d been to amusement parks many times, as a child, a teen, an adult, with friends, with significant others, family. And each and every experience is marked by the same things: wind in my hair, laughter, breathlessness, holding hands. New adventures. I know the essence of an amusement park because I feel it when I’m there, I feel it when I think about being there.
The essence of something is, in effect, the heart and soul of it. It’s intangible, not something you can easily label, but you know it when you feel it.
Welcome to the “Finding your Voice” workshop. If you’ve missed the first posts, we’ve been talking about the cornerstones of voice and how to recognize them. You can follow the rest of the series here. Our previous cornerstones were Emotion and Authenticity. Today, we’re discussing Cornerstone #3: Essence.
In marketing, essence is an important aspect of brand. It’s what connects the customers to the product. Consider the brand Harley Davidson. At the most basic level, the company provides motorcycles (along with apparel and other related-items that capitalize on its brand). But is the the motorcycle itself what has created such a fiercely loyal customer base? Sure the quality and the value is an integral part. But what is someone who chooses a Harley over another bike looking for? Or is it more at the heart and soul of Harley-Davidson’s brand? The brand places value on living life on your own terms, independence. It symbolizes independence. When you sit on a Harley, you feel the strength and spirit of a Harley Davidson. When you choose to wear a shirt bearing its logo, you recognize that same spirit.
Visiting Disneyland feels magical. From the moment you walk into the park, you’re transported by the vision of the great castle. Suddenly, you exist in the world of princesses, dragons and fairy tales. And every aspect of Disney includes that promise. Their DVDs start with an image of the same castle, which represents an intangible promise: Magic. Be transported. Leave your world behind.
“Standing for something means giving up a lot of other things, and opening yourself to criticism.” – Seth Godin
In any recognizable brand that you connect with, the essence of that brand can be drilled down to one key value that the brand stands for. Disney: Magic. Harley: Independent. Johnson & Johnson: Safe.
There is one thing that all of these brands have in common. Every successful brand, in fact. The essence above isn’t a touchable element. Even the words aren’t the “essence of the essence”, if you will. A woman with a child buys Johnson & Johnson’s baby soap because it’s safe for her child. It won’t hurt them. It won’t cause them pain. But mostly, because she buys it because it makes her feel she’s keeping her child safe. Essence is what the customer feels about themselves when they use the product.
That seems impossible to define, doesn’t it? Especially as a writer, how do you define something that someone else feels?
The way to do that is first learn what you’re promising. In the previous posts, we discussed discovering your emotional core, your beliefs, your authentic self. Now that you’ve become intimately acquainted with those (right??), it’s time to make the pledge.
Let me ask you a question. If someone told you tomorrow that you would never make a dime off your writing in your lifetime, would you continue to write? Do you write for money? For fame? Do you write for something else? What drives you? What message do you want to share with the world?
Defining your essence means defining yourself as a writer: Who you are, and who you aren’t. So here’s your first exercise. Get a piece of paper and make two columns. On the left side top, put “Who I Am as a Writer” and on the right side top, put “Who I’m Not as a Writer.”
Start filling up the lists. Don’t overthink this, no one is grading your work. Just start establishing lines in the sand about your style, your intent, and your focus. Are you funny? No? Then it’s in the “Who I’m Not” column. What do you provide for your readers? Escape? Easy reading? Deep thought? Internal reflection? What experiences do you convey? A sense of family? Troubled relationships? Coming of age? Do you write about families? Tragedies? Brainstorm your way to a page full of words.
Once you’ve done that, take these same questions to someone who has read your work. A brand is a relationship. In order to effectively discover your essence as a writer, you need more opinions than your own. Qualified people who have read your work and understand your goals as a writer. Critique partners, perhaps your editor, agent. Someone who can give you their feedback on what they connect emotionally with your work. How do they describe your work? What comes to mind?
“A good book is the purest essence of a human soul.” ~ Thomas Carlyle
To further help establish this concept in your mind, think of some of your favorite authors. Perhaps the ones you reviewed for Cornerstone #1. When you choose what books to read, how do you choose? Are you a mood reader? Do you have a TBR pile and ruthlessly start at the top and work your way down? What makes you select a specific book at a given moment in time?
For me, it’s mood. 100%. I have to be in the mood for a certain type of story. For the emotional reaction I know I will have from that author or for the uncertainty of what I’ll get from a new author. One of my favorite authors writes romantic suspense. She’s a genius at writing compelling police procedure in figuring out the cases. Her books have a lot of technical scenes, focus on cops and their work, gritty villains, and often characters with a troubled past. I have loved every one of her books. But it’s not uncommon for months to pass between when I bought the book and when I read it. It has nothing to do with her writing, I love her work and I know I will love the book. But I have to be in the mood for that experience.
Another author I love writes books that really put focus on family issues. Reading her work is guaranteed to stir up my emotions and make me consider and relive experiences that connect to my family, my friends, and the joyful and complex times in my life. I read her work when I am in the frame of mind to accept the deeper connection to her words and my own life.
As writers, we give that experience to someone. For the second author I mentioned above, is it her intention to shine a spotlight on her readers’ own complex relationships? I tend to believe so, since so many of her books revolve around that very essence. To me, the essence of her work is emotional and thought-provoking. Connections. Relationships.
And when I look at her website for words used in her descriptions, I find: haunting, heartbreaking, illuminate, compelling, friendship, love, sisters, complex, ties, family, magic, turbulent, heartwarming, poignant, evocative, bittersweet.
Does my recognition of her brand match the words she chose? Absolutely. (And for anyone who can guess who this author is just from the descriptions above, I’ll send you one of her books.)
To me, this author’s essence is wrapped up in one word: Relationships. Every which way, every angle, every nuance. She reveals, picks at, and delves into the core of what connects people.
Every writer has an essence in their work.
“I don’t believe in magic.” ~ J.K. Rowling
Another example: The Harry Potter series is set in the worlds of wizards and magic is intrinsic in its story. And yet, J.K. Rowling has said in interviews that she doesn’t believe in magic, not the way it’s written in books. So belief in magic isn’t the essence of her books – it’s not the message she’s trying to convey. She isn’t selling you on the existence of magical powers.
What is the essence of her writing? If we look at reviews and descriptions of her work, there are terms like journey, battlefield, tragic, triumphant, legend, secrets, evil, mystery, war, mission, good. Odyssey. This is an example of looking past the obvious features of a book and finding its core. The Harry Potter series is about a journey. The essence of it is about human nature. Discovery.
Putting It All Together
Once you’ve delved into the aspects of your writing essence, you can apply these to another marketing exercise called the Brand Essence Wheel. Here’s an image of it, modified for the writer’s use.
The concept for a company to determine its brand essence comes from a product and the brand itself. So as a writer, your products are your books and your brand is you, your writing style. Take the brainstorming you did in your “Who I Am” column and filter it into the quadrants above. The upper portion of the wheel is for the rational thoughts. The lower portion is for the emotional side– more of the feelings engendered within you when you connect with the brand or product. In the middle circle, think of facts & symbols as images you liken to the brand or the book. (For example, what would a relaxing image look like to you?) Personality would be adjectives you’d use to describe your writing voice. Take a version of this and apply the responses you received from others as well. The combination should help you to drill down to the core essence — this you put in the middle circle. One to four words that convey the heart and soul of your writing: your essence.
If it’s difficult to put this together for your own work, first try it for one of your favorite authors. Or perhaps the Harry Potter series. Something that helps you see the basic premise behind the wheel.
“Only write from your own passion, your own truth. That’s the only thing you really know about, and anything else leads you away from the pulse.” ~ Marianne Williamson
The quote above says it most: your own passion, your own truth. If you know what those are, you know what you are trying to share within your words. And only then can you articulate it. Our Cornerstones of Voice have been Emotion, Authenticity and Essence. Each one is imperative to understanding your writer’s voice, to recognizing it. All of the work in the previous two posts have led to this point: drilling down to the core level of what someone takes away from your writing. You’ll notice that very little of any of these posts have focused on craft, on grammar, on word choices. The craft of writing can be learned. Good story structure can be taught. The creativity of a story comes from within you, but even that isn’t your voice.
Your voice, in all cornerstones, is made up of you. It consists of your beliefs, your emotions, your way with words, and ultimately, your courage. It is your strength to recognize your own truths. Your belief that they are worth sharing. And your courage to put them to words on the page.
Thank you for following along on the Finding Your Voice workshop. As I worked through each section of this, I found it helped me understand more fully my direction as a writer. I hope you felt the same. Next Monday, I’m going to be doing a little investigative work on Richard Castle. The Author. Curious? See you Monday.
In the meantime, this week, enjoy posts from JK Coi on Tuesday, Katrina Stonoff on Wednesday, our debut post from Eliza Knight on Thursday and special guest Linda Epstein rejoins us on Friday.