Monday, June 09, 2014

How to Craft a Perfectly Imperfect Personal Story

In today's world, the tendency to share very personal stories is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the stories live on. And a curse both because the stories live on and because the need to document and to preserve the story risks changing it by the very fact it's being observed. Where to draw the line is an ever evolving art.

Know yourself as an audience before you start writing

When I'm sharing a story or interacting online, I have two goals: mostly I want you to feel a little better about the world and maybe brighten a bad day you might be having. These goals can easily result in a sort of personal highlights reel. So with everything I share, I try to be intentional and think about how you may interpret what I'm sharing.

What do I mean by that? If I'm sharing a personal success story or a recap of an event I went to, I want to be authentic and possibly inspirational, but not self-congratulatory. If I can't make a story relateable, I don't share it. The result? A lopsided and biased view of my life.

trying to take a mother daughter portrait on Mother's Day


How do you share your stories?
As they happen piecemeal? Or, later in total upon reflection?


Understanding Who You Write For

As bloggers we're faced with a choice of having a lifestyle or a business. A lifestyle means we can write with one audience in mind: our self. A business means we need to think about which keywords people are searching and pepper them throughout our writing to attract and to continue to attract an audience. A business requires one to really know themselves, to always have in mind the story they want to craft, and to intentionally guide the impression readers make by what is included and what is omitted.

Gates' First Candid Portrait of Her Mom


Developing a Voice and a Curated Public Image

Our children and children and teens in general, like us, aren't born with a well-developed voice. Unlike us, where our musings and mistakes were mostly offline until we developed a sense of self and a branded image, there's the potential for everything they do or think to be online. There's beauty in archiving the struggle to find one's voice, but there's also danger in the vulnerability inherent in always being on. And there's the risk of believing what you see is the whole story, of comparing one's life to another person's personal highlights reel.

I've been consciously curating my image for over a decade. My image curation began offline (before LinkedIn existed) with me carefully selecting the projects I worked on, leaving companies when available projects weren't a fit, and choosing which teams I wanted to be a member of. The process of applying to business schools for acceptance into an MBA program drove the need for personal branding home.

Show People What You Can Do


Business schools want applicants that are self starters, in control of their career, and who have a sense of purpose. As I began applying, I couldn't find managers who believed in my vision and hence need for an MBA. It was then that I realized how people were perceiving me was different from the vision I had of myself. I decided to take action and do something about the mismatch. I read The Brand You 50: Or Fifty Ways to Transform Yourself from an 'Employee' into a Brand That Shouts Distinction, Commitment, and Passion! (*affiliate link) and internalized the early personal branding advice.

Believing Stories are "The Whole Truth"

Quickly scanning my own blog, it's easy to believe one's own hype. I've forgotten the time it took to learn and perfect some new skills and have to resist dissuading myself from stepping outside my comfort zone and trying something new. I've even downplayed the very real fears I had when I chose to take a risky path (quitting a steady, well paying job as a junior engineer while studying to become a licensed Engineer to work as an in house graphics artist for a tech company). And this natural tendency to compare ourselves to not only others but our own selves worries me.

Gates Holding an Argus Camera


Recognizing the Potential Chilling Effect of Story Telling

I especially worry about Gates growing up online. As a mother and as someone aware of the power of perception and first impressions, I'm fiercely protective of how images of her are shared as well as what is written about her. Cameras are banned from bath time, no matter how cute what she is doing is. Likewise, they're put away when Gates is running around partially clothed. And you'll never see a photo of Gates on a toilet. But, Gates is still affected by the tendency to document and to share everything--crawling, first steps, and so on.

Gates, at 26 months of age, actively participates in shaping her story, choosing props for her portraits, snapping test shots, and rearranging the scene until she is satisfied (her 25 month old portrait is less of a traditional portrait and more of a filmstrip). On days when she demands to "make video" she'll take a still photo and move the camera until the frame and the angle are just right (Zoom Zoom go the cars down the slide). She even deletes videos failing to match her artistic vision.

A Still Camera is Unable to Capture the Constant Ball of Motion that is Gates

As an adult and as a result of my undergraduate communication studies, I'm aware enough that the act of observation can change that very thing you're trying to preserve. I worry whether Gates and other children will be as aware. Will other children assume she lives a charmed life, by the fact I choose not to share my entire experience of raising a daughter? And of, primarily only posting photos and stories that cast Gates in a positive light?

How are you teaching your children about personal storytelling? Of finding one's voice?

When I was growing up and beginning to explore my artistic abilities, my mom stopped creating. Why? Because I saw her in progress or finished works of art and would crumple mine up and walk away from the easel or table disgusted with my lack of talent. No matter how my mom tried to explain our skills come from practice, I couldn't grasp it. All I saw was how effortlessly she put a vision she had in her head onto paper.

I can't be as selfless as my mom. I need to create. I've tried to quit before and the results haven't been pretty.

Five Steps for Telling Your Perfect Imperfect Story

So my attempt to show Gates that her story and her image don't have to be perfect is to craft a perfectly imperfect personal story.

  1. Set boundaries for yourself. Determine how much will you share and what you will share. What topics will you discuss. Which ones will you ignore?
  2. Before sharing a specific story, decide why you want to. Does your story offer a unique viewpoint? Does your story advance a broader movement?
  3. Determine whether you want to be an observer or a participant. Your role changes the point of view of your story. When it comes to Gates, most memories are recorded via iPhone because I want to be present in the story rather than an observer to the story. In fact, her birthday party, which I'll be sharing later this month, was captured solely with the iPhone. I could have pulled out my tripod and Canon 5D when the buffet was finally set up and our guests would have understood. I chose not to. The iPhone is less of a distraction to Gates than my larger DSLR.
  4. Use different styles of photography to bring the reader in. In studio photo shoots can be shot with a tripod and reflectors and be more formal. For candid "travel" photography, style should be more casual and "gritty," more believable.
  5. When sharing a story, remember an imperfect photo is better than no photo.
  6. Depending on what camera is closest and less disrupting to what's going on, I'll grab my iPhone, Canon G12, Canon 30D, or Canon 5D. I'll modify the type of story I'm telling as well as where I'm sharing the story based on the quality of photos I have.


genuinely eden

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Credits: All layouts designed by and images taken by Eden Hensley Silverstein for The Road to the Good Life.

This post contains an affiliate link followed by (*affiliate link). I feature products that I own or that I am considering purchasing. I own the book mentioned in this post. All opinions presented are my own.