Jane L. from Dear Author and Sarah Frantz were talking yesterday on Twitter about expectations. Jane tweeted that people identified her as Asian as soon as she walked into a room, whereas she identifies more with being white. Sarah commented that Suzanne Brockmann’s books were often praised for her portrayal of a gay man’s take on the world but missed the mark completely on race.
Those comments really hit me hard because you are defined by expectations of what you appear to be. You are judged and dismissed or accepted within the first few moments of meeting someone. The old saying you never get a second chance to make a first impression is dead on.
So what does this have to do with writing or the army? Well, you have to put your best foot forward. A female in the army who cakes on makeup is going to be dismissed by the combat arms soldiers around her, regardless of her proficiency or skill set. Body language experts tell us that a woman who dresses provocatively will be unable to influence the men around her because they’ll be seeing her as a trashy woman instead of a woman who means business. While it’s hard for a soldier to dress provocatively, it’s possible to still draw attention to yourself rather than your skills as a soldier.
The same thing holds for writers. Agent Sarah Megibow from the Nelson Literary agency says first thing she does when thinking about requesting a manuscript is Google the author. If there are naked photos of you from spring break, she’s going to think twice about requesting. Your online presence says much about you as a writer and as a potential client. Once tweeted, you can never take it back, so think clearly before hitting send.
The army has a saying that when the central promotion boards meet, they’re looking for the total soldier. No longer is your ability to run 4 miles in under 35 minutes the requirement for promotion but don’t think for a second that you can be a deuce and a half and make the cut. Commanders are known for Googling officers that are applying for positions and yes, that means checking your Facebook page.
Everything out there adds up to the total package and it only takes one thing to turn someone off forever. A lady forever left the Austin RWA meetings because she was offended by the talk I gave about being a soldier in the army. I really didn’t see anything offensive about it, but then again, I’ll never know. So you can’t be 100% sure what will offend and what won’t but try to see something from the outside looking in. If you can do that, you’ll succeed in creating a professional appearance and managing what people see of you.
Some things you can’t change. You can’t change what you look like if you’re Asian or African American or even female. People will judge, often unfairly based on appearance. On the flip side of that, I won’t change the fact that I’m a soldier and proud of what my fellow soldiers have done. I guarantee people will be and have been offended by this blog. I can’t change that or rather, I won’t, because this is who I am.
But I can work my tail off to make sure that every post I publish wouldn’t be difficult for me to explain should my brigade commander look at it. I have friends who’ve mentioned maybe you should take that down after a rant and I’ve listened, because they’re the outside looking in. Even though my public persona is a writer, I’m also an army officer and there are things I am not allowed to say. I speak for myself, not the army. I am not going to comment on official policy as established by law or my commander in chief. But I can tell you what being in Iraq is like for me. I can tell you what its like to work for a captain I don’t respect. I can tell you my struggles to be a better leader and the second and third order effects of failing to make a decision. And I can tell you what it feels like to stand on an airstrip and salute a flag draped coffin.
All these things, I believe are appropriate for me to share, as an officer and a writer and mom. I won’t post pictures of my kids online, because I’m freaked out about child exploitation. But I’ll tell you my daughter’s eyes were wide and shocked when we walked up onto the porch of my mom’s house.
So manage the things you put out in public. As a writer, figure out what sets you off from the crowd and run with it but that thing is a keg stand, you might want to reconsider. People have expectations of you as a writer.
Try to manage those expectations.