A Brutal Revisiting of the Self

Brand strategist talks about making time to write, revise, and rewrite; portraying relatable characters; developing a thick skin; and marketing techniques for authors.

Stephanie Bane is a brand strategist at Smith Brothers Agency, whose clients have included Heinz, Nestlé, and Red Bull. A former member of the Peace Corps, for which she did AIDS education in Chad, Stephanie recently received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Pacific University, where she completed her memoir, Thirst. Excerpts have been published in Brevity and Ascent, and her writing has also appeared in Creative Nonfiction.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ ConferenceStephanie will appear as a presenter on the “Platform Building & Self-promotion” panel. Creative Nonfiction’s Shannon Swearingen had the opportunity to speak with Stephanie about making time to write, revise, and rewrite; portraying relatable characters; developing a thick skin; and marketing techniques for authors.

CNF: English Literature was your original course of study. What made you to return to it after forging a career in marketing and advertising? Or was there ever a departure?

BANE: There was never really a departure. Great advertising is, at its core, great storytelling, today more than ever. In the past, advertisers have been able to get away with telling boring stories. They paid for their thirty seconds of airtime, said whatever they wanted, and people had no choice but to listen. With the evolution of digital media, people have a choice. Advertisers are required to entertain, to inform, to provide something of value—or people don’t engage.

Check out this example of amazing storytelling, centered on LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, in a video made for Powerbeats2 Wireless by Adweek’s digital agency of the year, R/GA. I cried when I first saw this, and I still get chills when I watch it, even though at this point, I’ve seen it about ninety times. It’s the Odysseus story retold in my lifetime, in the world I grew up in—the poverty-stricken Rust Belt. It moves me on a profound, personal level. Also, it makes me smile that a nerdy, classics-inspired copywriter incorporated footage of a blatant reference to Odysseus—“Return of the King” on the theater marquis—just in case we didn’t get it. Well played! Meanwhile, the product being sold is onscreen for most of the video, and yet I don’t feel I’m being pitched.

I love the ad business, in case you can’t tell. Hopefully the growing opportunity to tell stories like this will attract more serious writers to the industry. And if what I’ve just said has piqued someone’s interest in being a copywriter, pick up the book Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan. It’s an excellent primer on storytelling in advertising and an interesting read for professional writers of any kind.

CNF: How do you balance your writing career with your advertising career? What’s the overlap between the two fields?

BANE: I don’t balance them. I’m very tired, as a rule. The overlap in skill set is pretty significant, though. When you’re telling and selling stories that are only thirty or sixty seconds long—or even an epic two minutes—you have to be sacrificial. You get to be really good at figuring out what is non-negotiable when it comes to making an idea work, versus what you can cut without the story unraveling. That’s quite helpful when it comes to editing an essay.

Also—rejection is a huge part of working in advertising. Every word in every strategy and every ad is scrutinized. It makes people tough. In my experience, an MFA workshop is nothing compared to a day in an ad agency. At this point I’m so numb I barely register rejections from literary journals.

Rejection is a huge part of working in advertising. Every word in every strategy and every ad is scrutinized. It makes people tough.

CNF: Your article “‘Platforms’ Are Overrated” recently appeared in Creative Nonfiction. Do you have any marketing advice that will work for writers?

BANE: This is a tough one—because I believe the question really being asked is Do you have any marketing advice that will work for writers without any money being spent by the writer or the publisher? And the answer to that is, largely, no.

You can enhance your career through good old-fashioned networking: attending conferences, volunteering time with a literary magazine, getting to know others in the industry and helping them out whenever possible. This builds goodwill in the publishing community, and may pay off one day when you need a referral to an agent, or blurbs for your book when your agent starts to shop it around. But when it comes to driving actual sales of a book, you have to spend money. Hiring a publicist to help secure interviews and reviews is a proven tactic.

Maintaining a basic online presence is also necessary. But—take a moment to consider the source of the pressure we all experience to market ourselves extensively through social media: the publishing industry. These are companies that are so collectively incompetent at marketing that they’ve basically handed the entire industry to Amazon—and now they want us, the writers, to fix it in our free time by posting on Facebook. It’s absurd. It’s passing the buck. And it demonstrates an astonishing gap in knowledge about the current state of social media. Facebook is essentially operating like a television network or magazine at this point—to reach a meaningful number of the right people, you have to spend real money. An agent or publisher who asks an aspiring author to fill out a form detailing how many Facebook friends and Twitter followers they have is either looking for a D-level celebrity who comes complete with her own following and marketing plan, or they don’t understand where social media is headed.

I have suggestions for publishing houses about how they could better use their marketing dollars to support their authors in aggregate on social media, but that is a different interview entirely.

CNF: What role does social media play in your writing career? In your advertising career?

BANE: Social media plays an extremely limited role in my writing career. I use it primarily to stay in touch with folks from my MFA program and other authors I admire. It plays a huge role in my advertising career—about 70% of our agency revenue comes from digital and social media. So I’m thinking about the social media presence of the brands I work for every single day.

CNF: If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

BANE: I would say commit to writing at least 15 minutes a day. I started doing that in 2009, and in a relatively short period of time I ended up with an MFA, a draft of a memoir, and some published essays. Obviously, in order to achieve that I wrote more than 15 minutes a day, but that minimal commitment wasn’t intimidating. It made it easy to sit down at the keyboard and type, and my love of writing meant it grew from there. I wish I’d made that commitment earlier.

CNF: Much of your personal writing stems from your experiences as a member of the Peace Corps working in Chad. How do you decide which scenes to draw from that will translate into something universal?

BANE: You’ve gone right to the central goal of my writing so far, which is to reveal the common humanity between ourselves—meaning Americans, a majority of whom are white—and Chadians, the vast majority of whom are black. But the problem for me hasn’t been identifying scenes; I felt like I was bumping into some sort of universal truth every other day in Chad. The problem has been describing the environment, and the Chadians themselves, in a way that doesn’t make them seem too foreign, un-relatable. I’ve gone so far as to leave skin color completely out of descriptions of my Chadian friends. A number of people who’ve read drafts of my work have asked if certain characters are black. Of course these people are black—I’m talking about Chad here! But the hard truth is that people are racist—even those of us who think we’re not. If I describe a friend of mine, a commander in the Chadian army, as having dark black skin, it conjures all sorts of negative imagery, derived from western media coverage of African wars. For many, that will obscure the fact that I’m talking about a civil, well-educated man who loves his wife—just like high-ranking men of any race in the American military. And since I have to show my friend making questionable choices in his role as a commander, and I want readers to love and forgive him, it serves my purpose if they have a moment of confusion, wonder if he is white or black, or somewhere in between—and briefly, perhaps incorrectly, imagine his skin color to be exactly the same as their own.

The central goal of my writing so far is to reveal the the common humanity between ourselves.

CNF: In your Brevity blog post “You Have to Believe in Something,” you revisit an essay you published in 2013, “We Have Peace,” and judge yourself pretty harshly. What are your thoughts on revision? Do you think revision is different for writers of creative nonfiction? That is, do you think it is more personal—is it as much a revisiting of the self as much as it is a revision of the actual writing?

BANE: Yes, you’ve stated it exactly. It’s a brutal revisiting of the self. Which is why it’s taking me so damn long to make necessary revisions to my memoir. It’s really hard to get up at 5 a.m. before work for the sole purpose of experiencing psychic pain. But if I don’t do it, I’m wasting everybody’s time, beginning with my own. Why work on a book for six years and tell 80% of the truth? And readers can smell intellectual dishonesty. An agent read my book and, to my great annoyance, immediately identified those places where I was holding back. So, I’m setting the alarm.

CNF: To what extent do you incorporate research into your first-person narratives? What kinds of research do you use?

BANE: Most of the writing I’ve done so far has been memoir, so my research has been focused on trying to form a larger, historical perspective on the events I lived through. I do mostly secondary research, online, though I still find talking to a librarian more rewarding than asking Google. I’ve had plenty of training in primary research, including as an interviewer, as part of my career in advertising. I look forward to doing more of that for my personal writing.

CNF: How do you handle rejection?

BANE: As I said earlier, advertising has inoculated me. I’m basically a walking, talking callus.

CNF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about publishing your work?

BANE: Listen to your editor.

About the Author

Shannon Swearingen

Shannon Swearingen is a former editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. While studying creative writing at the University of Evansville, she spent a semester abroad at Harlaxton College near London, England; after graduating, she spent five weeks traveling the United States in a Jeep Liberty.

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