Turn up the People

August 14, 2013 § 20 Comments

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A couple of days ago, I was talking about my occasional ambiguity regarding this site with a friend. “Well,” he said, “at least you’re building your brand.”

I was a little dumbstruck, because there it was: He’d freakin’ nailed it. The very source of my on-again, off-again misgivings: That I might, however unintentionally, be building my brand. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure exactly what it means, but I am certain that I don’t like the sound of it.  To me, it sounds like diminishment, like something calculated and hollow. In my experience, the people that do the truly important work of this world are not brands: They are people. I think of my neighbors, arising at 4:30 a.m. seven days per week, 52 weeks per year. By lunch, they have put in a full day of work and have yet another full day ahead of them (or, if it’s sugaring season, nearly two full days) before they will see their bed again. Milk, maple syrup, firewood, plowing driveways… on it goes.

You don’t know these people; barely anyone outside the borders of this little town knows these people. Yet their work is far more essential than mine will ever be, for what could be more essential than food and heat? Certainly not the written word. This is not false modesty speaking (as Penny would tell you, I possess no surfeit of this quality); it’s just the cold, hard truth. My neighbors have no “brand” beyond their reputation in the community as people who work hard and upon whom you can depend to keep your fires lit and your driveway passable. If I told you their name, you would not recognize it; if I told you the name of their farm, and you did a Google search, you would not find it.

I like my work; I am exceptionally grateful for it. And I am coming to realize that an essential part of my work – particularly in the Internet era – isn’t merely selling my writing; it’s selling me, or at least some version of me. I realize this, but I’m not entirely comfortable with it, and so I think a lot about how to do it as honestly and transparently as possible. Part of that is being open about my ambiguity pertaining to this space. Another part is reminding myself (and all of you) that much of the truly important work of the world is conducted in anonymity. It is done by men and women whose names we will never know; whose stories will never be told outside their small circle of family and friends.

We may never hear these stories. But that doesn’t mean they’re not all around us. That doesn’t mean they’re not important. And if we manage to keep our minds uncluttered of all the branded tales swirling around the toilet bowl of the 21st century American marketplace, perhaps our ears will become attuned to them.

So here’s my advice for the day, however unasked for it may be: Turn down the brands. And turn up the people.

§ 20 Responses to Turn up the People

  • Tonya says:

    You know I also go back and forth about blogging and ask myself constantly what am I doing it for?… I usually go back to the thought of keeping a journal of our family’s life – that is the easy answer. But, I could just make that private if that was the only reason.
    I think the reason is partly for connection (“meeting” other neat people), partly because we do get a small amount of income (business in our shops through the links), but I think overwhelmingly it is because maybe, just maybe somebody else will be inspired to think outside of society’s norms – to expand their brain – to live authentically and deliberately and to go for their dreams.
    That is what I like about your blog.

  • Sandra Ragsdale says:

    Of course you’re building your brand. Nothing wrong with that. Everything you write in this blog and in your books and the pictures of your farm and your children and your personal appearances (although I haven’t experienced any of those) are all imprinted with your trademark style and voice. If you’re going to share your ideas and your life with the larger world, how could it be otherwise? I guess you could use a different pseudonym every day but wouldn’t that be silly?

  • C says:

    You can say that everyone has a brand and there’s nothing wrong with it. But i think it is confusing terms a little. Everyone has their own style. You are who you are. You can read what a lot of people think about what a brand for individuals means in Mark Leibovich’s new book first chapters. Those people in DC have brands. And the difference between them and you is (let me be judgmental) they are power and money hungry and dishonest while you are seeking truth, justice and liberty for yourself and your family and your neighbors. Leibovich’s book is entertaining. It has taken me away from finishing Saved. I’m very slow but that is because i actually paid for your book (your welcome) and I got some other books from the library and they have hold requests on them. Maybe I’m savoring your book and trying to make it last. You should hurry up with the homeschooling one…

  • Trees says:

    There is a lot stuffed into that expression, building your brand.

    The choice of words itself expresses how much a corporate mindset has taken over our language. Building a brand implies a business plan in your human interactions and monetary intent. Those words also imply each of us is a business, either making the right moves or not, toward success.

    What success? Can we successfully take a walk? Pet the dog? Laugh with our kids? Get wet in the rain?

    What you are doing is outside the end goal of “building one’s brand.” It’s in another world entirely. So, the language of one culture you want to live without, is being applied to the world you have made that has a whole-y, or holy, other language and purpose.

    Only, in a way, what you are doing has no purpose, not in a linear way, as businesses do. You are inside something living and are following your and its needs, learning as much as possible about how things and people can be most themselves and fit together in that.

    How does one brand such essential exploring and being, since they belong to all of us? What are we missing if we were to say that Thoreau was creating a brand? Or Ansel Adams? Or Beatrix Potter? What are we doing in even naming them? Or anyone who loved the world and did anything based on that love? Yet this commercial culture has turned not only what they did but they themselves – and all of us – into a brand, and as it does so, it utterly loses the soul of everything. (It’s what’s so wrong about ID’ing us, or our doing it to ourselves.)

    I rarely sign onto anything but have appreciated your posts which arrive as a moment out of time and away from the political and commercial world battering at our doors and beings. There is an awareness of you, a private person, looking so honestly and deeply at what it is to be alive just where you are, doing what you are doing. It’s very generous.

    Aren’t you just making friends with your blog, by being yourself and sharing what you love and are thinking?

    You blog is not building a brand. It’s the fence neighbors lean on as they talk?

  • Josh Moll says:

    If you didn’t have this blog, I would not read about your life, your neighbours and the way you educate your children. I would not have bought your book, we live thousends of miles apart, I would not know you or about your book. You could call that making a brand, but I think it is more extending a comunity. In this way you make it possible that not only your neighbours know how you think and what you write, but a larger group can benefit from it.

  • Etienne says:

    Creating a ‘brand’… it’s funny really because when you think about it, ‘brand’ the word itself came about from the act of ‘branding’ your cattle. The unmarked cow that got away could be claimed as anyone else’s, your neighbor could claim it for example. but once ‘branded’ everyone knew where it came from, where it’s home was and where it belonged. Interesting too that the cattle that escaped ‘unbranded’ and that therefore were percieved to cause trouble were called ‘mavericks’.
    So that’s where in our English language we get a label for all of those out-of-the-box types, the ones that refuse to be ‘branded’. And it strikes me as perhaps a little amusing, that in wanting to be ‘unbranded’, a maverick even, you might be shying away from the very thing you set out to do originally perhaps…Which is in fact to define yourself, based on your place, where you live and how you live. You are branding yourself in the most original sense of the word, because that farm, that family, that lifestyle are so branded on you, in a very indelible way, that they are clear for all of us every time you speak, write and appear. For many of us that ‘brand’ or ‘mark’ represents a life we might aspire to, or relate to in a way that expresses a shared value, a kinship. In essence we are expressing an affinity for that mark. Our engagement with your ‘brand’ then come from that place of overlap between your hopes and dream and ours. For my part I am grateful that you have a place, a mark, a ‘brand’ that is so clearly defined and can be accessible to so many. Therefore in the broadest, most original and non-corporate sense of the word, I do encourage you to keep building your particular ‘brand’.

  • Aaron says:

    The use of “brand” to describe a personality or style is a product of the 20th and 21st century and our societies’ rapacious consumerism. Beginning in the 20’s (or thereabouts) advertising became less a hung out shingle and more a psychological prodding, the rest is history.

    I like to think you are an educator, Ben, not a salesman. Keep up the good work.

  • rhondajean says:

    I went from being ambivalent about my blog to loving it. I felt it was a constant drain on my time when I had work to do. It’s a friend to me now; a way of connecting with so many others who read and feel they know me and my family. Of course, no one can tell you how to respond to your own writing but maybe you’ll come to see it as your family record, and a touchstone for readers who yearn for wide open spaces and farm life.

    Authenticity and honesty are in short supply nowadays and people cling to it when they find it. So keep giving us ‘some version’ of yourself and what you’re doing there, hold back what you need to and maybe the inspiration that comes from your words will help others move towards a less complicated life.

  • for the person who is surrounded by suburbia and the “brands” you talk about, the way out IS sometimes to “follow” the brand. perhaps when we have stepped past the names and titles that categorize the life we’d long to live, and aspire to someday, and we can work everyday in the roles you write about, and listen intently to the historic stories not found on any hard-drive, we can begin to let go of the “brand” and just live it the way it is meant to be lived. Until then, I am afraid you are inspiring those of us on this journey with your writings and this blog. Until we slow-poke learners who have somehow gotten caught in this web of sticky-money-driven-society, catch up a bit and hop off the train to join you, well, you may as well continue your public service, bridging the gap, speaking in words we commercial-people understand and showing us the baby-steps to a different kind of freedom. I, for one, am thankful for that.

  • Dave says:

    I have learned many lessons in my time spent in Vermont. My favorite one to share is if you’re offered snow shoes when heading out on someones property, you should take them up on it. But more importantly I have learned that most of the state is on the secondary, tertiary, quaternary, etc. roads. That’s where the people are. That’s where some of my favorite stories, experiences, and recent memories come from. And if you listen carefully there’s a lot of wisdom in the stories you hear.

    The folks above spoke to the brand comment way better than I could. I’ll just add that I think first and foremost you’re a story teller, and a right good one at that. My world is a little bit bigger because I read your stories. I think you’re building an audience more than a brand, and we’re all a little bit wiser for it.

  • Susie says:

    I get your ambivalence but you know, there is a difference between existing and living. And art (of all types) is part of what makes us human. So, without the diminishing the very vital work of producing food and fuel, to me, art is vital. It raises us up.

    • Katrina says:

      Yes, this is a thought I also came away with after reading this post. Art is vital, although it may not seem always “necessary or practical” for the everyday act of living.
      I sometimes forget that I need raising up, until someone or something does.

  • I think your work is extremely important. Maybe it’s not as essential as growing food, but it’s essential in getting more people to realize just how important the work of growing good food is.

  • Dawn says:

    Regardless of what you call it, if you continue to have something to say and feel compelled to share it, I will read and be inspired and enlightened by your words. Maybe it can be as simple as that?

  • Trish says:

    I just recently took down my blogs. I was feeling over-exposed and at the same time feeling like I didn’t have anything to say that wasn’t said before. Although my blog about grieving the death of my daughter was unique and was up for two years with lots of visits, I suddenly felt very vulnerable leaving it up. I understand your ambivalence with blogging. I follow several homesteading blogs and yours is my favorite…if that means anything to you. I would be very sad to see it go. No pressure or anything ;)

  • Mary Ann Cauthen says:

    I greatly enjoy your writings. You help me keep some sense of who I am & how I want to live – uncluttered & simple. Society & our “government” upset this balance, & I greatly appreciate your sharing your life & all the work that goes on by the quiet, steady who work from dawn to dusk unthanked. Please keep at it. Mary Ann

  • jsiegel115 says:

    First of all–so funny that you posted this. I have been thinking about this same thing in the past couple of weeks myself. But as for my real comment:

    I enjoy your writings, and have never considered you a brand. There are some homestead bloggers who sell themselves repeatedly and unabashedly, and honestly, I don’t read them anymore and never will again. I like to read about you because your life is interesting, and it helps me to remember to slow down, and gives me another point of view and experience I may not have had, but may need to know about. This is why I read blogs–not to hop aboard anyone’s train.

    I too find it sad that we’re all for sale, and that you’re not anyone until you can be found on the internet. The corporate culture is pervasive and makes everyone who has anything to say potentially a commercial vehicle to sell something else–be it a product or a way of life. I have to say I don’t see you like that. I see you as an educator, as another commenter wrote. And I also see you as a guy who’s honest and talks frankly, which is something I appreciate. I’d stand at the fence with you and Penny any day just to shoot the breeze.

    I blog, but not to sell myself. I am NOT a brand. I like to write to “talk” out my experiences, log them for myself, and see who else I can connect with who has had similar ones. I am building a community in this world where community is seriously lacking. I see you as doing the same.

    Please don’t become a brand, Ben. I won’t read you anymore, and that’ll be tremendously disappointing. Stay out here in the pasture with the rest of us “mavericks” and chew the fat. That’s what I think most of us enjoy anyway.

  • e-RICHIE says:

    Branding is about being enthusiastic. It’s about giving folks information. It’s about being accessible. Branding is about telling a story – your own.

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