Writing in a box of Wheat Thins–A Diatribe on Branding

I write this, I am in cracker nirvana. WHEAT THINS!!! Oh, how I’ve missed them, and oh how lovely they are today. Crunchy. Slightly sweet. Salty. Beautiful little squares. The French are amazing at creating cheese so lovely it makes one cry, bread so crusty it makes one sing, wine so . . . oops. I mean, grape juice so . . . Well, you get the idea. But, they are not so good at crackers. Most French crackers are tiny toasts, tasteless and mundane. At least I can revel in the idea that Americans know how to make crackers. And they certainly know how to market them.

Shoving Wheat Thins into my mouth (much like Cookie Monster flings cookies into his blue orifice) reminds me of something that bothers me about the American Publishing Machine. I’m bothered by branding. Wheat Thins are a brand, as is Coke and Skittles and apparently The Left Behind Series. We’ve become so consumeristic in life that we cannot conceive of literature without thinking of brand.

During my first Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference, the buzz around the redwoods was branding, branding, branding. How we must declare ourselves something, and be that something till death do us part. All the live-long day, we authors are to be one thing, never varying, never deviating. I think that’s why I balked when my agent suggested I write parenting books. I didn’t want to be “that author who writes parenting books.” Those within branding circles have even suggested an author change names if he dares to move from Non-Fiction to Fiction. Otherwise, there will be brand confusion.

The concept behind branding is a marketing one. When people reach for a 7-up, they always know they’ll get the same old un-cola. Similarly, when they reach for Grisham, they’ll know they’re getting a legal thriller (hats off to him for Painted House! Way to buck the trend, John).

At that same Mount Hermon, my writing friend and mentor met with a well-known fiction author. This author asked what she wrote. She listed several of her books, some nonfiction dealing with biomedical ethics, some amazing (in my opinion) Bible studies, and some medical thrillers. The author told her, “You cannot do that. You must be one or the other.” The way the author said it crushed her.

Later, she took a walk with a mentor. You may be familiar with him: Calvin Miller. She recounted what the author had said. He laughed and said something like, “Well, then, I guess C.S. Lewis wouldn’t be publishable today either.”

Indeed!

Here’s where I’m going with this. I don’t want to be boxed in. I don’t want to be branded as this or that. God has wired me to think creatively, whether it be as a fiction crafter or a non-fiction creator. It’s not an either/or for me. Similarly, God breathes new messages to me all the time. He’s impassioned me to write about His healing in sexual assault, what materialism has done to the American church, why it’s important to admit failures to our children, the reasons we don’t have risky faith, why I’m sick of joy (another blog entry someday), Wheat Thins, the painstaking journey to connect with others after grief, the church that settles with skating on the surface of things, thinking rightly about God, parenting in our weakness.

It’s not that I am rebellious, wanting to stand against this branding notion. It’s just that it grates on my artistic heart. I’m one who wants to say something new, even though I know there’s nothing new under the sun. The pursuit of novelty as I pursue God frees me to write unabashedly.

So, I guess I don’t fit into the branding box so well. Although I am reveling in Wheat Thins right now–every last blessed crumb–I don’t want to become Wheat Thins. I’d rather be an open air market–full of colors and variety and organic produce, where sameness is shunned and variety is welcomed. There is more to me than one topic, one genre. And God, who breathes life into me, is amazingly, dazzlingly, brilliantly creative. As the Author of all things lovely, I’d shudder to think we’d box Him up, package Him nicely, and place Him on a merchandising shelf.

Perhaps we already have.

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