It was week two of our Common Wealth of Kentucky Project exhibition, and I finally felt settled after a freight train three weeks to the opening, when my brain was a pinball machine in an eighties arcade, metallic details bouncing in feverish pursuit of perfection. The books shipped late; curatorial cards needed more or fewer words; persistent questions were buzzers and bells: how to loop the videos, were there enough headphones? Would guests scan the QR codes? Would collectors mind the online auction? Were the websites current, brochures ready, evites landing, the artwork yet dry, the lighting right, social media in line, squares, pre-orders, tables, chairs, and volunteers? And then the biggest question of all was WILL PEOPLE SHOW UP?
Two weeks later, I was calm in knowing it all worked; that is until Tom, a journalist for Kentucky Educational Television (KET), sat in the dark of the lights that shined on my face and said, “Okay, Beth, let’s start with you telling me your name and title, please.” The name was no problem, but the title had me stumped. It was a year and a half of showing and telling the project story, and my lack of a professional title was a consistent nag.
“What is your title? Your position? Okay, your role?” As if rephrasing the question might help, The Lane Report, Keeneland Magazine, Thoroughbred Daily News, local news outlets, and radio interviews welcomed the three of us as Artist Kelly Brewer, Interviewer Jill Johnson, and Something Different Each Time Beth Pride.
Job titles are an interesting cultural phenomenon. For centuries, position titles have made it easy to identify the responsibilities of someone who works in an organization. Positions, specifications, and classifications are carefully adjusted with titles to ensure a smooth traffic flow and control over disruptive lane changes. For years, I gave titles little thought because a.) I had one that I liked b.) that I generally ignored, c.) rarely staying in my designated lane.
Now that I am self-employed, I see titles as currency in our modern-day. We use them for marketing ourselves, for drumming up opportunities, and organizations dangle them like mistletoe to attract and retain their best employees. I remember lobbying for a title promotion for a valuable member of my team. She was getting antsy, and I wanted her to stay, so after some meetings, they changed her title from Assistant to the Director to Assistant Director. Delete five letters in two tiny words, and all the world is good.
Back in the day, a Court Jester kept the King from getting cranky while the Crossing Sweeper saved Victorian dress hems from stinky street manure. The Pin Setter ensured the next up-to-bowl was appropriately scored, and the Party Line Operator sent the correct ring code to the proper household. I wonder if there were Associate Court Jesters or an Assistant to the Director of Pin Setting? None of these jobs exist today, but new ones are taking form.
How do we evolve as some professions fade to extinction while others emerge shapeless like caulk, germanely, magically filling unnoticeable cracks and crevices? For example, if you use LinkedIn, you see that titles are vital in attracting the best suiters, yet algorithms are set on certain words with specific meanings. Any many cases, drop-down menus force commitment to that which does not fit.
And if you are a Chief Curiosity Officer who loves to dabble in learning new skills and finds joy in the quick, esoteric pivot, we tend to get lost in the search gap. I will admit to spending too much time in the word maze on LinkedIn when I rolled out my consulting business, Bethinc., but now, as I take on new, creative endeavors, I have given up completely. To title oneself “Writer and Digital Evangelist” will not work, and “Storyteller” is a death nolle for those looking for a serious relationship. Is she an influencer or a TikTok star? If neither, then who cares. EVERYONE is a storyteller (eye roll). “Marketing” holds up a little better, but are you a Director of Marketing, Chief Marketing Executive, or just a plain old marketer? I mean, my fourteen-year-old niece knows how to post on Instagram.
I am not a self-promoter, or perhaps there would be less confusion, although I’ll admit this blog has the Axe men’s deodorant scent of someone looking for a job. A good marketer is a wizard behind the curtain. I have always been more comfortable telling the stories of those who inspire me, whether it is my creative partner, the exquisitely talented artist Kelly Brewer or the outstanding schools where I have worked in the past. Even in writing, sound producing, and publishing The Common Wealth of Kentucky Project book, the telling of others’ stories is what appealed to and propelled me.
At a happy hour event at our exhibit, a group of women stood in a circle. Nancy, the organizer, held up her glass for a toast and said, “I have a story for you. It won’t be a short story because, as I’ve always said, why tell a short story when you can tell a long one.” We laughed and listened as she revealed details of our year and a half when Kelly, Jill, and I traveled the state interviewing 70 Kentuckians from all regions and walks of life, recording their oral histories while Kelly painted their beautiful, vibrant portraits. She described how I sound edited two-hour interviews to two-minute bites, converted the podcasts to QR codes converging the voices with their stunning portraits, built a website, produced a video series, and wrote and published a book, proceeds of which benefit Kentucky charity. I appreciated Nancy’s knowledge of our process and depth of understanding of the various layers of our story.
Our long Common Wealth of Kentucky story resonated, and I loved sharing it in every way I knew how and in ways I learned. I wanted our story to reach a different audience tomorrow than it reached today, and I hoped everyone could benefit from our heartfelt mission of building connections.
The project participants are labeled with first and last names in our exhibit and book. Suppose they are a doctor, congressman, ambassador, judge, president, shift superintendent, district attorney, actor, nurse, trainer, or professional basketball player. You will not know until you read further into their stories. Consistent with canvases of equal size, soundbites and narratives of equal length, and the order of placement by where they were born, it was a conscious decision to leave titles off.
Yet the other day, when my friend Linn and I walked the dogs, and she asked me, “so what’s next,” I felt a little chest flutter I named “Title,” and said, “Well, let’s see. First off, who am I now? Writer and multimedia creative? Digital Overlord? Dream Alchemist? Director of Light Bulb Moments?” Linn threw a few more ludicrous labels into the air, and we laughed. Certainly, none would capture leads on LinkedIn.
Later that evening, I sat in my nook and played the guessing game with the sunset of how many seconds until it drops beneath the tree line, mixing a harvest of green, wheat, orange and red into an abstract autumn sky. I noodled a story about our upcoming book signing at a craft distillery. I felt excited about the day, the sensory details I knew would come—a bright copper square pot still, sweet corn mash, mandolin and double bass, oil paint on a wooden palette, and people I would meet. And as I imagined the scene and wondered how I might show it and who would want to know, it came to me as ordinary as the breeze that pushed dried leaves across the October terrace…I am a storyteller. Plain, simple, cliché, and true.
Storytelling is my expertise, my skillset, and my passion, and in the wise expression of a late seventies cross-stitch my mother sewed and framed for my room, “Be what you is, ‘cause if you be what you ain’t, then you ain’t what you is.”
Marketing happens to be a franchisee of storytelling, so I am that too, and I owe storytelling a great deal, a majority percentage of everything I build. I am an author, blogger, social media content creator, podcaster, videographer, website developer, and anything else that helps me tell a story I think others might like to hear, see, read, taste, smell, or touch. And if my account persuades someone to act in a positive way, then all the better.
I never answered Linn’s question on the walk that day, “what’s next?” because I am not entirely sure, but I am confident that which comes next will not rely on a title or a profile on LinkedIn. Instead, it could be a story that starts with the sound of sun-parched bluegrass as it crunches under foot, dulled by winter, dry like tobacco that hangs from dark rafters. It might end with feet flipping ripples across the surface of water as a woman who swims in a turquoise mountain lake breaks stroke to come up for air. She lifts her head to see a great blue heron motionless on the edge of the bank, its elegant plumes calm and focused on present prey.
She is not me, but she might be a protagonist in a novel I thought I would write a year ago. We will see how the story goes and if this storyteller can make it happen.