Seven years ago I got a spiritual reading in which the reader asked me “Do you have a problem following through with things?” I got offended (silently). “I’m a published author!” I thought to myself. I had just come off one of my most productive years ever. Essays in three anthologies, short stories in an anthology and a magazine, a column that ran from one magazine, to another, to a writing textbook. I had done readings and other appearances. Does that sound like someone who has a problem following through with things?
Offended or not, I sat with it. I sat with the question and began to think of the many different ways that I had decided, at one time or another, that I would live off my writing. How I would make a plan, take the first steps, then abandon the plan. I had been amazingly productive for one who doesn’t follow through, but I began to see how many of my ideas, plots, and plans had dissolved into inactivity. I planned to get a nonfiction book deal; I sent out one round of queries, then quit trying to get a contract. I planned to write a column in a newspaper and it would be so well-written, it would get picked up for national syndication; I sent out one round of queries, then quit trying to get a column assignment. I planned to write personal essays to publish in the glossy magazines that pay $1 a word; I made three separate queries, then quit.
Well, there’s a theme here—it’s called quitting. Or, rather, starting various journeys, and never quite walking to the end of the road.
Recently a friend and I decided we were going to partner up to send out our children’s books. We were going to find publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts and start submitting. We got a spreadsheet started, identified about five publishers each. Those ten got narrowed down to about three, and then our efforts petered out.
My friend was developing her cover letter and I was going to use her letter as a template. When we discussed where she was with the letter, she said: “It’s hard.”
I laughed. The irony of me not writing my own cover letter notwithstanding, I let her know that writing a letter is not hard. We’re writers! How hard can it be to put some words on paper?
The actual work of promotion is not hard. It is not hard to write a cover letter, to create a flyer, to send out a press release. What’s hard is heaving all the emotions we have attached to those efforts out of the way. Promoting our artwork means we’re putting ourselves up for discussion, criticism, rejection. Is my work good enough? Will I be accepted? Am I fooling myself about the worthiness of my work? Do I have the right to promote myself? Am I doing all this for nothing?
Find me a roomful of artists and I’ll show you a roomful of people wishing that someone else would promote them. Let’s face it, rejection is a beast most of us prefer to avoid. There are about a million self-defeating thoughts lying in wait for any artist who dares assert the importance of her work. It’s only natural to want someone else to take the emotional hits that rejection brings. Promoting yourself takes the unsexy disciplines of consistency and fortitude, yet the first closed door makes us want to give up and cower in the corner—and while we are crouching to avoid getting hit, opportunities that could give our art a larger platform go whizzing by.
If we always listened to that self-protective child in ourselves, life would be unsustainable. We’d never go on job interviews or dates, we’d lie on the couch rather than exercise. As adults, we accept that there are some activities that are often accompanied by a profound urge to hide. So as adult artists, we need to be as dogged about promoting our art as we are about getting out of bed in the morning (and who really wants to get out of bed?).
Making art is simply the act of expressing yourself; promoting yourself is simply the act of sharing your art. Just as you have to get your critical brain out of the way to fully achieve authentic self expression, you need to get your thought demons out of the way to push your art out into public realms. “Do I like it?” is a useless question in artmaking and self-promotion. (So many artists are too hypercritical to actually enjoy their artistic output. “Does it work?” may be a better question for the artist who won’t cut herself any slack when critiquing her work. ) “Do I like marketing?” No. Who cares whether or not I like it. I know it needs to be done.
“Express” is my personal theme this year. That means I am committed to asking myself from moment to moment: Are you expressing yourself? (How can anyone claim to be expressing herself if she has completed work that doesn’t see the light of day?) On the most profound level, that’s the only job any artist has. It’s not your job to get published, it’s your job to offer your work for publication. It’s not your job to get into every show you hear about, it’s your job to offer your art for inclusion. Yes, it’s a constant effort to tweak your emotional priority list. It isn’t easy to nudge “avoiding rejection, annoyance, and rigmarole” down the priority list and move “express yourself” up to the top. But we can do our best. We can firmly guide ourselves to focus on the offer, and chalk the acceptance or rejection up to god, fate, the universe, the whims of the market. That’s all any of us can do—just do our part.
Earlier this year, in the name of doing my part, I purchased a short run of my book, The Single Woman’s Manifesto, from my friends/publishers. Over the six years since I created the book, I’ve done one book festival and nothing more. This month, I put thirty copies in my bag and went to three bookstores. It wasn’t physically hard, yet I wanted to turn tail at various points on the journey. I’m proud to say, I fought the impulse. As I approached each bookstore, the fearful questions flared up in my mind: “Are they going to like the book?” “Will they say yes?” “Does this make any sense?” “Am I supposed to just walk in here like this?” “Do I fit in this bookstore?” “Do I really feel like doing this?” “Shouldn’t I just go home?” But I self-talked my way into the bookstore every time. I said to myself (literally over and over again), “You’re just expressing yourself. It’s not about the end game. Maybe they’ll like it, maybe they won’t. It doesn’t matter. Just express yourself, that’s your job.”
Putting the work out there is a critical part of creating it. It doesn’t have to be about beating your fists bloody on the doors of the establishment. It doesn’t have to be about doggedly begging for entry into a space where you aren’t sure if you are wanted, needed, or deserved. That’s the emotional side of promotions. Let those emotional attachments out to pasture. Give up the idea that it’s hard. Tell yourself that it is, simply, about self-expression. I’m expressing myself. It’s their choice whether or not to accept this particular form of my self-expression. My job is to put it out there. The rest is out of my hands.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
P.S. By the end of my self-promotions day, one bookstore had a copy of the book for consideration; Bluestockings in the Lower East Side took five copies; and Brownstore Booksin Bedstuy took fifteen (turns out they used to sell it and it always sold well at their shop). Next month I’ll be going to another three bookstores, and the month after that, three more. All in the name of self expression.