Advice on marketing and fame with guest columnist Ron Hogan
The author of Our Endless and Proper Work fields this month’s creative dilemma.
Welcome to the latest installment of my Subtle Advice column. Note: I’m taking next Monday off for the 4th of July holiday, returning to your inboxes July 12.
As I was trying to choose among several letters to answer for this month’s advice column, I happened to read an advance copy of Ron Hogan’s new book, Our Endless and Proper Work—and I thought Hogan would be the perfect person to answer a question I received about marketing, fame, feeling dirty for wanting to be famous, and feeling creatively stuck because of it.
Hogan knows a lot about building and nurturing a creative practice. He helped create the literary Internet by launching Beatrice.com in 1995—and, since 2018, he’s been sending out an excellent newsletter, Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives, where he shares much wise and pragmatic advice on the writing life. His new book is based on the newsletter, and I found it really helpful in clearing out the mental clutter around my own writing practice. In particular, I appreciated what he had to say about pacing yourself for the long haul as a writer (or any kind of creative worker), and the dangers of comparing yourself to others—which is why I thought he’d be such a good person to field the following dilemma…
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
My question is about marketing and fame. For years I’ve had conflicting thoughts on marketing and branding. On the one hand, I despise that our culture became about having a personal brand and that people’s worth and value is now derived out of and judged by their social media presence, online portfolios, and LinkedIn profiles. This is not only free labor but even worse I feel that it reduces wonderfully complex human beings into a bunch of easily understandable and digestible labels. On the other hand, I think it’s amazing that thanks to the availability of self-marketing and doing your own PR, so many more artists are now able to access opportunities, funding, and new audiences than ever before. I find myself in a position of someone who at once despises self-marketing and is drawn to obscurity and desires to be well known, to have my art and writing reach more people.
Realizing that I actually want to be famous and well-known in my area of work and art practice has been shocking to me and made me feel pretty dirty inside. I really want that status. I have a tendency to objectify my art and to worry about the final product and its marketability before even sitting down to do the work. It can be paralyzing. I carry many ideas in my head but years will pass before I start working on them (if I do at all) because I worry more about how many people these ideas will reach and how I should market them, rather than playfully exploring them.
I have been taking proactive steps to focus on developing a regular writing routine (my accountability is my newsletter), but it’s a daunting task. Sometimes I worry that maybe I like the idea of being a famous artist more than I like the idea of actually just writing, regardless of what happens. And that makes me embarrassed and ashamed. So I am wondering if you have any practical tips for entering a good mental state around this, as well as on how to balance actually making art with also realistically trying to get published, get more subscribers to my newsletter, and being my own PR machine, etc.
—Adriana in Prague
Ron Hogan replies:
I’ve been where you are right now, hating to market yourself while simultaneously wanting brand-name levels of recognition for what you do. And I totally get your frustration with social media, especially the notion of providing “free labor” and helping various platforms become ubiquitous while you’re still struggling to make yourself heard beyond your immediate circle of friends and colleagues.
We meet people where they are, however, and these days they’re on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and all those other platforms. And the reality is that we all need to market ourselves and our work; we can’t just drop the finished book or album or whatever it is off at the marketplace and hope the audience finds it. Nor should we expect to—you spent all that time creating the art because you wanted to share it with people, and the marketing is just another step in that process.
Before we go any further, I want to emphasize that your desire for success, which given the nature of our respective “industries” manifests itself as a desire for fame (or at least renown), is nothing to feel dirty or ashamed or embarrassed about. We all want our work to succeed. We want people to see it, to recognize its significance—and, inevitably, to recognize us as the only people who could deliver just this work of art in just this way. Yet this is the very thing that is beyond our control. So we need to learn how, as I wrote for my newsletter earlier this year, to work the process, not the outcome.
When you sit down to create, push all the mental chatter about “marketability” and “audience reception” and the like to the side. Put all your attention on the fundamental mystery you’re trying to resolve through the work: What is it you want to share with the world, and what’s the best way to express it? You can look at your work critically while you’re creating it, but make sure that you’re asking yourself how you can make the work better, not how you can make it more marketable.
You’ll never be able to stop fantasizing about the outcome, about all the success you might enjoy through your work… or, if your mind goes there, all the failure you might endure. Just remember you don’t have any control over whether your imaginary scenarios will come true, save to the extent that you do the work. To draw upon a metaphor from the art world, you can’t secure funding without a proposal—and although you can second-guess yourself in all sorts of ways, the only way you’ll know for sure whether a proposal can secure funding is to finish it and submit it for approval.
We should also consider how much living in a capitalist economy has trained all of us to mentally and emotionally conflate artistic success with economic success—the implicit assumption that a creative work is more successful if it reaches more people, that the bigger our careers get, the better they are. Sure, we tell ourselves that artistic merit exists independently of market success, but no matter how much we may assert that consciously, many of us will still feel a subliminal sarcastic twinge of “Yeah, right.”
We need to train ourselves to recognize that twinge as a learned response and to set it aside so we can focus on our work. We need to remember we do the work because we have something of value to share with the world, something that could, ideally, transform the way people who encounter our work view the world afterwards. If your art can have that kind of effect on anyone, that’s a profound accomplishment. Now, obviously, there’s a real difference between changing, say, a million people’s lives or a thousand’s. But it’s not a competition, and anyway that just puts us back in the realm of outcomes we can’t control.
We can’t control the outcome, but we still have to take part in the process. We still have to put ourselves forward, the dreaded “self-marketing” thing, in order to share ourselves and our work with the people we hope will find us and understand us. If I’ve learned anything from all the years I’ve spent online, it’s this: Don’t try to sell yourself. Instead, focus on being yourself. If you approach whatever platform with an authentic expression of yourself and your passions, and engage in authentic dialogue with other people, somebody is bound to find you interesting. They will want to hear from you; they will want to know what you’re up to. When you have new work, you’ll be able to say, “this just came out,” and they’ll be poised to follow up on it. So, yeah, be sure to add the links that make it easier for them to learn more. But you can do that without shoving a buy button in everybody’s face.
You might not get famous that way. But somebody will respond to what it is you’re putting forward—and, setting aside the matter of scale, perhaps that’s close enough to the renown and recognition you (we all!) are hoping for.
YOUR ADVICE, PLEASE!
Readers, do you have your own advice about needing to market yourself but also hating to market yourself, and finding a way to fit this in or around your art practice? By all means, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below:
To submit your own creative dilemma, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into writers’ and artists’ work habits.
I’ve been hopelessly distracted these last few weeks by a crosstown move (from LA’s Koreatown to Eagle Rock), but that’s now done and I am so relieved and happy to be in our new place—and in particular to be setting up my new home office, which is by far the nicest workspace I’ve ever had anywhere, ever. Seriously pinching myself. Next: Back to work on the new book!!!