On Self-Promotion

Here’s a little something on this subject that just appeared in my inbox.

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I realize I got a little out of hand with that whole Medium Fiction thing, posting here, there, and everywhere with pleas to read “Shunyata” and vote for me. It was a tough contest, because in order to get read, I really had to self-promote. It may come as a surprise to learn that I loathe self-promotion, or at least, I loathe the point where you travel from casual, appropriately-proud asker-of-favors to overbearing, obnoxious, and desperate.

Forgive me if I reached that point.

We’ve been talking about this over on popcorntheblog, because contributor Tara Conklin is about to have a book out and we all want to support her as much as we can (and of course, by promoting Tara, we also promote popcorn, which is thus also self-promotion). It feels easy-peasy to support someone close to me, another writer whose work I love–I do it here all the time, after all–but much less easy to swallow and ask everyone to support ME. It makes you wonder which successful writers and artists had a huge hand in their own success and which just got lucky. Someone told me the other day that Cheryl Strayed is a shameless self-promoter. How so? How did this person know? Would Wild have been any less successful if Strayed hadn’t gone to bat for herself? (I loved that book; I think it was worthy of self-promotion.)

Self-promotion is like networking, that other horribly uncomfortable occupation that one must engage in in order to get ahead. My friend Jesse Taggert is an excellent networker. Sometimes I think I should hire her to tell me what to do with my career. She’s the one, for example, who suggested I email the head of Medium just to casually say hi and tell her about my experience with the contest. She’s always got a plan to open a door.

Me networking with a dog.

Me networking with a dog.

Then again, as she said to me before I sent that email, “Take me with a grain of salt. It’s easier to be glib and enthusiastic about others’ actions versus your own.”

Which is, of course, true. I think most of us, at our core, just wish doors would open for us without the need for networking or self-promotion. Unfortunately I don’t think the world really works that way.

Your turn, readers: share your deepest secrets and stories of self-promotion. I am all ears.

Plug: Gone Girl

I spent the weekend completely ensconced in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which had been recommended to me by, among others, my pal Katie Williams (who brought the book to my house! As a present!).

Blurry photo taken with my new iPhone

Blurry photo taken with my new iPhone

I was so ensconced that at separate points both my husband and my kid attempted to distract me (L. shoved another book in my face and demanded that I read; B. just said “Hi” over and over again until I looked up) in a vain attempt to get me to pay attention to them instead. It didn’t really work. I found the novel, a murder mystery with two very unreliable narrators, to be a total page-turner.

Of course I had to think about my statement last entry that above all these days I need to connect with and feel sympathy for a novel’s characters. Because somehow, in Gone Girl, Flynn gets you to simultaneously root for and hate both the main characters, Nick and Amy. And I thought it was brilliant.

I won’t say any more, lest I ruin it.

One caveat: my mom, who reads a lot of murder mysteries (Ruth Rendell etc.) declared that she “hated” this book. She found it predictable and boring. And I thought, since she’s my mom and all, that I should inform you.

Happy reading!

Knowing Better: On Sentimentality and Criticism

After my Martin Luther King day missive over on popcorn, I received some nice comments about the timeliness of the post and reports that others had also loved Richard Blanco’s poem. But on Facebook, a poet friend of mine was bashing it. Specifically, he said:

I-N-S-U-F-F-E-R-A-B-L-E. Somebody please point me to a contemporary poem that a) is competent; b) tells competency to f*** itself and transcends to something sublime; c) has a real poetic “voice” behind it, even if that voice is not that of the poet’s; d) does not elude, evade, or avoid; e) tells the f***ing truth– about something, anything beyond the speaker’s narrow view of the universe, i.e. ‘my f***ing father died and here I am comparing his death, vis-a-vis my grief, to this violet (though ‘violet’ is ALWAYS better than ‘flower’)’; and g) makes readers–and not just fellow poets, especially Ivory-Tower poets–CARE. I f***ing dare you.

I should say right off that I adore this friend, and admire his strong positions, and plan to share this blog post with him, but nonetheless, there it was. On Facebook. Where others piled on and piled on and piled on.

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from poetryfoundation.org

Poet Richard Blanco. Image from poetryfoundation.org

And it got me thinking.

I didn’t, actually, “love” Blanco’s poem, and I’ll admit that the only line that stays with me is the one I used as my blog title: thank the work of our hands. But I loved that the poem existed. I think beyond its efficacy as a piece of writing I felt the symbolism of its being a poem by a gay Cuban man in America on the inauguration day of an African-American President on what also happened to be Martin Luther King day–wow. King would have been proud. That the identity of the poet was politic is undeniable; and maybe, as a writer, I’m not supposed to accept politic. I’m supposed to demand excellence. But man, I know as well as the next poet how difficult it is to write “occasional” poetry; I wrote a wedding poem for my own wedding and can’t remember any of its lines, either. (I wrote one for a friend’s wedding, however, that was pretty great–only then he got divorced.) So I guess, on MLK Day, politic and symbolism and the fact that millions of Americans actually read a poem that day was plenty for me.

But nonetheless I’ve been thinking about this since: have I gone soft in my old age? I once, writing a book review for the Willamette Week, absolutely bashed a book. I think I said something to the effect of, “as a graduate of Iowa, Ms. X should frankly know better.” I felt powerful when I wrote it, like I knew something she didn’t, like I was a “real” critic. But now when I think of how I committed that snarky comment to paper I absolutely cringe. A large part of this is that someone once wrote a caustic review of a poem I’d written. And it made me feel terrible. And I realized that it is very easy to sit in a corner and sling arrows rather than support the work of other writers even if you don’t care for what they’re doing. The more I’m in this game the more generous I become, I guess because generosity is the only thing that’s liable to get any of us read, published, and admired.

But I also realize–and this is the part that scares me just a bit–that I have become more sentimental in the past few years. I find myself disregarding writing not because the writer should have known better but because I can’t find the heart in a piece. Some of the arguably most impressive books of the last decade–like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and even Infinite Jest (okay, that was 1996) were books that to me were technically impressive but not entirely likeable, because I didn’t connect with the characters enough to care. I seem lately to value above all else writing that shares the common human experiences of love, loss, and sadness. Not very intellectually interesting of me, I suppose.

So have I become a big sap? Was my friend right that Blanco’s poem was insufferable, unchallenging, limited, and lame? Have I become so sentimental that I can’t discern good writing from plonk? I hope not. But I don’t think I want to sling arrows.

Not just yet, anyway.

Revision

I was just settling down for what feels like a hundreth revision of my memoir when I read this post by the living notebook. I especially like when he says, “Revision is a trade off—for every change, the novel gains one thing and loses another.” But I guess that’s true for everything; the road less traveled, and all that.

Speaking of roads less traveled, I learned a sad thing the other day. I went to grad school with journalist Jim Foley, who was kidnapped in Libya and held for six weeks in 2011, then released unharmed. I learned the other day that Foley was kidnapped again in Syria, on Thanksgiving day 2012, and has not been heard from since. The work he has done is brilliant and obviously extremely risky. When I found out he’d been kidnapped again all I could think was I doubt I’d have had the gumption to go back in the field, having been abducted once.

On this website, freejamesfoley.org, you can sign a petition and leave notes for whomever may be reading, if you’re so inspired.

Onward to that revision.

Temporal Linearity

I noticed that my former teacher and mentor from UMass Amherst, Dara Wier, had a poem on Poetry Daily today.

Read “Relentless Usurpation of Temporal Linearity” here.

Dara’s work continues to push into the theoretical, it seems to me, but I found this image beautifully grounded:

And yes, watching ice skaters, the kind called figure skaters,
the ones who aren’t doing anything other than tracking again &

again some figure of infinity marked out on ice for them…

Enjoy.

Juicy Indeed

Good morning,

Not much to say or plug this morning besides my pal Britt Bravo, who is running another Juicy Blogging E-Course this month. It’s $99, it starts on January 11, and you can find the info here. I really enjoyed this course. I learned a lot of basic things I had not before understood about this mysterious world of blogging.

Speaking of juicy, and blogging, I am thinking in the new year of changing my look, but of course I’m terrified of losing any content/readability. So stay tuned, but don’t be surprised if things look about the same.

On another juicy note, I got a new laptop! This still astounds me. I was really beginning to notice how much of a dinosaur the old one was. I’d had it since 2006 and was on my third hard drive. But I couldn’t fathom finding the dough for a new one. Well, Santa helped out a bit, and then while we were in the tax-free state of New Hampshire over Christmas it just seemed like a good idea to take advantage…and here we are. The only problem with my fabulous new MacBook Pro? My old Microsoft Office won’t run on it, so it’s looking like I’ll have to buy some software. This, frankly, sucks, but oh well.

Lessons Learned

Well, I did not make third place in the fiction contest. New Year’s Day I popped open ye olde laptop to see my story at sixth. Part of me wished I’d done a bigger last-minute self-promotion piece, but frankly, I was on an airplane for seven of the last hours of 2012, and once I landed I thought, who is voting for stories at ten o’clock on New Year’s Eve? No one, that’s who.

I expected to feel more disappointed, but I don’t. The contest was a very cool experiment, but it was also, as promised, in the beta stage. My submission wasn’t perfect, either. So I chalk up the experience to having learned a few things. Here they are:

  • It’s important to have a great title. “Shunyata” becomes very evocative after you read the story, but it’s probably meaningless to 98% of readers, initially.
  • If everyone else is posting an image, post an image! Even if you can’t figure out how to do it (ahem: I should have asked). Mine was the only story in the top ten that didn’t have an image.
  • Consider length. I submitted a 15-page story. The story in the #1 slot was more like six.
  • Contests are sometimes based on popularity, and sometimes you just aren’t the most popular. Medium’s contest was exciting, technologically-forward, a great premise. But at the end of the day reaching the top three had a lot to do with how Twitter-savvy one was and how much support one could garner using social media. I’m not a dinosaur, but I opened my Twitter account just for the contest, and have barely used it. I might not have been the ideal entrant. I keep wondering whether all the entrants around me were under 25, but maybe now I’m just being paranoid.

Thank you so much to everyone who voted. I know the format was not ideal–you clicked “recommend,” you never knew if your vote went through, you had to have Twitter. These were not great circumstances for everyone, but I appreciate the support nonetheless. Onward!

Happy New Year.