My book Show Your Work! was an attempt to answer questions my readers had asked me about self-promotion: “How do I get my stuff out there? How do I get noticed? How do I find an audience?” It is, as it says on the cover, a book about how to get discovered.
(Nowhere in the text do I address the question of why anyone should want to get discovered. There’s a little bit of that in the new book and chapter 6 of Steal Like An Artist: “Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it.”)
It isn’t a book about living in public, it’s a book about working in public. It is, I think, about sharing your work with intention, and using the technology available to you to connect directly with the audience you seek.
I tried very hard in that book, when it came to social media, to be platform agnostic, to emphasize that social media sites come and go, and to always invest first and foremost in your own media. (Website, blog, mailing list, etc.)
I still stand by that advice, but if I re-wrote the book now, I would encourage artists to use much more caution when it comes to using social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
It seems ridiculous to say, but 2013, the year I wrote the book, was a simpler time. Social media seemed much more benign to me. Back then, the worst I felt social media did was waste your time. Now, the worst social media does is cripple democracy and ruin your soul.
I’ve just got finished reading Jaron Lanier’s 10 Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It’s not a particularly well-written book (Franklin Foer’s review is worth reading — he calls it “less polished” than Lanier’s other books and, even, “hokey”) but it has an important message. And I can’t say I disagree with any of the points, especially the last one, in which Lanier argues that the social media machine “hates your soul.” Here’s Foer, summarizing:
He worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the “mystical spark inside you.” They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.
This was a point, I think, made much better in his earlier book, You Are Not A Gadget, which contained a list of things “you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others”:
- Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
- If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
- Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
- Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
- Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
- If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.
It’s about pushing against these mediums and using them in a way counter to the way they’d like you to use them.
Another book I might recommend to writers and artists worried about their social media usage is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. (Especially the second half.) Newport also wrote a popular NYTimes Op-ed, “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” and has given a TEDx talk called, “Why You Should Quit Social Media.”
Two caveats before you read Deep Work:
1) I’m not sure about the terms “deep” and “shallow”. Often in my work, what might seem “shallow” is often what leads to what is “deep”
2) Newport is an academic — he makes his primary living teaching computer science at a university, so he already has a built-in network and a self-contained world with clear moves towards achievement. People doing creative work have neither of those things. (For that matter, Jaron Lanier is already famous and well-respected and has a good gig at Microsoft.) One must always be beware of the advice-giver’s context.
I was struck, in Warren Ellis’s last email newsletter, how much he emphasized solitude, and carving out disconnected time for working:
The trick, for me, is carving out time for things and trying to do them with some wit…. I am not ready for the world until I’ve had my 45 minutes with four espressos in the back garden with earbuds in…. I spend a lot of time on my own, and mostly in my office. You can emulate these obvious role-model traits by excavating yourself a cave in your back garden or taking over a room in your apartment, fitting it with uncomfortably bright lights and way too many screens, filling all the spaces with books and skulls, playing nothing but music that sounds like it’s emanating from a dead moon, and waiting for everyone to leave you alone forever, and then dying in seclusion and being eaten by cats.
And this terrific advice he gave to people worrying about living online:
You don’t have to live in public on the internet if you don’t want to. Even if you’re a public figure, or micro-famous like me. I don’t follow anyone on my public Instagram account. No shade on those who follow me there, I’m glad you give me your time – but I need to be in my own space to get my shit done. You want a “hack” for handling the internet? Create private social media accounts, follow who you want and sit back and let your bespoke media channels flow to you. These are tools, not requirements. Don’t let them make you miserable. Tune them until they bring you pleasure.
I still find value in being on Twitter (just yesterday I learned about a new-to-me artist from a follower) but it is increasingly hard to justify much time spent there and on other social media sites, like Instagram. (I have not deleted my Facebook account, but I rarely sign in there.) That’s why I continue to write here every day and keep up my weekly newsletter, both of which produce better thinking and better work from me and give me a stronger, more deeper connection to my audience.
I’ll be writing more about the need to disconnect in my next book, so stay tuned…
Berger was a hero in my person pantheon of “writers who draw”:
Because he had been a painter, Berger was always a visual thinker and writer. In conversation with the novelist Michael Ondaatje he remarked that the capabilities of cinematographic editing had influenced his writing. He identified cinema’s ability to move from expansive vistas to close-up shots as that to which he most related and aspired.
One of the things Berger’s work taught me early on was the power of captions: How simply changing the text underneath an image radically altered the image’s message. Here’s an example from the book:
Because I first discovered it in book form, it took me a while to even realize that it was based on the 1972 BBC series of the same name. (It was Berger’s reaction to Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation series, which had a more traditional view of Western art.) At the momest, all of the episodes are available on Youtube:
For a fun update on Berger for the social media age, see Ben Davis’s essay: “Ways of Seeing Instagram”:
Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography… Technology has so democratized image-making that it has put the artistic power once mainly associated with aristocrats—to stylize your image and project yourself to an audience as desirable—into everyone’s hands.
A reader sent me a note a few days ago remarking that while he didn’t share my politics, he felt he was able to really listen to what I have to say, rather than tuning out what he didn’t want to hear. He suspected it had to do with the creative spirit, the connection you feel with another person you know is trying their best to bring new, beautiful things into the world.
I immediately thought of my friend Alan Jacobs, who writes in his book, How To Think, that if you really want to explore ideas in an environment conducive to good thinking, you should consider hanging out with “people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted,” people who are “temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening.”
I loved this idea so much it was one of the first things I asked Alan about when I interviewed him last year at Bookpeople. Here is his full response:
You know what it’s like to be around people who share your core convictions… and yet you can’t stand to be around them. In one sense, they’re your “in” group, in another sense, it’s like, “When can I leave this party?” It can be stultifying. And it closes you off to spend all your time around people who may be like-minded, but whose spirit is unhealthy. They’re just not fun people to be around.
I started thinking about the fact that back when Twitter was more or less inhabitable by human beings (some years ago), I met a number of people on Twitter, including [you], and then at one point I decided it was just getting too poisonous, but I didn’t want to lose all those friends, so I made a private Twitter account.
There’s about 100 people there. When I was deciding who do I want to be talking with on social media, I realized it wasn’t necessarily the people who agreed with me about all of my religious beliefs or political beliefs. What I wanted was people who were generous. And kind. And caring. And thoughtful. So that when I said something, they would think about it, rather than just simply react.
That’s how I chose my company on social media. I chose to be around people whose disposition and whose character I found trustworthy. So that when I’m with them, I feel good about being in their presence. And I don’t always feel good about being in the presence of people who might, you know, if you made a list of 100 core beliefs, they might line up more, but they’re just not people I want to spend much time with.
I really think that matters. If you trust in the character and the generosity of people, one of the things you can do is you can take risks in your thinking a little bit. You can say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this, let me try this idea out on you.” You can count on them giving you an honest but also charitable response. If you can find a body of people like that… you’re incredibly blessed. It’s a fantastic thing to have. Not everybody has that. When you do have it, it not only makes you a happier person, I think it makes you a better thinker, as well.
More in How To Think.
A bomb exploded in my neighborhood last night on a sidewalk I walk every morning with my wife and two sons. We’re all okay. The boys are oblivious, thankfully, but my wife and I are a little shook. I wanted to get down a couple thoughts:
1. Breaking news is not only borderline useless, it can be downright harmful in a crisis situation like this. Any useful, reliable information we got last night was from the official Twitter feeds of the Austin Police Department and Austin-Travis County EMS.
At one point, I watched a Facebook livestream by local news station KXAN, which was literally just a camera pointed at lights and sirens while a reporter asked witnesses for personal information offscreen. The people in the chat were sharing the phone numbers they heard, joking about calling the witness themselves to get the lowdown. Later, KXAN reported that the neighborhood was going to be evacuated, which was inaccurate and caused unnecessary alarm.
We’ve received text alerts and phone calls on our landline over the past 12+ hours to stay home indoors. Nothing other than those official alerts has been crucial for keeping our family calm or safe.
In the future, if I’m in a situation like this, I plan on making sure my crew is safe, then tuning into official sources until things calm down.
2. Our neighborhood NextDoor has proven to have all the good and bad features of any social media site. The main thread in which neighbors are sharing information was posted by a neighbor immediately after she went outside and was told to get back in the house because there was a bomb. Other threads have popped up, but the software gives you no way to combine threads, so things have gotten chaotic. Posts there have cycled between being helpful (“An FBI agent came to the door and told me…”) to selfish (“When can I leave for work?”) to alarmist (“My guns are loaded!”) to agenda-pushing (“It’s time to go back to a gated community!”) Regardless of the spirit in which they were posted, I’m not sure I could call any of the posts there absolutely essential, save for the official messages. Reading most of the posts, if anything, just made me more anxious and confused. It’s so tempting to seek out and share more information, but more information doesn’t necessarily help.
3. Nature doesn’t care. It’s such a beautiful day outside right now. The neighborhood is still officially locked down, so we missed our morning walk. I walked the perimeter of our house, checked our cars and every corner, and then we went into the backyard and my youngest and I sat in the hammock with the sun on our faces while my wife did a little gardening. The police chopper circled around and around, and at one point, the hawk that flies through the neighborhood seemed to chase it. Life goes on and we’ll go on.
A few months, I became nostalgic for the good ol’ MS-DOS command prompt:
The nostalgia was brought on by two things:
1) reading two programming books back-to-back, Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code and Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms, both narratives of making computers do what you want them to do, with snippets of code embedded into the text
2) watching the scenes in Halt and Catch Fire with character Cameron Howe punching code into her primitive computer, programming an OS that literally asks you what you want to do with the machine:
For the 4th season of the show, the marketing team cooked up these graphics:
Those search boxes have me thinking: maybe it’s not so much the command prompt I’m nostalgic for, but the days when the computer wouldn’t do anything without me — I had to explicitly tell the computer what I wanted to do, and if I didn’t tell it, it would just sit there, patiently, with a dumb look on its face.
I really miss how computers used to be “dumb” in this way. The primary computer in my life — my “smartphone” — is too smart. It used to constantly push things on me — push notifications — letting me know about all sorts of stuff it thought I wanted to know about, and it continued doing this until I had the good sense to turn them all off. It’s dumber now, and much better.
The apps are worse in the same way: they think they’re really smart. They assume they know what I want to see and what I want to think about. I want them to be dumber. I often wonder what Twitter would be like if instead of “What’s happening?” it would ask me, “What do you want to think about?” (You can still sort of do this: the “People You Follow” filter in Twitter’s advanced search is one of my favorite things.) Come to think of it, I’d pay for a Twitter app that bypassed my feed and went straight to the search box.
After all this time, this dumb little box is still my favorite thing on the internet:
This would be a perfect final tweet. I love to imagine it just floating there forever, and never posting another word to that website again. How long could I make it? A weekend? A week? A month? But, oh look, there’s an email from my publicist about a discount she wants me to promote. Oh well. Maybe I’ll just pin it.
“It is a joy to be hidden… but disaster not to be found.”
3 1/2 years ago, I was participating in an online roundtable about art in the digital age, and Ritesh Batra, a writer and film director, asked a question that I liked so much I wrote it on a 3×5 card that’s still hanging on the corkboard above my desk: “How do I hide and still be out there?”
Batra was speaking specifically about his filmmaking process: He was trying to work out how to balance showing his work, connecting with his audience, and maintaining a public presence online and off with his need to hide, to be private, go away, to withdraw into himself and his work long enough for good, creative stuff to happen.
His question, put another way, was: How do I hide and still be found?
Like all great questions, it seems to grow more important and more complex over time. I thought I’d handled it well in my book, the whole point of which was to outline how artists and other workers might set up a sustainable level of sharing while they work. It was, basically, a book for people who were great at hiding, but not so great at being findable. When I wrote that book, the internet, for me, was a place of opportunity, where, as Olivia Laing put it in The Lonely City, “You can reach out or you can hide; you can lurk and you can reveal yourself, curated and refined.” But even in 3 years, the internet has changed, and this question, How do I hide and still be out there?, it keeps popping up, nagging at me, most recently when I was writing about the myth of the artistic recluse.
We seem to have being out there nailed. We’re all of us, it seems, out there. Maybe we need some help learning how to hide again?
For me, that’s what this year has been about: Learning how to hide and still be found. How to stay connected overall, but how to disconnect in crucial ways that allow me to recover some calm, some privacy, some inner sense of self, so that I can make great things to share. Because if you don’t hide, at least a little bit, it’s hard to make something worth being found.
Granted, it was published in The New York Times Style Magazine, so one doesn’t expect any deep Marxist analysis or whatever, but nowhere in Megan O’Grady’s essay “Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?” does she suggest that maybe, just maybe, the reason there aren’t so many “artistic recluses” these days is that it’s actually pretty expensive to be a recluse, and people like Thomas Pynchon, who O’Grady calls “the last of our great literary recluses,” are able to retreat into a private life, shut off from the public, because they can actually afford to.
You could step back for a minute and question whether some of the artists O’Grady calls out in the essay are (or were), by definition, actual recluses. Over at Vice there’s the subhead for “Thomas Pynchon and the Myth of the Reclusive Author” saying “it’s not as if the man is some kind of ghost.” I don’t personally know a whole lot about Pynchon, but Thoreau, the author in the batch whose life I can claim to be solidly familiar with, only lived at Walden for two years, and even then, he entertained guests, attended family dinners, etc. He spent most of his life deeply involved in Concord life, teaching children, surveying land, and lecturing around New England. (O’Grady claims Thoreau’s form of civil disobedience was “to withdraw instead of to Tweet,” but I wouldn’t call publicly speaking out in support for John Brown and abolition and spending a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government waging an unholy war withdrawing.)
Heck, even Emily Dickinson, who starts the piece, has had her reclusive myth re-examined. Check out “The Networked Recluse,” an exhibit and catalog dedicated to capturing “the fullness and vitality of Dickinson’s life, most notably her many connections—to family, to friends, to correspondents, to the literary tastemakers of her day.”
But setting aside the question of whether “the age of the artistic recluse” ever actually existed, the essay really seems to be lamenting how this generation of authors not only embrace social media, but also engage in self-promotion and self-publicity, cultivating “a cyclical relationship with the spotlight, intermittently stepping into and receding from it.” While O’Grady seems to see self-promotion as an artistic or personal decision (she calls herself one of a group of “technological Bartlebys who would prefer not to post the contents of our closets/bookshelves/hearts on social media”), I see it more and more as a market-driven one: if there’s a mythical age that’s disappearing, it’s the one in which the author didn’t have to self-promote their work or build their own audience. (O’Grady says, “No one wants to imagine Virginia Woolf on book tour, or Joseph Cornell submitting to a magazine profile” — do people want to remember Hemingway doing booze ads?)
My agent gives book proposal workshops, and his first piece of advice for people who want to publish a book is: “Get famous first.” (He also says to remember that “all publishing is self-publishing.”) The state of the publishing industry is such that if a young writer today wants her book published by a major publisher, chances are she will need to bring along a pre-built platform and a previously gathered audience for her work. A major part of putting together a book proposal today is gathering up Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and newsletter subscriber counts.
It’s not as if it’s any different in other industries, such as music. (Heck, it’s probably worse.) In Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, he quotes Taylor Swift’s 2014 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans—not the other way around.” Harris points out that older Americans “like to complain about the way many young people obsessively track our own social media metrics, but it’s a complaint that’s totally detached from the behavior’s historical, material causes.”
Even if you’re already famous, social media and self-promotion is part of the job and a necessity for sales. With magazines and other major news outlets declining, there are fewer and fewer places in which advertisements or publicity for books would even make a dent in the reading public’s consciousness, even if publishers were inclined to spend the money. (They are not.) Like all workers, artists have to take on more and more of a workload with less compensation.
The tension for the artist in contemporary life is the same that it has always been: How do you secure a living for yourself while maximizing your art-making time and energy? Some would say, “Well, forget about social media, then. Forget about self-promotion. Forget about sales. Keep your overhead low, get a day job, and just write.” That can be good advice, depending on the writer, and it’s advice I have given in the past. The problem is that it’s increasingly impossible for any American worker to secure a living, let alone keep one of the steady jobs that previously sustained artists, allowing them the free time, mental space, and chance for disconnection that much writing requires. (I think of Harvey Pekar, author of American Splendor, working at the V.A. hospital in Cleveland, and the words of Jack Donaghy: “Lemon, we’d all like to flee to the Cleve.”) But “keep your day job” only works if there are actually decent day jobs.
No, it takes money and a room, so the working artist is going to have to hustle, one way or the other. O’Grady praises Kazuo Ishiguro for his “resistance against the role of artist-as-performer” in his “quietly myth-demolishing” article in The Guardian about how he wrote The Remains of The Day during a “four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the ‘crash.’” Good for him, but he already had two prize-winning novels on his resume. (And “The Crash” was made possible by his wife’s willingness and ability to keep all things domestic going, and, one presumes, a cache of saved money.) It’s admirable to see an artist pulling back from the techno-hustle, but it’s also admirable to see a working artist able to artfully balance their creative process and self-promotion without becoming a hollow shell or a piece of human spam.
Which brings us back to “the artistic recluse.” Yes, the best way to drop out and become an “artistic recluse,” even if it’s temporary, is to already be famous, and, more importantly, flush with cash. If you can’t live with your family, like a Thoreau or a Dickinson, you’re gonna need money, honey. Dave Chappelle, who spends most of his days on a farm in Yellow Springs, summed it up in a joke on one of his recent comedy tours: “I’m just back out here to make enough money to disappear again.”