Last week I attended live webinar sessions on publicity and marketing, hosted by Penguin Random House, and open to any PRH author. (Please don’t stop reading just because I said “webinar”!) My only expectation was that this would be outside my comfort zone; and that I needed to attempt to engage on this subject, and at least acknowledge the truth that to publish a book is to be called to champion that book. And let’s be frank: the call to personally champion and publicize one’s own book feels overwhelming. (A stat dropped during one of the sessions: over 200 books are published each week — that may be a US-specific stat, but the point remains. It’s a crowded marketplace. What’s a writer to do?)
First, I want to confess that I enjoyed the webinars a lot. (This may be a sign that a) I’m starved of peer-to-peer contact and b) must start inviting friends over again to the back yard shack — it’s been a long, cold winter!)
Second, the most practical advice I gleaned is to tailor your approach to your own interests, abilities, affinities. Also useful: if you’re using social media for publicity purposes do it like this: get on, post, get off. At one point, someone said “You’re looking at branding yourself for a clear trajectory long-term,” and I wrote in my notes (oh god, I have not done this well at all!), by which I meant having “a clear trajectory.” I won’t even touch the subject of branding, but the question that kept humming around my brain was: Is anyone going to ask what happens when you make yourself into a brand? (No one did, me included; honestly, it wasn’t the right forum for that question, if there is a right forum.)
Third, the sessions made clear that most successful writers get good at a bunch of things (podcasting, publishing a newsletter, posting videos on TikTok or streaming on Instagram Live, or teaching, speaking, etc.), and the books they publish are just one thread in a web of activities, built around their interests and expertise. Okay. But does this apply more aptly to writers of non-fiction: academics, public figures, chefs or doctors? Maybe; I observed that most of the best-selling authors profiled in these sessions were writing non-fiction. However, I think this approach can make sense for fiction writers too — if it builds and develops naturally.
Confession: I’m resistant to the idea of self-promotion. It feels self-serving, and I’m uncomfortable with that; further, it’s the part of the job that in the past drained my energy and ambition, filled me with dread and fear. Even writing this post is giving me twitches of shame. I sense myself needing to explain: everyone does it, it has to be done, they’re telling me I need to be good at this, I’m just trying to figure out how. Please forgive me, please don’t hate me.
That desire to be liked goes deep, but it’s not just that; I’ve been conditioned to believe, way down deep, that women who stand up and demand an audience aren’t just unlikeable, they’re vulnerable. These are deep fears. Drawing attention to myself, becoming a target, getting mired in ego, serving self not others, making claims that maybe can’t be met, over-stepping, saying the wrong thing, getting too comfortable and getting knocked down … so many fears. But here’s what I know: anytime I approach a problem or a goal from a place of fear, I get knotted up, confused, entangled, and overwhelmed.
There is another way, a different approach: to come from a place of clarity, grounded, focused on the goal, attuned to changing contexts, curious, open to learning, and connected to the source of my own values and purpose. Picture a tree with deep roots, branches moving, changing with the seasons. (There’s my vision for a clear long-term trajectory!)
Here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to accept my own challenge, and begin this marketing/publicity exploration from a place of curiosity, by asking:
What resources are already available to me? What am I already practiced at doing? What do I already know?
What would I like to learn or try out? What am I curious about?
Who is with me on this path? Who are my collaborators, mentors, friends and peers? Where do we meet?
What compelled me to write this book, and why does it matter so much to me? What themes and interests are woven into this book that connect with my world and perhaps also with yours?
Answers (musings, reflections, wonderings, and likely more questions), coming soon.
PS I’ve been signing up for more live online events, and I’ve noticed that it’s the live part that works. Has anyone else found this too? Even with my microphone and camera off, it feels like I’m part of something — an audience member, a participant, engaged, ever so slightly necessary to the proceedings; pre-recorded doesn’t compare. (Then again, neither does live in-person, but we take what we can get right now!)
A year, a year, it’s been a year. We’re all thinking about this, aren’t we. Where we were a year ago when we knew. When we knew that something big was happening to us, out of our control — something that was shifting the ground under our feet, cancelling our plans, sending us indoors to scrub all the surfaces, separating us from friends and loved ones, making the world go quiet.
A year ago, I was so busy, so squeezed for time, so exhausted, stretched so thin, that when everything got cancelled — the X Page workshop, soccer, school and kids’ activities, the gym — what I felt in the immediate aftermath was simple relief. I was so tired, it seemed I’d been operating on the verge of collapse. Suddenly, I could sleep, and sleep is what I did, sleeping, then staggering around in a blur, checking twitter a million times a day as if I could discover an accurate prediction of the future, or figure out how to assess risk. I suppose we’ve been trying to figure that out all year. A year on, we know more, collectively, about the risks and about what mitigates risk, including wearing masks, which we didn’t understand in those early months when instead we were bleaching the countertops and sanitizing the doorhandles and washing our hands till the skin cracked.
It wasn’t until just now, as the anniversary has come upon us, that I’ve recognized my own feelings of grief and loss. It’s been a year of pause. We’ve experimented, yes, we’ve tried new ways to interacting, we’ve baked sourdough bread, and gone for hundreds of walks, and helped each other out. Some of this is working quite well: I love doing yoga online in my own little studio; I love chatting with Grandma on Zoom. And I’ve loved having this extra year with all my children still living at home.
But … but … for me, as for many of us, I’ve lost some part of my identity, I’ve lost work and volunteer opportunities, my kids have lost much of their spontaneous social interactions with peers, and I have too.
Many of us have been more alone. Or, we’ve seen people we love struggle, being more alone, and we’ve been unable to help in the ways we ordinarily would and could.
And while I’ve learned a lot that I want to keep from this past year, I’ve learned, too, that it’s important to acknowledge what I’m carrying. And the truth is that this year has felt strangely empty, like lost time. I don’t know how to explain it. But there it is. Looking back across this year is like looking at a scene in which almost nothing moves. It’s quiet. I can hear the wind and the birds. It’s eerie, too. There’s something on the edges of this quiet that is unsettling; uncertainty; a continual unfolding in all directions toward an unknown horizon. That’s what I see when I visualize this past year.
Others will have a very different picture in their minds.
I haven’t been anywhere near the front lines. Those stories of this year would be completely different in tone and energy, learning, loss and grief.
Here’s the thing. I don’t know what I want to do next.
Part of me wants to burst with the coming hope of spring and vaccines and reopenings. Part of me waits, wary and cautious, unwilling to venture any guesses, or name any desires.
And part of me floats above all this, and says, hey, this day, this hour, this moment is what you’ve got, and you are safe, you are loved, you are not alone. Let yourself be here, unfolding out toward unseen horizons.
Yesterday afternoon, I set out solo in the sunshine. I love the people in my house and I love my house; yet the need to escape was powerful. To move.
On the busier sections of path, snippets of conversation floated past:
“The single-best way to leave a legacy, guaranteed, is to have a lot of children—” (Spoken by one young man to another, both wearing sunglasses, coming toward me on the trail.)
“Actually, I had a bit of a set-back this week. My tennis friend called and said ‘I have bad news….'” (Two women crossing my path diagonally.)
The sun was so warm, I took off my scarf and hat, unzipped my jacket.
On the quiet stretches of path, I told myself stories about who I wanted to be, who I remembered being. Who knows what a calling is anyway? I miss interacting with people. I miss working with students, I miss coaching. I said this out loud, so I could really hear it.
I listened to an On Being podcast three times yesterday, while mixing and kneading bread dough, doing laundry, searing a small roast, chopping veggies (though not while out walking): Krista Tippett’s conversation with Ariel Burger. I listened and listened and listened, trying to absorb the wisdom.
Do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
It sounds very basic: a recipe for being a witness, not a spectator.
I wondered what to do if the person being humiliated was yourself; what then? (The podcast does not discuss power.) I see people who are hurt and wounded by their interactions with systems designed to crush and humiliate them, hurt by people acting within those systems, and I think: what protection is there against this cruelty, injustice? We are asking too much of individuals to fight for themselves, by themselves.
Maybe that’s the power of witness? If you can, if you are able, be a witness, a true witness, and do not let anyone be humiliated in your presence.
Be a blessing.
Be a blessing? How? Alone in my studio, writing stories? With my family? Reaching out to friends?
We are also called to be as strangers to each other, to recognize and acknowledge that others can and will surprise us, if we allow them to. If we approach each other (strangers, family, friends) neither from a place of fear, nor from a place of over-familiarity, what will we learn?
To be a blessing is to push against, as well as to meet. My ideas, experiences, perspective, beliefs will not match up perfectly with yours, no matter how we might wish it. Unity is not conformity.
The divine in me sees the divine in you.
But you are not me. I am not you.
To be blessed is to be given something to carry. A blessing can be heavy. It can ask a lot of the other, the one who is seen. As a coach, as a teacher, as a parent, what I hope to communicate is the deep value in trying; not striving, necessarily, it doesn’t have to be so strenuous; trying. To say: I tried, is to acknowledge your own effort. To say: You tried, is to see someone else’s, to name it.
There’s a lightness to trying. There’s acceptance that trying doesn’t always lead to success. There’s room for surprise. Experiment. Consider. Be blessed. Leap. What if you try and you discover something different, something unexpected, something you weren’t looking for? Isn’t that wonderful too? To try is to leave room for curiosity.
- What felt good this month? It’s February 1st, and the beginning of January seems eons ago. I’m grateful to my cartoon journal entries for recording the emotional ups and downs — but especially the ups. Otherwise, I might forget that January was a productive writing month, for example, or that our family looked forward to fun activities, which brightened the overall dulling effect of our generally similar days. In January, I’ve started charting out daily/weekly aspirational goals in my notebook (a messy page of activities that I can check off): these include things I value but might not otherwise prioritize, like reaching out to friends and family, or reading, or playing piano. I’ve been giving myself permission, and even incentive (three cheers for reward sheets!), to follow through on aspirational goals that have little worldly value, but feed me in every other way: spiritually, creatively, and in relationship with others.
- What did you struggle with? Career stall-out; stasis. It helps that there’s been a spotlight in Canada on the plight of artists, including writers, during the pandemic; I’m not the only one with a pushed pub date, or other delays and disappointments. But here’s the thing: the struggle has felt surface level, ego-level. Underneath, I’m full of hope and belief in my writing direction, in the research I’m doing, and in nurturing this life-long habit of curiosity and exploration, no matter the outcome. Process interests me, rather endlessly. So how could I complain or worry, when I’m able to tick through that list of entertaining and enriching daily aspirational goals and activities?
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? I have no idea. This question is impossible! I’m relieved that the US has a new president. That happened! I’m a month older than when we last checked, and I feel essentially the same in terms of goals, hopes, dreams, concerns. I waver between, it’s going to be okay, eventually, isn’t it, right?, and, be here now, that’s what matters. I live in the latter as often as possible.
- How did you take care of yourself? I’m trying to notice my irritating flaws (pretty easy to spot when confined in tight quarters with five others + dog), name them, and laugh at myself when I notice I’m going down one rabbit hole or another. Should it irritate me so much that Kevin leaves the cupboard doors open? Or that people let the dog out but never back in again?
- What would you most like to remember? That I can trust myself to make decisions that support those I love, and myself, even when the conversations are challenging.
- What do you need to let go of? Timelines. Control over timelines. The paralyzing idea that I’m losing time to this pandemic, that my life is suspended in some fundamental way; that as the months tick past and nothing changes, I’m aging past relevance. Whoa, I’ve named a lot of fears here. Now to let them go … I think the checklist of aspirational activities helps with the letting go: when I sit at the piano and play Bach, I don’t think, you are wasting time. I just sink into the moment and concentrate on what I’m making, and feeling, and hearing, and experiencing — time travel through music, connecting across the centuries with other minds and hands and ears. And these moments are always available, maybe even especially right now! I’ve only got to give myself over to them, and let go of my need to predict the future. (BTW, this is my favourite question, every time! It’s so cathartic to name the thing that needs letting go, often something that catches me by surprise. I highly recommend answering it for yourself, and all the better if you write it down.)
Onward into February!
PS Here’s a sample aspiration chart …
My most recent list of categories goes like this: cardio; yoga; get outside; stretch; extra exercise; piano; cartoon; nap; read; meditate + “Source” (my word of the year, 2021); write; transcribe; revise; research; grants; cook/bake; clean; orders; family time; friends; sibs/parents; fun; thankful; X page.
It’s a new year, and here we are. Oddly, I’ve chosen to anchor this post with a photo taken on a drive to the country, though I’m so rarely inside a car these days that it’s hardly representative. Mostly, I’m inside my studio, inside my house, looking out my window.
Today is sunny. I should really go outside for a walk, though the blue shadows are already long, even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We live in a northern country. The seasons tell us what to wear, how to be. January has often been a month of contemplative reflection for me. But I’m not sure I can take more contemplative reflection than I’ve already got on the go. I live too much inside my head already. Inside this house. Inside these studio walls.
Go outside, Carrie! Soak up some sunshine!
Do not go back to sleep
You must ask for what you really want
Do not go back to sleep
How can I ask for what I want when I don’t know what that is?
Have you ever asked yourself what you really want? I find it is an impossible question to answer. I’ve sat here looking out the window at cars and people and dogs passing by, and I just can’t think what it is that I really want. The answer could be so very small, or so very big. I might want a cup of tea, for example; or I might want moral authority. (Is that even something a person can want or aspire to?)
Or maybe I want something that I don’t even know that I want. Maybe I want to be surprised. The thought of being surprised brings forth significant anxiety, I realize, typing those words; and yet, I think I do in some way want to be surprised—preferably happily surprised. It seems to be an element lacking in this current arrangement of life under lockdown. As a creature of habit, I’m mostly quite content following my daily routines, which are healthy and nourishing, and yet, and yet—
I want a little more energy and determination. I want to laugh with a friend.
I want to go outside and partake of this brisk, bracing season.
PS There’s more to that poem, in the translation that’s on my bookshelf:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
- What felt good this month? I’m writing this on the last day of this month, which is the last day of this year, and a long winter waits ahead. This month, the advent calendar activities kept me going, surprising and fun; it made every day a little bit special and that was the kids’ doing: their creative suggestions powered the joy of the advent calendar (mine were terrible! dull, pedestrian, I would never have thought up surprise ice-cream outings or wearing someone else’s clothes for a day!). We also ate some very good food; and I wasn’t the only one to cook it! Angus cooks for us once a week, and he made my birthday dinner (three-cheese lasagna with roasted veggies). My siblings and parents also made and shared food with each other to celebrate Christmas. I loved sharing stories with writing friends this month too.
- What did you struggle with? Mostly I’d accepted in advance how different this holiday would be, and that helped. But I felt unexpectedly blue on Christmas Eve, missing our family’s rituals. I missed silly things, like straining for the high notes while singing Christmas carols with my siblings, or watching my mom open gifts, which wasn’t quite the same on Zoom. I missed serving a big turkey dinner to a very full table (I mean, our table was still pretty full, since I live with five other people, but you know what I mean).
- Where are you now compared to the beginning of the month? The same. I think? I’m feeling a bit apprehensive about the next couple of months, hoping we can keep our boat afloat here, and stay hopeful and optimistic and healthy, mentally and physically, and not go stir crazy. I usually enjoy January — the quiet after the holiday storm — but there’s been a lot of quiet already. In any case, I’m giving myself a break, a holiday, right now. I know our routines and healthy habits will return to us soon enough. For today, I’ll enjoy some sloth and debauchery (on a small scale).
- How did you take care of yourself? Daily drawing and colouring. Getting outside every day. Spin and yoga. Not too much caffeine. Afternoon cup of tea. Reaching out to friends. Finding things to look forward to, including planning to sponsor another refugee family with a neighbourhood group, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. Adding new songs to my playlists, listening to artists that are new to me (Freddie Gibbs; SAULT; Open Mike Eagle; Jay Electronica; Rina Sawayama; Bleachers…). Reading fiction. Doing crosswords and word games.
- What would you most like to remember? That I can have fun, be fun. That even when I’m feeling down or discouraged about being a writer, some part of me is still excited about the stories I’m discovering, and the characters I’m getting to know.
- What do you need to let go of? Getting things right. I like the cartoon project because there’s always something wrong with it, the caption is worded awkwardly, or I’ve drawn the perspective all wonky — and that reminds me that my purpose in life isn’t to be perfect, but to dive in and get messy and do what I’m here to do, whatever that may be: whether or not I signed up for it, whether it makes sense or not, and even if I couldn’t possibly explain its value, or argue for its importance. It isn’t up to me to know what will matter or be meaningful. It’s up to me to be kind, sensible, attentive, alive to the world around me, and to witness and respond. Also, to love the flaws.
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