'The Mere Idea of Self-Promotion Sends Me Into a Doom Spiral!'
Stop focusing on what you want to avoid and focus on what you admire instead.
Georgia O’Keeffe with her painting "Pelvis Series - Red with Yellow” (1945)
When I was in middle school, I started reading The Awl as a way to digitally escape my suburban hometown and hear about Cool Smart People Who Live In Cities and the interesting things they have to say. From there I discovered and fell in love with your column. Growing up with your advice has made me a more honest and sincere and vulnerable person, and it has been a source of stability in profound moments of insecurity. Thank you.
Like many of your readers, I’ve always wanted to be an artist. And as a dutiful Ask Polly reader I have taken your advice: I’ve gone to enough therapy and overcome enough of my self-hatred to trust my own curiosity, enjoy the process, and cultivate an artistic practice I’m proud of. I figured I’d just be writing my weird stuff on my own for a while, and was content with that for the most part, but on a whim I managed to pitch a book of criticism, which was picked up by a publisher (!!!) and will come out later this year (!!!)
The problem is that I feel absolute terror about the fact that a few people could read my book, and that many of these readers do not know me and will not be giving me the benefit of the doubt. I feel all sorts of conflicting and confusing feelings about this.
On one hand, I pitched this book for publication, so I must, on some level, want people to read it. I wrote it because I believed I had something worthwhile to say. I’ve showed the book to friends I respect, who gave me thoughtful, honest criticism but were very positive about my work. I stand by what I wrote, and I do think I contribute something valuable to the discourse.
I also wrote and deleted the previous sentence five times. Do I stand by what I wrote? What if someone criticizes it and I realize I was wrong? I couldn’t bring myself to write “I’m proud of the book” because I’m worried that people who I respect will find things wrong with it and I’ll look like an idiot. I don’t think everyone will hate it. My biggest fear is that someone like myself — who has high standards and is highly judgmental — will say “this book is not good enough, she’s not good enough of a writer, and she didn’t deserve this opportunity.”
This situation is so unreasonably terrifying to me that I shake while thinking about it. It brings my self-hatred back with a vengeance and ruins the little writing utopia I’d managed to construct for myself. I was fine doing art when it was just for me, but now, faced with an audience, I’m cagey and teary and sulky.
I also have come to the conclusion that I want to promote the book when it inevitably comes out. But I can’t even convince myself that my book is worth reading without having a crisis, let alone someone who has to pay money for it. The people I know who are good at self-promotion can convince people, and even themselves, that their work is needed and necessary and important. This attitude seems impossibly fake and antithetical to every cell of my being.
But at the same time I recognize that the assumption undergirding all these anxieties is objectively crazy: my book has to be an unimpeachable masterpiece in order to be worth reading or promoting. That’s an impossible standard! And yet the little voice in my head keeps saying to me “Why would you want to promote something that’s flawed?”
I feel ashamed and utterly unsympathetic. I’ve been lucky to get a book deal and here I am, complaining?
What the fuck is going on, Polly? Why is my self-worth suddenly thin as a condom — one person with bad intentions could render it essentially useless? How do I promote my book when I can’t say anything positive about it without 600 caveats? Why am I so afraid of people and their opinions?
Your help would be, as always, much appreciated.
Trying My Best
Dear Trying My Best,
Writing is a risk. Publishing your writing can feel like taking your clothes off and walking out into the road and just standing there, waiting to be run over. Both criticism and first person writing are exceptionally risky, because they’re all about personal feelings and opinions and ideas and yes, even prejudices, unlovable traits, embarrassing moments, and pet peeves.
The writing I love the most is entertaining, funny, dramatic, and very honest. I need to know that the author isn’t invested in making themselves look more lovable and heroic than they actually are. Whether I’m reading nonfiction, fiction, or criticism, I want to be taken on an exciting ride. I’d like to see some investment: The author tried to pry open his heart. There was an attempt to understand, to love, to get past the thorny parts. But sometimes these attempts ended in failure: I could not love this book like I wanted to. I could not love this man the way I wanted to. I did not become the world’s most amazing mother. I could not glide victoriously across the face of the Earth as my best self, an inspiration to all who gazed upon my perfect form with their needy eyes.
But all readers don’t agree on what writing should be. Some readers will have expectations of your book that have nothing whatsoever to do with what you set out to write.
Other readers will get something different than they expected, but they’ll be surprised at how much they enjoyed these unexpected offerings. Here’s a letter I got this morning from “a modestly overweight middle-aged white guy with a solid and unremarkable career” who has three kids, one of whom is struggling with mental health issues:
These words made me cry. But then I remembered other words.
One of the big reasons why I love being a writer — and why I love writing this column, specifically — is that it forces me to remember what I believe in, what I care about the most, what I love with reckless abandon, and what I want to continue to create, no matter what. Sometimes it feels unfortunate that the writing I find the most valuable and exciting is also the writing that invites people to take the word “harridan” off the shelf, dust it off, and squeeze it into a very long (and very passionate, to be fair!) one-star Amazon review.
I’m just telling you how I feel very directly. And look, if I still wrote for New York Magazine, they’d say NO WAY ARE WE RUNNING A SCREENSHOT OF THIS AMAZON REVIEW, YOU SELF-INDULGENT FOOL. Magazine editors often give notes like “Not everyone will understand this.” But I don’t want to only write things that everyone understands! And what an editor means, in some cases, is not that the writing itself isn’t useful or entertaining. They mean, “If you write this, you’ll run the risk of seeming like a scuzzy, solipsistic, tantrum-throwing harridan.” (A harridan is a belligerent old woman, just fyi. “Ugly” or “old” always have to be mentioned somewhere, so you know who wrote the review in question.)
If you’re honest, in other words, you run the risk of seeming terrible. There’s no escape from that. And notice, please, that we’re not talking about the quality of my book here, or the value of including screenshots from Amazon as a means of illustrating my point. We’re talking about whether or not I’ve embodied some ideal of what’s lovable and delicious about a woman, or some ideal of what’s interesting about middle-brow sociological observations, or some ideal of what’s enjoyable about an appliance that jacks you off while making you feel more confident.
The moral: People want some fucked up shit from your words that have nothing to do with you or what you set out to create.
But let’s go back to what you wrote about what you dislike in other self-promoting authors:
The people I know who are good at self-promotion can convince people, and even themselves, that their work is needed and necessary and important. This attitude seems impossibly fake and antithetical to every cell of my being.
You just described how I used to feel about self-promotion. But you also described how I sometimes sound now, as a self-promoting author who’s absolutely convinced that this column AND my new book are needed and necessary and important. I’m not trying to brag, I’m just telling you the truth. It leaks out! Gross! Likewise, I didn’t set out to write in my book about how annoying my husband is or how absolutely jittery and unbearable I can be. It just winds up on the page!
That doesn’t mean it’s unedited or that I didn’t make a choice to keep it there. I cut so much of my book as I was editing. But I didn’t cut the things that were embarrassing or made me look stupid. I cut the shit that felt insincere or boring or self-congratulatory or it just wasn’t funny or interesting or necessary to the story. I’m sometimes longwinded in this column, but not in this book. I wanted this book to be tight, concise, vivid, tasty.
And you know what? It is.
So listen. I know EXACTLY how you feel about people bragging about how important their work is. I’ve been professionally envious of certain writers whom I’ve often encountered as insincere in their gushing about what they believe in. It took me years of observing some of them to understand that they actually believed the things they were saying. That didn’t make me like their writing more, but it did stop me from assuming that they were faking it, and it stopped me from resenting them for their passion. It also pushed me to ask what I sincerely stand for, what I sincerely love and enjoy and admire in other people’s writing and art.
Think about Georgia O’Keeffe: People asked her about vaginas for years, and she just kept calmly talking about color. She also said:
"I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."
"Someone else's vision will never be as good as your own vision of your self. Live and die with it because in the end it’s all you have. Lose it and you lose yourself and everything else. I should have listened to myself."
"It's not enough to be nice in life. You've got to have nerve."
You wrote a book of criticism, and it’s your first book. I have some edits I’d like to make on my first book. I also don’t love a few of the more hastily written chapters in my second and third books. I’ve asserted some strong opinions in the past that I’d like to erase from the public record. Those words are still out there, so I’m still standing in the road naked, no matter how I feel about the writing I’m doing now.
Again, this is part of what I love about being a writer: I have to conquer my shame head-on, every day. I have to reach for what I believe, and also look for writing that embodies the qualities that I admire the most: bold, funny, honest words from someone who took enormous risks to show their gigantic personality on the page.
Being a writer can make you increasingly self-involved, self-defeating, and neurotic, or it can make you more confident and joyful OR (most likely!) it can do a little of each, depending on the day. It is a high-wire act. It is a giant risk. I was not completely, unabashedly PROUD of every page of my other books, but shame was such a big part of my lens for years that it warped my sense of reality. I also didn’t realize that I needed to return to my manuscript relentlessly, fixing things that bugged me, until I felt proud of what I made.
Even if you can identify flaws in your book now that it’s too late to fix them, you need to try to remind yourself of why you wrote the book you wrote, what you love passionately, and what you want to keep offering to the world for years to come. Don’t become so afraid of being a self-promoting, vainglorious harridan like me that you forget to love who you actually are.
That’s how I lived for years. I collected examples of what I didn’t want to become instead of daring to read the works that humbled and thrilled me. I was focusing on books and writers I didn’t even like (and noticing their annoying self-promotional behaviors!) just so I could feel superior! But I was afraid of reading books and articles and poems that were so great that they made me look like a fumbling amateur by comparison. I was protecting myself!
The irony is that my distaste for what I read only made me more self-conscious and rigid in my writing. I stopped showing myself. Without knowing it, I started to aim for UNIMPEACHABLE and TRIUMPHANT and PERFECT and — no surprise here! — as a result, I wrote stuff that was uninteresting and unremarkable. YOU CANNOT CREATE ART WHEN YOU’RE HAUNTED BY YOUR FEARS AND YOUR SHAME.
You already know this, though, don’t you? I’ll even bet that you wrote something along those lines is in your book of criticism.
So, in the months leading up to your book’s publication, I want you to practice writing down what you believe in and love. I want you to make a list of ten books you admire, and then write down why you admire them so much. I also want you to buy a ring light and a good microphone and then fix your hair and practice explaining to your own face on Zoom why you wrote the book you wrote. The self-hatred and dread from this exercise might feel paralyzing. THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT.
Because dude, it’s a clown show! If you succeed at this author thing, people will want you to do Instagram Live interviews! They’ll ask you questions over Zoom and then throw it up on YouTube, where your dumb face saying dumb shit will live forever and ever! A few weeks ago, a reporter kept asking about my book’s subtitle and when I’d talk about specific chapters, she’d go silent. Finally I realized I was talking to someone who had no idea at all what I’ve written beyond what was on the book’s jacket.
But you know what? She was still a nice person, probably just overworked and exhausted like most journalists and freelancers. And even though I’m tired of putting makeup on my dumb old face and still looking like Walter Matthau in drag, once I put on my ring light and take a deep breath and remember why I wrote my book, I feel calm. I wrote exactly what I meant to write. I’m so fucking proud of it.
And I probably STILL sound completely full of shit to a lot of people! That’s okay.
Becoming a writer doesn’t mean that the whole world will love you unconditionally. If you write honestly and courageously, if you take risks, if you write from the heart, some readers will dislike you for doing exactly that. Other readers will misunderstand you. And some readers will see you clearly and accurately conclude that you’re the type of person they can’t fucking stand. Isn’t that true out in the world, too, whether you’re a writer or not? We humans are not here to be loved by all. Trying to be adored is a fool’s errand, one that will make you miserable and make your writing soggy and dull.
The goal is to write something you love. The goal is to keep doing that even when lots of people are saying STOP IT, YOU’RE THE WORST. It sounds demented, I know, to keep going under those conditions. That’s how it feels to be a writer. That’s also how it feels to be a human being. And when you finally learn to believe in who you are and what you have to offer, it’s the fucking best.
See how we’re talking about love and life and art now, too? You must learn to believe. When you truly believe, you’ll know you’re not bullshitting anyone. That makes it so much easier to show up, to speak clearly, to enjoy the adventure of telling people about your work and yourself. So practice your faith. It will improve your writing and make your life a million times more joyful to boot.
Just remember that being a writer is not about becoming a great, glowing god. You are far less simple than that. Inside every writer, there lives a diarist, an obnoxious circus clown, a thief, a teacher’s pet, an assassin, a seductress, and a deluded old hag, throwing a tantrum. Learn to love all of them.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! You make my life better every single fucking day and I owe you one. My book Foreverland is available here. In the comments, let’s talk about the ongoing challenge of learning to savor your most gloriously opinionated and petulant self.
This is amazing advice but also an amazing letter. I'm merely an enthusiastic reader, but am excited for TMB's burgeoning writing career based on the delivery of that condom analogy alone.
I love that your book upsets people. I love that review where you changed the course of a marriage. I am a big music fan and seem to fall in love with stuff that is sloppy and gritty but so directly from the heart. That is why I love your writing so much, it’s freaking beautiful. Beauty isn’t shiny and perfect, beauty is all of it, I’m still learning this. And to Trying My Best, if you have been reading Heather’s writing since you were in middle school then I have faith in you and your courage. PS, You wrote a freaking book!!! 💚💚💚