First: Those of you old enough to remember Honda’s ad campaign from the ‘80s, put gold stars up next to your names. We’re going to be using that conceit as the model for our discussion today.
Now: to business.
Sometimes you blurt out all at once what’s been taking years to take shape inside of you. In my case, it was something I found myself saying in a conversation some years ago about being an independent creator: “Shouldn’t this stuff sell itself?”
The full implications of such a blurting-out didn’t become completely clear to me until recently. The surface, though, seems self-explanatory: Don’t we all walk around with the feeling, justified or not, articulated or not, that the thing we’re working on really doesn’t need to be pushed across a table to people? That as long as the prospective audience has even the most passing awareness of your work, the work’s sheer amazeballs-ness will be enough to get them to part with their dough?
I believe this. I wish I didn’t, but there you are. Beliefs are not things that exist or can be torn down by mere logical argument. The only way out of them—assuming you want out of them in the first place—is to build up beliefs that counter them, even if only at right angles, and keep exposing yourself to the workings and manifestations of those new (and one hopes, healthier, less deluded) beliefs.
We all have the right to be prejudiced about our creative work. It’s ours, after all. We may be lucky enough to get other people to stump for it, and after a certain point fanbases tend to be self-perpetuating anyway. But getting there, giving the rock the first shove down the cliff (and man, is that ever one heavy-ass rock), that’s the tough part—in big part because we keep expecting the work to sell itself.
Most people do not want to promote their work, because promotion is difficult and time-consuming. Every moment you spend promoting something is a moment less left to you to actually create, which is why the Bad Old Publishing Industry is still with us. For a select few, they do provide those kinds of services. Maybe not to the extent most of us would want, but let’s face it—they get books on shelves, they put ads in papers, and they do so much of the scutwork that authors cannot make time for without inconveniencing themselves.
But unless you’ve won the slush-pile lottery, you’re on your own, and you have to do your own heavy lifting. And one of the corollaries for such work is trying to find a way to look at your own work as if you know nothing about it.
Think about the last time you breathlessly blurted to a friend about the coolness of something (that is, something you didn’t create). You most likely tailored your words to match the other person’s curiosities, didn’t you? Congratulations! You’re a salesman, and you didn’t even know it. Give yourself a ten percent raise.
Now here’s the secret corollary to that: You’re always selling your work.
Even when you’re just mumbling to yourself about its fundamental coolness while waiting for the elevator, you’re selling your work to an audience of one: you. Most of us are more familiar with when someone else steps into the elevator with you and you blurt out the “elevator pitch” to them between floors (see? now you know why they call it that).
But even when you’re just talking to yourself about it, you’re selling yourself on it. That’s part of how we remain interested in what we’re doing, by allowing ourselves to be propagandized anew, over and over again, about the merits of what we’re doing. If we stop doing that, it becomes way too easy to lose interest in it.
That’s also why we feel like this stuff should sell itself. We don’t even notice, nine times out of time, that we’re selling ourselves on its greatness. Its perceived greatness is a product of our own unceasing labor.
The more we look into how we sell ourselves on our own work, the easier it gets to figure out how to sell it to others.