What If You Build It and No One Comes?
The (thorny, bedeviling) art of the sale
In the super-fundamentalist church-school of my childhood, I was taught the importance of humility above all else.
“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” said the almighty King James Version of the Bible in Proverbs chapter 16, verse 18.
Pride was a sin. But then, everything was a sin. Before I could even spell my name, I knew that I was nothing. Born bad, as were all humans. Wretches and worms in dire need of a Divine Savior to clean us up and make us worth something.
The Jesus I grew up with liked to use metaphors to tell us all the ways in which our lives were meaningless without him, and his pulpit preachers and Sunday School teachers were fanatical about quoting him every chance they got: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” That’s Jesus, speaking King James English, of course, in John 15:5.
If you have no value without God, that means anything good or useful or worthwhile you do is because of God and through God and with God and has nothing to do with you because remember, you’re a wretch and a worm.
The icing on this particular gaslight-flavored cake was that in addition to being born with a sinful human nature, I was also born with a vagina. And in this religion, as in so many religions that men use to garner power and influence in the name of a righteous god, women were taught a very particular role: submission.
According to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, submission equates silence: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
As it was a shame for women to speak in church, it was also a shame to have a strong opinion anywhere else. It was a shame, generally, just to be a woman.
For a long time, I wanted to make up for being born with girl parts by being an exceptionally good girl. So I swallowed the lessons of humility, of worthlessness, of submission and silence, I swallowed them whole. I believed I was worthless but at the same time I desperately wanted to prove my worth.
Programming like that is really difficult to unravel. It sinks into your bones. Even as you put miles and years between yourself and the religion that held you down, you carry that indoctrination beneath your skin, unseen and unknown yet evident in the way you move through the world.
I think this PRIDE-IS-SIN-SO-KEEP-SILENT-WOMAN! conditioning is one of the biggest reasons why I have trouble selling myself in the way that I need to as a writer. I think it’s why I took years and years to say, “I am a writer,” even as I was making a living with my words.
It is not that I have low self-esteem or that I think I’m not good at what I do or that I think no one out there will appreciate it.
It’s that selling myself, saying: “Hello World! Here is my work. I’m pretty good at it. I think you will like it. Come and read!” is problematic. Putting myself out there like that feels crass.
For years and years, I thought that simply doing a good job would be enough. If I kept my head down and worked hard and wrote really well and my words sold all the things my various employers wanted to sell, then I would be rewarded for my diligence, for my devotion to my craft. I would build something beautiful, something truly special, and then I could simply stand back and watch as people discovered it, and loved it, and told others about it, and then more would come.
It doesn’t usually work like that, though, does it?
Not in my former world of advertising and copywriting, not in the world of editorial writing and voice crafting. Not in the world of poetry or creative non-fiction, not in the world of personal essays and memoir and blog. It doesn’t work like that.
You can build something beautiful, but if you want it to have a life of its own beyond you, then you must ask people to come and see. To like and subscribe, read and share, fill the seats, buy the book, tell a friend, give it a follow.
You must fashion yourself a horn, and toot it. Loudly.
That’s the part I hate.
If you want proof that this topic has been weighing heavy on my mind, you need only check in with my friends Sarah/Lisa/Tracy/Ian/Kathy to know that I have brought it up (repeatedly) over noodles and dog walks and Facetime and Zoom calls.
“I know I need to, like, put myself out there more, ” I say, and they nod like duh, “but it just feels so, I don’t know, it feels so gross!”
Recently my friend Tracy reminded me of all the people with little to offer who shamelessly peddle their wares to great (or moderately great) success. They’re not wrestling themselves into stale corners going, “I really want to get my stuff out there but gosh it just feels awkward to promote myself!” They’re not waiting around for fairy godmothers (or publishing agents) to poof into existence with a shiny book contract. No, they’re hustling and publicizing and networking all over the place with nary a care that the quality of the work does not match the size of their following.
I take the point.
In the wild world of publishing, the reality is that the more a writer can prove she has a built-in block of readers—people who appreciate her work enough to plunk down some cash for a hardcover (or soft, e-, or audio) book—the better chance she has of landing a deal.
And I want to land that deal. I want it very much.
Hence all this angst about breaking out the ballyhoo.
I have a list of things I need to do to: horns to toot, etc. It all revolves around building a wider readership and reputation, which I can do by submitting more of my writing for publication in short form (essays, poetry) and posting my blog in more forums where I might find people who are interested in reading. It involves networking and connection-building and seeking out places where I might make more connections, like writing conferences and retreats. I am ticking all those boxes.
I may have been shy about calling myself a writer when I was younger, I may have been brainwashed into believing I didn’t have anything to say that anyone wanted or needed. But I’m decades past that and I know I have something worthwhile to say and the skills to say it well.
Also, I think that what I write resonates beyond the bubble of folks who want to move or have already moved to Portugal or Europe or anywhere else. I write for humans who think and feel and hurt and love and dream and rage and hope and give a shit.
It was never my intention nor my desire for this writing space to become a club for expats—not that I am not grateful for that segment of my readers. I am, truly.
But I want my work to be available for anyone who resonates along this frequency.
And so my ask of you, my readers—whether you’ve been here since the beginning or you just walked in the door yesterday—my ask is this: Could you share The Long Scrawl with one other person whom you think might appreciate it? Or if you’re feeling bold, could you share it with a whole group? Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and all of you have a reach that extends far beyond my own.
So if you’ve enjoyed my work at all, please don’t be shy about sharing it. I’ll do my best to do the same.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to keep the stories coming… and more as well. Within the last two weeks I was interviewed on a podcast and I had a role in a short film! When both of those projects are available, I’ll be sure to post them here.
I am incredibly grateful for each one of you. Knowing that you’re out there, reading, keeps me on the other side of the screen, writing. Thank you.
One Last Thought:
This post was harder to write (and took so much longer) than most. Mostly because it felt selfish to be all blah-blah-blah-I-want-more-readers-I-want-to-publish-a-book-blah-blah. But also because *gestures around wildly* just look at the state of the world right now.
Bombs are raining down on Gaza and Israeli families are missing loved ones with no idea whether or not they’re alive. A war has sent 6.9 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo fleeing for their lives. There is war in Sudan and Somalia and Afghanistan and Syria and Ukraine and so many other places at this very moment. In my own country, violence is the rule rather than the exception. There were 19 mass shootings in the United States in the last seven days alone (source)—the one in Maine last Wednesday that killed 18 and wounded 13 was not an anomaly.
It’s heavy. All of it is so very heavy. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to focus, even as I look around at my bucolic life, at the luxury of peace that I daily take for granted. I’m just so lucky, in so many ways, and sometimes it’s hard to make sense of the inequality, the injustice of it all.
I found comfort in artist Emily McDowell’s thoughts about this same topic when she wrote in her newsletter this week: “I once believed that being hyper-informed about every horrific and heartbreaking and fucked-up thing in the world was like the rent I had to pay for my privilege. I don’t believe that anymore, because I eventually came to understand that when I spent all day reading and scrolling and absorbing pain, anger, and hot takes about pain and anger, all it did was put me into a freeze response in which I was ineffective at taking action, and into a state of despair I was unable to shake. I’ve been working to learn the balance, for me, between leaning into the terrible reality of the news and leaning into the things that make me happy to be alive. I hope you are finding that same balance, whatever it looks like for you.”
So yeah. Here I am, with imperfect thoughts about this imperfect planet we all share. In the end of it all, I am happy to be alive. And grateful, so very grateful, for my life.
Permanent Postscript: If you enjoy my writing and you’d like to support it/me in some small way, you can leave a tip here, on my Tipeee tipping page. No obligation or expectation. Whether you’re a longtime reader or a first-time visitor, I’m grateful to you for reading, for commenting, for sharing, for subscribing, and for sending good vibes. Thank you!
Copyright © 2023 LaDonna Witmer