The Self-Promotion Paradox

We live in an era of rampant narcissism. The word “selfie” has ingrained itself in our lexicon, our social media feeds are full of celebrities with no discernible talent except egotism, and both mainstream sensationalist media and the average consumer have to scream over one another to get anybody to listen.

I hate it–and I’m the problem.

Both of my passions, martial arts and creative writing, face the same dilemma. If you don’t promote yourself, then who will?

We post pictures or videos ironically with the disclaimer, “Sorry for the shameless self-promotion.” Of course, if we were actually sorry, we wouldn’t publish the post. Yet it is increasingly acceptable to stand at the top of a building and sing your own praises to anyone who will listen. Everyone I know who is considered successful in their own field has, at some point, blatantly advocated for themselves.

We all have our own agendas behind our “brand.” We also all have egos that feel rewarded when we get recognition within our cliques and communities. We all feel as though it is justified to self-promote–because we are right and everybody else is wrong.

So how do you know if you’re fighting the good fight for truth and righteousness, or if you’re one of the bullshit artists endlessly clamouring for another like or share?

Full disclosure: of course, I check my blog stats more often than I should. And, sadly, the results do affect my self-esteem. I already told you, I’m part of the problem.

Discussion vs. Doctrine

One thing that occurs to me is that there is a difference between promoting discussion within your community rather than promoting a doctrine that you want people to subscribe to. Disagreement is far more interesting than universal agreement. Preaching to the choir doesn’t get you noticed, and eventually the choir is going to stop listening.

A lot of my most successful posts have expressed opinions that, even five years ago, my past self would have fought vehemently against. It’s a sign of growth and development, but also a conversation between my past, current, and future selves. I genuinely hope that I look back at these posts in the future and feel embarrassed. This is a process, and it’s one that I want to share with my colleagues and friends to see how their paths are evolving along the same or different lines.

Discussion can go off topic, digress into anecdote, influence old beliefs, and create new ones. Doctrine is static, defined, and boring. Doctrine may earn a like, but never a comment.

Principles or Personalities?

Through self-promotion, are you putting something valuable into the universe, or simply asking for recognition to satisfy your own ego? The answer, of course, is yes. It’s hard to tell the difference, but Bushi Matsumura put it like this: “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which the fighting traditions rest, serve to remind you to place virtue ahead of vice, values ahead of vanity and principles ahead of personalities.”[i]

Perhaps this is the difference between self-promotion as an act of selfishness and self-promotion as an act of altruism. Is there an enduring message that goes beyond your own personal agenda? Does that message align with greater ideals that transcend your own flawed perspective and say something greater about the human experience? Will your sentiments echo and be recognized by others as articulating something they have felt, but haven’t put into words?

Then again, maybe this is too much to ask. Maybe a selfie is just a goddamn selfie.

Solipsism for the Win!

Solipsism is the philosophy that we only definitively know that the self exists; the rest of the universe may be in our imagination. The corollary is that we are bound by our own perspectives. We can’t really see another person’s point of view, because we are biased by being who we are.

We promote ourselves because we recognize the inherent value in our own ideas and opinions, even when no one else does. Social media is dangerous because it reinforces this through confirmation bias. It feeds content only to people who are already inclined to agree with it.

So really, we are just in an echo chamber, screaming over our own reverberations in the hope that someone will notice and acknowledge us. Is there a solution?

Allow for silence. Take a break. Become a minimalist in terms of posts and self-promotion. Follow the “less is more” philosophy. Speak only when you feel compelled to. Do it better than me.

In the words of the Bubishi, “An empty vessel makes the most noise.”[ii]


[i] McCarthy, Patrick. “Beyond Physical Training.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog. <http://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/12/beyond-physical-training.html> 1994.

[ii] McCarthy, Patrick (Trans.) Bubishi: The Bible of Karate. Tuttle Publishing, 1995. Pg. 67.

Open Mic Dos and Don’ts

Reading on open mics is a great way to establish a presence in the literary world before you’ve published extensively. It can be useful as a method of troubleshooting poems and getting constructive feedback on your work. In order to make a good first impression, here are a few ground rules to keep in mind.

DOS

Stick to the time limit. Most open mics are squeezed in before, after, or between featured readers. The features are why the majority of the audience is there. There is typically a line of people who want to read on the open mic, so usually a three to five minute window is allotted to each person. Failing to stay within that range implies an ego that is disrespectful towards the other readers and the audience, which is not a great way to earn support from your peers.

Know what you’re going to read. Within the limited amount of time mentioned above, it doesn’t make sense to spend the first thirty seconds of your set flipping through twenty pages of work to select which poems to read. It’s usually best to bring roughly five pieces to choose from, then read about three of them. Choose before you walk up to the mic.

Say thank you. You know your work is that of a genius yet to be discovered and acknowledged by the literary world, but the audience and organizers do not. Show gratitude for the opportunity to be heard by expressing your thanks to the listeners, readers, and hosts.

DON’TS

Read something you just wrote. The idea of sharing a fresh, unadulterated moment of pure creativity is sexy, but it doesn’t play out well in a reading. Editing is crucial. New work that hasn’t been rehearsed often causes stumbles and hesitations in delivery, which obscures the quality of the work. Plus if you’re anything like me, reading your own handwriting is a significant obstacle.

Give more backstory than content. A lot of poems are understood more vividly when given context, but especially with shorter works, it doesn’t make sense to spend three times as much time on introduction as actual poem. Give the poems the context they need, but nothing more.

Ramble. We would all love to think that we can arrive in front of an audience and be spontaneously witty and charming. About a quarter of us are correct in that assumption. It’s amazing how often readers talk themselves into a corner and then struggle to bring the banter back to the poem they wanted to read. Know what you want to say to transition between poems, and stick to that. If you’re not sure, err on the side of just reading the poems. Good work should speak for itself.

Publication and Validation

Before I began my current job, especially when I was an undergraduate student, I was relentless in attending a wide variety of poetry related events–book or magazine launches, readings, and open mic nights–in order to network and learn the ins and outs of the literary world. At one point, I even ran a monthly reading series at the University of Toronto’s historic Hart House. The embarrassingly atrocious attendance for these readings did nothing to dampen my youthful enthusiasm.

Now, as a full-time ESL teacher and part-time martial artist, it is difficult to find time. On the rare occasions that I can make it to a launch or reading, I am typically in the company of at least one or two acquaintances that I made from my more ambitious days. Inevitably, the question always arises: “So have you been doing a lot of writing these days?” My response is almost automatic: “Writing a lot, but publishing very little.”

I began to wonder why I feel the need to distinguish between the two, or to qualify my answer at all. Why is it that “successful” writing is supposed to lead to mainstream publication?

1) External Value

We do love our validation . . . right?

The notion that publication from an established, third party confirms the value of the work is ingrained in many writers. It doesn’t matter that, in many cases, the writer may have personal associations with the editor who is selecting the work; the letter of acceptance is seen as impartial validation that the words on the page are of value.

Of course, having your submission selected from the slush pile by an established publisher lends credence to the quality of the writing. However, as print media continues on its path to extinction, the competition in the market also suggests that many worthwhile pieces (perhaps from more obscure or less connected authors) will be increasingly receiving rejection letters in response.

At the risk of admitting my own incompetence, I will admit that sometimes when I receive the magical words of acceptance from an editor, I am surprised–not necessarily by the fact that they chose one of my pieces, but more that they overlooked the ones that I felt were the strongest in favour of those that I felt were inferior. Perhaps thematically or stylistically they fit better with the issue of the magazine being compiled, or perhaps I simply don’t know my successes from my failures until an editor informs me of the result.

2) Audience

They love me! They really really love me!

Very few writers produce work exclusively for their own satisfaction, however much they may claim not to care what others think. Writers need readers to be satisfied with their product. Publication is the easiest way to access an audience wider than one’s own circle of friends and family members, who may also be too polite to tell you that they hate poetry.

An unfortunate reality of the current market is that we have an excess of writers and a shortage of readers, especially when it comes to creative writing. Fiction is more likely to be read by many who don’t write fiction; poetry, especially, is not. It is also astounding to see how many authors will attend events but refuse to purchase books in support of the press they are hoping to eventually publish with. Naturally, from a financial standpoint it is impossible buy every book we encounter–we are poets, after all–but if we hope to utilize the industry to advance our own careers, we have to invest in it too, before it disappears entirely.

3) Intention

Although not in all cases, at times we may sit down to write with a specific publisher in mind. Themed issues of magazines especially provoke this kind of response. The illusion of the pure, unadulterated moment of inspiration is still powerful and widespread, but the reality is that most authors intend for their work to be published–either by a specific press or an anonymous one–when they are creating and editing it. This intention means that we are thinking about how work will be received by an audience before it even has one.

If the work is originally meant for a reader and doesn’t find one, this will naturally be disappointing. We all feel that deflating sensation when we realize that a response to a submission is a rejection rather than the acceptance we were secretly hoping far too much for.


It is difficult to know whether it is possible to feel successful without attempting to publish. If the goal is to write better, more meaningful pieces, who measures: the author, the publishing industry, or the readers?

It is both reassuring and frightening to know that, like me, publishers may not know exactly the value of their own decisions either. They may accept books or pieces that they think are works of literary genius, but get a mediocre response, and be on the fence about other works that turn out to earn universal praise and numerous awards.

It is also true that many authors are not fully appreciated in their own lifetimes, but their work resonates generations later. In the moment, it is difficult to know whose words will address the malaise of a future society that hasn’t manifested yet.