Love the Hustle Or: How to Let Go of Your Feelings of Injustice and Have a Good Time Selling Yourself
By Shya Scanlon, Guest Columnist
On September 24th, 2005, a long-overdue one-way ticket landed me in New York City where I’d pledged to seriously pursue a writing career. I found a tiny hole in the Lower East Side, and an email I sent on October 10th reads, “I’m sitting alone in a dark apartment in the middle of one of the most intense and social cities in the world. What the hell is wrong with me?”
My schedule those days involved coming home from my job—working as a copywriter in an office on Broad Street in front of which bomb-sniffing dogs and policemen wearing bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles paraded all day—pouring myself a glass of single malt whiskey, and standing, not sitting, in the kitchen and typing furiously at what eventually became the collection of prose poetry called In This Alone Impulse.
The night I sent that email, like most nights that winter, I was terribly alone, I was half drunk, and I was suffering from an overwhelming mixture of both over and under exposure—close enough to my dreams to be truly frightened by them. I was, in other words, living something closely resembling the idealized image I’d half-consciously carried in my mind about the life of a writer since first wanting to become one.
When you think of the writing life, many things come to mind, both good and bad: isolation, frustration, intensity, investigation, exploration, imagination… booze. If you’re lucky, of course, these things are accompanied by publication, recognition, accolades, and the like. But I would be very surprised if many aspiring authors put things like networking or community building, or—dare I say it here?—hustling on the list. Even near the bottom. That spot is reserved for “dying of syphilis.”
And yet, as many writers realize, it is a hustle. Of course, fortune has always favored the bold in some way, but I’m going to project a little here and say it’s difficult not to feel like small press and online publishing has turned those words of encouragement into an unnerving reality. The literary community made possible by constant and easy online interaction is a boon to the aspiring author in many ways—this web site is a perfect example of a valuable resource that simply couldn’t have existed ten years ago. But it can also be quite insular and cliquish. I know I’m not alone in wondering, from time to time, whether we’re unwittingly creating an environment in which artists are rewarded for their social skills instead of their art.
Not to say self-promotion is always and only met with praise. As a natural and healthy response to the saturation of social media—and the sometimes devious advertisement deals that support the platform—people are becoming, to use appropriately reductive marketing jargon, savvy consumers, and this means you’re bound to attract some whistle-blowers if what you’re doing seems inauthentic or overtly self-promotional.
Like, say, writing an article that thinly disguises a goal of self-promotion with “thoughtful consideration” of the “larger issues at stake.”
So there are the self-promoters—people who seem to take to this system quite naturally (If you haven’t thought about Tao Lin yet while reading this, you obviously haven’t heard of him)—and there are the whistle-blowers. But there are also many writers who resent the fact that they’re increasingly expected to hustle. Is this what we signed up for?
No one my age signed up for developing a readership through blogging for the simple reason that blogging didn’t exist when I was cobbling together my fantasy writer’s life. Someone growing up today, on the other hand, might naturally incorporate such activities into their vision. But that doesn’t help me.
What helps me is to conceive of the activities a bit differently. To use the same kind of attitudes and insights that inspire normal, non-literary pursuits like “introducing friends to one another,” and “throwing parties,” and “streaking through densely populated urban areas at noon.” In our hyper-mediated environment, there’s a kind of blurring of lines that occurs, and to see it clearly you have to take a step back. Does the writing life end when you put down the pen? Close your eyes and concentrate on that fantasy you once had. Get up from the awesome imaginary desk and walk out of the room. Leave your apartment and walk down the street. Ring your friend’s buzzer and say you’re there for dinner. Hang out. Chat.
I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that we’re competing for attention with an increasing number of authors—more and more of whom are starting out as “savvy consumers” who know their way around networking technology. People who read and/or use this site are likely among them. But if you’re still feeling uncomfortable with your new role as writer, marketer, promoter and salesman of your work, it might help to take a simple look around at how you conduct yourself in other parts of your life—things you do even without thinking about it—give them a fancy word like “tactics” and incorporate them into an even fancier word: “strategy.”
Currently, if someone is familiar with my name, chances are good that the phrase “Forecast 42” isn’t far from it in their mind. The 42 Project brought together a host of literature enthusiasts in a co-publishing venture that I think most people found fun, and not a few found inspiring enough to begin similar projects of their own. To be sure, it also caused some backlash here and there from people who turned their noses up at the undeniable stench of self-promotion. And yes, I had my moments of doubt along the way, too. Was it anything more than a stunt? Well, it really didn’t involve anything unfamiliar to anyone who’s planned a party big enough to merit inviting people they don’t really know. Similarly, I met a lot of interesting people in the process, and formed deeper connections with those who I already knew.
I’ll soon be organizing a book release event for In This Alone Impulse, and for it I’m gathering as many writers as I can, each of who will read a brief excerpt of the work. I can’t say I haven’t considered the fact that this will ensure that the audience is at least as large as the number of writers I can involve—and I’m sure a few people will smell a scheme. But the idea began with an authentic interest in bringing people together, in throwing an interesting party, and in full frontal nudity. I think people will get it, and if all goes well, I’ll organize similar “group readings” in a few other cites across the country. It’s a small but significant twist on the standard reading—enough, hopefully, to make it into something memorable and valuable for all people involved.
It’s a long way from the dark apartment in which the poems were created. But because I love the poems, I want them to enjoy a little exposure. And because I love people, I want to introduce them to these poems. Am I selling myself? Sure. But if I didn’t try to build a readership or share what I love, I’d be selling myself short.
Shya Scanlon’s work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, and others. His book of prose poetry, IN THIS ALONE IMPULSE, was published by Noemi Press in January, 2010.
In 2009, his novel FORECAST was serialized online across 42 journals and literary blogs as part of the Forecast 42 Project. Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in spring, 2010. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was awarded the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. Please visit him at www.shyascanlon.com
You heard him, WordHustlers! Shya has perfected the art of hustling his way to success. Why not submit to our Literary Storm Novel Contest and win the chance to be published by Shya’s publishers, Flatmancrooked? Get your work out there and market yourself with passion, panache, and wit. We know you’ve got it in you. And we’re here to help.