Theme: Putting your work out there
Illustration by Molly Fairhurst
Making art, music, or anything creative can be (and usually is) deeply personal. So when the time comes to share what you’ve made with other people, you might feel nervous. What if people don’t like it? What if nobody cares? What if people care too much, or in the wrong way?
The sense of vulnerability that comes with putting your art out into the world is a pretty universal feeling. This week on TCI, we’re focusing on what it takes to go public with your practice, and investigating some of the practical, emotional, and strategic facets of taking your work out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Whether you do this by creating a website, going on tour, posting on social media, sending emails, or any other number of ways, you can find comfort in the fact that nobody seems to find putting their work out there to be a particularly easy experience.
This week, we’ll have an essay by artist and designer Laurel Schwulst about making distinctive websites that feel like clouds, puddles, shelves, and other forms. We’ll also publish a guide by digital strategist Kathryn Jaller, called A creative person’s guide to thoughtful promotion. Also coming up are interviews with the Icelandic yogurt maker Siggi, the performance artist and filmmaker Narcissister, the writer Sheila Heti, and the chef Brooks Headly. Each piece will explore a different facet of what it takes to put your work into the world.
Below, you’ll find additional excerpts from conversations and guides in the TCI archives that share wisdom related to the hard, weird, and fun (!) parts of sharing your work with others. We hope you find it useful.
– Team TCI
A website can be anything. It doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) be an archive of your complete works. That’s going to be dead the moment you publish. A website, or anything interactive, is inherently unfinished. It’s imperfect—maybe sometimes it even has a few bugs. But that’s the beauty of it. Websites are living, temporal spaces. What happens to websites after death, anyway?
— Laurel Schwulst
If at all possible there should be little or no separation between the kinds of things you do for promotion and who you are as a person. In other words, at the end of the day, it’s not a good idea to contort yourself into someone else just to promote a book.
— Jeff VanderMeer
Some people are very good at engaging with all of the aspects of the music industry and doing self-promotion and all of that, and are still very good at maintaining that thread. I respect that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with engaging with the music industry and the showboaty aspects of being an entertainment figure. I’ve just never been very comfortable with that and I don’t think I’m particularly good at it either. I have to just ignore it as much as I can and hope that as long as I’m following whatever thread of ideas, a theme of interest, or exploring ideas that seem like they’re worth making, then things will be OK. If what we’re doing doesn’t work and it’s not successful in the same way as something we did before, that has to be ok, too. It just has to be about making whatever it is you want to make.
— Daniel Rossen
The next big question to consider is how you’ll reach (and sustain) an audience, i.e. listenership, for your podcast. This probably isn’t the answer you want to hear, but it’s the truth: You’ll need to do this through shameless (but measured) self-promotion. Before releasing your first episode, make a thoughtful promotion plan that includes all the ways you can imagine spreading the word. Once your podcast is online and ready to promote, send out an email to your community inviting them to listen and giving them a sincere idea of why the project is important to you. If you have press contacts, send them personalized emails letting them know why you think they’d enjoy the podcast, and asking if they have ideas for ways to get it written about in the press. And, plan a handful of social media posts in advance, so you can schedule them to post at strategic times when you notice your followers tend to be most active.
— Sean J. Patrick Carney
I’m still learning the ropes in social media, and although people think I’m amazing at it, I’m always open to try a new angle. I’ve been using social media to translate my thoughts behind my creations—in the form of photos, behind the scenes, dialogue with my audience, or my overall style. I use Instagram and Facebook. I reach more people on Instagram, which I think is great because not only are my audience learning my work, but about me as well. I tend to host contests on my brand page or collaborate with other creatives in my area because sharing your work with the world also includes in-person engagement, which is vital. Authenticity promotes your work for you and being open with your audience does, too. It’s organic.
— Angela Pilgrim
When it was time to actually create an identity for Terrifying Jellyfish I was like, “Okay, I’ll just make it as neat as possible and I’ll make it as colorful as I see it in my head. I’m just gonna make it super me.” That’s how it started. When I started the company in 2014, I was 18. I already knew what kind of stuff I liked and what I wanted it to be and what direction I wanted the brand to go in simply because I knew I wanted something that appealed perfectly to my own interests. I only worried about pleasing myself. It evolved from there.
— Terrifying Jellyfish
A friend built me a website in ‘97 and I made comics under the name Fudge Factory. I was very, very late to the game. I didn’t have an email address until I was out of school in my mid-20s. Somebody had to explain the concept of an email to me. Like, why it would be useful. I was also very, very late to social media too. I didn’t get onboard with that for quite a while. Social media has always kind of freaked me out. I never thought anybody would really care about what I’m doing or if I myself even really care about what I’m doing in my day-to-day life. Art is how I want to present myself to the world. I would just put drawings up online. I was kind of early on Instagram, however. I just started putting drawings up. I don’t know where these people came from. They just started getting onboard and following and I would just continue to put stuff up on the web and then it would just bring in work.
— Travis Millard
Keeping on top of your documentation and what you’re putting out in the world, whether it be web things or social media, all of that is its own job. All that takes days, too—as much time as creative work. I’d say it never really stops, but sometimes I’m thinking about just straightening inboxes. If you work for yourself, with or without assistants, and you’re managing things, all the things that are supposed to make things easier require passwords and customer service and they actually don’t make things easier.
— Sahra Motalebi
Early on in my career, you had to become the marketing person. You had to essentially do your own PR and you had to learn how to write copy and learn how to make a website.
Having to juggle all of that to have your cottage indie brand, you become adept at wearing all of those hats, for better or for worse. Early on, I think there was a idea in my head that I would get to be this pure musician and everything else would be taken care of. There was this initial rude awakening that to really do music in the new millennium, you have to wear all these hats and what I discovered is I like a lot of those aspects of creating content—in some cases, more than I like working on the records themselves.
With my first book, I had a really hard time with the press thing. It felt anti-me. I did it, but it was like dragging my feet, gritting my teeth. It felt wrong. I have a huge amount of guilt that I didn’t do enough for that book. I didn’t “bring it.”
I realized that because publishing is having a very difficult time, if you’re an author, you owe it to your publisher to do this final third leg. First you make the book, then you edit the book, and finally there’s PR for the book: it’s important.
In my professional opinion, self-promotion can be weird. But it also presents an interesting philosophical opportunity: How can you think about your art as a service to others instead of something you just have to do for yourself? The best marketing plan is the one that moves you towards your goals, doesn’t make you crazy, and that you don’t mind (or even enjoy!) managing day after day.
Marketing and publicity goes awry when it’s executed without humanity or concern about its overall impact. As an artist, you already think about the perceptions, desires, and inner life of others, so you’re ahead of the game. As you narrow in on a promotional strategy that works for you, double down on your sensitivity, but don’t give into insecurity. Make your moves to meet your goals, and then get back to making.
I’m really good at taking feedback, and I don’t have this feeling like, “Oh, I wrote it, therefore it’s great.” I’m very open to all the ways that it’s not great, and taking suggestions from other people who read it, and working to make it better.