Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Self-Promotion for the Socially Impaired - Umberto Tosi

Me, far left, failing to look
inconspicuous onstage with fellow 
Chicago Quarterly Review readers
Dinner with friends is my limit when it comes to social gatherings. Parties bore me. Conferences terrify me. I turn my name tag around and try for invisibility. Sooner or later, however, somebody asks the question I like least: "What do you do?"

"I'm a writer," I respond, my mouth dry, unwillingly, but I can't deny my calling after all. As a 20-something smart-ass, I used to answer: "I sell health insurance for pets." That's a real thing now that veterinaries charge as much as brain surgeons.

Then comes the follow-up: "What have you written?" I know it's just making conversation. Nature hates a vacuum. Nonetheless, I break into a neurotic sweat. I imagine the questioner thinking: If you're a writer how come I haven't heard of you?

I need a warm-up act. I name some titles, not that any will strike up the band: Gunning for the Holy Ghost, Our Own Kind, Milagro on 34th Street... 

Here comes my old friend, impostor syndrome. There's truth in it. I am not the fellow who writes my books. Writers wiser than I have noted that aspect of the process.

From there, the conversation can go off the track completely. I've been asked, more than once: "Are you related to Umberto Eco." We Umbertos are all related, of course. People will blurt anything to avoid silences.

I shouldn't hide my lamp. So I must continue, smiling. As Rabbi Hillel noted: "If  I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, then what am I? If not now, when?" One way or another, all but the most famous of writers must promote themselves, yet appear modest - never hustle. This is not limited to indie writers. Corporate publishers expect authors to be "marketing partners" - ie, sell books for them.

Self-promotion, however, makes for lousy conversation. I know my story. I'd rather get to know somebody else. Better to question my interrogators and be keen about it. Unlike yours truly, most others do like to talk about themselves.

Aunty Mame has nothing on my inamorata, narrative surrealist painter Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, when it comes to lighting up a room. She gets strangers pouring out their life stories in seconds. She doesn't shy from inquiries, though this has evolved. "I'm basically an introvert." she says. "I had to teach myself to reach out."

"When I was young," she adds, "I used to say I was a painter, not an artist. I felt I had to earn the title." Once in a while, someone who doesn't know her well will ask if she's sold anything. Not that it's a valid measure of an artist. "They will ask if I do arts-and-crafts fairs. I tell them my art is too expensive for fairs, which it is."

It's natural to inquire about what people do for a living - less so, as a passion. Maybe it should be the other way around.

I'm open to suggestions. Let's make this an informal poll. How do you handle being asked what you do? Are you comfortable responding? Is telling folks about yourself like threadding a needle, or opening a door?

Fame is a slippery thing. It doesn't necessarily sell books either. I used to speak at luncheons and go on local TV shows as part of my job as a magazine editor. It made my stomach cramp. It was tempting to conflate corporate with personal fame and delusions of merit. The same goes for dropping the name of a book publisher who happens to carry one of my titles.

Self-promotion is a necessary evil for authors, no matter how subtly done. Too many budding writers wait like Cinderellas to be discovered by a fairy god-editor or princely agent - intoxicated by the myth that the system sorts us fairly.  It's true that fine creative works do surface at times, and writers do become famous. But let's not confuse proximity with cause.

"I'm still an introvert," Eleanor says, "but I realized that I'd have to come out of my shell if I wanted people to notice my work," Eleanor says. "I saw that artists who were successful tended to be outgoing."

That sounds familiar, except my act is less convincing. Don't get me wrong. I like people, just one or two at a time.

I'm a writer because I write, every day I can. When I'm not writing, I'm gathering strings of narrative to roll into my dream ball of stories. This has nothing much to do what has been published under my name - mainstream, back-stream or indie.

As a writer, I want to share those dreams - make them readily available for people to enjoy if they so choose. I don't mind telling folks about my stores when they show interest, but I find it hard to say that I am a writer with defining confidence. Like the name of a continent on a globe, the title of "writer" covers a lot of territory that it doesn't begin to define. It stands for something I do, and for something I aspire to be. It's a lot, but paradoxically says little about me.

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Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He has four grown children and resides in Chicago.


11 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

I enjoyed this post Umberto and can relate to a lot of what you say.

Sandra Horn said...

Thank you, Umberto! I have to grit my teeth to say 'I'm a writer' when asked what I do, and I cringe from the inevitable follow-up questions,but it IS what I do and I love it and, rightly or wrongly it makes me proud!

Andrew Crofts said...

Ghostwriting is a very handy bridge over this particular swamp.

"What do you do?"

"I write books."

"What sort of books?"

"books for other people."

"Like who?"

"All sorts. Not allowed to say who, I'm afraid."

They then ask more technical questions about the ghosting business, which I have well practiced answers for. Once I have steered the conversation away from me and onto them, and have drained them of their life stories, I can usually find someone they know or admire and I can then confess that I have written for them - if the lawyers haven't expressly forbidden it.

Job done, awkwardness avoided. It's a technique I've been honing for years in order to get through the horrors of mass socialising.

Bill Kirton said...

Familiar experiences, Umberto (and I loved the 'are you related to Umberto Eco?' enquiry). I share the dislike of big gatherings and conferences and yet, paradoxically, I'm relatively adept at 'performing' when it's needed. There is, though, a certain mystique about the label 'writer'. I've always written but I still remember the time when the late Tony Church had been appointed director of the new Northcott Theatre in Exeter and a BBC drama producer had given him my name as a playwright. He invited me along to see the setup and, backstage, we met his assistant. whereupon Tony uttered the magical words, 'This is Bill Kirton. He's a writer'. I wonder if, when somebody else says it, it means it's true.

Rosalie Warren said...

I identify so much with what you say, Umberto. I too am an introvert who hates social gatherings of more than a few people. And I find it very difficult to promote my work, though oddly, in my previous career, I was OK doing conference presentations to dozens or even hundreds of people. It was work I'd done but somehow less personal. Does that make any sense?

Anyway, here's a bit of publicity for you, gladly given. I've just finished 'Ophelia Rising' and it's a great story. Review coming soon.

Jan Needle said...

Ghost writer is good, Andrew. My alternative is 'trainee corpse'. Accompanied by a mysterious smile...

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Another great post Umberto! I feel your pain as people assume I am related to the famous writerly Mukherjees in the US (one of whom is a doctor who won a pulitzer in case I need comparisons) but I'm not, and virtually unknown! Hang in there :)

Marsha Coupé said...

Asking someone what they do is just plain lazy. I never ask anyone such questions. When people ask me what I do, I always look them straight in the eye and say, "I'm a personal trainer." As a substantial woman, they always look at me incredulously and quickly change the subject.

Love the idea of asking people about their passions rather than their work, Umberto. Let's do this.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you all - Marsha, Chris, Dipika, Jan, Rosalie, Bill, Andrew - for your kind and relevant comments. I'm happy for the company!

Reb MacRath said...

Well said, Umberto. I've steered clear of conventions for many years and am only now gearing up to start doing readings, the first being in November. In most people's minds, it seems, books--at least real books--are written by mysterious beings whom they'll never meet. And whom, frankly, they don't want to meet. Familiarity, I believe, breeds worse than contempt--it breeds total neglect. But for readings, or even chance encounters, I plan to work out a good list of zingers.

misha said...

I can say the words "I'm a writer" now, though for years it was as hard as admitting to an addiction. What I find difficult is to talk about my books.