Self Promotion or Self Prostitution? Why We Resist Putting Ourselves Out There

Do you hate the idea of self-promotion? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good at it? That you shouldn’t have to do it? If you hate self-promotion, or even the prospect of self-promotion, you are not alone. No matter the genre, all artists seem to share a similar aversion. Most of us are still waiting for an agent/manager/publicist to come and rescue us from the prospect of having to promote…ourselves?

But why?

As artists, we have internalized certain agreed-upon stories, certain cultural mythologies that may be blocking our ability to put ourselves and our work out into the world. And since most of us agree that self-promotion is necessary, it’s worth taking a look at these stories and deciding whether perpetuating them is serving our art and our careers—or not.

1. The Starving Artist Story: “I’m not going to make any money at this, anyway.”

The-Lemonade-Stand1If we were running a company, a large portion of our budget would go to marketing, right? If we were selling shoes, our livelihood would depend on us getting out there and selling some shoes. Even if we were running a lemonade stand, we would understand that, in order to sell lemonade, we would need to make signs or hire neighborhood kids with megaphones to let people know that lemonade is available. If no one knows about our lemonade, then no one will buy it no matter how fantastic it might be.

But when it comes to our art, we’ve swallowed a toxic “starving artist” story, which tells us that we’re probably not going to make any money at this, anyway, so we don’t take the task of promotion seriously. In fact, most of us would probably do a better job promoting the lemonade than we would the art that we have poured our blood and souls into.

It’s crucial to realize that if you want to make a career out of your art, then you have gone into businesswith yourself. I am now the CEO of Nancy Stohlman, Inc., and my product is my work. If no one knows about my product, they can’t buy it. And then I am out of business.

But as long as we are stoking the starving artist story, then we’re going into the game already defeated. If we believe we cannot make a living out of our art…then we probably won’t.

2. The Overnight Success Story: “Once I’m famous someone else will do this.”

This is the story of the mythical artist who is catapulted into fame from obscurity with no promotional effort of their own. While this mythology is exciting, and the media loves to dangle it as some warped version of the American Dream, it’s also a bit like expecting to win the Powerball.

This overnight success story is a darling of artists and runs deep in our culture. But if you look carefully behind most successes, you will usually find a different story. Madonna made hundreds of demos with her own money and personally brought them to every DJ in New York City; Truman Capote sat for 8 hours a day in the lobby of the publisher who refused to see him. Even Rosa Parks, our favorite little old lady who wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus and thus triggered the Civil Rights Movement, was actually a veteran activist for 15 years when she was finally delivered to the right place at the right time.

Because that’s what it comes down to: “It’s not enough to be at the right place at the right time—you have to be the right person at the right place at the right time,” says musical agent Justin Sudds in his interview for “Take Your Talent to the Bank”. The truth of the overnight success story is that it is usually not overnight at all.

But what’s most problematic about the Overnight Success Story is that it is ultimately disempowering because it takes the responsibility for our careers out of our hands. Our careers become like playing roulette, and we feel powerless to affect real change. And I like playing roulette, but only with what I am prepared to lose.

3. “It’s Not Polite To Brag.” This country is still influenced by our Puritan roots, and so this story is the one that often paralyzes us into non-action.

Here’s the truth: Will some people be annoyed by your promotional efforts? Yes. But usually the ones who are annoyed, offended, or otherwise triggered by your efforts are the ones who have not yet embraced their own self-promotion. So it’s important to remember that their support or non-support for you and your work really has little to do with you and much more to do with where they are on their own path. It’s pretty hard to jump on someone else’s bandwagon when your own bandwagon is rusting in the garage. It’s pretty hard to muster up zest and enthusiasm for someone else when you haven’t put your own work out there in a big way, yet. So when you encounter this kind of resistance—and it can come from the most surprising places—be kind, and remember this quote: “Those who have abandoned their dreams will always discourage yours.”

But the rest of the people won’t care, and in fact they will be happy that you’ve made it so easy for them to support you and your work. It is said that a person needs to hear about something five times (yes, five!) before it sticks, and most people are happy for the reminders.

Self-promotion is not bragging. It’s asking for the support we need to make the careers we want.

In this Puritan society we are told that “it’s better to give than receive,” so we give, we give, we give…but most of us have a hard time receiving. And most of us have an even harder time asking for the support we need with clarity and confidence. If I want people to read my latest story—I have to ask. If I want people to come to my my website, my lecture, or buy my latest book—I have to ask. “Hey, I’d love it if you checked out my work and passed it along.”

In our everyone-for-himself society we have attached a stigma to asking for help. In order to get over this stigma, we have to remember that artists must exist in community, and in order to create and sustain a community, you have to put yourself out there with honesty and authenticity. Self-promotion is truly about asking for the support we need, and building relationships with those who are excited about us and our work. It’s the greatest thing you can do for the promotion of art outside of creating the art itself.

So when self-promotion starts to feel like self-prostitution, remember: We promote our work because we aren’t okay with the mythology of the starving artist; we respect our work enough to take control of its dissemination, not leaving it to the agent fairies to rescue us; we have both the confidence and humility required to put it out there in the world and ask for support.

Many of us don’t promote because we would rather fail privately than publicly  We fear rejection and ridicule; we retreat into craft instead. And yes, it’s true that Emily Dickinson did no promotion. But then again, she never got to enjoy the rewards, respect, and recognition of her work while she was alive.

I want more for myself and my art.

And I want more for you, too.

Finish That Manuscript (And Get it Out Into The World): A Virtual Workshop

Do you have a manuscript you’ve been sitting on forever? Are you stuck in the writing phase or in the revision process? Or have you “finished” but not gotten the response you wanted out in the world?

In this workshop on finishing we will explore:
• What’s keeping you from finishing?
• Are your blocks telling you something about your manuscript?
• How to fall back in love with your work and your vision
• Allowing your manuscript to transform
• Publication—is your manuscript ready to send into the world?
• The different stages of “finishing” a manuscript
• Self-promotion—are you afraid of rejection? (You’re not alone.)
• Finding the support you need to take the next steps

writers-blockIn this 4-week virtual workshop I’ll give you the deadlines you might need, help you structure your writing time into your life, help you transition more easily between creation and revision, and help you become your own best editor. Whether you are planning to submit or self publish, you’ll learn writing tips, editorial and publication advice, how to excerpt and query, and even when to let a manuscript go. And most importantly, you’ll finally rescue your work from the desk drawer and give yourself the satisfaction of completion.

The workshop format will include weekly online instruction, telephone check-ins, and professional line edits (limited). Both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts are welcome.

Begins July 1. For late registration or a free info call contact me ASAP at

Let’s do it.

Finish That Manuscript: Free Workshop Preview Tuesday, June 25th

Summer Project #1: Finish That Manuscript

Each book we write brings us closer to understanding how to write a book. What phase of the finishing process are you in? And…what’s it costing you to not finish?

Three Types of “Finishing”

1. Crossing the Finish Line. In this phase, you’re creating, allowing, and writing yourself to the finish line of that first draft, where you can write The End and give yourself that well deserved glass of port.

In this phase you need the support, motivation, and commitment to get to the end. A first draft is like a lump of clay—it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be complete before you can start shaping it into the grand vessel it will become.

2. Alligator Wrestling. In this phase you’ve finished a first draft and now you’re in the revision—re-visioning—process. Re-vision. Seeing again. Sometimes it’s hard to see your manuscript with fresh eyes—like looking for your sunglasses when they’re on your head. Yet the true writing magic usually happens in revisions.

In this phase you need new ways of seeing your manuscript differently, both in pieces and as a whole, as well as identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and inviting the potent potential of unexpected possibilities into your work.

3. Becoming a Player. In this phase you and your manuscript prepare to enter the public arena, and the “finishing” has just as much to do with you as a professional. This is the point where we usually long for an agent to swoop in and do all the uncomfortable work of promoting ourselves, but the catch here is that if we want to be taken seriously, we have to start playing seriously.

In this phase you need help with promotional and professional materials including bios, queries, how and why to excerpt, and learning how to avoid the mistakes of looking like an amateur—regardless of your publishing goals.

*Tuesday, June 25th at 7 pm MST, join me for a 30-min FREE WORKSHOP PREVIEW.

Contact me for registration information at


Ask A Flash Fiction Editor: Why Literary Bondage Is Good For Your Writing

The first thing Ellen Orleans said about her flash piece in progress, “How to Write The Name of God”, was: “It’s 1170 words—too long for flash?” The answer is technically yes (though I’ve seen flash defined as long as 1200 or even 1500, as a general rule it’s 1000).

tied handsWriters new to flash often find the constraint arbitrary and infuriating: Why such a stickler on the wordcount? So what if it’s a few words over? But having worked in this form for so long, I can say with confidence that the magic of flash fiction happens because of the constraints. Interesting things bulge against boundaries. From sonnets to writing prompts—even deadlines—many writers find they produce some of their best work when pushing against the wall of a constraint: you can only paint with the color green, you must finish a film in 48 hours, you have to write a story without using the letter E.  The famous Oulipo movement in Paris in the 1960s was made up of writers and mathematicians who suggested that using constraints created a new kind of writing.

Embracing the constraint is the true gift of flash fiction.

Working with flash will make you a very different—and I would say better—writer no matter what you write. You will cultivate a sharper eye to what is truly necessary in your work. So if you find yourself battling against the constraint, trying to make your story fit into flash fiction…relax. You’re going about it all wrong. Because once you “see” your story through the lens of the constraint, it ceases to become a battle and instead becomes about “freeing” the flash story from the longer work.  As Michelangelo said about his sculpture David, “I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.”

So Ellen, let’s look at your story, “How to Write the Name of God” and make it fit the constraint.

First of all, I love this story. I love the sweetness of the character, how well I’m able to relate to her struggle, and how as children we all try so hard to make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense. A child’s struggle is always a glimpse into ourselves, and I love your character’s honesty and transparency. Her dilemma is so pure.

There are two ways of shrinking a story: chipping or chopping. The trick to writing flash fiction is learning to chop rather than chip, looking at the story in sections rather than trying nitpick. When we are picking at the story, checking the word count every 10 seconds to see “if it’s under 1000” yet (yes, we are all guilty), the final result feels moth eaten and thin.

When chopping, it’s important to pay less attention to what is being eliminated and more on what is going to be left. You are trying to figure out how to remove the excess so that what is left becomes more prominent. My instinct on your story is to take a healthy swipe at the beginning, landing us inside the classroom as soon as possible. Imagine your story begins like this:

How to Write the Name of God

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you write it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God.

With this chop you would now drop us right into your story and also tie your title to your first sentence (I also changed “spell” to “write”). You would suck us into the narrative and cut 241 words—enough to land you in flash territory in one swipe.

To clarify: does this mean I don’t like your current opening with all the names? Actually, I do, and I think you should put some of that into the story later, as the character is trying to figure out what to put into the box. And frankly if your story were only 500 words, you might just leave it.

But again the beauty of constraints is that they force us to look at our work with a more discerning and sometimes brutal eye—and for most of us that is actually a good thing. And something mysterious happens when we kill our darlings: Like a faint pencil mark that can’t be completely erased, those phantom darlings are still there, still delivering their messages in the spaces we’ve cleared away.

Thanks, Ellen, and Happy Writing!

~Nancy Stohlman

(Feel free to join in on this or any other conversation, and if you have a flash piece in progress please find me on Facebook or message me at

How to Write the Name of God

By Ellen Orleans

God, we learn, has many names, including ElohimHa Shem, and Adonai.  Elohim means Mighty Ones, which is no surprise except that it’s plural.  (The Rabbi says this multiplies God’s power.)  Adonai doesn’t have even an English translation. It just means God, my  Hebrew School teacher says, tired of my questions. Ha Shem means The Name which is confusing but also kind of cool. His name is The Name. There’s also El Olam: “the world,” “the universe” or even infinity or eternity. “Very trippy,” as my sister would say.

Another name is El Echad which means The One. “One with a hundred names,” I think, “How ironic.” I am eleven and nothing is more clever than irony.

In English, God’s names are Almighty, Master, Highest,  Father, Lord, Ruler, and King. Also, Most Powerful One. If God is so great, I think, why is he so insecure?

Years later, in a congregation led by a female rabbi, infused with liberals and sprinkled with queers like me, I will  hear new names for God:Creator, Spirit, Beloved, Shekhina. But by then it will be too late—the white-haired, scowling judge man will be seared into my imagination.

Anyway CreatorSpirit, and Beloved are years off. Now it’s 1971 and the biggest question here in fifth grade is not who is God, what is God, or even “Can God create a rock so big that even he cannot push it?” but “How Do Spell God?”

If you are an 11-year-old at Temple Beth Shalom Hebrew School, you spell it G-d or G*d, or maybe just Gd, but never all the way, God. Because if you write down God, then that piece of paper, like all the prayer books with God printed out—all its letters, no dash, no asterisk, no missing “o”—that paper cannot not be thrown away.  It is sacred.

Which is exactly the point when Baruch Benson, who’s Bobby Benson in real life at Burnet Hill Elementary school where he sits two rows behind me making armpit noises, whose Hebrew name means Blessed One even though that’s the last thing Bobby is, when Baruch Benson in the final minutes of Monday afternoon Hebrew School, writes GOD, all caps, all three letters, on a piece of notebook paper and shoves it into Kenny Graulich’s back pocket.

“Have to keep it forever,” he sing-songs as the bell clatters, our high-pitched punishment before freedom.

In the hall, Kenny yells “Glenn! You’re it!” and slaps the God-paper into Glenn’s hand, where it stays until Glenn passes it to Shimon, who’s always off in dreamland anyway until Cheryl, thinking it’s something else, grabs it, giggles, and pushes it off onto Debbie. By now we’re in the parking lot, waiting for, looking for, our carpools home.  Before running into the sea of parents, station wagons and sedans, Debbie passes the damp folded-unfolded-refolded note to Lynn Becker, who rolls her eyes and gives it to Nurit, who’s new and from Israel and doesn’t get the game. That’s when I take it because, unlike Lynn, Debbie, Cheryl, Glenn and Kenny, I know want to do with the name of God.

You bury the name of God.

If I had liked Glenn or if he’d written God’s name in fancy calligraphy, I might have kept it, at least for a while. But GOD was just three awkward letters, smudged pencil on creased paper.

Still, it was God.

That night, in the back of my dresser, I found the white box that had held the velvet case that had held the gold Chai my grandmother gave me when she returned from Israel two years ago. The box, I decided, was good enough for God.  I covered the bottom with Kleenex, neatly refolded the paper and put it inside. Tomorrow, I’d bury it in the back yard. Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust. It was a good plan.

I turned off my bedside reading light.

It was a good plan…except.

Would God get lonely there in the dirt?  I thought of the box, the tissue, The Name, underground for years and years, long after I grew up and moved away. And after that.  And after that. Eternity for Eternity. All Alone for The One.

What could keep God company? What was mighty enough for The Mighty One, what could befriend The Universe? More to the point, what would fit in the box?

In bed, in the darkness, I considered the tiniest occupants of my room. The glass cat with the chipped glass ear. The dollhouse tea kettle. The miniature ceramic mouse, looking up, about to pounce. My Grandma Moses postage stamp, cancelled. My Apollo 8 postage stamp, uncancelled. Nothing seemed like the right match or maybe I didn’t want to give any of them up. Not even for God.

For the next three days, I scrutinized the world for the perfect thing to put in the box with God.  A flower petal would shrivel up. An inch worm would die. Pine needles? Too much like a Christmas tree. A yarmulke wouldn’t fit and a loose thread from a Temple tallis, well, there weren’t any loose threads. I tugged at one and nothing came off. I could spill a drop wine on it, like my father spilled wine in the Passover Seder, a tradition from his father and grandfather, but that seemed more like a stain than a friend.

Half a Hanukkah candle? A clove from the spice box? Crumbs from last week’s challah? (Crumbs next to God? Definitely ironic.)

Ashes? Dust?

Walking home on Friday, thinking of God’s names, I remembered Elochim. Mighty Ones. Plural.

God needs God.

At home, on my best stationary with my best pen in my best handwriting I wrote

God   God   God

God   God   God

God   God    God

and folded it into fourths. I lay my Gods on top of Baruch’s God and taped the box shut.

As I walked behind our house—gardening trowel in one hand, the box in the other—I could smell our Friday night chicken baking.  We would be lighting the Sabbath candles soon. I hurried past the swing set to the garden bed where early violets and lilies-of-the-valley shared the soil with mossy rocks. The soil was damp and easy.

There are Hebrew blessings to recite when you hear thunder, feel an earthquake, or see lighting or a comet or a rainbow.  There’s a Hebrew blessing for when you see the ocean or lofty mountains or exceptionally beautiful people. There’s even a blessing for strange-looking animals.

But what do you say when you bury God’s name between violets and lilies? When you cover God with a blanket of dirt?

What you say, I realized, is Psalm 91, the Bedtime Prayer. Or at least, what you can remember of it.  I knelt in the garden bed, wet earth seeping into the knees of my jeans.

With my wing, I cover you.

Under my wings take refuge.

For you yearn for me, I shall rescue you.

Fortify you, because you know my name.


A former columnist and essayist, Ellen Orleans is the author of five books of queer humor, including the Lambda Literary Award winner The Butches of Madison County. She co-edited Boulder Voices, an anthology published in response to Colorado’s Amendment 2, an anti-gay referendum later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Her story “Outreach” won the 2007 Gertrude Press Chapbook Competition for Fiction. Her writing has appeared in the anthologies Primal Picnics, Milk and Honey, The Incredible Shrinking Story and, forthcoming, A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park. Excerpts of her book, Inside, the World is Orange have been published in The Denver Quarterly; Palimpsest; wigleaf; and Eccolingistics and performed as part of a Stories on Stage/Buntport Theater production.  Other work has appeared in Trickhouse, Blithe House Quarterly, The Washington Post, Rain Taxi, and the Lambda Book Review.  The former curator of  Boulder’s Yellow Pine Reading Series, Ellen now leads story hours for toddlers and builds cigar box art in her garage in north Boulder.