There is a story that Walt Whitman, after self-publishing his first edition of Leaves of Grass, could not find a kind word about his work anywhere. The truth was nobody liked it much. Then, one day he received a letter of encouragement from Ralph Waldo Emerson, including the sentence: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
The next edition of Leaves of Grass contained that sentence on the spine of the book, with Emerson’s name. Whitman also had the letter printed in a newspaper, which he then cut out and pasted inside copies of his books.
Emerson, the story goes, was not very pleased. The rest of us, however, should be. Because without this act of shameless self-promotion, there is a good chance none of us would have ever heard Whitman’s name, and the face of literature would vastly different than it is today.
The Power of We
Myself, I’m pretty good at promotion. If I really believe in something I’m pretty good at transferring my enthusiasm to others. During my career in sales and marketing these were always other people’s products and services. Rejection never bothered me. The catch in all of this, for me, however, was that I always used the word “we“: We have a great product. We have a great service. We are great at what we do.
There was a lot of power in that word for me. Whenever I used it, I would be reminding myself that it was not just for my sake that I was out there selling and promoting and marketing. I was doing it to let others shine, to keep others employed, to give them the opportunity to keep getting better at what they do, and to thrive in their careers. I was introducing clients to them, initiating relationships, planting the seeds of new friendships.
So with all of that behind me, the sales person’s fear of rejection never bothered me much. I could accept the word “No!” and move on.
As a writer its a bit more difficult to do that. The word “we” just doesn’t work as well when standing behind a book I’ve written. Sure, I think about my publisher, my editor, my agent, the printers, my children, the phone company and the landlord. I think about them daily, but that doesn’t transfer as easily into a “we” because their names are not on the book. It’s my name alone on the cover.
Working against that, as well, are the words of a couple people who should have known me better, who have used words like ego-centric and self-centred in describing me. There are only two people who have ever said such things, but their words have weighed heavily on me for several years now. And while I could suggest to myself that these words were used for reasons that have little to do with me, and much more to do with them, that does not do much to alleviate the weight of those echoing words.
The truth is, in my heart, I’ve always been quite shy. It took years of practice, beginning with a Dale Carnegie course twenty years ago, to get over that shyness. More than that – and I’m told this comes across quite quickly when talking to people – my sense of humility might be even more exaggerated than my words reveal.
So when I was at the CBC the other day, it was very difficult for me to ask Susan Toccalino to take a picture of me in the studio for the recording. With the exception of my solo trip to Paris, I have never in my life asked anyone to take a picture of me, let alone for the sake of putting it online. Then something happened and I was able to take a breath and shamelessly ask her for that small favour. Thank you again, Susan.
Because I remembered something:
There would be people online, when I got home, who would want to see that picture. There are people who read almost every word I write and would like to see more. There are people who have sent me letters and emails, or have taken the time to stop me on the street to tell me so. There are even a couple of you who have called me at midnight, drunk I suspect, to express to me how much something I’ve composed has meant to them. There was even a man who chased me down the street in his housecoat and slippers in the February snow to tell me what I’m doing is important.
So in the future, I want you to know that it is for those among you that love or even just like my work, and for those whom I have yet to meet, that I will be promoting the hell out of this latest book. And hopefully, this will afford me the time to finish my next book, and the books after that. I am grateful for every single one of you.
So if my promotion seems to be too much, please take a moment if I am ever able to meet you in person, to look into my eyes for just a moment. Because I’m sure you will see the gratitude beneath my promotional efforts that will most certainly appear shameless on the surface.
“At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.”~ Muhammad Ali