10 REASONS I DIDN’T WANT TO START A SUBSTACK
This is is me, sat in my living room writing the ‘About Page’ for my Substack, carving up into succinct slices what it is I have to offer a person with my writing just mere weeks before launching. I sent it to my best friend Lydia with the message:
“Setting up her Substack and outlining her offering”
As someone who has built a career (and a business no less) from championing and supporting other people’s writing, it might sound odd to hear that putting my own out into the world feels like a terrifying onslaught on the self. It might also explain the use of the third person in my caption. It’s hard to examine being so bad at something that you’re so great at doing for other people. It’s a conundrum, or rather juxtaposition, that I would suggest many of us come up against.
Ask yourself this: what are you bloody great at doing for other people that you’re shit at doing for yourself? It could be making a cup of tea, or finding the time to steep in a hot bath – you just don’t think you’re worthy of the extra stewing time, do you? Perhaps you shout from the high heavens about how great someone else’s work is or enable them to feel sexy and confident before a first date – yet you crumble into an insecure mess and give way to internal doubts when you’re under the heat. Or maybe you’re great at giving other people orgasms but very rarely take the time to give yourself that rumbling warmth. Whatever it is, that thing you’re so terrible at doing for yourself is likely one of those things you’re really in need of the most.
So, because I don’t advocate for my own writing, this Substack is going to live and breathe this lesson of helping others advocate for theirs. It is of course my job as a literary agent to pitch and sell-in books, I am responsible for getting editors and publishers excited about the vision or direction for a project. I am the first person they talk to about the material, the author and all the potential that lies therein. Good literary agents are, among many things, great sales people. I’m brilliant at selling other people’s books, fact. I’m fearless in my belief in writers and a dedicated catalyst to the journey of a book being published and the ongoing career of an author. (Because as much as it’s good to know what you’re bad at it’s also essential you acknowledge what you’re good at, yes?).
And this is what I am bad at: I am a terrible sponsor of my own writing.
At a dinner with Mark’s (my partner’s) closest friends, he dropped into conversation that my novel was being published. There were “oohs” and “wowees”, words of congratulations and support from every angle of the table, then I was asked to describe what my novel was about, and I fell short. I fell into the pomegranate salad, flat on my face. He laughed at my fawn-like freeze pose: “Babe… this is what you do for a living?” But I could not do it. My novel sounded like a floppy, wet fish in desperate need of some seasoning and a plot. How was it that I could build whole entire worlds for other people’s stories and yet gawked awkwardly like a gnome with a flaccid rod when trying to offer up my own? It’s important to note that there are no gill-bearing creatures in What a Shame, it’s just a terrible metaphor being employed by a terrible bastion of their own capabilities. And I want to get better at putting my writing out into the world. I have to.
In Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ I stumbled across a disturbing ideology, or tribe, that of ‘the shadow artist’. These are the people who apparently gather around creatives or artists, they are the facilitators, the catalysts and the surrounding systems that enable and allow for the creative and their work to be done. The idea of a ‘shadow artist’ through this lens seems derogatory to me, next to the high-all-mighty and perspicacious creative, but I don’t think that’s fair or true. Some choose this role. Not everyone wants to be centre stage or have their essence held up and criticised. Indeed, one could say that the shadow artists are happier that the artists themselves – but I’m not here to make sweeping generalisations. My point is merely that we are all capable of creativity, of bringing artistic value into our lives and into the lives of others. But not all of us want to be defined by that purpose.
What shook me to attention and resonated most though, was this: Cameron writes, ‘very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist – hiding in the shadows, afraid to step out and expose the dream to the light, fearful that it will disintegrate to the touch.’
Many writers are too afraid to put their work in a public forum, fearful that once it misses its mark or its moment, the dream will cease to be, crumbling into nothingness. Or they are used to having a heavy editing process and a lot of eyes across their work before pressing post. I have this fear, and yet I am constantly motivating others to overcome it and put themselves out there because I believe they have something to offer, something important to say. You see, I am both an artist and a shadow artist. Collaborating with a writer as engineer and enabler is a set-up in which I thrive, I go into flow state and feel my most happy, accomplished. But I am also a writer and published author in my own right which makes me feel fulfilled and challenged and sometimes afraid. I need and want to be both.
Many of us fear taking up space. Whenever I work with a writer, one of the most common things they say to me is this: ‘But why would anyone care about what I have to say about it?’ I have never worked with a person who felt intuitively brazen about their work, with no questions to be asked about the idea of being an “artist” and who indeed is deserving of other people’s time and attention. Because that’s what we’re asking for when we share our work with another person, their time. And it’s the most precious asset of the modern world. To put your writing out there is to deem yourself worthy of other people’s twenty-four slithers of the day, and you are. That’s what ‘Something to Say’ is here to remind you.
What most writers need and deserve is some reassurance and sponsorship from the shadows – from external sources like friends, editors, agents, managers, family, yes – but also from within themselves. So I am fusing my roles as artist and shadow artist with a list: ‘10 Reasons Why I Didn’t Want to Start a Substack’. I’m bringing it out of the shadows of my mind and sprinkling on it a little bit of recklessness and nerve, in the hope that it might support other writers – which is what ‘Something to Say’ is all about. There is enough space for us all to say something that matters, something that titillates, or something that gives someone the courage to be that little bit more audacious.
10 REASONS I DIDN’T WANT TO START A SUBSTACK
1. “NO ONE WILL CARE WHAT I HAVE TO SAY”
When writers say this to me, I always respond in the same way: only you have your lived experience and only you can write about this subject or story from your unique frame of reference. Everyone has or will experience grief in their lifetime but no two pieces of writing on grief are the same. You have something to offer through your personal lens, allow other people the opportunity to look through it and show them how you see it, how you felt it. People do care about the stories and perspectives they’ve not yet discovered.
2. “PEOPLE MIGHT NOT LIKE IT”
Correct. Some people won’t. Lots of people won’t in fact. They won’t connect with what you have to say, or your approach to the subject. But some will. Some might find it funny, or useful or invigorating. You might help some people on their journey to getting published – why do you have to help EVERYONE to deem it valuable? Everyone liking it is a certified impossibility.
Another tip I give authors who are worried about their work being critiqued and reviewed is to go to their favourite author’s Goodreads page and see what “people” have to say.
People on Sally Rooney: ‘my reactions fluctuated between boredom, periodic cringing and occasional spark of recognition and relatability — which unfortunately ended up buried under the awkward bits’
People on Sheila Heti: ‘I don’t think this is as inventive or profound as some people do’ and ‘pop philosophy must be stopped this is so dumb!’
You ain’t ever gonna be everyone’s cup of coco, kid.
3. “I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO CALL IT”
We fixed this one already.
(But seriously… don’t wait for the perfect name or brand to strike. A brand – like anything in life - evolves over time).
4. “IT’S A LITTLE SELF INDULGENT”
So are selfies, hen parties, voicenotes, deliverooing burgers to one’s frontdoor, yoga retreats, making a podcast with your best mate and lots of other activities. Since when has self-indulgence been the bar you hold for partaking in something? And really, if you’re honest with yourself, is this about self-indulgence or self-doubt?
5. “IT WILL BE EMBARRASSING IF NOBODY SUBSCRIBES”
Two people have already subscribed and you’ve not written anything yet. And if no one else does then no one will bother to notice. People are more focused on what they’re doing, not what you’re doing.
6. “I DON’T HAVE THE TIME”
This is valid. We are all time poor and idea rich. Where does one find the balance? Ultimately it comes down to what you enjoy doing in your spare time and from where you get your bliss. If you will genuinely enjoy writing these pieces and building a community of writers, follow your joy. Rest. Then follow your joy some more.
If not, don’t bother giving it your precious little time. Do something else, like a beetle fighting, or amateur dramatics.
7. “I MIGHT START WITH SOMETHING TO SAY AND THEN RUN OUT OF THINGS TO SAY”
Like everything in life, you get out what you put in. And honestly… in your 33 years, when have you ever not had something you want to say? Be it about the fertile ground of liminality or why Luca cries when you touch his ears.
8. “I KNOW CLEVERER, FUNNIER AND MORE INTERESTING PEOPLE”
True. True. True. But in the words of Cameron, it’s very often audacity not talent that gets things going – hence why the world is run by men.
9. “I’M SCARED I’LL SAY SOMETHING WRONG”
You probably will. When Andy Warhol said ‘in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’ we didn’t clock that a large proportion of that fame would be down to trolling. But not speaking out of fear is wrong, being willing and open to learn is essential for growth and necessary for curiosity.
10. “I KEEP THINKING OF REASONS NOT TO”
You’ve run out of reasons boo – launch your bloody substack
To receive more writing tips and advice publishing guidance and cultural commentary