Diary of a Poet

Should You Show Your Work?

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If you’re a writer, artist, musician or other creative, how do you get noticed? Is it enough to be good? How will people find you?

One way that’s become popular in the age of the Internet is to send out bits and pieces of your creative process, sharing the project as you work on it. This approach claims to be an alternative to the more direct forms of self-promotion, and even has the potential to help the viewer, or reader, or listener with their own artistic projects. (Austin Kleon wrote a delightful book about it called Show Your Work.)

With this method, you give others access to your process with the aim of building a following of fans who are just dying for the next sketch, chord, or draft.

I used to think this was completely fine, even innovative, but lately I’ve changed my mind.

This sharing/showing, meant to create a group or fan base, is still a lonely and energy-draining endeavor. You, the creative person, must constantly curate what you’ll share with the world, which not only adds to your workload, it drains your creative energy. It obliges you to explain and answer questions about what you shared. It gives the impression that you’re available for discussions about what you’ve shared, especially if you’re posting about your process on social media.

Not only is it harmful to you, the creative person, in terms of time and concentration, to share these tidbits with others, it might even be harmful to those who come across your shares.

I hadn’t thought of the potential for harm that showing your work can have until a conversation I had with my eldest son. As a young artist, he scrubbed the Internet for information and ideas, coming upon the sketchbooks and in-process works of artists. At the time, he didn’t realize that these were carefully curated “shares”—wow, he thought, look how amazing these artists’ process drawings are! Instead of inspiring him, they made him feel bad about his own work.

Remember: to someone just starting out, your messy notebook or jerky video can look deeply professional. Because, of course, it is. You are a working artist, and even the most ragged bits of your day will look more polished than those of a beginner.

Showing your work chips away at the mystery of the creative process. Maybe this is a good thing, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me that showing one’s work runs the risk of creating a new commodity: behind-the-scenes views into what is essentially a private effort, or, to put it bluntly, voyeurism. Do people really want to see how the sausage is made?

I don’t conflate showing one’s work with teaching. The kind of things that artists are willing to share about their work, i.e., a glimpse into their studio, a raw pile of clay perhaps, or a half-finished sketch—aren’t meant to be instructive. Rather, they distill the hard work of creating into a glossy image. Teaching, on the other hand, is a relationship between student and instructor that develops over time, the opposite of an Instagram post or listening to a Beatles recording session.

I often find works-in-process uncomfortable. A half-built house looks forlorn; a random film clip lacks context. I would never, ever share a draft of something I’m writing with the public. Plus, the world being what it is nowadays, written work shared in blogs, newsletters or social media is often considered published, which means that magazines and journals won’t accept it.

I’m not talking about sharing works-in-process with your friends or other writers, at a workshop or class, or reading it out loud to the public. That’s not the same thing as the drip, drip, drip of selecting a little piece of your day and showing it to your followers. Do they really need this proof to know you’re working hard on something? And how is this not self-promotion?

I agree that it’s extremely valuable to document your creative process, but think carefully before you share it with the world, especially in images, which have a power words lack. 

So what should you share? Here are some ideas:

  1. Share the work of an artist, writer, or musician you’re a fan of. Be sure to credit them.
  2. Start a newsletter where you review other people’s books. I started Sticks & Stones for this purpose.
  3. Comment on the creative life, in a way that’s truly helpful, not in a way that subtly promotes you.
  4. If you’ve just published a book, or you’re offering a course, or have something else to sell, be honest and promote that product, not selected bits and pieces. I’m pretty sure people can see through that.
  5. Start a blog whose purpose is to help other writers, like Trish Hopkinson’s The Selfish Poet.
  6. Share other writers’ blog posts, like Dave Bonta does at Via Negativa.

I’d love to hear what you think of this in the comments. 

Thank you!

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