Shameful Self-Promotion

Asking for a spotlight when you'd rather stand in the wings

This is the third issue of WRITTEN OUT, a twice-weekly newsletter about women’s literature (past and present). You can read the intro issue here.

During the most self-conscious phase of my still-young career, I fell into a bad habit of feigning ironic detachment from my work. “I wrote a thing,” I’d comment on Twitter, linking to a story I’d spent weeks researching and writing only to be paid very little money. I had been laid off from a staff job I loved and the process stripped me of the hardened shell I’d built. Suddenly, I was vulnerable. I didn’t want to seem too eager, too earnest, too insecure.

I had to learn to promote myself differently. Until I went freelance, I didn’t really have to self-promote. The company who paid me twice-weekly and promised to represent me in court if someone sued me shared my article, and I shared it if I felt it was good. Once I didn’t have that security, I apologized constantly for sharing my stories because it felt bad — needy, eager, braggy — and because I knew I no longer had the option not to. There was no guarantee that the companies I wrote things for would promote my stories, and there was no way for my byline to elevate unless I did it myself.

(Painting by Vincent Van Gogh 1888)

Not having to self-promote is a privilege included with a staff job or family money or a connected ivy league alumni network. Getting to be “cool” and “ironic” and “unphased” (or to present that way online) is something you can choose to do when you aren’t that worried that anyone will take you seriously. It feels bad to self-promote because if you have to do it, it’s clear that you aren’t one of the few, the chosen ones.

I feel this most vividly when I see a debut novel from a young male author with no internet presence at all: someone for whom the game works in his favor. For women and people of color, self-promotion is a double-edged sword. Women are not supposed to brag, and yet, for centuries the mainstream sources of praise have not promoted our work. We are supposed to be grateful for the opportunity to participate, not demand more.

No one wants to do self-promotion. What we all want is for our work to stand alone. We all want to write that one piece that after it’s published transforms into a rocket ship. This is my third year freelancing. I know now that there are no rocket ships. Without a name brand staff job (of which there are fewer and fewer every week, it seems) the only form of career advancement that exists, you have to make yourself.

This year, with the media industry the way that it is (Bad? Hemorrhaging?) it is harder and harder to write consistently for publication. I have stories that haven’t been published that I filed three, four, and six months ago. I have drafts editors have completely ghosted on. Yesterday, an editor killed a piece that they assigned me. I have absolutely zero power in these situations which is nauseating. I write a lot for myself, but writing for publication is my job. Writing for publication is how you get feedback. It’s how you get better. It’s also how you get paid.

So here we are. I still feel deeply embarrassed promoting this, as if in a way it is evidence that I have failed. I am so excited about this newsletter and the topics we will explore. Starting Friday March 22 the Friday issue will be for *paid subscribers only*!! (Consider paying for this labor.)

I am quite clearly self-promoting the hell out of this anyway. More than that, I am asking you to help me promote. Please forward an issue (maybe the most recent one about a buried female author, or the fun one coming Friday!) to your friends if you like it. If you really, really, like it, consider paying!  (If you share a household with someone paying and want access let me know and I will give you a code to share!)


What I wrote:

The plastic takeout container is the most essential kitchen tool even if it is boring and not cute and entirely functional: for Eater.

A woman on writing:

“I suppose one develops a number of personas and hides them away, then they pop up during writing. The exertion of control comes later. I take great pleasure in writing when I get a real voice going and I’m able to follow the voice and the character. It’s like being in a trance state.”

-Louise Erdrich in The Paris Review in 2010

Some poetry by women:

  “Such is thy pow'r, nor are thine orders vain,

O thou the leader of the mental train:

In full perfection all thy works are wrought,

And thine the sceptre o'er the realms of thought.”

Excerpt from Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” (1773)

“The truth is this:

My love for you is the only empire

I will ever build”

Excerpt from Mindy Nettifee’s “This is the Nonsense of Love”

Some short fiction by women:

  • Fran Hoepfner’s recent “Auteur Theory” in Joyland is one of the first unlikeable female protagonists I’ve enjoyed reading in a long time. Hoepfner makes Harper a fully realized, completely understandable person, who happens to be terrible. On Joyland.

Some non-fiction by women:

  • Helena Fitzgerald’s most recent subscriber issue of Griefbacon “Church” made me sick with envy for her gorgeous prose, her ability to weave a biblical allusion without it feeling over wrought, and her taught gorgeous sentences.

  • I clicked on this because I love stuffed grape leaves and what I found was an actually good recipe and a beautiful harrowing story about family and being a refugee. By Dayana Sarkisova at Food52

On Friday, we will discuss a woman writer from the ‘60s who is already being forgotten, and whose work I am utterly obsessed with. Paid subscriber only issues will begin on Friday, March 22!

This newsletter is new! Not all of the issues will be like this. Read the introductory issue here. If you have tips, gossip, someone to interview, a book to promote, or just thoughts and feelings, email me at mckinney.kelsey (at)