I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.
That’s a response from the writer Vladimir Nabokov from a July 1962 interview from Strong Opinions, published in 1973.
So, I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there? Hope all is well.
This is Episode 33 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create. Also, if this is your first time to the podcast please go back and listen to some of the earlier episodes to get an idea about where I’m coming from on process and everything else and especially as regards to the differentiation between Walls and Doors towards and away from the Imagination and creativity.
Last time I spoke about community and feedback, but today I want to talk about audience and representation.
So, right from the start I want to make something very clear: Yes, look to the work first. To become a master of our work we have to focus on the work, not how many followers we have. We are not important, the work is. Jesus was important, but his message was more important. Hemingway was a character, but his characters are what inspire me. Not his life story, but their life stories. This is encapsulated by the the Italian author Elena Ferrante. Elena Ferrante is the name she uses, not her real name. She’s written about half a dozen novels, but the most well known are her series of novels set in Naples. If you haven’t seen the HBO series you have to. It’s wonderful. Anyway, Ferrante says books, once they’re written, don’t need their authors. Because of this she has consistently requested anonymity as a precondition to having her books published, to be free. In an interview she gave to The Paris Review in 2015 she explains this form of liberation by saying that when a book is complete, and makes its way out into the world, without her, that it allows her to see something new about her writing, as if she’d released the words from herself.
Of course most writers or creators can’t literally afford this position. But again, to use the monetary language, what has the cost of this been? Today, technology has accelerated everything, but at the same time it’s also allowed everyone access to getting their work out there. It would be terrible if the majority of what is put on line were to become rushed too. Which gets back to what I talked about in episode 19 about mentors, where we are literally taught to take our time, to learn our craft.
As I said in other episodes I know creators who create for their own joy, their own meditative practice. This is wonderful. Nobody, villains, crazy makers, are not stopping her from creating. However, a lot of the time the reason they are in the basement or out in their garage creating and not sharing it with the rest of the world is because they have been conditioned to feel that their creations are not important when of course they are.
Some maths. There will be 9 billion people on the planet soon. Are you trying to tell me there are not at least 90,000 people – 0.00001% – of the people out there who wouldn’t be into what you create? A friend of mine, a really great musician, is a successful businessman and a really good human being, but if he ever goes off in businessman script he’s treated with suspicion, confusion and sadly, laughter at times. Just because he hasn’t made as much money from his music means it isn’t valuable, but the little bit of time he puts into music is what give him the energy to focus a lot on making money through business. This is why he sees music, playing his guitars, as really valuable, even if nobody ever hears his songs, or hears him play.
Again this gets back to my basic tenet from one of my very first episodes: Everyone is creative. We should not feel uncomfortable when someone shows us a part of themselves that doesn’t fit into a singular role. We are all many things, not one. We need to encourage each other to be creative, not discourage each other because of capitalist or systemic conditioning. The more we create, the more kind we become because the more fulfilled we feel. Isn’t it logical to encourage that in everyone, not go silent when someone shares the fact that they’ve created something? Remember, 9 billion people out there. Just because you don’t love what someone you meet has created doesn’t mean there are not at least 90,000 others out there that think it’s amazing!
I don’t hate anything. When I was an angry you man, I did. It simply takes too much of my energy, but if there is one thing I could hate, it would be social media, optimization, advertising. However, when you run a small business you have to think of your audience, a website, social media, advertising. I learned this the hard way when we started La Muse. We thought people would come because we were offering such a wonderful place to create. They didn’t. We had to show people we existed. And yes, that meant a website. So I learned how to build one. Then how to optimize the site so people actually saw it when they put in keywords. Then we had to be on social media for people to see what was really going on behind that professional website, the people photos, that it was actually real. So, when I think of selling one of my novels the same business mentality starts to work, but not when I’m creating the novel. This is an important distinction.
Vladimir Nabokov was once asked what kind of an audience he created for. His response was creators shouldn’t care about their audience, saying the best audience you have is the one that looks back at you in the shaving mirror every morning.
Again, worry about audience after the work is done. Yes, do your research before starting, but not to fit into any idea of what you have to create. If we think of the reader/viewer/consumer during the process of creating we will be creating for someone else, not creating for ourselves for first.
Thinking about what an audience thinks creates pressure, stress, which stops your creative flow. Nabokov actually stopped writing for years after his first book of poetry came out. The negative reviews hurt him that much. One of the most confident stylistic writers there’s been. His inspiration dried up because of what someone else thought.
Thinking of the reader/viewer/consumer during the process also makes you copy, instead of creating. If you keep thinking of your audience you’ll start to create stuff an audience already likes, becoming derivative, instead of creative or inspired. Hey, it may make money, but will it give you satisfaction. It’s important to know your perspective, but also the limits of your field, your genre, but not to allow them to water down your creation.
Your audience will find you, eventually. Even if it’s when you’re dead. At least if you’re into what you’re doing, love what you’re doing, it won’t matter.
However, when the work is done, you can’t expect someone to swoop into your office or garret and offer to publish your book, or give you seed money for your business venture. No. You have to push it out into the world.
How your product — because that is what it is now — is consumed, read, or viewed when it does go out into the world is for the most part outside your control too. People will make their decisions, opinions, based on their own natures and backgrounds, most of which will have little relation to your reality. They will see things in what you have created that you don’t. At times, they will totally misconstrue what it is you were trying to create.
Also, there are as many different consumers on the planet as there are people: Irish, French, American, Asian, white, brown, black, old, young, healthy, weak. Educated. Not educated. And, they’re all at certain emotional stages in their lives. Read a book like “Catcher in the Rye” when you’re twenty. Then read it again when you’re forty-four. I’ve done it. It’s a different book each time. Why? Because I’m a different person each time. Read a novel with a divorce as the central part of the story when you’re happily married, and then again when you’re divorced. The effect will be completely different, because you, the consumer, will be different.
This is very logical, common sense, but as creators we automatically forget this when our creation becomes a product. Readers change. Viewers change. We consume reality differently, depending on who we are right now. This is important to know, to think about, important to accept and be ready for.
When someone dislikes your book, your painting, your cure, it could be because it reminds them of something they find hard to deal with. It may be something they’re not ready to experience, or that they simply hate detective novels, or love them, or hate Macs and love Windows.
Another thing, a lot of creators think self-promotion is a dirty word. Egocentric. Well, it’s not. You don’t have to sell out. You simply need to be accessible. As a creator you have to tell yourself monetary reward is good. It’s a relationship which should be positive. Others are not going to “take care of it” for us. If we allow the emotional baggage of work, parents, peers to tell us we should be living in garrets or on the street then we’re sabotaging ourselves. It’s good to get paid to create, but not to create to get paid.
The rich (business people) and poor (artists/writers, etc.) binary association is incorrect, something I talked about back in episode 11. People love binary relationships because they allow for negative and positive. In reality we connect with our creations even more by not accepting these associations, by embracing community, inter-connectiveness, collaboration, as opposed to us and them.
Poetry is a classic example. Poetry = poverty. This is one of the great staples of conditioned negative reinforcement. Ask the poet Rupi Kaur whether it’s true. Her first collection “Milk and Honey,” has sold over two and half million copies. Her second book, “Sun and Her Flowers,” reached the top three on Amazon’s bestseller list, along with Oprah Winfrey and Dan Brown. How? She represented herself, which eventually translated to sales.
I knew an artist in New York twenty years ago. He had his own gallery down in the Lower East Side. His art, in my opinion, was okay. I wondered how the hell he managed to find the money to rent the space. I asked him how many paintings he sold a month. He said, “All of them.”
“How do you do that?” I asked. “Do that many people really come in here?”
“No”, he said. “I put out flyers when I want people to come. I print off five thousand, then I go and put them in every coffee shop, bar and restaurant on Manhattan. In Brooklyn too.”
When he had a show he usually had twenty-five paintings. The way he saw it, if only ten percent of people actually piked up his flyer that meant 500 people would know. If only 25 percent actually came to the show that meant 125 people. And if only half the people wanted to buy a painting then he would sell everything. He sells everything every time. He also had patrons. Even with the patrons he still spends three days walking the streets of New York, to represent himself.
How many times did I hear this at our retreat: “I’m a (insert the type of creator), not a businesswoman.” I respond: “Yes, but you are in the business of (insert the creations).”
So, yes, creation in the right jobs can get you money, and getting well known can make you money. However, the kind of creation most people talk about, artistic creation, usually leads to minimum wage. Even well known creators can have a hard time of it making money. What can we expect when the internet means so much content out there is free? It’s natural then that free intellectual property means less opportunity to make money. But if you’re not even on the internet, then how can you make any recompense?
A few questions: Do you have a website? Do you have an Instagram account? If you only have those two things then you have places where people can find you. If you keep putting up content that you love and they’re interested in it as an audience, then they’ll keep coming back for more, and you’ll keep posting it. That way, people can find out about you, when you’re busy creating other work.
But, as with your creator community, you have to create a reader/viewer/consumer community. That’s why you’ll see all the ways of connecting with me at the end of each episode, at the bottom of my website, etc. I’m Irish. We don’t like drawing attention to ourselves, even if people think we’re outgoing. But I know that stuff has to be there, so that people can connect with me. It’s logical. How I use that is my decision.
So what do you show, represent online? Whatever you want. A lot of social media people say people love it when you represent your process. An artist painting their painting. A car being built. If that’s what you’re into, all the better. It seems to be what people enjoy.
But if you’re not into taking selfies with your novel or crochet then go back to the question again: What do you love? Take photos of that. Write about that. Talk about that. How can you be selling out if you’re representing what you love?
Also, if you advertise to one hundred people, on average, one or two people will respond. Why is this important? Because then you know it’s not because what you created is sh*t, it’s that only one or two people in every one hundred are actually going to respond to your add. This way you don’t get discouraged, because you know it’s not you, it’s just the way things are. It’s the facts of advertising.
Shift your mindset. You create something, it’s your property. If it’s a book or idea, it’s your intellectual property. Change the language. Power lies in words. If we use the wrong words we create a negative reality, devoid of the healthy, positive opportunities.
And opportunities aren’t as impractical as you think. Some more maths: To hit the “New York Times Bestseller” list, you need to sell 9,000 books in the first week. Again, there are over 7 billion people on the planet. If only a fractional percent of them love your stuff then you’ve got 70,000 people who’ll buy your book, painting, car, product.
Rupi Kaur chose to succeed by giving her creations the opportunity to succeed, by putting them on Instagram. That artist is still in the East Village, but he has someone else putting out his flyers now.
So, a few things:
• Put your work out there, share it with others.
• Meet up with other creators in real life, not just on the Internet.
• Don’t be afraid to make money off your creations. Enjoy it.
• Keep creating, you can only get better.
• Keep a damn e-mail list.
• Give credit when you refer to other creator’s work, and help others.
• And lastly, when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing and need help then, as Amanda Palmer says, Ask for help!
I’m not going to get into talking about crowdfunding and Patreon or pay what you want or all the other many things out there to connect with your audience, a community. In the end, that’s up to you to look into. I’m just saying do the basics if you can, because in the end its gratifying, satisfying when someone, even if it is just one or two people who tell you well done.
So thanks for listening. I started with what I think is a quote from an Irish writer, but as always I’m going to end the episode with an Irish proverb. This one means: Molann an obair an fear The work praises the man.
This podcast is supported by you the listener via my Patreon page. It aint no radio show. There’s no advertisers etc. paying for this, which is great because nobody’s telling me what I should and shouldn’t say or think. Independent. If ya want to support the podcast and help me get paid for doing it then please head over to patreon.com/johnfanning where you can get early and ad free access as well as extra episodes when ya sign up. Ifya can afford it then give me the cost of a price of a cup of tea or pint once a month. Ifya can’t afford it that’s grand too, ya can listen for free, but please subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to it and leave a review on itunes too or wherever ya listen to it and let your friends know about it so the listenership grows. Thank you! And thanks for listening. If you’re looking for more episodes you can find them on all the usual places like iTunes – or on my website at johnfanning.me under “podcast” where I’ve put up overview transcripts with links to all the people and ideas I mention. If you’re into social stuff and you’re looking to engage with me one-on-one, check me out on twitter @fanning_j and instagram @ johnfanning_. It’s been great sharing stuff with you today so until next time take care out there and do the work but above all be benevolent when you can!
Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.