Producing Writing

“Guilt can’t scale”

Let me start by giving credit where credit where credit is due. The inspiration for this post, and indeed the title above, comes from a post this past May by Russell Nohelty on his Complete Creative site.

His post hit on the current issue I have with Jabberwocky Audio Theater. It’s perhaps the most difficult metaphorical needle I’ve ever had to thread — and so I’m writing it about it here in case you’re in the same boat.

You Want to Share Your Lifelong Dreams

See, making audio theater is essentially a lifelong dream. Talking with other creatives, they often have similar passions even if the dreams are, naturally, unique to the person. And when you have a chance to earnestly and continually work on your lifelong dream, you want to talk about it.

The energy behind this urge to share is tantamount to the thrust put out by a Saturn rocket launching. So, by gum, I’m gonna share. And who better to share the news of your lifelong dreams with lifelong (or at least very long-term) friends?

So that’s what I’ve done… and I’ve run into an issue some of you may have as well.

People Just Don’t Care

That’s right. You let people know. You share links and images and mention it quite a bit and you find that people –including friends– do not care. At least, they don’t care in the way or care to the degree you need them to.

“Need?” Yes, because if you’re engaged in creative pursuits, more often than not your dreams include being able to make a living from said creative pursuits so you can do those wonderfully energizing creative pursuits “full time.”

So what you really need are fans of your work: people who like you and like what you do — and here is the trap I think we can fall into.

Because, ultimately, you need enough people to like you and your work, people who trust you and trust that your work will be good, and people who will then give you money for your work one way or another. In the end, it’s transactional.

And when you step back from all your efforts to talk up and hype your creative pursuits, you realize that you usually don’t –or at least don’t want— your relationships with your friends to be transactional.

Living in a Transactional World

One of the reasons I think being able to make this separation is so hard these days is that social media has made friendship so transactional. (And so much of our communication with friends is now through social media). How many likes does your post get? How many retweets or shares? When your birthday comes around, how many people shoot you messages? And how many were ever with you in person at any of your in-real-life birthday celebrations? Though some have tried to divide acquaintances into separate, overlapping groups (rest in peace, Google+), there’s an inherent blurriness in online forums as to who’s a friend, a work colleague, a peer, or simply a non-objectionable acquaintance.

And in among the blurriness of friends and colleagues and peers and acquaintances is the fact that you’ll never love someone else’s work the way they do. Even, your dear, dear friends.

Sure your friends want to be supportive of your dreams and sure you want to entice potential fans with “calls to action” in ways that are quite transactional, but you just can’t mix the two. Conveniently, social media mixes the heck out of transactions and messages with friends because these tools care more about “engagement” or umbrage rather than effective communication or enriching relationships.

So what does all this mean for you and me and our desire to realize our lifelong dreams? I have actions that come out of observations, which are:

  1. Trying to get people into your work is going to be transactional
  2. You shouldn’t treat your friends transactionally (a big point of Russell’s post)
  3. A lot of the ways you communicate with friends AND fans default towards being transactional.
  4. You have to constantly work to engage with your friends AS friends. No guilt-tripping (related to #2 above).

Okay, so I’m a project manager. What’s my plan?

A) Look Beyond Friends and Family for Fans

You need fans to support your working as a creative. That means you need to get a big enough group of people who:

  1. Know who you are,
  2. Like you,
  3. Like what you’re doing,
  4. Trust you to do a good job of whatever it is you’re doing, and…
  5. Eventually buy from you,

That’s a lot of steps. People will drop out between step 1 and step 5. You simply can’t rely on just your family and friends. Not only will your efforts to find buyers invariably get transactional (see observation #2 above), no one had enough family and friends to make this sustainable. You need to go after complete strangers… just like you’re a complete stranger to the companies and people behind so much of the stuff you buy.

If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve known this for years. It’s just that building some sort of sales funnel that accomplishes all those steps of knowing, liking, trusting, and eventually buying is a lot of work. I just wanna get back to creating stuff already! Can’t I just ask friends and family?

Nope. My long term goal is to not ask my friends and family for support, just let ’em know how I’m doing in my quest.

B) Reduce or Eliminate Transactional Rituals with Friends

Friends and family can be supporters. I think most of them are.

In fact, I firmly believe the vast majority of friends and family want you to do well in pursuing my dreams. I mean, assuming said dreams are not Lovecraftian, Machiavellian, or otherwise awful, how hard of a stretch is to just wish someone success?

But at the same time, if I step back and think about it, I know my friends –even my best friends– never liked the same stuff that I do. Not all of it. And the stuff we both like? We almost certainly like it for different reasons.

No matter how closely our tastes align in music, movies, books, or other art, we’re coming to that art on our own unique path. What resonates with you might not resonate with someone else. And that goes the same with art we create ourselves. I think art is most relevant if it does have that uniqueness, yet isn’t it paradoxically wonderful that it resonates with other people at all? Thank goodness that art resonates in many ways at the same time.

If your friends and family support you and support you creating art? That’s huge in and of itself. My mother has one of the nicest gifts for me whenever we talk. “Have you had a chance to write?” she asks. I can talk about what I’m writing, what I’m excited by, what troubles I’m having with this story or that, but her question goes straight to the point. My passion is writing and have I had a chance to feed that passion?

I am old enough now to appreciate the value in letting people love what they love, even in this age of angry, entitled fans (or perhaps because of it). You can wish that people shared your passions a thousand times over and they just won’t. To paraphrase Gandalf’s advice to Frodo, you can’t choose what passion you have. All you can choose is what to do with it.

(Oh, and if it’s a destructive or sociopathic or otherwise nasty passion that hurts peope, please see the Balrog to the door on the right. Back to the creative, enriching passions…)

Likewise, you can’t choose what other people’s passions are. Let friends and family support you as much as they can. As long as they’re not trying to drag you away from your passions (again, we’re assuming they’re creative and enriching passions, not nasty ones), then let them support you as much as they might. And bid them farewell wherever they want to stop following you on that journey. It doesn’t mean you need to stop following each other as friends.

It’s important to remember that there are these two paths, that of friendship and that of fandom, and that you must allow the people in your life to “opt-in” as much or as little as they want to on the fandom path.

Bear in mind that, and I’ll just speak for the United States here, but for a lot of people on a personal level: business isn’t booming. The economy sucks. You’ll find that people are living paycheck to paycheck or otherwise fighting their own battles in ways which you have no insight or ability to change. That goes the same for complete strangers as well as friends and family.

As I’ll go into next, one of the ways to make sure friends and family implicitly feel they’re opting in as fans and not being forced with you on your journey is to be clear, even if there’s some nuance, about your personal and public channels — and to make sure your personal channels are not transactional.

C) Define Your Channels and Be Aware of the Social Media Currents

If you’re going to find fans and build your creative brand/reputation, you simply have to have a presence online. You have to get out in the world.

That means putting on your marketing hat more often than many of us like. And that does mean putting yourself out there on the Internet (ahem, like a eponymous website) as well as social media (e.g. Facebook, etc.).

This task can be difficult. Because who are you online? More and more, companies and websites want you to be ONE person and, speaking for myself, I don’t want the one person I am online to be a salesperson.

What keeps me sane, and perhaps what may keep you sane, is not just “branding” but curating your persona based on where you are. I’ve mentioned before about my social media strategy in a joking manner, but there’s truth behind the humor.

Right now, you have different personas, different faces you present to the world. This is simply human. It existed before the Internet. It exists now. I’m in a different mode at work than at home. Not only that, I’m going to be in different modes at work, whether I’m in a meeting with executives, leading a meeting, or talking with my team. We curate the persona we present to the world… depending on what part of the world we’re presenting to.

Now the Internet and social media come along and, unsurprisingly, can’t parse the very subjective, idiosyncratic way we define and redefine ourselves every day in so many spheres. I have no doubt they’re getting better, but it’s best to remember that the various corporate forces at work want to define your identity to better market and monetize you. To any degree that they understand you contain multitudes, they want to set the ground rules for your complexity.

This isn’t the stuff of tinfoil hats. Corporations like to make money. It’s kinda their thing. So they’ve been trying to define prospective buyers and actual buyers and then placing us in nice, marketable groups since well before the Internet. The Internet and current data analysis simply allows them to reach more people and have more marketable groups.

I wrote about this a little in June, citing Conor Friedersdorf’s article about how the Internet is eroding are ability to curate our identities.

The nice thing is you can curate your identity even in this environment. You’re probably doing it already to some extent, but the trick is to take the time and be more mindful about it.

Consider that Facebook has your timeline, but also gives you the opportunity to create a more public “page.” I have many friends who, in addition to their personal presence, also have an official page for themselves as the actor or the artist or the musician or any of a number of things they are. It’s nice to have that barrier: take it. You the artist or the brand are clearly you, but that channel will not be doing the family updates and cat videos (okay, maybe it will be the cat videos, I’m not sure).

If you’re a company, you can also have a Facebook page, just like you could have a corporate Twitter account, Instagram, web page, or what-have-you. Define your channels. Yes it’s extra work on the one hand, but it’s also creating built-in ground rules for which types of posts or content will go where. In that sense, I find this separation of channels helps me greatly. The canny people who are their own brand are quite aware that their tweets are not as private as a conversation had among friends at home. You don’t need to bare all everywhere — and someone going to the YouCorp page or twitter feed or website knows that’s different from You on Facebook. And you never have to bare all anyway online, even for your “personal” channels. is here, in part, to be a more personal channel. I have a Jabberwocky Audio Theater website and Facebook page for those posts as well as a general Team J website and a Facebook page for casting posts. I resurrected this eponymous website to post more personal thoughts and updates. This site is, in part, to scratch that itch, but also to help not dilute the posts and content that will be on those other websites. They are separate brands. Yes, I’ll happily mention Jabberwocky Audio Theater a hundred times here –it’s a lifelong dream, remember? However, you opt-in to visit that website, get those tweets, get on that mailing list, and so on. That’s where you will get more explicit selling and branding.

I realize my approach may not work for all people — and powerful currents are pushing you to “be your own brand” just as related currents want to make every hobby and interest a “side hustle.” (I disagree with making all your efforts a “hustle” as explored here and here). However, if you just stop and think how and what you want to post or reveal online, I think you’ll find you have a lot more agency than you realize. If your name is integral with you as an artist, than maybe a less personal (yet still personable) you is who is online.

My main point is that you retain the ability to interact with friends as friends: not a brand, not a side hustler, not a salesperson. It’s not that you won’t sell or can’t sell, but give yourself time and space to be “off the clock.”

D) Keep on Making Time for Friends

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine that every entrepreneur and small business owner has experienced the pressure to never be off the clock. Sure you had a good day or week or month, but no matter what you do a bad day or week or month will come. You could always do more market research, do more outreach, finish this before lunch, finish that before dinner, stay up a bit longer…

There is always something more to do.

Combine that with all the external pressure to maximize the branding of You, Inc. that any freelance creative will recognize and is it any wonder that we want to see how to maximize our fandom among family and friends?

But if you’re like me, you’ve caught yourself during interactions with friends or family (online or in-person) where you’ve realized you were more mercantile then you’d like. Perhaps you feel that tinge of guilt tactic in there. Again, back to the article that kicked this whole post off: guilt makes bad friendships.

This is where having the different channels is handy for me. I can tell friends or family about the website or twitter feed or whatnot. They get to go check out my on-the-clock persona if they want and it’s implicit what they’re getting now is off-the-clock (observing doctors, therapists, and lawyers in social settings has taught me a lot about being on and off “the clock”).

Remember what you’re doing creatively that you love. Share that. I will tell people about projects I’m working on ’til the cows come home. I just don’t dwell on the selling of them to friends and family. That, incidentally, is why creatives should always have something free. That way, you can always offer them to check out the real deal. Here again, I agree with Russell. That free stuff should be as good or better than anything you’re selling. And you’re giving that to friends and family without a second thought. Because, first, they’re not only implicitly giving you the time to read or watch or listen to your creation, they just might be giving you extra fans in case they love it. It doesn’t hurt that they have a bit of ‘insider knowledge’ in knowing you (“Oh, I know this person who does this comic you would love.”) How cool is that?

I’d mention here that this is also where it’s very good to take a cue from those doctors and therapists and lawyers: strictly define what the “free” is you’re giving and don’t venture beyond those borders. If you have a free book, that’s what’s free, not every book you ever write for all time. The free thing you give to friends and family serves the same purpose that the free thing you give to perfect strangers: to go out into the world and find fans and buyers (see “A” above). Friends and family just have an inside track to get that free stuff. Your free thing isn’t a gift, it’s a marketing tool.

That’s a key fact to remember: you’re not doing them a favor by giving them the free thing. They’re doing you a favor by taking it and implicitly promising to spend some time reading or listening or watching. So what is doing them a favor?

It could be as simple as listening. Odds are if you’re a creative, you have a bunch of creative friends. What have they been doing? What are they struggling with? And it doesn’t all have to be “talking shop.” What’s been inspiring them? What are they listening to, watching, reading? Have they traveled anywhere recently? Are they planning a trip? You know: the kind of things that would fill up a lot of conversations before you were busy creating, trying to create, and trying to get people to buy your creations.

This is yet another reason why I push back on the attempt to make your every interest a “side hustle.” You need spaces and people where your actions are not tied to performance metrics. Odds are your friends and family need that more of that too. Make time for that, just as surely as you are being mindful of your marketing and personal channels. Because when things aren’t going well on the business front, the salve isn’t another sales opportunity: it’s time with friends and family.

E) Allow Yourself to Not Be Perfect

Wait! What’s this? This doesn’t align to one of the four observations above. That’s right. Still, it’s necessary.

Look, we’re all just one person amid a sea of powerful societal currents and a whole bunch of other people trying to do whatever it is they’re dreaming about. We’re not going to be unmovable by all that moves around us.

You’re going to be too transactional to one friend. You’re going to care more about a relationship with someone who sees you more as a colleague. You’re going to care less about something where a friend really needs validation. Things won’t go well on an emotional, personal level. Somewhere, sometime, some interaction is going to suck.

But all your interactions don’t have to suck. And they don’t have to be bad forever.

So, after writing all this, have I figured out everything I’m going to do? Have I managed my ideal balance between finding fans and maintaining friends? No.

Am I going to keep on letting friends know about all I’m working on with Jabberwocky Audio Theater? Yes.

I’m even going to keep seeing if any of them might be fans or supporters or pass the word on. But I feel better about how to thread that metaphorical needle without hurting friendships.

Because guilt can’t scale.

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