I’ve developed a complicated relationship with writing.
I’ve been blogging every day since February, and prior to that had been blogging anywhere from 2-7 times per week over the past three years. The surprising thing about writing regularly as a discipline is how much my relationship to the practice has changed. It’s like a marriage, with honeymoons, dips, plateaus, and every other vicissitude imaginable.
So where do things stand now?
I like writing. In fact, I love writing. I need it. It’s still hard, but I have this unshakable faith that I never had before. I know when I sit down and start typing, something will come. I never fear for lack of content. The knowledge that as long as I sit down, face the page, and hit that first keystroke I will get something written is wonderful. So as an inward-focused self-development project, writing and I have a good thing going. It’s when third parties get involved that things get complicated.
I’ve posted before and I still maintain that I write primarily for myself. Still, I love it when my stuff gets a lot of traction, shares, and views. I’m a slow learner, but I’ve recently hit on a few elements that dramatically increase the level of attention a piece can get. That’s the source of the complication between writing and me. Do I just sit down, hammer away at the keys, and wait for the Muses to reward my discipline with inspiration, or do I deliberately construct content to include elements that will gain wider reach?
I have no ethical worries about “selling out” and don’t look down on marketing or even those who’ve mastered the art of click-baiting. I don’t think there’s anything more or less pure about writing to get read, as long as you’re honest with yourself about your intentions and don’t feel shame over it. I love the constant give-and-take game that creators and consumers of content play, trying to understand and anticipate each other. I think good marketing does not harm a product, but actually creates value. I am impressed by those who really grasp that the game is less about creating content than it is about structuring it.
Still, writing for reach doesn’t come as naturally to me and I only occasionally enjoy it. I hate posts that have images attached to them for no reason. Why does a stock photo of people on an escalator make the ideas better? Most people prefer images with everything, and I don’t look down on that. I like titles that are a bit ambiguous, but most people want a big, clear “pop” up top. I vaguely understand it and oscillate between stubbornly refusing to try and happily playing around with small tweaks that appeal to would-be readers.
When I first began blogging no one read any of my stuff. That was the second hurdle to overcome. Before I started writing I had to overcome the fear of being misunderstood or disliked for my sometimes radical views, but I quickly learned the more common and more difficult reality is that no one is offended because no one is reading. I came to terms with a small audience and writing and I really focused on our relationship in private. I do not pretend to have a massive audience today, but readership has steadily grown and with increasing frequency I write a piece that gets widely shared. The thing that makes this hard on my relationship with writing is that the most popular pieces are rarely the ones I care most about or think are my best stuff.
I’m beginning to be able to penetrate the mystery a bit and see what makes some pieces more popular than others, but most of those characteristics aren’t elements of my writing that I find most fundamental or unique to me. If I allowed myself to indulge in artistic self-pity it would feel like the world is telling me, “Just be less like yourself and you’re work will get more attention”. It’s not nearly that simple, nor do I think that I could magically master massive reach by “selling out” or any such nonsense. It ain’t easy to get traction even if you’re trying. There is just a tiny tug-of-war going on between me and writing about how to proceed in our partnership.
Do I continue to use our encounters in co-creation as a form of therapy and self-reflection, or do we agree to turn toward the wider world and produce things that connect? Not that I can flip a switch and do the latter easily. But how much should I try?
For now I’m going to try to have my cake and eat it. I’ll write for myself every day. But I’ll also try once or twice a week to let audience-consciousness guide a few of my choices. Call it an experiment. I need to know if I’m avoiding writing with the audience in mind because it’s really not me, or if I’m avoiding it for the same reason I used to avoid writing altogether, because it’s hard and scary.