where to find your interestingness as a writer + blogger + ruler of your domain*





I did an online guest lecture/Q&A for the e-course “How to Build Your Author Platform” offered by Dan Blank of www.wegrowmedia.com.

Much fun.

One of the questions involved the question of what to blog about. The student knew the way to attract an audience is to go narrow and deep: choose a niche, write to a specific person instead of trying to throw out something for everybody (which wins over nobody). Yet, she pointed out, Tribal Writer seems to range across different topics. How was I managing this?

So I talked about how your niche could actually be a sub-niche, created by intersecting one interest or passion with another. That not only gives you a little realm of your own to Totally Dominate (at least in your head) – where, say, social media crosses with the pursuit of the creative life — it gives you a number of different edges you can roam along and explore. And when you write out to the various edges of your sub-niche, you can appeal to different audiences and lure some of them back to your lair (where they can fall madly in love with you and live happily ever after).


Edges are interesting.

Edges are where one thing meets up with another thing and transforms and is transformed by it. Ideas bang into each other. Sparks fly.

Out on those edges is where you find the creative and intellectual outlaws, the restless soul-searchers, the rebels and misfits, the early adopters.

It’s where you find truths people don’t want to know and secrets they won’t admit to keeping.

The only thing you need to get there is your own curiosity (if you don’t have it, then you can always fake it). You write out to the very edges of your knowledge – and then learn more. You ask yourself, “What else?” and “What next?” This is how you slowly turn into an expert, which, in the world of blogging, is a fine and helpful thing to be. (Note: you never. ever. in a zillion years. refer to yourself as an expert. You’re only an expert when other people call you that, when they are confident that you know more than they do.)

John Hagel refers to all this as the passion of the explorer:

…a passion that takes the form of a long-term commitment to explore a particular domain, usually fairly broadly defined. It is not content with passive observation, but it wants to learn through doing. In the process, it seeks to achieve a growing impact on that domain by continuing to test and extend one’s own personal performance limits.

He also refers to the questing disposition

People with this kind of disposition need continuing stimulation. But it is stimulation of a certain type – the kind that comes from going beyond one’s comfort zone, addressing new challenges, engaging in creative problem-solving and developing new skills to make progress in a challenging environment.

Hagel also points out how nature rewards us with a dopamine high:

When we undertake a challenge and expect to overcome it, our brains release a surge of dopamine which gives us a sense of pleasure and helps to motivate us to pursue the anticipated reward…

As a result, dopamine stimulates exploratory/seeking behavior. It is much more tied to the anticipation of a reward than the actual attainment of the reward…

It makes us much more willing to explore unfamiliar territory and try out new activities.

In other words, nature rewards us for going to extremes, even if the extremes are nothing more than the self-perceived limits of our minds and personalities.

As fate would have it, so does the Internet.

Gary Vee points out in his new book The Thank You Economy:

…very little in the middle is often memorable, and what is memorable is what sticks. Stories and ideas that catch us off guard, make us pay attention, and show up where we didn’t expect them – those are sticky. Sticky stories are the ones that get carried forward, permeating the barrier around the middle and reaching far more people than you’ll ever find in that limited space.


The problem is, we’re not trained to ride the edges, go to extremes, develop our questing dispositions.

When we do that, we put ourselves out there to be judged, laughed at and hurt.

We learn young that edges = different, and difference = isolation and social estrangement. When you’re a kid, this feels like abandonment, which feels like death. So you smooth out your own edges, or maybe cut them off. You go to the middle, where everybody else is, where your friends are; where you would read the same books and listen to the same songs and go to the same movies and watch the same TV shows. It’s where the advertisers knew they could find everybody, to bombard them with the same commercials.

The middle often looks safe. It seems like a center, except it’s a false center. Instead of feeling the freedom to express yourself to the fullest, you tamp yourself down. You slouch. You pretend to be shorter, or dumber, or quieter, or nicer, or tougher, or sexier, or less sexier than you are. You fake an interest in sports, or the opposite sex, or law school, or babies. You become a kind of performance of yourself.

Which is not what the Internet wants. The Internet wants authentic, or else we might as well go back to watching Superbowl commercials.


When you think about it, the middle kind of sucks.

What’s the most difficult part of writing a novel? The middle. When are you most tempted to give up a task or activity? In the middle, when the bloom of beginning has worn off and the light at the end isn’t in sight yet. Why is Jan Brady famous for saying, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia…!” Because she suffered middle child syndrome.

Seth Godin writes about The Dip: that period of progress when it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress at all. It’s when most people quit. Those who don’t, who push on through to the other side, emerge into mastery.

But the point is that the Dip – the middle – is not the place where you’re supposed to stay. Either you realize that you’re on the wrong road entirely, and get off as soon as you can, or you’re just passing (or struggling) through in order to pick up the skills needed and demonstrate the grit required. You’re not in one place or the other, fully one thing or the other; you are journey, change, and transformation.

Enlightenment is never in the middle. Whatever you’re doing, and whatever emotion attends it – fear, for example, — enlightenment is always on the other side.


I’m not into what I think of as New Age imagery – feathers and dreamcatchers and Spirit and women running with the wolves and things like that – but I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of shamanism. A shaman is a “wounded healer” – wounded from his or her time in the middle, maybe – who has been marked as ‘different’ through mysterious dreams and visions. Shamans travel out to the edges of experience and encounter other worlds. They suffer, but they transfigure that pain into power, special knowledge, to bring back to the tribe.

They return to the middle not to get stuck there, but to change it.


When I spoke to Dan Blank’s online class, I didn’t mention shamans or The Dip or Jan Brady or any of this.

Choosing a topic for your blog is such a personal thing, and your choices are a lot more limited than you maybe realize. Your topic needs to sustain you over years, and there are only a handful of things – if that – likely to ignite your deep, sustained interest and curiosity. In order to Feed the Blog week in and week out, you’re forced to chase that topic down, to learn and evolve.

Not to mention that your subject matter gets folded into your ‘brand’, which is your reputation, which is your online identity. So, in a way, you are what you write. And by writing out to the edges of your topic, you’re writing out to the edges of yourself. Whether those edges are rough, smooth, jagged, whatever – doesn’t matter. So long as you get there, and hang out for a while.

Which reminds me of lines from a Margaret Atwood poem:

I move
And live on the edges
(what edges)
I live
On all the edges there are.

* see Abby Kerr’s website about how to brand yourself, find your niche and rule like a pro. Because she’s awesome.

Mar 20, 2011

17 comments · Add Yours

Justine – I love this post! Thank you so much for sharing this, both here, and for my class!


Thanks for the post.
I’ve always been a go to the middle kind of guy. Stay out of everyone’s way and try not to offend anyone. Working on changing that. But it’s interesting to note that the middle limits you because it is safer. Risk leads to progression and thus progression is rarely achieved because everyone is too afraid to take a risk.
My journey to the edge might be nearing its conclusion after the directions in this post. (Hopefully anyway.)


The middle definitely has a purpose. We’re social animals & we need to get along. And as kids, we need to learn how to navigate other people. Plus I think some of us need ‘risk’ more than others. But the real issue is when we can’t be who we are or want or need to be because it makes the people around us uncomfortable (often for stupid reasons), or inconveniences them in some way, and we’re made to feel defective or wrong or shamed for that.


Loved your post.

Hagel also points out how nature rewards us with a dopamine high:

When we undertake a challenge and expect to overcome it, our brains release a surge of dopamine which gives us a sense of pleasure and helps to motivate us to pursue the anticipated reward…

As a result, dopamine stimulates exploratory/seeking behavior. It is much more tied to the anticipation of a reward than the actual attainment of the reward…

It makes us much more willing to explore unfamiliar territory and try out new activities.

It’s also the core of the trust building cycle. Stress must follow relief. If this cycle is broken at some point of our lives, our emotions may get turned off, a la Hannibal —not good, not good at all.

Interestingly, some of us, are probably hooked on the dopamine rush and take risks to get this high.

The rest, are interested to learn what happens with the “edger” because it serves them well. If the edger gets it wrong, it’s good to know why.

In any case, I agre with you that this is the reason why we’re all interested in edgy stories.

Love your writing.


So I’m reading, reading, reading…thinking…agree, agree, interesting, well thought out, yeah sure… And then my eyes park on: A shaman is a “wounded healer” —

I read this paragraph again, and again, and once more. HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS CONCEPT? You are so right about this!

A year and a half ago I encountered a shaman who helped me find my Place of Peace. I didn’t ask for this light. I was offered it, as a gift. And yes, I was skeptical, even cocky. I had walked the walk, thought the thoughts. But there it was, an open portal, waiting for me to pass its threshold. So reluctantly I agreed to accept the Stone, smell the smoke, hear the chant, and drop my doubts just long enough, BARELY long enough, to crack though my thickest walls of hidden pain. In thirty minutes, I had finally fulfilled thirty years of seeking. The shaman who guided me to my core, was like me, a sufferer of child abandonment. I knew her. She was a lonely and lost friend, seeking freedom from pain herself, by training to be a shaman. I was her first “trial subject.” I was course work, actually home work. From my point-of-view, I was doing HER a favor. And I did, because that’s how it works with shamans.

So now I am a Believer, as I was in my twenties, when I was so scared I was willing to try anything.

Write more about magic, Justine. You know its real. We know its real. We need to be reminded.



Reading your post immediately made me think of George Leonard’s book “Mastery”.

He wrote about ‘loving the plateau’ – the place in the middle where it seems that nothing is happening, you are apparently learning nothing and no progress is made. If you are not able to love the plateau you can never reach mastery.

I pulled my copy down off the shelf above my desk and flicked it open to make sure I wasn’t going to mis-quote. The book opened at the chapter entitled “The Edge”! In it he says:

” Playing the edge is a balancing act. It demands the awareness to know when you’re pushing yourself beyond safe limits. In this awareness, the man or woman on the path of mastery sometimes makes a conscious decision to do just that.”

Good blogging (like Tribal Writer) does just that. Thanks for a great post Justine.


Justine, if you haven’t already watched Art & Copy, then you should. It’s available on Netflix. Dan Wieden, of Wieden + Kenney, which developed Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, talks about how great advertising is a celebration of lightning striking. I’d take that metaphor a step further.

Great advertisements win because they take risks. Honest writing is risky. Building a career as a creative professional is risky. At the heart of these risks is a quest for authenticity—even in advertisements. All great advertisements, and all great blog posts, start with something true. If your ad or your post is simply putting lipstick on the old pig and trying to sell it as a new one, then you might fool a few people before the rest run you out of town.

If we want to win, then we have to risk true authenticity. And I think you’re exactly right: we travel to the center of ourselves by identifying the fringes and edges and setting up camp there. You could say that we have to walk out into an open field in the middle of a lightning storm. That’s where the vibrant, pulsing stuff of art takes shape. In seeking the fringes, we might just become more ourselves.


Oh, Justine, you ARE a shaman!

As a devout reader of your blog, I can tell you with all certainty that I am one of those “creative and intellectual outlaws” of which you speak.

Ahh, Edges. That’s where I write. Just this week my new ebook “Stories from the Edges” debuted on Smashwords and Amazon.com. You must have had a premonition about it

Don’t get me wrong. I am not doing shameless self-promotion here, just paying attention to the teacher.

Here’s an apple for your desk, Miss Musk.



Fascinating and inspiring as always, Justine. I’m motivated once again to reevaluate what I’m doing…


Thank you for your blog, Justine. It always reminds me that I am not alone. BTW, have you read Clarissa Pinkola’s book, Women Who Run With the Wolves? A trove of archetypal stories………


Thank you for your blog, Justine. It always reminds me that I am not alone. BTW, have you read Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, Women Who Run With the Wolves? A trove of archetypal stories………


It sounds like a good plan, but the hints you’ve given will not always prove true. Case in point, I can blog all I like about books, strange happenings, or other “deep” thoughts, and nobody will read the posts unless I force them (or they’re my friends).

But the second I veer into political discussions of any kind, my hits go up enormously. I mean big time. So, either 1) subject matter does matter in the sense that the more mainstream and the more current-affairs your post subject matter is, the more hits you will get or, 2) it’s just the FBI giving me hundreds of hits per day to see what else I’ll write about Ghadafi and nuclear Japan.

Which do you think it might be?

Deep-thoughtless in Wenatchee


Yvette —

Well, that’s why you want to choose a specific niche and reach out to a specific audience, presumably one that will overlap with your fiction. Your number of hits mean nothing if those people never return to develop deeper & more meaningful relationships with you/your work.

Blogging is different from writing offline — people online seek out information that will make their lives better in some way. If you develop yourself as an ‘expert’ or ‘authority’, and give them reasons to return to your site/blog, you can use information as the bait to hook them on your voice/style/personality. Bottom line, however, is that when you blog, you are writing for your readers. It’s about them & serving their needs.


Wow. This was a really great post. Because it spoke to my entire life, not just my blogging life.

Really great. I’d like to say life changing, but I don’t want to sound over dramatic. (But I really think it was a life changing post.)

Thank you


I’m continually amazed at how you find all these photos of my ex-girlfriends with which to decorate your blog posts.


Excellent post. This is definitely something I’ve been struggling with (which I’m sure a lot of bloggers do). Great advice and extremely helpful! Thanks!


Just what I needed to read as my own blog takes shape in my head. Intersections and edges: my natural home.


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