letter to a young emerging creative who thinks she wants to blog (gods help her)
Anything with a low barrier of entry will let in a lot of crap. This is just the natural order of things (of social media, of blogging). But this only makes it more important – not less – to strive for excellence, relevance and meaning.
You need to have an intention. ‘Developing a readership by attracting strangers and turning them into Fans and maybe True Fans’ is a very different kind of intention from ‘making money online’ or ‘putting up a blog so my agent/editor/writing instructor will get the f*ck off my back’.
I was talking with a young writer who wanted to start building her online platform and said she needed “to get on Tumblr.”
“Why Tumblr?” I said.
She kind of shrugged and said something about how Tumblr is hot and all the cool kids are doing it.
“And if all the cool kids were to jump off a bridge….”
I didn’t really say that, because that would be annoying. But I did mention how Tumblr is great for short posts with lots of visuals, is that what she wanted to do?
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. I told her to go online and explore different blogs and websites and see what she resonated with, what she could see herself doing in a way that would maintain her interest over a long period of time.
If you can form a very…clear…image in your head of what you want your online presence to ultimately look like, be like, feel like, then you have something specific to move toward.
You have a destination.
You have a journey.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You can find someone online who inspires you. When I became seriously interested in blogging, it was the writer-entrepreneurs who intrigued and excited me: Chris Guillebeau, Danielle LaPorte, Jonathan Fields, Joanna Penn. I also fell in love with Kelly Diels’ defiantly personal tone in a world of ‘authority blogging’ (which is also, interestingly enough, predominantly male).
You also don’t have to do what other people tell you to. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. Soak up all that online advice, keep what serves you and reject what doesn’t and then experiment, experiment, experiment. Ultimately what works best for you will be that thing, that ‘you-ness’, that might not work at all for anybody else and which nobody else would have known to teach you.
At some point you will revise your intention to focus less on yourself and more on your readers. You will realize that it’s about them. You will stop asking yourself, “How do I get more people to read me?” and start asking instead, “How do I create value for other people? How can I help? What can I give?” This is when your traffic will slowly but steadily grow.
But don’t get too hung up over the whole traffic thing. Blogging has a learning curve, and you need that time in the beginning when no one is reading you (except maybe your mom – hi Mom!) to figure out not only what the hell you’re doing, but where you want to take this.
What your purpose is. Your Big Meaning.
An effective social media presence does not require you to get down and dirty with the details of your life. (Here’s the amazing thing: we don’t care!)
You are not required to share what you had with breakfast, or what new exciting sexual positions you tried with your partner(s) while swinging from the chandelier the other night –
and even if you do want to share, the question is, are those personal details relevant in any way to whatever it is that you’re hoping to accomplish?
Which comes back to intention.
I believe that the most powerful blogs are fueled by an underlying mission that goes beyond ‘promote my stuff’ and it is this mission, this Big Meaning, that shapes your content and your direction and gives your blog an identity.
The standard advice in the blogging world is to find your niche: that particular subject in which you can establish expertise that will draw in new readers who want to know what you know. A niche can be a good place to start when you’re still learning who you are as a blogger; it’s easier to talk about your blog to people when you can tell them what kind of blog it is (“a creativity blog”); and one way to attract an audience is to answer their questions and solve their problems. But as a creative, you’re doing much more than selling solutions to problems – which is ultimately what niche blogging is about – you’re also engaging your people with the voice and worldview that shapes your creative work. In the end, you probably won’t want to be limited to ‘a niche’.
Superstar blogger Leo Babauta talks about this in a post encouraging you to bundle together several topics you are passionate about, so long as you can find an ‘angle’ on them that differentiates you from everybody else.
I think that angle should be your Big Meaning, your Ultimate Why – and by that, I mean the reason why you do that voodoo that you do. The big life question that you’re compelled to explore. The wound that you seek to heal. The quest, the mission, the journey you’re on that will ultimately make the world a better place – while inviting other people to be a part of it.
This goes beyond blogging – it goes right to your art, your life, your identity. It’s also not something you decide on so much as discover – your ‘why’ rises of its own accord, up from the core through all the layers of thinking and creating until you can finally feel what you’re all about.
And by feel, I mean exactly that – it’s a sensation, a resonance, a fullness. It lights you up. That’s because – as Simon Sinek puts it in his great book START WITH WHY – your ‘why’ taps directly into the part of your brain, the limbic part, that is nonverbal, emotional, and busily influencing all the decisions your neocortex thinks it makes through ‘logic’ alone.
(As Simon puts it, we ‘like’ things out of our neocortex. We not only like them, we can explain why we like them. But we ‘love’ things out of our limbic system, which means we can never articulate exactly why we ‘love’ something or someone; the feeling lives in a place beyond language. We can use words to gesture toward it, but that’s it and that’s all. So if you can’t understand why your best friend is in love with that crazy dude, don’t worry, she can’t either.)
Are you obligated, as a creative, to do any of this? Of course not.
But this is what I believe: we live in a world that is now so interconnected that we can no longer afford to blindly buy into this ‘individualist’ ethos that would have each and every one of us standing alone, working and creating alone. As it turns out, that’s not how real creative insight actually happens.
Every creative has his or her natural audience – and by that I mean her right audience, who values her for what she is, who stimulates her and enables her to flourish. (Your wrong audience, on the other hand, could trap you, suffocate you, encourage you into all kinds of artistically compromising positions).
There is a point where your needs and desires intersect with your right audience’s needs and desires, so that you are your audience and your audience is you.
Which means, if you are a writer, you don’t have to wonder if you are writing for your audience or for yourself; you are writing for both.
Blogging becomes an extension of that.
You use your voice and your craft to serve your audience; and through serving them, you serve yourself. And it’s not just because your right audience will do the real work of promoting you to others through the all-powerful word-of-mouth; it’s because of how you learn and grow in this mysterious, rather magical space that you and your audience co-create online. And it’s the influence and creativity and levels of insight that you and your audience can unleash together that ripple out along all the lines that connect us and tilt us toward better – or worse.
The real power of social media is not about the (often misleading) number of fans and followers you can brag about, but the potential global impact that you as a cultural creative can have through your work and your platform and the ‘why’ that fuels both. (Sales of your work happen as a side benefit.)
It doesn’t happen overnight – it takes, literally, years – but there will be new voices rising with something real to say (and different platforms through which to say it).
You can settle for just trying to promote your work. Or you can turn into your corner and scoff about those talentless hacks who tweet what they had for breakfast and Lord knows what other nonsense (“don’t they have lives???”). Or you can maybe look above these tired, stale, outdated notions of what it means to market online to see something new emerging, something deep and long-lasting and powerful, and decide that you want to be a part of it.
There are no wrong answers, only personal preferences. Whatever yours are or may be, I wish you the best.
If you like this article – or this blog – please share. I’d appreciate it.