(This is the sixth Stumbling into Publishing post.)
It always starts well because I always start alone. Working by myself, I have the peace of mind to just focus on the work, work on the components, polish the details, and simply go where my interest takes me.
Sometimes you share with people you trust; never more than with a small group.
Sometimes you lose interest and just stop. You are working alone and so who is going to judge you for giving up?
As time goes by, the thrill you had when you first started working begins to give way to something deeper—more profound. Your desk becomes the place where you sit down, heavy with troubles and worries, and stand up, hours later, light with serenity and calm.
Your routine becomes a glass palace where your soul lives, made out of emotional transparency and honesty of work; a place as fragile as it is beautiful.
Before 2010, I had always blogged just for myself. When I first started blogging, Facebook hadn’t even reached the point of being an obnoxious idea discussed at a college canteen. If you wanted to write and share with your friends, your options were Livejournal or a blog. I picked blogs, mostly because it offered more scope for experimenting with web technology. (I’ve been making websites for what is approaching two decades. It used to be fun.)
I never had any cause to be concerned about the ‘people out there’ who came to my blogs from outside my social circle.
That changed when I decided to take blogging seriously. It was all a part of the one and the same experiment:
Learn about publishing and study it.
Do it by self-publishing.
Write for an audience on the blog.
Take the idea of having an audience seriously.
Write fiction for an audience.
Take the self-publishing process seriously.
Learn everything you can about the process.
Talk to people.
Take them seriously.
Adjust your writing to suit the audience.
Lose the love for writing.
Let a deluded community guide you away from much more important problems and to focus on the tedious and mundane.
Lose the joy in tackling a hard technical problem.
Let self-interested shills dictate the issues you focus on.
Lose the thrill of figuring out a complex issue.
Lose the love of telling a story.
I documented earlier the toxic difference between blogging and other kinds of writing, where the immediacy, tight feedback loop, and brevity of the form doesn’t compromise the writing to nearly the same degree.
The problem was more fundamental than that. It was much more basic than a conflict of form and desire. I failed myself.
I got into blogging, debating with people, commenting on the format specification process, talking at conferences, and participating in the publishing community online. I began to take seriously the feedback people in the community gave me and adjusted my writing to suit. I changed my focus of what problems to look into based on the suggestions of people in publishing. I began to rely on external feedback—other people’s responses—to counteract my utter conviction that I suck at this—that I suck at everything publishing.
Because, like so many others, I think I suck.
The feedback loop didn’t counteract that conviction. It strengthened it.
Everything I enjoy writing tends to be less popular.
Conclusions I come to on my own, through reading, studying, researching, and working, are—if not ignored—immediately labeled ‘controversial’ and ‘provocative’.
The only really positive response I get is when I state the bloody obvious—the kind of observations everybody with common sense agrees with.
Even worse is the fact that I was (and am) monitoring the responses. I used to check Google Analytics every week. I used to monitor the response on Twitter. Even though I pretended otherwise, these things mattered to me.
Then I burned out. I didn’t lose faith in myself. I burned out when I realised that the only reason I inflicted this torment upon myself was that I never had any faith in myself to begin with.
When you’ve burnt out, lost faith in yourself, and lost respect for your audience, you begin to play at being deliberately provocative.
Part of it is a desperate attempt to get people to take something—anything—more seriously than just a yay or nay retweet. Dialling the idea up to eleven and having them reject it is better than having them ignore it completely.
Part of it is a loss of respect. While I respect the people I’ve communicated with online and in real life, I haven’t respected blog readers as a group for a very long time.
I think the only way to respect blog readers as a group is to ignore them. Write either for yourself or for a specific individual. The most interesting and rewarding blog posts are the ones that are like a letter to yourself or to a friend.
That means giving up on the idea of getting any real value out of your blog, much like the only way to enjoy social media means giving up on the idea of benefiting from it.
Your blog can either be a resource for your career, or it can be a piece of work you enjoy writing.
Social media can either further your business, or it can make your life richer.
Optimising your activity on blogs and social media is toxic. It’s a pit of venomous adders because all of the compromises and adjustments that increase the response and improve your career are also actions that poison your mind. They draw you away from yourself and into a feedback loop where your self-worth depends on what button some moron decides to press on their smartphone.
Once you’re hooked by the loop you start doing crazy things like compromise your other writing projects, self-censor, and make a truck-load of bad choices in general.
See also: ‘sellout’, ‘Judas’, ‘dishonesty’.
(Lesson one: if you’re going to sell out, do so properly and get paid. Don’t sell out for free.)
I made bad decisions:
I decided I wasn’t any good at anything I do.
I decided that anything I enjoyed didn’t have value.
I decided other people knew better than I did about what I was good at.
I no longer trusted my own taste.
I lost the will to work on projects I enjoyed.
I listened to people’s feedback, adjusted my work to suit, but I didn’t believe them and so lost the emotional connection to my work. I no longer had the bond with my work, the pact you have with your own imagination that you need to make something that interests yourself.
All that crap about how the only way to reach your readers is to be true to yourself? Probably true about book readers but patently untrue about blog readers. The manipulative, evil, and sleazy crap works online. It doesn’t just work, it works brilliantly. It gets traffic. It gets conversions. It gets leads. It gets sales. I have no idea how people do it without completely losing their souls.
The path to repair yourself is to write for yourself again:
Don’t write for the hungry horde of blog readers.
Don’t write to prove yourself or demonstrate what you can do.
Don’t write for the feedback loop.
Wander around the words and see the sights.
It takes a while. Bad habits tend to stick around—those bastards are hard to shake. But, with practice and heavy writing, they begin to fall off one by one.
Some bad habits seem to stick around forever but that’s all right. There’s always room for more improvement.
Most of the posts I’ve been publishing on my blog this January were written some time over the past couple of years. They are not new. Most of what I wrote during this period just went into a folder, to be stored and forgotten. Some of them I wrote to shake some bad habits loose. With many I failed.
In writing largely for myself over the past couple of years, I’ve built up a small pile of text files. Not all of it is suitable for you piranhas. Some of them are. Some of them won’t make sense to you. Some of them are just crap. With a lot of them I was still in the habit of stating the obvious. Some of them are clearly written in the toxic blog style I hate. Some of them I like. Others I don’t like but will post anyway. Some I genuinely enjoyed writing. Others were a torment through and through. Whatever the quality, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a bunch of them on this blog, roughly one a weekday, until they run out.
I’m monitoring the traffic to these posts and replying to the comments. Not as a part of the old feedback loop where I used to try and figure out how to get to you people. More as a comparative experiment. Since the writing process and the monitoring of the data have been completely separated, there is relatively little risk of the feedback loop reinstating itself.
I don’t know what I’m going to do once I’ve unloaded that bucket of half-digested crap onto the blog. Maybe I’ll just continue in that vein, writing for myself and throwing an occasional one onto the site after it’s aged a bit and the stink of the first draft has been brushed off. Maybe I’ll just stop and just use the blog to let people know about what else I’m up to whenever I’m up to something interesting.
Whatever else I do I’ll keep writing. The only question is whether you will have a chance to read it or not.
I haven’t decided. Whatever I do, I’m not going to take your advice on it. Don’t tell me what you want. You don’t get a say.