Am I becoming obsessed with writing?
I faced that question a few weeks ago as I pored over articles on Medium, analyzed different styles, critiqued, curled my lip back in disgust, and heaped praise on great writers.
The marketing side of internet writing is an eye-opener. The stat metrics on Medium and WordPress provide revealing insight into reader behavior. For instance, just because a reader “likes” one post, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll check out your other posts.
You post a sardonic manifesto in the heat of frustration, and people love it. You invested greater effort in other posts, but people enjoy your satire.
That’s a great lesson. Because now you realize that when you get irritated, you can fire up a satire post and you might catch new fish.
Reddit is a great target for music and nerds. You’ll get 50 hits an hour if you share on Reddit, but none of them will subscribe. Much like fellow bloggers, they’ll only read the one article that you promoted.
What does this mean? It means they behave the same way I do. You only need to observe your own behavior to understand the behavior of others.
If I find something interesting on Medium, I may give it a heart (Medium’s version of “like”), but unless they completely blow my mind, I’m not officially following. We’re all saturated with notifications and distractions all day.
Marketing serves an important purpose. People don’t like having a million channels. They want someone with authority to tell them what’s good. They need someone to narrow those channels and filter articles through an internet publication, a magazine, or some other trusted source.
The source builds trust by delivering quality. This isn’t new. The proliferation of information hasn’t changed human nature.
Knowledge is power, but it’s useless without work. If I wanted to go deeper into writing, I’d have to hustle. Which brings me to the other side of this enigma – the craft.
I’ve seen some good internet writers. These writers construct sentences that flow strong, completely absent of waste. Economy and strength. I have a seed of potential, but I’d need to climb a bigger mountain to improve.
I use too many “There is, that was, this, that”. I do my best to edit, but writers must think hard to avoid connector words. They’re weeds; you pluck the weeds to make room for flowering ideas.
I’ve always enjoyed writing prose. I read voraciously; classic literature and post-modern authors, random books, Wikipedia articles, Cracked.com, blogs, every damned thing in between.
I’ve never fixated on writing for an audience or learning more about the craft. I blame 3 things for my new passion – the internet, this blog and Thomas Wolfe.
It all started with Wolfe. The bastard. Wolfe struck me like an electric bolt.
I sat down one day and started writing for an audience. I created a hook at the beginning, engaged attention, told a story, and wrapped it up with a conclusion. Much to my surprise, an odd mix jumped out – comedy, classic lit, an 8-year old, and music. I learned internet writing by reading Cracked.com and Mark Manson.
I’m amazed that people learn this way. Everyone does – we learn by observing.
That’s creativity. You absorb the influences you’re obsessed with, mold it with your own psychology and crank it back out in a new shape. It’s like genes. That kid you made is from you, but he’s not you.
I’ve peeked behind the curtain of style, and here’s another thing I’ve found: Most people with a strong following are doing journalism. They operate in the realm of fact-based writing. I found myself wondering why the hell so many people write this way.
More importantly, why do we consume fact-based writing? We already deal with facts all day at work.
I write to escape. When I write about a band, the last damn thing I wanna do is repeat the same stuff you can find on Wikipedia. I’ll reference some facts (sparingly) to ground the article and give it structure, but I won’t dive into a detailed marathon of facts.
I’m here to dance. I want to braid memory with illusion and craft a vision out of artistry.
I made an important discovery as I considered what I want versus what I see. It started with a question: Why do people want facts? Why is journalism dominated by facts? I found the answer in a Timothy Leary quote.
“Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities (the political, the religious, the educational authorities) who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations – informing us, forming in our minds their view of reality.”
In that speech, Tim addresses a much broader (and darker) scope of authority and influence than the point I’d like to make, but the basic idea still applies.
Fact-based journalism exists to shape your reality, to affirm your identity and to provide a form of comfort in doing so. In the case of news media, it also exploits your fear, but not all journalism is news media. The one feature that binds all journalism together is that it shapes our identity as both individuals and part of a collective group.
I read Cracked.com. That’s culture journalism, and although it’s a humor website and topics do vary, it’s basically fact-based writing. Many articles touch on history and current events. I identify with other readers who comment on articles. I’m part of the reader culture.
What about the act of writing? Could I pitch articles to Cracked and improve my writing by enduring their boot camp workshop?
If I was tasked with writing listicles about some aspect of Star Wars, Vladimir Putin, or “5 Famous Historical Bad Guys” on a regular basis, I would probably claw my face off.
Here’s the root problem of fact-based writing (and all writing, really): analysis. Above all, writing is an analytical process. I’m doing it now. I’m analyzing and comparing the different aspects of writing; what makes me tick versus what I hate.
I’ve often thought about the fact-based writer’s life – the act of sitting around analyzing things. How do people do that without clawing their face off at the end of the day?
That’s where imagination swoops in to the rescue. Writing does analyze, but a hefty dose of imagination balances the situation. Because it’s fun. The two different forms of intelligence sit down for tea together, and sometimes a beautiful conversation will emerge.
For this reason, fiction writers fascinate me. I’ve never written fiction, but I love reading it. I have no idea how people create plots, characters, entire worlds. But I wouldn’t mind learning.
Writing could become an obsession, but I resist.
In Oscar Wilde’s book The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character states that good writers are a bore, but shitty writers are delightful. This, he says, is because shitty writers live the life that good writers don’t dare embrace. He finds a writer of “second rate sonnets” irresistible because that writer is adventurous; a lively character. He implies that the man who fully lives is too busy to sit and write for long periods of time.
I laughed my ass off when I read that. I think it’s true. Becoming an exceptional writer begins with isolation, and getting better at writing perpetuates isolation.
When I envision the perfect writing scenario, I imagine hiking up a mountain and then writing about the experience in a short, compact flow of prose. Exerting energy, drinking life up, then writing as a reflection afterward. You can’t occupy the two realms at once. You’re either living it, or you’re writing about it.
Between the marketing hustle and the dreaded analysis, the struggle to become a “real writer” seems like an ordeal that could potentially end with a clawed-off face.
I’m going to write sporadically about whatever the hell I want, and I’m not going to obsess over metrics. I’ll just wait for the occasional lightning bolt to hit.
And maybe I’ll take a fiction class at some point.