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  • Paul D. Wilke

Writing for what?



Examining one's motives is a tricky business. The tendency to self-deception is almost a given. But I'll give it a try nonetheless. So why do I still write? What's the point? I ask myself that sometimes. The fact is that I still enjoy writing on SteelSnowflake.org, even though most of what I write is never read by anyone but me. And yet, I still write as if someone will read it eventually. Part of my current anonymity is intentional. My cleverly vague titles don't lend themselves to Google's algorithms. I'm hard to find unless you know where to look, and very few know where to look anymore. I have no presence on social media and don't want any. So why even put myself out there in the first place? Why not just keep a private journal offline?


Honestly, because a part of me still does want to be read. The paradox I confront is that only when I'm ignored, and quite aware of it, does anything even close to authentic come out. Yes, I do care, but at the same time, I don't. I'll have to leave that contradiction unresolved for now. I just find writing pleasurable. That's good enough for now. Writing is a way for me to concentrate and focus in ways that are becoming more difficult in this online age of distraction.


Part of the reason I still publish an online blog is vanity. As I mentioned above, I do want people to read what I write and, perhaps, be moved by it in some small way. So far, that absolutely has not happened at all as far as I can tell. I'd be lying if I said that didn't bother me sometimes. Even my wife never checks anymore to see what I've written. She's never even asked if I'm still writing, and I don't feel comfortable bringing it up without sounding small and insecure. What that depressing indifference implies (if not her! at least her! then who?) is that the writing is not even engaging enough for those close to me to read.


That sucks.


And yet, in spite of that indifference, publishing a blog article, even if it is unread and unreadable to anyone but me, still scratches a strange itch I seem to have. The very act of putting my thoughts into words out in the public domain means something. It's communicating in a way that I am not comfortable doing otherwise. It's showing a side of me that I don't get to display in my rigidly conformist daily life.


Who cares?


Well, apparently no one but me. I see my articles and poems as my ugly little babies, things I created and dearly love, each one unique, each one a part of me out in the world. So I care, to answer my own question yet again. That's what matters, in the end. And with each creation comes a sense of accomplishment, that I did something other than sit and passively stare at a screen all goddamn day and all goddamn night.


I tried it the other way. I tried to write for the public on Medium.com for about a year. At the same time, I read a lot about how to get more reader engagement since I was not getting much. The advice was usually the same. Short paragraphs are better for online reading. Use lots of graphics to keep the reader's attention. Don't make the articles too long for the same reason. And keep the sentences simple with simple words, and so on. That advice does work, but it creates a forgettable and homogeneous style of writing. It all sounds the same, the writing equivalent of elevator music, user-tested to appeal to the least common denominator of our fickle attention spans. Tell me, do you ever remember anything you read online? Or, does it all blur together?


I sensed with some sympathy the pressure many Medium writers feel to keep constantly publishing articles to stay relevant, as if they had a bunch of followers who were sitting around and hitting the refresh button, waiting with bated breath for them to publish something new and earth-shattering. As if! Never mind whether they had anything interesting to say or not. Usually, they didn't, publishing crap that was little more than canned bits of self-help or stale bites of wisdom. The result was writing that came across as desperate, empty, and forced.


Oh, and then there was that annoying pet peeve of mine. The urge to be peppy, positive, and inspirational all the time. I don't need another five-step life-hack from a 23-year old lesbian in Denver to be happier and more productive. I can do that peppy-positive bullshit at times, I guess, but it's certainly not my default setting. For anyone who has read my writing, you'll have noticed a consistent thread of pessimism running through it. Not always, never dominating, but nonetheless still there. I don't write to make you feel better, but in order to push you to see the world in ways you may not have until now. And me too. That's how it should be. The land of eternal sunshine is a desert, and that's what Medium came to be in the end, little more than an intellectually arid landscape populated with smiley faces all trying too hard.


Nonetheless, I made a go doing the kind of inspirational writing that Medium readers seem to respond to, but in the end, my heart wasn't in it. The joy vanished as soon as my number one concern became getting followers and claps for my articles. I started to worry more about the style than the substance. So, in the end, I condemned my Medium experiment to oblivion, just like I did with Facebook last year. Good riddance!


Another reason I do very little anymore to promote the blog is that I want to play around with the language without becoming overly self-conscious about it. The most joyless part of writing for Medium was the constant reminder that I needed to write in a standard bland way that sold itself to an audience. No, that wasn't for me.


I want to develop my own tone and style that my imaginary readers can take or leave as they wish. I want to experiment while not worrying about trolling for the approval of an online audience. My best writing comes when I don't think anyone is paying attention. I break all the standard rules that Medium preaches. Sometimes I drag my sentences out way too long, and the paragraphs too. Sometimes I leave those sentences as fragments. Sometimes I use too many fancy dictionary words that make me sound pedantic and alienate the average reader. Oh, and I love that bastard-child of English grammar, the semi-colon. Sometimes I want to see what happens with different combinations of words and phrases. And, yes, I sometimes simply want to be witty and funny or throw in a salty bit of vulgar profanity. I want to dance and have fun with the language and not worry so much about whether people will like it or not.


Finally, a little anecdote to wrap this piece up. I recently broke down and put in an IT ticket with Wix's support site to help me convert my blog from the old format to the new one. Two minutes after submitting the request, the phone rang. A Wix contractor was calling from the U.K. After looking at my website for a few seconds, he said with some pity in his voice. "I can see from looking at your website that you don't make any money doing this." That kind of stung, but he was right. I replied that "No, I definitely don't, and as a matter of fact, hardly anyone visits my website or reads anything I've written." He said, "Yes, I can see that from your stats, but still, you have 77 articles here, and some of them are quite long." He then politely asked me why I put out all the effort if no one ever reads it. He seemed genuinely baffled, but not in a cruel or mocking way.


I replied with a condensed version of the rationale I wrote above. Then this fellow said, still with some pity in his voice, but also now with a little bit of respect that, "You must be a strong person then, to write and write and write when no one reads any of it. I really admire that." Then there was a long pause. I didn't know how to respond. He then went ahead and converted my blog and fixed some of the aesthetic amateurishness that had plagued it from the beginning. All at no cost. He only asked that I give him a positive review, which I did. Until that moment, I had never really given too much thought about my motivations. It was good, though, to have a complete stranger's curiosity force me to examine more closely what seems a contradiction. I guess I can only describe writing as a labor of love, something primarily for me, a place for expressing myself and reflecting on my thoughts.


So my advice, for what little it's worth, is to write like no one is looking.


You might be surprised at the beauty and insight that comes out of your cage.


In fact, it might be the key to letting you out.


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