The old teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes wrote:
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, NRSV)
Writers know this, or at least, we need to be reminded of this from time to time. Although the circumstances in which we live continue to change with the passage of time and the progress of technology, we human beings still face essentially the same kinds of pleasures and pains, passions and problems, hopes and disappointments that our ancestors knew. We who can’t keep ourselves from putting words and sentences and paragraphs together in hope that our work will one day be read and appreciated know that our stories are not truly original—“There is nothing new under the sun.”
Were it not for one important thing, one could imagine most writers simply giving up.
The thing is—and writers know this—the billions of people in the world may have billions of stories to read, but until we write ours, not one of them has read it. Understanding this may not make the task of actually writing our story down any less daunting or intimidating, nor does it remove the pressure to learn the craft of writing well. But just as each one of us has unique physical and personality traits—the product of our parents’ DNA—each of us is shaped by unique sets and sequences of experiences, by the things we have seen and read and done, by the things that have been done to us and for us and around us, and our eyes are the only eyes that have seen things exactly as we have seen them. The task of the writer is at least partly to bring that unique personal history and experience to the work, and to tell our own version of the story, whatever it may be, with all of the skill and craftsmanship we can muster.
The fact that we each have a unique voice and story does not necessarily ensure that we will be “successful” writers in any of the various ways such things are typically measured, but for those of us who cannot not write, does it really matter?
About 13 years ago, during a year-long transition from my previous career in the technology world to a new career in church ministry, I decided to start a new blog, one that would both stretch me as a writer and also potentially provide a bit of income. The blog was titled “Underpants Office” and was aimed at professionals and creatives who work from home. In my previous job, I had spent more than a year working from home, and felt I had accumulated enough experience that I could provide some useful help and insights about setting up and operating from a home office to others who were finding themselves in that situation. (This was around the time of the economic down-turn of 2008, and a lot of people were having to reinvent themselves professionally.) The blog, now defunct, was nonetheless a truly enjoyable and fruitful experience for me, and I learned a lot.
My blogging experience up to that point had been mostly focused on hobbies and avocations, like woodworking, fishing, bicycling, and home recording. I had never given any of those blogs more than occasional attention, so Underpants Office was the first time I had a blogging project that felt like a real job, albeit a self-employment situation. The actual writing part of blogging was never a chore for me. I have enjoyed writing since I was in junior high school, and I have written a lot over the years, as a newspaper columnist, as a professional technical writer, and as a Bible teacher and occasional preacher at my church. I loved (and still love) to write. But I quickly learned that blogging, and in particular, blogging with monetization as a desired outcome, was way more than just writing.
I have a good friend, who is much younger than me, who had had, by his mid-20s, a very successful blogging career. He was well-connected with other bloggers around the country (and the world), had a successful blog of his own, and was skilled in Web development, plus he knew his way around social media. He took me under his wing, so to speak, and spent some time with me, completely free of charge, showing me the ropes of how to develop my blog and my readership and how do do the other things with social media that would help me to extend the reach of my blog. He also opened the doors to a couple of guest-posting opportunities on blogs that he had frequently written for, and this allowed me not only to draw considerable additional traffic to my blog, but in a couple of cases, I was paid for my guest-posts.
Thus my year of blogging as a job began, and I spent many, many mornings working in coffee shops and working from my home office, building my brand, such as it was, and really having a lot of fun doing it. Though I tried for a while to keep it going, I had to let Underpants Office go not long after I accepted a job on the staff of my church–there just wasn’t enough time for me to do both. (The Underpants Office domain was quickly bought by someone else, and the last time I looked, it was being used to sell medical supplies in China. Go figure.)
People write for a lot of reasons, but most of us ultimately write so that other people can read our words, and while that once meant working through traditional publishing venues like books and magazine articles and such, and using agents and editors and publishing companies to market your work, it’s a whole different world today. I recently met a young man who makes his living writing romance novels, and has written more than two dozen books in the last seven years, all self-published, and is making a fairly comfortable living doing so. When I mentioned to him that I am an aspiring writer, he highly recommended self-publishing as a great way to become a professional writer.
I’m not a total newbie at this stuff–I know self-publishing has changed a lot over the past few years. Blogging itself is self-publishing, and an impressive number of authors have broken into traditional publishing after amassing large followings via their blogs or other social media postings. Where self-publishing once seemed like a sad alternative to “real” book publishing, and one in which there were plenty of companies who were willing to take the money of an aspiring writer who couldn’t get a traditional publisher to buy his or her work. In recent years I have helped my father, who has written children’s stories for his church newsletter for many years, and has also written plays and a couple of novels, publish a book online via Amazon’s self-publishing system. He attended numerous writers’ conferences, spoke with agents, and pursued the traditional publishing route without success for years, and finally, he’s been able to sell a few copies of his work to friends and family, and he couldn’t be happier with it.
I’ve met a lot of writers in recent years, having participated in some writer’s workshops and talking with people who self-publish and publish in more traditional ways, and though it is still possible for some writers to have success without engaging much in social media, for a writer just getting started with publishing, it seems that social media engagement is a requirement.
I have to confess that this seems more than a little daunting to me today, and I’ve been on some of the most popular social media platforms for a lot longer than most of my friends of a similar age. I am a fairly regular user of Twitter and Instagram, though I do not post frequently on either of those platforms. I have a Facebook account that I use only rarely, and usually only if someone I know messages me there. I have a small number of friends who never contact me any other way, which is the only reason I haven’t left the platform altogether, and I spend very little time on Facebook because it can be a very toxic, polarized (and polarizing) environment. I am also concerned about the algorithms that some of these platforms use to connect people with content, and I admit I am more than a little skeptical about them. I’d like to think that it is possible for someone to choose to engage on social media platforms on their own terms and in their own ways, but it seems to me that the algorithms and artificial intelligence engines that these systems use make that impossible.
I admit that I really have no idea how these systems work, so I’m clearly speaking from a certain degree of ignorance here, but I don’t have much confidence that the content that I might post on some of these platforms will be made available in the ways I expect it to, or even be presented to the sorts of people for whom I might have written it. And I’m not quite sure what to do with that.
But with all of that said, I have to concede that, for the time being, these platforms are important for writers who want to see their work be made available to wider audiences. And I’ll probably be testing the waters a bit in the weeks and months ahead. I am not likely to use these platforms as effectively as a younger writer who has literally grown up in the age of social media, and I am bracing myself for the inevitable gaffes and blunders I will surely make. I suppose saying this out loud is a way of apologizing in advance for what I anticipate could be my clumsy use of these tools, and I imagine it will be obvious that I have a lot to learn. I hope you’ll be kind.
If you happen to be a writer, or if you happen to be a skilled social media user, I would be happy to hear your suggestions as I venture (slowly) into this world. And thanks for taking the time to read this.