So I'm A Writer, Now What?
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve published anything, not because I’m having second thoughts about being a writer, but because I’m having second thoughts on what and how to write.
The momentum I gained on Medium in the my first two months of writing were validating, encouraging, motivating — having two pieces featured, a handful of pieces curated and gaining “Top Writer” status across a couple of topics inspired a sense of urgency to continue writing and publishing at least once a week, perhaps more if I could ever streamline my writing process the way Shaunta Grimes has.
But I haven’t streamlined my process, and pressure began to build the first week I didn’t publish something, and then compounded the second week, and then the third. I wondered at what point I’ll lose my “Top Writer” statuses, and which category would go first. The notifications and engagement on my previous essays began to dwindle, and whereas there were a couple of weeks in which I made over $100 per week through Medium’s Partnership Program, I’ll be lucky to hit $100 this month.
As I considered what to write about next, I subconsciously and sometimes consciously thought about how to Medium-ify a piece according to the formula I’d intuited from the few pieces that had been curated and featured — perspective pieces that interweave personal anecdotes, traces of memoir with research-backed theories and ideas. I wrote those initial essays blindly, without an audience in mind — I hadn’t expected them to be read and was in the process of figuring out who my “ideal” audience is. After the features, I suddenly had a concrete audience to write for. Most people would be elated by this — I have an audience! People are reading my work! I’m being paid for my writing! I was, for awhile, elated, but I now realize I wasn’t and am not up to the task.
During my first year of college, I had every intention of majoring in Journalism. I wrote for school newspapers at a couple of different campuses, and participated, somewhat superficially, on the editorial teams. I even secured an internship with a local Santa Barbara newspaper. But a few weeks into classes, I found I abhorred journalistic structure and prose. It was too cut and dry. I struggled to part with adjectives, adverbs, creative usages of run-ons sentences and fragments (or is that just bad writing?), stream-of-consciousness writing. I couldn’t mix genres. Journalism would suck all the joy out of writing for me as a creative pursuit, and for what, I wondered? So I could climb the corporate ladder of a media company by covering shitty beats nobody cares about? So that one day I might be able to cover stories I actually care about? So my writing might one day be seen and read? The answers didn’t satisfy me.
Journalistic integrity was being challenged left and right, and it no longer seemed like one had to be a journalist to be a seeker or producer of Truth. So I pivoted majors. I pivoted majors three or four times over the course of the next two years and had put enough distance between myself and writing to miss it, so I made a small u-turn and selected English as my new major. It’s as if I didn’t learn my lesson the first time around — I loath the structure and formatting of the five-paragraph essay almost as much as the inverted triangle of journalism. The only thing that kept me from dropping out that semester was the nominal freedom in prose and occasional allowances of mixing genres. Once the semester ended, I dropped out of that major too.
These past few weeks have transported me back to those college days when the constant pressure of writing against a deadline would keep me up at night, in which the rigid structures of a piece would drain the last bit of life and creativity from my bloodstream. Thinking back, I probably should have taken Creative Writing or something like it, but I didn’t have the foresight or intelligence to realize that was an option then. But I digress.
Medium is an incredible platform and I am grateful for the visibility and community it’s provided me in such a short period of time, but havingperfectionist tendencies, I placed an undue amount of pressure on myself to produce — to produce original, relatable, well-researched, quality pieces, and to do so at a pace that had no basis in reality.
Initially, I set a goal of publishing one piece per week to hold myself accountable towards writing, but this limited me from digging into complex topics and from producing long-form essays that take much more time and extensive research to develop and formulate. I was plagued by guilt each day I didn’t write something of substance or have anything to publish — after all, there’s no tangible result or end-product to show for a day spent reading or researching. Meanwhile, other writers are pushing out pieces daily, sometimes multiple pieces a day, which only compounded the doubts and imposter syndrome I was already experiencing. I thought, if I can’t even ship one post a week, am I really a writer? Should I even be writing?
Sounds silly, but that’s where my mind goes.
This whole writing-as-a-lifestyle-thing is still new to me. Writing for the college newspaper was over ten years ago, and that was the only time I’d taken writing seriously and considered it a viable career path. Until late last year, writing came in the shape and form of work emails and the sporadic journal entry. In other words, this is the first time I’ve had total and complete freedom to write whatever the fuck I want, to really think through what kind of writer I want to be, and the paradox of choice is paralyzing.
The mini-successes on Medium came a little too soon in my nonexistent writing career. I hadn’t yet developed a robust writing identity — figured out what my values were as a writer, or what my style, voice or preferred genre of writing is — and there I was, jumping the gun and worrying about visibility and marketing before I even had anything to market. As an underdeveloped, nascent writer, I was (and am) vulnerable to the influences of others, easily carried by the tides of greater forces. Medium happened to be that greater force.
That’s not to say I have a problem with Medium or that Medium’s influences are bad. On the contrary. As a medium (no pun intended, or maybe pun intended) and platform, writers have boundless freedom to explore their creativity. Medium is freedom of expression embodied. At least, it’s as free as a free-market economy.
I imposed invisible boundaries on my own freedom and creativity as a writer by measuring my worth via Medium’s stats, and that in turn, however subtly, influenced how and what I chose to write about next, and when I should publish. Consciously, I didn’t think Medium had much sway over me — I didn’t even check the stats that often, but subconsciously, I was bound to the invisible chains of metrics, optimizing for visibility and engagement, hoping for a piece to get curated, featured, picked up by a publication, or better yet, to go viral.
Three months ago, I had a few dozen followers on Medium (most of whom were people I know), a nonexistent mailing list and getting paid for writing was the last thing on my mind. Today, I have 600+ followers, a mailing list consisting of a couple hundred strangers and I’ve made close to $1,000 from writing. (This is hardly a success story, but it did mean something to me at the time.) It’s not that these itty-bitty successes have gone to my head; rather, it feels like I’ve acquired a small yet onerous responsibility I wasn’t prepared for (and am not sure I want); all of a sudden, there are expectations to be met. Whereas I had nothing to lose before, I now do (regardless of how little it is), as well as a baseline of “success” to measure against, and therein lies the problem.
I’ve only recently grown more comfortable with telling people I’m a writer, but I still don’t have an answer to what’s almost guaranteed to be their follow-up question: what do you write about?
I don’t fucking know. Nothing and everything? Life, life lessons, books, relationships? The few topics Medium conferred on me as a “Top Writer” in even though I’ve only published a couple of posts in each?
Sometimes, I write poetry. Other times, I write vignettes, non-fiction essays, reflections. I started a memoir last year I never finished. I have ideas for a magical realism book, and another that might fall under the genre of sci-fi. In the past, I’ve always written what I feel like writing in any given moment. Whatever piques my interest. That’s all fine and dandy for the pleasure writer, but it isn’t a sustainable method for the writer who aspires to make writing his or her livelihood — and I would like to make it mine, eventually — but I’m not yet in a place where I can write for an audience, or narrow my focus to a handful of topics or genre, or become an expert in something, or publish with regularity. All of which are markers of a successful writer, on and off Medium.
These days, I stress over publishing. I stress over the length of my posts. I stress over quality. I stress over saying the same thing somebody else has already said. I stress over headlines, sub-headlines and nonexistent deadlines.I stress over every “Unsubscribe” from my mailing list. I stress over dollars made and not made.
No more. This is not why I write.
Writing was reborn into my life earlier this year, and it has now entered into its formative, developmental phase. This is a period of exploration, of growing into its own. It’s prone to influence, of the good and bad variety, so I intend to be selective about the type of writing and writers I engage in and with. I do not wish to write for the sake of writing. The internet has no shortage of people doing that.
For awhile there, I allowed Medium’s metrics to define what kind of writer I might become, how often I ought to publish, who my audience is, the type of topics I should cover. I let the oft-asked question “What do you write about?”narrow my writing scope because I wanted to be able to give my questioner a clear-cut answer.
But I don’t have a clear-cut answer. My questioners will have to be satisfied with my present answer, which is: I write whatever I want. Whenever I want.
Truth is, I log 1–2,000 words most days, but most of them aren’t good enough to be shared. It’s a delicate dance to move beyond the paralysis of perfectionism without sacrificing quality in the final production — this is the dance I’m refining. There is a level of excellence I aspire towards which calls for a deliberate, intentional practice beyond just typing words on a computer screen and hitting publish, and that practice is the magical act of clear thinking, which I am admittedly bad at.
I intend to one day write for a concrete audience, to add to the latticework of knowledge that have been passed down to us by those who became before, to share my insights and learnings so others might learn from them, to produce the kind of prose that makes one read it over and over again because of its exquisiteness, but today isn’t that day. And writing for Medium isn’t how I’ll get there. (Writing for Medium is not the same as writing on it, the latter of which I still intend to do but Medium will no longer be my primary platform.)
Today, I write for me. I write to learn. I write to become a better thinker and a more sensitive feeler. I write to become a more compassionate human. If that happens to coincide with the creation of a well-received piece, everyone wins. If not, I still win.