Content, writing, and gates

There’s writing and then there’s content.

It’s an unfortunate distinction. It sets up a dichotomy that doesn’t have to be there. It creates a content versus writing situation, in which “real writers” look down on content creation as a lower, commercialized activity. This isn’t new. Real writers have always been looking down on commercial writing, then remembering they have to eat, and then rethinking their standards.

When I started writing, I often created 6 or 7 or 10 articles a day, for $10 each. It was terrible. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But it helped me become a better writer, not a worse one. Also it helped us buy diapers for our babies and food for our bellies. Win win!

Being paid for writing often has a weird, opposite effect and causes a devaluation of the writing in terms of artistic merit.

That’s stupid. Let’s get over that. Being paid for something is good. Art has value, both intrinsically and existentially and (gasp!) financially. Commercial value does not take away artistic value.

Anyway, that’s not the real point here.

The real point is that you need content, if you want to get attention, make a living, run a business, freelance, do art, etc. Live, and stuff.

Content is the word we use when we want to say “commercialized writing” without sounding like sell-outs. And now, thanks to the Internet and technology and stuff, you can make all the content you want, whenever you want, wow!

The old versions of things were not so available. But The Internet! has changed all that. Old news. You already know this.

Look at all those things you can make! All sorts of content. Anytime.

Like to talk? Podcast. You don’t need a radio station, or a radio interview.

Like to talk and make interesting faces? Youtube. Vimeo. Etc.

On and on. The Internet created new means of publication and changed everything for everyone.

See the before and after here in this inept illustration:


Here we see how The Internet Super Highway!has allowed all the people with all the messages to create all the content and send it straight to all the audiences.

It’s a big YAY for everyone.

Except for one problem.

There’s a new gate.

The means of publication now live out on the open highway where we can all get to them and use them. But there’s still a gate between the content makers and the audience.

In commercial writing, there is a clear flow: concept/message to publication to distribution to attention to conversion. It doesn’t always flow that cleanly, but that’s the hope.

The gate didn’t come down, really.It moved. It’s further down the line.

So this is the problem to solve. We need to think about it. I like gates coming down. I like open access. I like content being created in droves by all sorts of people with all sorts of messages. Even if it means that there’s 100,000% more terrible content produced, it also means there’s 1000% more great writing, excellent thinking, important messages, so on. Creativity develops best in a big crazy mix of information and influences.

The problem to solve looks like this:

  1. The gate has shifted and now stands between content makers and their desired audience.
  2. The price to get through the gate is either a) a HUGE amount of content (one might say infinite) or b) money, a significant amount.
  3. Attention is a limited resource.
  4. Most of us are trying to get attention (a limited resource) by creating infinite amounts of content. We’re trying to solve a scarcity of supply (not enough attention!) with a surplus of demand (more content that needs attention!). This actually exacerbates the problem, doesn’t it? Yes. Yes, it does.

Think about it.

I’m going to think about it. I’m going to draw and write about it, too. I’m going to make content about it, in other words. Yep.

Quit writing open letters

Dear people writing open letters:

Please stop.

We all know that your open letters are not really letters to the “designated recipients.”

We all know that you’re really writing to us, the public, the masses, the mindless scrollers of newsfeed loops, the social media followers, and that you have thoughts. Opinions. Valuable opinions to share about this latest thing, this story, this whatever-the-hell happened.

And you want to share those thoughts. You want to be heard. Maybe you have some actual expertise in the matter. Maybe you want to set things straight. Whatever. Basically, you want what we all want: some affirmation. Some feedback. You have a voice, dammit, and you want to know it’s been heard.

And you know what?

That’s cool. We get it.

We are like you. We are you. We understand.

It’s okay for you to want attention. We all want that, in one way or another. I do. I want to feel important. I want to know that I matter. I like praise. I can live off the fumes of positive feedback for… Hours, maybe.

I’d ask you to do one thing, though, this one simple, simple, very simple thing.

Stop writing the pretend letters to the celebrity or news anchor or corporation or spokesperson or dead person or latest object of Internet fame.

Stop it.

You’re not writing those people.

You know it.

We know it.

You’re writing to us. You’re addressing the public, the masses, the general readers of things written. We are your audience. We are your designated recipient.

And what you want is our approval, our attention, our affirmation that you’ve said something worthwhile, you’ve had some thoughts and you’ve shared them, you’ve put your opinion out there and we – the people – have heard it.

That’s what you want. So write your letter to us. I’ve even put together a sample title for you:

“An Open Letter to the People on Facebook at 11:38pm About the Latest Rage-Inducing Internet Famedom Thing We’re All Pretending to Be Angry About Right Now”

Too long?

If you want, you can change out “latest rage-inducing Internet famedom thing” to whatever the current thing is.

Probably not necessary.


You can save yourself some trouble. Write a form letter that you can reuse anytime!

Here’s how:

  • Refer to the main subjects of the current thing with vague nouns and phrases: “the subject,” “this person,” “person in question,” “victim,” “perpetrator,” and so on.
  •  Employ many emotional words: anger, rage, injustice, passion, danger, distress, consequence, hurt, offended, belittled, empowered, hostile, humiliated.
  • Talk mostly about yourself: your background, your professional opinion, your anecdotal evidence, your unique perspective that is an awful lot like the 3,472 other commenters on that one NPR article.
  • When you’re ready to publish for the latest current thing, just pop in a few relevant details and you’re ready.

The point is that, really, you’re talking about yourself.

I have no problem with this.

I’m talking about myself right now. You can tell because of the pronoun “I” which appeared in the last two sentences. The use of the pronoun “I” is a good indicator that the author is referring to herself.

We are all pretty much obsessed with our very own selves. We all filter life through our self-absorbed individual lenses. We are all concerned with what people think about us. We are emotionally needy, hungry for praise and affirmation, gasping for attention and acceptance.

I am, anyway.

Maybe you guys are okay without.

But I’m not.

I might try to act like I’m not, but if I’m asking you to be honest, I should be honest too. I love attention. I love praise! I love feeling smart and witty. I hope that one of my smart and witty friends will praise me for being smart and witty in the writing of this open letter to open-letter writers!

We are all needy people, and we need each other, and we can’t change that, and maybe we could be honest about it.

Needing each other is a beautiful thing.

So, if you’re ready…

If you want to try it with me…

If you want to be even more bold and honest than my first suggested “Open Letter” title, you can use this refreshing version, instead:

“Some shit happened today somewhere and people are talking about it and I have some thoughts and feelings about it (an awful lot like other people’s) and I want to talk about it too. Also, please love me.”

Too long? I’m bad at titles. It’s probably too long.

The Internet is fickle and petty.

A too-long title can get you ignored, and we don’t want that. So here is one final title option for you. A freebie. I think it will get you exactly what you want:

“She heard the shocking news on the Internet. When she wrote down her feelings? You won’t believe what happened next!”

Someone who just wrote an open letter

Writing is a myth

Writing is a myth. No one’s writing. No one knows how. No one can get it right, ever. Writing is folklore, witchcraft, uncensored heart bleedings and all that. Nonsense. Trivia.

Writing comes from the blunt parts of things, the edges, the rough-cut, hand-sawn wood ends that get thrown into the reject pile. The scrap yard, that’s the place for writing. It’s a heap of fodder, a heap of refuse, a pile of twisted burning wreckage of humanity refusing to nub itself down into tidy piles of sawdust. Writing is a voice crying in the city, in the hillside, in the airplane, in the train, on the mountain, in the valley, in the White House, on the great walls, all of them, it is a great voice crying, crying, crying, crying.

Writing is collective, a voice of all ages, of all times. It passes down from an ancient hand to a future one. Writing never pauses for the present. It never waits, contented, for the future. It never lingers, silent, in the past. It is restless. It is NOW. It is bold. It is the river rushing. It carries the trees down the mountainside. This is me! I am here! It screams. It is not your grandmother. It is your grandmother before you knew her, when she was young and untethered and crazy with lust and possibility.

Writing hurts you. It hurts you to read like it hurts you to hear true things said. True things hurt you because they cut down the lies you like to hide behind. You don’t want to hear this nonsense. (Writing is nonsense, remember?) You don’t want this streaming voice to push down your matchstick house. Oh dear, oh dear, where will you live now? What will you do? Where will you go? You’re terrified. It’s okay. We all are. Just admit it. You can quit playing hide and seek when you realize none of us are seeking. All of us are hiding. Now we all know, so it’s safe. Let’s quit hiding from each other and start seeking something better together. Writing reminds us that we could do that, if we want. Writing says, Quit being a coward. Writing says, Lead the way. Writing says, Just try it.

Writing is a little heaven. Writing is a little hell. Writing is a little bit of earth, distilled, into a drop, so you can hold it and really look at it. Just for a moment, then you have to drop it. It burns. It boils. It dissipates into steam and goodbye, it’s gone. You can’t exist on writing that’s come and gone in your brain before. It comes. It goes. You need more. One word or sentence or story or paragraph wakes you up because you read it at the right time. That’s perfect. But it won’t be the one that wakes you up next time. You’ll need a new awakening and that can’t come from the same line in the same story. You can revisit that place. But if you want to move forward, find new things to read. Find more writing. Or write it yourself.

Because everyone can write. Writing is common. Writing is common ground. Writing is a shared skill. Writing is just talking to more than one person at a time. Oh wait. We call that “Speaking.” Or “giving speeches.” That’s why so many authors go on to spend most of their time being professional speakers. That’s why so many potential writers float toward that speaking genre instead of writing. Speaking is good, too, and giving speeches. Very motivational, stirring, encouraging. All of the beautiful things writing is, in many ways. But not quite writing. Why not? Because writing is you talking to many people but on their terms. They get to hear what you have to say when they want, as they want, alone. No crowd energy. No peer pressure. No social cues. Writing is cutting out the body language and tone of voice and jokesy tells and hey-buddy-we’re-all-together-in-this cues. Writing means you have to trust what you say has enough weight on its own to matter to someone who reads it. It might not. There’s a good chance it might not. If you want to write, that’s a chance you have to take. It’s not a big deal. It feels like one because we talk about writing as if it is Some Big Thing when it is, in fact, just Another Thing. It is important, sure, but so is talking and eating and copulating and we do those every day as if they are No Big Thing so surely we could wrap our minds around writing and do it as just Another Thing too.

Writing is just another thing. No capital letters needed. Writing is the socially awkward cousin you have to invite to your wedding. Writing is that one friend from high school who won’t forget you. Writing is the cough that keeps waking you up in the middle of the night. Writing is the weird sound your car makes on cold mornings. Writing is fucking annoying. It won’t leave you alone. You tell it to and it won’t, and that’s the whole problem with writing. It’s just another thing, not a big thing, but when you treat it like just another thing and say, Hey Writing, fuck off, you’re not a Big Thing, well. It won’t. It lurks and lingers and sneers and grimaces and flops on top of whatever you’re doing and sneezes in your face and Oh, that might be my cat, actually, but that is also precisely how writing is. That might explain why so many writers like cats.

Writing is like learning how to play the violin. When you are 5 years old and you start learning Twinkle Twinkle Little Star you will sound like hell. But you will be so proud of yourself, and play for all the people and they will endure the screeching banshee-rattle music and clap politely (and with great relief) and you will feel as if you have done a thing well. You’ve been awful but you don’t know. This is how it is with writing a Single Thing. You will labor over it and with all that labor you will think it must be pretty good. It almost certainly isn’t. Some people will clap politely for you but most will find a way to be sick when you invite them to your second violin concert. But then you practice and practice and over the course of years and many painful concerts you learn what music is. And one day you are 27 years old and playing a beautiful song for a great many people and they are clapping genuinely and you think, Wow, I made so many mistakes, that could have been much better, I can’t believe they like it, I need to go practice more.

Writing is power. Writing is energy. Writing is connection. Writing is real people saying real things to each other. Writing is a community that can cross every barrier someone tries to put in place. That’s why writing scares people, big people and little people. It scares big people because of what it could damage. Writing can topple systems. Writing can end wars. Writing can open eyes. Writing can erase lies. Writing scares little people, like you and me, because it means responsibility. It means power, and we haven’t had that. What would we do with it. How would we use it. What would happen. Maybe the big people are right. Maybe we shouldn’t have this. Maybe we should just…

Be silent? Writing can’t be silent. It is never silent. It is always quiet. It is the rumble beneath the avalanche. It is the glowing ember beneath the wood. It is the sonic boom thousands of feet under the surface. You say a word and it drops, boom, and the energy goes out, quick and quiet, and you can’t stop it now. And people look around and think, Where did that come from. How did that happen. Didn’t see that coming.

Well. That’s just because they weren’t reading.

The in-between tools of writing

The toughest part of writing is starting.

Staring at the blank page, trying to remember all your brilliant ideas. You had so many of them last night, during your kid’s piano recital… and again, during that totally unproductive meeting at work, but now…

Where have all the ideas gone?

Ideas are ephemeral unless they’re captured.

So you should capture them, via any method handy, when you have them.

Ideas are also unwieldy, often, in the first handling or two.

They’re beasts of the air, of thought, of theory, of feeling or experience or intuition or connection. When you’re writing, you’re trying to nail a multidimensional rainbow idea-cloud down to a flat, black-and-white surface.

It’s nice to work with ideas in a gentler way, as you get to know them. Quit trying to pound them into neat, grammatically perfect, fully-formed sentences right off. It’s unkind to you both.

Instead, approach the idea with an outline, or a mind map, or some other in-between tool. Maybe sketching? Putting a list down? Talking it out and recording yourself?

Lots of way to do this.

The in-between tools give you a framework. A playground. It helps that multidimensional idea enter the world of text on paper with play, with exploration, with questioning and associating and connecting. Much better than the grunt-and-bear-down method of forcing an idea to turn itself into verbiage.

Capture the ideas (usually a couple of words or a few phrases are enough) at the moment of thought.

When you’re ready to revisit the idea, use the in-between tools. Then you can go from there, in any sort of direction.