“What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.” F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A couple of months ago, an old childhood friend sent me a message asking me for advice on how to handle being a blogger (lol); or more specifically on how to deal with that weird feeling of nervousness/excitement/nausea that all personal bloggers have when publishing a post that they have (literally) poured their heart and soul into. Katie Jenkins writes about life. She is not, as far as I know, a lifestyle or a foodie or a fashion blogger. She writes from the heart and she writes the kind of stuff that I love to read about. One of the first posts I ever read of hers was called Coming Out. It was all about her grapples with her Church and it involved a lot of open questioning of her Christian faith. It was an intensely personal post and an incredibly brave topic to write about and I remember being absolutely floored by it. I must admit, I also thought, oh, here comes trouble - because I recognised so much of myself in her raw honesty, and goodness knows haven’t I learnt about some of the consequences that come with writing and living as honestly as I can. Katie’s message to me was worded so wonderfully that I have to quote her here (hope you don’t mind Miss Jenkins):
I started my blog to practice writing, assuming I’d be too shy to share the link with anyone… that was about 10 months ago and now I’m addicted to that feeling of vulnerability. Ha. Can you give me any tips or advice?
I just love your use of the word “vulnerability”. I couldn’t put it any better in this context. When you write about real things like your actual lifestyle (not just the Coricraft couch and the Levi jeans you’ve been paid to wax lyrical about), about your emotions, your opinions, your pain, your joy and your fears, you open yourself up on another level – to both complete strangers and, perhaps even scarier, to the people who know you. Posts about relationships, spiritual growth, race, health, religion, sex and people can be amazing and enlightening and bring about more a-ha moments than a weekend Oprah omnibus. These posts can bring readers and followers together; they can spark thoughts and connections and learning or they can simply make one think, “oh hey, I’m not alone. Someone out there thinks what I think and has had the balls to say it and you know what? I’m gonna fly my freak flag and not be ashamed to say it either.”
Still one of my most successful posts to date has been the one about us not talking about what we really want to be talking about. Over 10 000 individual humans read and shared that post in one day, all over the world. Man, it blew my mind to think that the wonderings of little old me behind my laptop in the southern tip of Africa caused such a connection to happen. But that’s whats words do; that’s how powerful they can be. Remember that. When I wrote this controversial post about strippers and how we are supporting sexual slavery, I was terrified to press publish. So many girls I knew and was friends with at the time seemed to be fine with their men going to strip clubs. I just simply wasn’t (and still am not). I was ridiculed in real life when I said I didn’t like strip clubs and so, when I wrote that post, I expected nothing but backlash. It didn’t matter though: I had to get it off my chest. I had to explain myself – even if it was just to myself. But than an amazing thing happened. Sure, a couple (ok, one) readers called me out, but 99% percent of them completely agreed with me. I received the most comments I’d ever received on a blog post up until that point, as well as personal emails and messages from women thanking me for saying what they were all thinking, but were too scared to voice. I often receive comments from people telling me that my writing makes them feel less alone. And to be honest, it’s a mutual feeling, because writing and interacting with my readers (who are obviously the funniest and most intelligent readers of them all) makes me feel less alone.
So that, my dear Katie, is the fun part of putting your deepest and darkest thoughts out there. Making connections and friendships with people all over the world whose hearts pump to the same beat as yours, will continue to bring you joy time and time again. But, as with all good things, there is a shadow to the light. Some may not understand that in expressing your thoughts and sharing your fears, that is how you learn how to deal with them. That this is how you learn how to live life, your way. This is the way of the artists and the writers, the musicians, the designers and the filmmakers… Putting yourself out there, up for criticism and judgement is how art works. You can choose not to, of course. But then you might as well keep your art and drawings to yourself in a journal next to your bed. This is the paradox that artists have been dealing with for centuries. Any person who makes a living out of telling stories, out of speaking about life and all its complexities, will face both praise and wrath. At times you may feel like a complete narcissist, at other times, you will be filled with self-doubt. Sometimes people you know may take something you have said as a personal attack against themselves and how they live their lives; sometimes complete strangers will get the wrong end of the stick and attack you and how you live your life. Things can get personal and if you’re not always writing about rainbows and butterflies, they can sometimes get ugly. Learning to deal with the shadow that comes with exposing yourself is what will help you survive the vulnerability and the criticism, and yes, even the mountains of praise – all of which inevitably come when you’re speaking your highest truth. How do you deal with the shadow?
We are mirrors. Remember that any criticism against yourself or your work usually comes from a person who recognises that same fault in themselves. It is good to remember this too when you find yourself being hurt of offended by someone’s else’s words or actions.
Words can have consequences. I always like to sleep on a piece before publishing it – especially if it is one that covers a controversial topic. Thrash it all out for sure and get in down on paper (or screen) as soon as you can. But then go to bed. In the morning, things are always cast in a softer, warmer light. I often find that when I wake up, I’m far more compassionate and sensitive to my own feelings, as well as the feeling of others. Re-read the text and edit out any overtly angry words or statements. Edit edit edit. Chip away at any heaviness as much as you can. If you really are in doubt about what you’re putting out to the universe, send the piece to your mum (thanks mum!) or a good friend for an honest opinion. I am terrible at spell-checking my own writing, so asking someone to give it a quick read over before you share or publish usually helps in that regard too!
Delete delete delete. You will get some really ridiculous comments sometimes, especially as your readership grows, as I’m sure yours will. Trolls love the internet and most especially they loooooove leaving anonymous comments on your blog (really? Your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org? Surrrrre.) I’ve been told that my husband and I look like inbred siblings in a comment before. I mean, WTF. I’m not even ginger! Don’t get hung up on really negative comments like I did in the beginning – just delete. Straight away. Don’t even bother replying. It’s your blog and you can write about whatever you want to.
Cut your losses. Friends, followers and readers will come and go. Your family will always love you. They have to. Heh heh heh. No seriously though, don’t get too hung up on pleasing everyone. People can smell a contrived post from miles away. Stay true to you as best you can and remember, in the great words of Neil Gaiman:
The moment that you feel that just possibly you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of you heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself… that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right. The things I’ve done that have worked the best are the things that I was least certain about – the stories where I was sure that they’d either work or, more likely, be the kind of embarrassing failures that people would gather together and discuss until the end of time. They always had that in common. Looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes, but when I was doing them, I had no idea. I still don’t. And where would be the fun in making something you know was going to work?
So that brings my to my next point and I’ve actually written an entire post on this before, Getting Naked. If you’re truly in this writing business for the sake of art and expression and engaging with others on topics you feel passionate about, don’t be afraid of exposing yourself. Yes, you can be addicted to the vulnerability and yes, you
might will rock a few boats, but hey, you could always choose to follow the crowd and be normal instead. But that’s not why you started writing, is it?
And that’s about it, Katie. This was supposed to be a short email and it’s resulted in a blog post. I just want to thank you for re-igniting a flame within me. In writing this to you, I have certainly re-assesed some feelings and thoughts I have had about my own writing, and the reasons behind why I continue to do it. It’s kinda been a cathartic exercise, I won’t lie! Enjoy the process – every bit of it. Embrace the vulnerability, it makes you stronger - both in your work and in your real life relationships with others. I promise. In a nutshell: you’re awesome. Write about whatever you like. Life’s too short to not think, to not question, to not explore or, worst of all, to be boring. Go out and change the world… and yourself.
Images by the talented and lovely Lauren Setterberg.