Deep in the digital Rust Belt of Wordpress, my boarded-up, foreclosed first personal blog sits, all overgrown grass and broken windows of young adult angst mixed with amateur cultural criticism. The 513 posts netted me a cool 44,700 views since 2008. That’s about 10 readers, per day, over 12 years. I can’t be convinced they’re not bots, crawlers, or folks who got lost on their way from Live Journal.
My first sports blog — at which I was also a managing editor — vanished from the Internet in 2009. My first beer blog — a hipster satire of the overly precious and pretentious white male liberal word-ejaculate in which I’m now fully, unironically swimming — wiped out that same year. My second sports blog — at which I was, again, managing editor — whisked away in 2012.
I retreated to a sports content farm, in 2012, where I was told by some proto-MAGA punk to write one assigned listicle every day for every longwinded think piece I would’ve rather written. I didn’t. I just used the blank space to write about Flow Theory, Rape Culture, and Late-Capitalist Dystopia. I got axed … from a content farm.
I came here in 2014. My first Medium post has 12 total views. 12. It took another nine months for me to reach any kind of audience — a harrowing 9,000-word tale of my 2012 spent without a job or home that, after its initial run, I promptly scrapped upon rereading (I didn’t like my tone and couldn’t relate to my screaming entitlement anymore), waited three whole years, and reposted as an almost entirely new piece under the same title.
The first incarnation of that story got the attention of the sports media landscape, I landed a column at Medium’s erstwhile in-house sports pub and struck jackpot three columns in a row. Then, I scored a byline at Sports Illustrated, until a year later when the right-wing effectively cancelled me on the Internet for some dumb-ass drunk-tweets the day after the Brexit vote.
In that dark era, I bobbed and weaved between self-help, music criticism, cultural skewering, dystopic existentialism, anti-self-help, and egalitarian policy reimagination.
For nearly three years — until I wrote the Medium-platinum “The 3 Keys to Becoming Irresistible” (which I wrote in about 45 minutes) — that roasting was my all-time most viral moment full stop. I felt doomed, forever to be known as “John Gorman, Disgraced Former Sports Columnist.” (It was, briefly, my Medium bio.)
In 2018, I’d “arrived.” My “filler” pieces were netting 20K reads. Now, I had a platform. What would I do?
The answer, of course, was … exactly the same thing. I just sat at my laptop and slammed my soul against the keyboard until something vaguely tantalizing to my own sensibilities came out. Then I’d hit “publish” and go about the rest of my day. I changed nothing, at all, to my writing “process” or my “personal brand.” Instead, I made my writing weird.
I began to explore the outer limits of what language can do — to play with form and format, rhythm and cadence. I danced in the darkness of pre-dawn, listened to acid-jazz and openly wondered if it’s okay to recycle whole passages or paragraphs within essays, to craft lyrics instead of sentences, to callback to previous pieces, or to even write essay trilogies, multi-part psychedelic sagas and scramble whole books online.
I stitched together and polished Instagram captions, repurposing them as lengthy existential ruminations on stillness. I masked a chronologically-chaotic lyrical ballad, complete with operatic choruses, inside of an advice column. I once wrote a 16,000-word travelogue in which I communicated my epiphany by literally stitching together sentences from every single one of my past Medium columns, and then I spent 20% of the rest of the piece comparing myself to the Pacific Ocean. My sense of adventure — and my ego — is unrelenting.
My 10,000-word, ketamine-inflused colossus “30 Years of Depression, Gone” and my 6,500-word cult-classic “We Will Always Have Water” are wildly fragmented experimentations in genre. “May We Yearn for New Horizons” is an essay that got curated in poetry. I once wrote about a breakup by comparing myself to a fucking anthropomorphic swordfish. I once tried to set a record for the number of words in a row I could begin with the letter “A.” Eventually, most people stopped reading … but not everybody. For a while, I was too busy having fun to notice.
There remains, still, a highly-dedicated core following who checks in here at the Pirate Ship. I get the occasional “as usual, great piece!” from familiar names, and the occasional “this is trash writing and doesn’t have a point” from dudes with white names and egg avatars. No shit — it doesn’t have a point. That is the point. It’s April 2020, and some 12+ years after I set up shop initially, I’ve risen all the way from work-from-home blogger to work-from-home blogger. I’m doing the same shit. Just hits differently, and I’m better at it.
Inspired by the inestimable Felicia C. Sullivan, whose “Your Writing Advice Makes Me Want to Gouge My Eyes Out” is a spicy, seductive scorcher of wordsmithery, I decided to poke the bear and — I shit you not — give an already-half-finished column a title she (and I) will absolutely loathe. Why? Because I can. Because that’s what I writing is, and should be. Expression. Fucking expression, man.
In her clip-emptying salvo, she writes (beautifully, and I’m stitching two separate pull-quotes here):
“There are rules that writers break every day in their own way, and that is what makes literature remarkable … Great stories bear the weight of the ephemeral. There are no rules, only the ones you make for yourself that align with your work and how you wish to communicate it.”
See, I just made someone else’s wisdom the big-print in my essay. Is that allowed? Writing is expression. Expression is liberation. From what? From the tyranny of the mundane. From the ghosts of “how it’s supposed to be.” From the fuckery of fitting in. From the twin prisons of time and space. We express to decant our character, to radiate our souls and unleash our minds on an unsuspecting public — we bleed, singe, shoot, spill. Writing, for me, is a compulsory addiction. It’s as novel, to me, as air. It’s as much work, to me, as slow-cooking a curry. I take ingredients, slam ’em together, stir ’em up, and hope it tastes okay. Then I blow that deliciousness all over your faces … just for fun. Why? Because, now, I am free. I don’t even need to clean up the dishes afterward.
I spent most of my life writing for no one. Fan-fiction about my friends in spiral-bound notebooks as a kid. Loving, elegiac tributes to sharks on Wordpress. Satirical “news” in the vein of The Onion. Longwinded think-pieces in the style of The Atlantic. Quick-hitters. Slam poetry. Micro-fiction. 21st Century Allegories and Parables. I’m probably the only person in history to write about French Philosophy in both an emerging technology rag and in Thought Catalog. I’ve done Business Insider and Elephant Journal. I just spit shit out into the wild until some quiet word-watcher with a set of binoculars says, “damn, I’ve never seen that before,” and emails me to say, “may I syndicate this?” And my response is always, “go ahead.”
Take these words — not mine, yours — as far as they will take you. Scribble ’em down. Make ’em messy. Use and abuse the laws of language. It doesn’t matter. Some people say, “write with your audience in mind.” I say, “write like nobody’s reading.” Because, in all likelihood, they’re not. And in that anonymity, even long after you’ve presumably left anonymity behind, you’ll find your freedom. You’ll find your truth. The reason nobody’s reading your writing is because they’re not supposed to. Writing, my dear, is expression. Everything else is marketing. The marketing of your work requires four things:
- Visibility: Like Busta said, “put your words where my eyes can read.” I tell people to write on Medium because there’s already eyes there. But, shit, put ’em on Instagram. Facebook. Twitter. (*grits teeth*) LinkedIn. Promote. Pitch. Pitch. Pitch. Pitch. Propose. Propose. Propose.
- Excellence: There is no substitute for quality. Tell better stories. Tell those stories better. Some people say, “be authentic.” I say, “pretend you’re a cognac-swilling kept man with an ASMR podcast, if that’s who you feel like being that day.” Whatever the fuck you feel, be good at it. As a writer, sure, but also as a person. If your life’s boring, your words will be boring. Excellence is showing up and exploring, improving, refining and mastering. This goes for the verbs you attempt in life, not just the verbs you bleed on screen.
- Consistency: You know why people love Starbucks? (Don’t come at me with, “but I hate Starbucks,” yes, their Pike Place roast tastes like a dark cocoa bar left to melt overnight in a BBQ pit, but they’re ubiquitous.) Because you know what you’re getting at Starbucks. Generally, a dark cocoa bar left to melt overnight in a BBQ pit. That’s quality you can depend on. It’s widely available. It’ll always be there. Day after day. And pumpkin-spice-a-palooza every autumn! Plus, they’ll actually have the dreamy coconut milk substitute for their cappuccinos instead of this non-foaming “oat milk” bullshit every other pre-pandemic pretentious pourover place is peddling these days.
- Respect: Be kind — or at least civil — to everybody. Colleagues. Peers. Friends. Family. Strangers. Editors. Publishers. Bosses. Subordinates. Lovers. Ask about their kids. Don’t waste their time. Don’t use people only for their ability to get you in the door, and, for crying out loud, don’t make your very first interaction with someone read:
“My name is [REDACTED]— I’m a writer/influence [sic] on the [REDACTED] platform. I recently read a few of your posts. I dug your style. I have only dabbled on Medium but was interested in getting an article published on Medium to see how it went, I assume you have admin rights with some publications or an inroad. My style/formatting is a bit different than your usual Medium article so publishers may be trepidatious about publishing me. Wondering if you could give a medium n00b a shot? I could send you a link to the draft.”
Bitch, I ain’t got the keys to this place. They don’t give you a golden ticket to GEN and a lifetime annual pass to the Medium HQ salad bar for 50,000 followers. (I assume there’s a salad bar.)
Look, I will help damn near anyone get to where they want to go. The greatest gift anyone can give you is their belief in you. And I’m not saying you gotta kiss the ring of my quasi-global E-list celebrity status to get it from me. But I am saying I need to know your work, respect your work, adore your character and admire your ethos before I’m all in on your potential. That’s respect: showing up for the people who matter, and building greatness together.
Just like Beyonce, we have 24 hours in a day. Also just like Beyonce, what we do with those 24 hours depends largely on where we set our intention and attention. Also just like Beyonce, we don’t have time to read everything that comes across our feed. We read what speaks to us. We remember what sings to us. Those passages, those soul-melting, heartwarming snippets of the divine that we can coax from a dictionary and out into the canon? That shit is few and far between. Most words go unread … that doesn’t mean they should go unwritten. Don’t die with the canon inside you.
Nobody reads your writing because nobody has time to read your writing. There’s too many words and not enough time. And if you don’t enjoy writing, then maybe your desire isn’t to write, but rather to be heard … and that’s something you fix in therapy or with your family, not on Medium. The infinite upscaling of your ambition is no substitute for the deep fulfillment you get by having your simplest, most basic needs honored and met. Trust me, I learned this the hard way.
Writing is a form of expression, but it isn’t the only form. Kisses. Gifts. Favors. Art. Architecture. Fashion. Music. Dance. Sex. Food. Travel. Conversation. It’s all there for you. The opportunity to become the person you were meant to be exists all around you. The chances to make the most of yourself and find satisfaction and belonging in the mere 20 Olympiads you get on this Earth are as infinite as the cells that comprise you. If nobody’s reading you, don’t stress about it … worry about whether people are seeing you.
Because we all want to feel seen. We all want to know ourselves. To appreciate and honor ourselves. To love and cherish and belong and commiserate and share and connect both within and in the wilderness. This world’s enormous and worth exploring, but the greatest exploration you can do is satisfying yourself and cultivating space to belong. That’s why we exist. Not to go Medium-platinum or 10x our pageviews. We yearn for the bliss of the perfectly-turned phrase, of the eternal and ephemeral holding hands in the fragile cradle of the cosmos.
If nobody’s reading your writing, and that bothers you enough to scroll all the way through this thing, get to the last paragraph, and say, “hey, man! What the fuck? I thought you were going to give me the answer!” Then, I’m going to need you to address something else. I need you to unpack your unconscious motives that drive your quest for clicks. Chances are, you want desperately to be seen.
And if you don’t feel that way after your first five readers, you sure as hell ain’t gonna feel that way after your first five million. That’s the kind of feeling you get only after you’re able to truly read yourself.
Then, once you’ve done that, go ahead and write that story. They eat that shit up. Trust me, I learned this the hard way.