The cost of show and tell blogging

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

Used under CC 2.0 Propinquity

I’ve written before about my experience of blogging and my crazed, ill thought through, entry into a particular avenue of the internet. I started out writing about relationships because I had something to say in reaction to something someone else had written and wanted a platform to air my disagreement. Before I knew it I had written four posts in four days on relationships in the Christian world, and all from a guy’s perspective. In the UK at least no one else was doing this. I had found my niche.

Soon enough my abstract pontificating was too shallow. I was writing words about other people’s experience channelled through my eyes, my opinions, my inexperience. I felt I needed to peel back my own covers. What I didn’t consider, and what has taken me some time to come to grips with, was the cost it had on me. As I wrote over a year ago, I bled onto the screen so people could see it was the real me. I didn’t think it was doing any harm, I thought it was the necessary fuel to give power to my words. And it gave power, it garnered readers, but it hurt me.

Hannah Mudge wrote last week of the boom of first person writing on the internet, the growing trend of people sharing more and more shocking essays of their own experiences, with some websites building platforms upon the tear stained stories that shock the reader.

Vulnerability becomes a drug. I loved the effect of hitting publish and watching the stats soar. I remember one night while away at a conference when I put the finishing touches to my greatest self-expose yet. Writers don’t often talk about stats, it seems to be the taboo of internet writing. But here’s a range of mine: I’ve written posts which have only ever had twenty views, and I’ve written others with thousands. A reasonably successful post will get 2-300 hits. That particular night in a room on the outskirts of Birmingham I watched as hundreds read my confession in the first hours. I woke up the next morning with a vulnerability hang over.

But the problem with drugs is that even when you know the negative effects, you still want more. You come back for the hit. With writing popularity is addictive, it becomes your validation. As a writer I wanted people to read the words I put on the screen, and I had learnt a way of ensuring they gave me attention. Like all drugs public vulnerability comes with diminishing returns. Each subsequent post demands more exposure and results in less shock and as a result less readers. The things I had to say as a single Christian guy lacked the punch they held on their first outing. I needed something more.

The diminishing returns are only part of the story. The impact of etching my life on the internet stretched beyond the boundaries of my digital life. It affected the real me. Vulnerability is an incredibly powerful thing. When I open up to a friend and say that my life’s not all sorted, I give them permission to speak into my life. Even if I speak to a crowd and say that I sometimes feel like a fraud when everyone thinks my life is sorted, I give them permission to know that they are not alone. But when I put words into the ether without a relationship with those who are hearing, without the chance to look into their eyes after I have spoken, my vulnerability is a tear in my skin that pulls open even wider. Vulnerability can help us heal, but exposure can kill.

I felt my life was atrophying. I had a story which many people read and knew about. It’s still there, I can’t change that. The impact on my day to day life was that I spoke less about my vulnerability to those who I had a relationship with, and it became harder to admit that the challenges I had so nakedly shared were not the only things that were going on in my life. 

The other unexpected consequence was that most possibilities for plausible future romantic relationships were asymmetrical. People could know what was going on in my life long before I got to know them. I told myself that it was helping to lay the groundwork for future developments but in truth it was stunting my growth.

In the last two years I’ve come close to stopping blogging, and never really by design. I always thought I’d find my game again, that I was going through a rough patch, that the words which were failing to flow would soon begin to ease onto the screen once again. I thought it was the quality of my writing that meant posts were getting ignored. I’d write the occasional witty piece about the dysfunctions of the Christian world which would meet with moderate acclaim, but anytime I tried to write something more serious my viewing stats would have a clear, but negative, correlation to the amount of time spent on the post. A few thousand words on Charleston and Confederate flags? Well all I can say is thank you to the 63 of you who may have taken the time to read it. On growing up following the fall of the Berlin Wall? Even fewer clicked that link. The anomaly to my declining readers illustrated this correlation all too clearly, I hammered out an angry post in dizzy minutes earlier in the year about things our Prime Minister said about Easter and it broke all previous records.

In the last month I posted twice, on learning to stop hurrying and attempting to define leadership. Neither of those posts got as many views in the past month as a several year old piece about why guys don’t ask girls out.

What I haven’t been able to bring myself to do was write the vulnerable-emotional-tear-forming-story type post which had served my early days so well. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop, I simply didn’t have the energy, or the words to describe the depth I felt I needed to delve to elicit the response which would make it seemingly worth the effort.

And yet, a tap on the shoulder at a Christian event made a lot of this anguish more palatable. I had written with the aim of helping other people navigate their own challenges with relationships in church, and apparently I had helped this person. That’s the kind of validation which means numbers don’t matter so much.

This isn’t a resignation from the world of first person story blogging, but it’s a caveat, don’t expect it too much. And it is a warning to myself to think long and hard what I say online. Even these words above have taken a few days to chew over and decide to commit.

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Living a story while losing the plot

I hoped that one day I would write a piece of such heart achingly brilliant prose which would adroitly encapsulate my distorted emotions. I hoped it would help me see clearly through the mists of fear and doubt.

I thought I could write myself into a solution.

I thought if I wrote enough, if I wrote with enough passion. If I used clever plays on words. Wrote short sentences for effect.

Or longer ones. I thought that if I gained enough of a following, if I garnered enough affirmation for the quality of my writing and the wisdom of my words. I thought that then everything would be all right.

But I was writing about nothing. I was a phantom without a cause. I was a writer in need of a following and in search of people to tell me I was good enough.

But it’s not enough.

I sit awkwardly under compliments that I receive and frustratingly hit refresh as no one reads the posts into which I have poured the most of me. I think this is going to be one of those.

For the last two weeks I’ve realised that underneath the labels I wear I feel increasingly hollow inside. Almost as though I have been running on empty for a while but only just spluttering towards a halt.

I assess my life and wonder what it would be like to leave it all behind and walk into another scene.

To pack up my bags and do something completely different. If I were to accept that things haven’t really worked out how I thought they would.

But I never really had any hope for how things would be: I’m not even sure what those things are.

I hoped that would become clear. I hoped I would discover some overriding passion, a cause to fight for. Maybe micro-credit in southAsia, or sanitation in west Africa, or human trafficking on our doorstep. A story that I could jump into head first and would become the defining feature of my life.

Instead I flit from this to that, using skills but not passion. Bringing craft to words but not with purpose. Always dreaming that somewhere down the line I would stumble into the answer. I hid my lack of purpose with elegant prose; I obfuscated with metaphors and alliteration as my vices of choice. I even wrote about writing, the last recourse of one without a cause. 

But life is not like that, very rarely do answers fall out of the sky.

I wanted a story to tell as long as it wasn’t my own. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself in order to abdicate my need to address who I am. I wanted a story I could write myself out of.

I live in the hypocritical paradox of both craving approval and seeking anonymity. I cannot even move towards either of these maleficent ends with any conviction.

I am lost.

In my arrogance I think that the world needs to hear what I have to say. Whatever that might be.

In my weakness I know that no one cares.

And in between I try to find a way of living. In part it is a charade, and in part it is an act of faith. It is the grappling with what to do when I don’t know what to do. It is the search for who I am when that seems out of reach.

It is the longing of a heart that wants to do the right thing and it is the cry of despair at not knowing what that is.

It is the strength to see failure as something I must embrace, but the weakness that fears what this might look like.

And through it all I long for God to intervene, but I do not allow him to get too close; or me too close to him. I think I fear I will let him down: that whatever he asks of me will be too much and I will be too little.

I shy away from committing with everything I have because I worry about the cost of it not working out. I avoid opining about quite how frail I have become in case anyone realises just how true it is.

To strip away any pretence: I do not know what I am doing, and I do not know why I am doing whatever it is that I am doing.

But sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes that is the way things go. When mists surround and fog envelopes and doubt is all you know as true. At least it is somewhere to start. It is an authentic emotion where for so long they have felt manufactured. It is an accurate picture of where I am, and it is from where I am that I must start. 

I know this is not a place to linger, or a place where I can find solace. It is not a refuge but a launch pad. On to what, I do not know.