While this is not any special anniversary of my blog, I’ve written enough that I feel like it’s time to look back and reflect. Scott Adams says he blogs as writing practice. I’ve been doing that too: in fact I’ve already moved from the “blogging as practicing writing the novel” stage to the “blogging as procrastinating writing the novel” stage. I also like Demiannee’s list of what blogging has taught her.
One thing that I have noticed so far, and have been struggling with, is the way categories and tags help you and limit you at the same time. Word Press gives helpful advice here. Using simple categories has helped me find and follow some interesting blogs that I probably would never have stumbled on without them, especially blogs about geocaching. But sometimes a category can feel too limiting, as well. More than 8 years ago—an eternity in internet time—I started a blog on a violin site, violinist.com. It was not just a category, but a whole site, all about the violin. At the time, I was just starting playing again after a long break, I didn’t know anyone who played other than my 7-year-old daughter and the violin teacher she wasn’t getting along with, and I wasn’t yet in an orchestra. The site gave me a chance to find other people interested in the violin: playing it, taking lessons, parenting children who played it, trends, new music, old music, famous violinists. As the site’s tagline says, “you can’t say enough about the violin.”
Except that now, after 8 years, maybe I can say enough. I’m not a professional violinist, and in fact, days go by when I don’t take the instrument out of its case. Debates that can seem quaint or arcane to outsiders—like whether one should use a shoulder rest, or the merits of the O’Connor vs. the Suzuki method of instruction—started to seem to me, well, quaint and arcane at best. I was starting to feel like a party pooper. I sometimes feel that way at geocaching gatherings too. Not because I don’t like geocaching or the violin, just . . . because.
Another aspect of blogging (and of writing generally), which I approach with trepidation, is the prospect of dealing with “haters.” I have been on the internet since the 1990s, I’m a veteran of usenet, and I met my husband on the internet before it was a thing. But even all those years of usenet didn’t completely insulate me from feeling the sting of nasty or aggressive comments. Even violinist.com, which has an active, sophisticated, professional editor/moderator, is not immune from such exchanges. I cringe a little now when I think about the attitude with which I approached that type of interaction back in those early days. I thought I would be different. But more often than not, my attempts to be “different” were just more of the same. My comments escalated the situation and became part of the problem. This distressed me and sometimes caused me to lose sleep at night. And yet, I was never satisfied, neither on the internet nor in real life, with the old-fashioned advice to “just ignore it and it’ll stop.” Not only did trying to just ignore it indiscriminately cause me to lose just as much sleep as engaging with it, the promised outcome– it’ll stop–wasn’t even true.
Which brings me to an article from the April 2015 issue of Locus magazine, by Kameron Hurley: “Who are We Writing For? On Knowing When to Listen to the Haters, and When to Laugh.” Hurley, whom I hadn’t heard of until now, is a Contributing Editor at Locus and an American writer of science fiction and fantasy. In the magazine, her picture, black and white and looking out at the reader from the center of the article, is kind of badass. She looks like the kind of person who doesn’t take any BS. I have always admired this kind of person, but usually from a distance.
One thing I love about this article is that she unpacks the “just ignore it” advice and helps the reader figure out when it is and isn’t useful. One of the most provocative things she writes is, [after an attack on her work] ” . . . that’s when I laugh quietly and put down my pen, because clearly this person is not my target reader. I’m not writing this book for them.” She writes more about finding your target audience, encouraging with the idea that “ . . . with upwards of 6 billion people on earth, there’s bound to be plenty of other folks who like the same things you do. The real challenge is finding them, and weeding through the noise to uncover them.”
For me as a writer, and as a musician, and even as a science teacher, this is a hugely liberating idea, but also a slightly unfamiliar and even uncomfortable one. I grew up before the internet, before there were more channels on TV than you could possibly watch. There were already more books than I could possibly read even back then, but my 10th grade English teacher still handed out a College-Bound Reading List with the expectation that those of us in Honors English who were aiming for a top university would make an attempt at it. And there was more music than I could possibly listen to, but my music theory teacher still spent class time preparing us to identify classical composers in a drop the needle test, and my violin teacher made sure I listened to Heifetz, Menuhin, and Oistrakh. There were more scientific papers being published, too, than I could possibly read. But I knew people who read the journals Science and Nature from cover to cover every week. The notion of a “Canon,” a basic set of knowledge in a given field that every serious student could and should master, was quite alive in my intellectual life up through college and into graduate school, even as I questioned its relevance, felt overwhelmed by its demands, and chafed at what I perceived as its lack of diversity.
It never occurred to me as a fledgling musician, writer, or teacher, that I could say, “I am not writing this book/performing this piece/teaching this subject material for you.”
On first hearing, that sounds the opposite of inclusive. It was the unspoken and unwelcome message that I sometimes received from the keepers of the dead-white-powerful-rich-european-male canon of my youth: we didn’t do this for you. And furthermore, don’t I want my work, whatever that is, to have universal appeal, to be a best-seller, to get into a top journal, to Win Friends and Influence People? Or at least to get a bunch of hits on YouTube?
Well. The answer to these questions, as I have come to understand it, is No. It is far more rewarding to find your target audience and to engage with them, using your own authentic voice. And, most important, you are not keeping people out when you speak authentically; the choice to become a hater or troll and to exclude themselves is theirs, not yours. Hurley writes of the profound connection and love that she feels with her target readers; readers she has inspired to make changes and do good, brave, creative things with their lives. I count myself now among her target audience, she has made me feel inspired too. It’s paradoxical that it seems to take setting a firm boundary, and saying no, to get to this yes.
Happily, this worry about haters has not (yet) come to pass. But I do wonder if I could be doing a better job reaching out to my target audience. How about you, other bloggers on Word Press? Who is your target audience? Do you have someone in particular in mind, or do you like to be surprised? How have you found and connected with them?