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In praise of an audience of one

Despite the buzz about content marketing, and writing for your audience, the words of Kurt Vonnegut, as quoted by the brilliant Maria Popova, live on: “write for an audience of one”.

A young man is sitting on an old sofa and is writing in a notebookInformational content on the Internet is exploding. LinkedIn released statistics showing that members post over 100,000 articles, short and long, each week.

With that kind of competition, advice on how to get your writing noticed is all over the Internet, usually in variations of write-what-your-audience-wants-to-read. Be new, timely, relevant, provocative, hot, and useful. Have a compelling headline. bold graphics, etc. The list goes on.

Not bad advice but…. for me, not fully satisfying.Vonnegut by Rashawerak

Because as much as I write (or podcast) to support my business, I also write (and podcast) to support my soul.

Last month, I heard the brilliant blogger/on-line essayist Maria Popova speak a contrarian message based on her experience of writing. I hungrily gobbled down her advice, starting with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

“Write for an audience of one.”

For Popova, that means write for herself. Not for a market. Not for an audience. Not to tease the world with what is new, trendy, or hot.

Maria writes about what she loves to read and she is a voracious reader. She curates – writes about – ideas from old books and new books, discovered by following her own avid curiosity, books filled with poetry, prose, science or philosophy. She writes because she cares – passionately. Five years ago, she began sending out a few reflections on what she was reading to seven friends. Today she reaches 5 million readers.Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 9.11.17 PM

I could wax long about her blog, BrainPickings, a site that features big ideas, curated readings, beautiful quotes and skillfully written prose. But a month ago, I heard Maria do a remarkable interview with master podcaster Tim Ferris, in which she talked about the creative life.

Rather than write about her blog, I transcribed her words responding to listener questions so that I could share them with you.

Question: Knowing what you know, what advice would you give a complete beginner about starting a blog?


“Write for yourself if you want to create something meaningful and fulfilling, something that lasts and speaks to people.

The counter intuitive but really, really necessary thing is that you must not write for people.

The second you begin to write for, or to, a so-called audience – and this applies equally to podcasting and film making, and photography and dance, and any field of creative endeavor – the second you start doing it for an audience you’ve lost the long game.

Because creating something that is rewarding and sustainable over the long run requires, most of all, keeping yourself excited about it.

Which in turn, of course requires only doing things that you yourself, are interested in – that enthuse you.

I think the key to being interesting is being interested, and enthusiastic about those interests. That’s contagious. That’s what makes people read you and come back. Which, by the way, should and can only ever be a by-product of your own willingness to keep coming back to your work, to your creation.

Because if you do it for other people, trying to predict what they’ll be interested in, and kind of pretzel in yourself to fit those expectations, you soon begin to begrudge it and become embittered and it begins to show in the work.

It always, always, shows in the work when you resent it. And there’s really nothing less pleasurable to read than an embittered writing.”

Why we should run away from creating “content”

“I bet you that if Vonnegut were alive today and was writing in a medium like a blog, he’d be approaching it the same way that he did his fiction. And he like any [other] self-respecting writer, would never, ever, ever refer to, or think about, his writing on that platform, or [on] any platform [as] “content”. […]

There’s actually I think nothing more toxic to the creation of meaningful cultural material, whatever its medium, than the term “content”. Which already implies like an icky external motive.

Content is something you produce and purvey to other people, filler material that becomes currency for advertising what not, and not something that you do for yourself.

Nobody does content for the joy of their soul. The second you start thinking of your writing as content, you’ve altered the motive. You are no longer writing for yourself. So to distill: write for yourself. Stay interested. Don’t ever let yourself think of what you do as content. Or be bullied into to viewing it, much less treating it, as such.”

She offers these words from Susan Sontag, a kind of writer’s prayer: “Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Being content with yourself

“I think the key is to be content with who you are, and where you are at any given moment, because living with presence both requires and gives rise to such contentment. But not to be so self-satisfied as to assume that you’ve reached perfection, or who you’re supposed to be, and to kind of cut yourself off from that vital impulse for continual growth.”

Question: What is the most significant characteristic that distinguishes people who have accomplished greatness in any given field?

“I would say consistency. Showing up day in and day out, psycho-emotional rain or shine.

If you look at the diary of any great artist or writer, and I read a lot of those – I have a pretty vast sample pool here. The one thing you see over and over is that whatever happens, whatever they’re experiencing, be it agonizing self-doubt which by the way all of them experience. […] Whatever it is they’re feeling, they still show up. They still face the blank page, the empty canvas, the fresh roll of film every day, and they do their thing. And what this doggedness is, really, [is] a deep love of the work, a deep need to do the work in order to feel alive. Making a living is merely a by-product of that and for some of them that doesn’t even come in their lifetime.”

I hope that some of you, working on your creative ventures, will read the above words from Maria and take heart. Show up, be content with who you are as you keep growing, and do the creative work that you love, the work that feeds your soul.

2 Responses

  1. Love this…I too get that Brainpickings newsletter but I read it once every 3-4 that come through. Like yours actually! Only for lack of time.

    Interestingly enough I give the same advice to anyone needing to rewrite their resume – to write it for themselves yet when I wrote that first article, I think only part of it was for me and then a sense of obligation set in that I have to write it for others. I remember writing a lot as a child and young teen and that was always for myself.

  2. Great post on why we write. Thanks for sharing.

    On more than one occasion I’ve had a “great idea” for something that might make me money, then realized, upon reflection, that while it might be a money-making “niche”, I’d soon be bored out of my mind.

    Your post is a good reminder that we will benefit more from following our passion.

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