Madison Monday: Finding Your Audience

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When I tell people around town that I’m on sabbatical, some of them ask, “So will you be writing on your blog again?” They ask this in a way that I believe implies that they want the answer to be yes. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m going with that.

It’s a nice thing, of course, to know that people want to read what you write. Who am I kidding? It’s absolutely FANTASTIC to know that people want to read what you write! It’s an incredible gift from the universe. Please, if you see me around town, feel free to say this to me as often as you like. I might not appear to be as totally delighted as I am deep inside my stoic, Midwestern soul. But I will be.

I wrote for my blog pretty intensely the last time I was on sabbatical because, hello, sabbatical! I had more time and as I wrote earlier, more alone time. More alone time means more wandering down those weird thought-paths that really only happen when you’re alone. Both of those things together lead to more blog posts.

But there’s another reason my blogging fell off in the last few years. I had a conversation with a fellow writer and blogger in which I realized that blogging was, in some sense, the same as publishing your writing. This is both good and bad.

Of course, part of the point of writing a blog is that other people can read it. If I wanted to write without anyone ever reading it, I would keep a journal. So, yes, blogging is publishing in the sense that you are making your writing available to the world. Once it’s up there, it’s available for the whole world to see.

In other ways, blogging is very much not publishing. It’s not curated in any way. I can say whatever I want. I can (and do) spend some time carefully editing my writing. But I don’t have to. There are no gatekeepers in blogging. I heard on a podcast recently about a guy who blogged quite extensively from a maximum-security prison. He didn’t have internet access so he wrote out his blog posts and then mailed them to his mother, who dutifully posted them on his blog. Proof, if you needed it, that anyone can blog.

You also don’t get paid for blogging. At least, I don’t because I don’t have any ads. Even if I did have ads, I wouldn’t make much money from them. You need much more traffic than this modest little website gets to earn money from a blog.

But if I go to submit an essay I’ve written on my blog to a magazine or literary journal, many won’t consider it because it’s already been published. In that sense, blogging is publishing.

At the same time, as a writer, you want to be able to submit your essays to magazines and literary journals for publication. In theory, this is how you gain the all-important recognition. If you’re very lucky, it might also be how you get paid for your writing. Very lucky. I’ve been paid exactly once for writing that appeared in a magazine. Once.

So you’re left with a bit of a quandary as a writer. Should I post this essay on my blog, which is in many ways not considered publication*, or should I submit it to a magazine or literary journal in search of that “recognition,” and just maybe, pay?

There was a period when I decided the answer was no to the blog and yes to publication somewhere else. If I was going to build a career as a writer, I needed to publish somewhere besides my blog. So a lot of essays that might have gone up here got submitted to magazines. Sometimes they got accepted. Most of the time they didn’t. Only once did I actually get paid (a whopping $200 for the record, from Gawker, a gig I got only because I knew the writer who was editing a series there).

My Twitter game is so sad

In theory, publishing in magazines and other places besides your blog helps to build an audience for your writing. In theory. How do you measure that audience? I have no idea. Twitter followers? I have a whopping 1,1524 followers on Twitter. If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, let me assure you that this is not an impressive number. This is not a book deal type of number. Are there book deal type of numbers? Yes, there absolutely are. I don’t have them.

But I do have a book deal now (have I mentioned that?). And I have an audience for my writing—those people in Madison who ask me if I’m going to start writing on my blog again. Those folks who mention a post when I see them in the coffee shop. The people—near and far—who comment on my posts or e-mail me about them. My friends, yes. My family, too. That’s an audience. It’s a small audience, but it’s an audience I can see and talk to. It’s an audience that showed up at the reading for my little chapbook here in town. It’s a good audience. It’s a worthy audience. There’s nothing wrong with writing that’s for them.

In fact, there’s something sort of amazing about writing for an audience you know. It’s a gift.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t still send essays in another direction every now and then, too. I do. But it’s also just fine to keep it here. To keep it local, so to speak. To use what I think of as my blogging voice, the one that sounds like I’m sitting down for a conversation with a friend or a neighbor. Because I am.

* Blogging also doesn’t count toward tenure if you’re an academic, even though a post you write can have a much wider audience than any essay/story/poem you publish in an obscure literary journal. Cathy Day has a great post about this, here.

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