I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Every Monday morning, I send out a newsletter. I have done this for more than seven years now. At this point, it’s just something I do, and I suspect that if everyone unsubscribed, I would probably still do it.

And amazingly, people read it. I know that sounds like I’m fishing for compliments, but I mean it – that people read anything I write amazes me constantly. That other people spend folding money to make sure I have the freedom to do that writing is staggering to me.

Last week, I started a survey of my newsletter readers – a thing I’ve never done before. There are some demographic and informational questions I have wondered about – how old are my readers (mostly between 35 and 65, it seems) and when do they read my newsletter that I publish on Monday mornings (almost perfectly evenly split between “as soon as it hits my inbox” and “I save it for later when I can savor it”), but mostly I wanted the more subjective comments to questions like, “What do you like about this newsletter” and “How would you describe what this newsletter is about?”

From a marketing perspective, these are mostly useless. Knowing that an anonymous reader (I didn’t tie responded to email addresses, so people would be more honest) thinks that I need to do more of what I’m doing, or that another anonymous reader thinks that I am a “breath of fresh air” won’t help me get more readers, but it does reassure me that at least some people get value from what I’m trying to do.

But what I love about reader responses is what they tell me about myself. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe writing to be a partnership between the reader and the writer. A friend who is a movie critic once told me that it’s the job of the critic to tell the artist what they are doing – that it’s actually the critic (or audience), for example, that decides whether a movie is sad, or inspiring.

So when I get responses to my question “Is there anything you would like me to know?” with things like “I love reading your newsletter because it calms my anxiety” or “You are like a Southern Bob Ross” or “I love how calm you are in the face of the tragedies all around us, without ignoring that they are happening”, it tells me something I would have never guessed on my own about what people get from my writing.

Because I don’t really feel calm, or even like I am trying to be calming. I mean, there are a couple of people who ostensibly have things in common with me who are sorta famous on the internet who are very viral, and who are always angry and post click-bait posts designed to provoke a reaction and make you angry at other people. I decided a long time ago that I don’t want readers that badly. So, it is not so much that I’m trying to be calming as much as I’m just trying to not be an asshole.

But knowing that people perceive the project I’m working on to not just be about beauty but also as calming and restorative is useful feedback and lets me know that I am doing things I didn’t know I was doing.

Just like how, when a friend says, “I don’t think you know you are doing it, but you chew with your mouth open, and it’s pretty gross”, you can stop. And once I know I’m doing a thing, and that people like it, I can do more of it.

I’ve been writing nearly daily on this blog for more than four months now – almost 99,000 words since the beginning of November, and during that time, I’ve sorted into a rhythm of sorts. I know that posts about self-care get shared in ways that nothing else I write does, and I know that posts about food are loved and heavily commented on, and I know that people respond well to my posts that are heavy on memories and nostalgia. But I’m not sure yet if the blog has figured out yet what it’s doing.

I mean, I know what I think I’m doing, but like the newsletter example shows – what I think I‘m doing and what people see you as doing can be different things. So, expect an anonymous reader survey soon, because I’d love to know what you think I’m doing.