I was recently interviewed for a podcast – and halfway through, I told a whopping lie.
A little face-saving context:
It was early in the morning (for me), I was travel-worn after a breakneck trip to Orkney and back, and my head was full of transitional thoughts – as in, “I just sold my family home, I now officially have nowhere (and everywhere) to live, I haven’t worked out exactly what I’m doing next, maybe I could have a mid-life crisis, maybe that would be fun?” and so on.
So we grabbed a coffee and sat down in a Caffe Nero in the middle of York, and he set up his microphones, and off we went.
At the time of writing it’s nearly a month later, and I can’t remember much of what I said for most of our chat. I probably sounded half-asleep. I do remember it was great fun, which is maybe a sign I was dangerously off-guard. (Shit.)
But I do remember my response to one of the questions very clearly.
The question was “Blogging is quite hard, isn’t it?”
“Well…” I started protesting, thinking of all the actually-objectively-damn-hard things people are doing in the world, the doctors and firemen and EU diplomats currently trying to understand our Brexit proposals, and putting them next to an image of me sitting in my pants in a room in Orkney, idly fooling with WordPress to see if I could turn my side-menu font the same colour as my underwear.
“But, creative work is actually hard though, isn’t it? Don’t you think?” he said.
“No, I don’t think so at all,” I think I said. (Or maybe I said, “gnnzztfppppp” and fell asleep face-down in my latte. I’m not exactly sure.)
So, I lied. Blogging is hard.
Or more correctly, it should be, even though in my experience it sometimes hasn’t been.
A friend of mine is a really terrific public speaker. World-class. Effortlessly interesting, fluid and engaging. A-million-views-on-TED quality. Brene Brown would be taking notes.
However, just before stepping up on stage, my friend seems convinced they are shit.
Not just “passable but unexciting.” Not just “meh.” Actual, rock-bottom, sewer-level, GTFOH awfulness on a Cecil B. DeMille scale.
They feel dizzy. They tremble. They fight the urge to puke.
Since they always feel this way and since their talks are invariably amazing, I’ve stopped questioning it. It’s part of their process, and of the magic that makes their work so special. It’s their call, obviously, but – maybe it’s not broken, and doesn’t need fixing.
I see it as yet another form what I call the Squash Effect.
I used to play a lot of squash, an excitingly ferocious sport that involves pushing yourself to your sweatiest limits. At the end of a game of squash, you are always 100% tired. It doesn’t matter if you just started, or have been playing for a decade.
If you’re really, truly playing squash (ideally facing someone who is a lot better at it than you are), you are utterly spent at the end – and a little bit more than spent, so you’re all wobbly-legged, feel nauseous with exhaustion and have very strange friction-rashes in odd places.
The thing is, your tiredness is a measurable constant that’s independent of your skill level.
If you hit a “I Just Had A Proper Squash Game” level of tiredness, you know you’ve pushed right to your physical limits – and beyond the previous level of your instincts, reaction-time and stamina by a few percent since the last time you played.
I reckon my friend’s urge to technicolour-yawn is a sign that speech was prepared to a comparable level, to the limits of an ability to communicate something profound, heartfelt and alarmingly honest.
It shows my friend was putting enough skill and effort in to make something really damn good.
Aka. “working hard.”
So it’s days after the podcast interview, and I’m in York, walking by the river, trying to think about work-related things. But that question keeps pushing itself into my thoughts.
Blogging is quite hard, isn’t it?
Well, no. In my experience, there are plenty of ways to make blogging easy.
You can follow what everyone else in your niche is doing, and bodysnatch the posts that are already doing well, adapting them almost word for word for your own blog (this is often called “research”, rather than, you know, “the death of all original thought”).
You can accept any and all offers of payment, literally anything offered to you, from sponsored posts that have nothing to do with your work to paid Do Follow links pointing to dodgy websites in an attempt to hoodwink Google Search into ranking other people’s things much higher.
You can ignore your own messy, complicated interests and allow yourself to be told what to write by SEO analytics, by current affairs, by people who want you to write about them. You can believe what other people say you should be doing, and follow their rules in exchange for money, or for something else they’re offering you.
All these things are pretty easy to do, once you reach a certain amount of traffic. I wouldn’t blame anyone for trying them out to see what happens. They’re enticingly low-effort. And money is nice, right?
The problem is that they’re not hard enough.
In my experience, they usually mean you’re hardly using any of your skills, and you’re certainly not stretching them enough to improve. Next time, you’ll be no further forward – and a little more disillusioned, because it’s hard on the soul to sell yourself cheap and know it.
My own self-employed writing plans from this point onwards aren’t, in relative terms, “easy.” They involve writing books – something I’ve never done, not once – and they involve building a weird new thing that’s somewhere between a newsletter of self-mocking travel writing and an episode of Jackass.
They involve assembling these things while not having a home in the short term, which is a mixture of freeing and terrifying. They probably involve a lot of failed experiments and facepalm-stupid mistakes, because both those things come with any attempt to do something that’s new to you.
But they’ll also be fun. I’m more excited about doing them than anything I’ve done since I went fulltime as a writer seven crazy years ago, including all the stuff I now find unchallenging enough to bore me into doing a crap job of them.
From the relatively privileged position I’m in right now, I know that pursuing easy things usually mean having less fun, making less money and having less of an impact on the world than I’d like to have. I can’t think of any good reasons to do easy things except the temporary relief of giving in to laziness or fear.
So it’s time to try something else.
On reflection, if I had that microphone back in front of me, my answer would be more honest.
“Yes. It is hard. When I’m doing it right, it’s harder than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, compared to other harder-working folk, that might not mean much. But to me, in entirely relative terms, this is where I’m working the hardest.”
“Holy hell, in stress terms, going bald was nothing compared to hitting publish on something I’m completely convinced will finish me as a writer because it either says far, far too much or far, far too little. Why don’t I ever know which it is?”
“Why is sitting down to write always hard? I’m really bad at doing it, every time, I have to resort to all sorts of bullshit trickery to get myself to keep going, stick to deadlines, finish the damn thing. What’s wrong with me? Why do I seem so crap at these basic things?”
“Blogging is hard because it feels like like I’ve spent years failing to learn how to make it easier. Every time is a challenge. Every time it’s hard.”
“But I’ve noticed that the times when I find it hardest, when I take zero short cuts and just sit down and challenge myself to do it properly, however bloody long it takes and how much coffee I end up drinking – that’s always the stuff that does well, and where I can see how I’ve improved. I think that’s where the actual work gets done. I think that’s where I’m most myself, as a writer.”
“So yeah, you’re damn right it’s hard sometimes.”
“But I think it’s supposed to be.”
Then I’d drink my coffee in one enormous manly swig, wake up properly, grab the microphone and answer all the other questions so entertainingly well that the title of the podcast episode would be “Mike Sowden Wins At Life”.
But of course that’s not what happened. It seems that being interviewed, and actually saying what you really think, is a lot harder than I first thought.
I can’t think of a better reason to try it again sometime.
Images: Pixabay, Mike Sowden.