The man across from me is wanted by Interpol. He has employed Ickx, Scheckter, Hunt. Gian Paolo Dallara hand-built him three separate, customized Countachs, for which he browbeat Pirelli into developing an unheard-of 315-series P7 tire. In an off-handed, self-deprecating manner, he tells me of the time he won a Ferrari 512bb over a bet with Enzo Ferrari on the outcome of the 1976 Monaco Grand Prix, based simply on a handshake.
If you’ve got a nose for a story, this sort of thing is like getting a whiff of pure Sex Panther – it stings the nostrils. And yes, it was a good story, two of them in fact. But how to evaluate their worth? Neither tale, as far as I can make out, rated above a few hundred facebook shares, this in the same time frame that your average list article – of something, anything – will fetch thousands, if not millions of views. Perhaps the story didn’t blow your mind, or melt your face, or failed to include “100% true” in the headline.
Around the same time that I had my just-by-chance interview with Mr. Wolf, one of those viral slogans was making its rounds through the web. “Being a writer,” it said, “is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” At first, I accepted this at face value, thinking of the massive stack of deadlines coming due (Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”), and that general feeling of never being finished.
But then I thought a little more about the idea, and realized it was one of the more flawed, and indeed poisonous things I’d heard. The quote was meant to be funny and quippy and playful, but it very accurately illustrated the process of content generation. Homework is something you produce that gets read, graded, and disposed of: that’s content. Writing is something else.
The quote I have on my wall, and one I could probably afford to pay a little more attention to, is more blunt. It says, “Nobody has to read this crap,” and it’s from a lecture a science writer gave his students on the importance of reaching your audience. Nobody has to read this crap. That’s powerful stuff, if you think about it. If you sit down, pour your thoughts, ideas, prose, whatever, out onto the page, nobody has any particular obligation to read it. You are sitting at a table at the largest dinner party in the world, but nobody has to sit next to you and hear your anecdotes or listen to your opinions. If they do, then that’s a gift.
An audience is a gift. Being a writer is nothing like having a Sisyphean amount of homework to do, it’s more like having a recurring series of gigs as a musician. Depending on the reach of whatever your outlet is, you have the chance to catch somebody by the ear (or rather the eyeball) and tell them something. That they’re going to hear what you have to say is their gift to you, the sacrifice of their time to your words. The average internet user is basically drinking from Stanley Spudowski’s firehose, so for them to break away and plunk a few coins in your proverbial open guitar case is not something that should be glossed over.
I don’t have a lot of time these days, what with a kid and an old house and that pile of work that never goes away. However, I’ll happily keep coming back here because I know that while I won’t always agree with Jack, he will never knowingly waste my time. It’s the same reason I will happily read anything with a byline from Bowman, or Smith, or Johnson, or Cantle, or Rong – they don’t phone it in.
I’ve certainly phoned in a time or two or, um, more.
However, I do try at least to remain somewhat wary of generating content when there’s the opportunity to write something. Content is something that goes in a bucket, writing is something that you could pull out of a stack of sheets five years from now and say, “Man, was I wrong about that. Good piece though.”
More important is the idea that the audience is as important as the performer. That whole “never read the comments” thing – I always read the comments. Sometimes (often) they’re frustrating, but it makes you ask the questions: did I not explain myself clearly? Did I gloss over that? Most important of all: how can I do better? Trolls are more persistent than hecklers, but you can’t let them colour the way you view your audience – and you can take fuel from them to hone your pen too.
You can’t really sit down to write anything good if you don’t have a little piece of love in your heart for your reader, and a sense of the opportunity it is to have an listening ear. The feedback I get is anything from universally positive, but I do try to answer each response the same way: thank you for reading. We disagree, but thank you for reading. Your definition is incorrect, but thank you for reading. Here’s the research to support my claim which you dispute, but thank you for reading. I’m sorry, I did get that one wrong, but thank you for reading. And, if you’ve read this far, then thank you for reading.