David Bentley Hart, in a recent edition of his newsletter Leaves in the Wind, wrote:
As of five days ago, Leaves in the Wind has entered into its third year of existence. Once again, my deep thanks to all my subscribers for making it possible for me to write in the way I like to write. One of the basic pieces of advice that Substack offers to every writer who uses its platform is that he or she should ideally confine his or her publication to a specific topic (baking, UFOs, folk music, extremist politics, pet-grooming—that sort of thing), since that as a rule is what attracts subscriptions. Obviously, I have done precisely the opposite; I have never wanted to write about one thing and one thing only, even if I could make money by doing so, because I simply do not have that kind of mind. I have tried to make a virtue out of my tendency toward wandering attention, since I really have no discretion in the matter; it will wander whether I want it to do so or not. And you good and gracious souls allow me to flatter myself I have succeeded—at least, well enough to have retained your good will.
When I began writing on the web twenty years ago, the same advice prevailed. Pick a topic, stick with it, and build up your content base. Cultivate a niche audience. Find out what readers want. Cater to those desires. Stay on theme. Stay on schedule. Sing your song. Keep singing. Publish. Publish. Publish. Second verse, same as the first.
My approach to writing in public has changed over the years. My understanding of what I’ve been doing, and my philosophy of writing, has been developed and refined. I began with the desire to share thoughts, advocate for ideas, make connections, and build community. I started playing around with blogs in the days of Xanga and GeoCities, published a few short essays on a short lived MySpace site, and was an early adopter of several major social media services, which were places to keep writing, or to share writing. As a writer, I eventually landed on WordPress, which has served my purposes just fine. I’ve written beyond my home space. I’ve been thankful for those opportunities, when they’ve arisen.
There has been a theme to my work. I’ve written mainly about Christianity and my experiences as a person of faith. I’ve always written about theology and the Bible; more recently I have focused on Christian spiritual formation. I’ve relayed anecdotes and shared sermons and captured plenty of quotes and sometimes added brief commentary. I’ve written devotionally. I’ve written personally. I’ve shared news about my family. I’ve ocassionally commented on technology, developments in higher education, and philosophical ideas. Recently, I’ve shared music playlists that, for me, are snapshots in time. I write about books, both reviews of individual works and summations of what I’ve read, the latter an annual issue that attracts the interest of a few friends at the start of each year.
I’ve never had a large readership. I confess this used to concern me. I’ve let that concern go. The ideas I write about are of interest to me, and the practice of writing has helped me develop my voice and improve my craft. Eugene Peterson once suggested that I shouldn’t write for an audiencce, I should write for the truth, and only if I feel a fire in my bones. My pursuit is not a broad readership, but clearer thinking and a better understanding of myself, the world, and, ultimately, the truth. Writing crystalizes thought. Writing is also a practice, if practiced well, not only conveys what you know, but leads you to discoveries formerly unknown and ways of expressing things that you did not know were in there, inside you, things you did not know you could say or were capable of saying. Words represent thoughts. The thoughts come out. Sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are a jumble. You work with the words. You move them around. You wrestle with them. They wrestle back. You hope they hang where you place them, and that they hang together in a manner that makes sense not only to you, but to others. We seek meaning. We share meaning. Writing is an act of meaning-making. We benefit from the work. Writing, when it is made a public artefact, can also benefit others, maybe even a broad swath of humankind.
If you write in public, you send your words out into the world. You are a mind, reaching out to other minds. Maybe those ideas catch on. Maybe they make sense. Or maybe they drift into the digital ether, collecting the equivalent of computational dust. Putting work out there is an act of faith. You don’t really know what will happen.
David Bentley Hart writes, “I have never wanted to write about one thing and one thing only, even if I could make money by doing so, because I simply do not have that kind of mind. I have tried to make a virtue out of my tendency toward wandering attention, since I really have no discretion in the matter; it will wander whether I want it to do so or not.”
That approach resonates with me. I am not nearly as skilled a writer as he is, nor a polymath, nor as accomplished. But that doesn’t matter.
I can chase rabbits. I might even catch a few. It could even be fun. That’s what writing is. Chasing ideas. Acquiring needed provisions (not only reading, but experience). Going out on the hunt. Having an adventure. Opening up to contingency. Some successes could be plain luck. Other successess will be born of hard work. Nothing will happen if you don’t show up, sit in the chair, dance with the ideas, make choices, commit, and share. You might find delight in composing a good sentence. Someone else might delight in reading one. Experiences might align; they might not. Delight is not the only possible experience a writer or a reader may have. Boring? Possible. But heaven forbid it.
If you’re a writer, or considering a writing practice, by all means, write. If you’re a reader. Thanks. Thanks for joining the chase.