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Five years ago today, I published this blog’s first post.

Five years. FIVE YEARS.

And this is my 516th post. Can you imagine? I have sat here typing like this 515 times before this time.

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Let’s think about this blog for a minute. Why do I do it? Why have I sat down every Monday and Wednesday for the past five years of my life and written a post?

It’s not a wildly successful blog, after all. I don’t get thousands upon thousands of hits. This is no Whatever, no Bloggess, no MarkManson.com. I don’t get nominated for awards for my work here. Sometimes I write what I believe to be an important post, and it sinks to the bottom of the pond without leaving a single visible ripple in its wake.

I make no money from the blog. I don’t run ads that give me a kick-back. I don’t participate in marketing schemes. I don’t even have an affiliate Amazon link.

And yet. Five years. For five years I have shown up.

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The blog is not always easy on a personal level either.

Occasionally, people believe it is okay to discuss personal and private issues they have with me in the public comments section of a public blog. (Note: This is not okay.)

Occasionally, I use an anecdote to help illustrate my point, and people I care about get worried they might have inadvertently hurt my feelings. (Note: I probably wouldn’t have chosen that anecdote were that the case.)

Occasionally, people in my personal life read a post of mine and think I am talking about them when I am not. Or they think I am talking specifically TO them, and I am not. Or they make a personal choice I may or may not agree with, and say, well, I did it because of what you said on your blog. And I look down at my open hands, and I think, I don’t want that kind of power. I want to make you think, yes, but then the decision is yours.

Occasionally, people misunderstand me. Sometimes this is because of projection. Sometimes this is because I didn’t do a very good job writing my post. Sometimes it is both.

Sometimes I don’t know where the line is. I don’t know what to write about and what not to write about. I don’t know what to tell you and what not to tell you. Sometimes this confusion ends up leaving you confused too.

Five years.

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So then, why? Why am I sitting here struggling over these sentences?

Part of it is that I believe in creating for creating’s sake, and art for art’s sake.

But perhaps more of it is because I believe in my One Reader.

My One Reader reads my post and has an Aha! moment.

My One Reader reads my post and feels less alone.

My One Reader reads my post and decides to go on fighting another day.

My One Reader reads my post and loves herself a little bit more than she did before.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks about something in a new way.

My One Reader reads my post and feels a little lighter.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks, I thought that was just me! And a little bit of the guilt or shame or self-disparagement dissipates.

My One Reader reads my post and later on when he is lost, he remembers it and he comes back and reads it again, and it is a small light in what might have otherwise been complete darkness.

My One Reader gets a kick out of seeing yet another Nala photo.

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My One Reader reads my post and a connection is created, and maybe we see each other a little more than we did before.

I don’t know who my One Reader is on any given day. But I believe he or she is out there. And I believe he or she matters.

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Five years. Here’s to you, One Reader. And here’s to the Practical Free Spirit.

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I get asked this question all the time: What is your blog about? Inevitably I flail about, stringing words into somewhat coherent sentences that may or may not have any actual meaning. Sometimes if I’m standing next to someone else who I know has read my blog, I ask them to answer the question instead. It is ultimately more entertaining to watch them flail about trying to explain my blog than it is to do it myself.

I know, I know, I’m terrible (or possibly simply hilarious). But really I keep hoping someone will have a good answer and I will learn something. This has, however, only happened one time, and then I promptly forgot the answer. I tried to get him to repeat it, but somehow it didn’t sound as good the second time, so I think he might have forgotten it too.

But given how much time and effort I give to this blog, it is high time I do my best to answer this question.

During my senior year of high school, a new class was offered by the Senior Honors English teacher Mr. Skinner. It was called Ways of Knowing, and it was an advanced class about philosophy. I didn’t take this class. I’d heard stories of how difficult a teacher Mr. Skinner was, and due to a turbulent home life, I’d barely gotten through my junior year of high school. In fact, I’d ended the year hospitalized for pneumonia. So I was past the point of caring about the philosophy class all the other smart kids were taking. I did, however, hear a lot about it during fourth period independent study AP French Literature, during which my two fellow students were always doing their Ways of Knowing homework while I…read French literature.

When I think about what my blog is about, I often think about this Ways of Knowing class. I wouldn’t say this blog is about ways of knowing. But I would say this blog is about Ways of Living. And these two ideas are linked in my mind.

Nala's Way of Living

Nala’s Way of Living

It has been the work of my life thus far to study and consider Ways of Living, and the roots of this driving interest go back to that time in high school, and even further back. Knowing things is all very well and good, and I was always a curious student, but what I most wanted to know, surrounded by misery as I felt myself to be at that time, was how to live. How to be happy. How to be fulfilled. How to be an artist. And in a world that didn’t seem to value art. How to create connection even though circumstances had left me completely isolated. How to deal with emotions that arose from extreme situations beyond my control. How to deal with that lack of control. How to create meaning, to live it, in a chaotic world.

This is what I write about.

As I got older, I added some interests. How social structures contribute (and sometimes detract from) ways of living. How personal identity plays into both larger structures and personal interactions. The intersections between technology and society and how we live or can potentially choose to live in the future. The question of expression. How the past, and memory, coalesce into identity and how to work with that. The lessons of narrative. How to initiate (and survive) transformation.

This is what I write about.

And always people. When I escaped to college, I began asking questions. So many questions. Here are things I always want to know: Are you happy? Why or why not? What are you afraid of? What gives you joy? Who and what do you care about? What are you looking for? How do you create your own personal meaning? How do you deal with suffering? What do you say you want, and how is that related to what you actually want? How are you connected with the outside world? Who are your friends, your families, your communities, and what do these relationships look like? What did you used to wish you would be doing as an adult, and how do you feel about that now? What is your relationship to work? What is your relationship to the past? How do you see the world? Who do you think you are?

This is what I think about. This is what I write about.

Ways of living. Yes.

This is what I want to know.

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This post originally appeared on the SFWA blog, but I know not all of you saw it, so I’m running it here today. As you might expect, given my recent experimentation with this blog, I had several thoughts on the subject. Enjoy!

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When giving advice on writing blog posts, James Altucher says, “Bleed in the first line.” He talks about blog writing and bleeding a fair amount, actually, so I always think about bleeding when I write blog posts now. But what does that mean, bleeding on the page, and what is the correct way to do it?

As I’ve been experimenting some with my own blog, I’ve also been thinking a lot about sharing and privacy and where to draw the line. It’s something I’ve had to think about often over the years since I do this kind of personal memoir-esque kind of writing, and with opinions flying as to whether it’s a good idea for writers to share their political opinions, it is in the forefront of my mind right now. What is private and what isn’t? What is a great telling detail and what is too much? Where does that line go?

I found some wise advice where I wasn’t expecting it, in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. (This book is also a great resource both for learning about Dr. Brown’s data and how it pertains to the way humans tick and for managing common emotional difficulties that come up in the writing life.) She gives three guidelines for sharing with the public that I’d like to put into my own words and talk about.

  1. Only share experiences and stories after you’ve worked through them yourself.

I can’t overemphasize this one enough, mostly because it can be so tempting to break. But I do my best to write about things AFTER I’ve already processed them and dealt with the emotions coming from them and learned from them. This can be tricky, as experiences take different amounts of time to process (and of course, sometimes you think you’ve done so only to find out there’s more to do).

For example, I waited over six months to write this post about losing my chosen family. I couldn’t write about it earlier; I couldn’t have done so from a grounded place, and therefore I couldn’t have written a truly effective essay. That is why when people express concern at any of my blog posts, I always feel slightly surprised. By the time I’m writing about something, there is rarely any reason to worry. The stories I tell are a means to an end. Which leads us to the next guideline….

  1. Have a reason to share that serves your readers.

The point of blog writing is not to bleed indiscriminately on the page or to merely shock by flooding your audience with personal details. Every story has a reason to be told. Every shared experience should lead to some kind of revelation.

In some ways, writing blog posts reminds me of teaching. In the process of writing, I reaffirm lessons I’ve already learned and sometimes gain a stronger understanding of my subject matter. But as with teaching, I can’t write about something when I haven’t at least grasped the basics.

And I’m always writing with an end goal in mind: What ideas am I trying to communicate? What do I want my audience to take away from this post?

  1. Avoid sharing in order to get your own needs met (i.e. to receive validation, praise, support, etc.).

We want to publish every blog post from a position of strength, which means publishing it to serve our audience, NOT to get some emotional need met for ourselves. Blog posts aren’t therapy. And as writers, the more we can let go of any expectations we might have as to the response a post will receive, the freer we are to craft a powerful piece.

Sometimes, of course, a post will generate an outpouring of support, and that’s perfectly all right. What we want to avoid is needing or expecting it to do so. The more we depend on the response, the more we’ll become tempted to pander to our audience to receive that response.

These three guidelines boil down to this simple principle: So often when we’re sharing in public as writers, it is not about us. This may seem counterintuitive since we are sharing personal stories and opinions, not to mention letting people know about our work. But blog posts at their best are about not just us as the writers, but the relationship between us and our readers. And sharing personal stories can be a powerful tool for conveying emotions and ideas to our readers, as well as creating a sense of connection.

We don’t always want to hold back from bleeding on the page, but it should be a mindful act. We want to bleed for the right reasons.

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So what’s going on with your blog, Amy?

If you’re guessing my blog is coming up more than usual in conversation and correspondence, you’d be right. And there’s a story behind it.

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I was sitting in the bar at ConFusion one night, the way you do when you’re a writer, and I was hanging out with two of my favorite bloggers. I have to admit I’m kind of snobby when it comes to bloggers, and these two people both knock it out of the park on a regular basis. And one of them said they had trouble emotionally connecting with my blog.

You might remember that at that time I was in the throes of impostor syndrome, so my poor brain was screaming at me, “You see, Amy, you see? You even FAIL AT BLOGGING.”

I listened to my brain for a minute or two, and then I said, “No, this is dumb, I don’t fail at blogging, and also, hello? This is a GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY.”

So I asked these two bloggers for their advice. They had both read my blog. What was one thing I could do that would improve it and create a stronger emotional connection with my readers?

I talked with one of the bloggers about how to structure a post for maximum impact, which was geektastic and fascinating. And then I turned to the other blogger. “You tend to be kind of vague, Amy,” he said. “You don’t use specific details.” And then he gave me some examples.

And I thought, yes, I know, I totally do that, and worse, I do it on purpose, I pull my punches. I don’t say what I really want to say. I try to write about the truth without showing you the truth.

I tend to pull my punches in real life too. I can be so freaking nice. You know what other words spring to mind along with nice? Milk soppy. Wishy washy. BORING.

In-fucking-visible.

So I resolved, there and then, to write a post about my impostor syndrome, which is something that most writers face at one time or another and yet many of us are afraid to write about for fear of damaging our careers. And I resolved to NOT pull my punches. I resolved to pay attention to structure and to use specific details. I resolved to tell you what it was like in that bathroom, down to not knowing where the hell to put my glasses while I cried.

I became a better writer the day I wrote that post.

And the day I published the post? Well.

I did not expect the reaction I got. Not at all. The outpouring of support was….well, it was amazing and overwhelming and inspiring and strange and deeply meaningful. It changed me. You changed me. Part of the reason I write this blog is to give something to you, and then you wonderful human beings turned the tables on me and gave me something so precious that I’m tearing up while I’m trying to write about it.

Thank you.

Thank you thank you thank you.

So that’s what’s going on with the blog. I’m experimenting with the good advice from two bloggers who I deeply respect. I’m not pulling my punches. I’m trying to give myself permission to write the way I was born to write. And it’s making people uncomfortable, and it’s making ME uncomfortable, and it’s making me a better writer, and I don’t know where I’m going with it.

And it’s not just the blog that’s changing either; I’m changing right along with it.

Exciting times, my friends. Exciting times.

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Person I just started dating: “You said you were easy to find with a Google search, so I took a look, and I’ve been reading your blog.”

Me: “That’s…great.” Oops.

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A thought I’ve had in the middle of a flirtatious conversation: “Oh, you’ve totally been reading my blog to try to figure out if maybe you want to date me/to find out if I’m available. That doesn’t make me even vaguely uncomfortable.”

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On an online dating website: “I’ve been following your blog for quite some time, and it would be great to have a conversation with you.”

Me: “Am I professional Amy or dating Amy right now? I am SO CONFUSED.”

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“This totally inappropriate thing I did was inspired by you and one of your blog posts.”

Me: “Um….” ???

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I love my blog, but I do not love having my blog and dating. I try to pretend it’s not weird because sometimes the best strategy is to bluff your way through something, but in reality, IT CAN BE PRETTY WEIRD.

It’s a question of a balance of information.

Whenever I write a blog post, I ask myself if I’m okay if the whole entire world reads what I’ve written. That is my base assumption, not because I think that will ever happen in a million years (it won’t), but because I want to do my best to remember how very public this blog is (even though it doesn’t always feel super public). So I’m sanity checking whether what I’ve written is something I’d be willing to say in public, even knowing whichever person I’d least like to might, in fact, read it.

So it’s not that there’s anything of which I’m particularly ashamed on the blog. I’m sure I’ve said some stupid things sometime in the past, because in four and a half years, that’s pretty much a certainty. I’ve probably also said things that I no longer agree with, because hey, in four and a half years I’ve learned new things and changed my mind and become aware of more nuance in certain issues. But overall, I don’t find the blog embarrassing.

What I don’t like about having the blog and dating is that at the beginning of getting to know someone, I think it throws off the balance. An enterprising person can read four and a half years of more and less well-thought-out essays from me. Surely most people won’t have the time for such an undertaking, but even so. Even if they don’t read all or even most of my essays, there are still an awful lot of them.

And meanwhile, what do I know about them? A few emails worth of carefully curated information? A single conversation’s worth of anecdotes? The flow of information is the opposite of balanced in this situation.

And then there’s the problem of assumed intimacy. People read this blog, and over time, perhaps they feel like they’ve gotten to know Blog Amy. And that’s as it should be. I’m happy when you get to know Blog Amy. But the people I’m dating? I don’t want them to get to know Blog Amy. I want them to get to know Personal Amy. Preferably by talking to me and spending time with me. I want to share my stories and opinions myself instead of past Blog Amy getting to have all the fun.

It’s not even that I don’t want the people I’m dating to read my new blog posts as I’m publishing them. It’s more that I then want to talk to them about those posts. I want to have a conversation about those subjects, because if they weren’t interesting to me I wouldn’t be writing about them. I want to talk about what was hard about writing them, or how people responded differently than I thought they’d respond, or how no one is interested in reading about such-and-such a subject.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to think of my backlist of four and a half years at all.

Blog Amy or Personal Amy?

Blog Amy or Personal Amy? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

I’ve actually thought about whether to continue the blog, given the potential dating weirdness, and you can see the answer to my deliberations in my continued blogging, and even my new willingness to blog about dating. My discomfort, when it comes, is the price of maintaining a public persona, however obscure, on the internet. And I’m willing to pay the price.

I’m willing to stand behind this blog, and say, yes, this is part of who I am. I am a writer. And dating a writer can probably also be weird. Take it or leave it. The blog leaves no room for anything less. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Person I’m dating: “So I saw your most recent blog post. On dating.

Me: “Oh….”

Person I’m dating: “I didn’t read it.”

Me: “There’s nothing about you in it.” Please don’t freak out. Please don’t freak out.

Person I’m dating: Doesn’t freak out. Starts a conversation based on the headline of the blog post instead.

Me: Sometimes mature communication wins.

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I just looked at all the posts I published here on the blog in 2014. I didn’t actually read them all because a.) I don’t have that kind of time today, and b.) I can usually remember the jist of them from the headline anyway. And I also took a look at a list of viewer stats. And using all of this information, I’ve compiled a list of noteworthy posts from last year.

Some of the posts I chose were popular with you, the readers. Some of them are ones I feel are important. I’m including several posts about grief that I wrote in the wake of Jay’s death in June because I hope they might be helpful for other people in the future.

You might also notice that I’ve finally updated my photo here on the blog. I hadn’t changed it since I started the blog back in 2010, so I figured it was time!

Without further ado, here are the 14 Greatest Hits of 2014:

GISHWHES, Harassment, and Ask vs. Guess Culture

Thoughts on Being Professional

On Entitlement and the Friend Zone

A Woman of a Certain Age

If Not Me, Who?

Why I Love Selfies

Where is Our Compassion?

Hope as Fuel

On Filters and Walking Away

Remember the Stars

 

Posts about Death and Grief:

There Will Never Be Enough Time

Here Lies My Grief

The Beauty Remains

Grief Does Not Fit Into Small Boxes

 

Thank you for joining me for another year at The Practical Free Spirit. I’m looking forward to finding out where we’ll go next!

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When I first started blogging seriously back in 2010, I read so many blogs. I wanted to see what other people were doing, and I wanted to get ideas of what to talk about, and I followed lots of blogs from which I read almost all the entries.

Then at some point I stopped. I can’t remember if it was early this year, or sometime last year, but I do remember I was falling behind and I decided to take a break to catch up with life. And then I found I wasn’t missing most of the blogs I read, so I never came back to my blog reading in the same way.

Nala also doesn't read many blog posts. But she does have incredibly fluffy paws!

Nala also doesn’t read many blog posts. But she does have incredibly fluffy paws!

I still read a few blogs regularly. I read my friend Rahul’s blog because he is always making interesting observations and giving great book recommendations. I read my friend Ferrett’s blog because he is always doing strange things and giving great insight on social interactions. I read Theodora Goss’s blog because I feel like she’s teaching me how to lead a modern fairy tale life. I read Captain Awkward because I went so long wishing for an advice column that actually gave healthy advice and now I have one and it is so interesting and sometimes applicable to my life.  I read Nick Mamatas’s blog because he’s such an iconoclast online and that is fascinating to me. (Also, iconoclast was my new vocabulary word last week! I would probably pronounce it wrong if I tried to say it out loud.) I read Stina Leicht’s Feminist Mondays because she compiles a great list of links and backs them up with relevant commentary.

Other than that, I check in on an economics blog a few times a week, and I click on posts that people share with me on Twitter and Facebook. I’m more likely to click on said links if they’re for essays by Kameron Hurley and Robert Jackson Bennett or if they’re on io9 or if they’re shared by Mary Anne Mohanraj or Juliette Wade, but I end up clicking on all kinds of stuff.

I stopped reading some blogs because they got repetitive. I stopped reading other blogs because it was obvious the blogger was pretty messed up, which was compelling at first but then eventually mostly made me feel tired. I stopped reading most writing advice because most of it I either already knew or had nothing to do with me. I cut back on book blog reading because I’m so far behind on my to-read list (although I am hoping to catch some of the Book Smuggler’s Smugglivus this month because I do love year-end lists and reflections, what Rahul calls wrap-up season).

I still hear writers saying that they should really start their own blogs, but now I tend to respond, “Well, if you think you’ll like it.” Because it’s becoming more and more clear to me that blogs are driven by having a unique voice, just as much good fiction is. But I don’t think having a unique voice for one of those things necessarily means you’ll have it for the other. I mean, there might be some correlation, I don’t know. What I do know is that the short essay, suitable for most blogs, is its own form and as such, requires study and practice. So if you aren’t compelled to write it, I don’t know that there’s a strong argument for doing so anyway.

As we all know, I am compelled to write in this form, and all of this does beg the question of my own blogging. “What if I’m getting boring?” I wailed to my friend this weekend. He obligingly told me I wasn’t getting boring, thus proving his awesome quality of friend supportiveness, but it’s a question that is always in the back of my mind. That being said, none of the blogs I’ve stopped reading seem to be in any jeopardy, so I suppose the answer is that readers cycle in and they cycle out, and that’s as it should be.

I don’t miss the blogs I no longer read, but I do on the whole still enjoy blogs with a strong sense of voice. Perhaps I’ll stumble across some different ones that will enchant me all over again.

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