Maria Popova wasn’t stimulated creatively or intellectually in college. This frustration fueled the fire to create Brain Pickings—one of the most popular blogs (and one of my all-time favorites) about culture, psychology, books, art, design, science, and more. As a relentless reader and meticulous marginalia-taker, she describes her art as a “record of my own learning,” unearthing precious gems in the fields that she explores through old and new books.
Marcus Aurelius wrote his immortal book, Meditations, during his darkest hours—not for the sake of publication, but for safeguarding his mind from irrational thoughts, ones that did not abide with nature. The loss of his wife and colleagues, the revolt of Cassius, and the seemingly endless nature of the Marcomannic War, writing for himself served as a reminder of Roman Stoic principles and teachings, providing strength and persistence in what was a century of despair.
Austin Kleon wrote Steal Like An Artist with the intent to speak to a younger version of himself. He says:
“The manifesto is this: Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.”
There seems to be power in writing for yourself, which in turn, helps others.
If you’re adept at what you do, I think it’s normal to question your strategy from time to time—how can I get to the next level? When I read that Maria Popova wrote for herself, I was inspired. Can writing for yourself really be a fruitful strategy?
How and why?
Writing = Thinking
Consider this magnificent quote from David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer prize winning author:
“ Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it is so hard.”
A few months ago I had a moment of self-doubt. I read my previous posts and pondered, “Is this what I was really thinking? And I hit publish?”
Writing/blogging serves a multitude of purposes. As Seth Godin recently said in a Q&A on the writing process:
“The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate.”
For a long time I always wrote for someone else (or at least that’s what I believed). After much thought and feedback, this strategy just wasn’t working for me. I was too critical and harsh—not helpful, educational, and inspiring. That’s what I wanted my writing to reflect.
So I adapted to strategies that I mentioned above—writing for yourself.
Writing became a newfound tool for me to learn, to explore, to become self-aware. It was a way for me to project my thoughts onto a blank canvas, take a step back, observe my thinking patterns and the way I expressed them. Naturally, I would observe these thoughts and be frustrated with how they came out. My thinking wasn’t sharp; hence why my writing wasn’t any better.
(Pro tip: Don’t publish everything you write, but write something everyday. Have 10x more drafts than published posts.)
When I started to write for myself—for the sake of learning and connecting the dots—my content came out more humble and vulnerable. What I was training myself to do—and inadvertently the reader as well—was to see a problem/subject with a new lens. It was about refining perspective. I didn’t sound like a know-it-all and I didn’t sound like I was criticizing others for making decisions that I wouldn’t make. I was still expressing my opinion, sure, but ultimately I was helping myself (and the reader) expand the mind about, say, technology and mindfulness or marketing and psychology. My content was no longer a rant in disguise.
My strategy, in short, became something like this: Here’s a problem that I see happening, here’s my thoughts on how it can be fixed, and here’s similar or opposing thoughts from much smarter people (passages from books, articles, research, video). Of course, this requires intense reading and note taking, but it’s good that it does because those skills are valuable to a writer.
Not only have I gained the privilege of more readers, but I’m learning more than ever simply because I’m writing to learn.
This isn’t the only strategy
Everything that Stephen King wrote, his audience was one person: his wife.
Maybe your reader is yourself. Maybe it’s your boss or coworker or parents.
Some people will ask you, Who is your reader? What do they look like? What are their aspirations, fears, etc.?
I think that’s a tiring exercise. It’s easier for me to write for myself, because what draws people to my writing is what I value: education. Not education in a sense of “go to school”. I mean actual learning: the acquisition and manipulation of information not only gained through maturation but through a process of dissecting and understanding the unknown and connecting the dots.
To answer Simon Sinek’s question—why do you do what you do?— it feels a lot better knowing that my reason is to educate myself, not because of some delusional goal of having a blog that generates revenue... No, that’s who I’m writing for—people like me. People who have a unquenchable desire to learn.
Why do you write?
You can find more of my writing over at Motivated Mastery.