Platform Anxiety

Or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Publish On Medium.”

It began last spring with a bit of friendly advice from a buddy: “You should stop writing your blog.” Okay, maybe not the friendliest way to start, but he got my attention and meant well enough: “Not because what you write isn’t good, but because nobody will read it. Blogs are islands. They offer no exposure to unknown writers. You should try Medium.” With this post, I am finally taking his advice to heart, but that simple suggestion ended up costing me seven months of blogging.

It triggered a technology-based creative block. This problem probably has a bunch of names already, but I am dubbing it “platform anxiety.” I’m also using a very generous definition of “platform” here; something encompassing both tools for production (pen and paper, word processors, typewriters), and distribution (social media channels, digital and traditional publishing). Platform anxiety is what happens when you are confronted with change after your tools have turned your creative groove into a rut. What results is a loop of justifications, procrastination, and creative stagnation, or paralysis.

I suspect platform anxiety is particularly common among writers. Our skill set is fairly universal: words + page = writing. A common adage your hear is that there are no hard and fast rules in our trade. Now in theory, that means maximum versatility. We should be able to leverage any platform we want. In practice, we look to those platforms to provide structure in a potentially dizzying process. Then we cling to them like drowning men to driftwood.

Being set in your ways is fine if you have already ‘made it.’ Hell, authors who refuse to compose on anything other than pen and paper or typewriters are often romanticized as heroes or geniuses. Sometimes that’s true. Usually they’re people who have transcended their anxieties through a combination of luck and talent. Younger writers do not have the luxury of hyper focusing on a platform. Locking yourself into a specific mode of creativity denies you opportunities in a highly competitive, over-saturated field.

To give a little background, I am a professional narrative designer, an aspiring author, and an amateur entertainment critic. During the day, I write scripts, instructions, puzzle clues, slogans, form copy and everything in between. On my off hours, I work on novels. When I’m not doing those other things, I blog about nerd catnip: games, superhero movies, sci-fi television, anime, fantasy novels. There are thousands of people like me. Here’s the starter pack.

I began blogging in a time when I believed I could be ‘discovered,’ find a following, and get picked up by Kotaku or somebody to carve out a career in ‘new journalism’ as an eventual segue into writing for the things I reviewed. It was a flawed dream for too many reasons to count; the millennial nerd equivalent of a small town actor heading to Hollywood with nothing but a lot of heart and big dreams. To begin with, personal blogs were already dinosaurs.

By the time I figured that out, I had rationalized my habit as recreational writing. The prose equivalent of hitting the gym. And it does pay dividends! It’s a good way to get comfortable with your voice and to learn lessons from the things you consume (which, presumably reflect the kind of things you want to create). It also allows you to start discussions with whatever limited readership you have (most likely friends and family).

But the truth is, for an aspiring author, having people actually read what you write in public is a Big Deal. It is still the goal, or it should be, unless you are actually writing a journal. Anything else you tell yourself is ultimately an excuse to spare your ego. It is an explanation for why you have not been magically discovered.

When my friend recommended Medium, I acknowledged my predicament, but an excuse came to me automatically. “Sounds good,” I replied. “I’ll do some research and put my next piece on Medium.”

Bull. Shit.

Unless it explicitly benefits your writing, you aren’t actually researching. You are creating a project that doesn’t exist so you can justify putting off the real thing. Yes, you may have some questions, but here’s how you ‘research’ them: spend 10 minutes on Medium, write your piece, and hit the fucking publish button.

Of all the excuses, why research? Because it can be easily rationalized. It couches reluctance in responsibility. I was being cautious. I was worried that a misstep would stain my (unknown) persona, or tarnish my (nonexistent) brand. If you find yourself following similar lines of thought, it’s time for another ego check: Aside from a few friends and family members, nobody cares. Worst case scenario, people keep on not caring. Best case scenario, you get some clicks. People read your name for the first time; maybe somebody follows you, or maybe they remember you the next time your piece pops up in their inbox/feed/whatever. The risk/reward ratio on this is a no-brainer.

My personal expectations of my Medium debut steadily increased to compensate for my procrastination. I figured if it was something special, something that would outclass my earlier writing, the long wait would be justified. Again, that might be true if I had readers waiting for my next piece with bated breath. But it was really another justification for bad behavior. Towering expectations will estrange you from what you know how to do. I started an ambitious piece on Pokemon Go, a response to my former mentor’s assessment of the game, but before I could finish the article, the craze fizzled out and faded from relevance altogether. Something that used to come easily became a frightening chore.

I can count the number of blog posts that have stuck with me on a single hand, and one of them is Evan Braun’s post, titled Don’t Hoard Your Silver Bullet. Distilled, the take away is “Don’t cling to your ideas because you are afraid of ‘wasting them’ or else they will never see the light of day.” It’s surprisingly hard advice to follow, because it’s natural to be precious with your ideas. But I try to take it to heart, and propose an addendum as well: Don’t save your bullets, and try different guns.

This strains the metaphor a bit, but bear with me. Medium is just one option for distributing your content. Use it until you have spent all your rounds, then reload and try something else. Keep shooting until something hits. Because the alternative sucks! Sticking to your comfort zone won’t help you grow as a writer. The only thing worse than sticking to a losing formula is admitting change is necessary, and doing nothing about it.

I kept doing my job, and making steady progress on my novel, but my process has suffered without blogging. I needed that third pole of creativity; something personal and public, lighthearted and reflective. The longer I waited, the harder the return became. As for how I finally got over the anxiety… well, you’re reading it.

I’m not trying to argue that Medium is a panacea. I don’t expect it to find me an audience over night (but I bid new readers a warm, grateful welcome). You could substitute Medium with whatever new tool or technique you have been too neurotic, timid, or hidebound to try, and the point stands. When it comes to creativity, trying something new is almost always worth the shot. Don’t ‘research,’ don’t be ‘responsible,’ and don’t try to write the world’s best debut. Especially if you haven’t found your audience yet. When nobody is watching, you can try anything.