This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.
You ever have that morning at the keyboard? “Why am I doing this? Is anybody out there?”
You ever not have that morning?
Sure, this isn’t a problem for the popular kids with all the eyeballs. They just write and write la la la basking in the instant feedback and unanimous adoration from everybody all the time forever.
For the rest of us, dread is our natural state.
I call this condition of existential bleakness Speaking Into the Void. And it can be speaking—if you’re a podcaster—but what the phrase really refers to is putting your creative stuff out there without any sense that people are actually reading, listening, or watching.
The Void is our enemy. It drains us. It’s the number-one reason most people so quickly abandon their blogs, podcasts, books, and other creative efforts.
The Void has nothing to do with the size of your audience, either. It’s simply that gnawing feeling that no one is paying attention, even if the metrics tell you otherwise.
The transition to the Void can be a real frog-boiler. The feeling creeps up on you over days, months, or even years of work and then BAM. “Who the hell even knows I’m alive?” Welcome to the darkness, my friend.
The worst part is, this profound sense of audiencelessness leeches the energy and integrity from your work. Emily Dickinson aside, most people desperately need to know that someone is paying attention in order to create authentic, meaningful work. Once you’ve become internally convinced that you’re Speaking Into the Void, your Muse starts browsing Airbnb listings. This is the writer’s version of the yips.
I’ve entered the Void many times. For instance, you may recall a moment in the early days of Twitter when people actually read each other’s tweets. Tweeting was fun. I wrote better tweets because I knew who I was writing them for and what kind of response I could expect.
One day, it dawned on me that none of my followers were reading my tweets. And that this had been the case for a while. The shift had happened slowly; the back-and-forth @s and DMs took time to dwindle, so it didn’t register consciously. (Frog-boiler, remember?) Suddenly, it felt like I was standing in a field with thousands of people, all shouting at the top of their lungs with earplugs in. The Void. My tweets started to suck, and then I quit Twitter altogether.
(I eventually came back, but people are still shouting in that field. “5 ways to figure out the ROI of your social media strategy #SMcon2016 #metrics #imhangingonbyathread”)
Growing up, you can always count on an eager audience: teachers and family. If you’re a creative type with even a little talent, you quickly find an audience among your peers in high school and college. In my case I wrote and produced plays. You might have written for the school newspaper or the yearbook. Your identity starts to get tied up in your work. Now you’re really in for it.
If you’re a bit younger, you might have shared your early stuff with your peers on social media. If you made a hilarious video and put it up on YouTube, you could send the link to your peers and count on a nice reception. They’d get your inside jokes. They’d forgive your amateur mistakes.
The point is, if you had any knack at all, you got some positive feedback, and you got hooked on that feedback. You had the sense that, even if this particular piece of work wasn’t your best, you always had a receptive audience willing to check out your next one.
I call this warming sensation of communal attention Speaking at the Hearth. This is where we do our best work. When we’re “out of the zone,” this is usually the zone we’re out of, whether we realize it or not.
In college, I thrived. I wrote and produced eight full-length plays in addition to doing a bunch of other theatrical work. When I moved back to NYC after college to become a professional playwright, I immediately entered the Void. Now I was writing for “New York theater” or “The World” something. My writing almost immediately lost its fire and truth and humor.
My frog wasn’t boiled; someone took him down a dark alley and beat him to death with a baseball bat.
Eventually, the only way I could get my creative juices flowing again was by letting “New York Theater” go. I started making short videos exclusively for my friends, all absurd non sequiturs and inside jokes. No one outside my circle would have made heads or tails of them. I’d bring them to parties and get-togethers and pop them in the old VCR (this was a while back). And I’d get some laughs, which felt like a drink of water in the Sahara. Those videos became the sum total of my creative vision at the time.
Thirty hours of writing, shooting, and editing to share a five-minute video with a dozen people. But it worked. I desperately needed to know that real people were going to look at what I was creating in order to create anything worthwhile. In order to be a creator in the first place.
If you look at the history of the arts, you’ll see that talent always emerges in certain places and times because there was a hungry audience. The audience came first, then all the geniuses. Plays, serial fiction, film, television, whatever. We like to think that great artists simply appear. Bill Shakespeare happened to be born in 16th-century England so that’s where all those plays got written. But the truth is, it’s all about the soil. Art withers in the Void.
In ye olden days, as I learned in Bill Bryson’s excellent At Home: A Short History of Private Life, pretty much everyone lived in one big building with a hearth at one end. They hadn’t invented the chimney yet, so you couldn’t really build a second floor for bedrooms without asphyxiating everybody. So people ate together and slept on their benches.
Sure, it was primitive and it probably smelled like an elementary school gymnasium on a rainy day, but on some level, don’t you envy them? Everyone in the community together in the hall. If you wanted to share something, you stood up in front of the fire and started talking loudly. You didn’t always get a round of applause, but there were people and they were ready and eager to hear something new.
This is the cozy, nurturing environment in which creation has thrived since the dawn of time. Read your Bible, people. Pretty much the first thing God does is make himself an audience. Why waste all those nebulae and double rainbows on an empty universe?
We’re just not built for the Void. That’s one of the reasons people still sign with traditional publishers, even when it isn’t necessarily the right choice for their book. They fear the Void. They know that with the traditional process they have an agent and then an editor and publisher and publicist and so on. Someone is listening. Someone cares whether the book gets written or not. It seems trivial—what difference do a handful of interested people make when you’re aiming for thousands or more?—but deep down in our guts it can be pivotal to our creative process.
So what do you do if you’re well and truly in the Void? Whatever you do, don’t just write. Don’t just record a Skype call with somebody and call it a podcast. Speaking Into the Void doesn’t just sap your strength, it’s damaging. Your Muse will desert you.
If your kid had a lemonade stand, would you just send her out there with a pitcher and a folding table? No, you’d get out there yourself and drum up some customers, even if it meant knocking on a neighbor’s door and palming them a dollar. Your inner writer deserves better than an empty sidewalk.
When I started my newsletter, I wrote personal emails to my professional contacts asking if they’d be interested in reading what I’d be writing on a weekly basis. From that very first newsletter, I knew I had an audience. Small, sure, but they were smart, discerning publishing pros—knowing they were there in front of the hearth made a profound difference as I zeroed in on my voice.
Choose an audience, even if it’s only your spouse, or a professional colleague. I’m not talking “beta readers.” I’m talking reader readers. If the people you ask aren’t that interested, don’t hold it against them. Just find someone else who is. You need one or more people who actually light up at the thought of hearing what you have to say. Then, when you sit down to work, think of what you make as a letter from you to them.
Pretty much everything I do creatively is an attempt to get back to the warm feeling of staging those college plays and shooting those absurd videos.
Our Muse goes where it’s warm.