This week is the anniversary of Perfect Whole’s first post. The post itself barely warrants notice, much less celebration. It explained why I was blogging (it was Neil Fein’s fault), my utterly uninteresting aversion to the word “blog,” and my intention to publish essays, rather than day-to-day observations. I also promised not to write about politics, though in doing so, I nailed Newt Gingrich’s electoral trajectory and wisely retired from punditry on the spot.
A few weeks later, Neil advised me to set a schedule and stick to it, and I have not missed a deadline since, though in a fit of inspired stupidity, I did try posting one essay per day for five days in a row, after which I gave myself a couple of weeks off and vowed never to attempt anything so exhausting again. The About page states, “Perfect Whole is updated with a new essay on the first and fifteenth of every month, whether it needs it or not.” And, by God, it is.
Here are five things I’ve learned from the first year of Perfect Whole.
1. Deadlines beat inspiration.
If I had not made the commitment to write two essays per month, then this project would already have gone the way of my first blog (it’s out there, but you’ll never find it), on which I posted three times before running out of ideas. Waiting until I have an idea begging to be transformed into an essay, plus energy, hours left in the day, and nothing else pressing to do just won’t work. Those moments do not exist in my life, so the abstraction of a self-imposed deadline creates the sense of urgency I need–it makes writing the pressing thing that must be attended to immediately. I’m not delusional enough to believe that anyone would notice if I missed a deadline, or all of them, but it serves my purposes to behave as if my deadline is as urgent as Maureen Dowd’s.
Instead of waiting for inspiration to come to me, I hunt and trap it. I keep a file of ideas for essays in Google Docs into which I toss sentences, phrases, links and embryonic electronic scrawls whenever something occurs to me. A few days before each deadline, I scroll through it to see what seems ripe. Some ideas come almost fully formed, like the draft of “The Happy Organized Home Sale, or How The Container Store Endangers Your Immortal Soul,” which I scribbled in a notebook while leaning against a display in said Container Store, but the muses are fickle and don’t work on deadline, so I can’t afford to be romantic.
Deadlines mean that not everything on Perfect Whole is of equal quality, and while I wish that everything you read here could be as perfect as the name seems to promise, I learn more from consistently trying to post two respectable essays per month than I would from waiting for the Idea Fairy to tap me with her magic wand, and then only posting when each was polished to perfection. The deadline is teaching me not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Parenting, marriage, and middle age are also attempting to drive the same lesson home, but I’m a slow learner.
2. A lot of people on the Internet want to find out how to make a paper knife.
Fun fact: more people find Perfect Whole by Googling “how to make a paper knife” than through any other search, and they’re searching for it every day. They’re probably disappointed to find “You Can Spread it with a Paper Knife!”, an essay that is a little bit about sexism, a bit more about baking, a lot about choosing what is real and difficult over what is fake and easy, and not at all about how to make a paper knife. A lot of people end up here attempting to learn when the Happy Organized Home Sale begins or ends, and others, it grieves me to report, because they hope to discover techniques for stealing library books.
Although I hope that a few of the hundreds who arrive here by accident can experience a moment of serendipity before returning to their quest for “occupy wall street freaks” or “insane notebook,” the lesson for me is clear: Don’t get too excited about page views. A click is not necessarily a reader.
3. People keep their comments to themselves.
This is less of a lesson than a pet peeve, because, of course, I want vibrant conversations to bloom, and I want them to happen here, where I can take part in them. Sometimes, the site data show that dozens of people have shared an essay on Facebook, but only three or four have left comments here. I can’t be a part of the resulting discussions, unless they’re happening on friends’ Facebook pages or mine. Still, people are reading, sharing, tweeting, and tumbling, so I just have to get used to the conversation carrying on without me. It can feel a little lonely, but the lesson is not to take it personally.
4. The Internet has its own weather.
Some weeks, the site gets hundreds of visitors. Other weeks, barely a dozen a day. Sometimes, a post I’m sure the world will love passes unnoticed, while another that was the best I could do before deadline draws readers from countries I can’t find on a map. A few hundred people follow me on Twitter, yet weeks go by when not one tweep clicks over here. I don’t pretend to understand any of it. One Saturday, I woke up to find that thousands of librarians from all over the world were following a link to “I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books,” an essay I’d written months before. Nothing I did caused that to happen; it was just the grace of the web.
When I began experimenting with ways to entice readers, I thought that it was a skill I’d practice until I mastered it. Now, I’m pretty sure sacrificing a goat to the gods of the Internet would be just as effective. I write essays, I put the word out to subscribers, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers, cross-posting to Daily Kos sometimes, placing an occasional link in the comment threads of relevant articles on newspaper websites or blogs, but the subsequent drought or monsoon seems unrelated to anything I do. Wei wu wei isn’t just a tenet of Taoism; it’s my new marketing strategy.
5. I am not a niche
While I write about education, parenting, and love, I’m not an edublogger, a mommy blogger, or a relationship blogger, and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to work to craft a message to a market–I want to write about whatever is obsessing me when I’m supposed to be thinking about grownup things. I’m not trying to sell ads, become an Internet celebrity, or win award badges to clutter up my homepage. I’m trying to learn to be a better writer and build a platform upon which I can eventually convince someone to publish my books. I’m trying to examine the contents of my mind and see if a gift that someone else can use is waiting to be born from the chaos.
Once in a while, someone contacts me to say, “Thanks for writing that. I really needed to hear that today,” or “I’ve always felt that, but never known how to put it in words.” That moment of connection is the only niche I ever want to occupy.
Thanks for reading.