That is all you have — after you strip away your useless PHDs, your cool rocket-ship startup ideas, your million-plus Twitter followers, all you have left are your words.
Practical advice: “…if your words are good, people will read them.” – Justin Jackson, Internet Guy.
Here are some of my writing credentials: I barely graduated with an English degree in college, I write a highly self-interested blog that maybe 50 people read a day, and maybe one person gleans something of value from. (Oh, and nobody has ever once given me an award for anything noteworthy.)
But I did write a few pieces for a local newspaper a few summers ago that a few people paid close attention to because they made note of the fact that I had misspelled Crohn’s disease like 15-20 times in a single piece about a guy with Crohn’s disease who went on to become a triathlon winner. I was devastated. That would’ve been a good article. I called him and apologized in near-tears after my editor informed me of the blunder.
In sum: I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m a total fraud.
Still, I’d like to tell you how to write your story in a way that will make people lean in, because it’s an important story. You might want to give a TED talk one day, and you’ll want to tell a story that people care about. Or you’ll want to write about it, or have some talk about you in an obituary, or in an interview.
So you need to learn how to tell it well.
This isn’t scientific. Just three simple rules:
1. Scare Yourself
If you’re writing something that you want people to give a shit about, it should scare you. It should reveal things that you’d never feel comfortable revealing to anyone: tell people about that one time that your uncle touched you in your vagina; or that time you fucked 30 girls in one semester at college and were worried that your dick might fall off or that one of them might be pregnant, or all of them; or that time you drank an entire bottle of Nyquil because you thought it might kill you, but instead it made you trip out for 12-hours and then you told all of your friends that the trip was awesome to cover up for the fact that that was the darkest moment in your life and that you really wanted to die.
Writing can reveal dark, gritty details about yourself that you would have never even thought about. There’s a darkness in everything. That’s the beginning of the story. And then you get over that hump a little banged-up, and on the other side there’s plenty of light and it’s actually pretty light there.
People don’t have the balls to write about that stuff, so show them you do.
2. If Telling Someone About it Makes You Uncomfortable, It Stays In
My mom reads my blog sometimes (hi mom!) and I know that because she tells me that it totally freaks her out, and she wants me to write about nicer, less personal things like unicorns and being kind to people and helping the environment and saving money on your car-insurance. And so does my grandma. And my uncle. And my cousins. And my sister. They probably think I’m totally fucked up, too.
Keeping things to yourself is selfish. When I was a little kid I would hide a box of Snickers bars in the top-shelf in my room, and only hand them out to people who were objectively cool. If you were super cool, you might get two.
You can keep some things to yourself, sure, but if you’re afraid to tell people stories about things that make you uncomfortable, you’re being a selfish prick because you’re keeping the best stuff to yourself. People want to read that stuff — it satiates their inner TMZ.
Here are some ideas: sex, suicide, loss, anxiety, fear, death, rape, famine, incest. Talking about most of those things makes people uncomfortable if it relates to you in some way. Especially if you’re sharing those things with someone that you barely know. Especially if you’re telling those stories to your family-members.
One time I wrote this brutally honest story about some of the fucked up things I’ve done (and it could’ve been more honest) and how sometimes those things made me want to die. I was really hesitant to write it, but I did. People read it. Some people liked it. I’m glad I put it out there.
If it makes you feel uncomfortable, it goes in. No questions. Edit it, sure — make sure your words and ideas are totally clear and concise, but put that shit in there.
Make them cringe.
3. Use YOUR Fucking Words
Write how you talk, they say. It’s fine advice, but what if you’re a trucker, or an inbred cave-dweller and you speak only in guttural grunts and bwahhhhhs and rave about the pre-Union South and how things were so much better back in the day? The advice translates only so-so.
This is more practical: Use YOUR fucking words. If you would never use punctilious in a sentence, and have to Google it to figure out what it means (like I just did), don’t use it. In fact, avoid discussing things that would even lead you down that dark, murderous path.
Keep the notion of experience loose: “If you wrote from experience…” said famous writer and poet Nikki Giovanni, “…you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” Write about things you read, see on the TV or have heard from your friends, but relate it to your story. Your words. Your thoughts. Your attitudes. Empathy.
And don’t worry about style. Take it from someone who’s a much more accomplished writer than me:
Style is bullshit. Seth Godin writes with an eery omniscience — like a priest in a confessional, he tells you exactly how to repent for your disgusting sins. Yuck. Get away from me, you fucking weird priest.
But it works for him. Millions of people read his blog every month. He’s found his style. His voice.
This is your story, find a voice and stick with it.
Use your fucking words.
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