The Writing Life

Sharon November 16th, 2009

I get requests for advice about writing fairly often in email.  Some of them are people who have written something already, and want to know how to get more attention for it – how to get a manuscript published, or how to get more readership for their blogs.  Others have broader questions about how to become a writer.  I’m never sure how to answer these emails, because I’m  not sure my experience is either typical or easy to mimic.  I didn’t set out to become a writer, it just sort of happened.  But because people ask,  I thought I’d try and describe my experience, and how I came to write the books, so that people can judge for themselves.

In terms of getting published, I tend to analogize it like this:  there was a brief period of decade or so in the 1920s and 30s, when a few young movie stars were actually “discovered” sipping sodas in a soda shop or acting in a community theater.  That is, there was a brief moment in time when it was possible to be going about your life in more or less ordinary way, and have someone pull out a pen and say “do you want to be a movie star and become rich and famous” (not really, but sort of).  This was because the movies were going really mainstream and the industry was changing rapidly and they needed to fill a lot of berths.  But long after that stopped really happening, people wanted to know how they too could get discovered – but what mattered most was the moment, not what you do.

We exist right now in a period that is rather like that in publishing – the industry is in transition, budgets are tight, and they are looking for people who are pretty certain to sell some books.  They don’t want to take risks.  At the same time, the invention of blogs and the expansion of the internet has thrust completely open new media and new ways of connecting.  The two overlapping things mean that there’s a brief period, going back a few years and probably lasting a few more, where it is possible to go out and start a blog, and pick up a following, more or less just by doing your thing, and then have someone say “wanna write a book?”

And that’s honestly what happened to me.  I started blogging in 2005 because I wanted to write about this stuff, and a few people had asked me had I saved something I’d written in comments or on a forum, and could they find it again.  So I thought if I wrote everything on a blog, it would be there.

My expectation was that I’d have four readers, and that maybe my Mom would look at it, since she’s my Mom.  I had no assumptions about readership, and honestly, was doing it for myself, because writing things out helps me figure them out – sometimes I don’t know exactly what I think until I’ve done the exercise of organizing and sketching the idea out, and have figured out where my reasoning has been leading me.  It was useful to me.  I also figured that several people had said they were glad there was at least one woman out there writing about this stuff (to be fair, there were a few already ahead of me), and I figured there had to be three or four other people who would think that was a good thing.

When people ask me what I did to promote my blog, and what services I’ve used, I look at them kind of blankly.  I don’t use digg, or any of that sort of thing –  I don’t know how to use them or even put them on my site.  I have never paid anyone to promote my blog, or done anything at all to promote it, other than occasionally mentioning it on other sites that I participated in.   I have no idea what my technorati rating is, I have never tracked my readership and I have no idea what it is, except by comments, and I’ve honestly not done much to increase it, other than write stuff, and give people permission to pass anything they wanted along. 

This is why I’m not sure my experience is replicable – I didn’t *do* anything to end up where I have, except write, and write a lot. Aaron and I had started to write _A Nation of Farmers_ before I found a publisher, and were just at the point that we were about to shop around our couple of chapters and book proposal, when I got an email from New Society, asking if I would consider turning one of my more widely read essays “Peak Oil is a Women’s Issue” into a book.  I just about fainted when I got the email – I expected to do what all writers are supposed to do, which is paper your walls with rejection slips.  I expected it to be a long arduous process. In fact, I got incredibly lucky, and got an incredibly kind editor who really liked my stuff.  When I mentioned I was already writing another book, Ingrid, my editor was interested in that one too, and we somehow signed two book contracts, even though I’d never even written one. 

And before _Depletion and Abundance_ even came out, I tentatively mentioned to Ingrid that I’d been writing a ton about food storage and preservation for my classes, and would New Society be interested?  Again, a weird miracle happened, and New Society was willing to take a risk on an author with no books, and no record of successful publishing of anything (I’d given my writing away free, but never charged even when places reprinted), and bought a third book.  This is the sort of thing, like being discovered at a soda fountain, that happens once in a blue moon. 

The problem is that once it happens, people think they can replicate it – and some of them probably can.  But there are more blogs now than there were in 2005, on peak oil, on climate change, on everything.  So it is harder and less likely for people.  No merit accrues to me for being in the right place in the right time, and this leaves me completely incapable of offering good advice about doing this the normal way, with hard work and rejection and perseverence.  My only advice is that I wouldn’t recommend that people hope to be in the right place at the right time – that they do it the hard way, because mostly, that’s how it happens.  Sitting around the soda fountain, hoping an agent will come along, doesn’t work so well of the time.

My other advice on that front is this – write a lot, and expect to do it for free for a while.  I probably wrote 10,000 pages of blogged material over four years before I got asked to blog for money, and at least 5,000 pages before I got asked to write a book.  There are simply so many people who want to write that building space for yourself requires the luxury (and it is a luxury and damned difficult) of making time to work for free for a while.    The reason people started to remember my name was that I wrote a lot, and said yes to everyone who asked if they could repost or forward or publish in their magazine or newsletter. 

 I also tried as much as I could to say things other people weren’t saying – which is hard, but worth the effort. It seems obvious, but most people want to write about mostly things other people already write about.  You can do that – there are a lot of sports bloggers, say.  But if you stand out in some way – quality, sense of humor, a different perspective, you are a lot more likely to get noticed.

 Try and find a niche that isn’t taken, or at least too crowded when you start your blog or other site – I was noticeable because I was female, and fairly young by the standard of a middle aged community, and was writing about family and kids along with all the other stuff.  Now there are a lot of ecologically aware mothers writing, and it would be harder to stand out.  But now I find that people are asking me to speak a lot because I talk about religious life in relationship to climate change and peak oil – one woman I met said, “Oh, I read something you wrote, you are that Jewish Climate Mother Person.” Pleased to meet you.

My own theory (and I’ve done absolutely no surveying of my readers to find out if this is true) is that one of the reasons I’ve done fairly well is that while I found a niche or two, and this was important, I also covered material fairly widely – while also fitting some unfilled niches.  Now I know people who love to delve deeply into a single aspect of life, and that can be fascinating too, but I get bored.  I figure eventually an all-chicken blog will wear out people’s interest in chickens – not that you can’t go a long way on chickens, but I think it can be helpful to ask “what else do people who like chickens like to read and talk about?”  It can be worth covering the spectrum, if you can pull it off, while also differentiating yourself – complicated, I know, but true.

 Honestly, for covering a range of things, you need ego – you need to be able to say to yourself “just because I’m not an expert, doesn’t mean I can’t learn enough to tell other people something they didn’t know.”  In this, I recognize that I’m extremely arrogant – so I’m willing to write about whether we’re going to go into space, and the EROEI of nuclear power, at the same time that I write about knitting mittens, milking goats and gardening.  In a world of specialists, sometimes being a generalist is more unusal – but it does require you to both push your intellectual limits and also to give yourself permission to stay three piano lessons ahead of the people you are writing for ;-) .  As we all know, sometimes I don’t even succeed at that ;-)

But all of this will be bad advice if you don’t write well. Now not everyone’s standard of writing is the same – there are people who hate me because I’m wordy or whatever.  There are people who love writers I find totally unbearable.  But you have to write in a way that at least some people find endearing.  And this is a harder proposition.  When people ask me how to become a better writer, that’s an easier question for me to answer.

The mechanisms for improving your writing are to do a lot of work.  First of all, you have to read a lot – and a lot of good writing. It helps if you start when you are very small, and it also helps if you read a lot of different genres and styles and periods of writing – don’t get fixated on modern stuff, or say “I don’t like poetry or science writing.”  The best way to become a writer is to be the kind of person who reads the cereal box if that’s the only thing around, but who mostly makes sure that they have a book *all the time* that is not a cereal box. 

I also recommend that you *not* only read in your field – there’s a tendency when you specialize to specialize your reading too – after all, there’s so much to learn, so much to gain. But some of the best things you’ll ever learn come in places you’d never expect them – that explanation in a novel that suddenly makes things fall into place, that random quotation in a different context that is perfect to your thought, that new idea that makes  you see everything differently.  So don’t just read one kind of thing – and don’t disdain fields that seem alien to you – you might not have imagined yourself ever reading military history or icelandic poetry, but there’s a lot to learn there, maybe more than you think.  The best writers I know read widely, quote widely and are influenced by a lot more things than most of us know.

The other requirement is that you write a lot – but not in your room by yourself – or at least, you can’t learn to write all by yourself all the time.  You need to get your ass kicked a lot by people who will tell you what is wrong with your thinking and articulation.  And again, my experience here is pretty unusual.   I went to graduate school in English literature for some years, and would turn in lengthy papers that had to be produced fairly quickly (often much more quickly than the *had* to be done, since I was a terrible procrastinator), and get back a lot of commentary.  Often the paper then had to be rewritten.  Do this 30 or 40 times over the years, with 30 or 40 10-50 page papers and you get better – or just sick of doing things over.  I also had to learn to *teach* writing – and while they say that those who can’t do, teach, well, it is easier to teach writing if you sort of know how ;-)

For those who don’t have this, and who are not already natural writers you need a system in which you write a lot and get a lot of peer review (and criticism from people who are not your peers, but know a lot more than you do).  My second schooling in this was on the internet – I found the really good internet groups on peak oil, climate change and simple living, and I hung out there – on Running on Empty 2 and 3, Energy Bulletin, Real Climate,  at Homesteading Today, and at a host of other sites, and I read people’s ideas, and thought about them, and asked questions, or argued.

And the good thing about the internet is that people will tell you what they think.  You need a much thicker skin here than in academia - I think people who start complaining that other people aren’t nice to them won’t be able to get that kind of an education.  But I think it is more useful than all the warm fuzzy writer’s workshops in the world, where people will praise your good intentions, and deliver limited constructive criticism along with undeserved praise (this isn’t to say there aren’t good writing workshops, but they are hard to find).  On the internet, if you listen to the right people, you won’t get anything you don’t deserve.

And what I got was a great education in the material – if I made a mistake about a scientific concept, or expressed myself poorly, I’d have to pay the price.  People kindly corrected, and well, they did it unkindly too.  They mostly kindly answered my questions – and I began to track who knew what they were talking about and how thoughtful they were.  So when I did have a question I was too embarassed to ask on the internet, or didn’t understand a concept, or needed help getting started for someone, I could email.  And often I got directed to things I hadn’t seen and people I hadn’t known existed.  There are a lot of really knowledgeable people out there in each community who generously share that knowledge.

I’m not really sure how to explain, though, the most important stuff about going through internet bootcamp, which is how to sort out the stuff thats nuts, or pointless.  That, at least for me, is mostly about instinct (and I’m sure I’m wrong plenty).  That is, it is perfectly possible to get really bad advice, or caught up with people who are so invested in one theory that they can’t offer you a balanced perspective, and knowing when you’ve run into them is hard.  Its like the old comment about pornography “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”  Honing your bullshit detector is an important part of the process.

I didn’t consciously set out to do a course of study before I began promulgating my own thoughts, but that’s pretty much what I did.  I started reading forums on homesteading, women’s issue, parenting and environmental issues back in the late 1990s, and reading peak oil material going back to around 2002 (I knew about peak oil before that, because of a college professor of mine, but hadn’t looked on the net).  I read for a while before I posted, and asked questions before I spouted answers (mostly), and I’m sure I made a major ass of myself a number of times.  But it was several years later before I felt sure enough about my material to really go ahead and write about it – I didn’t start blogging until 2005.

That’s about the sum of my writing advice – read a lot, write a lot, and get a lot of feedback, preferrably honest feedback.  The only other thing that I think helps me with the writing is something I doubt could be replicated – and that may be totally unique to me.  I was past 30 before I realized that there was something unusual about the way I see writing – quite literally.

As far as I can tell, I have a mild form of synesthesia, in which written language appears to me as color and texture.  People talk about books that are dark or use other language of color and form to describe books – I actually experience them that way.  I would dislike a book or a writer because I thought their language was too grey and too “gritty” or because I disliked the pattern of their language – but it wasn’t a metaphor.  But I honestly didn’t realize that this wasn’t normal – I figured everyone saw it this way.  And it was until my 20s that I realized that if I like “soft blue, deeply textured” writing, or writing in a specific kind of texture and pattern, that if I reproduced it, if I made my own words feel like the colors and patterns I liked, that other people might find them likeable too.  I figured this out in college – that my goal wasn’t to imitate the heavy, darkened and convoluted academic writing that I often encountered, it was to write brighter, more pleasingly textured words with the same heavier ideas made clearer.  It was a revelation, and it made writing immeasurably easier for me. 

It is hard to explain to somebody who doesn’t see the world this way – I think of it as a gift – I can decide that I want my writing to sound “purplish” today and do that  - and the mood and the ideas that go with it follow, in some degree – it is circular – the words make the color, but the color makes the words right.   That’s as close as I can come to describing something deeply internal.   I don’t think you need this to write – other people who are far better writers than I don’t have it.  But I think writing does need to become intuitive in some way – this is mine.  Other people experience it differently -

A lot of developing an intuitive, automatic grasp of something is just repetition.  You know this because the first time you picked up a brick and mortar, a pair of knitting needles, a cleaver it felt weird.  You watched someone else do it, with smoothness and ease, and wondered in frustration at yourself why you were working so slowly and painfully. 

And in a long time or a short time, you became competent, and then good – able to use your tools the way other people you admired use theirs.  They become an extension of your hands, and you can’t even recapture that sense of awkwardness and slowness, or figure out why you made so many mistakes.  That’s all that writing is – I still have plenty of days when I write 5 drafts and delete them all, or think everything I did sucked.  But the keyboard and the words have, through long, long experience, lots of reading, lots of practice become extension of my hand and eye. 

I don’t know any way to get to be a writer other than reading and writing. I don’t know any other way to be a good writer than narrowing the odds, so that you swing and miss your first 10,000 times in a place where it doesn’t do any harm to your reputation, so that when you need to hit the sweet spot more than occasionally, you’ve lowered the odds.  And I know nothing about becoming famous at all ;-) .


26 Responses to “The Writing Life”

  1. Wow. That’s a totally awesome sounding form of synaesthesia. I wish I had something like that, or any form of synaesthesia, really. I love reading enough, and am sensitive enough to language and style to almost, almost be able to imagine what you’re talking about. But no cigar.

    When you read different stuff by the same author, does it mostly all look the same? Is there a signature color/texture? Or does it vary a lot from work to work?

    I predict that you will now be flooded with writing samples, and requests to read them and report on the color and texture of the author’s work. But I’ll refrain. ;)

  2. Annie says:

    I have zero interest in writing–I am, and always have been, a reader. But if I were interested in being a writer I think you gave some really good advice. I would like to say that as a reader of many varied interests (I will read almost anything) that is precisely the reason I enjoy your blog so much–even the essays that don’t particuarly resonate with me. I have also read, and own, all three of your books and can’t wait for the Adapting in Place book. In short, you rock!

  3. Sue in pacNW says:

    Dear Jewish Climate Mother Person :)

    I like it that you are all over the place when you write, sometimes way over my head and in the next paragraph, make me laugh and in the next, scare the begeezus out of me. Make me think. You have even made it easy to become closer to my sister (Jewish). She has even opened her mind a little when I (Pagan) wish her a happy new year in Yiddish and know when and what her holidays are.

    OK, so I kind of slide over the “over my head” bits.

    I don’t aspire to be a writer, but I appreciate those who have the courage and talent. Keep it up.

  4. Mike Cagle says:

    “Synesthesia” — that’s fascinating. It would be interesting if you gave some examples, like, this is an orange paragraph, and this other one is green, this one’s soft and this one spiky, or whatever. Must be neat. I could use that as a graphic designer, working visually with type and letters. Or maybe it would get in the way. Anyway — interesting.

  5. Erik says:

    I followed pretty much exactly the beginning trajectory you describe before I started blogging, and recommend it highly to anyone interested in starting a blog that’s more involved than “today I ate a sandwich”. I found a collection of bloggers whose thought and writing I admired, and I read them and commented and built relationships and became part of a loosely-constructed Internet community of sorts in one little cyber-corner, and after a couple of years of this it occurred to me that maybe I did have something original to say after all, and I started writing… and now it’s been almost three years, and while I’m not making a penny off the blog and don’t ever expect to, I have a few people who are apparently interested in what I have to say, and willing to help me refine my thinking (and poke me when I start spouting nonsense :) ).

  6. Susan in NJ says:

    My favorite writing advice is from Billy Crystal’s character in “Throw Mama from the Train”: A writer writes.

    I also suspect that you could make a nice supplementary income telling people what color their writing is — and a potential post-peak sideshow career.

    My response to what is I read is aural, not as in reading silently “out loud” in my head, but as in melodic, discordant, noisy, jazzy, etc. I have a similar response to patterned color. I’m not sure that I could pursue my profession if what I read gave me a color sensation – gray, gray, gray is the color of my opponent’s brief.

  7. Fonk says:

    Sound advice. I know that’s exactly what I need to do more of – both reading and writing – but I find rarely have time to do it between work and family. As such, my aspirations of being a writer will probably have to be on hold for a while….

  8. That’s too funny. I totally have spatial-sequence, or number form, synesthesia. I figured everybody arranged their numbers, dates, etc. as precise locations in space.

    It wasn’t until I was trying to explain to a colleague why I accidentally said Thursday instead of November that I realized that wasn’t the case! Makes total sense to me :)

    Since then I’ve had a lot of discussions with others about it, but no one seems to have as equally strong synesthesia as I do.

    No wonder I like you :)

  9. Sharon,

    Your essay here presents excellent advice for aspiring writers.

    When I was a teenager I was an avid reader of Mother Earth news magazine. John Shuttleworth was the founder and editor. He once wrote an article for that publication titled, “How to Write For Mother.” That article was a masterpiece of distilled, down-to-earth writing advice.

    It used to be online but I can’t find it now. I have a dog-eared, eight-page photocopy of the article that I keep close and read once a year. I’d like to share with you and others here how Shuttleworth ends the article…

    “Then again, I know of no law that requires an author to limit him or her self to the same dull, dead, gray boilerplate that most of the rest of today’s “writers” deal in. Have we all turned into IBM machines? Does no one know how to sprinkle flecks of silver and gold into his or her copy? Are all the magical wordsmiths who once used nothing but paper and ink to conjure up misty moors, melodious chimes, and shimmering sunsets in the minds of their readers… all…gone….?

    I think not. I hope not. I prefer to believe that such crafts men and women have only temporarily been forced to hide up in the cool, green hills… while the brutish mutants who identify everything by social security numbers and view the world through 18-inch screens and who lurch back and forth across the valley floor on clangorous trail bikes and snowmobiles and converse with such depthy expressions as “wow” and “you know” have their day. A short one.

    And soon, those who value the texture and the color and the emotion and the feel and the nuances of the language will once again be able to practice and strengthen their craft. And today’s computerese will once again give way to living, breathing words that soothe and cradle grown people’s hearts in the mysterious and marvelous worlds that language can create.

    In the meantime, the least you can do is try to brighten and focus and intensify every part of every sentence you write for The Mother Earth News. I expect nothing less.”

    My own writing career began with a few letters to the editor of my local paper back in the 1980’s. People noticed and commented that they appreciated what I said. Shortly thereafter, I put the beginning of a magazine article together and sent it in. My first submission was accepted. That led to other magazine articles, which led to three books written in two years for The Taunton Press.

    That was a learning experience.

    In time I started writing and self-publishing my own books.

    When I learned about blogging four years ago, I immediately saw it as something that I wanted to do and I started a blog that has, in so many ways, changed my life—as your blogging has done for you.

    Anyone who wants to learn to be a good writer should start a blog and just go with it. Don’t worry about the readership numbers—just write. The more you do it, the better you get.

    One of my favorite writers is E.B. White. Last year I read “The Letters of E.B. White.” It is a wonderful story about a uniquely talented writer. Anyone who is enamored with the writing life and wants to be a good writer should read this book. I posted a series of excerpts from the book at this link: Little Bits From E. B. White

    Best wishes,

    Herrick Kimball

  10. AnnMarie says:

    I am so jealous of your synesthesia. I’ve been fascinated by synesthesia since I read about it over a decade ago in Atlantic. I read every book I can about it… I wish I had it. I always hoped my daughter would somehow have it, but no signs yet. But she hasn’t started writing so now I know there’s still hope! :)

  11. Jen says:

    Crunchy, I think I’m the same way with numbers. Are you EXTREMELY date oriented? Like I can remember dates/months/time lines almost photographically (and drive people crazy with this), but Algebra made my head spin. I just couldn’t reconcile numbers and letters together. As far as writing/words I don’t see colors, but I can relate to the texture aspect and I’m very sensitive to tone.

    As one who has sat through many a workshop, I agree good one is hard to find. I always sigh when people ask how to become a writer, but it is 95% reading and writing and 5% getting your work out there.

  12. Teresa Noelle Roberts says:

    A fine and very sensible post.

    I love that you experience words as colors and textures. Make me wonder if I actually write purple prose…

  13. Jen – No, I’m not very date oriented. I just see all numbers, days of the week and months in a specific position in space. I can remember time lines quite well and have a somewhat photographic memory for visual and written things. For example, I still visually remember words written on a blackboard from 8th grade. I don’t have any color or texture associations with words or numbers though.

    I am, on the other hand, *very* good at math and I’m sure it’s related. It used to drive my husband crazy when we were in the same math classes together because I would understand things a lot faster than, well, pretty much everyone else in the class. And, we’re both quite competitive.

  14. Wife says:

    I too have synesthesia and I too think of it as an incredible gift, almost like a sixth sense. I think if I would lose it, I would lose many of my other hyped up abilities, like spelling and memory. For me, it’s not texture though–the letters and numbers are flat colors only. So when people talk, or when I read, if I pay attention, it’s like there are rainbows flying all around me. I can remember names and numbers very well, but names are easier because there are rules to words. Numbers can be in any order, and I’ve had problems where I’ll get something like 1010 (which is all black and white) mixed up with 1001. Usually not a problem, but it’s gotten me into a couple of embarrassing situations. And it’s hard to explain that you got the color wrong….
    I’ve also got just a bit of it with music, the high notes. They taste like citrus, although rather than getting tarter as they go higher, they get sweeter. So first lemon, then grapefruit, then orange. Sorta. Not precisely.
    Your first book was marvelous and I kept telling my husband about it. The best one I’ve read from a woman’s perspective–really different.

  15. knutty knitter says:

    I have a spatial thing with words – I like to arrange them shapewise as well as for meaning. This means that I prefer to write poetry in a visual way on the page. The internet thoroughly irritated me by lining everything up with the margin regardless so I don’t go there now. I do get colour and music together but not language. My art always reflects what I am hearing (to me ).

    I love books of any kind too but have few aspirations as a writer. I prefer my arty crafts really and could hold an exhibition any time but I doubt I could write a book.

    Around those who know me I am the encyclopaedia :) As my father once said I know almost nothing about everything!

    viv in nz

  16. janine says:

    I have done a little speech writing, newsletter editing and hosting a column – all at places where I was employed. You do improve with practice and these posts sometimes give you paid opportunities. When I was given my first assignment I got out the newspaper, looked at the format and proceeded from there. My first column was entitled “The Home Stretch.” It featured recipes using foods sold by our non profit and encouraged home cooking and self sufficiency. On the darker side, Sharon mentioned having a tough skin. I say amen to that! It is truly amazing how you can rile up some folks without half trying.

  17. Susan says:

    People really send you stuff to critique??? Like you have time for that or something???

    I started my blog because I got tired of my husband nagging me that I should, because he said I had something to contribute. Well, mostly no. Except that I live in a climate area that simply isn’t covered by any gardening book I’ve ever read, and this is nothing if not challenging. The blog gives me a public space to keep track of what I’ve done, in conjunction with Independence Days, and allows me to document both failures and successes. And to learn from both.

  18. et says:

    And then there is the minor detail of getting paid to write that you seem to have missed. We can “all” put out a lot of words but surely part of being a “writer” is being able to do it for a decent amount of money. Or at least hope to make money.

    All the work you have put into writing vs the money you have made makes it less worthwhile moneywise than gardening even! Which is fine if all you want is to see your ideas out there.

    Published is good, too. But with internets its possible to find readers w/o finding a publisher as you mention.

  19. Bart says:

    That’s a helpful post Sharon. I’d like to add a few things if I may.

    1. There are MANY opportunities for writing once one thinks beyond commercial book publishing. Journalism, public relations, newsletters, technical writing, editing, etc. One can even earn a good living at them. I would vote for journalism as the best field in which to get training (I much preferred the newsroom to academia).

    Non-fiction writing is much easier to market than fiction writing (like 100 times easier).

    Even if one doesn’t get a job as a “writer,” the ability to express oneself effectively gives one a leg up in any profession.

    The peak oil movement has been so effective because there are quite a few talented writers like yourself. I keep wishing there were more such writers, so we could make even more of a dent.

    2. I think there are going to be many more opportunities in writing about sustainability, etc. We have just scratched the surface, and as the public develops a taste for it, they will want more.”

    Ecologically minded fiction is still in its infancy.

    3. In terms of a career, it’s easier to be a specialist than a generalist. I think your example is not the usual one, Sharon. For example, if I as an editor want a book written on soil ecology, I will pick a knowledgeable but so-so writer over a brilliant but ignorant one.

    4. In one respect, I wish more people would follow your path. You pursued your interests because you loved them and felt strongly about them, rather than because they offered money or fame. Therefore, you have something real and substantial to say.

    I’m not sure if the advice is right to “do what you love and the money will follow.”

    But for sure, “do what you love and you will have a great time, and the work will be meaningful. Maybe somebody will discover you, but it won’t matter — you will have had a happy life.”

    Energy Bulletin

  20. Sharon says:

    Et – You are right. And if what you want to do is do technical writing, or write reports for analysis, then you probably don’t have to do what I want to. If you want to do something highly paid, like celebrity journalism, too, that might well work. But if you want to write about what you care about (assuming that you don’t care about technical documentation or celebrity journalism, which I know some folks do), in a low paying field, then you’ll have to be willing to pony up and pay your dues. Some people think it is worth living a long time waitressing to be a dancer. Some people think it is worth living on a grad stipend for six years to be a professor. Some people think it is worth going to auditions and living in poverty to be an actor. Other people wouldn’t think those gigs were worth it.

    Bart, I disagree about journalism – I think a journalism degree is probably a bad idea, given what’s happening to the news industry – most of the journalists I know aren’t advising people to go into their field.

    I don’t claim “do what you love and the money will follow” at all – I still haven’t seen the money follow ;-) . Sure, I get paid. I have made a total of about 12K for three books – I could have made that writing ad copy or editing in three months, rather than three years. But then, I didn’t go to grad school in English while my peers were starting internet companies to get rich ;-) , and I didn’t start a CSA while my peers were getting tenure to get rich ;-) , and my husband didn’t intentionally pursue a teaching, rather than research career to get rich. Our policy is more like – live really really cheap, and then you can write what you want and do what you want and have fun ;-) . And yes, I know not everyone can do this. But since it is a choice for us, we might as well enjoy it. I’d probably still be writing just as much if I had those four readers ;-) .


  21. Bart says:

    Hi Sharon, we have a habit of being in 110% agreement, despite protestations to the contrary. Your last paragraph says exactly what I was trying to say.

    I do disagree about journalism as a career. Granted, there are going to be even fewer jobs that are labeled “reporting,” thanks to the shake-out in the media.

    However the skills and mindset of journalism are ALWAYS in demand: clear writing, skepticism, research, speed. Whether one is a corporate drone, a wild-eyed radical or a back-to-the-lander, a journalistic background is always a plus.

    Someone’s got to report on where the obsidian blocks are to be found, and how to turn them into spearpoints.

    take care, Bart (EB)

  22. Sharon says:

    No offense Bart, but I tend to be skeptical of pre-professional programs of any sort – if you want to learn those skills, study a *subject* and learn them there, and then take it to journalism. Besides the fact that you’ll have a better background for doing in-depth reporting. You can clearn to writer, research and think in a lot of places – study philosophy or math or art history, and take a lot of writing, but don’t go to journalism school, IMHO.


  23. Alexlcarter says:

    I like the part about writing a LOT.

  24. Bart says:

    Sharon, I think my view is prejudiced by the fact that I see SO MANY content experts who cannot write clearly. I think: if only they had taken one or two courses of journalism or technical writing, how much more effective they could be!

    Surprisingly, engineers are often very good at picking up the rudiments of clear writing, once they make up their minds to. They are excellent at learning a craft, which writing is.

    You don’t have to go to journalism school. I learned on the job, when I was thrown into a reporting job. All I had was a $2 book, “Basics of Journalism.” My best teacher was a newspaper editor, “Lennie the Butcher,” who edited my first articles with copious red ink.

    Maybe writing classes at the university level are better than they used to be. If you are teaching them, I’m sure they would be. I always found the teaching to be too perfectionistic, based on out-of-date models and lacking real-time feedback.

    As usual, this is a topic that would be fun to discuss at length – no real answer, but many insights to be found in the process.
    -Bart / EB

  25. Daniel says:

    Wow, great post!

    I have a heavy work load so I read my blog feeds in “scrollback mode” and I’m a week behind…

    Anyway, I started my own (Swedish-language) peak oil-ish blog last summer for some of the same reasons you did (organize my own thought – might be of interest to someone else…?).

    I was thinking about a niche and since I can’t be a jewish mother climate person, I aimed for Swedish-language peak-oil-will-change-everything person. My main decision was to write in Swedish for several different reasons:
    - I write better (more stylistical flair) in Swedish than in English and it is easier (less work) for me to write a couple of pages in Swedish
    - there was little competition on the “Swedish peak oil blog market” :-)
    - it would be nice to make a difference and why not start where it matters most to me – where i live

    I also made a “strategic” decision not to publish daily/often, but rather aim for long-ish essays (now around 10 000 characters or so, i.e. 2-3 pages of text) more or less once per week. The idea of writing shorter texts several times per week died already during the first month. That’s just not for me.

    I tend to squirrel away links and references and work with a couple of texts in parallell. I also prefer to have at lest a few finished texts in the pipe but publish them according to my own schedule (much work – one new text each 8 days, more time to blog – one new text every 5 days). I prefer to write a little longer, (hopefully) more thoughtful texts that integrrate many sources and sort of “sum up” topics. I have two main competitors on the Swedish scene who sometime write about PO but they complement rather than compete with me. Both are more prolific than I am but write for the most part about economy and current events. I seldom write about currents events. When I come around to a topic, it is usually at least a month old, but I try to paint a more broad picture than others commenting on current events.

    By the way, as I subscribe to your blog feed, I can see that there are 1174 other persons who do that. I have 71 subscribers to my blog and pick up in average one new subscriber per week. But I now have between 500 and 1000 unique visitors per week and I am quite content with that number (and it grows almost every month which is a great motivator to continue blogging).

    After 3, 6 and 12 months of blogging I wrote meta-texts about writing texts/the blog. They have partly served the same function as this text might have done to you – a time to reflect and write about reflecting and writing. I tend to agree with much, but not all of what you wrote above. The thing is that I will now squirrel away the reference to this text and the next time I write a meta-text about my blog (perhaps after 18 months, i.e. Feb-March), that text will be an “answering move” in a “conversation” with this text.

    Also, after having written for a year and having produced around 75 essays, I felt confident enough to want to paralell publish in English which I started doing last month ( The main reason for not doing it earlier was that I prefer to spend my time doing research and writing new texts rather than going back to an already-published text and spend 2-3-4 hours translating it (starting with an unpolished and usually quite crappy Google-translated version) etc. But then I asked on my blog if anyone would like to help me translate and one guy volunteered directly and offered to translate 1-2 texts per month. Now a second guy has volunteered to help me out and this more than anything else in my blogging “career” really blows my mind. People showing up from somewhere – anywhere – volunteering to help translate my texts. That’s the internet to you. I haven’t done and “advertising” of my blog besides mentioning it here a couple of times when I have written something that resonates with your blog posts. Right now most of my visitors either find their way there from my Swedish-language blog, or by doing a google-search (“transportation after oil”, “average length of car commute in nyc”, “can i survive on 400 dollars a week”, “lifestyle changes after oil”).

    I haven’t looked into ways of increasing traffic but I sure find it interesting to peek at what Google Analytics has to say about how many come, where they come from etc.

  26. [...] recent blog postings moved me. As you can tell, she is a serious writer. In the posting titled, The Writing Life, Sharon offers one of the most thoughtful, helpful and inspirational pieces about doing what [...]

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