Thursday, February 22, 2018

How Stupid Facebook Posts Remind Me Not to Worry About Traffic

Internet traffic is a moving target.

You can put your whole soul into something, insert the right keywords, research your audience and the optimum time to post on social media, and still end up with . . . well, maybe a few views. A little engagement. A thumbs-up from an immediate family member.

Then you just lob something stupid into your social media feed--a meme, a witty one-liner, perhaps even an ironic picture of your dinner--and it explodes, like a glitter hand grenade.

I'm not bitter, or anything. This just keeps happening.

Like last night, I saw a funny picture, had a good chuckle, and shared it in a Mormon group on Facebook. It wasn't even an optimum posting time. But that stupid little post caught fire. Right now, as I write this, it's already well past 200 reactions--and counting. It's been shared 31 times.

(Yes, I have Facebook open while I'm writing. I never said I was productive.)

Even though I didn't make the picture, I'm enjoying the dopamine shot I get with every "like." I'm just a little disappointed that another post I made in the same Facebook group earlier this week--a picture I actually took the time to create--only got a fraction of the attention.

The stupid post in question. But hey, it is pretty funny.
Image credit: Memes for Jesus

And while the level of hilarity may contribute, that doesn't necessarily make a post's success any more predictable. I may make a pun that outshines my wife's post promoting her business on our shared Facebook account (sorry, dear). But then I may share a serious article that blows my pun out of the water. Looking at my blog's most popular posts right now, there really is no consistent theme that generates traffic. Often, the posts that do the best are the ones I least expect.

Which brings me to my point--because, no, I'm not really here to whine. First world problems, right?

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how I produced better writing when I didn't worry about it being perfect. For me, the fact that sometimes the dumbest posts (in my opinion) end up being the most successful supports that argument.

It's like Aesop's fable about the wind and the sun, who compete to see who can get a man to take off his coat. The wind blows and blows, and the coat stays on. But the sun just does its thing and shines--rather effortlessly--and boom, we have a winner.

Image credit: Walt Sturrock

Of course--with perhaps few exceptions--good work doesn't come without some effort. But from my own results, I've learned to take the pressure off myself and just create. I have a lot more fun that way, and I think readers can tell when I'm not forcing it, too.

People will respond to what they want to respond to, and we can't always predict that. Things like Internet traffic and engagement will come and go--so I'm just gonna do my thing and enjoy the ride. One dumb post at a time.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Warped Plastic #19

This is not what "Lego compatible" means. Special thanks to my parents for letting me borrow the old Tyco minifigure from the family collection I played with as a kid; it sure beat buying one!

Click to see Warped Plastic #18.

More Warped Plastic

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Peace by Piece--Alma 37:6

After a brief hiatus due to some health and busy life issues, I finally got around to making something again. Hooray!

Click here to see more from this series.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Learning to Let Go of Perfectionism and Enjoy Writing

I changed my college major so many times I refer to my associate's as my "six-year degree." I tried my hand at accounting, communications, journalism, business, and even Arabic. Which served me well when I finally settled on English; a writer should know something about everything. So that worked out.

Before English, the major I lasted the longest in was music. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to teach high school or practice music therapy, but I felt happy and at home on stage, so I eventually narrowed my focus down to piano performance.

I loved it at first: playing free in my school's piano lab before work each morning; supporting colleagues at their performances; digging into music theory to find its beating heart. Of course, the concerts were my favorite part.

But something eventually scared me away.

Before college, one could describe my relationship with the piano as an addiction. I started lessons at the age of five, and the more I grew, the more I needed my musical fix. By high school, I found myself drawn compulsively to the keyboard several times each day, often interrupting other activities already underway (like my homework). I sought out pianos on family vacations. When I left home to serve as a missionary, I took a backpack full of approved sheet music and spent hours on my weekly day off pouring my soul into a church piano.

(And while not traditionally mission-appropriate, I even taught myself a little Trans-Siberian Orchestra and performed it at a mission Christmas conference.)

I have fallen asleep at the piano keys and woken up again . . . still playing.

I have let the music carry me off into visions that became stories I would someday write.

I have played until I've bled, only to stop because the keys got slippery and I had to clean up the mess.

Everyone thought majoring in music would be a perfect fit for me. And for a while, it was.

But over time, I noticed my addiction waning. Practicing became a chore. New pieces, once exciting, made me irritable. And after concerts, I wouldn't touch the piano for days.

I don't want to say it's because the piano became a job, because my whole intent in choosing what I studied was to do what I loved.

But something changed. I felt more pressure to be great. I pushed myself harder to play more perfectly, more precisely, more more. I got tired. Somehow, the piano stopped being fun. And I wasn't getting better at it; somehow, I was getting worse.

You run that risk turning anything you love into a career. So I've tried to be careful not to let the same thing happen to my writing.

There's a fine balance between learning the craft and just enjoying it. With the abundance of books and articles on topics ranging from sentence structure to social media marketing, it's so easy to throw that balance off and get lost in a world of toxic perfectionism.

I think we all want to improve at the things we enjoy doing. I love anything that makes me a better writer. That's why I recently picked up a book on storytelling that promised to use brain science to help me write a more riveting novel.

It started off well. I liked the author's ideas and did the exercises. I picked up on things that truly will improve my writing in the long run.

But the deeper I got into the book, the more that dangerous perfectionism paralyzed me. Even after I talked myself out of starting over on my novel--the one I have already spent seventeen years on, which is why I was interested in this storytelling method in the first place--I still found myself plagued every time I sat down to write by thoughts like, This scene needs to have this and this and this, and I only know part of this character's history. They're not engaging enough yet!

It didn't help that I was also sabotaging my blog by obsessing over things like SEO and optimal posting times for social media.

Writing is a process. If you want to get published, you can't just throw some words on the page and call it good. You have to think about things: your characters, their stories, the way everything layers together. You have to edit, and sometimes it takes twenty drafts or more before you're satisfied with what you have. It's hard work. And that's fine.

But it's also supposed to be fun. And for a while, writing stopped being fun for me. So I haven't written much lately. Not that I would ever quit writing or give up on my dreams; I just lost my vision, and writing became harder because of that.

So I've been doing some soul searching. And naturally, my thoughts turned back to the piano.

At the same time as I read that book on storytelling, I was also reading Stuart Isacoff's Natural History of the Piano. I had no idea when I first picked it up just how much it would apply to my writing.

Image credit: Goodreads

Isacoff's work delved deep into the history of my favorite instrument, including the lives of composers whose names and music I have loved, but for whom I have lacked a fully contextual understanding. It opened my eyes.

Did you know people in Schubert's time made fun of his music because it wasn't as focused on technique as Beethoven's was? Or that a New York critic suggested concert halls should hang a sign by their doors saying Exit in case of Brahms?

But wait, there's more:

Schumann and Mendelssohn lived with some serious mental health issues.

Chopin had a chronic illness.

Beethoven broke everything he touched and had a messy apartment.

B├╝low's wife--who happened to be Liszt's daughter--left him for Wagner.

Critics said George Gershwin wasn't going anywhere.

And more than one great pianist was said to be awkwardly built or have an unattractive face, and that you would never guess they could play so beautifully.

These people, who today we call masters, were people. They were awkward, clumsy, fragile, criticized, misunderstood, and, more often than not, weren't appreciated until they were dead.

But they just did their thing. They had fun with their music, they experimented and pushed the boundaries, and they created works that will live forever--despite what may have been popular in their day.

Perhaps, just like me.

Reading their experiences took me back to a music theory class in college, where the professor played the compositions we had written for our homework. I was proud of my own work--I had enjoyed writing it--and when he finished playing mine, he said, "Technically, it works. It has everything I asked for. But it's not very . . . musical."

From the back of the room a classmate declared, in his thick Venezuelan accent, "Nathan is not bound by conventions."

To this day I count it one of the greatest compliments I've ever received.

Maybe other people won't consider my writing "musical." Maybe I won't be a best-selling author, or any kind of real success as the world may define it. Or maybe I will be. I hope to be.

But I have to remember why I'm doing it.

Yeah, I would love it if my writing could pay the bills someday.

I would love to see my work on bookstore shelves and in the hands of readers.

I want to let my stories out into the world.

I want to be taken seriously.

I have dreams I'm not giving up.

But deep down, the real reason I write is because it's fun and I love doing it.

My Facebook memories this week turned up a post from my college days, before I was so worried about all the stuff I've been worried about in my writing. At the risk of appearing to toot my own horn, this is what it said:

We're our own worst critics. I turned in a paper this last week that I was sure I had bombed, and I was not looking forward to hearing what my teacher had to say about it. But I was overjoyed when the 100% grade came back today with this note from the teacher: "Nathan, what a great paper! You are a wonderful writer--witty, thoughtful, and precise. I immensely enjoyed reading this paper. ... The writing here is crisp and elegant. You have very good command of some nice stylistic patterns. ... Looking forward to your second paper! (Don't really have any feedback for you; your writing is solid.)" Needless to say, that made my entire day. College has forced me to grow a lot as a writer, and it's great to get this kind of validation from a respected professor.

I remember this paper. I really didn't think the teacher would like it, but I threw caution to the wind and had fun writing it anyway. I didn't worry about perfection. And yet it became one of my best-received papers.

That's the interesting thing about letting go of perfectionism: When I give myself the freedom to just enjoy what I'm doing and let myself come out, I end up producing my best work anyway.

There are as many writing styles as there are writers. No one will pick up any of my books wanting Poe or Steinbeck or Fitzgerald. They'll be in it for the story, told in a way only Nathan Cunningham could tell it.

And I'll still work on improving at the craft. I'll still try to create something I can build a career on. But my focus now is simply the enjoyment of writing: just writing my stories and living my fantasies; just enjoying the camaraderie of my writing groups; just creating something.

Just doing what drew me to writing in the first place, perfectionism be darned.

And, in case you were wondering, the piano and I eventually made up. Arthritis and a busy life have made it difficult to play like I used to, but I am still very much in love with this instrument. Because I'm incorrigible, here's another video of me playing:

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Peace by Piece--Matthew 25:40

Whoever or whatever you believe in, I think we can all agree the world could use more kindness.

Click here to see more from this series.
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