I Was Wrong About Substack (and a Lot of Other Things)
Why every writer needs community
When Substack first started, I had the wrong idea about it. This was just another email marketing platform, I thought, another Mailchimp or ConvertKit without all the bells and whistles. When the company contacted me to consider switching platforms, I wasn’t interested.
Why would I, a seasoned Internet marketer, ever switch to something that didn’t let me control every little click and segment possible? I had a blog, an email list, and a solid footprint on most social networks (except for TikTok, because I am approaching 40, after all). It just didn’t make sense.
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But over the months and years since Covid, I’ve found it more difficult to write on a consistent basis. The best I could squeeze out after writing five books in five years was a poem every other week on Instagram. Anything else felt like a marathon that I hadn’t even trained for.
Making matters more stressful, my personal life was a bit of a mess. After crawling through a tumultuous pandemic divorce during an existential crisis, most days felt like a fight to survive. My creative energy was usually spent on worries about money and wondering if my life had any meaning or purpose at all.
I mean, what was the point of writing anything if the Universe was indifferent to my plight as one small speck of dust in the cosmic nothingness of everything? (It got a bit melodramatic for a season, just ask my friends.)
Occasionally, I’d open up my blog that I started in 2010 and look at all the expired WordPress plugins and just feel… overwhelmed. I’d send a drab email update to my tens of thousands of subscribers and wonder who, if anyone, cared what I had to say anymore. My motivation to create had been sapped, and I didn’t know how to get my mojo back.
I was tired of sending my agent half-written proposals only for him to respond with a few pieces of feedback and get crickets from me. Just another day at the office for him, I’m sure, but for me this was inexcusable. My will to create had never been an issue, at least not for the past decade or so.
Recently, I was in New York City on business and had the privilege of meeting with an editor at a major publishing house. We had martinis at the Lamb’s Club in midtown Manhattan, because I imagined that’s the sort of thing Scott Fitzgerald would have done back in the day with Max Perkins. We discussing a number of projects I had been working on as a ghostwriter, as well as a few clients our agency was working with to help sell their book proposals, and the conversation shifted to my creative work.
“What are you working on?” she said.
“Eh, not much. I have a few ideas for a book that I’ve been picking at for the past five years. But I don’t know if anyone cares what I have to say anymore. I assume most people have forgotten I exist.” I sighed. The words just kind of left my mouth matter-of-factly, like an exhale.
She looked at me, stunned. “Oh, Jeff…”
The importance of what I had said finally hit me, and I saw what she saw. Why had I made myself invisible to the world, a ghost in my own life? And did I really believe no one cared what I had to say anymore? Part of me did, yes. But I didn’t much like that part anymore.
I left New York and vowed to start writing again. And I didn’t. I kept working on other people’s words, helping them share their ideas with the world, while slowly growing resentful.
This is the plight of many writers, I imagine, sneering at a world that refuses to understand them, believing they may never realize their potential. “What,” mused a nearly sixty-two year-old Hemingway on the verge of suicide, “happens to a man… when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?” He answered his own question by taking his life.
Camus once remarked that the only serious philosophical problem was whether or not life was worth living. In Hemingway’s case, the answer was no. Of course, there are serious mental health factors to consider and a significant history of trauma in Papa’s life (his father took his own life, as well), but I think there is a kind of death every creator knows, even if they don’t ever contemplate suicide.
And that is simply not doing what you know you need to do.
For a writer who refuses to write, who has the words inside her and just won’t risk letting them out in the world, she consigns herself to a slow kind of torture—an atrophying of all creative musculature to the point of immobility. Or said a little less prosaically, as soon as she stops writing, her soul starts to die.
All this to say, I had Substack wrong. It is not an email marketing platform. It is not even a newsletter hub. Substack is, quite smartly, a community. It is a sort of Instagram for writers, and what a beautiful thing to offer the world. Because in all my years of platform building and social media trend-chasing, I’ve never found a community that was exclusively targeted at writers.
Sure, we found our little spaces to connect in Facebook groups and reddit threads, but for the most part, to be a writer on the Internet was to be a less visually appealing storyteller in an image-saturated market.
For months, I have kicked around the idea of starting up a Substack just to see what would happen. And after finally pulling the trigger over this past weekend to see what would happen (and seeing over 100 subscribers sign up within the first 24 hours), I think I’ve found a new place to be for a while.
I wrote my first post and was astounded to see so many messages of encouragement and notifications of a new subscriber every few minutes. Maybe someone still cares what I have to say, after all.
Sometimes, I play a little game of hide-and-seek with the world, hiding away like a child too scared to play with the neighbors until someone comes over and asks him. I create something special and hide it in plain sight, hoping someone will see it and tell me what they think. Then, as soon as they shared their feedback, I’d try to wriggle away awkwardly and go hide again. Writing was always a way to say something, share it, and not risk the humiliation of someone misunderstanding.
But the truth is even that kind of expression is a risk. Anytime we shout into the void, there is something of an echo, a form of feedback that signals to us the weight of our own words. For years, blogging served as this kind of tool for me: a way for me to hear myself saying things in the world that I didn’t know I knew (to paraphrase David Whyte). It was my practice.
At times, I’ve tried to pick it up again; but it never felt quite right. Until just a few days ago. Since sharing that initial post, I’ve been brimming with ideas, eager to share them with those who want to hear. I don’t know if they’ll resonate, but I appreciate the practice, as any writer does. It helps to know when I might be on to something and when a fleeting thought was just that. And more than that, we all need community. To see someone nodding along, listening to the music our souls have been trying to sing for so long.
So, hi. It’s been a while since I’ve had something to say, and it’s good to hear my own voice again. A writer needs help and encouragement to get out of his own way sometimes so that the words can come. Of course, he never knows exactly what they are, which is why having a space to practice is important. It’s nice to have that again.
Thanks for listening.
And if you’re someone on the sidelines, waiting for permission to share your own thing, maybe this is a little nudge for you in that direction. The world hasn’t forgotten about you, even if you’ve become a ghost in your own life. All of this is the chrysalis, the preparation for what’s yet to come. And it all belongs. I promise.