Confessions of a 21st Century Writer

Confessions of a 21st Century Writer

Reader Comments (76)

  1. Beautifully said. We can do so much with words that simply spitting out a blog post to fill some arbitrary SEO requirement is actually a huge disservice to our readers and ourselves.

    It’s funny, that sounds a lot like my story, except I never got as far in the science field as you did. After a few years as a microbiology major in college and a semester spent decoding the genome of a methanotropic bacteria, I got a pretty clear message from myself that the absolute, last thing I wanted was a career tucked away in some dingy lab, totally devoid of human contact.

    Not that the voice came out and said, “Hey – you’re actually supposed to be a writer…”. It’s taken me several career leaps to make it here, but I guess what matters is that I got here at all 🙂

    • I wish I’d seen it that early! It never made sense that I could actually make a living writing, though. Took a lot of trauma for me to force myself to learn that lesson.

    • “I got a pretty clear message from myself that the absolute, last thing I wanted was a career tucked away in some dingy lab, totally devoid of human contact.”

      Can relate to this really well, I had a job at a bank and even thought I was making good money the “locked away, relinquishing my time to something that I wasn’t enjoying” feeling made me leave to search for greener pastures.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I can’t even begin to describe how important it was to read your wonderful, inspiring words this morning. You hit the nail on the head—I’ve always wanted to write to change the world yet, somehow, I’ve let the routine of daily writing hammer that desire and focus out of my craft. And I didn’t realize that until now. Seriously, thank you.

  3. Awesome job. Well-written, too (but it had better be, huh? :).

    I’m with you in every step here, but what speaks most loudly is that “the best writers want to change the reader.” Booyah. Stories matter. Religions, memoirs, the lifecycle of the fruit fly–they’re all stories that help us understand our time here on the planet a little better. I write fiction myself, and stuff on my blog, but it’s all tied in with that spark you talk about–the higher mission. Changing the world.

    I love David Foster Wallace’s quote that “Fiction is about what it means to be a fucking human being.” I think the same kind of passion has to go with every kind of writing, from science journals to blog posts to poetry. That isn’t something that can be manufactured.

    Thanks for this post–I appreciate you putting this call out to us writers to make our work matter more. Off to get to it!

  4. Didn’t realize this was a guest post. Guess I skipped over that part. Great post, Johnny B!!! You are truly an inspiration to us all. I feel the same way about filmmaking. We have much the same story, although, the occupation and years are different….

    Of course, here in America, we don’t have to put our occupation on our marriage license 😉

  5. It is all about change and creating the space in other people that was not there before they read. Love this post. Great job, Johnny. I can’t stop writing so I stopped trying to quite long ago. Of course, trying never gets you anywhere.

  6. It’s difficult to do when your job is writing for others (which I love – but there is definitely *something* missing) but I am slowly and surely finding ways to express myself and be me in a way that is authentic and separate from growing my business. It’s a balance. I’ll never be a fiction writer – I don’t want to be – but I’m learning from great non-fiction writers. One day I’ll be able to change the world with writing for myself and not just my clients.Thanks for the great post and the food for thought.

    • I think you can do it when you’re writing for others, too. You don’t have to convey YOUR meaning all the time… you just want to convey meaning. If you were writing for a charity, you’d want to make people who read the copy feel the charity’s meaning and not just its dry mission, right?

  7. Thanks Johnny! I so needed to hear this today. What I’ve done as a coach for years is what I now want to do with my writing. Thing is I forget that it took time to hone my skills as a coach, and I get all impatient, wanting to speed up the process as a writer. I get caught up in the words instead of what I want most which is to make a difference.

    So today, I will be gentle and compassionate with myself. Tomorrow though? I’ll get back to the loving butt-kicking I’ve become known for. Thanks for sending a little of that my way!

  8. Well said! Only, right now my job is reassembling someone else’s words. It’s an education.
    I’m ploughing on with my novel and your post makes me want to run right back to it, except that every time I rework a classic I learn something that (I hope) makes me a better writer. I try to hold back on my creative scribbles to instead get on with improving my knowledge of this craft. Maybe the two sides of my brain are having a fight? I don’t know if I want Kevin Bacon to win :-S John Lithgow was great in Bigfoot after all; he softened up eventually.

    • I’ll add that I personally don’t think it matters if the words you write that MEAN something see the light of day every time. Like my novel. Are you becoming more as a writer, and better able to touch and change people with the words that are spread? That’s what matters, I think.

      • Well I hope so. Giglets (new enterprise) has just launched. I’m writing in that I’m adapting great classics into essentially ‘short and straightfoward’ ebooks that can be read by children and adults.
        I’m a bit of a book geek and grew up loving lots of different classic books but more often nowadays I meet children and adults who find the language too difficult and the big thick book too scary to even attempt to read.
        So now I’m adapting classics and encouraging others to discover the brilliant stories that cost me the best part of my eyesight 🙂 They’re not really my words but I endorse the message. And yes, I’m becoming more as a writer, although I would also hope that my own novel will see the light of day (someday).
        Aren’t you tempted to revisit your novel? You’ve come far since you wrote it and if it’s as strong as your blog posts then you’re onto a winner 🙂

  9. Thanks for being real. I agree that one of the toughest questions to answer is why am I doing what I’m doing. If you have the guts to ask the right questions it leads to great things.

    Great post.

  10. I enjoyed your post Johnny B.
    Not for sure if I am changed since I started reading it, but I am getting some left brain-right brain cross talking going on.
    It seems a little harsh, trying to wack my readers with a word/baseball bat. I try to bring peace, healing and serenity with my writing.
    Will have to re-frame that bat wacking idea:-)

    I will get at my blog while I have a bit of inspiration.

    Thank you! I do wish you all would do an audio version of all your posts!
    Happy writing for you today!


  11. Thank you, Johnny. Just what I needed to hear this morning. Probably every morning. Probably every five minutes or so. Probably in lieu of coffee. Probably definitely.

  12. Last Saturday evening I attended an author presentation given By Andrew Laties at the Northshire bookstore in Manchester Vermont. Unfortunately there were fewer than ten people in the audience to participate in a discussion that is relevant to all our lives: the difficulties of recognizing, and following, the twisting path to satisfaction through creativity in whichever form our muse chooses for us.

    I bought Andy’s book ‘Rebel Bookseller’ afterwards. In it he chronicles –by turns a humorous and seriously eloquent narrative, the current environment that independent bookstores must operate in against a detailed backdrop of his own experience as a children’s theater performer and then owner of a highly visible and popular children’s bookshop in Chicago.

    Creativity and business are not mutually exclusive, but they’re difficult to balance, especially in an economic environment that does not favor the individual. What I’ve taken away from the book so far is that finding ones purpose, while at the same time satisfying the materials needs of existence, is a seductive challenge not to be underestimated in its difficulty, but one that is well worth the effort.

    Good luck and best wishes to all who are on their own quest.

  13. Love the last four lines of this post – especially:

    “Be bold. Be gentle. Be strong. Be compassionate. Be violent.
    And start to change the world.”

    YES. This is the kind of inspiration I need for my slacker writing. Thanks!

    • I especially love that “violent” is worth mentioning. “Violence” can mean a ton of things, and not all of them are bad. Same with “disturbing.”

  14. Hah! I know this feeling all too well. I had to pry myself away from my regular academic masters-degree-level of writing and start writing for PEOPLE, not professors. It’s quite a shock to your grammatically-stern system when you do it at first, but the more you trudge along and leave those participles dangling, the better off you’ll be 🙂

  15. These are not confessions, but conclusive principles for for practice by would-be writers.

  16. Awesome post. I get the best insight through copyblogger’s email newsletter and this is one.

    I write both fiction and non-fiction, but your encouragement that writers have stories to tell is so true. I wrote a historical novel about the CCCs and I seem to have struck a nerve. People are coming up to me and telling me THEIR stories of their father, grandfather during those hard Depression times. It’s made my writing more meaningful and satisfying.

    I’ll be tweeting this. Thanks.

  17. I was actually surprised when I got to the end of this post that the author is JBT (no cussing:p).

    Admittedly, I’ve only read your posts when featured as guest posts, but I thought this one was really good. Well told, for sure, but more so because the story of anyone finding their true passion AND living it always uplifting, and who doesn’t want to read about that?

    If I imagine all of humanity in darkness, with only those who have found true love, passion, their core or true happiness walking around with a lit light bulb over their heads, I wonder how much light there would be.

    We need to light more light bulbs. And I think stories such as these get us closer to our own switch.

    • Great visualization Ritu. I think we – as Americans – are only a 1/2 lit…as opposed to other more free-spirited countries. I love the analogy and will start picturing people to see if they do come across as someone who “has the light on” so to speak.

      To Johnny B: This was such a moving post … I make a living by writing but it’s not an easy thing to do. Your inspirational story will also inspire me to do more selling. Because if I can’t sell my skills – mostly writing articles, bios, annual reports and case statements – then I can’t do what I truly love to do.

    • I love that you enjoyed this, but it makes me chuckle that you (and others!) were surprised it was written by me. I’m all crazy diverse. You never know what I’ll do next!

      • Yep, I didn’t know either, but it’s actually more fun that way, trying to guess who it is while you’re reading. The curiosity and intensity builds like a gripping mystery novel.

        Riveting stuff, Johnny. Thanks for your work.

  18. Wow, this was a powerful post. Thank you for sharing your story – I’m sure a lot of people, including myself, will resonate with your experiences.

    I’ve tried my entire life to avoid being a writer – I tried my hand out at photography, politics, even personal training – but I’ve always come back to writing. And this time around, I’m sticking with it.

    One of my least favorite things is when others ask me what I write – I usually end up stumbling on my words and sounding less intelligent than I’d like. From now on, I think I’ll tell them my purpose rather than exactly what I write.

  19. Wow, Johnny. I think you wrote what I’ve been thinking for a long time. I used to really enjoy writing, although I’ve never actually written something worth publishing. I went all the way through college, got my engineering degree, and now I’m working as an engineer. It’s a great career, but it’s not what I really want to do.

    I want to write, write, and write even more. I want to tell my story. I just don’t know how to get started. The experiences you’ve detailed in this post sounds like a little bit of what I went through when I got RIF’ed last year. Panic attacks, afraid of my own shadow, afraid of being left alone…I’m better now that I have a job, but I’m still not happy.

    I’m favoriting this post for sure! Thank you!

  20. Soooo, what your long drawn out post about blah, blah blah concluded with is, JUST WRITE DAMN IT!…

    I can dig it.

    I bet you still miss hustlin’ coffee at Borders though. You set up a stand in your basement and relive the glory days while crying about your fear of fruit flies….It’s ok bro, just write about it and don;t skimp on the feelings…

    Lastly. Tell Jon to put the bat down.

  21. I REALLY enjoyed this post. I’ve never been a writer, actually hated writing before. However since I started my blog (on interior design) I’ve begun discovering that I have a message that I want to share and writing is one of the best ways to do it. It was cool when I realized that Johnny wrote the post. I was introduced to you through Chris Guilebeau’s Empire Building Kit. Congrats on your success and for being willing to do the unimaginable!

  22. I got teary-eyed reading this, Johnny B.

    So glad the fruit flies got to you (so that you’d come back to writing). And so glad I had my own fruit fly experience – because damn, writing DOES matter!

    Now I need to go find that baseball bat interview – can’t get enough inspiration!

    Thanks for this!!

  23. Johnny,
    What can I say?

    You rock!

    I’ve seen one of your posts in Marie Forleo’s blog and I think I just LOVE your articles. They have something that I can’t really explain. The attitude and the power behind your words, it’s just amazing…

    You teach people how to hit readers with a baseball bat, and you really know how to do that. Your words are more than just words. I don’t know maybe it has something to do with short sentences and…street language (idk really what’s the proper word but I think you got it). It’s like a real conversation.
    Blog posts should be like these: Imagine you are sitting in a pub with your friends – and you are telling them a story. It’s a good quideline for all writers


  24. Very good. Straddling the fence of writing for a living and writing for creative joy has been my twenty-five year teetering affair. Writing the way I tell it has become my waving flag, I am happy to report.

    I used to nice it up, and be a well-behaved “freelance writer” by jumping onto other people’s half-baked stories and trying to make them work. NO MORE! I am issuing myself a new brand story that makes sense with what I am capable of doing. I cannot fix stories that are cockamamied to begin with but I can certainly weave a tale with great internal logic that moves people to fall into the story’s net.

  25. Too late! I’d already followed in your footsteps before I knew you’d made them.

    Not only could I have written this post (substituting E. coli for every mention of fruit flies), but I DID write this post. Every week on my blog, I implore people to step away from the bad careers and enjoy themselves.

    We need more people to tell this story before they’ll be brave enough to jump.

    Keep writing. 🙂

  26. Hey, Johnny, fabulous post. It makes me breathless, but in a good way.

    I didn’t look at who wrote it until I was done reading it and, strangely, it doesn’t come across as the writing I typically read on your blog. While I like your blog style, I really love this. 🙂

  27. I write copy for a living. Sadly, I’ve realized that pursuing this career diminished the inspiration I once felt, which resulted in poetry (the kind of waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-a-burning-poem kind of writing).
    Writing poetry, I didn’t try to change the world. I just HAD to express mine.
    Writing copy, I supposedly affect people’s minds, but there’s rarely any passion involved (probably because I mourn the loss of my poetic inspiration).
    I know this is a complex question, but – Is There A SOLUTION?

  28. I have only met a few talented writers and I’m sure they would agree with everything you have said. When my son graduated with a degree in “creative writing”, he told me that he would be happy living in a small apartment for the rest of his life as long as he could write. I just shook my head and wondered how long I would have to support him. It has turned out well for him and I’m delighted that he followed his dream.

  29. It’s a brave writer who can go this deep with everything.

    Who can say, Make even our tweets count.

    When we start to attend that way, our writing does change, I agree. But there’s so many production options out there now that recapturing this level of focus is sometimes hard.

  30. I couldn’t agree more. I have just started writing and, although I have messed around with some word assembling, my posts that are the most impacting had purpose! The funny thing is when you try to write something that changes people, you can change yourself in the progress.

    Great Post! I hope to see more like it.


  31. I could so identify with this. I earned a Master’s degree in a field that has helped clothe and feed me for decades. But I have always been the one to write whether it be letters or thank-you notes, paragraphs in my childrens’ baby books, scrapbook vignettes for special occasions, speeches and since I owned my own business even advertising. I work part time now but rush home on those days or spend nearly all my time when I am not at work, writing, writing and writing. Blog posts, a second book, workshop info and no matter what I do or don’t get paid for, the time flies and I enjoy every minute I am writing. Nothing in my degree career made me feel as productive and I have a very satisfying and personally productive JOB.
    I knew I loved writing whenever I would have a blog post title pop into my mind at 3 a.m. and I could simply not wait until morning to get it done. I often think someone who has finished writing something I wish I would never end reading has done more for my happiness than they realize. I know my lips could never find the words to speak as well as my fingers find the ones to write.

  32. Nothing like being slapped back into reality. The reality that writers should be writing to touch the soul. To make a difference. To inspire. To educate. To humor. To bring into someone’s life the pleasure of beautifully crafted words that move the inactive, inspire the depressed, encourage the one lacking confidence.

    It’s has taken me a long time to believe that my ideas, written with passion and purpose, were worthy of being published. But I took the plunge and currently have one book and 4 shorts on Kindle … And they’re selling.

    Your article today encouraged me today, more than ever, to write, write, write. But doing so with fire in the bones to produce work worthy of being called a writer.

    Thanks so much

  33. Brilliant post, it sounds very similar to my own story, except I’m a photographer (how good does it feel to say that you are doing what you really want to do) who was stuck in an IT career.

  34. Thanks for the great post Johnny! I spent 22 years in a legal environment where I created a lot of original work for judges and lawyers, and by the time I finally pulled the plug on the monotony I all but ran out the door. I’ve been in another endeavor for a few years now and write as an expert in my industry, but I’m finally pulling that plug and getting into full-time writing in a new online business I’m creating. It’s extremely liberating but I know I have a lot to learn, which is why I so dig reading everything from Copyblogger. That plus it’s incredibly interesting and just plain fun. Thanks again for the great post. You’re clearly doing what you were meant to do.

  35. Wow. Excellent post. Just the kick in the pants I’ve needed. I’ve always felt I should be a writer, but only recently have begin to really move into action. I’m in this for the long haul, I’ve wasted far too much time already. Thank you for confirming some things for me!

  36. Johnny, I enjoyed this post! It was funny, inspirational and completely “real life”! It was personable and easy to relate to you, as I am too finding my voice as a writer/author. I felt what you wrote.

    Thank You!

  37. This post was beyond awesome. I couldn’t wait to read the next line and it was an emotional roller coaster for me all the way.

    Mission accomplished Johnny.

    First I will share it. Then I shall tuck it away under “my most favourite posts ever” and call it up again when I need to feel inspired or need to copy–I mean write–a storytelling post that will blow my readers away!


  38. I write because I was born to write. I can’t NOT write. Writing has been my escape, my healing, and it has served to entertain or bring healing to others. Someday, I hope that I can make a living to some extent off of my writing, But you’re right…I don’t consider myself an artist. I may paint with words, but it’s a lot of work to compile a story together and so much to consider when writing a novel. Art stays far from my mind when I think of writing.

  39. Wow, I write a nonfiction blog about reptiles and I thought I was doing a pretty good job. Then I read the part in your post about bludgeoning people with a bat! Now that is what I need to be doing. The site is relaunching in September and you can bet, there will be some serious changes and ass kicking going now! Thanks so much for putting into perspective.

  40. After reading this post, I feel like I have just been kicked in the gut. For the past few days I’ve been struggling with in my inner writer. For years I have been denying her because of life, but when I deny the writer in me, I’m drawn to her more and more.

    I was born to write, my earliest memory was when I was seven, and I made up stories for my book reports (which you can read on my blog). The excitement that I felt while creating worlds was all I needed to keep me happy.

    Reading this, reminds me of why I write. It’s not a job, or something that I’m obligated to do. It’s something that I have to do. Without writing, I can’t say that my life is complete.

  41. Interesting that you consider creating nonfiction is ‘twisting writing into something unnatural.’ I couldn’t disagree more. But then again, I find fiction writers to be self-absorbed people who live in a world of their own. It’s harder to write non-fiction, for me anyway, because you’re exposing your real self to the world, not just rearranging things that didn’t go your way, re-creating a world you’d prefer. After all, what is your blog post but a stringing together of words, not quite in this case like the pearls I imagine, in a nonfiction manner?
    I do, however, appreciate your use of the wars of the cerebral spheres. How well I can relate.
    Never in my life have I asked another writer or wanna-be if what they’re doing makes a difference. It doesn’t matter. I know exactly why I write, why I have written since I could hold a pen. The same is true more than 30 years later. Sorry you chose to go through that; must have been a remnant from the battle of the cerebral halves. Good for you, however, for realizing that it was why you were ‘put on this planet.’
    My words are pearls. They are my favorite jewels. These I’m proud to string together, to assemble, to align. There is, after all, no perfect way to do it, but surrounding one’s self with all that pulchritude can only lead to its proliferation.
    Much luck with selling writing that makes you happy.

    • Woah, hey, no need to get defensive… the intro was written as me in the past and isn’t meant to be taken as what I believe today. That was the “before” — the way of thinking that led to panic attacks. Not exactly something I’m eager to keep thinking now.

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