The Grasshopper #82: A Balancing Act
Writing about controversy
Writers these days can choose to play nice nice and write about personal improvement, recipes, or some other Good Housekeeping topic. We can tell stories of dystopian futures or write romance novels. Or we can get in readers’ faces with controversial topics, a choice not without risks.
This week, being one of those in your face writers (but still nice nice), I ventured into a true no-man’s land, writing about the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. And in trying to see both sides, I found myself in a true balancing act as I try to avoid the rabid emotions on both sides (Both? There may be more than two).
It’s an interesting challenge, albeit a scary one that I take seriously. I write about controversy all the time, but generally those pieces take a position, being opinion, not news. But with the Middle East and Israel in particular, I try to tread carefully.
Unlike many Americans I do not want to take sides in this. I’m an amateur history guy and I know just enough about the history of the region to know there are no black and white positions or answers.
So this has become a challenge. The easiest thing would be to declare the topic off limits, but the upcoming Presidential election is one of my principal subjects and this has become a central issue affecting those stories.
So, I have chosen to wade in, without committing to one point of view or another. It’s different territory for me.
So far the response has been muted*, which tells me I have succeeded to some degree. I’m an old school progressive Democrat, that is to say, not obsessed with woke and all that nonsense. But the response to this issue has seemed to be all over the map, politically, in the US.
*This weekend Medium’s curators Boosted my recent story on the region that appeared in last week’s Witness Chronicles. This puts the story into higher visibility on the platform, which honestly surprised me.
To be clear, the topic is far more complex than writing about domestic politics or climate issues where my opinion is pretty clear to me.
Which gets me to the mix of topics I find myself writing about in any given week. On top of those newsy issues, I’m also writing about an intense and ongoing personal change, completely unrelated to all that other stuff.
As you may know, it’s my experience that focus is really important to succeeding as an online writer. For me, staying close to certain big topics has been the driver of what little success I’ve had. So, taking on this personal story was a big thing.
But I’m doing it because I have to on a personal level. Writing about a conflict in the Middle East, on the other hand, has been a choice, one I struggle with a bit. So far, so good, but…
Substack is an unusually personal medium, if we can call it that. In my newsletters I’m writing directly to a reader, you, and a lot of you. Well, not a lot but a fair amount. This is why these are newsletters as opposed to news. They are a letter direct to readers in a personal voice that I happen to prefer in my writing.
I’ve been writing The Grasshopper for about eighteen months, or as the title says, 82 issues. Early on I saw it as a kind of primer for being a writer, particularly an online writer. I wrote about a few lifestyle issues and things like breaking into freelance content writing.
I used to be a lot closer to those kinds of things, but like everything, this newsletter has evolved. Topical issues have injected themselves further into my work and the challenges they bring, like writing about the Middle East conflict(s), have changed my perspective about the role of writers in society these days.
I think that adaptation is not only normal, it is critical to growth as a writer. Though I write for Medium and have a good following there, I don’t read there much. Why? Because I see popular writers continually writing the same articles over and over.
That may work on a practical level but there’s no growth there. It looks like a job to me and I do not want a job in the conventional sense. And several of the most successful ‘old school’ Medium writers have left, many finding their way to platforms like Substack.
When a writer with tens of thousands of Followers on Medium leaves, they are leaving behind a fairly stable income. They are quitting their jobs, because they were at risk of becoming jobs.
These writers tended to be among the most opinionated writers on the platform. Their leaving generally reflects changes there, where it appears management has decided to reward those who write ‘uplifting’ stuff over those who have a voice.
That’s their choice, it is their company to run. I’m still there out of loyalty to my Followers and because I can still reach a substantial number of readers. But moving to Substack has meant quitting that job and striking out on my own, which is a blast.
Having both options works for me right now. But a key lesson as a writer is don’t be afraid to evolve into directions that interest you more. Evolution, after all, is what drives life forward.
Is your writing based on a routine? I think it has to be if you want to progress towards being a professional, that is, someone with a voice and readers who makes at least some money from their work.
Money, btw, is an important measurement of the quality of your work in this life, like it or not.
But another measurement, especially in the mercurial world of online writing, is consistency. Here one of our goals is to develop an audience that returns regularly for more.
Any business owner will tell you that regular customers are the bread and butter, the stabilizing thing that pays the bills. But you must feed the beast you are creating.
And please don’t do it by writing the same stuff over and over. Honestly, that’s pitiful.
My consistency routine is this: wake up relatively early, make a cup of cappuccino and scan the news online. On a good day, I have a doc started in Google Docs with a headline that I jotted down the day before. Or an idea hits me from a news item that gets me stirred up.
Once I have a headline, I go into writing mode and write the whole thing. I’ve found that stopping halfway and picking it up later does not yield the results I like a lot of the time.
So I’ve set aside a chunk of time where I will go away and write, ignoring outside distractions. This is learned behavior like any habit. I think it is why many writers hate distractions while we are in writing mode. If something requires my attention I have to make an effort to pull away from writing mode.
When no compelling article idea stirs me up, I try and do organizational stuff like getting my newsletters in order and editing. Writing here at The Grasshopper is different from writing topical opinion/observation pieces and makes a good alternative.
Having two newsletters on two different topics also helps, but I think that’s my limit these days. I’m averaging a thousand words daily across my publishing empire, though I’m not feeling much like an emperor.
I know I’ve covered this before, but it is important. Inspiration is wonderful but it mostly comes while doing things, not beforehand.
Right now, I’m feeling relatively balanced in my writing life and I have a plan in place for the new year. Of course balance requires flexibility and adaptability, but having a clear path at any given moment makes it easier to change as needed.
Writers, perhaps more than other creatives, work from a completely blank slate. You start with a blank screen and make something that readers can get passionate about on multiple levels, something completely ephemeral that nevertheless ignites things in ways we might not anticipate.
That’s a fun thing but it also carries responsibilities and consequences. That’s what gives a story its power, regardless of topic or setting.
Did you write today?
~ I write The Grasshopper, a letter for creatives, The Witness Chronicles, a weekly digest of three of my articles on politics and climate, and The Remarkable, a recovery letter, about my addiction and reentry experience. All are weekly and free with a paid option to share support. Please check them out.
If you want to show support but don’t want to commit to a subscription, you can always buy me a coffee!
Believe me, it makes my day. M
The Grasshopper, a place for writers is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.