Reading Readers and Demons

Why I Write

I’m reading nothing but the east Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale these days and it’s his contention that writing is what supposedly modern humans do to alleviate built-up mental pressure instead of cranial surgeries, the drilling of holes in skulls, which was the ancient way of attempting to alleviate the torment of thoughts that will not go away, to let the demons out.

The old portesaintmonty all of a sudden went from a couple of hundred regular readers to closer to two thousand. I doubted that the numbers were true, and resented the software for encouraging me with lies. It wasn’t gradual growth. It was overnight and alarming. My readership kept growing and so did my stress. I was only writing a blog because my doctors had suggested that I might find it an effective form of therapy, not because I thought people might read it. The doctors were right—until the pressure of my blog began to replicate the pressure of my faculty’s toxicity, which was what had brought me to the doctors and the blogging in the first place.

One of the more irritating aspects of modern life is the inability to escape metrics that measure success numerically. The software with which I published my blog began each session by displaying how many views my previous post had received. It would be naïve to imagine that a desire to see the number grow bigger didn’t enter into the writing, both content and style. Not only the desire but equally the speculation, impossible to ignore, who is reading which posts—and why? Once that happened, writing my blog became a form of anti-therapy. It became a long-form version of social media, where likes, in the form of distinct readers, became a new pseudo-source of pleasure, a sugar high that crashed into depression and a craving to re-experience itself immediately. The writing—which is where the good times are supposed to happen—became instead a nerve-wracking period of self-doubt mixed with impure intentions. Writing to be popular is not the same as writing because you have something you feel it is important (for you) to say. When I felt my writing begin to change in an unconscious effort to achieve a type of success that wasn’t real, I decided it was time to stop.

In the one year between portesaintmonty and substack, I wrote a novel. Novel-writing is an entirely different animal. It’s a whole year of intense, daily solitude with no readers (or one). It’s also an entire year where your brain is working in the background on all the issues that animate your thinking, that shape who you are. When you come up out of the fiction, you find that the external world remains intact and that your relationship to it remains perplexing, only—confoundingly!—in new ways requiring sustained analysis. So, yes, I’m writing about the same old topics to try and find out if I have new things to say. Possibly this is all the same old thing.

Substack is also sort of the same old thing. It is exactly like the previous software in that it assumes you are writing to become famous and sends you frequent and very excited sounding e-mails on the status of your readership. I thought it fair to share some of that analysis with you so you can also get a sense of who, besides you, is reading what:

Posts that are about the almost certain illegality of now defunct Christian & Missionary Alliance overseas boarding schools attract far more readers than those about my former career as a college professor. If I write about academics in Canada, thirty (30) people read my posts. If I write about zany Christians from the ‘80s three hundred (300) people read my posts.  If I was smart and intent on nurturing my readership, it’s clear I could probably make a living just by continuously shitcanning the Christians. I think it’s equally clear that if I was smart and intent on growing my audience, I would not have lived the life I’ve lived or written the things that I have.

I write for the Joe R. Lansdale reason and that one alone—to get out whatever it is that I can’t stop thinking about. Right now, the truth is, I don’t have a problem with the Christians. It’s the new-Christians that are suddenly dangerous. I feel like I have to keep writing about that until it feels like it’s time to stop. Even if it gets to be writing to me. Which, as I’ve said, is a situation I’m pretty familiar with. Until then, thank you for hanging around.