AKA A Parable of Bubbles
This article is supposed to go up on my Medium. Some day, my Medium and vaibhavgupta.net will be in perfect sync. Today is not that day. Till then, check out my Medium page if you haven’t: @VaibhavGuptaWho on Medium
It’s practically a genre in itself. There’s a ton of channels of writing advice out there. You might not have noticed you’re on one right now.
Oh, you had? Okay.
The Writing Cooperative is one of the best advice channels I’ve ever come across — I read fantastic articles on the daily, and they’ve been particularly inspiring and helpful for me as a writer.
They’ve also made me realize a ton of writers seem to write exclusively about the writing process, and yet many others do little but hang around the Facebook pages of creators and advisers such as Writing about Writing or Gary Vaynerchuk.
While that isn’t a problem (Hey, you do you, man), it is unsurprising how comfortable some people become in that position. They then struggle to develop as a writer, build something meaningful, or experience success through their writing.
And no, the irony of this article is not lost on me.
I write this article today because of three key experiences. Back in school, an English teacher discussed a famous George Bernard Shaw line.
“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”
Now, he was a bit biased in his leanings, given his situation.
However, even though the teacher disagreed with the line, the thought stuck with me, and I often ponder if the statement is true or simply egotistic on the part of someone who fancies himself a hustler.
In the current context, do writers write about writing because they cannot write about anything else? Do they teach how to write because they lack the ability to do it themselves? I doubt it.
However, around that same time I also read that many writers become editors because it is easier to evaluate and improve somebody else’s work rather than come up with your own. They give up in frustration at not being published, and end up opening their own publishing house, eventually getting sucked into that world.
That makes a lot more sense to me. Perhaps writers write about writing because it’s a comfortable realm of expertise. And because it is comfortable, they form a bubble around themselves. They live within the confines of a cozy bubble, often finding it impossible to venture out and explore. After all, most of us want to be comfortable, not happy.
The significance of the bubble was further compounded in my third key experience in 2016, when I first became a Toastmaster.
In my limited circles, I found very few people knew about Toastmasters International, supposedly the largest public speaking organization in the world. I’d never heard of them myself, until I was introduced to a club in my workplace.
They crown the World Champion of Public Speaking every year — that should be a pretty big deal. Yet, I had no idea who they were, but I knew about TED and TEDx. Why was that?
It was one year into the organization before I realized why. Toastmasters talk about… Toastmasters.
(In my limited experience) A lot of speeches in member clubs are about how the organization helped the speaker “find themselves”. Sure, there’s a lot of flair, but to an outsider, there’s little meaning in repeated sales pitches or self-gratifying life stories.
That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful speeches with fantastic takeaways every now and then. But so far for me, even championship winning speeches fail to hold a candle to a TEDx Talk, because those are crafted with the sole intention of presenting “ideas worth spreading”.
Toastmasters International has 375,000 members worldwide, but some of them still introduce themselves, if they can, as TEDx speakers. It’s quite telling that the official TEDx YouTube channel has 9 million subscribers, while the official Toastmasters YouTube channel has 67 thousand.
This isn’t a hit piece on TMI. They have a proven, structured program for improving your skills, which I’ve personally benefited from, which is why I continue to be a member. And TED/x is not without their faults, one being that they do not pay their speakers despite charging (heftily) for attendance, as pointed out by Frank Swain.
Yet, that does not take away from the fact that TED/x speeches create real value in their consumers, while TMI speeches do not, and that makes all the difference.
That is what makes TED more successful — that their bubble is not limited to talking about a single topic or organization, but rather interesting stories and ideas and experiences from across the gamut of life itself.
Like a speech, your articles, essays, and novels are far more impactful and appreciated when they create value for the consumer. Concise, actionable advice and problem-solving, or fiction that has a clear message, will always be the most successful.
Creating value for others is difficult. Building something from nothing is mind-numbingly hard. The universe couldn’t do it; how do you?
The answer, of course, lies in your personal experiences. Your experiences are what you write about. They influence your thoughts, principles, and politics, and hence they will inform and enrich your writing.
But as a dedicated, full-time writer, the only skill or experience you might have given sufficient time to is writing. While that makes you a better, more-controlled writer, it leaves you a poorer person. Compared to your writing colleagues, you will struggle a lot more in coming up with topics, building engaging narratives, and writing more empathetic fiction.
This is why any writing advisor worth their salt advocates reading. When you read, and you read good authors, you get a second-hand experience of the expertise of masters who came before you.
Going on that magic galactic carpet ride through the opium-addled minds of raving lunatics really helps, you guys. Surrender to the carpet ride.
Bottom Line: Do something else to enrich your life and build expertise, so that you can write about it. Expertise is what gets you likes, responses, applause, whatever metric you want to use to fill the hole in your heart.
I cannot write about personal development if I don’t practice it everyday myself. It will come across as vapid, disingenuous, and condescending. Unlike this post… maybe?
And as I continue to practice public speaking at Toastmasters, I can begin writing about speechcraft and oratory. I’ll write one about that next.