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Me, Myself and I - The Why of Substack
A hundred and fifty years ago in technology years, I had a job that involved helping SMEs with marketing and branding. We focussed on digital solutions because they were a relatively inexpensive answer to what could be a giant money pit of a problem. It was so long ago that when we started, the thing most people came to us asking for was a website.
The question we asked the most was ‘Why?’ to which nearly every person we asked said, ‘What do you mean, why?’
Over time we had the same conversations with people who said: ‘I want a blog.’ If I was still working in this area I am sure I would have been equally delighted in recent years by people who banged on the door demanding to make a podcast.
There is a lot of keeping up with the Joneses in the arena of business and technology. Only everyone wants to keep up with the Musks these days.
Technology changes but the question still remains the same. Why?
Social media is a tool, no matter how creatively it’s presented. It has a job to do. If you don’t know what job you’re trying to do, how do you know if you have the right tool?
I might really want a circular saw, but if what I need is a lump hammer, no matter how shiny the saw, it’s not going to solve my problems for me. Very likely it will create more, and it will certainly be more expensive and possibly take my fingers off in the process of finding that out.
I started a blog because whenever I talked about blogging in networking meetings, waxing lyrical over a tepid sausage sandwich at bleary eyed men in suits, they looked at me blankly. It was easier to show than to tell.
When I got sick of trying to sell space ships to businesses that had only just embraced the horse and cart but considered themselves top notch astronauts, I ditched the men in suits and kept the blog. It was far more satisfying.
The why for me was easy to answer. I wanted to write. I wanted to publish my writing without a gatekeeper telling me what I couldn’t do. I had spent much of my life to that point being told that I wasn’t allowed to do this, or go there, or speak like that, or behave like this. I was sick and tired of shrinking to fit.
I started blogging as the mother of three, young children. I had an eight-year-old, a four-year-old and a new baby. By this time I had failed at being married once, was dealing with a divorce and was attempting to build a new life with Jason. I had spent the duration of my pregnancy with my third child trying to carry on as normal with my business. Working around crippling, sometimes hospitalising pregnancy related health shenanigans, I eventually had to admit defeat.
I had to accept that multiple children who all needed different things at different times and a body that was trying to kill me, did not allow for a demanding career. It’s not that I wanted to be the next Seth Godin, but it would have been nice to have had the option. I love my children, but anyone who tells you that they enjoyed an endless round of nappies, vomit, snot and head lice while singing Wind The Bobbin Up four hundred times a day is either insane or a liar - or both.
My why shifted. Now I didn’t need it for work. I needed it as a lifeline. It allowed me to write about what was happening to me. It allowed me to write down all the thoughts I couldn’t voice at the school gates because I really didn’t need to be reported to social services on top of everything else. There were mums at the school gate who had perfect hair and a full face of make up. There were mums who had pristine children with the right uniform and labels on all their cardigans. I, on the other hand, schlepped to school in Jason’s winter coat hiding my pyjamas and Weetabix in my hair. Once a woman remarked that Tallulah had ‘unusual colouring’ to which I was forced to confesss that it was carrot puree. She never spoke to me again.
The blog allowed me to take up more space in a world that wanted to shrink me into the role of stay at home mum. It’s not that I wasn’t a stay at home mum, or that there is anything wrong with being one - but as every woman in that role will tell you, once they were a contender. That part of you doesn’t disappear just because you get really good at dispensing Calpol in your sleep. Blogging was my domain. I set the parameters. It was a space I made and I defined what happened there. At the darkest points, I felt more real there than I did at home.
That’s not to say that the blogosphere was perfect. Once businesses started to understand the influence and audience that bloggers were generating, things began to get grubby. I started to see bloggers who I had loved for their gritty take on parenting, sanitising up for companies that offered them products and money. I didn’t begrudge them. I know how hard it is to make money and raise a family without some or all of the wheels dropping off. Their why was to make a living. It’s just that my why was to stay alive. There was room for us all, with a bit of shuffling. I just got tired of what the magnificent Tom Cox describes as walking past housing estates that name the roads after the countryside they destroyed to build houses on. I wanted real forest, not Forest Avenue.
However, change is the only constant. As the years rolled by, even my blog, resolutely unpolished though it remained, reflected different things that were happening to me. That’s because my role as a parent changed. Parenting had been a crash course in learning how to accommodate tiny, fragile lives into my own life and keep everyone alive and as sane as possible. As they got older, I had to learn how to start undoing all the things I had learned to do when they were babies. I had to learn to start letting them go - but not like that. In the sleep deprived haze of my baby boot camp I had thought that the baby bit was the hardest. That was before I encountered teenagers.
Teenagers are a nightmare. They are not children nor are they adults. They are babies driving an adult body awash with hormones. They don’t listen to you, but if you stop telling them stuff they get upset that you don’t care. They don’t want to do anything with you but are bereft if you do things without them. You are obliged to care for them in a hands off, devil may care way that takes every ounce of diplomatic skill you have ever learned and the courage of a soldier going over the top to fight the Somme. You will be shot down on the daily, sometimes hourly, but you must get up and go again. This is because even though they behave like the product of Satan’s arsehole, they are more lonely and frightened and unsure of themselves than they ever were or are likely to be in future and they need you. They need you in ways that are impossible for them to put into words but which you must understand and provide for.
You can’t send them to bed when they’re tired. You can’t put them on the naughty step. You can’t tell them what to do because they know everything and you’re a thousand year old egg with no life experience that could ever help them. You can’t talk to them about sex because everyone knows that parents are Barbie and Ken - laminated from the waist down. You can’t talk to them about drugs without sounding like you endorse this message or you are a public health information film shouting; ‘Talk to Frank!’ Your children will already have friends who have close personal experience with ketamine in a hedge at the park. Your children might be that friend.
Teenage life can be summed up by the sentence. YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND.
My problem was that I understood all too well. And despite that, there was nothing to be done except fill the fridge, provide clean pants and endure. Tough love is forged in the white heat of teenagerhood.
Blogging could not help me during the teen years, because there was so much going on that was, quite rightly, private. Nobody needs their mother writing about how they discovered their kids logging onto pornhub, or that time they had to have the car valeted after picking them up from their first, drunken car crash of a party. Which is a shame, because once the trauma has settled, that shit is funny as fuck.
During their babyhood, blogging gave me a space to be me. As the kids grew, their lives became more, not less entwined with mine, which is something I didn’t expect to happen. I thought that as they grew up, we would grow apart. What actually happened is that as they grew up, they needed me in more subtle and pervasive ways that meant it was easier to lose myself than ever before. They needed me to push against. They needed me to grow away from, but I had to be there for them to do that. I have spent a lot of the last few years feeling like Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-Pullyu.
The traumas that they have undergone in the last few years have demanded things from me that I never dreamed I was capable of giving, not even to myself. I have existed in the twilight world of their despair, bearing witness to their horrors and keeping a small, hopeful light flickering when they couldn’t hope for themselves.
These were the years where words failed me. I stopped writing for a long time because my life was not my own to write about. If I had written about what was happening, they would, quite rightly, have considered it to be a betrayal. They needed me to be quiet. They needed me to hold silent, healing space for them. They needed me to trust them to come back when they were ready, if they were ready. I had to demonstrate that largely by all the things I didn’t do.
I had spent years of my life doing things for them. I knew how to do parenting. This was a test of how to be a parent. I am very, very good at doing and I find it very, very hard to be. My way of being has always been to explain myself. I have always used words to carve a path to myself. I have used words to shape an existence that works for me. When words were taken away from me, I fell into an existential crisis.
I talked. God knows I talked. I can talk the hind leg off a donkey. Anyone who knows me in real life will tell you that I never fucking shut up. But talking is not the same. Words do different things when they come out of your mouth. They are liable to get distorted. They bounce off people. They twist in the wind. Words on a page create order and quiet in my mind. Words in my mouth often create more problems than they solve.
In the last few months, as we were talking about some of the teenage issues in our lives, Jason said to me: ‘You have to learn to let go of the children, because they’re not children anymore.’ He is partly right. When you have had to nurse your child through their terror, it is hard to learn to let them go again. I know that. I am learning not to quake with fear every time the phone rings. It’s a process.
What was most important for me, was not the letting go of them, it was finding the path to myself again.
I knew I wanted to write again. I knew Wordpress was not the place for me anymore. The woman I was in those entries is long gone. She feels like someone several branches back on the family tree of me.
A couple of years ago, someone suggested I try Substack. It was at a time when I was in the throes of some of the darkest moments of parenting. I felt like I would burst with all the things I was holding inside me. I knew I couldn’t write about the darkness but I thought I might be able to salvage myself by writing the funny. God knows, I needed a laugh.
I dipped my toe in the water. Every post I wrote felt like a lie. I was already spending my days being someone I wasn’t. I didn’t need a hobby that required me to be someone else again. It took a long while for me to find a way to write enough of my truth to feel that I was manifesting myself again.
One of my ur texts is Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. Chatwin travels to Australia and goes on walkabout with indigenous, Aboriginal tribes. The songlines are their origin stories which are rooted in pathways through the landscape. They create themselves again and again as they walk the paths of their lives and histories. When they begin to feel untethered by the demands of everyday life, they go on walkabout and reconnect to themselves, recharging their batteries.
Since moving to the boat I have found a way back to writing myself through the walks that I take, which has a beautiful synchronicity with Chatwin’s words. I write myself into being. My stories are the same and different, honing themselves with every re-telling. Time passes and I look again through a new lens of age or experience or both.
I was featured on Substack Discovers recently. It was a wonderful and unexpected gift that has given me a whole, new readership. Over three days I watched my subscription and follower numbers ratchet up and up. It was dizzying. Over the last week, those numbers have been dropping, as people discover that I am not for them.
Substack Stats are right there in your writer dashboard, flashing up as soon as you log in to write a new post. I always look at them, even though, much like my weight, I have an unhealthy relationship with those kinds of numbers. I find myself beguiled by them. I wonder what caused six readers to abscond overnight. What did I write that made them think, ‘fuck that for a game of soldiers?’ I find myself thinking about what I could write to keep people here. What could I do to grow my audience?
I know that people like short posts. I know that people like strong visuals. I know all kinds of things about hooking in readers and turning casual browsers into loyal customers. I have to forcibly remind myself sometimes that it isn’t the point. That is not the why of my Substack, even if it’s the why of other people’s. The why of my Substack is not to find ways to get people to buy into me like I’m a new type of snack. People are fickle. Tastes change. Things move on. Today’s Prime is tomorrow’s Pop Tart.
I’m using Substack to explore the Songline of myself. I’m writing myself back to what matters to me. I become in the words that I write. I write myself to meet myself. This is the why of Substack for me.