I’m talking with a friend who, like me, has been blogging off and on for years. Recently, she just had her first viral hit.
Viral, of course, is a relative term. There are the modest successes that can feel viral when you’re used to basic obscurity. Perhaps you have a few thousand people visiting your site overnight all looking at the same article, where it had been a trickle of stragglers (or no one at all) up until the day before.
And then there are other cases that are more classically viral. Where you have millions of social media shares, an offer of a book deal, and the cast of Good Morning America is suddenly discussing your post. Hell, even a merch deal in some cases (look at Grumpy Cat, raking in the dough — though she’s a model, not a writer). And a wide range in between.
Like most people who experience “viral” success, my friend is in that place in between those two poles. Getting her first taste of commenters, reader mail. Well, “taste” is putting it mildly. This is a veritable banquet. She keeps showing me messages she’s received as we’re talking.
As I listen to her speak, I feel grateful that the growth of my online presence was more gradual than what she’s going through (although she says that when she watched me go through it, she thought it looked fast). She sounds shell shocked, stressed. And frankly, miserable.
“You know, before this happened,” she says, “I was getting kind of salty about you.”
“About me?” I say. “What do you mean? What did I do?”
“Oh, you didn’t do anything. I just… well, I was watching you break out, and I wanted to break out, too,” she says.
“Well, I don’t know if I’ve broken out yet,” I reply. “But I’m trying.”
“Well, you have a solid reader base. And six months ago, I would have killed to have a solid reader base,” she says. “But now that I have one, it’s driving me crazy.”
I laugh. “It can be a big adjustment. What are you struggling with?”
“Readers always want you to have the answers to their problems,” she says. We talk about the piece she wrote, the big one. I’d link to it here, but she asked me not to (she doesn’t want her readers to know she’s struggling, her public persona is much more confident than mine). In general terms, the essay is about a problem she’s been having for years. One that she always wished someone else would write about — but no one ever did. Something that she could barely put into words herself.
And so when she found the words, she was elated. Like always, she typed up a draft and then clicked “publish” and went on about her day. But instead of the normal crickets or perhaps modest trickle of shares from her closest friends on social media, the post spread like wildfire. I knew she was on to something when I saw her article again and again, in all kinds of odd places, including in a cooking forum I belong to (especially since her article is interpersonal, not culinary at all).
“The first few comments and messages I got were wonderful,” she says. “People were thanking me for giving them the words to explain something they had lived for years without being able to articulate. But then it started. The trolls came first, nitpicking. I expected that. But then another wave came that I didn’t expect. People who said, ‘Thanks for talking about this, I have this problem, too. How do you solve it? How do you cope?'”
I nod. “That’s how it happens, when you talk about a problem in public. Readers want the solution, too. They want that closure.”
“I guess,” she says. “It’s just so difficult. I’d only just figured out how to talk about the problem, I was nowhere near ready to talk about the solution. If there even is one.”
“Well, even if there isn’t a quick fix, there’s at least coping with it,” I say. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
“Sure,” she says. “But it’s one thing to cobble together a survival method for yourself. It’s another to make that explicit, you know. To find the right words to explain. And certainly to explain in a logically coherent way so there aren’t huge holes for the trolls to drive trucks through. Throwing the horns. Blasting heavy metal music.”
“Now I’m imagining Internet trolls as those caravans in Mad Max Fury Road.”
She laughs. “You’re not far off.”
“Here’s what I want you to do: Give yourself permission to not have all the answers right now on demand, in the comments section or in the messages you’re getting. Give yourself permission to get there in the next post.”
“How do I do that?” she asks.
“Right,” I say, laughing. “You want actual answers. Of course. Just like anyone else.”
“We’re hopelessly human, aren’t we?”
“Tragically,” I say.
“Well, I can tell you how it’s always worked for me.”
“Okay,” she says.
“Start a new draft that’s basically the followup to the initial post. Put in the unanswered questions, people’s concerns. Hell, if the trolls are interesting, you can even put some of the trolling in there. And save the thing. For whenever. And when the answers come to you later, whenever that is, then you can give those answers in this new post. If you can’t finish it then, go write something else.”
“But what if you never get back to it?” she says.
“That’s rarer than you would think, at least for me. Usually, after it’s been somewhere between 3 days and 3 weeks, I’ll figure it out. Because it’s less about making up a new solution and instead it’s about realizing that I already know one, since I survived, it’s just implicit. But I need the time to realize how I changed and figure out how to communicate that internalized solution properly to someone else.”
“Well, that method sounds good,” she says. “But I don’t know if it would work for me,” she says.
“Maybe it will, maybe it won’t,” I say. “But you don’t know until you try.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” she says.
“Then you come up with your own solution,” I say. “Based on what didn’t work from trying out mine.”
“And here we are full circle,” she says. “So frustrating.”
“Here’s the thing,” I say. “I’m willing to bet you already have a solution… you just haven’t figured out what it is yet.”
She groans. “Yep, right back to where we started from.”
We talk a bit more, about incubation effect and letting ideas simmer. Before switching to juicy gossip that monopolizes the rest of our time together.
I don’t think much about our conversation until I get a text a few weeks later. Well, shit. It reads. I figured out how to explain the “solution.”
Of course you did, I write back. Let me know when it comes out.