Note from Glen: Can I tell you a secret? This is my all-time favorite BBT post. It was first published long before I became editor but here it is again because the message is still so important. P.S. Happy holidays!
Can I tell you my worst nightmare?
I’m lying in bed in a nursing home, sick and dying, gasping for breath, knowing that any minute now I’ll be passing into the great beyond. And I’m scared, really, really scared, because I’m all alone, and I don’t know what’s going to happen, and oh God, it hurts so much…
But then it stops. My body goes limp, my last breath rattles from my lungs, my bowels release, and the heart monitor beside the bed flat lines, loudly proclaiming the end of the great and mighty Jon Morrow.
A few moments later, a nurse walks into the room, checks my pulse, and looks at her watch. She writes down my time of death on a form, pulls the sheet over my head, and goes back to her office, where she calls the morgue. A day or two later, I’m cremated with five other bodies, all of us too unimportant to even get our own urn.
And the worst part?
The next day, the sun comes up. The birds are singing. People eat breakfast, go to work, attend meetings… and nobody even notices I’m gone. The great wheel keeps on turning, and for better or worse, I’m forgotten. Goodbye cruel world, nobody gave a damn about me after all.
Scary, isn’t it?
Just writing it down gives me the willies.
It’s not just dying, although that’s certainly gruesome. It’s being forgotten. Down deep, I believe all of us have a primal need to be remembered, to pass something on to future generations, to leave some mark on the world saying, “I was here.”
If we’re being honest, I think maybe that’s one of the reasons many of us start blogging. There’s something immensely comforting about knowing your thoughts are out there for the whole world to read. You could kick the bucket tomorrow, but your words will live on, teaching, inspiring, and taking root in the minds of readers for generations to come.
Or at least that’s the idea.
What really happens, of course, is that you pour your heart and soul into a post, and no one seems to care. No comments, no links, no nothing. Come on over, friends, and check out my blog. We’re watching my ideas die in real time. Yuk, yuk, yuk.
And it’s disturbing.
When you pull up your blog, and you see it says “0 comments” next to every post, you feel like nothing has changed. Once again, you’re slipping through the cracks, passing into oblivion, one more nobody with a stupid little blog, God save your soul.
The good news?
It can change. You just have to realize your writing by itself isn’t a magic key to immortality. If you want that, you have to be unforgettable. You have to touch people so deeply, connect with them so powerfully that your ideas are burned into their minds.
Say hello to the walking dead
Heavens no. If you doubt me, just walk into any restaurant, and watch people for an hour or two.
First, you have the corporate drone, a stack of papers in one hand, a cell phone in the other, hurriedly shoveling food in their mouth so they can get back to a job they hate.
Next, you have the married couple who take a few bites of food, glance up, and blink in surprise because they forgot their spouse was there.
And lastly, you have the old folks who would never admit it, but for them, the restaurant is just a waiting room for the funeral parlor.
The common characteristic that binds them all together:
They’re bored out of their minds.
Just look at their eyes. They’re not even there. Somewhere along the way, their mind and heart and soul drifted off to sleep, and their body is operating on autopilot, keeping them alive until something interesting happens.
If that’s not upsetting enough, here’s one more cold, hard truth:
These people are our readers!
If you aren’t getting any comments or links or shares, it’s not because your blog sucks, necessarily. It’s because your readers are the walking dead. They can’t even remember what your post is about, much less think of something intelligent to say.
If you want interaction, you have to wake them up. You have to break them out of their stupor. You have to pump some freaking life back into their veins, so just for a few minutes, they can be human again.
Let’s talk about how…
Examine the patient for signs of life
The good news is they’re not all dead. They’re only mostly dead, which as anyone who has seen The Princess Bride knows, means they are slightly alive.
Your job as a writer is to find that life.
You have to watch them. You have to talk to them. You have to study them the way a doctor examines a patient suffering from some mysterious illness.
You’re searching for a spark. Buried down deep inside, they have hidden fears, dreams, desires, and hatreds, and every once in a while, those emotions will leap to the surface, giving you a clue about how to bring them back.
The corporate drone slips on his earbuds and fingers an air guitar when he thinks no one is watching. The bored housewife receives a phone call from her daughter in college and laughs and giggles like a school girl. The old fart snatches up a newspaper and begins cursing the stupidity of politicians.
One moment, their eyes are dull and glassy. The next, they’re shining with emotion.
One moment, their skin is gray and waxy. The next, it’s a glowing pink.
One moment, their body is stiff and awkward. The next, it’s full of vitality.
It’s like watching someone come to life, although that’s not exactly true, of course. They were always alive. It’s like they just forgot for a while, and they need someone to remind them.
That “someone” is you.
Attach the jumper cables
The battery dies. Not because anything is wrong with it, necessarily, but because no one has been using it.
And how do we charge it up?
We get a car with a fully charged battery, connect the two with jumper cables, and then rev the engine.
Well, people’s emotions work sort of the same way. If you’ve not been using them for a while, it’s hard to get them started again, and often times, we need someone else to give us a boost.
As writers, that’s our job.
Your readers are the dead batteries. You are the live one. The written word is your pair of jumper cables.
The secret is knowing where, exactly, to connect those cables.
On the reader’s side, you have to connect them to a place where your reader is at least slightly alive. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your energy, which is what many writers do. That’s why studying your audience is so critical.
On your own side, you have to connect those jumper cables to exactly the same place as you connected them to the reader, kind of like matching the positive and negative terminals. In other words, what turns them on has to turn you on too. Big time.
Because, baby, it’s time to rev that engine.
Rev your engine
It’s not just ink on paper or pixels on a screen. It’s raw energy in printed form.
Where does that energy come from?
If you read Steven King, you can’t help but feel how he enjoys telling stories of everyday people and their struggle to find the courage to stand up against the psychopathic baddies who threaten their worlds.
If you read Seth Godin, you can’t help but feel his passion for extraordinary people who create extraordinary businesses to change the world in extraordinary ways.
If you read Chuck Palahniuk, you can’t help but feel the rage of an underclass who feels caged by society and yearns to break free, even if that means violence and blood and death.
It’s not a trickle of emotion. It’s a roaring flood, a tidal wave of feeling that lifts you up and carries you along for a ride.
Not surprisingly, that’s why it’s popular. Because if you feel the way the author does, it charges you up.
So how do you write with that kind of emotion?
You rev your engine. You charge yourself up. You do your battle chant.
Instead of sitting down and writing cold, imagine the emotion you want to create in your reader, and deliberately cultivate that emotion in yourself. Cry, laugh, get so mad you nearly beat your keyboard to death.
Then let it loose. Let it flow through you and into your words.
Your readers will feel it. They’ll wake up. It’ll make them feel alive.
And they’ll remember you forever.
How to be unforgettable
It’s not about how smart you are.
It’s not about the professionalism of your blog design.
It’s not even about giving readers tips they can go out and apply immediately.
It’s about the way you make those readers feel.
You want them to cry. You want them to laugh out loud. You want them to shake with anger.
But the most important part?
You want them to feel alive.
You’ve felt it with other art forms, right? You go to a great concert or act or movie, and when it finishes, you feel a little bit different? A little bit more awake?
Well, great writing does that too, and the beautiful part is it can affect people on a mass scale. You can write a great post once, and thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people will be affected by it.
Do you realize how incredibly precious that is?
It means you’re not just here to inform. It means you’re not just here to entertain. It means you’re not just here to persuade.
Those little pixels on the computer screen can change somebody’s life.
After writing this post on ProBlogger, one guy actually emailed to tell me he was planning to commit suicide, and my post talked him out of it. It spoke to him exactly where he was, gave him exactly the message he needed to hear, and reached him at exactly the right time.
Honestly, I feel better about that than all the money I’ve made in my life. I set out to write a post that would affect people, and it did, maybe in the biggest way possible.
It’s time to start taking your work seriously
When you sit down to write, don’t publish just another blog post. Don’t give your readers just another tip. Don’t tell just another cute story.
Set their freaking hair on fire.
Write with so much passion and energy and enthusiasm they can’t stay asleep. You want them to feel like somebody shocked them with a defibrillator.
Because that’s what you have to do: bring them back to life. Maybe not forever, maybe not even for a day, but for an hour or two, give them such a charge they feel like a different person.
Do that, and they won’t just move on to the next post, forgetting about you forever.
They’ll write a comment. They’ll share your post with their friends. They’ll subscribe to your blog, so they can come back for more.
And then you can shock them again and again and again until they find their spark for good.
From then on, you’ll be their hero. They’ll think about you every day. You’ll be, quite literally, unforgettable.
But the best part?
When your time does come, you’ll know you made a difference
I don’t know about you, but when I pass into the great beyond, I won’t be thinking about comment counts or traffic stats or the number of subscribers on my mailing list. I’ll think about the guy who decided not to commit suicide, the young girl who made enough money to get off food stamps, the overworked dad who was able to quit the rat race and spend time with his kids.
Those are the things that matter. Those are the things we are working for. Those are the things we need to build our entire businesses around.
That’s why we’re here. That’s why we matter.
So get to work.
Your readers are waiting for you.