63 Comments

I've been intending to write about this very subject, Tom, but you've nailed it. Well said.

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it’s been banging about in my brain for literally months …

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Same here, but you've done a great job.

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Thanks Tom, for the mention of my post. Looking forward to your next essay. And, yes, the didactic in any form is a turn-off to me as well.

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Thanks David.

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Mar 10Liked by Tom Pendergast

"But if you make your woes—or, for that matter, your self-promotion or self-absorption—the driving force behind your writing, you’ll soon lose me."

You struck a chord with me there, Tom. My personal pet peeve. Really enjoyed this essay.

I would love some captions on the great pictures you included. It would appear that you are happy, active, "free ranging" and friendly people.

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Free-ranging and friendly are pretty good descriptors! Thanks Jim

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I'd never considered I'm actually writing to an audience of one, so thanks for that. It helps me consider my own authenticity and this idea that I should be speaking as if to an audience of one.

On the idea of reciprocity in person it does take practice and self awareness. About 10-15 years ago I recognized I was monopolizing conversations with trite sarcastic responses to try and interject humor. I wasn't really listening. Now I actively speak in my head "shut up and listen". Because they may just need to get something off their chest.

It also took recognizing that other people aren't naturally trained to listen, which means trained to ask questions. It's that natural curiosity you discussed. You can do an experiment next time and relate an anectdote similar to their own. Share something in response that requires them to ask a question. If they don't or continually parrot their own response to your response, then you know it's not going to be reciprocal.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tom!

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I'm very much one of those had-to-train-myself people. Being a natural introvert doesn't help. I have the curiosity, but not the social adeptness to pull it off.

But I learned a trick. In my day job, I often do interviews for the articles I'm writing. Sometimes I write questions down ahead of time, but often now I can walk in cold and get the information I need. So, if I feel particularly awkward in a social situation, I'll pretend I'm simply asking them questions for an article. It helps me (a) overcome my introversion and (b) come up with semi-intelligent questions.

I'm not sure, but I think on one or two occasions, I actually came off as an extrovert...

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I relate to being curious but socially clumsy! I also do a lot of interviewing and building rapport in my day job and will try your trick the next time I’m in an awkward social situation.

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I find it quite amazing how going from "Graham" to "interviewer" opens me up more and -- yes -- helps me build rapport. Wish I could be naturally engaging (like, for example, my hyper-extroverted wife!), but I guess I have to work with what I have... lol

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Mar 10·edited Mar 10Liked by Tom Pendergast

Do you find, as I do, that often people describe u as a good conversationalist when you've said virtually nothing, just listened?😂

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Haha, yes! The ability to direct a conversation toward points of mutual interest really helps.

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Oh my god, yes: all you have to do to get the mantle of “good conversationalist” is ask people about themselves! I’m really prone to this, as I’m super curious, so I often start with all kinds of questions … but I do get dismayed when they are never reciprocated.

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Me too. I think it's a matter of common courtesy apart from anything else. On numerous occasions i've said to a friend or relative "Hi, how are you? How's the job?" etc and then listen to them tell me in detail without going on to ask the same questions of me. I have been known to say, when it has particularly rankled, "Oh yes, I'm fine thank you". Sometimes they even have the good grace to be embarrased!

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Isn’t that “audience of one” bit super helpful? I think I’m prone to writing that way, but hearing that description made it even sharper in my head. I’m going to respond to you and Terry in my comment to Terry below …

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Great essay, as usual Tom. Plus, you've introduced me to some other great writers, so thanks for that! (I'm climbing back out of that pleasant rabbit hole now to reply to this... lol)

You've given me a lot to think about. I try to approach my how-tos as suggestions rather than edicts from on high. That's how it always goes in my head: "here's something you can try" rather than "this is what you should do". I also use "this is what worked for me" wherever possible. However, I'm sure I've used "should" somewhere in there. (I'm too scared now to look...)

It's tough, though. It's difficult to give advice without seeming condescending or didactic, I've found.

Just a couple of days ago, I read this thread on Reddit about what the OP calls "Social Media Writing Advice". (https://www.reddit.com/r/writing/comments/1b9q2r7/social_media_writing_advice_sucks_agree_or/) The question posed about whether or not it sucks both intrigues and repels me. I wanted to answer, but I didn't know which thread to pull.

I agree in principle that didactic writing in general is not a good thing. But don't some people *want* to just be told how to do a particular thing? If I go to YouTube to find out how to fix my dishwasher, then I very much want someone to say 1, 2, 3 -- this is how you do it. Aren't there some beginner writers out there who want the same thing? Or is it different because it's art versus an engineered piece of equipment?

This angst is compounded by my self-awareness that I can come off as overbearing sometimes (see your previous post on assholism...). In reality, I hate the idea of manipulating people into a certain action. But sometimes I get passionate about particular topics, which I know can come off as trying to do just that...

In any case. I still don't have a comprehensive answer to the whole "helpful hints" vs. "didactic one true path" question. I think both viewpoints are valid, even if I do try to lean towards the "helpful hints" side of the spectrum. At least in intent.

More to chew on...

BTW, I couldn't figure out the symbolism of the coat rack in your first photo. Does it mean that the two of you are "on the hook" with each other for the rest of your lives or that, being and empty coat rack, your relationship is "off the hook"? Enquiring minds want to know...

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You know, Graham, while there were people I had in mind when I wrote about being overly didactic, you were decidedly NOT one of them. I think you have set a particular frame for your ‘Stack that allows you to be offering advice, but I’ve never once felt like it came from a position of superiority or condescension. I think this is because of the quality of your voice—that you invoke a kind of humility or vulnerability that deflects the concerns I’ve raised. Now I’m going to have to pay more attention to how you manage that, because I still read all your pieces even though in many cases there are “not for me,” so to speak. Anyway, I say all this not because I sensed defensiveness on your part but just because you couldn’t help but reflect what I was saying onto your own practice … which I appreciate and learn from. As for the coat rack … hot damn, I don’t think I’d ever paid any attention to it, but the picture would be better without it, wouldn’t it? Too bad there’s not a computer program that could remove stuff like that! 😀 Seriously though, this picture just caught this glow that was filling this brewery so nicely, and it summed up that day for us—a day that started at Dinosaur National Monument and then saw us cross through the high country in Flaming Gorge only to land in Rock Springs, Wyoming, for the night— it’s just one of my favorites.

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Well that's a relief! And thanks for the many compliments -- it's a voice I've been consciously working on. Glad to hear it's working!

Oh, I didn't mean to spotlight the coat rack if you didn't see it. FWIW, I think it helps make the photo. If it were a blank wall with two silhouettes, it would be a creative and interesting photo and all. But the coat hooks, along with the other items in the photo, help frame your sihouttes to make the image something richer (and better, in my mind). Life dances around you, but two solid silhouettes remain steadfastly together and undeterred...

That's my interpretation, anyway.

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Mar 10Liked by Tom Pendergast

What a heartwarming piece to start a Sunday!

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Heartwarming? Well hell, that’s nice, and makes me glad I pulled a few of the snarkier comments I had in earlier drafts. By the way, the woman in the first paragraph: I’ll bet you know her.

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She sounded familiar. ;)

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Love this. And I feel the same way about the style of personal writing I gravitate to online — I don’t love writing voices that are distant and disconnected.

I was a blogger in the mid 2000s when everyone wrote with intimacy and connectedness, then at some point the dominant writing style turned influency with bullet points and five steps to blah blah blah. I did not know how to write like that from a personal perspective—not that I couldn’t skill-wise, but that I couldn’t stomach it. So I quit. I didn’t write publicly for about 10 years until I gave it a go with Substack.

One of the reasons I start all my newsletters with “Hi, it’s me.” is to remind myself that it’s *me* writing to *you,* not me writing to “an audience.” I’m actually thinking about an essay on building community both online and off. Not sure if it will make it to the page, so to speak, but your thoughts here add to the conversation I’ve been having in my head.

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Oh yeah, you TOTALLY inhabit your voice—it’s one of the things I like best about your writing. You are comfortable in your own skin.

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p.s. Love, love, LOVE that shadow photo! 😍

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Mar 10Liked by Tom Pendergast

What a lovely essay, Tom. :-)

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Thanks so much

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Mar 10Liked by Tom Pendergast

Good reading Tom. I resonated by many of your thoughts especially since I am still trying to come to grips with how to get my flipping book into a book. Thanks for emphasizing the relationship between a writer and a reader.

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Glad you liked it Carole … making that voice really personal and direct could really help your book, and there’s some of that in there already.

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Oh yes. I read this very early this morning. And thought what an excellent reminder for us all. Often when I write I write TO a person. But also I thoroughly enjoy the comments when I get to discuss things WITH someone. Because we cannot write in a void. We need to open ourselves to our readers. Such a lot to learn as we wander through our lives. Thank you for writing such excellent work.

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Aw, thanks so much. We’re most powerful when we’re vulnerable I think.

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This personal essay stuff is all well and good, but I do wish you'd give us a bit of fiction every once in a while! :)

I couldn't agree with you more about the self-agrandising narcissistic writers on here, though. Such a turn off. I just can't find the motivation to read that sort of stuff anymore. Not that it's their fault. A narcissist doesn't choose to be one. But it is very boring.

I don't even read that many personal essays. Constantly trying to find good fiction to get my nose into, and there seems to be less and less of it on this platform, and more and more personal essays. Satire's another one I've not got time for, but that's probably more because most of the stuff I come across is American-written and America-centric (which I have no problem with! It just doesn't interest me as a non-American). --- By the way, I was in the US for a week at the end of the last month, San Francisco. I wouldn't mind living there, if not for the hidden costs of everything, and the fact I have to tip a barperson simply for passing me a bottle of beer from the fridge! Anyway, I digress.....

I'll end this unplanned comment with a narcissistic observation of my own. The audience member that I have in mind whenever I write anything at all, is me. I literally only want to write something that I myself can enjoy writing and equally enjoy reading. If anyone else happens to enjoy it, then I figure we're of a similar mind, and in a small minority of people.

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I have a love/hate thing with San Francisco. It’s so damned beautiful and so fucking dissipated. I bet you loved it! What were you doing there? I’ve got some stuff banging around in the back of my head that I can never put in a “personal essay,” but I don’t know what to do with it. It’s like some of your stuff, maybe: scenes. Episodes. They don’t go anywhere. But anyway, I love reading your stuff; thanks for reading mine.

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I did love SF, but mainly because of legalisation and the quality product on offer in the dispensaries. And for way fairer prices than I'd find anywhere in Europe, at least for that standard of product. My wife's one of those people who will wake up at 6 every morning in a new city to make sure she sees every single neighbourhood and street, so I feel like we saw most things. The way the Republicans go on about it (I'd seen a few videos before going), you'd think San Francisco was some kind of zombie apocalypse hell hole. That wasn't my impression at all. Yea, there were zombies, but even in the worst areas we passed through I never felt in any danger, and those areas, even the tent cities, were still less filthy than most places in Paris. We did a few really interesting historical tours, organised by local library guides, and I feel like I came away with an understanding of the history of the city, including all the different ethnic migrations, etc.... So yea, overall, I liked it, and had no problem with the seedier side of things either. Managed to take in an NBA game as well, something that teenage me could only have ever dreamed of. Saw the Nuggets beat the Warriors. Fucking expensive over your side of the pond though. Maybe it's not so bad if you're on an American salary, but a week there was definitely the limit for our budget. Why did we go there? Week off work (school holiday), and incredibly cheap flights (so long as we didn't check any luggage). Wife's always wanted to go there, so we did.

If you've got stuff banging around in your head that you can't put in a personal essay, just change names, embellish and add details, and stick it in a story. That's my advice anyway.

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That's cool, sounds like a good trip. I used to go down to San Francisco once or twice a year for like ten years, really grew to like a lot about the city. And I'd walk through the Tenderloin to go to this dive Pakistani restaurant and didn't really worry about it. My dad taught at San Fran State in the late 1960s, right when the shit hit the fan there. He got knifed in a stairwell, I still don't know why, and then he and my mom packed us all up and moved to fucking Detroit! As for the writing advice, I think you're probably right on that. I actually wrote one part of this story and submitted it anonymously ... I need to go dig that up. American sports are so expensive, I generally don't go. But what I wouldn't give to attend a game at Anfield! I'd pay up for that. That's cool you got to see the Nuggets though, their big guy is supposed to be pretty special.

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Anfield, eh? Well, I guess I can see the appeal to a non-native, not bagged down by tribal loyalties and prejudices. Personally, I can't be doing with Liverpool supporters, and once they start singing You'll Never Walk Alone I'm out of there! :D (From what I read online, it's the same way a lot of Americans feel about the Cowboys. Although I know nothing about American Football).

Jokić was something to see, definitely, but I was more awestruck by Steph Curry, even in the warm-up nevermind the match itself. Swish after swish after swish. What a player he is. But yea, fuck me was it expensive! 20 bucks for a can of beer. A can!!!!

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This is what draws me in and what I hope my writing to invite too—Tom. To conversation, contemplation, and communal considering and opening. ♥️

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Mar 11Liked by Tom Pendergast

Bravo, Tom. Thank you for this (and your audio). Once again, thoughtful insights delivered with honesty/humility. Everybody in this thread: Let’s start a reciprocity club!!! Tom, you’re Prez. 😀

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A reciprocity club sounds fun … can we bring a flask of whisky and sleep in tents?

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Thanks, Tom, for this dive into Substack writing... friendships, reading and writing. It's spot on in my view. Appreciate this. It's more than I would want to devote time to, and yet, so incredibly important for my journey, so I appreciate your post.

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Thanks Sue

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Wonderful photos and thoughts on the relationship between writer and reader. I hope my humor inspires.

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Thanks! It inspires laughter! Just what it’s supposed to do, right? 😀

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