Nick Mamatas wrote quite a stirring post on the nature of greatness and writing:
We satsifice and market that as excellence, we don’t excel. Everyone does have the potential to be great, but that level of potential varies widely, and this variation is based on exogenous factors.
Upon reading it, many were inspired, but a few became a bit upset.
This got me thinking about what I thought of as meaning “great”, and how greatness relates to blogging.
It’s true what he says—who history remembers as great is determined by factors outside of the writer. However, the potential to be great is in the writer’s control. Without that potential exercised and honed and polished, the opportunity to be great will never happen. So what goes into honing that potential? His answer is simple, and yet not simple at the same time: you must be willing to brave censure from loved ones and others, society, and even yourself. That alone has a mess of implications, one of which is that you embrace your own imagination and buoy it away from the norms, the expectations, the regular.
It’s a lovely blog post, and itself has the earmarks of what most of us bloggers would agree is a great post—for the very same reasons that Nick himself talks about.
So what about the art of blogging? It’s also writing, but mixed in with a history of a need to appeal to the masses—in many ways seemingly anathema to Nick’s statement. But remember these three things, which are at the heart of being Stumbled, Dugg, Sphunn, or otherwise:
Be original. Out of a billion reviews for the MacAir, making yours stand out—or doing something entirely different—is how your article will be remembered among them. Show the audience what the others ain’t got. Is this hard? You bet. Exploring unknown territory is always hard, and even harder is bringing back something worth seeing. Is it worth it? Every clueful blogger knows this answer.
Show no fear. Don’t be afraid to write something that may be controversial, that may be unusual, that may seem inappropriate to some segment of the country. Whether it’s John Scalzi pointing out the hypocrisy of protecting marriages by destroying them, Phil Plait railing against Louisiana’s SB 733 Law, or Maki discussing viral marketing and sexy videos—or heck, even Nick Mamatas writing about greatness—they’re not afraid to throw up for discussion some interesting observations and viewpoints that will draw them ire.
Defy expectations. This doesn’t mean bait-and-switch, but it does mean giving your reader something they didn’t know about before—something they didn’t see a mile away. Is it really cool software that performs extremely well and people have rarely heard of? Is it a different way of looking at things, a different philosophy? An in-depth exploration leading to some conclusions that buck the trend? Find that jewel in the desert of common drudgery and expose it—it will give both you and your readers something to remember.
You’ll note I left out all the bits about self-promotion. In blogging, we like to think we can have a large hand in our own destiny by getting news about the link out—but in reality we are just as vulnerable to outside forces as our more traditional number. That link that Twitter Tools sent out—perhaps everyone’s swamped by Twitter messages or Twitter is down (what a surprise). That post to a forum—perhaps it just doesn’t strike anyone’s fancy enough that day to want to click through and read it.
But we remember the mantra: content is king. If the content is worthy, someday a visitor may stumble past us, and our stuff is linked to by someone big (preferably, multiple such someones). But if the content is crap, our opportunity is gone—maybe even forever so.
The potentially great bloggers work hard—and it may be that they never reach the tipping point, that some great post of theirs that turns them into a linchpin of their niche is never discovered. But if it happens, and they are ready, and even after being “discovered” they continue to strive, they will be great.
It may never happen. They may spend the rest of their lives getting ready, being ready, for no payoff or acknowledgement.
If this doesn’t sound fun to you, then don’t go down that path—just continue to have fun blogging well, and believe me, blogging is a hobby where you need to have fun more than anything else.
So why would anyone want try to be a great blogger in the first place?
Easy. Some of us are so enamored with this kind of blogging that the state of constant striving is actually enjoyable to us. Being the best that you can be in an area you love. It’s about the journey—for those with the potential to be great, it is rarely about the destination.
Extra Credit: What Makes a Great Fiction Writer?
Now I’m speaking of the area that most of Nick’s audience comes from: fiction.
To me, greatness doesn’t come from having gobs of books published or tons of fans. It is not a social status awarded by society at large. It’s not about making lots of money. And it’s not about not having any of these things, either.
Basically, to sum it up, it’s about being Gene Wolfe.
Mind you, that’s my opinion. Other people would insert Neil Gaiman, for instance. Terry Pratchett. P.G. Wodehouse. Barry Hughart. Ursula Le Guin. Some other writer you think is really great, regardless of whether they’re rich or popular.
It’s that kind of greatness.