On Unpublished Thoughts

A friend of mine who works in this weird market of indie tech content has a saying that he doesn’t “have a single unpublished thought.”

I don’t really know what Sparks means by this phrase, but it’s one that I turn over in my mind quite often.

One on hand, this phrase could be applied to work. Building an audience over time means sharing a lot. Blog posts, podcasts, tweets and YouTube videos begin to add up, and the machine always has to be fed new content or the whole thing comes to a screeching halt.

It could also be applied to life in a broader context. I see it every time I open Facebook or Instagram and scroll through the feed of someone I went to high school or college with. None of those people have “a platform,” but are still sharing boatloads of stuff on social media. As I’ve gotten older, the landscape has shifted from engagement photos to baby announcements and 2nd grade graduation videos.

Social media has given everyone with a smartphone a way to share the moments of their lives with the rest of the planet.

I was recently revisiting my thinking about Sparks’ phrase when my wife and I watched May It Last, a documentary about the band The Avett Brothers. Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker recaps one the final scenes of the film, as the brothers record the final lines to a song titled “No Hard Feelings:”

Moments after they finish, [producer Rick] Rubin pops in and says, “Excellent work, everybody! Excellent work! Really good!” Both the Avetts look shell-shocked. Seth drinks some tea, wipes his brow, exhales. He goes to his brother. “It’s weird to be congratulated on the mining of the soul. It’s weird,” Scott mutters. Rubin reappears. “What’s next?” he chirps.

“Well. I feel like we need some space, you know?” Scott says. He and Seth stagger outside and sit on the studio’s back porch, drinking water in silence. It’s dusk. “The elephant in the room is that the song sells, and I can’t get away from that feeling. That it’s congratulated upon — I’m deeply conflicted about it,” Scott says.

I’m not saying that what my old school friends are doing is mining their soul for a like on Instagram; they aren’t.

Nor am I saying that the podcasts I put out every week are some deep form of art; they aren’t.

Writing about old Macs and talking about space policy and debating about iOS’ future and making marginally-good YouTube videos all require creativity and research and technical skill, but they don’t cost me anything.

To borrow a phrase from the Avetts, I’m not mining my soul for any of the content that fuels the Relay FM / Hackett Technical Media empire. And, quite bluntly, I think work like that is important to undertake sometimes, despite the downsides outlined above.

I have written things on this very blog that were incredibly costly in the past. This post and this post and this post come to mind.

I haven’t written much about this part of my life in a long time, outside of fundraising for St. Jude every September.

There are a lot of reasons for that. It was easier to share about Josiah and his cancer when far fewer people read this blog or followed me on Twitter. It was easier to share when he was younger and more unaware of his own situation. As my audience has grown and he’s gotten older, I’ve valued his privacy more than my need to share publicly.1

But a funny thing has happened over the last few years, mainly since I left my job to work on Relay FM full-time. As I’ve ramped up how much content I create and share, I’ve stopped making things that will never be shared outside of a Field Notes notebook or Day One.

I’ve slipped into Sparks’ thought of no unpublished thought, but ass-backwards.

It’s not that I share everything I create, it’s that I’m not making anything just for the sake of creating it.

I’ve coupled the act of creation and publishing so tightly, I’ve given up the instances of the former that don’t flow into the latter.

I don’t know what the answer to this problem is yet. Since I’ve realized that the reason Sparks’ turn of phrase has been nagging me, I’ve been more aware of my need to create just for its own sake. This may mean I get back into the habit of writing just for writing, or pick up my camera to shoot photographs of more than just old computers in my studio.

Whatever comes of this, you probably won’t be privy to its output. And — no offense — that’s the point.

  1. By mere circumstance, he’s having a checkup MRI this week. If it goes well, he will be at the seven year mark of no additional treatment past his initial chemotherapy. He’s a walking miracle, in the most very real sense of that word.