I don’t believe in subject lines anymore—it’s the maven game, OK?

On Thursday, I brought my month-long digital sabbatical to a close. I’ll admit it, I was pretty jazzed to do so. I kicked back, cracked open the MacBook, and opened a whole slew of tabs: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, RSS reader, New York Times, Slate, Reddit, etc.

By the way, I won’t pretend my digital isolation was in any way perfect. We still watched TV in January; I got the gist of current events from Jimmy Fallon’s monologues. That said, I was mostly disconnected for a month and, coming back to it all, I was surprised—kind of—at how little of significance or genuine interest I’d missed.

I also noticed the physical, mental, and emotional toll of spending an hour back in the stew. The unmistakable sensation of a monkey gently clambering up between my shoulder blades and getting itself a firm grip on my brain stem. (What a horrific metaphor that turned out to be. Yet: apt.) 

So, with nary a pang of regret, I shut it all down again. Decided to go another month. After all, maybe this particular January was just slow. On March 1, I might find that I’ve missed all kinds of valuable things. For now, I’m sticking with books. I feel better after reading books, not worse. Reading books, by the way, is so much easier without social media as an escape hatch. Now, when I run out of gas on one, I’ll just switch to another. It works.

So if you want to connect, again, email me. I love email. More now than ever, though I’ve loved getting and receiving emails ever since CompuServe, MindSpring, Earthlink…

It struck me yesterday: one thing that might improve the medium of personal email today would be the removal of subject lines. (Cue record scratch.)

Hear me out. It would be just like letters. Remember letters, oldsters? Think back to when you sent personal letters in the mail (unless, of course, you’re an avocado-toast-eating Millennial). What could beat the feeling of receiving a stuffed #10 with your name written in pen on the front? You knew who’d sent it to you, but you really had no idea what it was going to be about—maybe lots of different things—and that was part of the fun of it, like a J.J. Abrams’s mystery box.   

Sure, marketing messages and app updates should still have subject lines, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could set it so that personal emails and newsletters—real ones, not content marketing funnel stuff—just showed up in your inbox and you had to start reading them to find out what they were about?

In fact, there should be a service dedicated to sending and receiving personal emails and newsletters. Throw personal blog posts into it, too. I’d be all over that app. Eventually, some VC-funded creep sipping fresh-from-the-tap kombucha in a WeWork pod would growth-hack it to death somehow, but that’s life. Someone builds something cool, it’s good for a bunch of people for a while, and then the barbarians get greedy and devour it. Like Twitter. Or Rome. Or the United States of America. (Too soon?)

Speaking of emails, Derek Sivers sent one out to his list just now. (You really should sign up if you haven’t already, down under “My private email list.” Derek likes his sign-ups unobtrusive.)

As I’ve mentioned previously, I love Derek’s whole online thing—it jives with my principles and sensibilities as very few do.

Related aside: A Maven Game reader recently wrote: “I hate newsletters—loathe them. I’ve stopped hanging out with real-life friends because I can’t tolerate their online personas. BUT! I read yours, regularly, and I really like it.” This guy’s friends, by the way, are major online personas. I don’t repeat this to toot my own sax. It’s to remind you, as you craft your own persona/brand, that there are “metrics,” and then there are “people.” Who are you writing for? The acid test for your digital self should be: regardless of how a subject line or campaign or Instagram caption might shape my persona for countless unknown strangers, what will the real people who actually know me make of this?

In short: cut the shit. Let’s all cut the shit.

Derek Sivers really embodies this mentality for me and he’s become a bit of a role model. I watch what he does very carefully.

So, in his latest email, he mentions that he’s editing a new edition of his ebook for musicians and that a few pieces are online already.  

This is a good one.

Art is useless by definition. If it was useful, it would be a tool.

Let that sink in. Like the Black Swan, it’s one of those simple ideas that starts unpacking as you think about it and ends up going all the way down. Derek got it from Kevin Kelly but puts his own spin on it in the essay, which is well worth reading. We make our best stuff when we make it to please ourselves.

A related anecdote: Back in high school, I thought of myself as a writer. Like you, I was one of those kids. Then I had a teacher who almost destroyed that. Contemptuous, judgmental. Some stuff was writing, some wasn’t, he was the arbiter. Everyone would submit their creative writing pieces and he would select a handful to read aloud, anonymously. He made his opinions clear through these selections, always the “honest, raw” confessional-type stories about parties, drugs, teenage sex. Henry Miller or bust. Those stories were “real writing” because they had dicks in them.

Naturally, he never read one of mine. Cynically, I wrote a story to his exact literary parameters and immediately made the cut. (I did a similar thing years later to get something published in a literary journal. It worked again. I guess I’ve always been a natural ghostwriter.)

Succeeding with the guy didn’t spur greater effort. It made me sick. What I’d done was totally artificial, like copywriting according to a formula to achieve a certain growth metric. The experiment nearly put an end to me as a writer for life. “So that’s what it takes!” I thought.

Thankfully, the next year I had Ms. Karp for creative writing instead. Ms. Karp didn’t judge. She knew we were far too young and too unformed as writers for that. If anything, you got a sense of gentle, unhurried appreciation of your effort from Ms. Karp. Instead of dissecting us, she gave us the opportunity to feel things out for ourselves in a self-directed way. Each class, we’d write as we pleased, share as we pleased, and get feedback if we wanted it. She’d give us a writing prompt, we’d write, and then we’d read it aloud if we felt like it. The rest of the class would then write what they thought of the piece on a slip of paper, anonymously, and put it in a basket. Then you’d get all those slips to read, or not.

Mind you, this was not a safe space. Those baskets of paper were more like a YouTube comments section, including the death threats. But that’s what made the positive feedback, when it came, so valuable. You saw what people genuinely responded to in your writing with no posturing. People could respond however they liked, outside of the dynamics of high school. And for every person who promised he’d murder me on the way home from school that day, there were four or five who’d found what I’d written hilarious, or compelling, or at least pretty good. I came back to life as a writer in that class. I learned that I could write to please myself and that I would do my best writing for others in the process.

One day I’d like to run a writing class like that.

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