The Anti-Agnes and the True Friend

One time, back when Free Refills as you see it now was just a glimmer in my eye, I shared a short story I'd written with a let's call her "new friend." This was years before there was a pile of writing that I could share with an Agnes. I didn't even yet really understood about the very existence of Agneses. But the flavor of an Agnes was there. She was like, "Oh, you're a writer? Can I read something you've written?"

I had finished the short story in question not long before. It was at the time the most ambitious thing I'd ever written, and I was quite proud of it.

Not only did this proto-Agnes not tell me what she thought of the story, she stopped communicating with me altogether. I ran into her at a party a couple of months later, and she told me she hated the story so much, she chose to stop talking with me over it.

A few days later, I shared what she said in an email to my friend Shane. He gave the equivalent of a shrug and said, "I liked that story." That right there? That's a true friend. Not because he agreed with my assessment that it was a piece of writing that I could be proud of, but because of the shrug. Like: That's her shit, not yours.

Agnes Update

There's a latest Agnes in my life. (I wonder: will she be tickled to see herself here, wrapped with my words?) This particular Agnes is different from most of the other Agneses in that she sometimes shares with me what she thinks of what she finds here, and that's nice, you know? I mean, it wouldn't be nice if she hated my writing, but then, if that were the case, she probably wouldn't stay an Agnes for long, would she?

A bit of advice I've often seen given to writers is that you should direct a piece toward one person in particular; in doing so, the thinking goes, you can use your knowledge of what that singular reader cares about and enjoys to narrow down the infinite number of things that you might say about a thing. Certain details come to focus, others fade from view.

Unless I'm writing a letter, I basically never follow that advice. I pretty much write for myself. The best pieces, I don't know what they're going to say until I start writing them, so it's not like writing for myself ruins the surprise or anything. When I start the zero draft, I don't know where they're going. That's why I zero-draft. I start by writing something about the topic, and I trust that, through the writing, I will learn what it is I want to say. And I figure that if I write for myself and the piece pleases me--if I say something interesting, and say it well--other people will probably like it too.

But it's genuinely kind of fun to know that there's an Agnes looking over your shoulder. I'd hate to disappoint her, so her presence inspires me to keep my promise to publish, but that's not the important part. Instead it's the hope that maybe, just maybe, if I string the words together just so, I'll delight her. Delighting an Agnes is a great reason to write.

New Agneses

There have been a couple of new Agneses in my life. Whenever there's a new Agnes, I find myself reflecting on what they see upon their first visit to Free Refills. We had a conversation and something in it piqued their interest. What do they find when they visit? How long do they stay? Will they return?

In the past, my answers left me slightly dismayed. After all, if I don't know exactly what I'm doing here, how much sense do I expect Free Refills will make to someone who doesn't have access to what's going on in my head, especially someone who's new to the place?

But now I'm coming to find a strength in asserting that the process is the product. Every week, I'm drafting 5,000 words of new material. Every week I publish fives pieces. These two rules define the contours of my exploration. But understand: it's very much an exploration. I assert that the Internet presents a bigger change than we've thus far been able to comprehend. (This is why so many old structures and systems--newspapers, ad-based publications, and so on--aren't really working.)

The crude maps left by prior explorers have proved to fail to properly show the contours of the terrain. And what honest exploration of a new place starts with a certainty of what you'll find?

My Commission

I know what brought you here originally, dear Agnes--we met on the chairlift, and you said you'd take a look--but what has kept you here? What keeps you coming back?

I know that sometimes what I write about doesn't overlap with your interests. So it must be that sometimes, enough of the time, your Free Refill gives you at least a moment's delight, if not in what I say then how I say it. Your day is often enough that little bit better for having dropped by that you come back for that tasty sip of linguistic beverage.

Yes. That makes sense.

Sometimes there are things that call on me to write them, Agnes, and I will continue to listen to that call. Clearly a big one this year will be the election. I didn't expect that to be the case, but I've published a few pieces so far and I can see that I'm issuing something of a call to arms. It feels like our society is on something of a precipice. That's pretty important to write about, don't you think?

And of course I'll continue to write about the topics that are the heart of my work in the world right now--writing; the intersection of energy practices, learning and exercise; the still-not-fully-understood significance of this thing we call the Internet. I hope those subjects are interesting to you, Agnes.

But, yes, what you say makes sense. Beyond the subjects that are the focus of my work, my commission is to delight. I'll do my best.

Thank you for your explanation, Agnes. This has been most edifying.

The Equinox Impends: Intention

I realize that it's just over four weeks until the anniversary of making this part of my job, and a good approach to celebrating that anniversary would be a Happy Equinox launch of Free Refills 2.0, a glorious, shiny Free Refills which is clearly and obviously Not a Blog.

Now, the only way I'm going to succeed in that intention is if I get started right now doing the necessary behind-the-scenes experimenting, just like I was doing this time last year with the writing that became the early pieces that I published here. So … I guess my path is pretty clear, eh?

I have to remember that I don't need to nail everything into place by the equinox. I mean, hey, it's a website, I can play with the code all day. But I want to get all the seeds planted. The equinox is the perfect day for that.

More About Responsibility to Audience

The problem, of course, is that while there is someone out there who shares any particular interest of yours, there are few if no people who share all of your interests. Even people who know you well and care about you aren't interested in all your interests so much as they are interested in you, and those people, the ones who really love you, are for even the most extroverted among us a small subset of everyone out there. So if I'm going to insist that what I'm doing here is actually going to be a genuinely important part of my job as a writer no matter how my career develops from here, well, I better figure out how to make that immediately obvious to any new visitor to Free Refills. Right, Agnes?

(And by the way, thanks again for coming to visit.)

So I've had to confront that the reason I haven't done anything about reorganizing Free Refills to make it super-obviously Not a Blog and so that a new visitor will immediately find something that interests her is that I have no real idea how to go about doing so. I understand now that the only way I'm going to figure it out is by trying stuff and seeing what works and what doesn't and then taking whatever I learn and iterating, which is sometimes the only workable method but is often frustrating and means living with uncertainty and a willingness to accept your own lack of knowledge for a long time. That isn't really the most comfortable place to be. I guess I kept hoping that the answer would sort of pop into my head and then out into the world fully formed like how Athena in all her wisdom sprung forth from the forehead of Zeus, but clearly it's not going to work that way.

What About Your Responsibility to Your Audience? Asked Agnes

Good question, Agnes. I recognize that just because one finds one's own work interesting doesn't mean that other people will necessarily find it interesting. Since writing is supposed to be about communication, this might present a problem. What to do about that, Agnes!

My answer emerges from what I call Ben's First Law of the Internet, which can be expressed simply as: You aren't the only one. I coined the First Law back around 2000, when a pair of simple Yahoo! searches--this is well before Google figured out search, remember--quickly led me to (1) a website that had the complete rules to an obscure chess variant I'd been discussing with a friend, and (2) a website devoted to cataloging the cosmetic differences between different model years of a specific model of guitar that I happened to own. Which was to discover: not only were there people out there who shared my interests in some fairly obscure subjects, but some of those people were sufficiently interested to take the time to make websites about them. (Please keep in mind, this is back when people still coded websites by hand.)

I doubt that kind of thing exists anymore in exactly that form--on the more mature Web, those obsessives' websites have now probably been replaced by Pages on Facebook, but the principle remains: You aren't the only one. Someone out there shares your interests.

So I just write about what's interesting to me, and figure someone out there might care.

I also freely admit that "what's interesting to me" is evolving day by day as I keep up this practice. And hope that maybe, just maybe, the experience of that evolution might be interesting to others as well.

Since You’re New Around Here, Agnes

So I wanna talk about the work I'm doing here at Free Refills. A bit less than a year ago, on the spring equinox (an auspicious day for a new beginning), I launched the project you see here. I had decided that part of my work as a writer was to stop being such a little bitch about perfectionism and publishing, so I made a promise, to myself and to the world, to publish something, anything, every single Monday through Friday like it was my job, which, once you make a promise like that to yourself, is exactly what it becomes. So far, except for a two-week sabbatical I gave to myself around the winter solstice (an auspicious time for rest and reflection), I have kept my promise. I have published every single Monday through Friday since the spring equinox a year ago.

And part of what Free Refills is about is that, while there may be some modifications to the promise, I'm essentially never going to stop.

This One Goes Out to the Young Woman I Met on the Chairlift

I was riding the Wayback lift at Keystone last Friday, and I and the young woman sitting next to me got to talking, the way you sometimes talk to the person sitting next to you on the chairlift, and she asked me about my job and I told her that I'm a writer and I told her about Free Refills and she said she was definitely going to check it out.

Later, I thought about what she would see if she actually followed through on that promise. I assume she was interested in my writing because our conversation interested her, and so I'm willing to bet that there are pieces here that would interest her as well. But would she find them? In all likelihood she'd read the most recent several pieces and would find them interesting exactly to the extent that she was already interested in the topics of those particular pieces. If the set of things I'd written about contained many elements outside the set of things that interest her, she wouldn't be likely to come back.

But of course I want her to come back.

So I thought maybe I should write something to really catch her attention, should today be the day that she thinks, "Oh yeah, that guy on the lift, Free Refills, right, let's go check that out."

By the way: she wore a soft-looking, scalloped white scarf, the kind of scarf that someone named Agnes would definitely wear, so though that almost certainly isn't her name, I will henceforth call her Agnes.

So, Agnes, first of all, sorry I didn't ask you your actual name. You know how it is, riding on the chairlift with someone. But yeah, thanks for coming to check out Free Refills. I hope you'll come back. Over the next days and weeks, some of the pieces I'm going to publish here are going to be about why you should keep coming back.

The nutshell is this, dear Agnes: this may not be immediately evident, but Free Refills is the best and most important website on the whole Internet. That this isn't immediately evident is a pretty big problem though, one of which I'm aware, and it is high time I do something about it.