Stop Trying to Be Relatable.
Connections are made through authenticity, not desperate bids to please everyone. Chill out.
(Yes. I added the phrase “chill out” to my subtitle on purpose so that I would have an excuse to use that photo of a baby just chillin’. No regrets.)
It’s not even a legitimate word, so I suppose I can spell it any way I want. Relatable. Relateable. Either way, regardless of its absence from Merriam-Webster or Chrome’s spellcheck feature, most of us know what it means. Someone who is relatable, or whose writing is relatable, is someone to whom others can relate — someone who encapsulates their own experience in a way that gives other people a glimpse of their own reflection in it. (Yes, I just defined it right after saying most of us already know what it means. That was for those of you who were still confused by my heedless butchering of the English language. I said most, not all.)
When Gwyneth Paltrow talks about her latest woo wellness campaign that can be yours too for the low low price of eight thousand dollars a session, eyes glaze over and readers click on a different BuzzFeed article or flip the magazine shut (or they would if anyone still read magazines outside of doctors’ offices these days — just kidding, people can’t sit in doctors’ waiting rooms these days either). But when Anna Kendrick says she likes sweatpants and staying home, the quote goes all over Pinterest and gets emblazoned on T-shirts. Celebrities have PR teams curating what they say in interviews, admittedly. But people pick what they want to hear out of those carefully chosen soundbites. The lines that strike a chord in another human’s heart aren’t always the ones that were pre-planned for maximum quotability.
I’m not a celebrity, a spokesperson, or anything akin to a well-known writer. However, I usually know what I want to read, and like most readers I have a fairly intuitive manipulation-meter. I know when a story is being twisted to poke at my intellect in a way that’s supposed to guarantee claps or comments or links on Twitter. I’m willing to bet you do, too.
But I don’t necessarily want to read stuff that’s been professionally fine-tuned to fit my current situation and interests. I want to read pieces that take me outside of myself and put me into another person’s shoes just for a few minutes. I want to read about the good ending happily, and the bad unhappily (that is what Fiction means). I want to experience a small part of another person’s existence, and if I find something in that existence that resonates with my own, I’ll enjoy it even more — but I want that feeling to be organic, not orchestrated by psychology, precisely placed ads, or Twitter trends.
I’m finding a great freedom in just reading what I want to read, and not what I feel I ought to read.
On Medium, for example, I really don’t want to read listicles and “Five Top Ways to [fill in the blank]” unless they seem uniquely helpful to a truly unique situation (for instance, “Five Top Ways to Get Your Cat to Stop Using Her Cat Tree as a Scratching Post, Thereby Damaging its Structural Integrity” would definitely catch my eye) but I’ll spend 10 precious reading minutes on Ketchup Sandwiches and Other Things Stupid Poor People Eat, captivated both by the lyrical writing and the gritty picture the story paints. Or if I’m in a mood for humor, I’ll usually go for Jane Austen’s Wastebasket over Slackjaw (though I Am the One Who Claps Once and others like it have made me snort a lot more air through my nose than usual. …Come on, nobody actually LOLs anymore.)
And though I’d like to be the kind of person who follows The Atlantic and reads everything they post, I will freely admit that I am not. Sure, I read to educate myself now and again, but that doesn’t take up the majority of my time. Unless you’re the brilliant type who rises before 5 am and reads nothing but The Atlantic and Time in your spare moments, and will occasionally unwind with National Geographic, I’m willing to bet you don’t spend all your time online reading to improve the mind either.
Not every reader is like me. Some people really do read nothing but The Atlantic. Some Medium memberships go exclusively toward self-help articles about five top ways to become a better person, or writing advice for the five top ways to make money on Medium. (Maybe I should start reading more of those, come to think of it.) And no single reading perspective is objectively better than another. That is why there are millions of articles on this site, after all.
But just because every reader is not like you does not mean that there is no reader like you, and that is where your personal perspective comes into play. This is where you should feel the freedom to write what YOU want to read. Sure, that might not be precisely what your neighbor wants to read or what your sister wants to read or what your coworker wants to read, but somewhere out there is someone who wants to read it. And perhaps they never will. This is a hard reality, but do you want to look back at your own writing and see only pandering to what you thought would be relatable to others at that time? Or do you want to see reflections of who you were, and what you thought, and how you saw the world?
Just chill out. Write what you want to write. Read what you want to read. This isn’t a recipe for fame, but maybe it’s a step in the direction of satisfaction with what you created. And isn’t that what we all want? Maybe that is a relatable feeling, after all.
Also, I added “relatable” to my browser’s dictionary, because I’m tired of seeing that red underline. Language is what you make it.