Today I’m thrilled to be hosting a discussion with friend and fellow writer Teryn O’Brien. In addition to blogging, Teryn is a social media consultant who works in online marketing at various imprints of Penguin Random House, LLC, and also does social media, online marketing, and writing / editing consultations for a fee. She’s pursuing publication of a fantasy trilogy.
Last year Teryn’s blog, Identity Renewed, placed number 36 out of over 400 blogs nominated in an online survey at Patheos. In November her post “15 Things I Wish I’d Known About Grief” went viral and was read by over a million people. However, Teryn has written prolifically on a wide variety of topics, including relationships, fantasy, feminism, self-acceptance, spiritual abuse, and her own Celtic heritage.
On Friday I sat down with Teryn to discuss her views on blogging, social media, and finding the courage to do the things you feel most passionately about. The following is a partial transcript of our insightful and inspiring conversation.
Tell me a little about the history of your blog. How did you get started?
I personally started blogging at Identity Renewed almost three years ago this month. I started it right after college to work through some of my pain and brokenness. I was only posting twice a month, basically once every other week. I had a list of topics to write about, and then I was going to end it after a year. Honestly, I think it was just a time of experimentation and trying to find my voice. It really wasn’t until getting into the second year that I started blogging really regularly, posting three times a week. The main thing about blogging is consistency, because if you’re not blogging consistently, no one is going to come back to your blog. I kind of just played with a whole bunch of different schedules and ideas.
Then one of my best friends died in October 2012. She was in an abusive relationship inside a cult, and I realized that I had been fighting abusive tendencies in my own life, too. Suddenly, all the brokenness, pain, and struggles toward healing I’d been through began to make sense. So it was probably only after she died that I truly found my voice. And people started listening more. So I started getting a little more traffic and meeting more bloggers. The very first year I blogged, I think I got about 1,000 views. The second year, about 3,000-4,000 views. My goal in 2013 was to get 25,000 views.
The thing you have to realize is this: Blogging is a community, so no one is going to come to your site unless you go to their sites. Especially when you’re just starting out. If you’re not a famous blogger or pastor or speaker or whatever, no one is going to listen to your voice. So just starting out blogging, that’s one of the most important things you can do: Put yourself out there, meet other bloggers, comment on other sites, show a genuine interest in what others have to say. I’ve made some great friends through the blogging world, and we’ve never met in real life (yet!).
So then, in November 2013, I wrote this post about grief, and it got a million views. The thing about going viral is—you can’t control it. There are certain rules you can kind of try, and there’s research about what makes a post go viral, but honestly, at the end of the day, you can’t predict that. It was one of the posts I had spent the least amount of time on. I usually spend hours poring over my posts, and I’m like, “This one will surely go viral!”—but nope! The foundation is just blogging, finding your voice, and not being afraid to be passionate. It’s just finding that unique you, or those topics you feel like you can write completely and utterly passionately about.
Honestly, most bloggers blog for years before they make it big. It’s very rare for someone to have success overnight. Social media takes time, because you’re building trust with an audience. Social media isn’t about selling things; it’s about connecting with people. As soon as you start thinking too much about numbers, you’ve lost what social media truly is about.
So how successful do you consider yourself on your own social media platforms? And how do you define success?
You know, it means different things for different people. When you’re just starting out blogging, it’s really easy to look at people who are really, really popular and get discouraged. So it’s important to set your own goals. The goals should be goals that you personally define as successful and not necessarily what other people define as successful. Because people are really obsessed with large numbers. It’s a sickness in our society—even I do it! But the thing about it is, you can’t really control large numbers (unless you pay for it or already have a huge platform to begin with). You can’t make thousands and thousands follow you right away. It builds over time. A lot of it is about the work you put in.
For example: Last year, I decided I wanted to have 800 Twitter followers by the end of the year! So I started following people and engaging more, and I got at least 800. I just set another goal last week, “I want to get over a thousand Twitter followers!” So I just followed more than 200 people in two days’ time. So it’s just little goals like that, and hopefully over time those goals will add up. Honestly, probably none of us are going to be the next Rachel Held Evans, and it’s kind of hard to reconcile yourself to that fact. But making measurable goals that you know you can achieve, setting new and higher goals next time, is the way to go.
When you look at the Christian market, the people who are doing the reading and blogging and tweeting, what are they looking for?
Well, it honestly depends on the type of Christian you’re trying to reach. Because there are different tribes within Christianity. And there are lots of messy people in between. But I really see—especially in younger Christians—a real desire for genuineness and authenticity and vulnerability. Just honesty about the Christian faith. So not necessarily just saying, “This is the right answer!” but a truly honest exploration of faith.
Of course, again, that depends on the tribe. The more conservative groups, they want more answers. They like to have things tied up in nice theological boxes. The more liberal, kind of progressive religious people, they want more of a dialogue. They don’t want people to tell them, “This is exactly how God is!” They want more vulnerable, real stories about people who have been in hard places, and who don’t sugarcoat things, but who can give hope in the midst of that.
But again, there’s a lot who are falling into the middle right now. And they just want hope. Hope that in some way, we can love each other even when we disagree. That Jesus is bigger than political and theological debates.
Are there topics you’ve forbidden yourself from blogging about because you were afraid it might offend your target audience? Have you lost followers because of things you’ve written or posted?
That’s a really interesting question, because I have been wrestling with that lately. The downside to success is that your people, your fans, your followers tend to have certain expectations for you. When you have more of an audience, you are called out more, or you feel their wrath more.
So yes, ever since I launched my new website, I’ve been losing subscribers. I think the reason is because a lot of followers thought they were subscribing to a grief blog. Once my blog post on grief went viral, everyone thought all I should talk about was grief. So after it went viral, I felt all this pressure to blog about grief all the time, since this is where I found success. Success can be stifling.
But this year, I’ve been in a place where I just haven’t had words to talk about grief. The grief has been much too deep, too angry, too volatile. I’ve written one post about grief, and it got quite a few shares, but ultimately, I’m not just a grief blogger! Recently, I came to the realization that I might lose all subscribers I had gained during my viral post success. I think I’m in a weird spot right now. I’m always really struggling about what to write about and share. When it starts becoming about success and numbers, you start to lose who you really are. I just have to write what’s on my heart, and it’s been a struggle lately.
If you could consult with your younger self, just starting out in social media, what advice would you give to her and why?
I think I would’ve just told myself: “Don’t be afraid. You will not have any regrets two, three years down the road.” When I first started down this road, I was terrified. I would spend hours agonizing over a post, because it was the first time I was being honest publicly. There were many times I almost quit blogging. I mean, I almost quit blogging a few weeks ago. It’s always a struggle.
But that’s the main thing I’d say to my younger self: “Don’t be afraid, and it’s going to be worth it. Pouring your heart out is going to be worth it. Not even that you’re necessarily going to be popular, but you are going to find your voice. God is preparing you for things in the future.”
If I hadn’t already had things set up when my friend died in October 2012, I wouldn’t have had that small voice to express all the things I felt and learned in the months following her death. Then again, if I hadn’t had everything else set up in November 2013, that post wouldn’t have gone viral. So I don’t regret anything. It’s hard sometimes, because social media is draining, but I don’t regret it. So that’s what I’ll continue to tell myself: “Keep doing it! Trust that God is going to use your voice. Just jump in.”
12 thoughts on ““I Just Have To Write What’s on My Heart”: A Conversation with Teryn O’Brien”
Thanks for hosting me, Boze. And for asking great questions!
Of course. Thank you for giving such an incredible interview!
Teryn, this is great advice, especially for people who wonder if they need some sort of justification to write. They don’t.
Thanks for hosting Teryn today, Boze.
Thanks, Tim. It was a genuine pleasure.
Thanks for commenting, Tim! You’re right–we don’t need any justification to write, if it’s something we truly are passionate about. Popularity and success and numbers are not reasons to write.
This was really good! Well-rounded, clearly put forth, and I especially liked the part about what the Christian market is looking for and to battle fear with “there won’t be anything to regret about sharing my heart”.
Thank you, Lauralea! Being vulnerable can be really scary, and it isn’t always easy. But it’s in that place of bravely and openly confronting the darkest places in our journeys that we move and connect with other humans. And we learn that we’re not unique, and that none of us is ever truly alone.
Thanks for the comment, Lauralea. Yes, I have no regrets! Thanks for always being such a support.
Ah! I enjoyed this so much. I just started blogging for similar reasons and just had written about death and grief and it being 6 years since my dad died, and honestly, writing that, freed me up a ton. But also, just reading that someone else started blogging for similar reasons.. I needed to read that. Writing is something that for years I have been terrified to do, and at the urging finally of enough friends and family, just jumped off the blogging cliff blindly. Thank you for being honest and vulnerable with us, I appreciate that so much!!
Thank you, Andrea! I’m so glad you were encouraged.
Yes, writing about the hard, painful things can be so freeing. I’m glad you’ve taken the steps to start writing/blogging/putting yourself out there. It does feel like jumping off a cliff, but then you can find all sorts of awesome bloggers being honest themselves, and it’s fun to find those communities. Thanks for the comment, Andrea.
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