“I Just Have To Write What’s on My Heart”: A Conversation with Teryn O’Brien

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Teryn O’Brien

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?

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Photo credit: Dusit

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.”

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“Love & Death in the House of Prayer” (a Rolling Stone Expose)

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[ Cross posted on No Longer Quivering, a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor’s Network ]

Hello, everyone. I’m back from a month-long blogging break.

The big story of the day is this investigative piece by Jeff Tietz for Rolling Stone Magazine about the cult I was in and the loss of my best friend. He does an excellent job of explaining how the group formed and how it all went wrong, and paints a beautiful picture of Bethany as she was known to those who truly loved her.

Today I wrote this meditation on her death and the grand illusions that led the two of us to such a dangerous place. Tonight I wanted to share it. Here it is:

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” Bethany was both. Creatively gifted and unceasingly generous, she nourished me and so many other lost souls with her warmth, wisdom, and practicality.

We got into a fight shortly after we met because I viewed myself as the hero of some epic fantasy adventure. “Don’t make reality out to be a book, dear fellow,” she warned me, with a professorial air. “Books merely reflect life; they do not determine it. They have only power to show us in fresh ways what reality looks like.”

At the time I was furious, of course. How could she not know that we were both at the center of a great drama?

But over the next five years I saw a whole group of friends get pulled into a whirlpool of self-heroic narcissism. I witnessed at close quarters the devastating consequences of thinking that we can defy the natural laws of age and death. We were going to do what so many Christians before us had failed to do, because we were truly special. Bullets would bounce off of us; the devil would flee at our approach. A new world was about to begin, bathed in the glorious light of a cosmic revolution.

But in the midst of the hell that our leader created around us, amid the endless punishments and end-times training sessions, I remembered the words that Bethany had spoken six years earlier. And I realized that she had been right: I wasn’t a hero. I wasn’t special. I was just me. We, all of us, we had created this elaborate role-playing fantasy to escape the suffocating boredom of suburban life.

I got out. I left the group and learned how to be ordinary. And I truly believe that, given enough time, Bethany would have gotten out, too. I’m so sorry that the opportunity was stolen from her. I wish I could tell her how much her words and spirit have affected me, how I wish I had listened to her years before. All I can do now is to live in honor of her memory and hope that in time others will appreciate the astonishing legacy of her life and come to understand how it was cut so short.

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor’s Network

So I stumbled on this great resource and community called the Spiritual Abuse Survivor’s Network. Their goal is to raise awareness of the dangers of spiritual abuse by promoting bloggers who have been abused and are using their voices to speak out against the injustices they’ve seen committed in the name of religion. Continue reading

New Blogging Schedule & Tuesday Links

           babette2Warning: This post contains spoilers for the last episode of Breaking Bad.

 

 Happy October.

Beginning this month I’m doing something rather special. I’m going to start posting at least three times a week.

 

Up to now at the Talking Llama my writing has had a primarily negative focus. I’ve been looking mostly at issues of fundamentalism, dangerous theology, dangerous groups, and how we can be free of them.

But life isn’t all about that, and I want to start expanding the scope of my canvas. There’s a big world out there, and we were made to enjoy it. Continue reading