For those of you who are counting, I am now on day 16 of my 13 day challenge, except that I skipped 3 days in the middle. Aka: I fucked up. But I really feel like there’s a good reason – which is that I’ve been thinking about writing this for FIVE YEARS and it seems terrifying to pull the trigger now. Also, after 5 years I still don’t really know what I want to say. But before I make any more excuses, let me explain.
It was Valentine’s Day, 2003. I had a broken up with my boyfriend 2 days before, the first of at least three relationships in my life that would end on February 12th. I was sitting with my friend in her dorm feeling deliciously despondent when she said, “Why don’t you IM with Eric? I think you’d like him. He’s bitter and sarcastic like you.”
I already knew Eric, because we’d made out my first week in college. The result was me (despite my best efforts to be cool) thinking that we had a connection, and him thinking that he could send me an email at 3am telling me to stop being “snippy” at parties and be done with me. We did a great job of semi-avoiding eye contact on Tuesdays and Thursdays when our paths crossed, and I did a decent job of moving on and dating someone else on his crew team.
But on that Valentines Day I figured, how bad could just talking to him be? Eric and I didn’t discuss any of this history as we started chatting, but instead launched into our respective missives about we hated everything and love was dumb. Over the following months we would keep chatting, sometimes for hours a day, usually about how cynical we were. By July, I had started interpreting his declarations of misanthropy to mean, “I hate everyone except for you, whom I love.”
Sadly, when I returned to school for my junior year, I discovered I was quite wrong. Despite what I thought was a quite compelling pitch, Eric thought it was best to disappear from my life. He dropped out of the one class we had together. We didn’t speak again.
I cried for a week or so until one day I announced to my housemates, “I realized that unconditional hate is as powerful as unconditional love. And if he unconditionally hates me, there’s nothing I can do. I’m free!” I shoved a bunch of pretzels in my mouth and moved on with my life.
Which is to stay, I stopped thinking about talking to him. But, I didn’t really ever stop thinking about him….
For seven years, I continued to do and think about the things we both found interesting. I thought of him (casually) as my soulmate, but a soulmate I would never see or talk to again. And then one day, I was sitting on the floor of my room in San Francisco when I got a Facebook message from him. He was coming from Philadelphia to visit his mom, and wanted to know if I wanted to get coffee.
“There’s a fine line between coffee and sex!” Chirped the friend who had suggested we chat all those years ago.
Long story short: In November, we got coffee. We sent a lot of emails back and forth. In December he came back for Christmas and we got drinks. We decided to be in a relationship. Admittedly, I was taken aback by how fast he wanted to move, since we’d really only known each other a week, post-college.
“Even though we weren’t talking, for the past couple years I’ve been reading your blog, and I’m love with you,” he explained. Oh really?
At the time, I felt like doing a victory dance. Because, how fucking cool was I??? Not only did I have the best story of all time with my long lost unrequited love coming back after 7 years, but he had come back because of my Blog. I was very fucking cool.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I realized it was a better story than it was real life, and we broke up. Reflecting back on this, I considered my Blog. Truth be told, it’s not surprising that Eric liked it, because holding him in the back of my mind as my dream human being, I was always catering to his tastes. (I also used to occasionally make references to being in love with someone who was clearly him, so that must have been good for his ego.)
Basically,it was the ultimate content marketing achievement. I successfully internalized the story and the interest of my target audience and created content that spoke to them directly. It made them feel like my brand was a natural fit, and I understood their pain points before they even expressed them. I seamlessly told the story as my own though it was one I knew they would love.
To me, that’s how great content marketing happens: Obsession. Throughout my career as a content marketer, people often laughed at me for having a one track mind. When I was working with cloud backup companies, I talked about de-duplication at parties. I used to relate every single thing in my life back to B2B marketing. But to me, being a content marketer meant being in love with the product and brand you represented. And finding a way to express that love through writing. And at cocktail parties.
And while I was busy getting obsessed with products and brands, I took a hiatus from writing personal things, I think partially because I assumed that my life would now be like marketing ghost-writing: I could pick up any persona and fake my way through it till I made it. I had used my Blog to reel back Eric in, so the next step was just deciding who and what I wanted to be.
I imagined I could be anyone. I imagined I could try personality types, hobbies and skills on for size, pick whatever I wanted and be THAT. I was glad about this, because for a lot of my life, I’d wanted to be anyone but me. And the fact that Eric hadn’t turned out the way I wanted was even more evidence I should be someone else.
But what I failed to appreciate then, is that even though Eric and I weren’t together, we had remained best friends for the five years since we re-connected. I was so busy trying to rationalize the story so I could turn it into a Modern Love column that I missed the most important thing: Although I used to love trying on different voices, products, identities and brands in my professional life, when it came to marketing myself, there was really only person I could be. And Eric and I are still best friends because I haven’t changed. And even if I would like to something cooler than a writer (like a marine biologist or really good at Jenga), I will always be stuck being me.
Someone asked to me today if now that the challenge was over, I had decided whether or not I was a writer. I had totally forgotten that was the purpose, but in light of this last story, I’m not sure it’s something you get to decide. Once, when I was in the process of trying to switch career paths, I complained loudly to a friend, “It’s so unfair because people think I’m good at writing so they are trying to make me do that when I want to do something else!” And he snapped at me, “Rachel, do you know how many people would kill be good at anything?”
I don’t know if I myself think I’m good at writing. But for many years, I’ve thought, “I wish I wasn’t compelled to write because it would be so much cooler if I was compelled to rock climb!” To that, I would now ask myself, “Do you know how many people would kill to be compelled to do anything?”
Much to my ongoing dismay, I will never be anyone other than myself. And I suppose what happens next depends on whether I make good use of that information.