A Curious Experiment
This week the SRB relaunches our longstanding newsletter – so we asked Maggie MacKellar to write about her experience sending out a weekly newsletter to her readers.
In August 2021 I hit publish for the first time on my weekly newsletter, The Sit Spot, and in doing so joined the brave new world of writers side-stepping traditional publishing avenues. Since then, with the exception of a planned two-week break over Christmas, I have published an issue every week.
By the end of the first month I had earned more than the paltry advance paid by a large publishing house for a book I had worked on for four years. Perhaps even more surprising than the money was the freedom I was finding in writing directly to readers in real time. I wrote, repented of my typos and appalling grammar – and pressed publish. In response, readers sent me messages detailing the ways my reflections on life on our Tasmanian farm had articulated something for them. They told me where they read my words, what it felt like to read them, how they were comforted and connected through the simple five-minute break from their realities. After years of sitting with a manuscript that won’t see the light of day for another twelve months, years of applying (mostly unsuccessfully) for grants to fund writing that manuscript, years of painstakingly staking a sentence to the page and calling it a day’s work, their responses were like a drought-breaking rain.
Newsletters are perhaps one of the oldest forms of publishing. They have started rebellions, fuelled revolutions and made sure you know when to show up for canteen duty. I am an old-enough parent to remember the school newsletter coming home on Fridays, crumpled and stained, to be read over a cuppa before being added to the elephant clip on the fridge. Gradually newsletters, including school newsletters, moved to my email inbox. I happily subscribed to free publications from my favourite podcasts, from Instagram accounts I followed and increasingly to newsletters with curated links. But even as I subscribed to an ever-expanding list, the thought of offering my own newsletter as a place readers could directly access and pay for my writing did not occur to me. This was despite my brother, a digital native, telling me I should harness the power of the internet and reach out directly to my readers for approximately a decade. Somehow I could never imagine what it was I was going to write about, or how I would commit to doing so regularly? Semi-regularly? To say what exactly? I had proven on Instagram that I couldn’t even commit to posting a photo once a week. Besides, the power of the internet mostly just freaked me out.
So what changed? Me, mostly. It will be nine years between books and although in that time I have locked a couple of manuscripts away, I have, for the most part, struggled to get words onto the page. Over the past two years I have finished another memoir (due out March 2023) and been writing small articles freelance for rural magazines and a column in a women’s monthly mag. It has been a pivot of sorts, a bargain to churn out words in return for some dollars and to prove I can write across different styles.
The online landscape has also changed. The platforms that host reader/writer connections were no longer places I really wanted to hang out. I noticed I was looking for the regular joy of reading a curated email sent to my inbox rather than checking Instagram or Facebook. I had watched from the sidelines as academics, economists, legal scholars turned their expertise into a newsletter that made them considerable money, but I had never drawn a line between what they were offering (analysis, but in a new format) and what I – a mid-tier writer stuck in the mid-career badlands with four books under her belt, who lived on a farm and earned more money by cooking for shearers, cleaning farmstay accommodation and transcribing doctors’ letters than by writing – could write about.
Last year I attended a workshop with Sophie Hansen, 2016 Rural Woman of the Year and the creator of a successful blog and newsletter. I have known Sophie for years and watched with admiration as she forged a new career as a rural communicator. She has several successful cookbooks under her belt and an engaged online following. The workshop was put on by our local tourism board and involved a hands-on demonstration on how to create snazzy Instagram posts and how to tell a story about your accommodation/orchard/pig farm. I attended more out of a desire to support Sophie and her co-presenter Michelle Crawford, also a good friend, than with any serious intent to start a newsletter. After the workshop Sophie and Michelle came to stay the night.
Over a glass of wine, we talked about newsletters and Sophie told me about Substack and the push they are making as a platform for writers. The numbers she threw at me spun me out. Her opinion was I should start asking for money straight away. They are your words she said, you’re not curating links, you’re a writer and that’s what people will pay for.
In the early hours of the morning, the name and concept for my newsletter came to me. Last year I’d read a book called What the Robin Knows. It’s about learning to understand the world through watching birds and the writer, Jon Young, devotes a whole chapter to the importance of a ‘sit spot’. Being at best an amateur birder this was not a term I was familiar with but as soon as I read about it I understood the power of sitting in the same spot day after day, season after season and learning to really see what is around you. I also realised that a sit spot doesn’t have to be a physical space, it can be a practice of slowing down, of noticing, it can be a blank page in a journal. What if I could create a moment of peace on the internet, an essayette, a slice of life on the farm that was so different from most people’s suburban existences, and what if people would pay $5 a month to receive such a moment and what if the very act of writing what was in front of me, not thinking of a book, not writing for an editor, for someone else’s timeline, what if the act of showing up was itself a creative project with its own rewards.
Then, like a newly pregnant woman, I saw writers’ newsletters everywhere. Jeanette Winterson, Roxanne Gay, George Saunders, Salman Rushdie, Andrew Sullivan, Cheryl Strayed, John Birmingham, Brandon Taylor the list of big names made me wonder if there was an audience left to make my small newsletter viable. The other problem I faced was one of education. We are all used to receiving newsletters for free. Asking people to pay for the privilege of receiving an email was a big leap. If a magazine editor would only pay me 50 cents a word for a piece I might take two weeks to write, how would people get their heads around paying me directly for something they were used to consuming on a blog for free? To ask readers directly for money felt bold. It also felt like self-belief.
I decided I needed some sort of creative framework I could operate in, something like the American poet Ross Gay had done when he gave himself the task of writing one small delight a day, which was then published as The Book of Delights and is, unsurprisingly, delightful. So I made a contract. I would show up in The Sit Spot weekly. I would bring my readers the world as it was in front of me. There were some subjects I would not talk about – my relationship, my children, politics. Instead I would be alert and curious to the natural world and how what I saw amplified or explained our inner worlds. I would not read back over the work. I would not plan what I was going to write about. I would notice how the seasons changed. I would record what we were doing on the farm and I would let the patterns emerge. And that’s what I did. Every Monday afternoon I would sit down and write directly into the Substack platform. No Word document. No plan. Just an image that had stuck with me over the week. And though I always felt the sinking intimidation of a blank page, there was also this incredibly freeing sensation that I was just writing a letter and, as I have always done in my notebook, I was recording what I had been thinking about. Gradually the terror of pressing publish lessened. I gained confidence that even if it wasn’t obvious at first why I was writing about Pardalotes, green beetles, lambs with broken legs, cygnets, my new horse Frank or frogs, by the next morning the connections would appear. I came to accept the imperfection of the thought, the holes and moments where if it were a book or an essay I would be pressing for more.
I wrote through the last weeks of winter and into spring and all the while I was resolutely ignoring a back injury. The pain had, at times, been so bad that I couldn’t see straight. I think I sent one edition out with a sentence dangling, the thought interrupted by my shrieking nerves. I’d carried on because I didn’t know how to do anything else. It finally got so bad that one Tuesday morning after I pressed publish my partner came to breakfast and simply said, I think you need to go to Emergency. He took me down to Hobart and after 4 days in hospital it was obvious that an operation was the only thing that was going to give me some relief. While I was in hospital I thought about The Sit Spot and about the creative contract I’d made to show up. I could easily send an email saying I was having a week off and would be back in two weeks but it felt integral to the project that I did not miss a week. I wrote that week’s Sit Spot before I went into surgery and scheduled it to be published the morning after I had come out. It was at that moment that I knew the writing had crossed over from a curious experiment into a practice that was integral to who I was as a writer.
A few weeks after I was home and settling back into a writing routine I listened to Helen Garner being interviewed on Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette’s The First Time podcast. It was a wonderful interview, but what stayed with me was Garner talking about the retrospective power of her weekly columns for The Age. She spoke about how she could now see they had moved her forward, restoring her confidence in her writing after the trauma of her break up with Murray Bail. The bit that sticks with me is how she had thought she would simply keep a file labeled ‘Ideas’ but when she pulled the file out what she had written there had been stagnant. Instead she had come to trust that she would write what rose in her. I take heart from this. For every Monday my partner will ask me around tea time what this week’s Sit Spot is on, I’ll tell him I don’t know. And in that space between the not knowing and the writing, something appears.
Find out more about Maggie MacKellar’s newsletter here. And sign up to the free fortnightly SRB newsletter here.