Oh, Focus Why Don’t You

I actually haven’t talked much about what’s been happening with me recently. Here on the blog, at least. I apologize for that; I have been predisposed by yet another content writing job that didn’t really work out. Put simply, I got very frustrated at my inability to deal with everyday stressors to the point that when anything negative happened, I wanted to start punching holes in my bedroom wall.

By its very nature, online content writing is an adventure in “not having all the information you need to do a good job for your client ever.” I will forever be shocked by the sheer internal fury my mind generates when I screw up a 500-word article so badly that my editor feels the need to toss it back to me saying: “Uh, yeah, we can’t use this. Try again, but I won’t tell you where to find the information you need to get it right.”

I’m not writing this as an attack on my most recent employer. I’m really not. This is only so specific because it is the most recent. Really, it’s just the whole thing. My critique of the whole bottom-rung content writing experience, a decade of work that most college graduates get promoted from in less than a year and move on. In-office or remote, it’s all the same.

I fully realize that this is “just the way it’s done,” where writing, editing, and submitting is performed as if on an assembly line. I am aware that I am far too conscientious to operate like the cog they want me to be, especially as I get older and farther away from my education. The editors (read: quality assurance technicians that only fix small problems) aren’t there to improve the writer’s work, but to perform “maintenance” on the writer-machine until the correct output is produced. Regular employees don’t have to worry too much, unless problems keep happening. For freelancers, this is usually a “two strikes and you’re out” kind of deal: if your article isn’t accepted right away, or after a quick rewrite, that’s it. You don’t get paid. It moves on to the next inexperienced writer to try, no matter how much worrying or how many clarifying emails you send. The writing rubric is simultaneously so vague and yet so complex that I am never confident in my own writing abilities at any time, no matter the subject, no matter the topic. Some clients are given preferential treatment by the writers and editors, and as well they should, given how some have a much larger marketing budget than others. But that doesn’t mean preferential clients have more information that the writers can use to discuss their products and services (I’m not talking about complexity—some clients are just super picky, but this doesn’t mean they’re any better at giving the writers the support they need). The best part? Just because you have fulfilled a massive checklist of requirements that each article must follow precisely (or the software won’t even let you submit it), that doesn’t mean you’ve fulfilled your end of the writing bargain.

Meaning you can still make no “mistakes” and still lose. Thanks Picard, but that doesn’t make me feel any better.

Questions I ask myself a dozen times with every article include:

  1. “Do I match the tone of the article to the tone of the client’s website?”
  2. “Do I use internal sources only (i.e. from the client’s website), or do I search for outside information that I hope relates to the client and their products/services?”
  3. “What have other writers written about the client, and what information have they found?”
  4. “Does geo-location actually matter for the client’s website and their SEO?”
  5. “Should I be concerned with the client’s SEO a little? A lot? Not at all? I got hired for my SEO knowledge, so I should use it, right?”

The answers have typically been:

  1. “Absolutely not. Unless you should.”
  2. “You must only source information that has been provided by the client. Unless they haven’t provided any. In that case, you absolutely must only source information that has been provided by the client. Unless the quality of your writing dips so low from a lack of context that you must use outside information. Just be sure not to reference information that has nothing to do with the client. You know, the client you have no information on, and aren’t sure how they make money.”
  3. “Don’t worry, all of our writers struggle with this client. It never gets any better for us. No, you can’t contact the client for more information. And please don’t bother the account managers, they have a lot of other things to worry about.”
  4. Either: “You need to specify physical location multiple times in your article, and if you don’t, it will be rejected.” Or: “Why are you worrying so much about their physical location? Everybody’s remote nowadays, the search engine doesn’t really care.”
  5. “You were hired because you know what SEO is, not because we need you for it. Stop asking questions you don’t need answers for.”
Why is there a question mark in this image? Is this even a question anymore?

I’ll say this again: I don’t mean this as a negative about the people I worked with. Everyone is overworked right now. I get it. Instead, this a criticism of the people in charge who expect writers to flip out high-quality content at the same rate and function as a donut machine. It’s my criticism of a system of work that treats the English language like car parts on an assembly line. If I had gone to school expecting to wield a welding torch to fuse conjugations together like steel, I wouldn’t be having this reaction to the whole thing.

Writing is supposed to be this elegant art style, this romanticized career choice full of philosophy and introspection. At least that’s how it’s sold in universities. I mean, strip down the bullshit, and at the bare minimum, language should be used for the dissemination of helpful and stimulating ideas. But this is decidedly not what search engines are looking for when they rank your website. Oh, sure, there are mathematical patterns in the way humans type “helpful” words as opposed to “unhelpful” ones. Unfortunately, I am in the Aristotelian position of knowing enough about SEO to understand that I know nothing about SEO. I have no idea what the definition of originality is for Google, and I am 80% sure no one else knows either. That’s what kills me about things like ChatGPT—when the tech becomes sufficiently advanced that it produces content that doesn’t get flagged by plagiarism tools (i.e. learns to stop relying on already-existing sources of information to produce content), every college-graduate-level employee will be replaced by code immediately.

Hell, give Google the means of content production, and what will they need the rest of us for?

To me, the whole thing’s a bad joke: the marketing industry wants to be custom-tailored and original so badly, but they want the speed and efficiency of Thomas Ford. And they’ll try to get away with it by giving the client the “cost” and “speed” while demanding the “speed” and “quality” from the writers and editors. Human originality is quickly becoming the last and best thing we humans can offer each other, and we’re throwing it away as fast and rabidly as we can. I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to feel like I’m fighting a war on three fronts, every single time I stare at a blank screen to start writing another blog:

  1. Matching the tone of my article to the client and their audience; despite this being such an important part of being a member of a writing team, 75% of the time, I get in trouble for trying (either by making assumptions about previously-accepted bad writing or trying to sound too “promotional” or “funny”).
  2. Finding enough reliable information to communicate something both informative and “original.” There may be nothing new under the sun, but Google doesn’t know that, and neither do the editors and their plagiarism software. I got pinged a few weeks ago for copy-pasting a list of industry terms that I could not have synonymed or “redefined”. How many times can you write about bathroom mirrors and homeowners’ associations before it all starts to blend on your keyboard?
  3. Fighting off my own insecurities when I inevitably fail to match the confusing standards. I’m sorry, but I have never compared a grading rubric to anything graded with it and agreed that it was being used correctly, in college or in the marketing field. Ironically, I’ve found the more complex the rubric, the faster the editors are expected to perform their work because it’s so “defined.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I completely understand where these standards are coming from. I understand the thought process from a business perspective. It looks good on paper. I also understand that editors are people, and that almost everything language-based is going to be subject to opinions and preferences. But you’d think that, by now, I would be able to take a simple topic like “bathroom glass” and run with it. Describe it in all of its forms, succinctly. Follow the rules and guidelines to a tee. Hand in the article, and get it graded as a success right away, on the first try. Operate like a good cog should, no problems.

I’m just so tired. I’m tired of feeling like a kid. Like a college freshman writing bad fanfiction. Like a fry cook at Arby’s, getting yelled at by my manager for not “smiling correctly.” Tired of being treated like someone who should have clairvoyance but doesn’t, no matter how hard I try. The worst part is, the person who is expecting me to have clairvoyance is often myself. And I beat myself into a mental pulp every time I get a prediction wrong.

And this leads into where I’m headed in the next few weeks: right back to therapy.

Yeah. I’m tired. And I’m angry. I’m so angry that I’ve been exercising like a beast. I walk between three and five miles every day. I’ve started weight-training with a friend (which is good, and something I’ve never done before), and I have been sore for the last three days. I become more irritable being sore and uncomfortable, so I go exercise again to let off steam. This makes me more sore and angry. I’ve lost seventy-five pounds since I stopped taking my medicine, using exercise as a crutch instead. And now I no longer know what else to do with this anger.

One of my favorite bands that I’ve come across as an adult is The National. They have a new album coming out in April, and as all awesome bands do, they’ve released a single from the album in preparation for its full release. The song is called Tropic Morning News, and it couldn’t have come out at a better time for me.

Their songs often have a series of lyrics that repeat over and over, not unlike a chorus. But just as often their songs have a series of lines that don’t repeat at all and represent the major theme, either at the center of the song or at the end. For Tropic Morning News, these lines go like this:

Got up to seize the day
With my head in my hands, feeling strange
When all my thinking got mangled
And I caught myself talking myself off the ceiling

You found the ache in my argument
You couldn’t wait to get out of it
You found the slush in my sentiment
You made it sound so intelligent…

…I would love to have nothing to do with it
I would like to move on and be through with it

I cannot tell you how infuriating it is to want to explain how and what you’re feeling inside and sounding 100% nonsensical. Either my words become barren of meaning, or they’re so filled to the brim with meaning that no rational being could be expected to “read between the lines” without a crowbar and a magnifying glass. It’s why cognitive behavioral therapy hasn’t worked for me in the slightest: even in the midst of suffering, I cannot adequately portray what is going on inside my head. It makes no sense to rational people. When I attempt to describe what is happening, the twisted kinds of thoughts that float through my mind, I am often immediately misunderstood. Whoever I’m talking to then attempts to clarify, asking a question to better understand. I may answer the question, but I’ll invariably leave out a key item of information. Every single time. I never do it on purpose. But there is just so much going on in my brain, I cannot grasp the important information when I need to speak it.

Another line of the song:

Got to my feet feeling that I’d let you down
Wanted to say it slow and perfect but it all somehow got switched around
Something went off on its own, my dumb automatic chit chat
It’s not what I meant to say at all, there’s no way you can attach me to that

It doesn’t matter how intently I carpe the diem when I’m so buried. It has become so bad, I’ve been listening to white noise during my walks just to focus on thinking about the book I’m writing. I’ve stopped drinking caffeine completely because of how frantic it makes my mind. I’ve even limited my sugar intake. I deleted my Twitter account a few weeks ago. I’m focusing on good music and positive YouTube videos. I’m even trying (though often failing) to attend church and pray. I’m doing all of the things that a reasonable person would be expected to do to improve my physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

And still it persists. This anger. And this is on top of never knowing what is going to trigger a depressive or manic phase. My last manic episode lasted for four days, and I maybe slept five hours of the ninety-six. That’s a record. At the same time, I am expected to go to work as a writer where it’s almost my solemn duty to misunderstand and be misunderstood in turn. Fail at assembling a bunch of factory-built verbs and nouns like Lucille Ball on the chocolate conveyor belt. Except the work doesn’t feel nearly as well “defined.”

I would love to have nothing to do with it. I would like to move on and be through with it. I’m not strictly talking about the work; I’m talking about my bipolar disorder.

I turned 35 this year. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to comprehend going through the last half of my life steadily getting worse than I already am. I cannot face the possibility of being on medicine ever again. I cannot talk through my problems and rationalize a way through this because my problems are utterly nonsensical. I am a child, speaking gibberish and choking on life, not knowing how to ask for the help that I really need. I’m going to be talking to a psychologist and a psychiatrist at the end of the month, fully ready to commit to surgical options if any are available. Not simply because they might be a permanent option, but because I’ve tried all the soft and mushy and feely solutions. And they don’t work. I seriously want a surgeon to open my head and light it up with electrodes like a Christmas tree, because something in there is completely non-functional.

I’ve tried to take my own life once. I am physically struggling and emotionally flailing to stay alive, and no matter what good things I do for my body, it does not want to remain alive. I have so little control. What else am I supposed to do?

I’ll be over here lying near the ocean
Making ocean sounds
Let me know if you can come over
And work the controls for a while

There are lots of people in my life that would take the controls for me. If they could. If they knew how.

Hell, I’m one of them.