What I Learned About Blogging

What I learned most about blogging is that I may not have been entirely qualified to do it.

Perhaps I’m being too simplistic. While it is true that I’ve enjoyed doing this blog so far, my ultimate goal when I started was to find a way to make this blog “pay” for me to write it, either in money or in audience appreciation. On that basis, I’ve succeeded: I recently got hired to write a blog for a company. Exciting, right? I finally get a chance to prove that my writing skills are good enough for somebody to pay for them. Or to be clear, I get to prove I can still do that, and on a regular basis, because I’ve been paid for my writing several times in the past, hence my desire for a blog that helped me do that again. This blog didn’t get me the gig though. Networking did, and now that I am getting paid to write a blog, I’ve discovered that I may have been going about this all wrong from the beginning.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the world of paid blogging, or blogging with a purpose:

1 – You have to know what your purpose is.  I find that if you’re blogging for a company, you have to know what product or service you’re selling for them. If you’re blogging for yourself, you have to have a “personal brand,” meaning some identity for yourself and your blog, so that your target audience is clearly identifiable. With a company it’s easy – if you sell widgets, your target audience is people who are looking to buy widgets, or people who have a problem that widgets can solve. With a personal blog like mine though, it’s more difficult to find that target unless your blog has a clearly defined purpose.

Suppose this blog was all about California tourism. My target would be obvious: people looking to visit California. Or if my purpose was how to relocate to California, my target would be people looking to move there. If it was the tourists, I would talk about all the cool stuff in California – Hollywood; the beaches, the attractions like Disneyland or Universal Studios. Writing it would be easy, as it would be if it was people looking to move there: I’d talk about moving companies, affordable places to live, California laws to be aware of, etc. My blog thus far however hasn’t really been about California at all, it’s about me. And this is why I think a personal brand is so important.

If I’m a defined person that everybody knows, like a celebrity, the fact that I’m many things – a nerd, a Muslim, a straight man, a writer, a single guy, a picky eater – is fine, because people will read it regardless because they know me and want to know more. If not, I believe I need to pick one of those labels because it makes the blog writing, and thus audience building, easier. I think I would just need to find what interests others who fit whatever label I decide the blog fits, and write about those interests. In my case however, I’m a relatively unknown individual that fits a bunch of different labels like I listed, giving us a blog that’s all over the place. I think writing a blog that’s scattershot like that without any defined personal brand to attract people to it has little to no purpose. It’s just me thinking about stuff, and unless I have that great personal brand, and there are thus a ton of people out there already interested in me and my thoughts, it’s difficult to write a blog about me. My purpose is dubious at best. That’s why I’ve learned that the blog’s purpose needs to be the blogger’s first consideration if s/he wants to monetize it or find an audience.

2 – You have to determine what your target audience is interested in. As I believe I already mentioned, once you know who your target audience is, you have to figure out what they want to read about. What you’re reading now is a product of the training I did for my new blogging job, and what I realized from it is that if you don’t know – not assume, not speculate, know – what your target audience wants to read about, it’s very difficult to build that audience. If you’re selling a product or service, I think not knowing what your audience wants is a big problem: If you’re not writing to your audience’s interests, how and why would they ever encounter you or your product or service? If they’re unaware of what your blog has to do with them, there’s no real reason to find it.

A good professional blogger, I learned, writes to what their target audience is interested in, and a shortcut I learned in determining that is to figure out what others who are into that same thing – oftentimes your competition – are blogging about. As my new employer taught me, if I read the most popular blogs about my product, I will discover what my audience is interested in, and if I can add to that discourse in a new and / or interesting way, I can get more readers for my blog. This is particularly true if those same leading bloggers share things that I wrote. According to my new bosses, getting redistributed by others is what makes something popular – this is what “going viral” is. So if I wanted to build audience for this blog, once I’d determined my purpose or personal brand I’d have to find out what the leading bloggers that cater to that audience write about, and write about the same things, only as good or better. I’d know I’d succeeded if those same leading bloggers started sharing my stuff too.

3 – You have to post regularly. This one I stuck to fairly faithfully in the past with this blog, but have not done so lately. Why? See #1.

As I said, I believe this blog is not very popular because all it’s about is me, and almost nobody knows me beyond those who have met me personally. I have no personal brand,  I’m just a real person, with all of the contradictions and complexities that entails. I can’t point to a target audience because I’m into a lot of different things, hence my blog is too. As a result, it can’t do much for me beyond allowing me to vent and clarify my own thinking for myself.

And I’ve discovered that doing all of these steps is really hard work.

If you haven’t figured it out already, I am writing this as a final blog posting for the foreseeable future, at least in this blog. I have an even more personal, but less well-maintained one that I just use as the mood strikes me. I’ve discovered that ironically, my ending this blog shows that I had already succeeded in fulfilling what I saw as its original purpose long before I began it. My goal in writing this blog really was to validate me, and I did that when my friend who referred me for the new blogging gig became my friend in the first place. He knew the part of my brand that would sell to his company: “A great writer and a reliable guy.” He knew that from personal experience. He knew the target – his company, that just lost their blogger – was looking for somebody to take over their blog. He introduced me; they liked what they saw in my writing (not from this blog no less, from elsewhere), and hired me. Since they know what their competitors blog about (which is what their audience is interested in), they know what to tell me to write, and that’s all I need. My writing won out, as I hoped it would.

So why can’t I do their blog and this one too?

4 – Blogging is hard work. Part of the reason I feel it’s important to have a purpose is because I think doing anything well is hard work. I feel that if you’re good at it, it can be even harder, because (as is the case with me) your perfectionism will kick in and force you to get every part of your blog posting exactly right, which takes effort. Writing well is not quick or easy, so without some tangible “payment” – be it monetary or in the form of some level of self-satisfaction, the whole thing can take a lot out of you. Again, I wanted to prove that I could write well enough to be compensated for my writing on a regular basis. I did that, which is satisfaction enough for me. If I feel the urge to write just to scratch an itch in the future, I can do it as needed, without worrying about adhere to #3. If I want to write for some other purpose, keeping this blog will only take time away from it. It’s run its course.

When I began this blog, I thought it would be a good way to reflect on what I learned in my 17 years in Southern California. What I learned in California more than anything else was to value what I like about myself, and to value myself generally. I had many teachers in California that got me here, and I’m not my perfect me just yet, but I’m good enough to know that I don’t need to keep doing this blog to prove myself. I am a living demonstration of what I learned in California, and if that’s good enough, it will get me back there again, regardless of whether I write about it.

If I do write about it however, you know it’ll be good. Don’t believe me? Just go back and read this blog.

 

 

 

What I Learned About Jumping To Negative Conclusions

This week I was reminded of why, in part, I am no longer in California

The last time I lost a job, I was able to survive because of the Affordable Care Act.  The way the Affordable Care Act works is that for those of us with preexisting conditions, we immediately get enrolled into your state’s Medicaid program, which then becomes a free HMO.  Since it’s state-specific and I was in California at that time, I signed up on California’s plan, only to have something happen to me while visiting my home state. And I panicked.  I did what I used to do in a lot of these situations: I totally lost it and assumed that because I was out of the state I was covered in, I was doomed.

Luckily for me, I was staying with a family member who doesn’t panic much.  They suggested I call “Medi-Cal” (California’s Medicaid, because like me, Callie always wants to be different) and explain the situation.  Sure enough, Medi-Cal reassured me that in an emergency, I could go to the Emergency Room of a hospital that takes out of state Medicaid and have them bill my care to Medi-Cal.  My family made some calls, found one, I went, and I thought that was the end of it… until I got a huge bill this week.  And I panicked again.

One of the things I hate about the health care system in this country is that even if you have private insurance, any medical care you get often involves multiple parties – your doctor, the lab, any specialist you might have had contact with – so bills come slowly, at different times, and tend to add up.  For this reason I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to the doctor, received a bill, paid it, and then weeks or sometimes months later would get another bill for what seemed like that same service.  I hate the multiple billings as much as the lack of coverage,  because I never feel “safe” – to me it always feels like another bill is around the corner, waiting to send me to financial ruin.  I had that same feeling when the bill for my emergency visit showed up this past week, even though Medi-Cal said they’d cover it.  So again I panicked, and felt miserable until it got resolved once again. Because the funny thing is, most negative solutions work themselves out in one way or another anyway. When you worry about them however, they feel a lot worse than they are, and you run the risk of making them worse too.

The thing is, in the months prior to my leaving California I saw what might be my final therapist, who tried to teach me never to jump to a negative conclusion. In essence, she said that it’s better to wait for the bad thing to happen before assuming that it’s going to be a bad thing.  Worry about it when it happens, in other words, not beforehand. And for a long time, I’ve struggled with that. I think that in general, intelligent people try to anticipate everything, so we have a tendency to try to be one step ahead of any impending danger, often to our detriment my therapist said, because nine times out of ten, either the bad thing won’t happen, or won’t be as bad as we feared.  Indeed, I struggled in California after losing my job because I assumed that I didn’t qualify for unemployment because I had gone back to my home town out of state and worked a seasonal position, despite working in California for over a decade prior to that.  It was only when I “hit rock bottom” and tried to apply for food stamps (“CalFresh” – California being different with food stamps) that they  convinced me to at least try to get unemployment benefits first, and sure enough, I learned I had thousands of dollars banked that I could’ve used, thus struggling for nothing.  I forgot all that when this latest bill came though, and tossed and turned all night in fear and anger at how I was going to pay for this latest bill with no job and no help from family and no benefits in my new state…

…until I called the hospital the next day, they took the Medi-Cal information, and said they’d take care of it.

See, what I’ve come to realize is that what’s better than complaining and assuming that every situation in life is a disaster is actually trying to solve it.  In my case, I’ve been amazed at the truth in what my therapist taught me, that either the problem is not as bad as I was assuming, or that there was some reasonable way to handle it if I just looked for it.  With medical bills, an ex of mine who was a nurse pointed out to me that at the office where she worked, there was a lady who sent them five dollars every month.  Her bill with them was for much more, but because she was making a good faith effort to pay, they could not send her to Collections.  All medical debt I’ve learned works this way.  So that’s not really something to fear, just do something about it.

You know what else isn’t?  Student loan debt.  Not only do student loans have far better interest rates than any other loan a person will get in their life, but as long as you keep the Federal student loan corporation informed of your financial situation, they will work with you, give you endless payment deferments, temporary forbearance, and even let you pay based on your income level.  As long as you don’t stop paying completely, and don’t assume you’re screwed, they’ll work with you.  You just have to try.

Finally, you know who I believe is on your side the most?  Your friends and family.  Recently a good friend of mine came to visit me, and I was saddened to hear that her fairly recent marriage was going poorly.  As I listened to her complain about everything that was wrong I didn’t want to say anything, because I’ve learned that others’ relationships are none of my business and I hate meddling.  To me however, it sounded like she’d just stopped talking to her spouse and vice versa, and that was what was causing their problems.  Worse, I felt like she judged them very harshly, not seeing or even trying to see things from their perspective.  I believe that more than likely, if the two of them just communicated openly, without assuming what the other person felt or thought, they might be able to reach a compromise.  I realized the same about my past relationships that failed.  In my opinion at worst I could have ended those relationships amicably, with nobody suffering as a result of the breakup, as was the case in my relationships that did end the right way.  I find that as long as you don’t believe the worst about the other person, don’t make negative assumptions about their beliefs or intentions, and remind yourself why you came together in the first place, or in the case of family, remember what your relationship is, you can resolve most conflicts.

For me, a big challenge in life is overcoming my mother’s negative worldview, which she learned from her mother, and instead listening to my father, who I thought was an idiot growing up for endlessly telling me to be positive.  The thing is, my therapist showed me that our existence of life is less about what physically happens to us and more about how we perceive it.  A friend once challenged me to find ten positive things in every negative experience I have, and sure enough, I always could.  And I ain’t that bright (there I go, being negative again!)

As I said, the first step in overcoming adversity for me has been not jumping to the negative conclusion.  The next step has been just trying to solve the problem rather than giving up in despair.  Doing this hasn’t led to a perfect life, but for a victim of abuse with bad kidneys, no job, and a chronic illness to last this long, I think I’m doing pretty well…

11949846888132734don_t_panic__dan_gerhard_01-svg-hi

 

What I Learned About Eid ul-Adha

Last week was the Muslim holiday of Eid ul-Adha,

which commemorates Prophet Abraham (Peace Be Upon Him.  Yes, the one from the Bible) sacrificing a calf because God saved him from sacrificing his son, which God had asked him to do to prove his faith.  Muslims celebrate this by making a pilgrimage called Hajj to the holy city of Mecca, which we’re expected to do at least once before we die.   If you aren’t doing it this year, you’re expected to pray with the rest of your community, or Ummah.  What did I do?

Nothing.  I wasn’t even aware of it until my aunt wished me a happy one.

This has been the case for the last several Eids I’m ashamed to say, and yet I don’t really understand why I feel ashamed.  Because what I learned in California is that I’m an Agnostic more than anything else.  I’m not sure when it happened, exactly.  All I remember is that one day, it occurred to me that to believe in Islam means believing that at some earlier point in human history, magical things used to happen, and now they don’t.  No reason, no explanation, they just don’t.  When I asked myself if I believed that, really believed that, I had to admit that I just plain didn’t.

But I feel bad about it.

See, while I believe that my father has always struggled with religion himself, my mother’s side of the family are the Muslim equivalent of evangelical Christians.  Everything is about religion to them, and not only is every single aspect of Islam true, to say otherwise is blasphemous.  I try not to talk about religion with them, but whenever they discover that I haven’t prayed, or gone to the Mosque, or that I’m not a virgin (which they discovered in California when they accidentally ran into my then-girlfriend), it breaks their heart a little.  As I said, their family is extremely devout, so my mother was no exception, and because my father wasn’t it was always a point of friction between my parents and I always felt caught in the middle.  Now that my mother is gone, her family believes that it’s their duty as Muslims to try to save me from my father’s wicked ways, and my not being on board with them has always made them, and by extension me, feel bad.

Ironically, as a result of this conflict, I actually know a great deal about Islam.  Among other things, I know that the scene posted at the top of this page, a clip from the Bollywood film Coolie (Manmohan Desai and Prayag Raj, 1983) well-represents why I struggled with Islam so much.  You see, my “film geekiness” wasn’t born in a vacuum – my father loved going to the movies, and his brother even went on to become a significant figure in the Indian arts film movement of the 1950s and 60s.  My father would see American and Indian movies regularly throughout his childhood, and passed that love of film and arts and literature and entertainment on to me.  The paradox?  My grandfather’s job in India was to take care of the Mosque, so he taught my father that film and singing are both sins in Islam, hence my problems with Coolie: what you see in this clip is non-Muslim actor Amitabh Bachan lip-syncing a song about attending Hajj in an inherently sinful film, one that I watched with my dad growing up.  Long story short, I grew up learning that everything I like, everything that I would argue makes me me, and which I inherited from my father was sinful.  I believed these things to be the best part of him, and that in and of itself was as sinful as my dad to my late mother.  Since I feel we now live in a time when people wear their religions on their sleeve, her family has even completely stopped watching anything on TV other than educational or news programming.  Or put another way, my whole identity is built on something they see as a sin.

Like I said, that in and of itself didn’t cause me to abandon Islam, but it created tremendous internal conflict.  Even though logic, as I said, suggests that Islam doesn’t describe reality, I spent my life learning it, and I still love my family. In fact, after my mother died I went through a phase where I was determined to connect with the religion and make her proud.  It didn’t end well, as fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadaan directly led to my being diagnosed with Lupus (as always, more on this later), but even then, I could never abandon Islam completely.  To this day, I don’t eat pork, drink alcohol, or engage in any major sin beyond sexual activity.  It’s more of a “better safe than sorry” level of practice than anything else, but I still adhere to it.  Why?  It’s like this:

At the end of the day, I think that regardless of how “true” Islam is, it represents a decent moral compass, promotes discipline, and creates a sense of identity, unity and safety among all other Muslims.  I have been fortunate that the many Muslims I’ve interacted with, whether Sunni  like me, or other sects like Shia or the Nation of Islam, or Sufs, or even Rastafarians and so on have treated me well based at first on my status as a Muslim.  Like other religious people, I also admit that I still intuitively believe there might be something more than what we see.  Coincidences, validated intuitions, and even my continued survival despite unbelievable adversity have all suggested that to me.  Islam may not be it exactly, but I’m not convinced that science has described everything there is to know.  Though Islam only affects my behavior in terms of morality and my ability to interact with other Muslims, this still counts for a lot.  If my father, who has questioned it at many points, hasn’t given up on it yet, who am I to?

To me, that’s the bottom line too – I have found that people choose to believe what they want to believe.  That’s why I can still proudly consider myself Muslim.  God isn’t going to fall out of the sky and kick me out of Islam for my following what I want to and discarding what I don’t.  I don’t even think He’d sent me to Hell, because I believe the point of the story of Abraham (PBUH) is that God is not a jerk!  Though human beings have the capacity to judge, I learned in California that because people are so different, we tend to get along better if we refrain from judging those whose beliefs aren’t hurting anybody else.  Terrorists acting in the name of Islam I can condemn because by hurting others I believe they forfeit the right to be left alone.  My family though?  My father? My sister?  My friends who are of other faiths?  My friends (and relatives – my famous uncle’s son is an Atheist) who don’t believe at all or are Christian or Jewish or Hindu?  I may not share their beliefs, but I feel that I know about as much as they do about what God actually is, what He wants, or if He even exists.  Who am I to judge anyone else?

And I’ll be doing Hajj when I’m ready to, not when anyone tells me I should. 😉

What I Learned In California

I came to California a fat 24 year old virgin with a great job, and bad health(and an attitude to match), but determined to take on the world.

I left it much slimmer, more experienced, and jobless, but healthier (new kidney), wiser, and with many stories about how I made it back in one piece.

community-img_664

 

The 17 years I spent in California can accurately be called my adult life.  They were supposed to be my chance to conquer the entertainment industry, fulfilling my life’s ambitions and paying off all of my much-celebrated “potential.”  As the best friend I made there put it however, “potential is BS.”  So while I did get a credit in Hollywood, get on TV, get my writing published, and make films, it wasn’t the way I expected it would be.  Life, I learned in California, rarely is.

I came back home and decided to write a blog about it, about the many colorful characters I met there and the random situations and life lessons I learned.  I wore many hats in California – had to, because I found that in Southern California, many of the people are transplants,  from the Midwest like me or many other places, all hoping to reinvent themselves into some ideal version that they can ultimately write a book or make a great film about someday.  I met many people through Meetup groups, knowing nobody but my distant family when I got there, and met others at the many jobs I took on in order to survive. As someone once put it however, no matter where you go, at the end of the day, there you are.  All of your family history, all of your past successes and failures, things your parents taught you or didn’t, things that happened to you long before you got there; all of the things that make you who you are become what goes with you when you try to reinvent yourself somewhere else.  If you’re lucky, you can get them to work for you, and if you’re me, you have to learn how to.

When I was in California, I learned many different things.   Some of them were about politics, some of them were about entertainment, some about both and most about life in general.  The most valuable things I learned in California were about me though, and I’d like to use this blog to share them with you.  It’s my life’s ambition to return to California, but until I get there, I’d like to spend the weeks to come telling you why.

Starting with this.

(and continuing every Thursday, Inshallah.  Did I mention that I’m Muslim too? 😉