Introducing My Substack: white noise maker

Get ready for all the Frank Black and Pavement references

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about the frustration of being a content creator? I made good on my plans to pivot. Instead of writing listicles and stuff with the secret objective of getting you to maybe buy my online courses, I’m going back to the last time writing on the internet felt fun and weird and exciting: when I wrote a blog for no reason, with no aim, and with no idea what the internet even really was.

white noise maker is my new Substack publication. It’s named after my first blog. I started it in the fall of 2001, during my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon, before blogs meant anything. It seemed impossible that anyone would ever read it, and it was basically just a collection of anecdotes about my financial aid job answering phones in the English Department office, my thoughts on recent Pitchfork Best of the Year lists, and scene reports from watching bands you haven’t heard of playing at the Chatham coffee house. Post titles were almost always taken from the lyrics of whatever I was listening to at the time (heavy on Pixies and Pavement content, if you couldn’t guess).

It was kind of wonderful to write on the internet before writing on the internet meant anything. It seemed like the prevailing mood of being online was curiosity, pockets of weirdness. The internet still felt more like a weird collection of zines than a corporate surveillance matrix. I didn’t expect anyone to read my year-end mixtape or bitching about textbook orders or heartbreak when the bass player I had a crush on started dating some scene princess or brief enthrallment to Derrida (it was a different lifetime, babe), and in its purposeless, I could write about whatever instead of assigning importance to my content.

I’m trying to remember what changed exactly when I stopped writing it. One thing, certainly, was that I phased out white noise maker right around the time when drinking started to take over my life. My interior had too much that needed to be hidden — constant blackouts, insecurities, the nurturing of wounds and insults. I stopped listening to music, and in hindsight it’s clear that music was at least 50% of what I used to write about.

And somehow the idea that I’d chronicle some minor episode of my life just because, without some motive related to my writing career or my brand or whatever, became impossible to grasp. I don’t know. It was Austin in the mid-to-late 2000s. Instagram and Twitter didn’t exist yet, but they were about to. The idea of branding, the idea that being someone in a particular way online would be important for your career objectives, was beginning to poison the possibility of writing un-self-consciously about crushes and favorite Pixies records. There’s probably some other watershed event which I can’t put my finger on; maybe that’s when Facebook began poking our limbic systems to see how much we could be provoked.

Since then, especially in the last few years, I took a hard turn toward intentional content creation (barfoooooo!) to support my entrepreneurial efforts. To “teach” and “serve,” in the parlance of the contemporary heart-centered business cult, to “grow my audience” by making a series of calculated moves, striking the poses, applying the hash tags like false eyelashes, god, can you tell how exhausting this is? I’m sure it works for some people. (Although I also suspect that 90% of the people who teach you how to do business online got in when the tricks still worked, before the present conditions of a massively oversold attention economy and algorithms so perfectly sensate that you could probably send them to therapy in your place.)

I kept pushing through my discomfort because sometimes discomfort is just a prelude to necessary growth. I thought I was growing up, figuring out what I have to say as a public figure, coming to terms with my online avatar being a commercial entity. And like, it was kind of working: I had my most successful sales month as an entrepreneur in September (five figures, biatch, as if anyone cares). And then, when the calendar page turned and I realized I would have to do it all over again, and again after that, I realized I wanted to quit.

Apparently this is a frequently documented occurrence in business and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you must quit your business immediately. And I’m not sure that I’m quitting, or what I’m doing yet. But I am shredding the old model. No more preachy listicles. No more sales. No more importance.

The thing that I find retrospectively brilliant about white noise maker is that it didn’t claim to be anything but a staticky channel where you might occasionally hear a fragment of something interesting. It might be extremely casual and unimportant, like a radio you leave on in the other room when you’re home alone. Just noise, no signal. (Well, noise is what you get when you have too many signals, but you know what I mean.) And I miss that. I want to write that way again. So here we are.

And yes, I realize that it’s kind of funny to announce this aimless aspiration on a platform that advertises itself as a way for writers to monetize themselves. I could just have a regular ass blog, or put this same essay thing up on Medium, or whatever. (And I might do those things anyway.) But I’m choosing this platform because somehow it feels the most like the old Blogger, where people are kind of looking for this kind of aimless noisy content. My favorite Substack newsletters remind me the most of zines, in the best possible way: Sometimes they are About things, but they are often just fragments of time and weather.

It’s funny, but the namesake Frank Black song where I got this title kind of reads like a weary statement at the end of the self-branding era: “You know I hear a lot of talk / so I’m headed for the stereo store / to get a white noise maker, and turn it up to 10.”

Amen.

If you follow me here and you’d like to keep up with this new development, sign up here. (If you’re already subscribed to receive my articles in your inbox, you’re already on my Substack list — see you there!)

Novelist. Tarotist, poet, lazy Virgo. Nothing is real; magic is real. Writing is a way to see in the dark. sarahelainesmith.com, @braindoggies