A Letter from Putian, or How I Built an Audience While Developing my Writing Voice

An Adventure in the Far East

In 2004 and 2005, wifey and I went off on an adventure in the Far East, teaching English in China. We ended up at a crappy little cow college, in a crappy little town in the middle of nowhere; Putian University, in Putian City, Fujian Province, PRC.

Back then, the joke was that you knew you were an old China hand when eating at McDonalds was a night out. Putian is such a dirty, noisy, smelly little backwater that the nearest McDonald’s was 2 hours away.

We had about 25 foreigners in town; most of whom were on campus (includingd one teacher’s wife and four kids). My potential social circle was a mix of kids fresh out of university, middle-aged divorcees, and Chinese teenagers (my students).

Thus, my social circle was…wifey, who needed human contact beyone of one grouchy husband. She often (with my blessing) went off shopping, or touring with some of the other ladies, while I stayed on campus.

Generally, this suited me fine, but though I am not a very social person, as the year wore on I got lonely. This, aided and abetted by culture shock exacerbated my innate misanthropy.

I became increasingly reclusive and angry, and found myself writing letters home to both document my misadventures and relieve stress.

These “Letters from Putian” developed both my love of writing and my writing voice, while journaling our time in China. Upon our return home, a friend told me, “Andrew, reading those emails made me feel like I was sitting across from you, like we are right now, listening to you tell stories.”

That was what I was aiming for, and having Jay tell me I nailed it was the highest compliment I could imagine.

It also resulted in my first great lesson in list building, before building a list was really even a thing, and it started simply.

Audience Building

We were in teacher training in Shanghai, and I wanted to let my parents know we were safe, and that things were generally going according to plan. I wrote a little email with news updates, and added a couple of anecdotes for amusement and colour.

After the move to Putian I began my descent into madness, as the letters increased in both length and frequency, a funny thing happened. Mom forwarded the letters to my siblings, who asked to be included in the updates.

Then they forwarded them to friends, who also asked to be included.

From a single email to my mother, I grew a list of several dozen readers, who looked forward to my missives, and occasionally replied.

An email list, grown organically by peer-to-peer referral, by writing regularly and sending them something they wanted to read.

There is a lot to unpack there, but my key takeaways are:

  • Write something your audience wants to read.
  • Don’t be boring.
  • Organic (referral) growth in your audience, is the best growth.