Cameron Siewert is a content strategist and writer based in Austin, TX. She is the founder and owner of Contenterie, a web strategy consultancy and writing business whose mission is championing content as a philosophy, not a commodity. She works with the help of three officemates, all of whom are geriatric cats. She can be spotted sporadically on Twitter at @contenterie, or more frequently, in any food retail environment where a large selection of cheese is present.
Suspending Disbelief: A Meditation on Creativity & Content Strategy
My mom never missed an episode of Days of Our Lives.
It was a mainstay throughout my childhood, and particularly the summers, when I was home every day. Even now, I can hardly separate the swelling strains of its theme song from the smell of chlorine, dry Texas Panhandle summer heat, and the taste of post-swim peanut butter crackers.
As a weird, imaginative kid to begin with, I absorbed the outlandish plot points and epic story arcs as a sort of creative license for myself. And I exercised it joyfully, in all sorts of ways.
My sister’s and my Barbie storylines involved sordid affairs, attempted murders, and moves to Fiji to “start over” after bad breakups (yes, these were all real, and we remember the names of every single doll-character involved).
I also developed a years-long habit that I described as “dreaming”: walking around in circles and talking to myself. Making up stories, to be precise—continuous narratives that I’d pick up and leave off at will, pacing around the backyard, my bedroom, or anywhere else I could dream aloud, undisturbed.
Spending my formative years watching Days characters return to life, unscathed, after being pitched into vats of acid; seeing child characters grow from toddler to teenager in the span of a weekend; and learning that a hat and a fake moustache can constitute a perfectly effective disguise, I learned to suspend disbelief.
This turned out to be important in ways I would never have imagined.
When I finally began to put my wild imaginings into writing, I filled blank journals cover-to-cover with short stories. And as I began school and learned what was expected of me as a good student—one who didn’t pace around public places, talking to herself—writing remained my private outlet for suspending disbelief. (George Washington’s nostril at Mount Rushmore was the perfect secret hideout for a serial killer. Who would argue?)
It stuck with me for a while—even through my years of embarrassing teen poetry—but, as often happens with young creativity, I eventually lost my feel for it.
In college, I struggled through a painful and extended period of adjusting from small-high school standards in rural Texas to an academically demanding, intellectually rigorous university. My classmates seemed to have a casual, conversational knowledge of the entire Western canon, in addition to other topics I’d never even heard about. And the ability to debate about them intelligently at the drop of a hat.
I felt surrounded on all sides by things I didn’t know, and for the first time, there was something important at stake.
I began vetting every original idea I had for possible arguments, contradictions, or judgments, believing I could learn to identify what was objectively smart or good. The creative thoughts I’d once embraced now felt quaint and uninformed: weird little animals that I loved and wanted to protect, but couldn’t bring myself to trust, even privately.
Of course, this isn’t unique or even unusual. It’s an important, if complicated, evolution for every creative mind to grapple with the reality that there’s much more to learn, to understand, than you once imagined.
And it didn’t simply take the wind out of my sails and leave me floating, aimless. It led me to major in anthropology, rather than English. It made me a much more skilled, if less carefree and prolific, writer. It brought out my latent critical-thinking chops. And it led me to become a content strategist.
I began practicing what I’d later understand as content strategy a few years out of college. Defining and enforcing standards was a natural extension of the idea-vetting and filtering process that had become my habit. It felt (and feels) good to use analytics and case studies—tangible, empirical evidence—to inform a writing concept or justify a process change.
In the beginning, I assumed that any outlier or unexpected result was a reflection of my inexperience, my still-forming skillset and foundation of knowledge. When I became a better content strategist, I believed, I would see these things coming from a mile away.
But ten years later, here’s what I know: sometimes content teams come back to life, against all odds, after being pitched into figurative vats of acid (any content manager will know what I’m talking about). Passive readers can become actively engaged overnight, with no apparent explanation. And more often than seems possible, thinly veiled coercions to pump up corporate social media stats pass for “content marketing”.
Knowing more, learning more, won’t change these things or make me better at predicting them—not all the time, anyway, or even most of the time.
I’ve come to believe that content strategy isn’t really about quantifying and categorizing and operationalizing. It’s about something I first learned from a soap opera.
Content strategy is about having the courage to suspend disbelief. Sometimes that means making room for the anomalies, withholding judgment until a larger picture emerges. Sometimes it means ignoring apparent limitations or constraints and pushing long-shot risks forward anyway. Sometimes it just means listening and observing, without diagnosing.
It requires us to accept that reality is far stranger and more challenging than any process or set of standards can account for or solve, entirely.
When we move beyond knowing, proving, and validating—when we let educated guesses and “try and see” be valid answers in and of themselves, without shame or insecurity—we allow new perspectives beyond the known horizon to come into focus.
We enable creativity to do what expertise can’t—build intelligent, meaningful content strategies that spark genuine connections between real people.
And, you know, reveal to the world that we draw our inspiration from a daytime drama in which young lovers are replaced by nefarious clones and people attend masquerade balls with alarming frequency.
Like I said, it’s all about suspending disbelief.