One for the bloggers

blogging tips One for the bloggersWOW have I been reading a lot of blogs lately. My Google Reader list almost doubled after reading through all your recommendations. Combine that with my awesome tablet and newfound free time for reading, and I’ve been a blog-post-consuming machine these days.

I don’t know whether this is a curse or a blessing, but my web marketing and development background means that it’s impossible for me to read blogs without at least a little bit of analysis. I look up how many readers the author has, think about how that compares to the readership of other, similar writers, and notice which posts seem to get the most traffic among his or her readership. I also follow a handful of mega-bloggers (folks who have millions of pageviews per month); not all of their writing is to my taste, but I read them out of curiosity to observe what it is they do that seems to touch a nerve with such vast numbers of people.

I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, and in that time I’ve accumulated a lot of data. And for a long time I thought that it was mostly useless, because there simply didn’t seem to be any clear set of rules that would apply to all top-notch blogs. For every tip that was commonly accepted as a best practice, there were plenty of blogs that had great readership yet did the opposite. “Include lots of pictures,” “have a good design,” “write concisely,” “do numbered list posts,” were all good ideas, yet didn’t seem to be implemented consistently among blogs that actually gained traction.

Even the disreputable traffic-baiting techniques didn’t seem to work all that well. I’ve heard the lament that it’s impossible to have a widely read blog unless you trash other people or share graphic details about your intimate life or swear like a pirate or pen divisive political tirades, yet (to my relief) that’s not what I found when I looked at the data. Folks like the Pioneer Woman, Leo Babauta, Design Mom, Glennon Melton, and Sarah Mae all built sites that attract tens of thousands of loyal readers without resorting to any of those tactics.

So for years I just shrugged my shoulders, the analyst in me annoyed and perplexed that I could not seem to find a single thing that all the big personal bloggers had in common.

And then, on this latest reading kick, something finally clicked. It’s embarrassing how excited I was when I realized that I actually did see one — and only one — thing that every single person with a widely read personal blog has in common. It’s something the Glamourai and BooMama, Donald Miller and Alice Bradley, Michael Hyatt and Kelle Hampton share. Yes, even Ann Voskamp and the Bloggess have it in common. And it’s this:

They are all wholly, unapologetically themselves.

Kelle Hampton, for example, is passionate about taking pictures to share the beauty in her daily life. So is Ann Voskamp. And you can tell from the energy that exudes from the pages of their blogs that they don’t post these photos because they read in some tips list that it’s good for traffic; it’s the natural outpouring of a genuine, white-hot passion in this area.

I’m guessing that BooMama doesn’t write her laugh-out-loud funny posts because she read somewhere that quirky Southern humor helps build a readership, just like Donald Miller probably didn’t decide to focus on spiritually-based life improvement tips due to a market potential analysis. Instead, they were both honest about what they most enjoy writing, and followed where their energy naturally flowed.

Some people are very open and just can’t hold back on all the details of their personal lives; others are more formal and reserved. Some absolutely love creating beauty and couldn’t imagine a blog that wasn’t filled with big, beautiful pictures and a lovely design; others would be happy with a bare bones style where the beauty is in the words alone. Some people feel most passionate when they can write long, wandering posts that release all their thoughts on a subject; others naturally lean towards sharing their ideas quickly and concisely. Some find that they’re never more in the zone than when they express themselves through visuals; others prefer words alone. Some have lifestyles that allow them to update frequently and predictably; others don’t — and their readers still love them.

It doesn’t matter which category you fall into, or whether your own passions are in line with what the experts say you need to do to have a big blog. The only thing that’s really important is that you know who you are, what you love, and which unique charisms God has give you, and you express that on the page.

This idea is summed up beautifully in one of my favorite quotes, from Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Especially in this disconnected society where there’s so much loneliness, I think that we all naturally gravitate toward people who strike us as deeply human. In the age of digital living and on-screen personas, we’re desperate for that unmistakable sense of connectedness you can only find when you’re around people who are honest with you about who they are. We’ll even listen to the ideas of someone whom we otherwise wouldn’t agree with, just to be in the presence of a person who is passionately comfortable in her own skin.

And so, if I were to write a “tips for bloggers” list based on my 10 years of analysis and as many years of having my own blogs, I think it would only have one item on it. I would simply say:

BE YOURSELF. Be wholly, unapologetically yourself.

This doesn’t mean rationalizing bad behavior or navel gazing or wallowing in self-indulgence; instead, it means digging deep to find that unique combination of interests and talents that only you can offer the world, and sharing them with as much energy as you can muster. To paraphrase St. Catherine of Siena, be who God meant for you to be, and you’ll set the blog world on fire.

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Enter the Conversation...

54 Responses to “One for the bloggers”
  1. Marie Meints says:

    I really like this little tidbit of advice! Sometimes I think bloggers try to emulate the voices of other “more popular” bloggers. You are right, the ones I enjoy the most are the ones who are just being themselves and sharing their unique beauty and talent with the world!
    Marie Meints recently posted..Finding Joy Today

  2. Melanie B says:

    Yes! This. Nothing drives me more crazy than when I see a blogger desperately trying to be whatever it is they think they need to be to be successful when it clearly just isn’t who they really are.
    Melanie B recently posted..Beauty Will Save the World and Other Stories of Hope and Healing

  3. Amelia says:

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m just getting back into blogging, and although I have no aspirations to ever be “big”, I have been really, really enjoying expressing myself this way.

  4. Brooke says:

    Not going to lie, I am amazed at how your mind works! This is the best and truest advice I think I have ever read. It’s not just for blogging, either!
    You are still in our prayers!
    Brooke recently posted..Kolbe’s Story Part IV

  5. So where do I have to peddle this new-found authenticity in order to get readers? ;) Just kidding. Great analysis! Also sort of a personal motto…
    Literacy-chic recently posted..Dragonfly: Jenny Reading Pt. 1 (A Literacy Moment)

  6. Nicole says:

    Nicely said! If I looked to the number of readers of my blog, I would give up. I blog for me. (But I do love the few women who do stop by!)

  7. emily says:

    Thanks for this. I had some friends who blogged try and up their numbers, but it never worked. And then when they just went back to being themselves, the readers came.

    I struggle with this as well. I think because I feel like I am so many things. How can I communicate that in one blog? How can I be light-hearted and sarcastic and yet write about the things that really mean something to me, that bring me to tears? I’m still trying to figure that out. Any time I stop writing publicly, it’s because I become afraid of what “putting it out there” might do to the people I care about and to myself. This is such a great reminder that if I want to be a writer, and I do, I need to be myself and let what comes from my fingers flow.

    Thanks!
    emily recently posted..Gwen’s Birth Story (Part II)

  8. So true – the blogs with the authentic voices really stand out. But now I’m trying to picture just what St. Catherine of Siena’s blog would look like…
    suburbancorrespondent recently posted..Hold The Ketchup

  9. andi says:

    Absolutely yes!!! I loved every moment of this post. Because sometimes we just need to hear that , yes, we are enough. Yes, who we are DOES matter. Yes, you are good enough, strong enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.

    That’s a pretty special thing to hear.

    Thanks for that.

  10. I write for my parents (but knowing that quite a number of other folk, especially friends & family, read along). So I don’t particularly care how many people read my blog.

    But I am curious. How on earth would you be able to tell how many people read my blog? I was under the impression that tools like Google analytics are private.
    Mary @ Parenthood recently posted..January 18, 2013

    • You can’t know exactly, but Quantcast usually has good data for big blogs. For smaller ones, you can look at the number of subscribers to a blog’s feed on Google Reader, and extrapolate what total traffic would be from there. Again, not super accurate though.

      • Hmm. I have very few followers, but a lot of my friends read my feed. But I have no idea how to know how many or who that is; I just know because they talk to me or email me (etc.)

        I am afraid I am probably a little too much myself. But you said that’s a good thing, so let’s go with that.

        Two of my blogs are really for my children, including the one referenced above. I want them to know my thinking some day when they are old enough to care. I am a convert to the faith also and some day they may wonder things that I may not be around to answer. My family blog was really just a way to keep our parents up to date when our family doubled overnight a few years back.

        Nonetheless, I would like to know how many people read. Maybe your next book can be a primer for blockhead mamas who blog when they should be cleaning (but want to know their readership nonetheless).
        Dreena Tischler recently posted..Facebook as a First Step to Advocacy

  11. Kelly @ in the sheepfold says:

    So true! Baiting and posturing . . . blech! No one needs another artificial person around.

    My family continues to pray for yours.
    Kelly @ in the sheepfold recently posted..I Know His Love Language

  12. I love this and agree wholeheartedly. Sometimes I still struggle to find my own voice, but over time, I’ve learned that the “me” I like best tells stories and keeps the preaching to a minimum. When I open myself up and tell my stories, readers seem to respond
    Dana@DeathbyGreatWall recently posted..Marriage And The Past Through An Adoptee’s Eyes

  13. Considerer says:

    So true, yet not something I’d analysed enough to determine. Dollops of glorious truth – that’s the ticket :)
    Considerer recently posted..A new perspective

  14. Scott Alt says:

    I think that you’re hitting on something that is cliche-sounding but has an important truth to it: What works, works. As a former writing teacher, I think that’s particularly true in writing. There’s no formula–there are rules, and it’s not that they’re necessarily unimportant, but they’re broken all the time, often deliberately, and it works. One can try to analyze why, but in the end it’s all mystery. Being yourself is maybe the only “rule” I wouldn’t sacrifice, because if you’re not, you’re not going to be able to disguise it. Fakeness is the one “unforgiveable sin” in writing.

    Annie Dillard: “There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. The reason it is hard to explain is because you haven’t seen it on any page. It is there that you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
    Scott Alt recently posted..WHITE’S BURDEN REDUX

  15. regina says:

    I LOVE THIS POST. Thank you, Jennifer. Your blog truly is a blessing to the world.
    regina recently posted..My Favorite Blogger Was Pro-Choice Because of Love

  16. Great advice. I’m especially glad you acknowledge a person can be reserved in a blog, if that is being true to himself or herself. ‘Cause that’s me! I don’t write much about my life or my family, except when it touches on the subject I’m writing about. I mean, I give examples from my life of struggling with prayer, how I try to teach my kids to see things through faith-filled eyes, etc. But I don’t share intimate details of my life with any but my closest friends. It’s the English in me.

    I appreciate how your blog weaves faith and your personal life together so seamlessly and naturally.
    Connie Rossini recently posted..Pro-life fiction for every age group

  17. sara mcd says:

    *smile* I agree but I would have phrased it in the negative: Don’t try to be someone else. I don’t like fake and if I get the impression you’re doing something for the sake of the numbers, I won’t like what you’ve written. I don’t think I’m alone in that. So either be genuine, or be really good at appearing genuine. ;)

    I’d like to add something else – post regularly. Yep, be yourself and post often.

  18. Melanie B says:

    Also, Pope Benedict agrees about the need to be our authentic selves. Did you see today’s Message for the 47th World Communications Day?

    “If the networks are called to realize this great potential, the people involved in them must make an effort to be authentic since, in these spaces, it is not only ideas and information that are shared, but ultimately our very selves.”
    Melanie B recently posted..CONSUBSTANTIAL WITH THE FATHER: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith

  19. Jane says:

    Our Lord works in wonderful ways — today is the feast day of St Francis de Sales, our priest said this at the homily today, it ties in perfectly with your blog message. “Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.” ~Saint Francis de Sales

  20. Andrea says:

    I love this post Jen. You are on a roll.

    I have a teeny, tiny following. But I’ve been blogging for 10 years, and I just write about what I feel like writing about. Blogging has given me some really unique experiences that I would have never had without it and I love that!
    As long as I’ve been writing, I’ve been reading too. I like a handful of the “big name” blogs, but for the most part, I enjoy people who are just everyday types like me. I just deleted a blog off of my reader yesterday because I got tired of the constant focus on paid reviews, giveaways, and begging for attention. I’m not like that in real life, so I don’t want to be like that on my blog either. It’s not like an alternate reality, it’s just me!

    I love this. Thank you for all of your thoughtful posts lately!
    Andrea recently posted..Peace

  21. Ashley says:

    Just what I needed to hear. :) It’s so easy to try to be like the people you admire, but in doing that you lose part of who you are.

    I have a quick question (I hope) for you: how do you keep track of books you want to read? Do you just save the books to Amazon, use GoodReads, keep a list, etc. ? I’m trying to figure out what would work best for me so I’m gathering ideas. :)

    Keeping you and your family in my prayers!
    Ashley recently posted..19 Weeks

    • Love questions like that. :) Personally, I live and die by my Amazon wish list. I have a few different ones for different categories of books. Honestly, if they ever accidentally deleted my lists, I think I wouldn’t be able to function for months.

  22. My dad has always told me, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” In this case, write what you love, and people will follow :)
    Jenna@CaIllHerHappy recently posted..Give Me Your Potty Training Advice

  23. Kate says:

    Well said, Jen. My husband is always giving me the same advice. I tend to worry too much about what different groups of friends & family will think when writing. The great irony is I just wrote a post where I admitted I was going through a tough time because I just needed to get it off my chest & ironically, it got a big response. And what did my husband say upon reading it? That it was the first post he read in a long time where I was truly being myself. Go figure. Writing is hard. Thanks for the advice. Hope you’re feeling better.
    Kate recently posted..Serviam, a guest post by Mike

  24. This completely resonates with the best writing advice I ever received, which was that if you drop deep enough into the well of your own particularity, you will tap into the aquifer of human experience. I think it is why particular personalities and stories that make the best blogging (and writing/reading in general) because, contrary to what we expect, it is within the specific contours of someone else’s story – even when it is drastically different from our own – that we start to understand our own lives with sharper clarity.
    Laura @ Mothering Spirit recently posted..nurture your mothering spirit – lydia

  25. I read a lot of the same blogs you mentioned. And I agree… they all do seem to be themselves; even though, upon occasion, their blogs make me feel like a bit of a mama failure. I don’t know how they have time to DO all the things they blog about, let alone BLOG about them WITH excellently edited photos! I am a “born again Catholic” (that’s the term I use to call myself because I rediscovered Catholicism after begin born a “cradle Catholic” and being questioned by many, many Protestant friends about whether or not I was “born again”). I am wondering if you have Catholic Blogs that you follow too. If so, please recommend. I love a lot of the Protestant faith filled blogs, but would really love to find some new Catholic ones too. I blog, but mostly for family scrapbook purposes… not for readership. But occasionally, I write about Catholic topics close to my heart in a hope to “evangelize” and clear up so many of the misconceptions of the Catholic faith. I hope you are doing well… I really, really enjoy your blog! In fact, I am working on a Reconciliation post (my 2nd grader will receive the sacrament for the 1st time on Monday) and I plan to link up to several of your posts on the topic… they hit home with me and hope they will appeal to some of my non-Catholic readers too :) Take care and God Bless!

  26. Leila says:

    Good to know you’re feeling better — at least I hope this posting is an indication.
    You are so right, and in any case there are simply too many voices to try to imitate!
    Enjoy your rest!
    Leila recently posted..{pretty, happy, funny, real}

  27. Transparency, which happens to be my word for the year (I think). I recently published a post that had been written for months but never posted because I was concerned about what people would think. The Holy Spirit had been nudging me to publish but it finally took reading another blogger, who wrote that it had been hard to put the words out there but they did it for the sake of being transparent. That sentence right there jumped off the page, it was the word I needed to hear that day.
    Amy @ Consecrated Housewife recently posted..Happy 11th Birthday Soccer Boy!

  28. and this is why my blog will always be a ‘micro-blog.’ I can’t be 100% myself. I would love to vent and snark and show that I am 100% more introverted and insecure and disappointed than I show on my blog, but that is just not appropriate for SOMEONE IN MY POSITION.

    I have a friend who cries with how open I have been- that my life is not perfect…to semi-quote Anne of Green Gables- “if only she knew what I wanted to say- but didn’t!”
    priest’s wife (@byzcathwife) recently posted..Pretty Happy Funny Real Life

  29. Sarah b. says:

    This is beautiful Jen. My favorite posts are the ones where I sit down and open my vein over the keyboard, and am left feeling that I really opened up and tapped into that deep well of my human experience, which isn’t anyone else’s. My last post was one of those and though my readership has remained small over the four years I’ve been blogging, it’s posts like that one which keep me going.
    It’s hard sometimes when you feel you are bring left out or overlooked in this blogging world, and to do things that aren’t real, but not worth it at the end of the day. Thanks for the reminder!

  30. Heather says:

    I love blogging my messy process. It seems I can’t help myself and I’m grateful that people tell me it’s what they want. People really do just want to know we’re all the same, in so many ways. So many of us put on a polished show, in life and on blogs. I kind of wish I were more capable of that sometimes. I just can’t shut up. heh.

    Also. You are one of the people you describe here, you know. You are beautifully YOURSELF.

    xo
    Heather recently posted..Just Write {69}

  31. I love that you have been looking so critically at blogs and that it has boggled you as well…what works for some, doesn’t work for others and your ONE tip makes so much sense! Looking at my favorite blogs, I know that it’s true! Thanks for a great post!
    Monica @ Equipping Catholic Families recently posted..A Letter to Frankie about Mom’s Mass Survival Tips

  32. Hope says:

    I’ve been blogging since 2004 and it was when I was diagnosed with cancer that I stopped apologizing for being me in my posts. Maybe it wasn’t even an overt apologizing that I was doing befor but once I stopped I wrote from a different place. Whatever ‘that place’ is, it was also easier to write from in the beginning of my cancer journey.

  33. Beth says:

    I’d say this could easily be extended to anything in life. Be wholly, unapologetically you and find success.

  34. I always call myself the “meanest mom in the world”, because I blog a lot about mothering/parenting in general. I also address specific issues, like dealing with picky eaters, or extreme defiance. It’s kind of a joke, the meanest mom thing; but at least folks who read my blog know I am gonna give them real advice and not tell them to roll over and let their kids trample them. LOL!!
    Dawn aka One Faithful Mom recently posted..Reclaiming Our Evenings

  35. As I am just getting started in the world of blogging, and it has been very hard not to get caught up in comparing my newbie site against others who are well established. But ultimately true authenticity is what draws people-certainly a big reason why Conversion Diary is so popular! Love reading your insights!
    Jennifer Sagel recently posted..It’s the Little Things

  36. Amanda Rose says:

    Wow! How perfect is the timing of your article? I have been writing a blog with spiritual reflections since 2008, quite reserved about my personal life there and not bubbly. But today – just now!- wrote my first article on a new fun blog about my new adventure selling online as I try to support myself and daughter. I had laughingly referred to myself as the “Amazon Diva” and I am so excited to begin to discover her/my humorous voice that friends hear but is never conveyed on my spiritual blog. The Diva was ready for a voice! Whether anyone comes or not, I get to dish…Oh, if you want to visit the Diva while you are blog-obsessing try my work in progress at http://theamazondiva.blogspot.com/
    Great post, Jennifer!
    nd thanks for the great timing, Lord!
    Amanda Rose recently posted.."Divine Intimacy" – A Calendar to Keep Us on Track

  37. Kerry Wolf says:

    Thanks much for the advice, Jen. I am new at this and could sure use it! How are you doing physically this week? Hoping things are going ok for you.
    Kerry Wolf recently posted..Boy Howdy What a Week!

  38. I really enjoyed this piece of advice. I guess that’s what I try to do. I have to say that by keeping my main blog mostly anonymous, I do feel I have a little more freedom to “be real.” It’s actually quite freeing. I guess that I am different also in that I don’t write for a living so I don’t feel pressure to write all the time, conform to some set of guidelines, or have tons of readers. That is also freeing. It means I can do what I want, when I want, and that’s great because I don’t have a lot of time these days to write, much as I love to and crave a creative outlet.

    Besides authenticity, the other thing I gravitate toward in other blogs I read is simplicity. I know that Pioneer Woman is a HUGELY popular blog, but for me, there’s just too much content. I find I can’t stay focused on blogs like that. I prefer a “cleaner” looking blog like yours where the content isn’t just flashing all over the place or cluttering up the main page.
    The Reluctant Widow recently posted..Happy New Year!

  39. So true, Jen. When I go back and read some of my first blog posts, I definitely get a different sense than the one I do when I read my writing now. Though I’d obsess about not sounding like other bloggers I liked, I think it just took time to sound authentically like myself, you know? As an English major, I wrote tons of papers in college, but never ones about myself, and I’ve loved an opportunity to be more reflective and personal through blogging. Thanks so much for YOUR authenticity and honesty!
    Stephanie @CaptiveTheHeart recently posted..Love Notes: Sugar and Spice

  40. Michelle says:

    that’s a good point. One thing I do try to be is myself. And I annoy myself sometimes. haha. Thanks for writing this. As silly as it seems, I think it’s always good to be reminded that we need only be ourselves to make friends, have strong relationships, etc.
    Michelle recently posted..7 Quick Takes – 40

  41. Well Jennifer, you nailed it again. Awesome. Love your blog.
    Bonnie Morris recently posted..Dad – A Happy Birthday Tribute

  42. Meika says:

    Thank you, Jen. I hear God speaking to me in your words today. I’ve was SO grumpy at lunchtime today – my poor husband probably wishes he stayed at work. I’m trying to fit myself into a perfect housewife mold today, and that’s just not who God made me to be.
    Meika recently posted..The Least of These

  43. Yes! Yes! I so agree. I’ve had some wonderful consultations from really smart people this last year during my site redesign. I was asked again and again to come up with readership goals and traffic-boosting ideas. I was so hesitant and uninterested in thinking about this and pushed to do it anyway because I want my writing to help support my family in a bigger way.

    I don’t look at my analytics. And I don’t write things to gain readership. When I *do* look at analytics or think about contributing a post that will be liked, it feels bad. So I don’t do it and decided that is just fine. I keep my blog precisely *because* if feels good and right. I decided being authentic to me has to be the way and whatever comes from that is what is supposed to come from that.

    Anyway, I’ve had conversations about this with my blogging friends and one of them sent me this post (you mentioned her up there as an example of being wholly herself). Thanks for your thoughts. :)

    - Nici
    dig this chick recently posted..under the big sky

  44. Ann says:

    Dear Jennifer,
    How is it that we are so much on the same page, when I am old enough to be your mother?
    All the while my children were growing up, I’d say to them – Be yourself. Be yourself, and you will always be a success.
    Thank you for this post. It’s confirmation for me right now, for me to just be MYSELF.
    I’m wondering, have you read the book The Temperament God Gave You by Art & Laraine Bennett? I think you’d love it. I just started reading it a few days ago. Very. Very. Helpful.

  45. Thank you for this wisdom. All I want to do is share my story as authentically as possible, and in this blogging world it seems that all of the unspoken competition would have to trade vulnerability and authenticity for what reads well or what is deemed relevant by the masses. Again, thank you for the encouragement to continue to write as myself; that’s all there is and it is enough.

  46. Hope you get a chance to read my blog- registeredrunaways.wordpress.com, would love to hear any thoughts (good and bad) that you have about it!

  47. Ultreya says:

    Loved this post, and that quote from Howard Thurman. At times, I admit that I get a bit obsessed checking the stats of my blog. (There are about 5 people who read it : ) However, ultimately, I blog because I enjoy doing it. Thanks again!
    Ultreya recently posted..Tuesday # 8: "Freude erläbe" (experiencing joy) / mandalas / God in drag

  48. Maryanne says:

    Jennifer: I landed on your site via Kelly the Kitchen Kop — and I am so glad that I did! I look forward to following you! I will pray for your health and your family. Thank you for your honesty and forth-rightness! I am inspired…

  49. Tamara says:

    I love this post, not as a blogger (because I’m really not), but as a mom and as a woman. This, coupled with Leila on Like Mother, Like Daughter yesterday, are really a work of God speaking into my heart. Thank you.
    Tamara recently posted..40 Years

  50. This is a wonderful piece of advice that makes a lot of sense. When we try to be somebody else, we aren’t allowing God to work in and through us in all of the ways He can because of who He made us to be. Along the lines Matthew Kelly’s advice that what God wants is for you to become the best version of yourself, and that will glorify Him the most, we have been blessed with certain talents, passions, and connections to others and when we’re honest and open, it attracts others.
    Thanks, Jen, for being such a great example about the importance of being open and honest, passionate about life as the way to attract others and glorify God!
    Trisha Niermeyer Potter recently posted..Fashion Faux-Pas

  51. Patty says:

    Jennifer,

    Great insight…as always another good post, sista! :)
    I love that quote from St. Catherine too!