Quirky posts & emo outpouring for half a decade: the blog turns 5.
At a writing conference recently, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in years, the author of many books. I was surprised at lunch when he began to lecture everyone at our table about the wrongness of the Iraq war. Talk about preaching to the choir—there probably wasn’t one soul at the confab who thought the war had been justified or who wasn’t sickened, at some level, by its tragic waste of blood and treasure.
I realized that my friend’s gauche presumption, inadvertently condescending whatever your view of the war, was inseparable from him as a writer. I saw that he’s an autodidact, which means a self-taught person. Someone who lectures himself about the truth he has come to. Which pretty much defines writers, however many teachers have helped them along the way. They’re seekers. But there’s in this autodidact condition an even darker root, didactic, which describes someone who lectures others.
In other words, I saw my own tendencies writ large. A strategy of much nonfiction writing, it seems to me, involves taking the curse off didacticism by witnessing about what’s true for you in the form of story. What I’ve just tried to do by telling a little story about my friend instead of saying didactically, Don’t lecture others.
Venting my views on political matters, as I’ve just cagily done on the Iraq war, has gotten me flamed on this blog and lost me subscribers. Ditto for religion. Both have gained me readers, too. I’ve noticed that the problem with religion and politics comes almost always from my stray mentions. In January 2012 I lost nary a subscriber when I wrote three heartfelt posts, an entire series, on the intellectual dishonesty of many atheists who attack religion. I used the recently departed Christopher Hitchens as an example, and explained my rather secular definition of God. And my appreciation for religion’s evolutionary importance. And I probably threw in my New Agey notion that humans are becoming one big happy family in a vast global village.
But when I gratuitously threw God into a recent post, I immediately got an email notice that an acquaintance, a woman I liked, had unsubscribed. I’m no Hitchens, who seemed to draw energy from angering others, and I felt bad. Whether you find my occasional political and ecclesiastical dithering soft-headed, interesting, or intolerable depends on so many things. Religion and politics push lots of buttons—in me too. So Momma was right: don’t discuss religion and politics.
Except you can if that’s your blog’s beat. Mine here is writing, but alas it’s also sometimes me, and my struggle to figure out both. And sometimes, like here, how they’re related.
Blogging is its own genre
Five years ago, on July 17, 2008, my blog was born as I uploaded my first post. It was on revision. How appropriate. Revision has emerged as a theme, with 30 posts so categorized, and my first posts for the blog, then named Narrative, gave me fits. How I slaved over them. Obsessively I rewrote them and made my wife read them, or listen to me read them. What I was learning—am learning still—was that blogging is its own genre.
When I began, I was in the midst of writing the second version of my memoir. I was full of insights about writing I wanted to share. But I had been drafting book chapters that averaged 20 pages, so keeping posts concise was, and remains, a challenge. I can go on and on. But blogging’s generally a brief genre. Beyond that, my persona gave me fits. Who was speaking? And to whom? What was my stance? Posts seemed more intimate than my chapters, maybe because I was publishing them. Blogging offers such gratification that way.
I got curious about what others were doing, and actually started reading blogs. A big leap forward. All writers must read what they’re trying to write! I enjoyed the conversational tone of this blogger, admired the brevity of that one, loved the lyrical fluency of another. I now have RSS feeds of dozens of blogs fed onto my iGoogle page. (Google’s decision to kill iGoggle is causing me angst—the substitutes for it I’ve seen make far too big a deal of each post, when I want to scan headlines.) Gradually I took the next step, which was commenting on others’ posts. A defining feature of this genre is its reciprocity.
My guest posts for others, my latest venture into fellowship, have been what’s pushed up my followers. Subscription signups really went crazy after my guest post for Sunny Room Studio on spiritual affinities I’ve gained from the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, and Eckhart Tolle. Most of the new followers have come from overseas. All three writers have international followings, but I think the proximate cause was Tolle, whose latest book, A New Earth, a synthesis of spiritual thought, is a global bestseller. (I hope some of my international readers will comment and say where they heard about this blog.)
How often to post? I think whatever works for the blogger is what’s best. And of course a blog’s frequency will help select its audience. For most of my run I’ve tried to post every five days—this is my 363rd upload—or a little oftener than once a week.
Yet suddenly I wonder, now that I’ve got such a spiffy new format, How long will I blog? This new start has given me stage fright. I’m like the writer who achieves some success and replaces his card table in the kitchen with a mahogany desk in a comfy studio out back. He finds he’s raised his bar so high that he can barely write. Because look at this genius setup and how crappy his sentences. How he still struggles.
This is effectively my first new post for the new Draft No. 4, and it threw me back to the agony of my first days of blogging.
Is blogging narcissistic?
Is art? Are writers unusually self-involved? Does it matter, if their work serves the reader?
Blogging is lumped with social media, and so gets tarred with criticism that attends the web’s supposedly narcissistic chattering. In the new Harper’s (August 2013), there’s an essay by Mark Kingwell, based on his speech to the Writer’s Union of Canada, that cites studies saying college students are 48 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979 and that narcissistic personality disorder in almost three times higher for twentysomethings than for those 65 or older. “These trends,” Kingwell says, “strongly correlate to increasing online connectedness.”
This makes intuitive sense to anyone who has noticed how kids today are always staring into screens or walking about with cell phones pressed to their ears. Then again, geezers have always felt the younger generation is going to hell.
Kingwell also resurrects the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, most famous for saying “the medium is the message.” I love McLuhan’s theories, especially regarding reading, because he was such a product of print culture himself but blamed print for, essentially, causing humanity’s second Fall from Eden. Print privatized us, McLuhan says. It drove us inward into our egoistic selves, and we lost our true connection to each other, which was oral, tribal, telepathic. Hello Guttenberg, goodbye oral culture! Surely true, and definitely stimulating, but who ya gonna call? The horse has fled the barn, Humpty Dumpty has shattered, Elvis has left the building.
When I was a young reporter, a businessman raged at me for the sins of the press, and I wanted to say, “You’re blaming me for the Exxon Valdez, when I make small wooden boats.” I think back to my friend mentioned at the start, who has written about how he was traumatized by his alcoholic father. I doubt that the practice of writing has helped his psyche—writing may have worsened his didactic tendencies—but through his writing he has offered a gift to the world.
I saw this so clearly in a recent post by my artist friend Dave Owen about Van Gogh’s landscape drawings. I wrote to Dave:
I once asked a landscape painter what he got from a lifetime of looking at the hills in southern Ohio, and he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. Anyway, he didn’t. My question was backward. The question is what compelled him to look at the hills in the first place.
Love for subject, which is the world, after all, and for the craft is what must drive the artist. These are not egoistic matters, no matter how limited an artist may live in daily life. Art, which arises from the self and uses the self, offers transcendence from self.
I think again of my successful writer friend. Years ago, he told me about his ability to write books: “Some people can’t do it. It’s not that they’re lazy. It’s not that I’m smart. But I can sit there hour after hour.”
Yes, the love of making sentences. That’s what I’d say impels me, here and elsewhere. And it’s what I hope is true, for it’s love—of the product, of the world—that impels someone to try to sing a song that’s beautiful and authentic.
[After bragging about transitioning to this new site without glitches, we’ve had some glitches. Of course. But I believe I’ve retained all content! And the link and subscription problems are getting smoothed out. Sorry for any inconvenience.]