Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why blog?

I am very fortunate in having a number of thoughtful literate friends to correspond with. Many who have written in response to something I have put on this blog have expressed themselves so well I have urged them to start blogging themselves. I've had this discussion a number of times. Just today I tried again to persuade a friend to offer his thinking more broadly, and he came back with the usual objections - I don't have anything that would interest anybody, I find blogging narcissistic, I don't have the time or the inclination to edit and don't want to look like an ignoramus, etc. etc.

I wrote back. Since what I have to say to him I would also like to say to a number of others as well, I've decided to post my letter to him, removing, I hope, all references to things he might not want to share.

Here's the letter. Let's assume he's Russian and he's from Krasnoyarsk. He's not Russian and he's not from anywhere near Krasnoyarsk. But it will do:

Dear Svyatoslav:

There are so many ways to spend your time well, gardening, eating, napping, looking up the history of Bessarabia on Google. I can see why you feel there are no good reasons you should tear yourself away from productive activity to assemble your thoughts in writing. Have been there myself with the thought that it’s far too arrogant a move to make for anybody with high ambitions to humility. Why would I do such a thing to my friends? And why would I do such a thing for people who don’t know me from a tree, either?

I do it for two reasons. First off, I learned a long time ago that I was a terrible thinker. I read somewhere that Bertrand Russell sat down and figured out everything he had to say about mathematics, then simply wrote Principia Mathematica at one go, without once going back and changing anything. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not the way my brain works. I wrote a couple term papers like that in college, but for the most part I never know what I think until I actually say it or write it down. Now, whenever I stew over something – a decision, or just a way of looking at things – I write, and inevitably decisions get made before I’m finished writing, mushy notions separate themselves from clear notions, and I get a whole bunch of “aha!” moments, sometimes in rapid succession. Things I know I would never come up with just lying in bed and contemplating the rotten state of affairs in these interesting times.

Saying what I think works too, but writing actually works much better, probably because it slows me down and forces notions out in a linear fashion. And because I have no expectations of order or organization when I speak, but, having taught writing for so many years, I do have such expectations when I write.

I also have a tendency to bullshit myself. I live dangerously close to the Sea of Delusion. And when the bullshit comes off my fingers and just sits there on the page, I can see it, often (perhaps not often enough), and strangle it before it grows too big and gets away from me. Writing keeps me from wandering too far into those territories I really want to avoid, where the line gets lost between reality and imagination, and where assumptions go unexamined.

Writing is thinking. Everybody who wants to keep the brain alive reads. But unless the thoughts that come in response to reading get aired, the brain never actually gets challenged. If people really want to keep the brain alive, they will write, as well. Not just record things, but actually write. Creatively, imaginatively.

If you were lucky, somebody got you to keep a diary of your comings and goings as a kid. If you were lucky, somebody then told you there was something even better you could do, move beyond an account of events to a telling of stories, observations, complaints, examinations of the world around you. I never taught a writing class where I didn’t insist students keep a journal to supplement any class assignments, a place to capture the fugitive thoughts that interfered with the focused thoughts required of assignments. And of all the things I was ever complimented on as a teacher, probably the most rewarding was the gratitude I got from students who discovered what writing could do for them.

People often say you write diaries for yourself and you share your journals with others, but I see the distinction slightly differently. I see a diary, like a log, as something you do when the world requires you to keep track of things, and a journal as a means of recording the things that really matter, whether they matter to others or just to yourself. Everybody needs to show some self-respect at regular intervals. For me, writing is the single best way of saying to yourself that you respect yourself. You cut through the false modesty, the notion that “little ol’ me has nothing to say” and simply say what’s on your mind.

Of course you have something to say. You weren’t born yesterday. You’ve seen a lot of things come down the pike. Get them down, if only to remind yourself who you are.

And if you’re doing it right, I think it will become obvious to you that much of what you write simply to help yourself think has some practical use outside yourself, as well. Out there are people who think as you do and will really appreciate finding a person working on the same issues, and it won’t matter all that much which one of you is further down the line. Sharing of like-mindedness is essential to keeping from despair at times. Its value should never be underestimated. And sharing in order to provoke argument is, if anything, even more valuable. If you want to sum up what’s wrong with the America we live in today, it is that nobody seems to know how to argue anymore. People preach, or they talk to win points, not to help themselves and others clarify or correct misunderstanding.

Blogging is the internet extension of journal keeping. It’s more than an extension, obviously, because it puts greater emphasis on sharing. What’s so good about blogging is that you don’t need to share with anybody who doesn’t want what you have to offer. You just put it out there. People pick it up or they leave it alone. Some people read you regularly. Some read you once, decide you’ve got nothing they want, and never come back. Others dip in now and again, write and tell you what you should have said instead, suggest things you ought to be focusing on, or simply write to say, “Amen.”

I’ve found that I write a whole lot more when I’m struggling to make sense of something, or when I can’t stay focused on what I’m reading. When I’ve got a good book going, or more than one at a time, I go silent for sometimes weeks at a time. There’s a line between blogging and writing professionally to a deadline. I could never do the latter. Not that I don’t read opinion pages of regular columnists with great interest, but because I think there is something to writing only when the spirit moves you.

It took me time to figure out how to blog. I read blogs that are highly polished, by people for whom form is as important as content. I do fuss over spelling and I edit to get the right word, but I decided a long time ago I would just let things come out as I think them. The result is my writing is terribly wordy, repetitious, often contradictory. Sometimes I start off on one topic and wander to another. Since my primary purpose is thinking aloud, I don’t apologize for that. I’ve told people who ask about my blog that they should never apologize for using their delete button.

Some bloggers are highly focused. One friend blogs on the political situation in Japan. Another is a catholic theologian who has a number of regular readers who write back. Their discussions suggest they are a closed circle, sometimes, but outsiders can watch ideas take shape and the commentary is always greater than the sum of its parts. And my friend admitted to me just today that he sees blogging very much as a collaborative writing activity. I don’t get a lot of commentary, so I can’t call what I do collaborative writing, but I do get lots of responses through e-mail, and I value these messages.

I write more about gay liberation issues than about other things, but I don’t want to limit myself to just one topic. As I say, I think people should write what they are thinking, and blogging, for me, is staying alive and involved. Even the theologian I just mentioned sometimes writes family history and recipes. I read those with avid interest, as well. My point is only the blog can be whatever it turns out to be. You don’t need to spend a lot of time planning before you start writing.

You’ve got a way with words that makes your writing jump off the page. Your challenge, if you start blogging, will be to make sure you don’t give in to the temptation to be clever, but let what’s clever in your brain come when it will. Fear not. It will come out. You don’t have the power to contain it.

I share your revulsion (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) of the self-promoting, narcissistic stuff lots of people put out on YouTube or Facebook. I know why you don’t get anywhere near that bandwagon. But just blogging your thoughts is not the same as self-promotion if you keep in mind that, try as you may, you can’t get into the minds of others, and will never know whether they find what you say worth reading or not. I suggest giving up entirely trying to answer that question. You don’t want to overestimate your own wisdom, but don’t assume you have nothing to say, either. Just put it out there. When somebody finds it worth repeating, they will pass it on. When you’ve been silly or mundane, unduly alarmist, or when you’re just plain wrong, they will pass you by. Your job is to put it out there. Once it’s out there, it’s not yours anymore. It belongs to anybody who picks it up.

Many’s the time I’ve sent out notification of a blog and gotten not one response. If you have smart folks in your circle of friends, they will have lives. I’ve got friends who don’t hide the fact they see my blogs as repetitious rants. They’re still friends, and I pat myself on my back I have the kind of friends who are unafraid of telling me what they really think.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve written something that has provoked an argument. Sometimes people who write back make me change my mind. That’s the way it’s supposed to go. Sometimes I come back and engage in a back-and-forth that can go on for days or weeks. I get up every morning hoping I will find one of those. Often I realize I’ve been badly misunderstood and misrepresented. That goes with the territory. People don’t read carefully. They read to quickly confirm or deny their own thoughts much of the time. Sometimes I get to correct misunderstandings. Most of the time, of course, I never know how well I’m understood, or whether I am appreciated. Sometimes I hear from total strangers who have had things passed on to them. Those are very rewarding.

But even when nobody writes back, I’m OK, since, as I said, I write primarily to clarify my own thinking.

I urge you to give it a try. Set a few rules. Decide, for example, your ground rules will be “Never apologize, never explain.” Or that you are “Not responsible for misspellings or awkward phrasing, or for partial understanding of complex issues.” Maybe you will have to write a number of blogs first before the rules you want to go by become clear to you.

If it makes it easier, come up with a number of categories like “Saying the nastiest things I can possibly think of about Michele Bachmann,” or “Life in Jokeland/Oakland,” or “Memories of my earlier life in Krasnoyarsk.” You know, wherever you find the shoe pinching. Put it out there, and tell a select number of people you trust with the information. Let them pass it on and the list of readers will grow. Or not. Remember, this is about preventing hardening of the brain plumbing, not about teaching the world to fly.

Count me in as your first guaranteed regular. I’ve been doing it for some time now already, and can make that promise with confidence.

With lots of affection and an equal amount of respect for your writing abilities,



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