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Kinds of Help

Last month, two graduate students that I work with invited me to speak at a round-table event about blogging later in November. I agreed, enthusiastically, put it on the calendar, and then promptly stopped posting on my blog. The two things, I promise, don’t have anything to do with each other, but their juxtaposition nonetheless has made me more aware of both of them. If I’m going to go and talk about the benefits of blogging, what does it mean that I’ve gone inactive? And does there come a time when it’s better not to blog?

There is nothing worse than those blogs that never quite get off the ground, where the blogger posts promises about blogging and not much else. “I’ll be back soon.” Or, even worse, “I’m back! I’m committed,” and then nothing more. As one stumbles through the blogosphere, one sees many such entries. That’s one reason why I have not even signed on to explain my hiatus.

Yet, I do find that being on break from the blog has been yet another learning experience about blogging.

First, that I do sincerely miss it. I miss the sense of discipline, the accomplishment of writing something every week that’s self-contained and “done,” and the connectedness that comes with all the public and private responses I get. This has given me insight into the junkie nature of attention to one’s writing—I’ve never had much, but I can see easily how that gets to driving some writers, for better and for worse.

I have also learned that as much as I love the blog and feel devoted to it, there are other things that take priority. The main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been spending every spare minute I have working on the book with Oxford for which I have a contract. There are other secondary reasons—I’ve had to have a minor surgery, I’ve been out of town, I’ve been formulating a project and soliciting an illustrator for it, I’ve been back in the classroom again and attending to all the prosaic demands of the university bureaucracy—course descriptions, book orders for next term, making benefits decisions during open enrollment, etc. etc.

Frankly, I’ve also been trying not-so-successfully to deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. A couple of weeks ago, my neurologist’s nurse told me that my latest MRI looks “completely normal.” She asked if I’d been having any symptoms, and I reported to her that I seem basically fine but don’t feel like myself. I wondered if my forgetfulness, irritability, inability to get a training response to exercise, and lack of concentration are sequelae to my brain events or just middle age. After asking me a few questions, she came to a different conclusion.

You know how it is when someone tells you something that you already really know, but it just clicks? There’s an aha moment even though the idea is nothing new.

“I think,” the neurology nurse said, “that there’s nothing wrong with your brain. You have the classic symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. You need to get eight hours of sleep at least two or three nights a week.” (I was getting between three and six. Once a month, maybe seven.)

So, last week I discussed this with my endocrinologist. He’s one of the good ones—a doctor who cares, who knows his stuff, and who makes time to really listen. When I was in the hospital after my brain hemorrhage, either he or his nurse came by to see me every day, even though I was not under their care at the time.

Anyway, I came home with a new prescription to help me deal with the insomnia and anxiety, a very minor dosage of a mostly harmless medication. I feel better already. That’s not really the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that Dr. M. spoke to me very personally. I have never, ever had a physician do so before, and it was a red-letter day for me.

When I was telling him about how sometimes I would be in the car driving somewhere and forget how to get there, have to call my friend and ask which exit is the best for her house, he laughed and said, “That sounds just like me. I usually get off at the right exit, but sometimes I don’t remember how I got there.”

When I told him how I feel that the powers that be just make it harder and harder for me to do my job well, and how it seems that my colleagues who take short-cuts or behave selfishly are the ones that are rewarded, he nodded. I told him that I used to love my job and that I thought I always would, but that now I always have to force myself to find the good things in it and that if I won the lottery I would quit tomorrow. He said, “I feel the same way. The adminstrators are always telling us we are only allowed to spend five minutes with a patient, and I am always telling them that’s not enough for a Type 1 with a pump, but they don’t care.”

I told him that the medical appointments—all designed to maximize the amount the doctor can charge the insurance company—have run me ragged. I told him that I had to have a total of eight appointments to have the D&C I had a couple of weeks ago—the initial appointment where all we did was set up other appointments and then appointments for the first lab work, the ultrasound, the tests the doctor performed, the pre-op, the pre-op labwork at the hospital, the procedure itself, and then the post-op. “That’s eight appointments,” I said. “Not including all the procedures themselves and the waiting in offices, that’s eight hours of me just driving around town, a whole day of work just driving around so that the docs can charge more. The number of appointments could certainly have been cut in half. Easily.

He looked chagrined, and we agreed that the tail is wagging the dog. We agreed that these circumstances are designed to promote those who don’t care about the quality of their work, and that it’s a mystery why we all seem to agree to live this way.

“I’m not mentally ill,” I said to him, and he agreed. “I need medication because we have come to find ourselves living in a world that’s intolerable.”

In fact, the percentage of my friends and relatives and their kids and their spouses and their parents that take some kind of psychotropic medication is enormous. At least one in five Americans is now taking at least one such medication, according to the American Psychological Association. And the percentage of people who aren’t taking prescription help often participate widely in the phenomenon known as self-medicating via alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and illegal recreational drugs. (Studies noted by Mental Health America and Health Services Research indicate the severity of this issue.)

The APA notes that the recent rapid increase in the use of these medications indicates “inappropriate prescribing,” and I agree. I have known people whose diagnoses I thought were overblown and who seem to me worse off than before they were medicated. The insurance companies and the medical world have tended to turn away from the hard work of intensive psychotherapy for those with real issues and have turned toward the easy pop-a-pill (or four) mentality.

But there is also a societal change going on that contributes to this in a different way, I believe. I believe that recent years’ move away from concepts of the public good toward more personal greed and supposed “self-reliance” have turned us more and more toward dog-eat-dog. Community is not emphasized, helping out is not emphasized—it’s every man, woman, child, and dog for itself. This leads inevitably to stress.

My father retired when he was 56 years old. He has lived the past twenty years in a secure retirement. He did some consulting work, he helps his wife with her small collectibles business, he got into crime writing workshops and wrote a novel, he plays tennis, he’s taken care of aging and infirm colleagues and relatives. And now he and his wife babysit her grandchildren. He has remained an active and contributing member of society, and he is a classic case of why the middle-class is a great thing.

We are unfortunately losing the middle class. My brother and I—highly educated, hard-working people who had our first jobs by age 16 or 17—have no secure retirement to look forward to. We only hope it will be there, and there’s no way that either of us will be able to retire before we’re nearly 70 years old. The future is even less sanguine for my brother’s daughter and for my students.

These are choices our society has been making and continues to make. There is plenty of money in our society, though it is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. And there are plenty of us who want to help each other and be parts of a community, not just self-protective egotists. Even those that I encounter in my work life who seem the most selfish, self-promoting, and communally harmful seem to me to really wish for something else. They only feel that they are doing what they have to do to survive. Who can condemn them for that? I myself have turned away from demands I can’t handle, that I have felt might sink me.

Sometimes I marvel over the fact that there’s so much stress involved in being an English professor. I always think, “Hell, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor or an airplane pilot who could take out hundreds of lives with one error.” Not to mention that I don’t live in a war-torn place or one where I’m likely to starve. As the Rolling Stones song points out, though, even cooking dinner can be a trial, and there’s something stressful about the compromises that we make to have our comfortable lives. Vivian Gornick captured the same idle desperation of English departments in her wonderful essay “At the University: Little Murders of the Soul.” There is nothing more deadening than corporate expectations (or perhaps housewifely ones). And corporate expectations have taken over everywhere. My students can’t even have a minimum-wage job nowadays without being constantly harangued about their enthusiasm.

I have a hard time reconciling this high level of psychological distress across society with the idea that we are all living the way we choose to live. If we have all this choice in our lives that the gurus speak of, if we create the world we dream of, if we only have to envision success faithfully in order to get it, could we please envision something more benign, something more cooperative and less manipulative?

I know this is probably not stuff I should discuss in public on a blog with my name on it. That’s probably one more reason why I’ve been hanging back from blogging lately–just too many unspeakables on my mind. But I just have to say that if this is scandalous, then I have to laugh. More likely, of course, it could give an enemy a vulnerability to attack. But one thing I have always liked about myself—among the admittedly many things I’ve longed to change—is that I go ahead and do what I think is right. I go ahead and say what I’m thinking. I try to do this in ways that aren’t designed to hurt others, but I am not afraid to be hurt myself. I’d rather be real than afraid. I’m not invulnerable, but I am brave. I don’t mean to make more of that than it is. There are many things I am not that I would prefer to be. This is no Facebook brag or depiction of my life as peachy and perfect, of me as a hero of all that I survey, a wild success, a best human in the world. Nope, nope, nope. But I do marshal on. Today, a little more calmly.

Mea Culpa

Mea Culpa, 1987-1997, a sculpture by Robert Bryce Muir, photographed by Russ McGinn, 2006.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about mistakes. What role do mistakes play in being a genuine human being? How do we forgive ourselves for making them, inevitable as they are, without letting ourselves become sloppy or irresponsible?

I make a lot of mistakes, and probably so do you. Fortunately, most of the time these are not earth-shattering. My friend Anna once noted to me that some of our individual anxiety really was silly. “We’re not going to do something so stupid,” she said, “that we’ll ruin our lives.” There are many things that contribute to this state of affairs—“maturity,” education, practical intelligence, family and friends who talk over our major decisions with us. Because I am lucky enough to have all of these things in my life, it’s true that many mistakes that we hear about on the news—playing with a loaded gun, driving while drunk, giving financial information to anyone over the phone—are not mistakes I will make. At least I hope not.

Though in this regard I take Bobby McFerrin’s song at face value and don’t worry–at least not obsessively–I do have some concern about the mistakes I make.

Recently, I heard from a former student of mine who has developed some issues dealing with his own perfectionism. I won’t go into detail about his story, but we had some interesting chats via email about how difficult it is to give up our expectations of being perfect, of striving for it. He was contemplating starting a blog to track his progress in this regard.

One thing that occurred to me is that perfectionism and blogging don’t go very well together. Either you will make mistakes on your blog or you will not be able to keep up the relentless schedule of posting. It’s relentless no matter how often or seldom you post, as long as you do so on a regular and fairly frequent basis. I often think of my boss back when I worked for the Penn Stater magazine, who would say to me, “I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it now.”

In the past several weeks, three blog errors in particular have been brought to my attention.

Error the First

One of these was indeed minor and easily corrected. In my post in response to Marjorie Perloff’s dissing of Rita Dove’s new poetry anthology, I got a guy’s name wrong. This happened out of sheer exhaustion at the end of a long day of work at picking apart Perloff’s article. I just copied the wrong guy’s name in reference to a book title. Although the (I think) significant issues I raised in the post got virtually no comment, someone commented that I had this name wrong. Grateful, I corrected it.

Error the Second

Also, recently, my father sent me an email letting me know that some of the timing and possible motivations I had mentioned about the bitterness between my grandfather and his father-in-law were a bit off in my post about Memorial Day. I had already discovered these errors as I had further researched this very family history for an essay I was writing to submit to a journal, where I am more careful. My father was nice enough to say that he had found the post “well written and touching” and that he didn’t think my inaccuracies negated the theme of the piece. Here, too, I could simply go back and update the post based on new information.

In fact, this raises the issue of how accurate we can and should require ourselves to be when looking into the past. My own memories of what I’d been told in the past betrayed me. I’d recognized my own uncertainty and gone back to my father after this post was written. I’d done a bit of online research. My father had also referred me to his cousin, Pete, and I’d had a long chat with him. Pete had referred me to his sister and to a pastor who once boarded at my great-grandfather’s house. I have not yet called them, though I will.

And so the truth that we understand may grow more and more refined over time. We can’t research forever, and there are some facts (especially about the distant past) that we can never fully know, though we are irresponsible if we don’t try. The creative nonfiction writer lives in this in-between space. We are constantly reminded of what we do and don’t know and of the unknowability of others, even perhaps ourselves.

And the Third Error

More recently, I made a slightly trickier-to-correct error—trickier because this was about the contested world of politics. After I posted about the Obama-Romney character issue, my friend emailed to say, that, oops, he had not actually seen a poster that said, “Vote for Romney. He’s the white guy.” I’m sorry, he said, but that “was my attempt at satire.”

Ah, that satire. I suppose that if a whole host of people believed indeed that the Martians were coming when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio in 1938, then it’s no surprise that I would think this poster real.

So, is there anything to be gleaned from how I made this mistake? It had even occurred to me that it wasn’t real. But, for one thing, I couldn’t imagine my friend taking time out of his busy life to create the visual that he had used to accompany it. Also, he frequently does photograph and post strange signs that he sees around town (and beyond) that are also frequently virtually unbelievable. Lastly, I live far from the Villages, and they take on an iconic status like that of the mythical Stepford. Too often, it’s possible for me to imagine the majority of the people who live there as completely alien beings.

And, of course, I was in a hurry, didn’t want to bother my friend with blog fact-checking, and needed to get the doggone post up and done.

I have since corrected this, too, but saying that someone created a satirical poster is not so strong as the possibility of seeing a real one. Sometimes the truth goes underground, and this is largely the case with racism these days. It is hard to catch someone saying something outright racist. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

This error also raised a fundamental question about the internet. I finally decided to just go back and change this entry, but should I have instead left the error and inserted a correction, acknowledging on that very page the original flub? I contemplated this latter option, which creates a public record of errors in our thinking, but decided that even this one didn’t change my overall argument, so could simply stand in its correct state. But what does it mean when the average reader (rather than someone who searches out the way-back, etc.) can’t see the evidence of mistakes?

Anyway, even though this misunderstanding also doesn’t negate my themes, it’s an embarrassing error, especially when I know that the right-wing makes so many of these errors intentionally. I’m supposed to be better than they are.

Context

As I return to the classroom this week, however, and confront students in my creative nonfiction courses who are already asking questions about the roles of truth, embellishment, faulty memory, and differences of opinion in what they write, I am somewhat comforted by my own answer to them.

Context, I say, context is key. There are ways that we can indicate that we are honestly speculating, or that our work is based on perhaps-flawed memory. These things are different from an out-and-out lie, a self-serving misrepresentation, or pure sloppiness, and anyone reading the genre of memoir should understand this.

In fact, the genre of memoir is at least partially about how our memories change and shift, how fabricated they are, much less the written versions of them.

If you are writing about a famous person (as I sort of was with the presidential character issue), the standard is more journalistic. I should have called and asked my friend before I mentioned his poster.

Still, a personal blog is not journalism. I at least give myself that out. When I was contemplating starting this blog, I worried about the untested nature of the work that I would put out there. My brother, a long-term blogger (albeit of a less personal nature) said to me, “Think of it as a rough draft.” There was wisdom in that, and it allowed me to go ahead and get started. Yet blogging is also there for public consumption and is not labeled “rough draft” on every post.

I feel a deep responsibility for what I post. I never post anything intentionally misleading, and if it’s controversial I usually get at least one friend or my husband to read it as a litmus test. They sometimes point out claims they think are too strong or ask me to clarify some point.

And yet, and yet… I have to defy paralysis by going ahead. I step into the void over and over and over again. I ask forgiveness for the times when I inadvertently step instead onto a toe.

For more information on the sculpture of Robert Bryce Muir, including Mea Culpa, see his website.

Don’t Worry…

One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.

Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.

What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.

Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.

One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.

But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?

A Year in the Blogosphere

Posted on

Joyous Crybaby has readied me to keep my eyes on that horizon while I plow that soil. (Photo by Lisa Wild for the Geograph Project [http://www.geograph.org.uk/].)

Actually, it’s more like 13 months in the blogosphere now, and I’ve been thinking since I passed the one-year anniversary that I should post another reflection on this endeavor. Thinking about it at the six-month mark helped me further define my purposes and bask in an admittedly self-satisfied glow that I had kept it up that long.

In the next few months, I’ll be facing new challenges as a blogger—the end of sabbatical, a return to full-time teaching, and deadlines for a major book project. I remain uncertain of the continuing viability of Joyous Crybaby, even though the reasons are shifting and even though I feel all the more devoted to her. I still feel as though she’s doing me good.

She’s not a work project, though, and I am employed in a demanding field where I’m not supposed to spend much time doing anything but what will further my career. Academia more and more is judged by business models, and this involves an increasing obsession with quantifiable results and quantifiable justifications. Every year, we are required to turn in the dreaded document called a Faculty Annual Report, and each department chair is required to turn in the larger version that supposedly proves quality and intellectual achievement by the number of grant dollars, publications, and “seats in butts” (or student credit hours) that we have produced, collectively and individually. Our departmental budgets and our individual merit raises are determined by such numbers (not that the raises offset the pay cuts we are experiencing via means such as lower retirement contributions). Whether institutions with such a myriad of purposes and such a myriad of considerations is best served by this constant quantification is debatable, of course, but it’s a fact of almost any academic’s life these days. Here’s one great write-up of a blogging academic who kept track of his work time.

Therefore, every week, day, half-day, or hour I spend writing a blog post—and finding supporting resources, references, and appropriate copyright-free illustrations, and then formatting and linking everything on the blog itself—I wonder what the heck I am doing spending so much time on it.

I’ve also had occasion to wonder why I didn’t at least focus my blog on creative writing—my area of professional expertise. There are many academics who do gain some credit for their profession-related blogs and who at least spread the word that they are experts in their fields by narrowly focusing on a professional sensibility in a more or less narrow field. In other words, though they may practice a more general-reader style, their blog personas directly reflect their professorial research. Mostly they are not very personal. There are indeed many such blogs in the world of creative writing—almost all literary magazines these days have a large web presence, many literary magazines are fully online and function as community blogs with selection requirements, and there are dozens if not hundreds of blogs about the writing life, craft, “how I became a writer,” publishing tips and advice at both magazine and book level, finding an agent, various genres and styles of writing, and so on. Some of these blogs and online literary venues are fabulous, and I read a lot of them avidly if not regularly.

Maybe the sheer plethora of existing creative writing blogs made me choose instead a wider focus and one rooted in issues in another field entirely (my starting point of my negative reaction to positive psychology bromides). However, as the year has passed, I’ve had to justify this choice to myself.

There are many reasons I’ve thought about, but perhaps the most important is that I wanted to engage with the wider world.

Another characteristic of a life in academia is a great deal of specialization. You’re not just a chemical engineer, you are a chemical engineer specializing in air pollution modeling and incineration. You’re not just a professor of Italian, but you specialize in Italian travel and immigration literature with a focus on Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, Mario Soldali, and Emilio Cecchi. (Two real examples from the UCF website.)

I have already bucked this trend to a certain degree by working across the creative writing v. scholarly writing divide and by writing in not just one creative genre, but in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. (And my undergraduate degree was in studio art.) This has had its downside, and it may be true that I am a master of none of these forms. So, I understand why my peers in academia often focus much more narrowly than I do in their work. It’s a habit that is rewarded in the system, and it suits some people just fine.

I believe, however, that writers do have a responsibility to respond to the world beyond the confines of narrow specialties. It’s a different point than the one that I criticized Marjorie Perloff for making about academia rendering writers’ work repetitive and mediocre, though it is related. (It’s also a point that I would apply to all those in academia, even more so to many scholars compared to many of the creative writers.)

This all leads me to another influence on my blog choices—that we live in a time when being a “professional” writer often seems to involve more time tending to the business of writing than to writing itself. At six months, I mentioned how I felt a need to get back to my own roots as a writer exploring the world rather than as a writer being an expert. I needed to find my way back to “beginner’s mind,” as the Zen Buddhists call it. As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki is often quoted as saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

And I do have to admit some boredom with a lot of creative writing blogs. It’s not because the content isn’t often useful, even insightful. What in a professional sense is no doubt seen as “focus” or “coherence,” however, frequently becomes too self-reflexive and insular for my taste. Even though some creative writing blogs go beyond the purpose of promoting a given writer’s publications, reviews, and lectures to include discussion of issues in the field, they all seem to me cut off from the rest of the world. These blogs remind me of the kind of creative writing workshops where a focus on “craft” does not include any concern with intelligence, personality, or soul (admittedly difficult things to “teach” and touchy to even discuss). Even though I have a passionate interest in many of the issues they raise, I need to embrace a wider horizon.

Is that a strong enough statement to be considered a manifesto? I’m not sure, but I mean it as one. Graduate school for me opened new universes, but over the past few years in the academic grind, I have been engaged in a battle for my own soul and self—to keep from becoming what I consider too narrowed by academia. For a long time, I was losing that battle, shriveling, becoming bitter, obsessing daily about fundamentally trivial things, wearying of it all. Though I had gained tenure and a wonderful husband, I had lost involvement in politics, gardening, cooking, animal rescue, friendships, family relationships, the great outdoors, exercise, and my own health.

Joyous Crybaby has been part of a multi-faceted process that I hope will help me face the next academic year and my return to the classroom with a sense that maybe I can keep my eyes up even as I labor with my fingers in the dirt of the academic field. As an alter ego, she provides me with a reminder that I need: that no profession—and no other person—defines me. All too often, we forget even ourselves beyond the surface judgments, caught up as we are in what others think of us. JC has been a great lesson in character beyond stereotype. It seems to me that this sense of mystery about what comprises human beings is vital to the writing endeavor, not to mention the endeavor of being a decent human being.

Evolution of a Blog

Human evolution by Jose-Manuel Benitos


Like politicking or not politicking, like speaking out or not speaking out, the question of whether or not to blog has been with me ever since I started doing so six months ago. It’s been an interesting experiment for me, and, for those who contemplate or are already embroiled in the practice, here are a few thoughts on its evolution.

One of the most salient issues for me has been the lack of respect for the genre of blogging. Often, of course, some derision is well deserved: the blogosphere is open to people of all stripes and all levels of quality in their writing. For this reason, in my profession blogging counts for nothing in terms of “research productivity,” and so I often wonder if it’s worth the time and energy it takes for me to do it. In academia, often the attitude is that one should be spending any writing time on more professional pursuits.

My department chair, in a moment of encouragement for my efforts, noted that it would amount to something if I ended up teaching a course about blogging, which he’s suggested to me several times that we should do as a department. After all, it’s an up and coming arena in the fields we are supposedly experts in. Still, as far as I know I’m the first one in my department to keep a regular blog for any period of time, probably because it is not “publication material.” Yet I have to view it with humor and irony that I could teach a course in something that as of yet is given no credence in terms of my own writing and research.

There are reasons for this, of course, and the main one is that no one but me judges what I write before it is “published.” I am responsible for all the choices and for the mistakes I make. There is no one of greater power and respect placing a mantle of approval on my work, and without that it’s hard to know what something is worth.

In fact, this is one of the challenges of keeping a blog, period. Because a blog has a relentless production schedule and because there’s not a staff of fact-checkers or copy editors, there’s a constant issue of accuracy and of writing quality. There’s no time to “workshop” it, formally or informally. There’s no time to even get your husband or friend to glance over it. When I taught a graduate creative writing workshop course last summer, I added the assignment of creating or updating an existing blog to my students’ usual assignments, and my students commented that the relationship between posting what were essentially rough drafts and at the same time being on public display was the scariest thing about it. I, too, have become familiar with the uneasiness of this, even in as small an issue as the typos that somehow find their way into the original posting and that I then scurry to fix. It often has a bare-butt feel.

Another striking aspect, which I find a mixed bag, is the sense of community inherent in blogging. On one hand, I have found learning about the blogosphere and trying to be a member of the outside community a real time-sink and struggle. I find it overwhelming. Occasionally I come across a blog that I admire and try to keep track of, but there are a lot of them, too many for me–at least so far–to comprehend fully. I need to do better at this, as I consider that side of the exchange just as vital as putting my ideas out there for others to see.

On the other hand, I do feel already more a part of a wider community of those sharing ideas than I have felt in several post-graduate school years. Some of this is small—my friends who read the blog, my brother’s long-term blog that I now actually read sometimes, those from whom I ask permission to borrow a photograph, a few strangers who respond to my blog (even some in disagreement). Some of this is in the numerous great conversations I have had with friends in person, via phone, and over email. I even have one friend who, leery of too-public a world, has started a great monthly email newsletter for her friends. Those things are valuable, and sometimes it does go beyond the merely personal connection. One entry that I cross-posted to Daily Kos reached 200 comments and was picked up by the AAUP’s blog editor. I have reached the point where the blog gets about 2,000 hits a month.

The fact is that I have had more feedback and more intellectual and narrative exchange because of this blog than I ever have had from publishing short work in “legitimate” publications. I virtually never hear from anyone when I publish in a literary magazine, other than its editor (god love ‘em). Even when I published in Harper’s, I heard from maybe two readers. The book I published was another story, and even now, ten years later, I still occasionally get an email or letter about that.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to see your work in print, and book or magazine publication is still the ultimate end. That more polished work has distinct purposes that are also, of course, desirable and important. But there is something refreshing about the blog. There is not the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of professional career building of literary venues, or the highly uneven relationship with a “fan base.” Even though I desire readers, it feels more … well, based on genuine interest and a cohort of peers.

The best aspect of it for me, though, is the great discipline it has been for me as a writer. There is no putting it off and there is no perfectionism that prevents me from calling something ready. What that means is that as of this date, I have produced close to 200 pages or 50,000 words for the blog (including notes for forthcoming posts). If you’ve read it, you know that it’s been a process of sorting out ideas. Some of it has been better written and more interesting than other parts. It has been an evolving creature, and the skin it sloughs is invariably part of the deal.

I started the blog with the idea that these days, sorrow and crying are the emotional states we most often deny to ourselves. I started with “crying,” but have moved on through other kinds of grief and anger, as well as the occasional celebratory impulse. Various themes have emerged or been clarified for me. I’ve always had an interest in the genuine more generally, and the blog has transitioned through various emotions and prepares to examine more different ones and the notion of the genuine itself.

I never meant for the blog to be particularly political, though I knew that some people would be dismayed at a negative take on positive psychology. What I’ve found is a larger and larger connection to some political aspects of dominant positivity. I still think there is room for many different interpretations of the world aside from delusion, but I have discovered that for me the political implications of blaming people for their own unhappiness are huge.

For a while I thought I would run out of things to blog about. I haven’t yet. As my friend G said, “Oh, the world will provide you with plenty on a daily basis.” And so it does. It is like being on a journey, and I am looking forward to where it takes me next. I don’t travel a lot on a physical basis, so maybe I need this kind of adventure.

Thanks for coming along sometimes!

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