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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!

5 responses »

  1. Interesting comparison of publishing in print vs a blog. Glad you are enjoying the journey!

    • Thanks, Faith. I know you’ve done some online publishing of a somewhat different sort (columns for The Root), so I would love to hear your thoughts about that sometime, too.

  2. The biggest irony you are writing about here, in regard to the cultural value of blogs, isn’t that their especially provisional value is surprising, but the assumptions in academia of the value of publishing in more traditional formats. Publishing in literary magazines is an atavistic act, although if the acts are beautiful enough, atavism isn’t in itself bad.

    Besides being relatively behind the times, and besides the privileging of the printed page as permanent (or semi-permanent) acts of literacy, one of the reasons why the academic world is wary of the value of blogs is that there is no consensus as to what purpose a blog is supposed to serve. The definition of a blog—at least when blogging was new—was a “web log,” a sort of public diary. And writing diaries hasn’t often been considered a form of high art, despite that a majority of serious writers seem to have written some form of diary or other. (Anaïs Nin is the only writer I’ve heard of whose diaries are renowned as her highest achievement.) But these centuries since the Middle Ages, when writers followed their vocation, and used their diaries to chart their thoughts, serve witness to history, and prepare themselves for their more public writing, seldom expected their diaries would be published.

    If blogs are diaries, though, their rhetorically public nature makes them not the same thing as traditional diaries. They become something else. In the eighteenth century, the merits and moral dangers of the novel were intensely debated as writers and culture warriors tried to figure out what the new prose form was doing. Thankfully, we have at least picked up the pace, although we are STILL somehow arguing about the purpose of the novel is.

    Are blogs a more literary form of social networking, in which a facebook status update or a tweet has all the space it needs, to be intellectually satisfying? In part. Are blogs a chronicle of a particular segment of our culture? Sometimes. (I guiltily adore visiting, even though I never bake or want to.) In the end, the value of a blog resides in the ethos of the blogger, and the sense of continuity the blogger can convey over the course of a blog. And you are a good blogger—you get me engaged in subjects I didn’t always know I cared about, and remind me of your remarkable mind. You do something remarkably rare: you surprise me. As literacy takes some steps away from the paradigm of the book, I am glad to be your reader, as you pursue that adventure, word by word, thought by thought, step by step.

  3. Hey, John, I’m glad the blog has gotten you thinking some times, and you are so great to give me back more things to think about. That open-ended nature of the blog is a strength and a difficulty, but I appreciate it a lot these days.

    I like the comparison of blogs to diaries, though, indeed, they do serve a very different purpose for me. I kept hand-written “journals” for many years–I think I have 15 or 16 volumes of them–and they were a completely private and much less considered form for me, though I did use a lot of them to jog my memory when writing Sweet Invisible Body. They were far more often simply an outpouring with no thought of composition or theme at all.

    Blogs and diaries do, though, have something in common. I like your point about how so many writers use diaries to “chart their thoughts, serve witness to history, and prepare themselves for more public writing.” All of those are certainly within my intentions for the blog.

    I do sometimes really enjoy the non-dominant forms of writing. Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, is one of my favorite books of all time. Though I love her stories, essays, and Wise Blood, I love her letters just as much. And May Sarton is a writer, fallen out of popularity now, who wrote diaries and journals with the intention of publishing them. They are wonderful, though so quiet that I doubt they would be published in book form these days. Maybe she would have been a blogger had she lived in a different time. And I don’t suppose anyone would count John Cheever’s diaries as his highest achievement, but they sure are interesting and show a whole different side to him that it would be a real shame not to have as part of his literary legacy.

    You also did a great job in this comment on the “atavistic” nature of “legitimate” literary magazine publishing. I was just talking with my husband about that the other day, and I swore to him I will not go public about that!!!! It would do no one any good. But I’d love to talk with you about it at lunch some day.

    We have reached a place where in academia, as in much of the work world, we are so specialized that it really becomes difficult to assess the quality of someone’s work. In academia, this accounts for the obsession with counting in review processes, as opposed to anyone actually making a qualitative judgment. It’s protective in a way, but, though it purports to be egalitarian, it just substitutes one kind of whim for another.

    Always, always a question of how to judge. Never, ever a completely satisfactory answer.

  4. Pingback: A Year in the Blogosphere « Joyous Crybaby

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