Daily Archives: July 16, 2010

Happy birthday, blog

One of our ewes in our flock on our farm, Mossy Dell, in Appalachian Ohio.

A friend from the sheep world was in town last weekend and we visited a farm north of here. The grassy hills were lovely, the shepherds hospitable, and they showed me one of my ewes I’d sold them three years ago. She still wore a blue ear-tag with my handwriting on it. But I had only a vague memory of her—she was young when we dispersed the flock and had lambed only once. But I couldn’t even place her mother by the tag number listed in the shepherds’ records.

As the ewe I’d bred and raised came up and stood beside me, as if she remembered me—or was I just convenient shade?—other numbers and names and images struggled to consciousness. The experience felt jarring. I’d once been immersed in my flock but hadn’t thought about it in three years, not in that way. And during the last two years before selling out, I’d been surprised to see my project shift from the farm itself to writing about it. Granted, I had the place on auto-pilot by then. But it was strange that a book about the farm displaced the farm itself in my attentions.

I started this blog two years ago, as of tomorrow, because I wanted to write about my life now instead of then. But my wife said I should write on writing. I’d made my living with words for thirty years and suddenly was learning so much by writing my first book. And I was inflicting that enthusiasm on my students. Maybe Kathy thought the blog would bleed off some of that energy and spare them. (I remember her making me tone down a lecture that, as I recall, involved a little bubble labeled Self atop a huge globe labeled Being, or maybe it was Collective Unconscious—or perhaps God—with arrows pointing to a square labeled Craft. “You’re going to scare them, Richard,” she said.)

The blog’s name was going to be Theme, but I ran it by a writer I respect and he said he hates the word. I like the term myself—it’s fragrant with history and meaning, and it’s useful—but it’s freighted with a load of bad karmic connotations for others, not all of them high school students.

Little did I know that my next choice, Narrative, would become almost as awkward a choice. I hadn’t been aware how passé and humdrum the word is to literary postmodernists. But I’ve grown impressed with that crowd’s erudition and artistry and couldn’t foresee that I, too, would fall under the spell of distressed, if not completely ripped, narrative structure. All the same, I like narrative, and notice that the most allegedly non-narrative works usually do contain the shards of an unfolding story that keeps us interested and reading. Even if we have to assemble it ourselves.

The aforementioned lecture ended up as an early blog post, “Between Self and Story.” I didn’t want to forget what I’d discovered, and wanted to be able to return and fondle such pearls. I treasured the notion that this blog had a documentary function for me: What did I learn? Blogs are supposed to be short, I know. But I still try to get in all the juicy stuff so that when I return—which I haven’t done!—everything will be there, preserved, the way summer is summoned by homemade strawberry jam. And writing stuff down helps drive it into the writer’s brain.

So ask not for whom I blog: I blog for me. But not long ago I passed through a crisis in which I supposed that blogging was bad for my writing, that is for the memoir I’m writing. My memoir wasn’t scenic enough, too much summary and exposition, and suddenly my blog, which is pretty much that, seemed an enemy, or maybe it’s a frenemy, of my Serious Writing. Plus it seemed that Narrative reinforced my didactic tendencies, which a friendly memoir-draft reader had slammed me for. My internal debate raged: Is blogging harmful to writing, or does it count as writing? On the positive side, blogging is another reason to make sentences. After two years of writing my memoir in every available hour, I noticed that my sentences seemed better, more fluent and varied. Between my memoir and the blog and whatnot, I write a lot more than I ever have.

Then I started actually reading blogs. I discovered I enjoy one person making sense of her life or events or literature. My reading about current events took a hit. Then I began leaving comments on blogs and noticed I’d feel hurt when an admired blogger didn’t reciprocate on Narrative. (This blog-world reciprocity is a form of friendship that I haven’t seen written about.) Of course I muff overtures of friendship myself, and not just in cyberspace. If I liked a silent someone’s blog I usually kept reading it, but it was easier to drift away.

Anyway, I’ve seen that the friendly interaction in this medium is a big part of its point. But I read great blogs, like Southern Bookman, by poet and retired Atlanta Constitution copy editor Louis Mayeux, that hardly ever receive comments. (Other than mine, sometimes. But there’s another topic: the knack to commenting on blogs.) Yet some blogs are so busy with buddies responding that you feel there’s not much point elbowing your way in.

Then I realized from reading blogs that blogging is a genre. The ones I liked had a voice, which tended to be conversational and humorous. Not that all bloggers write the same, but there’s an art to hitting the right tone. Blogs look easy, but bloggers are finding their voices and their way as in any genre. And in my first blogging year, I think I pictured myself writing for students. The ones Kathy wouldn’t let me harangue in class, I suppose. My first months were also really hard because I was trying to make every post great. You know, Great. But active blogs are more like what a newspaper columnist does than what a philosopher or novelist or narrative essayist does. They are great for their medium.

This raised an issue: How often to post? Somehow I came up with every five days. That wasn’t too often to be annoying and content-challenged, I hoped, but often enough for the blog to be alive. I know some great writers who post only once in a blue moon, but that seems against the blogging spirit.

Which is what? I can only answer for me: sharing passion. I have no idea how long I’ll keep Narrative going, or if it will evolve more, but it’s been fun. I’ll probably be blogging a year from now, but whether this particular blog will achieve the ripe age of four, or the senescence that is five, is unclear. I’ll surely be a different person and different writer even a year from now. And we’re all subject to life’s interventions as well as to our changing choices.

Some people, I’ve noticed, can juggle a lot more than I can. But we do become what we do. I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, in my core self, but in the ten years I operated a sheep farm I became a farmer. He sometimes wrote. Now I’m a writer—oh, and I grow tomatoes against the garage.

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