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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22 Comments

Filed under MY LIFE

22 responses to “Happy birthday, blog

  1. It’s funny. I feel exactly the same about blog comments. In fact, if you write a blog, and I leave you comments three times, you had better comment back, or I won’t even READ you anymore. Of course I got hung up on that part.

    I enjoy reading your blog. You’re an excellent writer, and a good person, and those are my favorite things.

  2. Leslie,

    I appreciate your comments but how the heck do you comment so fast??? I was in the midst of fixing typos I hadn’t noticed, having uploaded only a minute before, and I saw I have a comment! You!

  3. One year already. Scary fast how they go by. I think blog posts are bookmarks; a fixative. You mention “distressed” and “ripped” narrative. I have begun to think of my own pile of old blog posts as a mountain of word (and, if you will, theme) compost. It is building an internal heat, bubbling, transforming, and waiting for me.

    I have begun to spread a little of that compost around in all sorts of ways: as material for the memoir of a small forest, as fodder for fictional characters, as flat-out commercial bits sold for filthy lucre, and as the basis for yet another blog. It feels a little dangerous, untethered and free.

    Like paper in an internet world, our words multiply. They don’t go away. They are ours to play with and to mold.

    Congratulations on one year. “Narrative” means a lot to me. I come here to learn and to savor. I am not frightened.

  4. Beth Sears

    Richard,

    Funny, I was just talking about the world of blogs over coffee this morning. I told my sister-in-law I’ll never be a popular blogger because I only comment when my sentiments are sincere. I never have won any popularity contests!

    I’ve enjoyed being your student through the words of Narrative. I plan to go back and read your first post. Also, thanks for the link to Southern Bookman. Once the kids are back at school and we’ve settled into our new home in CA I’m going to adopt your method of posting every five days. Very sensible.

    Congrats on two years!

    All the best,

    Beth (aka Scribbly Jane)
    from Chicago en route to new home in Palo Alto

  5. Congrats on your blogiversary! Juggling blogging, writing, work, family, etc. etc. can be a lot and it seems as though you’ve found a nice rhythm to it. I really enjoy reading your insights on books and nonfiction.
    Please don’t be too hard on us less frequent commenters! I’m still reading (on Google reader) even when I don’t comment.

  6. Richard,

    My highest praise to your blog, which is really to you. I buy the New Yorker and American Scholar because I like to read the writers they publish. Your blog is like that. I go to it not because it’s a blog on narrative but because you’re its writer and a friend. What I look forward to most is that you find and share again the insights of other writers who stalk the meaning and craft of nonfiction, from books that many of us have read but are there, ready to be plumbed again. I hope you continue this writing about writing because you have a gift for it. Yes, you’re a memoirist but you’re also a fine critic, and perhaps this blogging, like the sheep farm, is getting you ready for a collection of essays about writing which only you can author.

    Best,
    Tom

  7. John

    Happy 2nd anniversary! Your blog is part of my life.

  8. Daiva Markelis

    The idea of a blog not being the best thing for your memoir is intriguing. I have a memoir coming out this fall, and my publisher asked me to start keeping a blog for publicity purposes. I now realize that’s not a great reason to blog. I’m worried that when the fall semester starts I may not have time for the blog and for the book I’m working on. I thought of having my creative nonfiction students keep a blog–we could then all happily blog away together–but I’m not sure it would be the best thing for their writing for the reasons you’ve mentioned above–summary, etc.
    Narrative is a great title and your entries are not at all didactic or summary-like.

  9. Daiva, I don’t feel anymore that it’s bad, really that was a phase and an over reaction. In fact I was reading the beginning of a great memoir yesterday and it was almost all summary or exposition–or a great voice, as I used to think of it–with some little scenes sprinkled in. Looking forward to your memoir–I read the passage you posted and enjoyed it and admired how you rolled out your themes.

  10. Richard:

    I so loved this post because it indelibly captures so much of my own impressions of blogging, being fairly new myself—I’m coming up on my one-year anniversary in August. I fully appreciate what you say about finding your voice. That very aspect, strangely, seems enormously difficult in blogging. You really have no idea exactly who your audience is or quite how to comport yourself.

    One of your commenters said that her early posts seem like so much compost now that might make way for something transformative later, emerging in different ways. That resonates with me as well.

    I like your points about how it’s a unique genre and, of course, you are pointing up blogging as a process of discovery throughout your post and description of your own journey, especially in the shift from farming to writing about farming.

    That may be what I like most about blogging: it is the riskiest writing I’ve done in some ways. I can’t game the expectations because I am not really sure what they are. Like you, I have no idea how long it will go on for me or what it will look like a year from now. I will admit it has caused me to write more than I ever have and in different ways than academic work demands.

    I agree completely with Thomas Larson who suggested you publish a collection of essays on writing. He’s absolutely right: you have a tremendous gift for writing about writing.

    PS Happy Anniversary!

    Mary

    • Mary,

      Your thoughtful comment is a post itself! I am glad to hear it’s not just me, that the medium is as unstable-feeling for others as it has been for me–though until I wrote that post I’d been feeling more comfortable; now I am self conscious. The uncertainty about the audience indeed may be the underlying issue. Blogs are more intimate than most newspaper columns, and the only “publication” to help lend its tone is the blogger’s own platform. I’m sure there are dissertations under way on this . . .

      Richard

      • P.S.—Reading a blog I just realized that my column analogy is bad. Good blog posts are more like great letters, the kind writers and good writerly friends used to send each other.

  11. I like the letter analogy, but I don’t think the column one is off-base at all. In fact, I was thinking today as I pondered more about blogging after reading a number of posts that many remind me of columns I used to read regularly. I’m thinking of Molly Ivins and Ellen Goodman, specifically. Their voices were distinctive and authentic and they achieved a level of intimacy that made you feel like they were writing to just you.

    Sorry my comments are so long-winded; you know that’s a propensity of mine. 😉

    Mary

  12. Daiva Markelis

    Richard,
    Can there ever be too many comments? I’m thinking of having my advanced creative nonfiction students this fall read/subscribe to your log. Or maybe I’ll just suggest students who would get the most out of it. There aren’t that many blogs out there that treat nonfiction in a serious yet not stuffy way.

    • That would great, Daiva. I haven’t made much of a survey of cnf blogs myself but am almost afraid to, because I’m following about all I can handle right now. At least one formerly great one isn’t active anymore.

  13. Belated birthday wishes and what a lovely, reflective post to commemorate two years of blogging.