Tuesday, October 5, 2010

the practice of blogging

The practice of blogging, cultural neo-nate or no, has already acquired a range of uses, and with each of those uses, different meanings. Blogs allow those suffering from a serious illness to keep a large circle of family and friends efficiently informed of their progress. A friend from Chapel Hill who had left for graduate school at Michigan State started a blog to take those of us who cared--a large group--through her (and her boyfriend's) successful battle with her breast cancer. She writes like the applied scientist her business card identifies her as, with an emphasis on succinctness and brevity. I would not call her blog a work of art, and I doubt she would, either, but she used the medium for her own ends very effectively, and to the lasting gratitude of her friends and family. Only certain of us could log onto the blog, so despite its exposed existence on the web, it remained a private document. We have become so accustomed to the smart but often craven use of blogs by performers and athletes to stay in touch with their fans that we forget or simply don't realize that such a private use for blogs exists.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, journalists such as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times use their blogs for short pieces, often of either the op-ed or breaking news variety. Generally not as well-researched as pieces appearing under their print byline, these pieces tend to reach a wider or slightly different audience than their print pieces, even a narrower but valuable audience in some cases. Excepting online magazines such as Slate, The Huffington Post, The Beast and Politico, which do a number of short pieces aimed at the presumed attention span of an electronic reader, some of these journalists have found social networks useful places to alert potential readers to their blogs by way of links. Kristof, again, has made an art form of using his blog to engage readers and generate some of the best-informed discussion I see on Facebook.

I would not want to claim those examples as exhaustive extremes, but merely as the extremes that interest me for the purposes of this discussion. This blog disappeared for some months, and recently a friend reasonably asked why. The answer has to do with the different uses of the blog as a form. About the time I started writing mine, it came to my attention that a friend wrote one. A journalism graduate student, she writes strictly on deadline--as I mostly did in an attempt to follow her example--and on generally small subjects, though often with broad implications. They are jewels, but fenced in by the acceptance of the rules of a genre that requires sublimated ambition.

I have a background in the humanities where I learned to value the well-made, presumably dispassionate argument. One can indulge passion on a blog precisely because one does not have to satisfy academic standards of evidence. I do not back away from ad hominem debate as long as it has some demonstrable grounding in factual reality. Nor have I ever managed 250 words--except under duress--when a couple thousand would do so much more nicely; my dissertation stands as the glaring exception at just under 250 pages, very short by the standards of my field. Furthermore, the blog form permits argumentation on anything, as though one had carte blanche to write on the op-ed pages of The New York Times at will--an exercise in vanity restrained only by the attempt to say something important on a subject of broad interest worth engaging.

My friend and I made the mistake--I initiated it, if memory serves--of regularly commenting on each other's blogs. I say "mistake," because eventually the dissonance in our aims and styles became a source of confusion and friction. The first time a student in one of my discussion sections called me "intimidating" on an evaluation, it caught me by surprise. To hear--read--effectively the same thing from an adult graduate student in journalism took my breath away, especially in the context of suspending our practice of commenting on each other's material; though in fairness the disparity in the length and type of comment became obvious early, as did the possibility of tensions. I may have written one or two posts thereafter, but not much more. The exchange of comments had become integral to the writing process. Absent that exchange, the air had gone out of the blog.

I take two lessons from this. Vanity, ego, self-consciousness, call it what you will, express differently in different people. I have considerable vanity and ego invested in my writing; most academics do, whether currently in the academy or not. Add the ambition of commentator on the issues of the day, and one can sound like a pompous ass, particularly to those too humble to take on those issues by frontal attack. Training has something to do with all this, as well. I was trained to think large, though my blog addresses the issues of the day, not those of the sixteenth century my graduate studies addressed.

I am in a personal transition. My humility may receive a test. Writing without the consistent exchange of another blogger will take some adjusting, and my own trajectory may strain any efforts to revive this blog. We'll see. I'll take the challenge as an opportunity to write with a tighter leash on my ego. I do not speak with the authority of Nicholas Kristof and should not pretend that I do. Neither, however, do I find the observations of the small things of life my strength, and will generally leave that to my friend and others who do it well, though as Oscar Wilde said, "all generalizations are false, including this one." To paraphrase the title of one of the best books I've read on Afghanistan this year, by the British author Rory Stewart, I will try to stick to "the places in between."