Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Towards a more fully cooked blog

So I've been thinking a lot in the past few weeks about this blog. I started it a little over a year ago, and I have tried hard to keep to my original rule of posting about once a week, following what seemed like blogging etiquette at the time. In addition to providing hopefully helpful tips and ideas about narrative inquiry in practice, I intended to use the blog as a way to rewrite my book in pieces, for feedback and to get the ideas to where they wanted to be sooner. (The complexity stuff crept in by itself later.)

Charlie and me

Writing a book on a blog has been both great and terrible, but not in the way Oz is great and terrible. On the one hand, I think it has added some spice to the book, as the various situations I faced throughout the year provided food for thought. The terrible part was in trying to squeeze a book out in little pieces. It doesn't work very well, at least not for me. Those who have been reading all year will have noticed how I kept saying "next week I will write about X" and then the next week wrote about some totally unconnected subject. There was a reason for that! It turns out that writing book fodder takes a deeper level of concentration than writing about whatever pet peeve or slice-of-life observation I've been pondering during the week. You can pretty much map my level of distraction by whether I wrote book fodder or general observations. My conversations with myself about the blog have gone like this all year:
Me: So, we are supposed to write about this thing for the blog next.
Myself: We can't write about that! There is too much other stuff going on this week to write about that!
Me: Okay, suppose we put that off and write about this other thing.
Myself: No, that's too complicated. I can't get my mind into that this week.
Me: Well, we have to write something. What can we write about?
Myself: What about that thing we read in the paper yesterday?
Me: Nah, that's trivial. Who would want to read about that?
Myself: It's all we've got.
Me: All right then, let's write about that.
(Ten hours later)
Me:  I've been trying to write about the trivial thing, but it turns out it's not as trivial as we thought. We could easily write a book about it.
Myself: No time for that! We have to get something out! What else can we write about?
Me: Well, while reading about the trivial thing, I found this even more trivial thing. How about that?
Myself: Sounds great. Let's write. Hurry up!
A few times I found myself writing nested inside three levels of other writing I was not yet ready to write about. Some layers sloughed off and are still laying around waiting to be finished.

Charles Dickens wrote in serial form, like many other bread-and-butter novelists of his time. I noticed recently that my blog posts this year have been strikingly similar to Dickens' writing. (Not in quality! Just in other ways.) We both wrote mostly, sort of, about the larger thing we were supposed to be writing, but in certain chapters of certain Dickens books, you can clearly see that he was busy or distracted or tired of the longer project and branched off into the sort of pet peeve or slice-of-life observation you would put on a blog. I'll bet you don't find much of that sort of thing in novels that were not released in serial form. Dickens' branches take the form of caricatures/characters who entertain and then fade back as the main story returns. I wonder if you knew what Dickens was doing each week, would his branches match times of distraction by other events in life? Is comic relief writing relief? And did Dickens have sloughed-off layers of chapters lying around like I do? I would not be surprised. Writing something big in pieces is like serving soup every ten minutes while you are preparing it. Sometimes the soup is fully cooked, but sometimes it's just water with some warm vegetables floating in it.

I've been poking about, just a bit, reading about serial publication and novel writing, and this bit from an essay by Grahame Smith on VictorianWeb struck my eye:
What are some of the implications of Dickens' commitment to seriality? It can take us back to Connor's distinction between becoming and being, because it is surely possible to argue that over the nineteen monthly parts of its writing and its appearance before the public, a novel such as Bleak House was in a continuous process of becoming. In other words, its state of being as a literary text is of a quite different order to the static being of a Victorian three-decker novel, the writing of which was completed before it saw the light of day in the hands of a reader. Such a method of writing and publishing give Dickens' texts a sense of fluidity in a number of ways. One of the most obvious is their interactive relationship with the public, the possibilities of change and modification in the light of changing patterns of sales and of audience response....
I have learned a lot about what should be in the book (including things I hadn't realized were missing) by what people said or didn't say, and read or didn't read, on the blog. Certainly writing the book in the blog has helped it become, but it has not helped it be. The distraction of always finding "something for the blog" has hampered the book in coming to a conclusion. That's why I decided to stop blogging every week, to start with.

Gleaners and miners

When I started blogging I had no idea what sort of blogger I'd be. Now I know. I envy the gleaner-bloggers who report on their daily or weekly wanderings over the web of information (Kathy Hansen and Gregg Morris are favorites in the narrative world). I'm not a gleaner, because I don't wander. I spend something like one minute a day on the web, and that's not just because I have a kid; I never spent much more than that. I can't usually say "didya see this" because, unless it's in my yard or on my kitchen floor, I usually didn't see it before everybody else did. Instead of a gleaner, I'm a miner. I dig. I go deep down, muck around in the dark, and every once in a while come up with something. Mining and regular blogging don't go together. When you blog regularly you have to come up when you don't have anything but mud to carry up with you.

Mining reminds me of The Neverending Story. One of my favorite parts of that book is the part where Bastian makes wishes, but he doesn't really make them: they make him. They well up. Writing wells up too. Some of my blog posts this past year were written and published only after I had been thinking about them and making notes on them for weeks or months or even years, but others were pulled together in a day to meet my weekly blogging schedule. Some wanted to be written and some had to be written. It's easy to tell the two types apart, and it is only the fully cooked posts that have attracted the most commenting and reposting and linking.

So I've been thinking. A few weeks ago I said here that I was going to post every two weeks instead of every week. But that doesn't really seem an improvement. My new idea is to post only when something is fully cooked. I think it will work better for everyone involved. From this I can see why magazines or group blogs might be better than individual blogs, because they can achieve periodicity without each contributor needing to perform at the same level in each time period. In a way, with people now using blog readers rather than following individual blogs, people are creating their own magazines that can assemble lots of fully cooked elements as they come together naturally. That makes a lot more sense. When everything written on blogs wants to be written, blogs will be more useful to everyone.

About that quail

One more tidbit to round out the year of reflection. I've never mentioned this before, but I wonder if anybody ever wonders about the little story in the header of this page. What happened was, about a week before I started the blog, I was walking on the path to the pond, as the story says, and a quail (or maybe it was a grouse) told me the broken-wing display story. I recognized the story right away, but I was amazed to be invited in to what is normally a closed storytelling circle. I think I even said "Come on, are you serious?" But yes, the bird was carefully and precisely feigning a broken wing, at me, and clearly hoping I would follow it away from its nest. With a great surge of gratitude I played my part as the audience and followed it. Soon I was rewarded by watching it suddenly jump up and fly away at high speed once I had gotten about thirty feet from where its nest probably was. This event was both memorable and relevant to storytelling, because it was about what happens when someone tells a story. The audience is invited in to listen to the story and become part of the larger story that surrounds it. Such an invitation, especially when unexpected, is a precious gift.

Usually when I spend time in the woods I am outside of the stories, just a watcher in the world, but this was one of a handful of times when I have been privileged to participate in a natural storytelling event. So I chose that emblem of the gift of story listening as my centerpiece for the blog. It's one thing to listen to the stories of a world, even to watch them happen, but to be invited to enter into storytelling events is a rare privilege (one to tell stories about!). I think everyone who works with stories, whether in their own community or elsewhere, whether in woods, fields or cities, should remember how special a privilege such an invitation is and play their part respectfully and with gratitude.