Impulses

As a teacher of writing I’ve read far too many sensible articles and books about the life-giving virtues of writing. There is free writing, for example, that authentic activity that makes one feel as if authenticity is something one finds by practicing it, as Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg and many others have persuasively argued. There is writing about one’s intellectual preoccupations, something I am doing a lot of during my sabbatical—that purposeful mode of writing for an audience of people who share a passion for thought and inquiry. And then there is what I’m doing right now. Blogging.

On the days when I do sit down at the little desk here in this hot apartment in India to write a blog entry—in the interval between a morning of sabbatical work and a late afternoon swim with the kids—I spend about thirty minutes to an hour allowing my mind to wander over the subject I’ve chosen to take up. Usually, I’ve given the subject some thought; and often in the writing I find the post heading off somewhere else, as this post might in fact be doing. So as the theorists and pedagogues will say, I’m writing my way to understanding. Though in most cases I’m simply following sight or insight—elaborating on something seen or partially considered.

In the 10 December issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand published an essay that considers why people write and read diaries, “Woke Up this Morning.” He observes that “The impulse to keep a diary is to actual diaries as the impulse to go on a diet is to actual slimness. Most of us do wish that we were slim diarists. It’s not that we imagine that we would be happier if we kept a diary; we imagine that we would be better—that diarizing is a natural, healthy thing, a sign of vigor and purpose, a statement, about life, that we care, and that non-diarizing or, worse, failed diarizing is a confession of moral inertia, an acknowledgment, even, of the ultimate pointlessness of one’s being in the world.” Menand then goes on to explain three theories for why people might keep diaries, an explanation as irreverent as it is insightful:

They are theories of the ego, the id, and the superego (and what is left, really?). The ego theory holds that maintaining a diary demands a level of vanity and self-importance that is simply too great for most people to sustain for long periods of time. It obliges you to believe that the stuff that happened to you is worth writing down because it happened to you. This is why so many diaries are abandoned by circa January 10th: keeping this up, you quickly realize, means something worse than being insufferable to others; it means being insufferable to yourself. People find that they just can’t take themselves seriously enough to continue. They may regret this—people capable of taking themselves seriously tend to go farther in life—but they accept it and move on to other things, such as collecting stamps. The id theory, on the other hand, states that people use diaries to record wishes and desires that they need to keep secret, and to list failures and disappointments that they cannot admit publicly have given them pain. Diary-keeping, on this account, is just neurotic, since the last thing most people want to do with their unconsummated longings and petty humiliations is to inscribe them permanently in a book. They want to forget them, and so they soon quit writing them down. Most people don’t confess; they repress. And the superego theory, of course, is the theory that diaries are really written for the eyes of others. They are exercises in self-justification. When we describe the day’s events and our management of them, we have in mind a wise and benevolent reader who will someday see that we played, on the whole, and despite the best efforts of selfish and unworthy colleagues and relations, a creditable game with the hand we were dealt. If we speak frankly about our own missteps and shortcomings, it is only to gain this reader’s trust. We write to appease the father. People abandon their diaries when they realize that the task is hopeless. These are powerful, possibly brilliant theories, and they account for much. But, though they help explain why people generally don’t like to write diaries, they do not explain why people generally do like to read them.”

To be quite honest, I have never been able to sustain an interest in a diary. My ego has never fully convinced me that my experience is worth recording in detail. My secrets, for what they are worth, are my own, and my mind seems to be a perfectly suitable repository for such things. And self-justification never seemed to be worth the time when god promised another day outside in the mountain air, a new book to read, or some real work that needed to be done in a life full of complications and contingencies.

Sure, when I was younger, I kept climbing notes in a journal whenever I headed out into the mountains for more than a week. My notes were never written down every day, though. Nor did I feel that there was anything especially significant finding its way onto the page. Did it really matter that we spent the day on the north ridge, and that the rope got caught when I was leading the most difficult pitch and I had to climb down to untangle it? That the smell of sky pilot on a granite ledge at 11,000 feet was simply indescribable? That the late night walk out of a valley by night after a sun-filled day on glacier and rock should be recorded on the page with a date and year? Or that the snow was softer and deeper the farther we plunged down the thousand foot gulley? I have experienced interest rereading those pages of notes written on a granite ledge or in a tent under the light of headlamp with wind and snow raging outside. But who was this person? I find myself asking as I am cleaning out the attic of the carriage barn and reading a few pages from the assorted journals among the yellowing papers and notebooks.

But what about blogs? What does one do with page after page of electronically stored characters on just about anything? Why do people keep blogs? Why do people read them? I did something new this morning to begin answering these questions: I “surfed the net.” As someone who spent most of his youth on a surfboard I still struggle with this metaphor, and yet I did find all kinds of ephemera (like what I am writing here) that has some degree of passing interest. There are people blogging about blogging, too. There are lists of dos and do nots for aspiring bloggers. And there are blogs about anything you can imagine. From what I can tell, people blog for many reasons—self-expression, advocacy, boredom, self-justification, compulsion, passion, trying to be funny or serious, and so on.

In fact, a few of the people blogging do seem as if they are enjoying themselves. Perhaps the impulse to blog is like the impulse to run: it feels good to exercise–pleasure–and it is good for the organism–health. Still, the real difference between a journal and blog is that other people are free to read what you write. So the ego and superego may be at work here as well. But the other question, why people read blogs, interests me. I discovered the other day, much to my surprise actually, that people read my blog. What happens, as far as I can tell, is people are looking for something and they end up at my blog. So, for example, one person typed in “Living in Pune” and she ended up at my blog. Reading blogs, to be honest, holds little interest for me. Though my friend Lorianne has convinced me, through her blogging,  that words and images define or capture something about a place, and the experience in that place, well worth saying. I have a growing sense, too, that blogs on particular subjects can be very useful for people with common interests and concerns to share information or thoughts.

I’ve been writing on this blog for a couple of months now. The idea was to share my experiences in India with family and friends. So I asked for advice from my friend Lorianne, a person with a gift for combining words and images and a remarkable tolerance for the joys and hardships of writing. I had just taught a course on the science and literature of plants, too. I was reading Darwin and Thoreau’s journals, refamiliarizing myself with Leslie Claire Walker’s nature journaling ideas as I began keeping a field journal, and surely feeling some nostalgia for my own attempts to catalogue wildflowers long ago in the Sierra. Once I began writing blog entries, I realized that sharing my experiences in India with family and friends was leading somewhere else. I was more engaged with India and, in the process of writing, was coming to discover more about where I was. Through writing I am finding out all sorts of things about what is around me. I am thinking about what I was noticing. And I am considering how I might understand, and share, my impressions.

Some day I hope Menand, or a cultural critic with his gift for analysis, will linger over the new phenomenon of the blog as well as the increasingly common practice of blogging.

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3 thoughts on “Impulses

  1. I keep both a journal (which sounds more serious than “diary,” doesn’t it?) and a blog. I consider both to be place where I can practice writing…and the blog is a place where I can practice both writing & photography, with a live audience to keep me honest. (To use Menand’s diary/diet analogy, keeping a blog is like having a diet buddy: someone will notice if you fall off the wagon.) But I, like Natalie Goldberg, see daily writing as a kind of meditative practice, so I try to keep doing it whether or not it bears any practical fruit.

    The way I work around the question of ego (and it’s a question I struggled with in the second entry in my then-new blog) is to tell myself that my blog isn’t primarily about me. Hoarded Ordinaries isn’t a personal blog; it’s a place blog. So the focus isn’t primarily me and my presumably interesting, blog-worthy life; instead, the focus is fixed on the two places I call home these days as well as other places I find myself visiting.

    My individual life might not be interesting enough to bother telling everyone about…but place matters. When I doubt my own writing, my own self, or my own Whatever, my faith in place still abides. It’s important to notice, record, and report the goings-on in places like Keene, NH; Newton, MA; or Pune, India. If folks like you & I don’t notice, record, and report those goings-on, who will?

    Of course, in the process of recording a place, you & I necessarily record a person. As you know, “nature writing” (or “writing about place,” a definition that neatly avoids the trouble of defining “nature” and thus easily allows us to talk about crowded cities, leafy suburbs, and other places of human habitation) is a notoriously fluid phenomenon. So in the process of reading a natural history of a place, we also often read a natural history of a person. A perfect example of that is Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: Williams has to tell us a bit about herself & her family for us to “really” get what’s going on in the environment around her. It’s the most ecological realization of them all: people & places are intrinsically linked.

    But yes, it’s easy to feel egotistical when pretty much everything you hear in the popular media denigrates “personal” blogging as being frivolous: “Just a bunch of online wackos writing in their pajamas, posting pictures of their cats, & cluttering cyberspace with tales of this morning’s breakfast!” These dismissive remarks about self-absorbed personal bloggers sound a lot like the jabs 19th century thinkers lobbed against “scribbling women”…and “regional” writing (i.e. writing with actual places in it) has always been dismissed as petty & parochial.

    I guess that’s why I see place blogging as going against the grain: it’s a small act of rebellion against a popular media & mainstream publishing industry that suggests the kind of writing I & others do isn’t worth as much as political rants, celebrity memoirs, and the like. In the popular media & mainstream publishing industry, the places that matter are those that are world-renowned, visually spectacular, or otherwise flashy. I believe that all places matter, even if they aren’t worthy of their own National Geographic show.

    So there, in a word, is why I blog. The task of capturing a place, like capturing a self, probably is hopeless, but why should any of us let that stop us?

  2. Pingback: The wheres and whys « Hoarded Ordinaries

  3. It’s odd, but as I read your blog today, I did start to feel bogged down by the meta-process of writing about writing, especially the points you shared from Louis Menand’s essay. Thinking about whey we blog spirals inward, and eventually downward, and in the end, I wonder, as you do, what it’s really all about.

    But when I quit thinking about the WHY process and simply respect my desire to write, wonderful things happen.

    I’m able to participate in a culture of sharing with others what I’ve learned about pursuing a career in art. Others have helped me along the way, sharing what THEY know. Since I find the concept of actually teaching a class a bit overwhelming and eventually self-defeating to MAKING my art (it takes longer to tell someone how to do something than to just do it), blogging is an efficient way of passing on what I’ve learned.

    Blogging also has a low threshold–I don’t have to find a publisher willing to “sponsor” me (as Lorianne pointed out)–I just have to sit down at my computer and DO it.

    I may also be guilty of Menand’s contention that I’m working through my own issues by blogging. I would argue that it’s a lot cheaper than professional counseling, and again, that others get to benefit from it, if they care to.

    Finally, in a world full of disaster and doom, yet with constant newspaper coverage of celebrity car crashes(can someone explain to me why our local paper devotes an entire page of its tiny page count to the shenanigans of Lindsay, Brittany and Paris??), isn’t it refreshing to come across a blog like, for example, Lorianne’s? Or yours, for that matter?

    Every day, there is an interesting or beautiful or provocative photo, with a thoughtful commentary, that opens our eyes to a certain place in the world–and we never see that place quite the same again.

    Our world is certainly better for that. *I* am simply a better person for that.

    In the end, perhaps as we commit these small daily acts of kindness and creativity and genuine excitement about the life and place we find ourselves in, we create enough good energy to help restore balance in a world that often seems overwhelmingly dangerous, full of despair and heartbreakingly unfair. It may be a grain of sand on that scale, but it’s still a small contribution on the right side.

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