Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Whips of opinion down my back

Someone whose opinion I respect recently said: If you write about God, homoeroticism, Bob Dylan, food, farming, bicycling, hiking, Thailand, sailing, climate change, politics, film, science, philosophy, and travel you can't expect to have an audience.

Me: Why not? Columnists say: “There are stories every day. The hard part is picking which one to write.” (I ruminate thoughtfully.) Also: Montaigne. Montaigne could write about anything.

Then he asked: Yes, but how many sites like that do you read?

I can cite several: Sonia. Monika. Annie. Patty. Although I wish all of you did more writing about homoeroticism and film and climate change.

But my friend may, in fact, be right, because I don't seem to have much of an audience. Save you, dear reader, whom I adore.

Now I am again writing about writing, which--although it is a tag in my sidebar--tags that (I believe) neatly and comprehensively sum up my chosen subject—is my least favorite topic. John Gardner wrote about writing best. No one can do it better. And he would eschew this genre.

But Montaigne would not. Montaigne would have the world's most awesome blog.

I cite Grillabongquixotic, again. What sets his online log apart is not that he's building a boat in Mexico and sailing it to Panama, although that helps. It's because having that adventure sets him free to write about climate change, culture, food, travel, linguistic experimentation, faith, dancing, wood grain, automobiles, public transportation in foreign lands, music, and depression. At a certain point in his adventure, he heads back to New York, where he lives, much as I do, in a rural woodland. It may be my favorite part of his story, and I miss the posts he didn't write while he was there, the posts about food and music and neighborhood bickering in a different context.

I want to write those posts now.

Okay, so I'm going to give in and admit that this is my annual--although I try to make it biannual because I hate it—apologia for the blog. It's been coming, for a while, as you know.

Have you heard yet of Aaron Swartz, who developed RSS at fourteen and Reddit at nineteen? Who became an activist and downloaded $2 million worth of data to distribute freely to “children in the global South”? Who was prosecuted for that crime and is now with us no more?

Here's what he said:
So here I am. We're somewhere over a dark patch in the middle of the country and I'm in the window seat in the last row in the plane. The guy in front of me's leaning all the way back, but I'm in the last row so my seat doesn't go back, and I have to lift my legs up to stretch out a muscle that was sitting funny while I was asleep.... But that's not the problem.
This from his blog, cited in the New Yorker profile, where Larissa MacFarquhar writes: “He kept a blog for most of his life.” Also:
Prose creates a strong illusion of presence—so strong that it is difficult to destroy it. It is hard to remember that you are reading and not hearing. The illusion is stronger when the prose is online, partly because you are aware that it might be altered or redacted at any moment—the writer may be online, too, as you read it [see I just redacted that sentence]--and partly because the Internet has been around for such a short time that we implicitly assume (as we do not with a book) that the writer of a blog post is alive.
I am alive, but I will not always be so. I am writing to you, but I do not know if you are there. I am writing so you will know how it feels to be alive inside of this body, with the peepers out the window over my left shoulder, with my lamp lit, with only my computer and my New Yorker and my Holy Spirit stained glass medallion to keep me company. I am writing from a different dark patch in the northernmost part of the country and I'm writing because writing is a practice, just one of many, and it's the best way I have of marking time, if nothing else.

Aaron Swartz “didn't think of his blog as published writing, exactly, nor was it a private journal, since it was accessible to anyone. It was something in between. He wrote about things in his blog that he didn't tell his friends—about his depressions, about his ulcerative colitis. It was not clear who he imagined his readers to be.”

Aaron Swartz wrote not just about depression, but also how it felt to be a millionaire, his insecurities, his politics, crying in the bathroom at work, music, poverty, alcohol, and saving the world. Yes, he also killed himself, as I've been reminded that writers do since I was a child—Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath, etc. ad nauseum. Maybe it's because none of them kept a blog.

That's trite and untrue because of course Aaron Swartz killed himself, too. My friend's point remains, however, and I think it a valid one. If I refuse to limit my subject matter to, oh, say—long-distance hiking or sailing around the world or lushly photographed recipes—I can't expect an audience of any significant size. But I'm done censoring myself. I do worry that I am becoming too esoteric, too eclectic, too random. But I am in fact all of those things.

Now I'll go shut up and watch Jon Stewart.

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