Saturday, August 8, 2009

Can Blogs Be More Than Cute?

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

Here's what I'm resisting: That in my blog, I must turn my entire life into a story. That my family members are the cast of characters, complete with cute snapshots. That readers will be privy to all the details of my life--pictures of my foot surgery, my dog, my Uncle Fred--none of which exist, of course.

Actually, I think most bloggers are writing about their real lives, in both illuminating and eye-glazing ways. The relentless focus on reality is both the pleasure and pain of blogs, and I wonder where they're heading.

The Problem, #1
Keeping a diary has been around for eons. What's different is making that diary public--and making money (if you're lucky) from your nightly scribblings. Here's one of the latest from Heather Armstrong of, a six-figure professional blogger:

"And then five minutes later I feel another menstrual cramp. This goes on for, oh, seven hours? Eight? I can't remember, only that I was certain it meant that I was going to take an enormous crap. That's just my track record. During the last week that I was pregnant with Leta I thought I was going into labor three different times, and each time Jon would break out his watch and time the contractions, and we'd get all excited, like BABY BABY BABY, and then BOOM, I'd go take a poop and everything would stop."

So what's wrong with that? Nothing. Really. Writers need money. I need money. Except.... Heather Armstrong is a good writer, often funny. But most of the parenting blogs like this are too diary-like for me, too insufferably cute or self-conscious. I feel bad saying this, too, because as a feminist, I'm a believer in the power of quotidian details. I just don't want to see pictures of somebody's ultrasound.

I want a good, well-told story.

The Problem, #2
The gender flip on mom blogs is the often male-authored megaphone. It's an op-ed with Hunter Thompson's Disease. Here's a sample from John Batchelor of The Daily Beast:

"The sad-eyed Townhall Turfers now follow the saucer-eyed Birthers and the cranky Tea-Baggers as the latest political fad that the weakling Republicans not only cannot get away from but also cannot get enough of, like chocolate sauce on anything."

It's almost a zinger, almost so bad it's good. It did compel me to read farther, but after a post or two like this, even with great titles like "The GOP Freak Show," I feel exhausted. I become hypnotized by long strings of comments about Sarah Palin (for example), which alternate between wittily brilliant and Neanderthal. This is the blogosphere, and I'm still surprised that so many people type out their thoughts, anonymously, their ids run wild. Maybe it's the id-charge that keeps them doing it, like placing prank phone calls.

I want a good, well-told story.

Ode to Pleasure and Pain
There's something quaint about the proliferating lines of text with these comments, though. People love YouTube, but they love writing, too. They check in on each other's comments, they argue and quibble. They're engaged with each other's words. It's not about pictures, but text. And while I haven't figured out what's coming next for myself as a writer or whether I can turn my blog into a series of mini-stories--has anyone figured it out? have you?—I am writing, more than I have in a long time. In the shorthand of Dooce: It's cool.


  1. While there are those that make $$$$ blogging most serious readers do not take it as serious writing. It is not like a good book that enthralls my imagination it more like narcisistic exhibitionists revealing them selves to empty headed voyers. The didgital age has revealed a society that has no concept of true reality, they must have someone elses.

  2. Interesting. You could be right that as a society we have no concept of true reality. So are we all voyeurs? Well, I think the human animal is hard-wired to do the equivalent of nit-picking--gossiping and observing each other.

    So blogs. Definitely not a good book and rarely of any literary quality. But I think the comparison is to magazine features, op-eds, columns, various journalistic forms where writers mouth off. I read recently, in a magazine-professional group discussion, that print magazines used to be the Internet. I think that's right. Even fifty years ago, in the Madison Avenue hey-day, writing you'd find in the slicks could swing from enthralling to gossipy exhibitionism.

    My challenge to online writers is to take the off-hand, personal nature of blogs and craft them into something that gains more respect. Even as I write, I think that's starting to happen, as the print news industry falls apart.

  3. I try to turn my personal experiences into writing lessons on my blog. My post from yesterday would be an example:

    I struggled with my blog format for a while, though.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. I struggle with the same things you do. I have a post scheduled tomorrow that talks about this ( We must be on the same wavelength. If someone is just blogging as if it's writing in a diary, I'm not going to keep going to that blog. It's the same problem I have with Twitter. Why do I care if someone is off to have coffee somewhere?

  5. I think blogging is evolving very fast, and there are some very interesting debates going on about it--see OJM (Online Journalism Magazine) or the Future of Journalism on Open Salon. I also think we can make it whatever we want it to be, and that's the most exciting thing about the digital publishing landscape. I will be looking more carefully at your blogs, Karen and Elizabeth, and I'm glad you've found this one.

  6. Martha, I am drawn to your Talking Writing blog because it ISN'T an "eye-glazing" detailed account of your moment-by-moment personal life experiences complete with photos. I find those types of blogs preposterous and so full of narcissism and ego they can sometimes make me physically ill after reading them. Yet, as a writer, beneath all that is an underlying excitement that so many people are expressing themselves through the witten word via their blogs, no matter what the subject. Because writing is such an important and rewarding aspect of my life, this pleases me.

    At a writers' group this weekend, one member spoke eloquently about her positive experiences as a blogger (writing about miscellaneous, random subjects), and how much she loved it the time she received over 100 comments following something she posted. She told the group it gave her a huge sense of satisfaction, and that she especially felt validated that people were actually reading her thoughts and responding to them. Blogging, she concluded, allows the blogger to bypass the heartbreaking rejections of agents and publishers. To a certain extent, I can see her point. And if you get really good at it, like Heather Armstrong seems to have done, then I suppose you've suscinctly and satisfyingly thumbed your nose at the current publishing fire-breathing Godzilla all the way to the bank.

    Another thought: spilling one's guts online for all the world to read must be cathartic, theraputic, even, given blogging's enormous popularity. But I often wonder, is blogging making us mentally healthier? Or is the process of blogging chiseling out yet another facet to the intricacies of mental illness? Personally, I'd rather discuss my thoughts face to face with good friends and enjoy a heartfelt hug afterward. I'd rather hand write a meaningful letter, which nobody seems to want to do anymore. Blogging, to me, seems so impersonal and distant. Lonely, even. Yet for others, blogging seems to offer a sense of community and a feeling of belonging.

    I, myself, do not blog, but that doesn't mean I won't sometime in the future, if by doing so, like you, I can offer readers something of true substance. Keep up the great work, Martha!

  7. Yes, I think blogging does empower writers in certain ways--we now have access to the means of production, so to speak, and we can publish what and when we want. I've found this wonderfully freeing as a writer, because I can get my ideas out there fast, and the reader feedback is more immediate. I also believe it helps with writing process--good bloggers are always thinking about hot questions, great anecdotal leads and catchy titles, and how to get lots of bang-for-buck with short word counts.

    Then there's the marketing aspect of it for professional writers. Blogs and websites are becoming more necessary for us all in terms of building our "brand." At Talking Writing, which has a number of contributors and an evolving "masthead," we're becoming (perhaps) a new version of an online magazine--one that is group-edited and includes a community of readers.

    This, of course, fits in very well with my own ideas about professional blogs, which I think allow writers a more personal voice with readers but also behoove said writers to produce higher quality than diary-like ramblings.

    Enough said, for now. Lots of meat in your comment, Paula. And if you would like to do a guest post that delves into those very intriguing questions--"Is blogging making us mentally healthier? Or is the process of blogging chiseling out yet another facet to the intricacies of mental illness? "--please send it in ASAP. I'd love to put that up for discussion on Talking Writing. Cheers--and welcome!

  8. Thank you, Martha. I'll see what I can do.


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