Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Writing the Islands"

So my friend and fellow writer Brian Phipps is starting a blog in order to "write the islands" of a book he's been wanting to write for awhile, in hopes that a public place to post his ideas might keep him accountable for actually working on the rest of it.

This got me thinking about three things:

  1. My old blog, which was started for a very similar reason. I was thinking about doing a communication PhD at some point, and knew I was roughly interested in the ideas of technology's interaction with communication, and creativity, so while I was working on my MA in English, the blog was a place to capture my reflections on the subject so I could figure out what I was really interested in about the subject.

    It helped a lot--I can't imagine having to write my admissions essays for PhD programs without that resource to paw through and figure out what I was most interested in. Of course, now that I've been taking courses and getting a chance to think about it all the time, and am writing full papers on the subject, I find I have no desire to continue. For me, then, it was a starting point--a place to capture ideas where others could see them and comment on them before I dug into the main task. Now it served its purpose, and so I was happy to move on to this blog, which I expect will help me and others in different ways.

  2. The public-private tension with blogs.There's something about the liminality of cyberspace that makes it easy to disclose things, and yet stuff posted on blogs is a publication that anyone can see and respond to. This makes a blog a good place to capture ideas you want to write for an audience and polish a bit, but aren't quite as fully formed as you would make them for an article or a book you were writing.

    The liminality (or unfinished nature, as it were) of the blogosphere helps with this stage of the writing (helps one to get around the coherence and relevance censor in one's head), and its public nature helps both with finding people to give feedback and with keeping one accountable for writing the "islands you can see." It also helps to be able to "think things through out loud with others" when those interested in the topic don't happen to be geographically convenient.

  3. It would not work for me for fiction. This kind of process, about "writing the islands" you can already see in hopes that the water of the rest of the work will surround them, only works for me in academic prose and other creative non-fiction. It works quite well there, in fact, but my fiction-writing only works if it's linear.

    My fiction research is about collecting islands of material, but the novel-writing process for me has to be done in order in the first draft--I can think ahead to the next parts and take notes, but, partly because I'm a "light of the headlights" style fiction writer who doesn't know the end until I see it slightly ahead of the characters, I can't write a new chapter until I'm done with a draft of the last one. I can write a few independent scenes to learn my characters, but they never end up in the draft. I find it fascinating, these differences between the two kinds of processes.

One final thing: writers wonder how to find time to blog when they have so many other things they want to write. It's, I think, at least partly about finding a way to fit it into your current process, and finding the right topic that feeds into your writing--the right topic that both energizes you to write and serves multiple purposes--and then letting yourself see the blogging as a legitimate priority within the writing domain. It's also important to remember, though, I think, that it's there for a specific purpose and therefore that it's okay to move on once it's done that.

I also think it's okay to let it lie fallow for a time or to be willing to shift its purpose if another project if another project comes to the forefront. There's a time when every good topic-based blog, like most TV series, may come to an end, despite its seemingly never-ending nature, because the writer must shift their attention to other projects.

Of course, if one can find a way to make a broadly-enough themed blog to capture one's ideas on many of one's projects, that would work too. One of the reasons I switched to a broader theme for this current blog is to make the blog more sustainable, as it were. In my other blog, I found that having a narrower topic helped me focus, but also was inhibiting at times when I wanted to use the blog for bordering topics.

Any thoughts from you bloggers out there on the ebbs and flows and purposes of blogging?


rilla said...

I started blogging when I was in the depths of my M.A. as a means to communicate with my friends whom I never saw anymore. Spending 15 minutes writing a post that said, "I'm writing four million essays and I'm going crazy" was a quick way to tell everyone that I wasn't ignoring them.

I got into the habit and I liked it. I like the more is more approach to blogging, and I try not to limit myself to specific topics. Some days I'll be in love with an author or a webcomic and I'll write about that. Some days I'll need to vent about my hair. Really, the only time I don't write anything is when I've run out of things to say.

Those days are happening more and more, though, since I've been writing outside the blog so much. I think that's to be expected and once the creative writing job dwindles, I'll probably want to write *EVEN MORE* in the blog.

Brian said...

Thanks for the link and for describing your experience doing a similar thing. It’ll be interesting to see how the blog develops. Right now I’m feeling a lot of pressure to post, which I hope will ease up a bit as I get through the novelty stage of blogging. It’s a good pressure in that it’s impelling me to write, or at least to think about what I want to write, but at the same time it’s stressing me out, because, oh my gosh, people are reading and they’ll lose interest if I don’t post often enough and if it’s not interesting or good enough writing. The quality sensor is still very much firmly in place, and I think I’m starting to lose sleep over it. Hopefully I can figure out how to ease up a bit before giving up becomes too attractive of an option.

Deborah Leiter said...

Ril: I can totally relate to the "I'm writing four million essays and I'm going crazy" thing--why do you think I picked the writing life to focus on? :) Mostly, I think this blog is to remind myself that I'm a writer, no matter what I'm working on, and that the craziness is part of the territory. As for the other stuff, in my world that's what my Facebook statuses are for.

Brian: You're welcome. I think you'll be fine. And as for quality, don't worry quite so much about it. Grammatical=good. Perfect=bad. Not blog-like.

And as for interestingness, remember this is a testing ground--your own laboratory to play in to see whether people respond or not. If you can start out by turning it into a bit of a writing group--asking a few writer friends to check it and leave comments for you, or email you their thoughts every so many posts, that might help. If other people find you, that's cool, but there's no need to overpromote if you are just trying out content.

As for coming up with enough content, try jotting down a list of topics to fall back on and it should be fine.

Just my two cents...