Blogging and Impermanence

an interview with an anonymous blogger

Easter Island head

Blogging may be only ten years old, but already certain orthodoxies have emerged. One of the most pervasive is the belief that blogs should serve as a permanent record of the blogger’s thoughts, in whatever form they happen to take. Many bloggers are reluctant even to edit a post once they’ve published it, at least not without clearly signalling that they’ve done so through a dated addendum. The most frivolous or off-the-cuff posts are treated as if they were holy writ, and links for accessing the archives generally enjoy pride of place in blog sidebars, despite a lack of evidence that the regular readers of a blog ever use them.

My friend Anonymous (whom most of you should have little trouble identifying) has taken a decidely contrarian position on all this. He has just killed off his two most recent blogging projects, and who knows if he will ever blog again? So like the border guard who convinced Laozi, on his way into the wilderness, to write down what eventually became the Daodejing, I thought it might be fun to interview Anon., via email, in order to preserve some his own thoughts for posterity.

Q. I began reading your work in January 2004. Since then you have written at least six different blogs, some more clearly focused than others. They’ve all shared one distinctive feature, though: they’ve each ended with an announcement about their impending demise, vanishing into the ether shortly thereafter. How come?

A. One answer is that I find perpetuity frightening. The only thing in nature that keeps growing with no end in sight is cancer. And Exxon’s profits. My earlier blogs–the very first started in the early summer of 2002–ended naturally. When I felt I had said enough, I stopped writing. More recent projects have been started with a specific end date in mind. Knowing that everything I want to do must happen before that date gives my work an intensity, I think. The other answer is that I take impermanence seriously, not only as an inevitable thing I have to tolerate, but as something to be actively embraced. You know the Buddhist meditation practice of imagining oneself as a dead body?

Q. I don’t know anything about Buddhism and meditation practices other than what I’ve read (mostly, these days, on blogs). Do you meditate yourself? Do you think about writing or blogging as a form of practice, religious or otherwise?

A. I don’t meditate, but writing is a form of practice for me. I especially cherish the state of mind preceding writing: the sudden awareness of details, the alertness to the invisible.

Q. You mentioned a moment ago that you began blogging in early summer of 2002. Tell me about your first foray into blogging. How did you get into it? What platform did you use? Did you have open comments? Did any of your readers from then discover your subsequent blogs?

A. I had open comments and a fairly active community of commenters. That’s really all I want to say about that.

Q. Ever since I’ve been reading you, you’ve changed pen names almost as frequently as you’ve changed blogs. Would it be fair to say that your impulse toward self-expression is bound up with a desire for self-invention? Or is it simply a matter of wanting to protect your anonymity?

A. Anonymity is part of it, sure, as is a desire to say that the consistent self, the reliable self, is a myth. I’m all those personae and I’m none of them.

The problem is that as much as I’ve tried to practice impermanence, I’ve also made friends. The two things don’t go well together. Of course I don’t regret meeting such wonderful people, but I really am sorry that I’ve failed to disappear properly. This conversation’s a good example of that!

Q. Speaking of conversation, one of the two blogs you just ended, a poetry and poetics blog, started out with comments, but lost that feature after a few months. What was your thinking there?

A. Comments were superfluous to what I was doing there. I did get some emails from readers, and those were precious to me.

Q. In the course of your blogging career, you’ve done everything from cultural and literary criticism to memoir, short stories, and a pair of novels. Which of your blog experiments do you think have been the most successful, in general or particular? Which were the biggest failures?

A. As a writer, I’m naturally concerned with writing better. As someone who practices presence, what concerns the writer doesn’t concern me. I only care for the spirit in a thing.

Let me give an example. One of my blogs lasted only a few weeks and got mentioned on instapundit and metafilter, logged hundreds of readers daily, was cut and pasted and forwarded as emails, and led to several offers of publication in whole or in part. A year before that, I had written another blog that also lasted only a few weeks. This second blog drew few readers, was not widely linked, didn’t feature my best prose, and when it ended, wasn’t archived by me or anyone else. It, however, involved my wandering in snowy woods by myself several times a week. For that reason alone, I prefer it to its more celebrated cousin.

Q. So with some of your blogs, when you pull the plug, all the contents are lost with it? Is that always the case, or do you save some of your best posts for possible future use?

A. It varies. There have been total erasures, even recently. Saving everything would defeat the purpose of the exercise. On the other hand, I’m not immune to occasionally admiring my own handiwork, and keeping printed copies.

As with so much in life, we take it on trust that “there’s more where that came from” and that, if there isn’t, we’ll be OK anyway. Don’t want to spend so much time looking back that I miss what’s ahead of me.

To invoke Buddhism a second time, think of those elaborate sand mandalas, which take hours or days to make. The point of them is not only their beauty, but also the knowledge that they exist for a brief moment in time. I like that idea, and I suppose I’d be a Buddhist myself if I didn’t find it too, well, fixed.

Q. It ain’t just the Buddhists. Elaborate sand paintings are used in Navajo and Pueblo Indian healing ceremonies, as well.

Earlier, you spoke about imagining yourself as a dead body in the context of blog termination. Is the body of work we create, as writers or artists, in some sense a double of our embodied selves? An icon or effigy, perhaps?

A. If we think about Shinto temples, or the Malian chi-wara agricultural dance, rites in which things are remade and rebuilt, we see that human practice is full of fearless renewals. There’s a belief that what needs to return will return. Of course, the archival imagination has its uses. But it isn’t the only way to be alive. Far from it.

As for the dead body, I was actually being literal: no amount of grasping can save me from being a corpse. So I save myself the trouble and try grasping less. I’m not very good at it yet, but I work at letting things go.

But what about you, do you see your writing as an embodied double of yourself?

Q. I don’t think so, no. A couple of months ago, I eliminated a small blog with a few dozen entries — the Notebook that accompanied the first version of my online book Shadow Cabinet — and I have to say I felt neither regret nor satisfaction. But if I woke up one morning and found Via Negativa gone, I know I’d feel as bereft as if a woman had just left me. What’s it like for you when you pull the plug on a blog? Is it always the same, or are some losses more deeply felt than others?

A. It’s always the same: I feel as elated and free as if a woman just left me.

Q. It sounds as if, when you give up a blog, you feel like you’ve just kicked an addictive habit.

A. Well, I believe that blogging represents the gravest current threat to our national security. The sooner we can rescue our youth from this moral miasma, the better.

Q. Speaking of miasma, one of the ironies of all this is that the content of your blogs was far from the kind of disposable stuff that dominates the blogosphere. Occasionally you’d do brief link-posts, like anyone, but in general your work demonstrated careful thinking and a great deal of attention to craft. So your focus on writing as practice or process doesn’t imply a lack of interest in the quality of the product, does it?

A. Thank you. I implied earlier on that writing was one thing, and the inner spirit it answers another. But on a certain level they fuse. Or at least, writing buys you time while you sort your head out. I’ve always loved the story of Jesus writing in the sand in the 8th chapter of John. It’s an act of space-making, an intervention between the priests’ murderous demand and his absolution of the accused woman.

I think that art itself is not the thing we are after, but it’s a kind of credit instrument that makes that thing available, for now.

Q. Anarchists have a saying that nobody believes in private property more fervently than a thief. Suppose I told you that by allowing earlier and often embarassing examples of my thinking and writing to remain publicly accessible, I feel I am training myself in non-attachment and egolessness far better than if I were to follow your example and periodically start anew with a clean slate. Does that sound plausible, or do you think I’m just kidding myself?

A. You’re right. That’s why no one can make rules for anyone else. I think the test of non-attachment is whether one can bear a loss with equanimity, even when what’s lost is a certain idea of one’s self.

I think of the mysterious blogger Whiskey River as one who has an intriguing approach to the problem: the necessary words have already been written, they only need to be found. But it’s not random. If you follow that blog, you’ll detect a curatorial intelligence at work. It’s sometimes quite moving.

Writing for a limited time or creating a site composed solely of quotations are but two possible approaches to this question of ego. Perhaps letting it all hang out is yet another.

Q. Interviews with writers usually end with a question about what the interviewee is working on now. What’s next for you?

A. I want to be open to where my practice takes me. At the moment, it means more reading and less writing. I’m currently reading Homer, and trying to get at what those long-ago ones knew that we have now forgotten. I’ve also recently moved close to a remarkable fish market, at which I saw live turtles, tortoises, eels, frogs and all kinds of crustaceans. In addition, there’s a massive Turkish vegetable market nearby. It’s vital that I begin to understand what to do in the kitchen with such a wealth of ingredients.

Thank you Dave. This has been enjoyable.

16 Comments


  1. Fascinating, stimulating and infuriating – the last because I can’t join in: I mean couldn’t be in the conversation as it took place. Hanging on to permanence, I guess.
    What if every writer, artist, composer, architect, philosopher, poet – those we revere or revile, those we learn from and are nourished by – what if they had all decided to destroy their work after a short time? And kept on destroying their next works as soon as they were created? We wouldn’t know any of it. We would never have heard Bach.

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  2. Natalie – I’m sorry you couldn’t have been part of the interview, too – it sounds as if you would’ve been a lot tougher than I was! This is a good point, and one that I should’ve raised.

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  3. As a writer, I’m naturally concerned with writing better. As someone who practices presence, what concerns the writer doesn’t concern me. I only care for the spirit in a thing.

    Yes.

    I think that art itself is not the thing we are after, but it’s a kind of credit instrument that makes that thing available, for now.

    Yes.

    Great idea; fun post.

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  4. Three points (I think). First, “Anonymous” reminds me of Emily Dickinson, who was notoriously shy about sharing her poetry. And yet, when she did find nerve to send several poems to a prospective editor (who, it turns out, didn’t “get” her work at all), she failed to sign them…except for a small card she enclosed in the envelope with her name inscribed lightly, in pencil, in tiny script. I think Anon’s approach to pseudonymous blogging is similar: there’s no signature, but there are faint traces that hint toward a shy, fleeting identity. But that identity is always erasable.

    Second, I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s remark in (I think) A Room of One’s Own where she says you may call her Sally or Mary or whatever you’d like since “I” is a merely a convenient term for an entity that does not exist. All our narrative “I’s” are fictional…and Anon’s ephemeral blogs & shifting blog personae merely point to that, no?

    Third, my ex-husband once studied with a jazz pianist/composer who was said to write a single sheet of music every morning. When he was done, he’d add the sheet to a stack of pages on a shelf, never to look at it again. Every month or so, his wife, who was herself a musician, would read through the pages, listening to the compositions in her head, and then burn them. When questioned about his seemingly insane practice of writing music literally to burn, this composer said that if any good compositional ideas came out of his morning writing, they’d re-surface when he was composing actual songs, but those morning pages were merely a practice exercise, not work worth saving.

    This might not make sense to those of us attached to the notion of a blogging “corpus,” but it seems that “Anon” has mastered it entirely.

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  5. Okay, a fourth point (hey, at least I warned you!) As someone who recently had my own blog go up in virtual smoke but who managed to salvage everything, I obviously don’t “really” believe in impermanent blogging…at least for me. I think each writer eventually reaches a kind of philosophy of (im)permanence regarding what work “counts” and what work is “practice.” As a scholar, I’d be heartbroken if, say, Henry David Thoreau’s journals had been lost: as a scholar, I value being able to follow the motions of a now-dead mind. And I, like other Thoreauvians, think that portions of Hank’s journal are his real work, not “just” practice pages.

    I’m thinking of Annie Dillard’s author’s note to her collection of essays Teaching a Stone to Talk, where she remarks that these short works aren’t occasional pieces: they’re her real work. For whatever reason, she felt necessary to assert the validity of her short prose, knowing that some folks would see her book-length projects as being more “real” or valid.

    For me, blogging is my “real work,” or at least an important, valid part of that work. It’s not an exercise, and it’s decidedly not impermanent. But all that being said, I can see & understand where “Anon” is coming from: his simply isn’t a practice that I fully share.

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  6. Don’t these repeated appearances and disappearances have something in common with a dance of (several) veils? Don’t they increase Anon’s mystique? (If so, then dance on, please.) I wish he’d leave a little gap between the announcement of his impending disappearance and the act itself — I hate getting those 404 pages… (a grumpy comment, because I don’t like it when people I’m accustomed to reading suddenly vanish.)

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  7. “For me, blogging is my real work — or at least an important, valid part of that work. It’s not an exercise, and it’s decidedly not impermanent.”
    Same for me. (I guess that’s obvious.)

    Good points about HDT’s journals, etc. As for Emily Dickinson, my feeling is that although Anon stands out among bloggers, he may not be all that atypical of people in general in the way he tries to balance an impulse toward self-expression with a strong desire to maintain privacy. Maybe this interview will inspire other introverts to take up blogging.

    Nancy – There’s no doubt Anon has a lock on the mystique thing. I’m not sure that enters much into his thinking, though. I’m with you on the grumpiness.

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  8. Further to Dave’s “balance an impulse toward self-expression with a strong desire to maintain privacy”:

    The notion of a poet . . . destroying what he has written . . . is conceivable. . . . [T]hey have done so precisely under pressure of the other’s intrusion. It is because the claims of the other’s presence reach so deeply into the final precincts of aloneness that a creator may, under circumstances of extremity, seek to guard for himself or for willed oblivion what are, ineluctably, acts of communication and trials of encounter.

    A quote from George Steiner’s Real Presences, a book Dave recommended somewhere and one that I’m nursing down this month. (Steiner’s point isn’t evident from the quote alone; he is meeting anticipated objections to his assertion that art presupposes “the other.”)

    Readers do get into my mind in unhealthy ways, and it is in that sense of maintaining privacy that I periodically walk away from blogging. (I don’t pretend to speak for Anon., of course.)

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  9. I must confess that Anon.’s approach doesn’t resonate with me. I enjoy re-reading pieces I wrote last year and the year before and it doesn’t bother me in the least if others do so, both people I know personally and those I don’t. Sure, there are things that are embarrassing to me now, but I’m only human and have little shame.

    I like to think that my writing has improved as the years pass, and old pieces serve as benchmarks.

    Thoreau used his journals as prose quarries, and someday I may do the same with my archives.

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  10. The idea of being anonymous and visible and impermanent, much as Emily Dickinson was/is, has a strong appeal for me. Good interview. Thanks so much.

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  11. It’s an honor to be mentioned in an interview between two writers I so admire and respect.

    What you’re both saying to me, in different ways, is that a writer has to find his own way, and there will be as many different ways as there are writers.

    Natalie asked, “What if every writer, artist, composer, architect, philosopher, poet . . . had all decided to destroy their work after a short time? . . . We wouldn’t know any of it.”

    This is true, but it is also completely possible that they did destroy their work, perhaps huge amounts of it, that we will never know, and never know about, and the only work that survives them is the work that they wanted to have survive.

    This, itself, is an immense question in the arena of blogging.

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  12. If you permit me enter your select circle and have a say: do we, in fact, ever know WHY we do this or that or anything? “Misterious are the ways of the lord”. Life is living us. Who is the author? The “I” is just a thought. Therefore, something like “practicing presence” is an impossible thing. We are naturally presence, even if we think that we are not. And within and from this presence I see myself surprisingly doing all sorts of things, amongst others, reading this blog and looking at it’s superb pictures and enjoying it very much. In fact, your blog “via negativa” resonates strongly with me, even though you come from such a different back ground than I do, and I would really miss it if you’d suddenly “decided” to end it.

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  13. Hi Claudia – Of course, comments are always welcome from all readers! And you don’t have to worry about my ending Via Negativa any time soon, though short breaks are always a possibility.

    I haven’t been answering too many comments in this thread because i felt they were not necessarily mine to address. In this case, I’m pretty sure I can’t speak for Anonymous in his choice of words. If it had been me, I probably would’ve said “practicing awareness” instead. That may or may not be approximately what he meant.

    Thanks for reading. I’ve been enjoying your tree blog, too.

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  14. We live in an age of resistance to the idea of a canon of literature, so in some ways this is not shocking or surprising but the natural outcome of the zeitgeist, taken to its extreme. And I suppose that when one goes to the extreme and comes out on the other end, it’s quite possible to walk away and pick up Homer, the canon-daddy.

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