Personal blogging for writers: a manifesto

This entry is part 8 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology

Thanks to weblogs and other modern content management systems, a poem, essay or story can now be written in the morning and published the same afternoon. Does this spell the end of polished writing? Not judging by some of the highly polished books I’ve read by active bloggers, many of them derived in whole or in part from blogged material.(1) On the contrary, I have seen people become better writers as a result of blogging, myself probably included. Writers have always done some of their best writing in a white heat of inspiration, and blogging can either aid or hinder this depending on the personality of the writer and his or her approach to blogging: it can just as easily be a tool for artistic exploration as an agent of distraction.

Many writers prefer to use blogs merely to share news of their publishing success elsewhere, and that’s fine. But I think those with a more exhibitionist streak are missing out on a great deal of fun, and poets in particular — who are almost invariably exhibitionists, let’s face it — are missing an unparalleled opportunity to connect with audiences they might never otherwise reach. But there’s a risk, too: that they will be so seduced by this new medium that they won’t want to go back to jostling for publication in snooty print magazines no one reads, and their professional reputations will suffer as a result.

Blogs began as collections of links to real material published elsewhere, and to the extent that it’s still possible to generalize about blogging as a whole, I’d say that the “Hey, look at this cool thing I just found!” approach still predominates, whether it’s a tumblelog of quotes and images from around the web, a StumbleUpon blog, or the Huffington Post with its tabloidy presentation of news stories mostly lifted from other sources. But that’s as it should be. For the internet to remain vital, I’d guess that linking of one form or another ought to constitute somewhere around 80 percent of total web publishing behavior.(2)

“Publishing” in this sense means simply the creation of something on the internet that didn’t exist before, even if it’s only a link. Obviously this kind of secondary publication depends entirely upon the publication of original work in the first place, a relationship which the less internet-savvy may be tempted to characterize as parasitic. It certainly can be, in the case of commercial spam blogs with content scraped from RSS feeds for the purpose of gaming search engines, but otherwise I think it’s actually a symbiotic relationship, since without incoming links, an online author is limited to whatever readers s/he can reach through email or handbills.(3)

The biggest difference between online publishing and print publishing is its greater ephemerality: anything that’s published online can also be unpublished, and sites that are not actively maintained will eventually disappear. The flip side of this represents a huge boon for author and editor: any online publication can easily be altered at any time after publication. The print-oriented writer’s obsession with producing the most polished work possible is a natural reaction to the immutability of the printed word. Before I began blogging, I too would typically spend days, weeks, sometimes months on a single poem, returning to it again and again like a dog returning to its vomit. Now, as soon as I get something into a half-decent form, I just post the son of a bitch. I can always go back and swap in another draft later — and sometimes I do.

Mine isn’t the only approach, though, just the one best suited to my particular, impulsive brand of slap-dash perfectionism. Other writer-bloggers might prefer to publish later drafts in new posts, linking back to the original (Dick Jones does this a lot, to good effect) or save them for a spin-off project on another site, with component parts linked in both directions. I’ve also come to admire and sometimes emulate the style of some literary bloggers who share notes on the writing process alongside the primary text. This can make many kinds of writing more approachable for a general audience, especially if the notes are informal and personable. As blog software becomes more sophisticated, I hope to see more templates with innovative approaches to the presentation of notes and commentary.

Instantaneous self-publishing gives the author more power than at any time since the invention of literacy, but it also confers a new degree of autonomy on the text. Once published online, especially on a blog with a feed, the text can be replicated endlessly. Though it’s easy enough to instruct search-engine robots not to index a website, doing so kind of misses the whole point of the internet. Authors who desire complete control over their creations should not go anywhere near the web.

Readers have more power now, too: in most cases they can log comments in a space directly adjoining the text, with a reasonable expectation that the author will read them and even respond in turn. Of course, in many cases the readers are other bloggers, a situation that should feel familiar to most poets. But in some cases they’re bloggers from very different backgrounds, specializing in other genres, with cross-communication enabled by a personal/creative blogging culture in which some blogs (like this one, I hope) elude pigeonholing and mix genres in ways that would be considered unmarketable in traditional publishing.

Becoming part of that culture means adhering to a set of mores that might seem strange to those more familiar with the posturing and flame-wars of the political blogosphere, but the rewards include the chance for new kinds and greater degrees of creative interaction. In a nutshell, I’d say the personal blogger has an obligation to be a gracious host (which includes throwing out mean-spirited or disruptive guests as quickly as possible) and the commenters should behave as if they were guests on someone’s front porch: a publically accessable, privately controlled space.

Blogging enables the mixing not just of genres but of media, too. In contrast to print publication, full-color illustrations entail very little additional expense (and may even be free, depending on one’s web hosting arrangements). The web is in many ways a visual medium, which doesn’t mean that online audiences for longer, unillustrated texts don’t exist, simply that authors have to be aware of different strategies for gaining and retaining readers. Ekphrastic writing is one very common example of the kind of creative synergy maintaining a blog can inspire in its author. Writers with digital cameras can always shift to photoblogging when they start feeling blocked, and the kind of seeing required to take good photos can feed back into their writing.

The web doesn’t have to remain a purely visual medium, though — and this is another of its great advantages over print. Online poets in particular are fools if they don’t at least occasionally take advantage of the opportunity to return listening to center-stage. While eye-catching photos might draw in easily distracted readers, a good audio recording embedded in a Flash player alongside the text can lead someone to actually pay close attention to the poem. Video is another great blogging medium, and while putting videopoems together may seem too complicated for most, anyone capable of writing a sonnet or a villanelle can certainly figure out the basics of video and audio editing. In fact, digital literacy should probably be taught in all college writing programs now.

The greatest thing about the web, for me, is that authors can reach anyone in the world with a connection to the internet, for free or close to it. There is no longer any need for a publisher as an intermediary. The personal weblog medium offers the potential to reach beyond traditional audiences for poetry, nature writing, and other genres that commercial publishers have for decades considered irrelevant. While it’s true that blogging has passed its peak of faddishness, I see that as a sign of growing maturity. And all the people who are now using Facebook and Twitter instead of blogging are still looking for cool things to link to and tweet about.

Many print and online magazines will not consider previously blogged material for publication, causing the more ambitious writers to avoid posting drafts of their work, except possibly in password-protected posts. The irony is that in many cases a poem posted to the author’s blog can reach more readers than it would receive in all but the most widely circulated magazines — even online magazines, which are all too often poorly designed, practically invisible to search engines, and lack any kind of feed.

On the other hand, self-publishing alone does not advance a literary reputation, which is essential if academic advancement is at stake. One solution is for literary bloggers to publish each other. The same tools that enable the easy publication of a personal weblog can be used for any other kind of online periodical. Authors (and readers) can organize formal or informal networks through interlinking and the use of social media tools. We can rise together rather than compete for pieces of an ever-dwindling publishing pie.

Networked bloggers can help promote not only each other’s online work, but books as well, through organized virtual book tours. Audiences built up through years of blogging can be counted upon to buy copies and in some cases to assist in viral marketing, too.

Books need not remain the holy grail of literary publishing, however. Think what writers of such titanic energies as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, or Pablo Neruda would’ve done had the web existed in their day. Though books are wonderful and will probably always be produced, much of what goes into a blog really can’t fit into a book, and the experience of reading a regularly updated blog as it is being written certainly can’t be reproduced in print. Balancing the immediacy of it are the opportunities for comparison and perspective provided by internal and external hyperlinks, archives, and search unequalled by any indexing a traditional book might provide.

While there is no one best way to present literary and artistic material online, the personal weblog may be the best suited for this age of the memoir. Writers concerned that a focus on personality might draw attention away from the work itself should consider applying a “copyleft” licence to their works, such as a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence, to release them for creative re-use and remixing by other writers, artists and musicians. We can also engage in networking and community building with other bloggers, as mentioned above. This includes collaborative projects of all kinds, as well as participation in blogging memes, carnivals, writing and photo prompts, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo, and so on. We can provide readers with tools such as email subscriptions, easy social media sharing options, and print-this-post buttons to encourage the redistribution of works originally written as part of a journal-like blog stream. With all these possibilities for transformation, though, no longer can we think of a creative work as having a single authoritative version. Like its author, the blogged text is forever a work-in-progress. (4)

***

(1) In addition to the poetry chapbooks by Rachel Barenblat and Sarah J. Sloat that I’ve reviewed previously, these include: Going to Heaven by Elizabeth Adams, Mortal by Ivy Alvarez, Mapmaker of Absences by Maria Benet, Cargo Fever by Will Buckingham, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, Uglier than a Monkey’s Armpit by Stephen Dodson and Robert Vanderplank, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me by Brent Goodman, and The Idea of the Local by Tom Montag.

(2) A completely made-up statistic.

(3) During my first eleven months online, before I discovered blogging, I was publishing stuff on a Geocities site, and advertising mostly via email. I get more page views now in a single day than I did in those nine months.

(4) Where does all this leave the critic, then, if writers are reviewing each other and no longer competing for the attention of publishers? Personally, I think literary critics need to combine forces, incorporate, and open an app store. If you want to be a gatekeeper in today’s increasingly open, content-sharing, remixing media environment, you simply have to build a more attractive gate.

Written for Via Negativa’s sixth birthday. Thanks to Jessamyn Smyth and Arvind for the Facebook discussion that gave me the idea to attempt a personal blogger’s manifesto.

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33 Comments


  1. Whew! That was a brain-dump six years in the making. I feel much lighter now.

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    1. Dave, they should just package you up as a National Treasure so that everyone can share in your wisdom and creativity, and moreover aspire to the generosity of spirit that all who read Via Negativa can testify to. You have room for all comers and encouraging words for everyone. You are a Wizard my friend, and I bow my knee and doff my cap to you. I came upon Via Negativa by chance, but my life has been greatly enriched by that happy accident. I can see that the same goes for a good many other folk who visit here. Now damn, if you could just figure out how to break out the beer or serve up the coffee then this would all be as fine as it gets in front of a laptop screen!

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      1. Thanks man. I’m blushing. But hey, if I thought some kind of stipend came along with National Treasure status, I’d let them package me any way they wanted.

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  2. Happy Lightening Day!

    I especially enjoyed the thoughts that birthed this particular Bontism: “Before I began blogging, I too would typically spend days, weeks, sometimes months on a single poem, returning to it again and again like a dog returning to its vomit.”

    But of course, there are other quiet gems, too.

    Thanks for all the insights and art you’ve offered through the years. You’re a great champion.

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  3. Excellent, Dave. Man, that Geocities site of yours was one of the ugliest things I ever saw! I still think of that with amusement sometimes, when I see the wonderfully elegant things you do now.

    It’s been a privilege, watching Via Negativa and Qarrtsiluni evolve. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who combined generosity with entrepreneurial spirit to this degree. Ordinarily one of those eclipses or extinguishes the other. But you seem to be able to keep both fires burning with ease.

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    1. Thanks, Dale. Don’t I have to actually make money to qualify as entrepreneurial, though? I’ve never been too good at that end of things.

      The thing about Geocities was that it did allow someone on a very slow dial-up connection to fashion a web page of sorts. But my design aesthetic there was heavy on chaos for the first few years, I admit. I don’t think I applied any CSS to it until sometime in 2006.

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  4. It’s December, so I’m running into the same mix of success and problems I’ve faced in my previous two years of high school blogging: kids who love it and are suddenly turned on to writing and publishing — kids, indeed, who are now almost addicted to it — and kids who see blogging as just another chore. Most kids fall in between these extremes. My bloggers’ survey results, just in, confirm this and mirror results I’ve gotten from surveys over the past two years. Your manifesto just gave me the idea of writing through the problems instead of simply implementing a few good ideas. I think I’m missing something.

    Happy blog birthday, Dave. Many, many happy returns.

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    1. Thanks, Peter! You know I’m very interested in your use of blogging in the classroom — I almost mentioned it in the manifesto, but I was trying to keep it from getting too long.

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    1. Thanks! I guess many of the bloggers in my ‘roll celebrated their sixth blogiversary earlier this year, but I was a little late to the party, having taken up with the aforementioned Geocities instead.

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  5. I enjoyed reading this, Dave. It’s great to see a lot of ideas about blogging and how it relates to writers articulated here.

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  6. Happy, happy birthday, Via Negativa!

    What a fantastic post, Dave. As you know, I think a lot about both the glories and the tensions of blogging for writers, and what you’ve done here really is a manifesto: you’ve articulated so many of the ‘right’ reasons for writers to use this nifty tool.

    Along the dog-vomit lines: I started blogging (pseudonymously) in 2005 for two reasons, either of which might be another reason for writers to consider having a blog.

    The first was that when I finished what had been a rare experience of truly generous creative community in grad school, I knew there was going to be a huge hole in my life where my language-impassioned compadres had been. A blog was a conscious way to work at keeping a creative community of people who don’t hate writing – and reading – in my life.

    If you’re not ensconced in academia and don’t like writing groups (or can’t find one composed of real peers so it becomes teaching for free vs. something that sustains everyone equally), creative community can be extremely hard to find, and both the writer and the writing can become isolated in a way that’s psychically and creatively limiting.

    The second reason was a rebellion against my own near-fatal streak of perfectionism. Very little is ever ‘done’ to my own satisfaction, and I’ll tinker with revisions for years.

    On its own, being committed to revision and high standards is a good thing, but jacked up on ‘issues’ born of being from a family of writers who were high achievers in a writing world which no longer exists, that kind of perfectionism can mean I just don’t send stuff to editors.

    A blog was a conscious way to create a combination of deadlines and audience to prod me into a regular practice of letting go of things. At first that prod to ‘put something new up every couple of days or my readers will yell at me’ was purely imaginary. Within a short time, it was no longer imaginary at all.

    The thing I find most interesting is that it didn’t matter either way: the blog itself became a habit of slinging work, perfect or not – and for a writer often paralyzed by perfectionism, that was incredibly good for me.

    The many reasons why I stopped blogging in 2008 (in short: it began taking away more than it gave), the privilege involved in not ‘having’ to print publish (not needing writing to generate money and professional security – whether directly or indirectly through teaching gigs), and the fact that the community generated by blogging can be as problematic and tiresome as it is beneficial are different matters, of course.

    What you always do, though, is remind me of all the possibilities and benefits of ‘literary’ blogs (as opposed to the journalistic ones). You really are a standard bearer for writer-directed community geared toward simply, generously, and creatively sharing work. Whether I personally pick up blogging again or not, I hugely appreciate all that you’ve opened up with your tireless work at creating new cultures online.

    XOJ

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    1. Hi Jessaymn – Thanks for the warm words & birthday wishes, and thanks also for taking the time to share these thoughts. In the interest of brevity I didn’t dwell on the pleasures of blog community nearly as much as I could’ve, so I appreciate your going into detail about your own experience. I think it’s also worked in the other direction for a couple bloggers I read: poetry blogging has led to enrollment in MFA programs. In the last half-year, Read Write Poem has become a real force in this area.

      I think it’s a shame that there’s such a divide between personal blogging and news blogging, but for me, the former can cometimes be a better place to get the real news. For example, I think I learn much more about the conditions in the high Arctic from reading The House and other Arctic Musings than I could get from any number of dry news accounts and environmental press releases about the plight of the polar bear. And I think some of your old blog posts about sexism and eating disorders have stuck with me, again because they were built around personal stories.

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      1. Thanks back atcha!

        I love Clare’s blog – and his photos knock me out.

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  7. This would be a great manifesto for non-writers too. For, it is indeed the age of the memoir. And those of us with neither the patience, nor the skill to perfect the craft of writing to the point we can call ourselves writers could also take away a lot of principles and guidelines from this post.

    Happy sixth b’day to Via Negativa!! Here’s to many more!

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    1. Glad you found some useful stuff here, Arvind! And thanks for the blogday wishes.

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  8. I’ve found that my blogging about all manner of ‘stuff’ that I do on another site has helped my writing. It also gives me a great playground to be silly, political, post the ‘see what I found’ stuff and all manner of bloggy goofballery…

    I have also found my ‘voice’ and that, more than anything else, has made the process enjoyable and worthwhile.

    Congrats on six years. Here’s to six more.

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    1. Thank you. I’m glad you too decided to ignore the advice of the blog pundits, who are always stressing the importance of staying focused on one thing and being predictable. If you let then, they’ll talk you into self-branding, too. Why should we commodify ourselves?

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  9. Great post Dave… and I even printed it out so that I could peruse the text at leisure. In one of those great literary ironies of sorts, when I went to make comments, fired up in my mind from having read what you wrote both on screen and in printed form, your site went down, and along with it went the thread of my response. What remains though is my admiration for what you have done for all these years with this form that is blogging, not just for your own creative development, but also for all of us in general who have taken to blogging as yet another tool and platform for communication.

    Happy blog anniversary … and like Dale, I too remember your old Geocities site. It’s been a privilege to witness this rich and inclusive evolution of your work!

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    1. Oh geez, I’m sorry your comment got eaten! Typical cheap shared webhost, but it is generally pretty reliable — except for the past few days. Anyway, I’m glad you found the post so thought-provoking. It’s been great to have the pleasure of your virtual company all these years.

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  10. Happy 6th. I really liked those footnotes, especially #4.

    In my early blogging years, I had no idea what to blog about, and I worried that my blog was all over the place. It took me awhile to realize that that was a good thing.

    I enjoyed this post a great deal, and your thoughts about including audio and video have got me thinking about dabbling in those areas next year.

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    1. And nothing promotes dabbling like blogging, does it? I probably never would’ve gotten into still photography, let along video, if I hadn’t had a blog to feed. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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    1. High praise, John — I know you’ve spend way more time than me thinking about this sort of thing.

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  11. Happy birthday, Via Negativa!

    I am perennially glad that you are out there doing the kind of blogging that you do.

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  12. An exceptional piece of writing, Dave, and worthy of much wider distribution. I’ve put this mighty meditation into a folder all of its own amongst my collection of memorable bloggery.

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  13. Thanks, Rachel and Dick. I feel very fortunate to have you both in my blog neighborhood.

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