Friday, October 2, 2009

Must try harder.

Harbour walls - M Charlton

Two years ago,the Welsh poet Christine Evans was one of my tutors on a writing course. She had recently written a long poem, Burning The Candle, publishing it in an interesting format. Along side the poem she included a 'log of writing' which chronicled her daily thoughts over two months it took to complete. The log is twice as long as the poem itself - together they make a powerful piece of work.

It was after that course, entitled Journeys and Journals, that I started blogging. It seemed a good way to open up my writing, much of which was introspective and wasn't likely to be accepted for traditional publication. Maybe someone out there might be interested; in any case a blog is just a sort of daily journal isn't it?

I soon learned that blogs are not the same as journals. That should have been obvious given the vast array of blogs, most of which offer no pretence to care about such things. But as a writer, intending to use a blog as quasi-diary, the difference is more subtle. If the first defining feature of a blog is its electronic format, then the second is that it is immediately public - and that makes all the difference.

I'd say that writing a journal is largely a personal dialogue. The 'audience' is usually the writer themselves - and this is why the diaries of the famous give us such an insight into their personalities. George Orwell's journals are centred on notes he makes of his garden and his chickens; they build a picture of a quiet reflective man, taking comfort from nature as the world is sucked into a second world war. Christine Evans' log of writing has similarities; in her case, the contrast between the isolated Bardsey where she lives and her fears for the environment, her interest in science. Published retrospectively both these journals make fascinating reading, but I doubt they would have worked as blogs.

That is because blogs, even when written as a diary, are largely written to someone. As I sit here typing, I am, in a sense, writing to you - certainly I'm conscious that people will read this and I am crafting it now with that in mind. On the plus side, this makes for better writing - even a little polishing, generally makes for a more interesting read. On the other hand, the public aspect of blogging can restrict what is said; at worst, some blogs are so anodyne and trivial that you wonder why people bother.

Am I being harsh here? Many blogs are open in their omissions - it is common to refer to partners or children by initials, to avoid personal photographs - this hardly matters, even if at times it goes well beyond the requirements of internet security. Other blogs are clearly more concerned with social networking, the initial post little more than a prompt for comments and chat - what is 'not said' isn't important, and frankly what I'm saying now would probably be regarded as highbrow or irrelevant.

On balance I think the positives hugely outweigh the negatives. As someone whose initial goal was to transfer their introspective writing on-line, I've learned there many more possibilities and benefits. Not the least of these is that having an audience is an incentive to write more regularly. There are literally millions of people out there blogging every day - encouraged by the feedback they get - and that seems to me to offer huge potential for people to say something of value, to become interested in writing and perhaps take it a step further.

It is a pity that much of the writing community still takes a sniffy attitude to blogs, regarding them as somehow, not quite serious enough. I am guilty too; I know that in response to the question, 'What do I write?' I usually start by saying that I'm mainly interested in autobiography, a little fiction too. And almost apologising as an afterthought (how about that for alliteration), 'Oh, and I write a semi-serious blog too.'

As a consequence of blogging my writing has changed. Much of my blog is still concerned with the themes of landscape, family and fatherhood. But I have tried to expand into other areas, and the response of followers can be a useful measure of whether or not it is a success. I had thought my pondering on philosophy would be deeply dull, but it seems not entirely so - or are you just being kind?

There are other benefits to blogging too. In the Nineties I was lucky enough to travel to the US to visit Microsoft and number of newspapers pioneering the move to on-line. I was in the Los Angeles Times the day OJ Simpson was acquitted - it took one hour to get the paper onto the streets; the internet edition took 45 seconds. Blogs have the same capability, with the added advantage that they lack any censorship or editorial control.

So far from being a restrictor on what is written, blogs can equally be a force for truth and freedom. Dictatorships fear them because they undermine control of the media. The historian Tim Garton Ash argues that that blogging played a central role in the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe which followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and as recently as 2005 in Ukraine.

I'm certain that my efforts will never have that sort of influence, but if in a small way somebody listens to what I have to say, then that is success of a sort. It's a great joy for me as a writer too, for otherwise this can be a lonely and self indulgent craft. I often wonder why more poets don't blog their work - poetry books typically sell in tiny numbers; blogs might not have the kudos of a printed work, but is that what really matters?

And so to close, I had two encouraging compliments this week which prompted all this musing.

Firstly, my follower over at French Leave, gave me one of those blog award and said some nice things about what goes on here at the bike shed. She also nominated Jimmy Bastard, in whose virtual company I'm chuffed even be mentioned - check out the link and tell me if blogs don't have some brilliant writers. You might also look at French Leave herself, or Her On The Hill, or my friend Sara who ought to blog more.

And yesterday, I received a thank you card from Andy and Kat, two of the kayakers who had stayed in my house to paddle the Bitches. Their P.S. said, 'We looked at your blog - Andy's Mum (who is an English teacher) is using it as an example of good writing in a lesson.'

Now that really is a turn up, for when I looked at my old school reports the most regular comment for English was 'Must try harder.' Fair comment, I think.


  1. I value your make me take the time to think seriously. I enjoy your writing, both in content and style. Be assured, you're not dull!
    One thing blogging has done is to open up my reading habits..I see a book mentioned on a blog whose content I like and I'll try it...if Amazon can get it to me. Mark you, I still turn to P.G. Wodehouse when the day is not going well....some habits never change.

  2. *and frankly what I'm saying now would probably be regarded as highbrow or irrelevant.*

    Substitute the words 'interesting' and 'thought-provoking' and you might be nearer the mark.

    It was quite comforting to hear that Christine Evans had kept a log of her poem, a commentary, because for this OU course that is indeed what I will be having to do. Each TMA is a piece of writing which is going to be about 70-80% of the mark, the remainder being given to the corresponding commentary on the work. To me this sounds harder than the piece in question.

    As for blogging not being 'worthy' (I'm paraphrasing here, I know you didn't say it:p) - I never write with anyone in mind (or I wouldn't have done such a trival latest post about a rock star). For the first two years or so I don't think I had one comment, yet I still felt compelled to get my thoughts down in my little corner of the internet. I love my blog and the people that I have got to know from it - some of whom I really hope I get to meet face to face one day (yes, you are one of them).

    Well done on the accolade of being touted as a good writer by Andy's mum The Teacher.

  3. I really enjoyed this post Mark and I must apologise for not calling by for ages but life has got in the way of my reading my favourite blogs. I agree with all you say about blogging and yes some people are quite sniffy about bloggers. I am now going to catch up on all your previous unread posts and I would only do that with ones I really love.

  4. I agree that some blogs seem so 'anodyne and trivial you wonder why people bother'... I sometimes think that of my own, which makes me wary of criticising others I may see in the same light. They are the thoughts and words of people who have as much right to air them as someone who goes in for deep and meaningful blog postings. The fact we may find them boring doesn't mean they shouldn't be there.
    I don't think of any particular person when I am doing my little inane blog, I just get pleasure from sharing my books, crafts, thoughts, garden and so on with anyone who might care to read it, and if they find it worthy of a nice comment, that's the icing on the cake. But I can eat plain cake too.
    My journals/diaries are not for public consumption, and nor would I put anything on my blog that would normally be kept private. I have two journals, one for meditative writing, bearing my soul, trying to sort out a problem in my head, and the other for the more day to day stuff of life. I have boxes of the latter going back decades, the former are a new thing this year.
    And as someone else said, reading blogs has widened my reading, introduced me to books I might not otherwise have read, and increased my interest, my passion, for my garden and crafts. They have been thought-provoking too, got the old grey cells working.
    But mainly, what I write myself and what I read in other blogs, gives me, for the most part, pleasure. When this stops, I'll give it up.

  5. Mark - intersting observations and thoughts.

    I had a blogfriend conversation along these lines soon after I started blogging when I was trying to get to grips with what good writing's all about (still am but that's a different story). One of the things I remember most about that conversation, was the remark 'your audience will make you want to change the way you write, the trick is not to let that happen'.

    I've interpreted that to mean you have to remain true to yourself. And whenever I find myself asking the question 'will so and so enjoy this?', I always remember that remark. After all, if we don't write for ourselves first and foremost, don't we lose something of what we are in the process?

    Yes, a lot of people are sniffy about blogs and a lot of them (blogs) are boring. (but you and I would probably disagree which ones are boring and which ones are fascinating because we'll have different tastes and interests). BUT I believe the sniffyness is born out of judging blogs with literature or jounalism or whatever. In the majority of cases that judgement is misplaced because a lot of people don't even want to do that kind of thing. They have all sorts of reasons, most of which are fulfilling a personal need which just happens to be in the public domain. In fact, I wonder how many people blogging don't realise they can make their blogs private and would do so if they did?

    A lot of my blog is really a diary, or me trying to make sense of something, or summarising something I've learnt. By putting it in the public domain it gives me an incentive to make it more interesting firstly for myself - before I think about you - by adding links, photos etc. which I wouldn't do if I sat down with a notebook and pen instead.

    But, I also greatly appreciate the feedback, conversations and camaraderie that blogging brings too. Things that I didn't even imagine would happen when I started to blog!