|Did someone mention chicken?
Oscar, my little one-year-old whippet, has developed a range of techniques to stake his claim on the sofa. Most times it will be gentle pawing, followed by a quick leap to the gap between cushions and leg. Then comes the turning in circles, or perhaps what we call 'long-dog' which involves lying full stretch between the back of the couch and yours... ever so gently nudging us to where he'd like to sit. It's all very genial, and of course, he's warm, comforting and so clearly delighted that before we know it, we've accommodated his desires without a qualm. Most evenings, he rewards us with some quite disgusting farts!
Of course, we love him, and wouldn't be without his ways... except perhaps for an evening like this, when by coincidence both Jane and I have tweaked our backs and I'm remembering the times when there was a little more room. Didn't he used to stay in his basket? And yet, instead of moving him aside, I find myself doing the human equivalent of long-dog—inching into a position that would give me space to balance the laptop and perhaps read some blogs.
As if that were ever going to happen...
And so it is that Jane's watching TV alone, Oscar has two-thirds of the sofa, and I'm back in my study writing this post on the 'big computer'! Which got me to thinking, how easily we can be persuaded to accommodate those around us. When we do so for someone we love—be it a person or a dog—it's seldom a problem, indeed any caring parent wouldn't wish it otherwise. But when that change is more insidious—when it's impacting who we are and what we wish to be—then we need to call a halt and recover something of ourselves.
I say this because over recent weeks I've been drafting some short essays for my next book, which will be both a celebration of Views From The Bikeshed and a selection of new material that reflects on blogging and the motivations for sharing our thoughts online. By one of those serendipitous twists of fate, I happened also this week to read a number of posts that spoke of 'reclaiming' their purpose; others expressed misgivings at deleting opinions which, though honestly expressed, might have upset the blog's audience.
The wish to please our readers—and its bedfellow, the desire not to offend—is a time-honoured dilemma for writers of any genre. A good friend of mine claimed the task is so difficult that it's only through fiction that we can speak the truth. I disagree but am under no illusion that sincerity takes courage. Blogs are invariably written in the first person—there's no hiding who it is that's speaking—they can also attract loyal followings, with comments and interaction that sometimes develop into friendships.
The writer Ursula Le Guin, disallowed any feedback on her blog, claiming she didn't want to correspond. But then she was a world-famous author, guaranteed a readership and not in need of the mutuality that characterises the blogging of us lesser mortals. She didn't need advertising or sponsorship too, and to be fair many bloggers don't either—and yet I've seen legions of them lured by the Sirens of freebies, endorsements and affiliate schemes.
There's nothing inherently wrong with writing a commercial blog, but if we go that route then we must acknowledge that our course and its destination has changed. I'm reminded of when I worked for a regional newspaper company which, under pressure for revenue, changed its mission statement from 'a trusted source of local news' to 'we deliver an audience to an advertiser'! Do you see the difference?
I can tell you that the readers did too—and they left in droves.
Because authenticity matters; it matters to us as bloggers and it matters to those who follow what we write. There are obviously occasions when we should be sensitive and cautious—I self-edit all the time—but we must also be true to the feelings and insights and opinions which make our blogs worthwhile. If we expurgate these—removing what I describe as the 'inner story'—then we are left with writing that's but an empty husk. What does it matter that we had cake for tea, went for a walk or read the paper—it's how it tasted, what we saw, and what made us angry—or smile—that gives life and meaning to what we have to say.
I should perhaps add here that there are many blogs I enjoy which seldom engage in these issues. Their raison d'être is more a subtle sharing of life's rhythms and progress; the ebbing and flowing of our visible tides. In many ways, these bloggers are inheritors of a long tradition of the country diary. But they too will know if and when they're withholding, and perhaps also the opposite—on those odd occasions, when they deliver a rant that's so out of keeping it's unsettling to read.
As I come towards a close, I'm conscious that these reflections are somewhat removed. What do they mean for my writing and the Bikeshed? Why did the notion of 'reclaiming' strike such a chord? Was it truly the essays I've been drafting—or is that assertion a convenient form of self-censorship too? The events of this last year have dominated my own 'inner story' and yet I decided a while ago not to write any more about the pandemic. Looking further back, I was saying to a writing friend this week that I seldom post now in quite the casual way I did years ago.
I don't have an answer to all those questions; sometimes it's enough just to ponder and declare. What I do know, is that I remain determined to write my blog in a way that's true to me and to be jealous of the space this requires. If I've avoided the pandemic it's been to protect my own wellbeing rather than sidestepping the sensitivities of others; if I post less informally then that's fine, so long as I'm not putting show before substance. In steering my course, I want to avoid the rocks of disapproval, but even more so, the whirlpool of redaction.
I'd like to think this honours my readers too. Relationships are not strengthened by withholding who we are or what we think; indeed, the sign of their worth is the ability to say what we feel—with care of course, but directly nonetheless. If our candour occasionally gives rise to some tension, then that's the grit in the oyster which makes for a pearl. My favourite author of all time is Jean Rhys, a self-obsessed alcoholic, whose attitudes to life are as far removed from mine as whatever's going on in my whippet's head right now. But oh, the honesty and clarity of her work...
Meanwhile, the evening has turned to night and Oscar has retired to his cage. It's five hours since I started this post and the time has passed in an instant. Jane says that often I'm so lost in my thoughts that were it not for the dog, walking together would be little different to her going alone. I tell her that co-presence is a thing and that I'm talking in my head if not out loud—whippets don't understand anyway. Tomorrow (today, now actually) I'll try and strike a better balance, and no doubt I'll fail as usual—but with luck—and much love—I'm sure we'll come together again on the sofa.