Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild

How To Think In Public

There’s so much I want to tell you — but how?

After almost fifteen years of blogging (which is to say, writing for free), I looked up one morning a few years back to find myself suddenly in a post-personal-blog world. Writers were flocking to aggregate sites (which still paid almost nothing), glomming together into collectives (back in my college days, we printed the stuff on photocopiers, called them “zines” and didn’t kid ourselves), squeezing 500-word clickbait listicles into the space between ads. The internet was maybe never the best place for the kind of writing I like to do, but recently it’s become downright depressing, even hostile. Why spend a week — or a month, or longer — working on a blog post that laid bare my soul and prodded curiously at the boundaries of knowledge, if all anyone would ever see was the headline and 20-word blurb on Facebook?

The truth is that this change wasn’t all that sudden, and in hindsight (welcome to 2020) not even that surprising. Whenever new technology suddenly blasts apart the barriers to entry that last generation’s gatekeepers had been so meticulously guarding, you get chaos. And chaos breeds, alongside those clever twins of creativity and courage, their belligerent kid-brother: superstition. Superstition perpetuates old biases in new forms. And so, even before the personal blog began to evolve into a kind of mini-magazine format, there’d been plenty of well-meaning (and completely baseless) advice about how to take advantage of new media to get your work and your name out in front of potential readers, how to present yourself with professionalism and polish, how to either avoid or capitalize on controversial political opinions in order to build an audience. How to develop your personal brand.

Brand — you know, the thing they do to cattle. The hot poker. The scar tissue.

I’ve read it all. I’ve tried a lot of it. And let me tell you: if there’s one thing worse than writing your heart out for nothing, it’s writing for free as if you were a paid shill. Gutting your work of its heart and other internal organs just to make it slim enough to fit the dead-inside standard. To prove to potential publishers that you’re ready and willing to dance for loose change, that you already know all the soul-crushing steps.

Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. (Hey, it’s the internet, what do you expect?) It’s not fair to paint all publishers with such a harsh brush. But it is true that the publishing industry has undergone a massive shift in the past decade, and yellow journalism (or this generation’s version: “fake news”) has drowned out too many important voices, sunk a lot of otherwise sea-worthy ships. No less than writers, I think editors and publishers have been lost in the chaotic storm of new media — saying they want quality writing (and probably really meaning it), but unwilling to trust the market forces to bear up under the weight of such work.

We’re here at that 500-word limit, so let me get to the point: I have so much to tell you, dear reader! But how? I just don’t know what to do anymore. I took three years off from blogging to get my head together. During that time, I’ve worked on a book project that has me buzzing with excitement — but at a loss for words. Do I share this work with you here on this blog, for free, knowing that the social media algorithms might squash it anyway and editors decline it for being “previously published”? Do I hold my tongue and work silently on my someday-masterpiece, pushing through the isolation knowing how publishers get squirrelly about writers who don’t have at least some online presence?

Looking for answers to these types of questions, recently I joined a local writers group. After years of being told by editors and fellow bloggers that readers wouldn’t be interested in anything too long or too smart or too different, I met people who encouraged us to trust our readers. (I also met a writer who fondly recalled, back in the 80s, getting paid $1,200 per article. $1,200! Per article! That afternoon, my husband took me out to lunch and sat with me while I ugly-cried into my burrito right there in the restaurant.) It was like finally realizing that I’ve been stuck for years in a shitty, abusive relationship… and I could decide to just leave.

I want readers I can trust. Not readers who see this blog as something to consume or criticize, to retweet or hate-share, to meme to death. What I want, more than anything, is a place to have a conversation. A way to think in public. They say (those advice gurus) that fans love an inside view of “The Process” — but my process is messy and sweaty and red-in-the-face from hard work. My process is not a publicity stunt or performance art. It’s not a brand you can wear on a tee-shirt to proclaim your allegiance or your self-identity. It’s my identity, in medias res. It’s the candid photograph of me caught with my mouth half-open and my eyes half-closed, trying to say something that matters. Not something you’d want to share, except with a reader you can trust.

You, dear reader, are you still there? Are you still listening?

3 thoughts on “How To Think In Public”

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