Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Blogging and memoir

A comment on a previous post asked, "How is blogging (and reading blogs) like and unlike memoir or a collection of essays?" I started to write a comment in response, and it got long enough that I figured I'd just make this its own post.

We didn't discuss this question per se during our seminar, but the topic of blogging came up, especially in regards to how blogging is shaping how people read and write. Blogging certainly has stylistic commonalities with memoir, in terms of self-disclosure and self-reflection. I don't want to overgeneralize here, because blogs and memoirs both come in so many different styles and forms - some far more breezy and off-the-cuff, while others are more measured and reflective. I'd guess that a key distinction is that blogging is primarily addressing immediate, momentary issues and thoughts, whereas memoirs are at least intended to have a longer shelf life. To oversimplify, blogging tends to be timely but not timeless, while memoir, essay and other published work hopes to be both timely and timeless.

This of course affects the style, tone and quality of the writing. When I write a blog post, I'll look it over a few times and tweak it here or there, but I do far less revision than I do on writing intended for print publication. Blogs are meant to be much more immediate, so they have more of a "first draft" quality about them. This post is certainly different than what I might write if I were to develop a fuller journal article on the topic. And while the material that people write in blog form could be adapted or repurposed in memoir or other writing, I've told folks that writing for their blog is different enough a medium than writing for publication that they really shouldn't cut and paste blog posts into chapter drafts. Better to rewrite the material more thoroughly in long form, with the kind of care and attention that books and articles demand.

When blogging first started to emerge, some publishing houses offered book contracts to prominent bloggers. Some of those books by bloggers were little more than compliations of blog material, and it doesn't seem like those kinds of books have done very well. After all, little of the content is likely to have enduring value, especially given the time needed to publish a print book (often a year or so), and why pay for a physical book if the material is already online for free? On the other hand, some bloggers are good writers and thinkers whether they are writing for blogs, magazines or books, and publishing bloggers has been an opportunity for traditional publishers to find some fresh voices to contribute to cultural conversations.

There's also a new phenomenon called the "blook," in which books are written (in part or in whole) via blogging. For example, I recall seeing one where a woman was contracted to write a travelogue/pilgrimage book, and as she traveled from site to site, she would post sections of what would become chapters on her blog. This provides the opportunity to have immediate interactive feedback from readers during the writing process, and the comments that are posted shape the material in revision. So blooks could be a public way of writing a book in (virtual) community.

It has also occurred to me that blogging may well be a contemporary form of public spiritual journals and diaries, like those of David Brainerd or Richard Baxter. I could be wrong on this, but my understanding is that while they were certainly personal in nature, they were also circulated publicly to edify others. There has been some discussion about whether blogs are inherently narcissistic or whatnot, and I'd say that like all writing, everything depends on the writer. If a writer is self-absorbed and unreflective, that'll be true of his or her writing whether it's a blog or a book. But good writers will transcend the limitations of whatever genre or medium they're working in. And so I'm optimistic that the best Christian bloggers will stand in the tradition of Augustine, David Brainerd and other Christian journalers and memoirists.

As far as how reading blogs differs from reading (book-length, print) memoir, well, I'm not sure that can be answered apart from the larger questions of how we read a book differently than how we read online or onscreen. Too big a topic to get into here. But the ability to link to and from other sources is perhaps blogging's most significant distinctive, but it naturally has its pros and cons. I love being able to connect to interesting sites, articles and other blogs, but I have burned up so many hours of surfing the blogosphere just wandering from one thing to the next to the next. For a personality like mine (ENFP, described as a frisky puppy that wants to have his nose into everything, and Enneagram Seven, which takes joy in everything about the world and doesn't want to miss out on anything), the never-ending infinite nature of the blogosphere and the internet in general means that I waste a lot of time online when I should be doing something more productive.

Well, this has turned into a post more about blogging in general rather than blogging and memoir in particular. But on the whole, from a writing perspective, I think blogging has been helpful in that it has provided an opportunity for many to write, to learn to make careful observations about life and culture, to share their thoughts and tell their stories. I'm glad that the blogosphere is primarily a text-based, interactive culture rather than an image-based, passive medium (like television). Those of us in the publishing industry often bemoan the decline of reading and writing, but blogging may well herald a resurgence of love for the written word.

1 comment:

Margaret Feinberg said...

I think one of the thrills of blogging is that it can be pointless, random, whimsical, incomplete, and you can afford to be completely 100% wrong..and still not have it permanently in print.

It's still a bit like the wild west. There's an element of pioneering and exploration of what really is possible.