Has Blogging Spoiled Writers?
Back before we gave into our computer overlords, when people flirted at bars and used the telephone to invite their friends to parties, no one had personal websites. If you had a problem with something, an opinion you needed to get off your chest, you could write an angry letter or go on Speakers Corner. Those were your only options. To have an outlet for your thoughts and, of equal importance, a captive audience, was a privilege that only professional writers and award-clutching actors enjoyed.
That began to change in 1994 when Justin Hall, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, began sharing increasingly intimate details about his life on his website Justin’s Links from the Underground. At first, only the technologically skilled knew how to create ‘web logs’, but as the number of free blogging services grew, so did the democratization of the ‘Information Super Highway’. We became the Blogging Generation.
We blogged about a lot of things: we blogged about ‘Star Wars’; we blogged about our pets; we blogged about attempting every recipe of Julia Child’s. A lot of what we blogged about was ourselves. It wasn’t that we were terribly self-involved so much as one’s thoughts, dreams and anecdotes are the closest things to grasp. Blogging began a rhythmic chant of the first person pronoun ‘I’.
I was like that when I started blogging. During my university years, on my Live Journal (doesn’t that take you back?) I wrote a lot about my friends and relationships, including some ill-considered things about my ex-boyfriend. Even the name Live Journal encouraged the kind of self-confession that a previous generation had been happy to keep in a locked diary.
How could I not over-share? Years of ‘Sex and the City’ had made me want to be Carrie Bradshaw, tapping away at her laptop by the window, condensing all her and her friends’ romantic entanglements into pithy, one-paragraph-long ‘columns’. (My ‘SATC’ obsession also explains how I dressed back then, a sort of ‘gay boy Carrie who binged at Value Village’.)
I blogged on and off for years, starting new ones for different stages in my life, like being a graduate student at the University of Toronto and moving to Dublin, Ireland. While my early blogs must have had charm, for I had devoted followers not all of who were my friends, looking back I can see that they lacked focus. Bouncing around from politics to TV shows to the bar I had gone to the night before, the only thing that tied them together was my personal voice. And if you weren’t familiar with me, why would you care?
That was one of the first lessons I learned when I started taking journalism courses at Ryerson. Also: the importance of the first sentence; the ‘nut graf’ (the paragraph which sums up your point and could be taken out of context); the trick of twisting or subverting your argument in the conclusion. I’ve tried to apply those lessons to this blog, making every post “about something”.
At the same time, I started at WORN Fashion Journal, going from an intern to an editor in about a year. There, I wrote about glasses and plaid jackets and nail polish, and three feature articles (my third, about drag queens’ wigs, comes out in October). Through the helpful machinations of my editor, I took David Hayes’ Advanced Feature Writing course and learned about structuring, interviewing, transitioning between paragraphs and pitching to magazines.
David attempted to give us some insights into the mysterious depths of ‘What Magazine Editors Are Thinking’, which is something you never have to think about with a personal blog. All you have to know is what you think about something. Editors don’t care about how you feel about it. They need to care about how the topic fits into the publication, what the style will be like, what the subscribers and advertisers will think, will there be good pictures. Personal voice is a plus, but can you, as the writer, have the voice of the publication?
A better symbol, or cautionary tale, for our generation is not Carrie Bradshaw with her columnist salary, but the perpetually underemployed Hannah Horvath on ‘Girls’, an aspiring writer who only seems to write Tweets (but with the added twist that the ‘real’ Hannah, Lena Denham, has already written a TV series and a couple films).
At the end of the course, I felt like Eliza Doolittle at the conclusion of ‘My Fair Lady’, when she’s not quite a lady but can’t go back to being a street urchin flower girl. My sights have been set higher. My dreams are bigger. I have the email addresses of some editors and sometimes they write me back. And while I still haven’t had my break through into the freelance world (my invitation to the palace, if you will), I continue to think of it as not if but when.
I had to learn is what a lot of young bloggers have to learn when they try to transition into professional writing: that the ‘I’ which was useful on WordPress becomes like an anchor holding you back. Blogging is good for instant satisfaction (just press ‘post’ and you’re done). It’s much easier than the painfully time-consuming process of writing a pitch and wooing an editor. But if you want a wider readership, if you want to get published and actually be, y’know, paid for your writing, you have to learn two basic tenets of life: it’s not all about you and things take time.
And, yes, I wrote this on a blog. Pretty ironic. I just couldn’t be bothered to write a pitch.