Bringing disparate bits together (or: Return of the Blog)

“I think I’ll go and write a novella. brb.”

That’s how I signed off my previous post here, 9-odd months ago. As far as last lines go, I think it has a certain charm. If I had to end my blog there, I guess I’d be okay with it. Although, I wonder if a blog ever truly ends, or just sits there waiting, not like the finality of a novel’s last lines, but with its own literary quality, a kind of time-stamped acronym-tinged wit, update pending…

But I’m not talking about novels or blogs as such (and although I am fond of that last post, I’m quite eager to actually be back updating and continuing this thing) — no,  I’m talking about that novella, or an equivalent body of works, wordcount-wise. Yeah? How did I go? Did a novella-length work (or works) gestate and emerge, gloriously imperfect but formed and real and true?

Well, no. I got to about 10,000 words that weekend, which is still a pretty jolly good effort if you ask me. Other co-participants did better, some did worse, we all received a few nice little prizes, we interconnected with one another, and some participants had their words published. All in all, not bad at all! For my part, beyond that original blog post, a few good (if unfinished and unevenly formed) pieces emerged from the process, so I think I’ll get more out of it eventually, maybe even a novella! But not yet. Still, I had a good enough time, and in other gains, I think I re-learned some old lessons: sectioning off time for writing and nothing else, even for a 25-minute Pomodoro at a time, is a good way to go; I still don’t write very well to music except for light background noise, although there are some lyric-free, droney, repetitive, unintrusive and/or otherwise special exceptions; and I don’t think I really want to do any more of those frantic wordvomit sessions like Rabbit Hole or NaNoWriMo — I’m more interested in working at my own pace, with my own lone effort of writing and editing (and publishing!), without really focussing on wordcount. Having said that, maybe it could be otherwise.

I remember now (as I look back over old notes, trying to recall and tie so many disparate bits together) how Rjurik Davidson discussed his experiences (post-24-Hour Book Project, orchestrated by the increasingly interesting if:book) of writing as part of a group and bashing out thousands of words in a short time-period. Maybe it’s true, as he suggests, that all these habits and ideas we have about ourselves as writers are a lot more malleable than we realise. Context, digital media, collaborations, (self-)editing, time-constraints — maybe they all can help to bust up myths we tell ourselves about our preferred writing habits, practices, identities even? Sure, sometimes these are matters of necessity, sanity and circumstances. But that’s not always the case. I guess it’s good to be flexible and adaptable, experiment, keep moving and trying new things. Go with what works, but don’t rely on one way of working. Changing ways can be hard, but maybe that’s just the exercise of mental muscles, all that ol’ brain elasticity. It’s also a question of whether you fit writing into your life, or plan your life around your writing. Priorities. And other recurring word and themes. I’m babbling. Basically, it was interesting and worthwhile and it allllll gets me thinkin’.

But that was that, so enough of that.

Still, it has been 9 months. 2013 has begun in earnest. April arrives again, and with it, thoughts of impending winter, hibernation and hunkering down like a hermit to write, despite frozen fingers, with renewed hopes of wriggling out of those old habits, routines, boundaries and categories. It has been a while between posts. There has been a veritable mass-spawning of other happenings in this 9 months, as you’d expect. Life tends to be fecund with happenings. Life is also, for me (lately? or always), fecund with lists, so here’s a pair:

A List of 10 Things, or Groups of Things, That Have Been Some of the Good Things of  the Past 9 Months or So

  1. Incheon, London, Halesworth, Okehampton, Paris, Karlsruhe, Frankfurt, Perth, Sydney, Wagga Wagga, Narranderra and Canberra again: we travelled a lot and it was up and down, this way and that and wonderful.
  2. Being part of Scissors Paper Pen as we continue to make lit happen with stellar people: At Arms Length, WORDLABs, Something Elses, Papercuts and more and more to come. Rad.
  3. YOU ARE HERE 2013 WAS EXCELLENT AND I WANT TO GUSH ABOUT IT.
  4. A good friend’s bucks weekend! Weddings, engagements, births, couplings, friends, family. People at their best. People.
  5. Won the first poetry slam I entered. Had things published. Enrolled in a short story course. Wrote.
  6. Went to TiNA and it was pretty darn good.
  7. The King is Dead, Jens Lekman live, Berbarian Sound Studio, Looper, Ngapartji Ngapartji, Corinbank, Darren Hanlon live, The Secret River, Cloud Atlas, Breaking Bad, Life of Pi, board games and poetry and stories and morrrre. So many good things.
  8. Still employed. Still going well.
  9. Started planning a wedding with the woman I love.
  10. Christmas. New Year. Birthdays. Lunar New Year. Small gatherings. Kitchen wins and tasty meals. Plans. I saw Prime Possum in person in the library. I’m healthy and well. I’m ridiculously fortunate, really.

A List of 10 Things, of Groups of Things, that have Been Some of the Bad Things of  the Past 9 Months or So

  1. Speeding tickets, parking tickets. 
  2. Arguments and discomfort.
  3. Getting sick. People I know being sick. (Distant) people dying.
  4. People at, or near, their worst.
  5. Not enough. Rejection. Failure. Loss. Distance.
  6. Kitchen disasters, clumsiness, carelessness.
  7. Leaks from upstairs.
  8. Busyness/privileged whining.
  9. [Insert all the fucked up shit happening in the world here]
  10. And what’s up with my nose? I sneeze too much.

More lists? More lists.

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Willy Lit Fest Part 1: Being Frankie and Talking Blogs

Last weekend I ventured along to the Williamstown Literary Festival and checked out a couple of panels:  Let’s Be frankie, Literary Blogging and From the Quill to the Kindle. All in all, it was good stuff, and it was nice to experience a different part of Melbourne, one that’s more like a coastal town, with the sea breeze, fish n chips and hordes of seagulls, along with some good literary company.

Thuy Linh Nguyen has already written about her experiences going to two of these panels, and Lisa Dempster has expanded on some of the stuff covered in her blogging panel, which I’ll get to later. But first, Let’s Be frankie.

I was drawn to this one because, while I don’t mind the odd look through a frankie mag if I see one,  I really wanted to see Marieke Hardy and Benjamin Law. The former, still jetlagged from an extended holiday in volcano-wracked Iceland, I’ve long been a fan of, thanks to First Tuesday Bookclub, JJJ Breakfast, her blog and her numerous other writings.  The latter I recently became a fan of, upon reading his hilarious story about murdering cockroaches en masse in the latest Brow. And I’m really looking forward to his first book, The Family Law. PLUS he just did an interview with Virgule, the newish Voiceworks blog. Check it.

So with Susan Bird as chair, and plenty of  audience interlocution, their casual discussion covered all kinds of things, from freelancing to Twitter to Ben’s mum’s vagina.

Ben, who often writes somewhat ‘personal’ stuff about his partner, parents and siblings, mentioned that family is such an interesting subject for writing because it’s one of the basic social units, like a microcosm of society. It’s true, your family shapes who you are and how you relate to people. Plus everyone’s got one, so it’s always at least somewhat relatable.

They discussed how important it is to run your material past the people you’re writing about if you think there’s the slightest chance they might have issues with it. Plus, it really helps to flesh out your work and get a new perspective on it.

They went on to discuss that, sure it can be good to be honest and lay everything on the table when you write, but have you really thought about the consequences of putting what you’re writing out into the world? Have you considered your audience and the context and how it could be received? Some boundaries are important. Sure, external censorship is something to take a stand against, but it’s interesting to think about how important self-censorship can be, for good or ill. And all of this applies not just to stories, articles and essays, but to blog posts, status updates and even microblogging/tweets (hello Catherine Deveny). They also touched on the idea of ‘the illusion of intimacy’, which I’ll get to later.

Ben discussed the life of a freelancer. He always strives to find something interesting in any dull freelance gig he takes on, and noted how easy it is to get overloaded, because you always think every assignment is going to be your last. He also recommended that, when you’re writing, you should keep a template of ‘good writing’ close by (or perhaps at the back of your mind), so that you’ve got something to aim for, no matter how high you’re aiming.

Marieke mentioned how handy she found News Ltd. lawyers, as dull as they might sound, and how they kept her out of trouble 99% of the time when she wrote for the Green Guide. Still, she was a little surprised that the people she’s writing about actually read her columns and sometimes take offense. It was similar back when she was writing her blog. She saw it as a place to vent, and didn’t really consider any potential offense, defamation or other trouble she could face. It’s funny, I guess when you’re a lone blogger, most people aren’t going to bother taking you to court, whereas a huge organisation like The Age with a reputation, stakeholders and circulation necessitates the team of lawyers.

She also discussed how it’s easier writing about crap TV, because writing about programmes you love just turns into celebratory, masturbatory drivel. Finally, she compared her scriptwriting to her blogging, and discussed how writing for TV doesn’t get much personal response when the finished product finally emerges, whereas writing online has the benefit of immediacy and instant feedback.

*

Speaking of writing online, the next day, satisfied but eager for more, I went along to the Literary Blogging panel, with Lisa Dempster and Angela Meyer (aka Ms LiteraryMinded), both of whom have blogs I follow and enjoy reading, so I was interested to hear their thoughts. There were plenty of questions from the small but engaged crowd and it gave me a lot to think about.

They both agreed that blogging can help you find your voice, build your style and help you grow as a unique writer. Lisa reckoned writing her book Neon Pilgrim was easier because she’d been blogging for so long. She didn’t have to struggle to find a writing voice; she already had that part mostly sorted.

They said that blogging is a discipline to stick to, and that you have to want to stick to it, then it builds its own momentum, just like other forms of writing I guess. But it’s unique in that it’s a good way to test ideas and see what others are thinking. You can admit that your ideas aren’t fully formed and open them up for discussion.

Angela says she still questions her role when she’s blogging: is she a reviewer? A cultural commentator? ‘Just a blogger’? Or, simply, a writer? It’s part of the necessary constant process of self-reflexivity.

And again, they touched on this idea of self-censorship. They wondered about ‘stepping on toes’, especially in such a tight community like that of Australian literary bloggers. You want to be honest, but there is always a degree of self-censorship. The question is where to draw the line. Personally, I want to be able to critique art, literature, media and the world around me, but at the same time, it can be damn hard to really call out perceived major flaws in something, or someone’s work, especially if they’re just starting out or you know them personally. So do you tone down your critique, not put up a review, or be bold, harsh but fair, and give an open opportunity for anyone to reply, refute and defend?

They also discussed this ‘illusion of intimacy’ idea that Ben and Marieke touched on. Sometimes these writers have been accused of being not just honest, but ‘oversharers’. But the fact is, people often don’t know about all the stuff that they’re not sharing. It can seem like they’re telling readers everything about their life and readers might feel that they know everything about them. But like all art, blogging is a constructed representation, and while you may be getting an honest picture and feel you know all about the author, you only know about them from what they give you. Three quarters of their life, or more, might not even be hinted at.

Is this ‘illusion’ a bad thing? Not really. Unless you want to go, warts and all, publishing the minutiae of your life, while alienating everyone you know and possibly facing legal action, it’s hard to have it otherwise. The boundary has to lie somewhere. In the end, of course, it has to be a personal decision. As long as you strive to be honest and fair in what you do reveal, and seriously consider what to publish and what to hold back, then it’s all good.

When asked about whether one should try to blend a large variety of topics in one blog , Lisa replied that cross-over is fine. The blog is your blog, so its topic is always going to be you and your interests. Other people have cross-over interests too, and if your blog is good enough, people will keep coming back for the stuff that they’re interested in, and won’t mind the odd uninteresting post.

There were a couple of other tidbits to think about:

  • A blog evolves over time and has its own narrative. So in a sense, a blog is a story.
  • Before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, people used online ‘handles’ more often. But now with such sites we’re commonly going by our real names online, or our real names are not so hidden anymore. Interesting point.
  • How is blogging perceived? How do you perceive it? Is it for your ‘best’ work? Does it really distract you from other writing? Or is it just a part of the broader spectrum of writing?
  • Finally, they mentioned two interesting things I’d never really heard of: blog tours, where someone hops along onto various blogs from all over the place, providing guest posts on each. Then there’s blog carnivals, where various bloggers all riff on a chosen topic, and they can engage with each others ideas on that topic.

Essentially, this panel built on what I already knew about blogging, gave me a lot to consider and gave me a good kick in the rear to blog more. All in all, blogging is experimental: it’s an experiment for each individual and also because the internet is a medium in flux, all of this stuff is still changing and being negotiated.

Speaking of emergent mediums: eBooks!

But that final panel will have to wait for Part 2, in the next day or two. This time I’m not going to go away for a week or so; I’m going to get some of that momentum happening with this blogging thing.