Thursday, January 20, 2011

To Blog or Not to Blog

A few days ago, a story was publishing in Chicago Business about bloggers quitting their web gigs. The bloggers interviewed had a handful of reasons for abandoning their web writing: too little public recognition, too much time required, and too small a chance of going viral and becoming profitable. (Millions of blogs go unrecognized every day, and the ones that do go viral--Stuff White People Like, The Julie/Julia Project--usually have very, very commercial appeal that helps them move beyond the online community.) Some of them have moved their writing to Facebook and Twitter, which require less of a word count but can have exponentially more readership. Raanan Bar-Cohen, vice-president of media services for the blogging platform WordPress, says that for the blogs that end up becoming big, "the feedback is as or more important than the actual posts.” In short, who reads the blog is far more important than what they're reading.

This story wasn't completely surprising to me--I've seen too many of my favorite blogs go silent or mostly mute after the lucky blogger gets a book deal. And that's not necessarily bad: shouldn't an unpaid online writing gig eventually be abandoned in the pursuit of a paid, more commercially legitimized opportunity? But what's interesting to me, as a blogger not only for TK, but also on two separate blogs of my own making, is the question of which is more valuable for the development of a writing career: writing every day, or writing really well? Are these contradictions in terms?

Successful writers report a multitude of techniques for getting their work done. Some have to set clear hours every day, often in cafes or restaurants that let them sit for hours nursing a cup of coffee. Some rent offices outside of their homes, creating workplaces of their own. Some turn off Internet access and unplug their phones so there's no chance of being disrupted. (Jonathan Franzen said, "It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction,"; Jonathan Lethem has gone so far as to disable an old Mac laptop so it functions like a typewriter, and Etsy sells typewriters that connect to computer harddrives by way of a USB port.) The monastic techniques that a writer has to use to get into a perfect creative state of mind are admirable...yet there are a multitude of budding writers all over the world who have to fit in time for writing while working their desk jobs. Carving out ten minutes here or there, churning out blog posts on their lunch break, these writers don't have the luxury of spending the day in a coffee shop spinning stories as pleasantly unobtrusive music plays in the background. As the saying goes, "Don't quit your day job." When asking a friend of mine how she manages to fit writing in with her office job, she says that she stays up until two in the morning almost every night just to get a few extra hours of writing time. "Coffee," she said. "Coffee helps a lot."

But does writing every day, making the time however your life allows for it, really make good writing? Can you force the work to just come to you? Some writers take as long as 10 years to develop a novel, some even longer. (J. Franz, Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, and many, many more.) Great pieces of non-fiction seem in constant genesis, marinating through years of research, their stories changing dramatically as the results come in. (My two favorite pieces of non-fiction from last year, The Emperor of All Maladies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, made the writing of the work as major a plot point as the work itself.) Many writers claim that they had to have been at a particular point in their lives to write certain stories, experiencing a burst of energy and passion that forces the book into existence. Could that same result have been reached if they were simply trying to sit down every day and produce 10 pages of copy, no matter what the results? And furthermore, could they have produced something of true quality if it was always going to be published day-of-genesis, as is the way of blogging your work?

I've started to believe that in order to achieve your dreams, you have to both work the job you want and the job you have at the same time. Blogging gives writers the opportunity to find an audience immediately, virally, making their work available for anyone who wants to read it. You don't have to quit your day job to be a published writer, and assuming you can make the time to write regularly, it can become a real passion, hobby, and career opportunity. And it is immensely gratifying to get comments on your work from your web readers--I know us at TK are thrilled whenever we find a new reader has come to the site, or commented on a particularly difficult post. But you also have to wonder how the writing would change, the quality and the quantity, if it was done at a distance from the digital world. Perhaps one of us has the great American book criticism in her after all...

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