As I set about creating the second blog of my life, I am thinking about the liberty of the blogger. The writer enjoys various degrees of liberty in the different kinds of things they write. In a diary or journal you may safely say almost anything, as long as you leave instructions in your will that all your private papers should be burned unread. (Recommended.) In a letter to a friend, colleague, editor, reader, etc. you have to be a little more circumspect, but your audience is still small.
At the other end of the scale, a formally published essay, article, or book requires a great deal of care. Not only do you have to consider the public reception of your work, its possible legal ramifications, and the reaction of the torches and pitchforks brigade, there is a finality about publishing. Yes, you can recant or retract something you have published, but that is embarrassing, and is unlikely to catch up with everyone who read the original. Your book or essay will be taken for your final, finished thought, and you will be judged by it. On the other hand, only publication gives you an audience beyond your immediate acquaintances, which is what you are seeking if you are a writer.
A vast gulf, therefore, separates the liberty of the personal journal or private letter from the rigorous constraints of the published piece. But a blog sits right in the middle of that gulf. It is public. It can, at its best, attract a large audience (and the torches and pitchforks brigade). But it is not as formal or as final as a conventional publication. It allows you to think and express publicly thoughts too tentative or incomplete for the finality of a formal essay or a book.
Unless it is merely a breathless record of what you had for breakfast and what’s playing on your iPod this minute, a blog is a collection of thoughts, observations, and experiments that may or may not one day turn into something larger, more disciplined, and more thoroughly worked out, but which equally may only exist to exercise the mind or to exorcise it of a nagging thought or image.
But while it is that, it is not simply a matter of putting your writer’s journal online. I have OneNote stuffed full of thoughts, captured phrases, and web clippings. I even have a OneNote notebook just for blog ideas. A blog post is something more substantial than a notebook jotting. It is at least a whole thought, if not a thoroughly developed one. But it is still something less substantial, less worked, less confident, less assertive, less definitive or declarative than a formal essay.
Still, that leaves the question of why a blog post should be published. If you wanted to write something a little more thought out than a journal entry but less thoroughly worked than a formal essay, you could surely do so without putting it on the web.
Part of it, I believe, is to give temporary closure to a nagging idea that won’t go away but to which one is not ready to give the full essay or book treatment.
I have been working away at a post off and on for a couple of months now, and I’m still not ready to post it. That post is on a fairly ambitious topic. It is titled Till We No Longer Have Faces. If I ever get it finished there will be a link to it here. It has already taken me on a long digression about statues. Statues are a subject I can hardly fail to mention in an essay on the loss of faces in our culture, but, given the times, one it seems perilous to touch on without thoroughly explaining my thoughts on the subject. (This is literally the territory of the torches and pitchforks brigade.) And this causes me to want to be equally thorough in explaining and defending my thoughts on the rest of the topic. In other words, I am in danger of it turning into an essay project. (It could easily turn into a book project, if I had an infinity of years at my disposal.)
But I am not ready to put that much thought and effort into it at this point. Publishing it as a blog post, however, will give me the closure of having put the idea out into the world, or having spoken my mind on the issue. It will let it be still while I work on other things. One of the functions of a blog post is to rid your mind of an idea that keeps bugging you and distracting you from the thing you really ought to be working on.
But also, and perhaps more importantly, a blog post is a way to test the waters on an idea, to find out if there is some obvious objection to your thought or some qualification or elaboration that is needed to establish your point or to make it clear. A blog gives the reader an opportunity to comment, and the author an opportunity to respond. A blog post can say: Here’s a thought. What do you think? It is a way of broaching an idea without committing to it.
A blog post, then, sits somewhere between a conversation and an essay, in a place only made possible by the web. And it seems like that is a useful kind of space. When I wrote my non-fiction book, Every Page is Page One, all of the ideas were first broached in the blog of the same name, and many recieved multiple comments which helped shape my thought and showed me which points I needed to further elucidate or defend. When I pitched the book to my publisher, I imagined that it would almost write itself, that I would mostly just be stitching the existing blog posts together. That turned out not to be true at all. But the blog was nonetheless hugely helpful in developing and shaping the book and its audience.
The catch here is that while this all makes perfect sense for non-fiction, it doesn’t really explain the blog of a fiction writer. I’m not trying to develop a book on how to write fiction. (These are estimated to outnumber the actual works of fiction published each year by the year 2037.) No, a blog for a fiction writer would seem to be more of a meta-exercise. It must be, of necessity, trying out ideas about the craft, as opposed to trying out the craft itself. (I suppose one could try out story ideas in a blog, but stories are not really about the idea, they are about the execution. An incompletely worked out story is just not interesting in the way an incompletely worked out idea can be.)
A fiction writer’s blog, insofar as it is at all relevant to their craft, is likely to be a bit of a mix, in part a public but informal discussion of the craft, in part bits of personal essay too slight for more formal publication, and in part a set of experiments, questions, and musings. In part a place to venture half-formed ideas in public and see if they go anywhere or are immediately exposed as silly and uninformed.
So here it is, a sketch of an idea about blog posts being a sketch of an idea, all more or less to scold myself into not letting my “Till We No Longer Have Faces” post turn into a PhD candidate. There is significant and important liberty in this, I think. Both the liberty to think in public, and the ability to liberate ones mind from the tyranny of a half-formed thought that intrudes upon one’s proper work.
But that’s just my take. What do you think?