Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Rhapsody in Blog

In the circles I move in, there's been a lot of hand-wringing about the demise of blogging, and nostalgia for the golden days where one could write thoughtful posts which got a lot of engagement, and which in turn were linked to by people carrying on the discussion. And there's analysis: did Facebook kill blogging? Is Twitter killing Facebook? Are we all doomed to converse in snippets of 140 characters or less, or worse, an endless series of curated images on Instagram? How do we revive the blogsphere?

So here's the curious phenomenon I observed, as I was off Facebook for Lent. Blogging isn't dead. It's just being carried on by the same people who've been doing it for years, who are used to the format and have the endurance to persevere in a less of-the-moment medium, who aren't looking to move to the next big platform where everyone's congregating.

The day of the Notre Dame fire, the most significant event on the historical and cultural scene since I don't know when, I refreshed my blogroll obsessively, since I was off other forms of social media. The list of people posting instantly and thoughtfully, and with updates, were few: Amy Welborn, Brandon. We ourselves, mere pikers beside these venerable bloggers since we've been going for less than 15 years, put up three posts in lieu of updates as we thought through the event and tried to process it. Anne Kennedy and Simcha Fisher, also stalwarts with more than a decade of blogging experience, also posted rapidly and with characteristically intelligent writing.

Doubtless people were throwing out their quick takes and feels and pix on more insta-forms of social media.  But when we talk about blogging, we are talking about writing with the long game in view. There are lots of people who start blogs and flame out, either because the time commitment is too great or because there are other platforms that offer quicker hits of engagement with less effort. To be a blogger, I think, you have to be resigned to the dry spells, the long stretches of writing as its own reward.

As I've been writing letters during Lent, it has struck me that letter writing has a lot in common with blogging. I put down my thoughts, process some idea, and send it out, without expecting a response. I'm content to know that what I've written has reached its recipient, and has perhaps sparked new thoughts or clarified old ones for my reader. Probably I'll never hear about it, and that's not the point. The point is that the idea travels on, and takes root in the minds of others.

When Pope John Paul II was Karol Wojtyła, acting in and writing plays in Poland, he wrote about a style of drama called Rhapsodic Theater. This theater wasn't heavily plot- or character-driven; rather, it engaged with an idea, explored it from new angles, drew out nuances, and, by speaking it aloud, presented the Word to the audience, who, by hearing it, received it and engaged with it in their turn. Wojtyła described the longer, more rhapsodic passages of theater as "song" -- a concentrated expression of idea, presented not as dialogue but as sustained thought.

Blogging, or letter writing, or any kind of long form writing, has a stronger potential than other forms of public interaction, to be Rhapsodic because it allows for more development time. A post on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, no matter how thoughtful, is quickly swallowed up by the constant stream of new content pushing old content down and out. The idea is like the seed sown among thorns, which quickly takes root and springs up, but is choked out by cares and worries and entertainment and whatever is quick and easy and funny and new. And that's not considered a flaw -- it's the nature and goal of the medium, to be ever updating.

So it's not that you have to be ancient to be a blogger. It's that the field winnows itself out over time, and those who endure are those who have proven themselves over time to those willing to put their thoughts out there without thought of reward, in the quiet belief that someone out there is reading and receiving and developing the rhapsodic idea.


mandamum said...

Thank you for doing it.

A friend asked me back in January how I kept up with my intellectual life, and I've been chewing on it and sort of tracking what I do and don't do. Read, including blogs like yours. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts. Learn as fast as I can in order to work with my upper level students. I realized, talking to him, that I tend to use too many "insider" references when discussing an idea, because most of my conversation happens in my head as I chew over ideas from another's blog post or podcast. I notice this difficulty sometimes when I try to comment here, too, as I'm sure you may have. So I am trying to write more, because putting things down on paper, or at least in WORDS forces one to clarify and distill (and good conversation is limited here, although my upcoming teens are becoming good conversationalists, so it's not totally nonexistent like the toddlers-only years, hurrah). And the Bacon quote has been ringing in my head: "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man...."

Glad to hear that you see blogging trudging along as it always has been. I've been kind of bummed as I see blogger after blogger that I read get a book contract and then melt away.... But I have not joined FB etc, as I know my family would go hungry and naked if I went down that path, so here I stay :)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I like this. I'm not a great blogger but I find I can't leave it behind either. I am perhaps too fond of social media and the quick take and the instant gratification. But I love the longer pieces, more thoughful, more composed. I'm very grateful that blogging hasn't died.

Julie D. said...

Yes. Great summing up of what I myself have felt. I do have to say that this year going back to Facebook I found I missed it even less than in previous years. And the process of writing in a longer form, whether letters or blogposts requires one to organize thoughts in a different way than shooting off a quick link. Roger Ebert talked about that when he began using his online journal to express himself on everything from rice cookers to life itself after he lost the ability to speak. It was different than writing his column.

Joseph Moore said...

Related: I often find myself wishing people would read a book, but then catch myself: Is there any evidence they know how to read a book? The practice honed by a decade and a half of schooling is to look at any text to figure out what the teacher wants to hear. That a good or great book will have essentially unfathomable depths to it, that rewards repeated rereadings and plants the seeds of thoughts that will enliven and haunt your mind for the rest of your life - not so much.

The founders of the Great Books Program spoke of the Great Dialogue: that 3,000+ year old interplay of ideas one joins when one really, truly reads great and good books, that bleeds over into one's daily life and shapes how we live. The Rhapsodic life, it might be called.

I think this idea of deep, haunting thoughts that is a common experience of readers also is a marker of thoughtful bloggers. Hot takes? Meme wars? Smackdowns? A blogger craves not these things! Except to use them to explore what they mean in a larger context.

I'm entering my 10th year as a blogger, started out just wanting someplace to explore and dump the peculiar ideas that haunt my life. Never had more than maybe a dozen regular readers; a popular post might get 100 visits. Clearly, as a strategy for world domination, it ain't working. But I'll keep doing it nonetheless.