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

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No more Chicken Soup for the Blog Soul

A friend recently lent me Words in a French Life, a book assembled from a collection of blog posts -- a variety of literature that is burgeoning in these days of the internet. The author had been committed to writing every day about a different French word while exploring her life as an expat in France, raising children who were more proficient in the vernacular than herself. And I enjoyed it, in general: dredging up my college French to translate the phrases sprinkled throughout, learning new words, and looking at life in a different country. But writing every day must take its toll -- a few of the columns seemed a bit forced. There I would be, reading a perfectly good account, only to be thrown out entirely by a last inspirational sentence tacked on to bring the thing to a neat close.

I can't blame the author for this, exactly -- it seems to be endemic in blog writing particularly. I've grown very wary of the pretty conclusion, the spiritual lesson learned, the great insight gained through the grind of daily life. I know why writers use this trick, and I've done it myself -- hard up for something, anything, to post, I remember this little anecdote that could just do for posting if I can put some little inspirational twist on it. And people seem to eat the stuff up, so it must be fine, right?

Of course people draw inspirational conclusions from daily life all the time. What I find tiresome is the... craftedness of it all. Of course good writing must be crafted, not just flung at the page, but it takes a particular talent to draw inspiration from the ordinary while not seeming gimmicky or easy. Pentimento strikes me as an example of that kind of exemplary writer who can at all times maintain both honesty and real style in her writing at all times.

I don't even want inspiration from the internet anymore. I've been trying to immerse myself in Scripture, reading passages from the Wisdom literature each night. This is real. This is what can reach into my soul and open me to God in a way that reading a blog can never emulate. Who can say anything that Qoheleth didn't cover 23 centuries ago?

And that's fine. I like reading funny stories about people's kids, with no moral tacked on. I like musings on the political situation (to a point). And I love good, true writing -- not flashy, not gimmicky, not designed to lift me up or force a life lesson or "make me think". Bloggers can do the writing and I'll do my own thinking, without a serving of Chicken Soup for the internet soul.


John Henry said...

Great post. I've been on both ends of this - both blogging and reading blogs - and it's annoying either way. It's unsatisfying to write a post and then to find you have no idea how to end it - except for the dreaded pat conclusion. And as a reader, it's patronizing and forced.

It seems to me, though, that this is generally a mark of a lack rather than an excess of craftmanship. A well-crafted post doesn't seem forced; a quick get-something-up post generally has some stitches showing. In general, though, I don't think blogs are a great format for writing about anything that requires much emotional or spiritual depth; or, at least, in my experience most bloggers lack either the time or the skill to write those kinds of posts.

mrsdarwin said...

John Henry,

I myself was falling afoul of this very problem with this very post -- I got to the second-to-last sentence and thought, "I've said all I have to say. How do I end this?" I suppose one of my requirements for good writing is that you never feel like the author didn't know what to say next.

I think that what I mean when I say "crafted" (as I clarify my thoughts on the fly) is when a writer reaches into the literary bag o' tricks in a pretty obvious way, presenting a simplified conclusion in order to drag the reader to some new awareness.

CMinor said...

Very true.

Emily J. said...

Funny, my sister and I were just talking along similar lines the other day. I used to do a lot more jumping around to new-to-me blogs, looking for the next big thing, great writing, provocative ideas, etc, and after awhile they start to sound alike. I have to plead guilty to trying to draw neat conclusions, too. Now I find myself just checking the same blogs over, like yours, dropping in on familiar voices to see what's new instead of looking for inspiration. Maybe a more addictive habit.

Brandon said...

I very much agree. Blogging makes good occasional writing, in the older meaning of the phrase 'occasional writing', writing responding to an occasion: something comes up, whether an event or an idea or something someone has said, you say something about it, and you move on. Like every other kind of writing, occasional writing requires crafting to be good; but unlike most formal kinds of writing, it runs the risk of being ruined when overcrafted -- instead of the writing growing up organically around the topic, it is forced to fit a formula imported from some other genre of writing.

I think we also have a bad habit of assuming that blogging should be rigorously consistent in quality. But occasional writing, unless it is confined to a very narrow topic, really can't be -- every occasion calls for its own kind of treatment, and can't be made to fit a formula, and no one can write with excellence across the whole spectrum of genres. But just as some things are worth doing even if you can only do them badly, some things are worth writing even if you haven't figured out how to craft it as it should be.

I was going to launch into an elaborate moral about how this is exactly like the role of prudence in moral life, but then I thought that it was probably better not to let Chicken Soup spread from blog posts to comments threads. ;)

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

I feel like kind of a chump after reading this post since "the spiritual lesson learned, the great insight gained through the grind of daily life" are the bread and butter of my writing. Those of us who write stuff like that definitely aren't adding anything to Qoheleth, but I think there's a place for average people sharing things gleaned from everyday struggles, especially if it's uplifting.

I do agree with you that inspirational, lesson-learned type posts can be done poorly, but I don't think it's because they're inspirational per se; I think it's for the same reason that any other type of post can be done poorly: it's the difference between having a point, not having a point, or (worst of all) pretending that you have a point when you really don't.

(Now that I re-read the post, I guess that's what you were saying in the third paragraph; I was speaking more to the last two paragraphs there.)

BettyDuffy said...

Yeah, this is a thorny issue for me. I'm opposed to the "Life is hard and I hate being a mom, but when I see my baby smile, I realize it's all worth it" kind of easy ending. But I do write at times to find the spritual inspiration that is often lacking when I sit down at the keyboard. Sometimes I get carried away with rhetorical flourishes, because they're fun to write, but if I can help it, I try not to have a spiritual insight that's not "true" or applicable to the body of the post. But there is always a tug of responsibility I think that makes Christian writers feel like they have to make it work somehow, even when it's not working. It's sort of hard to shake.

CMinor said...

What made my blood run cold today was jumping off on a link someone posted in an American Catholic combox and finding myself at an "award winning" blog about the adventure that is cat ownership!

Dorian Speed said...

You need a customized SiteMeter for the responses to this post, one which will calibrate readers’ first responses. I estimate they would fall into three categories:

2. Lord, I thank you that she is talking about those people over there, who are not as adept as I with the pithy and provocative details of daily living
3. I thought this was going to be a recipe

I have a hard time with inspirational writing on the Internet, but not necessarily for the reasons you describe. For me, it is the fact that I do not wander through my day keenly aware of how God’s grace suffuses my every moment, except occasionally in an intellectual sense. So when I read bloggers who are really good at showing me how God is working through their everyday trials, I sometimes get a little emo - because I must be doing it wrong, if I am not feeling those same feelings of “Wow, God, you are really teaching me a lesson about humility. Again.”

I also can’t read too many things about the craft of blogging, or how to best format your template, or the best ways to drive traffic to your user base, because I again end up depressed about all the ways I’m not doing the blog right.

I have a feeling this entire comment is only tangentially related to your original post.

Anyway, none of this is meant to be a dig at those writers who *are* good at showing us how to examine the everyday and recognize the sublime. That’s just not something that comes easily to me, and when I consciously try to write something inspiring, it always feels fakey-fakey.

I am purposely not wrapping up this comment with a tidy bow at the end.

Unknown said...

Great Post Dear,

Just wondering how much of your skill you picked up in being homeschooled. Remember those journals that everyone fussed about having to do? You seemed to always come up with a nice "wrap up" ending.


TS said...

Great post; there's inspiration and then there's Inspiration, and the latter speaks with so much authority that it brings things to a whole new level. I picked up Wisdom today and randomly turned to a very powerful passage. So this post was indirectly inspiring!

Enbrethiliel said...


Mrs. Darwin, I totally agree with you about Pentimento. She's amazing!

Anonymous said...

The sense I get from especially soupy blog posts is one of "how can I whine about this without whining? Incorporate a spiritual lesson! Now let me get out my spiritual lesson dart board and pick!"

It's a sort of artificial feeling, not so much that the writing was crafted, but that the experience was crafted.

But when you read people that write well crafted pieces on an authentic experience, (again, like Pentimento!) you don't get that feeling of artificialness.

But then maybe I'm offbase. My writing is so bad I restrict it to posts about projects, food, and baby pictures.

Kate Wicker said...

I'm definitely guilty of being Chicken Soup for the Soulish. Life is messy, not tidy. Maybe that's why I try so hard to make it tidy sometimes in my writing.

I was a journalist (in my pre-mom days) long before I became a blogger, and editor after editor told me it's not about you. It's about your audience.I was consistently told to write down to my readers and to leave them with neat, little message like the fortune you get out of a cookie. (I obviously wasn't writing for the Wall Street Journal.) Sometimes audiences want cliches. Those Chicken Soup for the Souls books are very popular. If people saw my personal journals (which read more like Sylvia Plath than my often Pollyanna-ish posts), they might think I was courting schizophrenia. (I am one of those freaky temperaments - a melancholic-sanguine - so perhaps this explains what ends up on paper.)

I'm working on writing more honestly over on my blog (I've stopped looking at my stats; I don't want to write what I think others want; it's too forced and purple then). However, the audience does matter. We must never lose sight of why we're writing. . Do you have a good idea? Is there a point of view you want to promote? Do you want to convince someone to think as you do? Do you want to comfort someone, inspire them, reassure them, horrify them, urge them into action or maybe make them laugh? Whatever it is that you want to accomplish, use the language that will get the job done. That's all that matters. Anything else is like contemplating your navel.

And while I don't like soupy posts, I don't like overly high-brow ones either. So many writers take themselves way too seriously. Sometimes I get in these ridiculously contemplative moods. I might fill a page with a wordy description of one, stinkin' leaf or I might ponder Communism, vegetarianism, antidisestablishmentarianism or some other 'ism. When I'm writing about it, it all seems to make sense. Yet, sometimes I have to take a step back and say, "Whoa, wait a minute. What is this? Will others really enjoy reading this??" If the answer is no, then it's time to move on.

Unfortunately, I suspect I'll frequently thrown in sepia-toned images that might make others gag because there's just so much darkness in life, but I want to focus on the slants of light - no matter how thin - that seep through into my life.

And I just did exactly what irks us all and wound this up with a saccharine sweet conclusion. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Well, and if you don't tidy it up at the end, the Orthodoxy And Catholic Mother Police will accuse you of being of weak faith, a bad parent, ambiguous and dangerous, and so on.