While every writer has to face the “Now what?” anxiety of the blank page, I find the prospect of beginning this blog especially unnerving. Except for a few months back in 2007 when I wrote casual little posts while traveling cross-country with my wife and daughter, I’ve avoided blogging. Blogging seemed, somehow, like the antithesis of writing. As if it were just a new, wordier kind of Facebook procrastination.
Or, when I was at my most cynical, I reasoned that blogging was nothing more than self-promotion, that it represented the worst part of being a writer—the alternately mercenary and hapless attempts to get readers, editors, anyone, to pay attention to a single voice in this enormous clamoring personality machine called 21st century media. Blogging was a shameless public plea for attention, whereas writing was a noble, private pursuit. I thought back to my days as a nerdy adolescent hiding out in the library with affection and pride…
And then, a few months ago, I had one of those unnerving moments when, in the middle of saying something you’ve said a dozen times, you actually hear yourself. I was being interviewed by a reporter about the digital media company I had recently co-founded, and I was talking about how exciting a time it was in publishing. In contrast to the general anxiety of traditional publishers, I was optimistic because of the explosion in reading—albeit in new, non-traditional formats (FB updates, tweets, blogs, et al) and on new devices (tablets, smartphones, laptops). All of the technological innovation, opportunity, and disruption were allowing people to try—and like—new things. Similarly, on the creative side, writers were freed from their reliance on publishers. Sure, books were still around (which, as both a booklover and publisher, I’m very happy about), but for the first time writers also had direct access to readers. New writers didn’t have to sit around waiting for years to find an interested readership, however modest. All they needed were the Internet and, ideally, some talent.
This wasn’t where I started paying attention, incidentally. This was all obvious stuff said many times—and more articulately—before me. No, I was still on autopilot during the e-publishing chatter. Where I snapped to attention was when I said: And writers get to tell their story exactly as they want to. It’s an unmediated form of storytelling.
As someone who has edited many books, I’ll be the first to concede the irony of my enthusiasm at being left alone by editors. Honestly, I love a good editor (a good editor, for example, would have cut “honestly”—not to mention “for example”), and I’m grateful for the edits and suggestions made by skilled editors who have generously helped to improve my writing. But I’ve also had some awful experiences. And I don’t mean just the commissioned 2,500 word article I had to rewrite as 1,200 words, then 500 words, then 250 words… until it ended up as a 35-word sidebar. That’s a manageable and fairly common disappointment for a freelancer. Nor is the general dilution of my voice a huge complaint—although it can get a little frustrating at times. It’s a baffling practice a lot of magazines have: They hire someone because of their distinctive voice—and then water them down to sound exactly like every other article in the magazine. Once, on an airplane, I read a chirpy, non-descript travel piece, and then came to the end to see that it had been written by a Pulitzer—prize-winning novelist. What a tremendous waste of talent! I don’t doubt that when the writer first handed in his piece, it was neither chirpy nor non-descript.
That article, at least, seemed fairly innocuous in its editorial mistreatment (dulled down, consolidated, etc.) I once experienced an instance of startling editorial falsity that reveals just how naïve I was about nonfiction. After going back and forth with an editor about one of my essays in progress, she suggested we spice it up, give it some sex appeal: “Let’s change this section to be about sleeping with your girlfriend’s best friend.” “But I’ve never done that,” I said. “So? You’ve thought about it, right?” she replied. If thinking and doing were equivalencies, then articles might be sexier, but we would all be in a lot of trouble.
I refused to go for it, and she let me off the hook… until, weeks later, when I was looking over the final proofs, and I noticed that she had inserted a section that featured me staring up at a girl in a window, contemplating a long-delayed romantic commitment. In her defense, she had kept her word—the new, sappy scene had nothing to do with sleeping with a girlfriend’s best friend. But it also never happened. In fact, I am pretty sure that it was borrowed from a Sex and the City episode.
When I called her up to ask what it was doing there, she dismissed my objection. “The piece needed it.” Maybe it did. But the piece had my name on it, and it was, ostensibly, about my life; to have someone stick in a totally fabricated moment was unsettling, to say the least. I should have pulled the piece, but I was too tempted by the circulation size of the magazine (ego), and the kill fee was a disappointing consolation after the months of work I’d put into rewrites (greed). So I let it go… then cringed when the issue was published and I saw my name emblazoned on the article’s byline. Magazines should include a disclaimer at the beginning of each article, I thought. The disclaimer would tell the reader how much of it is the writer’s work and how much of it is the magazine’s. It would be like the labels on juice boxes—“30% real juice”—only for writing.
A quick caveat: Nonfiction is a tricky thing for a writer. I love nonfiction equally with fiction, but what I find liberating about fiction is hiding behind characters. However, if I’m going to be really honest, the nonfictional representation of myself is a character too. (Even this peppy little aside is part of an invented persona, and fails to include contradictory information like my overwhelming sadness about my mother’s recent injury and disability… and this revelation, in turn, while sincere, is also slightly manipulative and intended to engender sympathy for me—or, alternatively, contempt at exploiting an illness to garner such sympathy…followed by an unconscious flash of appreciation or admiration or, at least, respect for my candor… and on and on it spins….)
I set out to write about the unexpected appeal of a blog, the unchecked freedom of it, and I ended up on this strange and unwieldy digression. My apologies. This is the disadvantage of the unmediated. It can be clumsy, foolish, and artless. But that you’re seeing it at all, instead of a silly account of an imaginary seduction, is all the reassurance I need.