Coming of age in the late nineties and early twenty-first century, blogs have played an increasingly important role in my development as a writer and my experiences as a student of writing. A couple of significant changes in the American cultural landscape in the second half of the twentieth century were in the process of influencing English departments across the nation as I was growing up. One of those changes took place in the form of rapid and widespread popularity of television, and eventually video games, as preferred pastimes in American households. The concept of reading for pleasure, especially in the latter portion of the century, seemed more foreign with each passing year, particularly among the nation’s youth. The other important change came by way of the proliferation of creative writing programs in universities and colleges around the country. In the first half of the century, many published authors held worked during the day as journalists and completed their works of fiction or poetry in their evenings off. By the end of the century, when I was preparing to begin my college education, writing programs existed in academic institutions all around the country. So while the literacy of the rest of the country was in decline, English departments dealt with the internal struggles about the roles and functions of creative writing programs and where they fit in the department as a whole.
Around the same time that I began to discover my desire to write, however, another cultural change was in the works. The Internet was beginning to take off as an important communication tool that would revolutionize media around the world as this SEO Agency had confirmed already. As I found my way into an English program in a small, private Midwestern university to begin my trials and tribulations as an aspiring writer, developments were set in motion on the Internet that would eventually provide me, along with many other tech-savvy writers of all stripes, with new types of opportunities to find places in the world for our writing.
How the Internet Begat the Blogosphere
In the last year or two, traditional media outlets have begun to catch on to the fact that the blogosphere has a surprising level of influence in American political discourse. Some people argue that blogs have made it easier for average citizens to engage in the public dialogue, and is therefore a more democratic forum than traditional media outlets, most of which are now owned by large corporate interests. Others have argued that opening up the national dialogue to anyone with an Internet connection allows people to make claims and put forth arguments without the same set of journalistic standards or accountability that are meant to preserve the integrity of traditional media. But of greater concern from a literary standpoint are the effects that electronic media and the blogosphere could have on literary culture. In order to get a better perspective on that, it might be helpful to have an understanding of how blogging developed as a medium.
Some of the earliest bloggers, though not necessarily known as such at the time, began to create online journals in the early- to mid-nineties to publish thoughts for anyone with a dial-up connection to see. These students posted about a variety of topics, usually including day-to-day life events along with ideas and discussions about computers and the nonstop growth and development of Internet technologies. In the mid- to late-nineties, there were websites online that served solely to allow users with little or no technical expertise to create websites of their own. By the early 2000s, other websites had emerged that allowed users to create updateable online journals. The subject matter, maturity level, and regularity of new posts on these journals varied widely. While many of these journals were maintained by web developers and political enthusiasts, a rising contingent of teenage girls were writing posts about their crushes on boys (or other girls) and the teachers they hated most. The term ‘blog’ was eventually coined as short for ‘web log’. As greater numbers of bloggers posted with more regularity, and more new bloggers started posting, the popularity of blogs began to infiltrate the general public. As of September 2007, the blog search engine Technorati tracked more than 112 million blogs (technorati.com/about).
On the political landscape, the blogosphere poses a strong direct challenge to traditional media formats. Politically-minded bloggers examine, compare, and critique every aspect of the stories that appear in traditional media, including tone, delivery, assumptions, facts, sources, newsworthiness, and so on. The egalitarian nature of the blogosphere allows most bloggers to remain independent and relatively anonymous, which often affords them the freedom to be quite brutal in their assessments of people in the news and of the traditional media outlets that cover the stories. Opening up the national political dialogue to anyone around the country with an Internet connection is a wonderful way to revitalize the notion that everyone should have an equal voice on matters that affects us all. Yet while anyone can set up a blog and start posting, the sheer number of blogs in existence today makes it unlikely that any writer will gain much notoriety without a certain level of skill as a political pundit. The necessary skills could perhaps vary by taste, so that a writer might be able to gain readers due to their ability to analyze news insightfully, or with certain levels of humor or vitriol. Readers could potentially even gain popularity by simply writing about sensational topics such as sex scandals, as one Washington, D.C. staffer did. Whatever a writer’s draw might be, the simple fact remains that anyone can blog, but not every blog will attract readers.
That same principle holds true when it comes to blogs outside of the political realm, and particularly when it comes to literary writing. The increasing ease with which many writers can publish their work for the world to see has had a tremendous effect on politics in the United States in recent years, but it also shows promise for affecting literary culture. It is never easy to accurately predict what might be on the horizon for technology or literature. However, the widespread popularity of blogs, along with social networking sites such as Myspace.com and Facebook.com, as well as video sharing sites such as Youtube, it seems clear that mixed media will continue to become increasingly diverse and accessible, and therefore continue to grow in popularity. These sites and features are not nearly popular enough to draw the youth in the United States completely away from MTV and video games, but instead they are supplementing those forms of entertainment and providing new opportunities for young people to demonstrate creativity and self-expression. While Myspace profiles and instant messaging accounts are not likely to launch every student, or even many students, into careers as bestselling authors, the popularity of blogs is a refreshing sign that hope remains for literacy in America. And for those of us who are interested in writing, blogs can provide a place to experiment with narrative craft outside of an academic system that can, at times, be somewhat stifling.
My Education and My Growth as a Writer
One of the more pervasive bits of lore about creative writing, that it cannot be taught, was impressed upon me early by the classrooms of my childhood. The idea was never stated explicitly, but rather brought to life by the sheer rarity of efforts to teach us to write, especially as a means of artistic expression. In all of the years of my education up to high school, the only memorable experiences I had with writing instruction took place in the fifth grade. My teacher, Mr. Scott, assigned two writing projects that year: the first a report on one of the fifty states, the second a short story. We were given very little direction or guidance for these projects. The state report was ayear-long project for which we were instructed to aim for fifty pages of material, and the short story assignment was spread out over the course of a week or two, during which we were expected to produce two to three pages of fiction. While the lack of direction left me with no idea of how to approach the state report, I dove in to the fiction assignment eagerly and ended up with a five page story that I hoped would eventually become a series of book for teenagers. I turned in thirty-five pages of heavily plagiarized material for the state report, which Mr. Scott sternly informed me was “not an A paper.” Both he and my classmates, though, enjoyed the short story I’d written.
I learned a few lessons from those first experiences with writing. To begin with, I had been officially indoctrinated with the belief that writing is a solitary activity that cannot be taught or imparted. The thirty-five pages of information I gathered about Montana was a testament to my lacking creativity and originality. My failure to do anything more with the five-page science fiction story after submitting it to class, in spite of all of my daydreams about the many possible directions I could take it, was further evidence that even if I could be creative, I was too lazy to follow through on inspiration. Other than using a primitive word processing program on my family’s first PC to write sporadic journal entries, I took an extended hiatus from writing.
My next experience with writing came when I finally reached high school. My freshman English teacher was a recent college graduate who played in a punk rock band. He had us free-write in a journal every week and encouraged us to be inventive and playful. We read interesting fiction that wasn’t as old as most of what we’d read in other literature classes up to that point. We were encouraged to consider not just the ideas in the work, but also how those ideas were presented. We were encouraged to experiment and look for ways to create pieces of our own that attempted to do what we thought the original works were doing. After reading dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451, 1984 and Brave New World, I wrote a two-page short story about a future in which humans all live in pods that are buried in the ground whose only interactions take place via the Internet. They decide to break out. I immensely enjoyed the writing experience and idolized the teacher. That was the first time that I thought that maybe I, too, would like to be a teacher. At the time, I was preparing to leave for a math and science academy, so I thought I would probably end up teaching math.
My experiences at the math and science academy quickly eliminated my interests in math and science. I continued to read dystopian literature and became very interested in changing the world. I found some of my greatest pleasures in writing extensive notes, emails, and letters to a girl I wanted to date. Manipulating language to develop ideas, construct arguments, and imagine possibilities became something of an addiction for me, particularly when I articulated thoughts on society and philosophy. At one point, I began a set of memoirs in which I hoped to justify my reasons for constantly skipping classes, but I didn’t manage to finish them before being asked to leave the academy. I returned to my home high school and began to use the Internet as a place to share my writing with others. The greatest excitement came when others read and commented on my work, providing me with the necessary stimulation to continue moving forward. I enjoyed the challenge of working with ideas and language that I though, for the first time, that maybe I wanted to be a writer.
I approached my college career much the way I had the fifty-page state report: with little guidance and without asking for help. I had no reason to know that creative writing programs existed at the college level, and I believed that anyone who wanted to write had to major in English. As far as I could tell, English majors who didn’t teach high school all went on to earn a master’s or PhD, in order to teach at the college level. It seemed quite reasonable that if a writer couldn’t simply write and get published with little effort, that writer would have to live and work as either a teacher or a journalist while waiting to be discovered. I spent my first two years as an undergrad at an expensive private university that offered only one creative writing course, and I was surprised to learn that they offered that one. I paid thousands for courses that would’ve cost hundreds at a community college, and I decided by the time I finished my second year that I had no interest at all in teaching high school.
During my freshman year at that university, I started work on a piece of fiction that I didn’t know how to handle. I meant for it to be the beginning of a short story, but I had neither anyone to consult with questions about narrative craft, nor did I have any idea what questions I should ask if I did. A close friend was studying creative writing at a university near my hometown, and his enthusiasm for the program was enough to convince me to transfer. The writing program there was still in its early stages of becoming a distinct entity within the English department. I wasn’t very clear on what the distinctions were in the writing program, so I chose the “professional” writing option over the “creative” writing, because the former sounded like code for “the option for those who would like to have a career.” Not long into the program, I did manage to enroll in a fiction workshop. When I finished my first short story for that class, I knew without a doubt that I would have to switch to the creative writing option.
As an undergraduate creative writing student, I did not gain a strong understanding of what my education was supposed to be doing for me. I took a heavy load of courses outside of my major, and most of my credits within the creative writing major were earned taking literature courses with English professors. In my entire undergraduate career, I took barely more than a handful of creative writing workshop courses. Those workshops seemed to lack context, both in terms of my education as a whole and in terms of what it meant to study creative writing. We read and discussed published writing and student work, but spent little or no time at all discussing theory, or career goals, or what it means to be a writer. But for all the drawbacks of a writing program experiencing growing pains and creative writing workshops that perpetuate a certain level of creative writing lore, writing and discussing my work with others provided me with the push I needed to get involved in writing. Unfortunately, since graduation, I have found that I struggle to write fiction without a workshop deadline to meet.
What Blogging Has Taught Me about Writing
Around the same time that I transferred into a creative writing program, I created a new website in order to post some of my essays. These were pieces that I had posted online in the past with “build-your-own” websites, but this time I went so far as to go through the process of getting domain name ideas, buying my own domain name and designing a page from scratch with help from the same friend who’d convinced me to study creative writing. In addition to each of us having sites of our own, we also created a collaborative site to post our poetry and fiction. We tinkered with our websites as a hobby in our free time, until one day when he emailed me to say that we had to do this new thing called “blogging.” He created small inline frames for each of our sites to serve as a place to inform our viewers of changes, additions, and updates. I started slowly on my personal blog, simply writing to let people know if and when I posted a new story or essay, or to share some bit of personal news. But on more than one occasion, I found myself sitting down to write a brief post about some trivial matter and then getting caught up in the narrative, until the blog entry ended up much longer and more entertaining than I could have anticipated.I was beginning to learn that “every occasion for writing is an occasion for writing.”
By the time I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, my blog had grown to be the primary feature on my website. The site also features more than forty essays (of varying lengths and quality) on numerous topics, more than twenty poems, and over a dozen short stories. The main attraction to my site, according to the website statistics tracking, is the blog on the front page. The blog is also where I often turn to share bits of writing for the general public that I wouldn’t otherwise be likely to write about in an essay or piece of fiction. And while I do not treat my blog as a personal diary, however, as I have found over time that there is a certain personal style of writing that lends itself to the medium. In Keywords in Creative Writing, Bishop and Starkey mention that creative nonfiction is rapidly becoming the new chic genre. As a blogger and a student of writing, I find that I often turn to my blog to write simply for the sake of writing. As long as blogs continue to allow that freedom, and as long as writing studies departments continue to struggle through their growing pains, blogs show a great potential to develop as an important new genre in English literacy.