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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Why do you write OR should a blog be useful?

I recently read a post by a fellow blogger, in which she defended her right to write just for the fun of it, and to hell with those who don't like what she writes.

I also recently heard a friend (who writes for a radio show) say he feels useless sitting there, trying to come up with jokes, after an event such as the Boston Marathon explosions.

Finally, I've been reflecting on the reactions I get about my blog, that are mostly of two types:

1) "You write so well!"

(This is an awesome compliment since English is not my first language; I only started to speak it toward the end of high school. I often think I would write much better in French, but I have my reasons for not doing it.) (Click here for more on those reasons.)

2) "You motivate me to put physical activity back in my life."

(I think that makes me even happier than the "nice writing" comment! If I only achieve this with the blog it will totally have been worth it. Go, people, exercise!)

Reflecting on those comments has led me to ask myself the following question:

What is the role of a blog?

More specifically: should a blog offer something substantial to its readers, or is it enough for it to benefit its writer? After all, blogs being self-published, they don't need to be popular in order to survive. Do blogs, in the manner of poetry, exist solely for themselves (see Baudelaire: "La poésie n'a d'autre but qu'elle-même"), or should they aim to be useful? If so, to what extent?

If the benefits have to extend to the readers, do those benefits have to exceed plain entertainment? Should the blog inform? Educate? Or at least inspire? Should it aim at making a change? Should it take a stand? Should blogs embrace literary commitment?

By “committed” literature is meant that form of writing which is done not for its own sake but so as to pursue a political, social, religious or ideological goal. Committed literature does not generally formulate concrete demands. Using the resources of language, it wants to draw attention to problems and social injustices and seek solutions. (http://www.goethe.de/kue/lit/slt/en9859113.htm)

Some would argue that a blog need not serve any purpose other than self-entertainment, auto-therapy, or a mixture of both. In fact, blogs could very well be the means by which one can publish without having to worry about anybody else's reaction, like some modern, online version of a journal made public, if you will. Of course most bloggers have this secret (or not-so-secret) wish that they will be read and that they will get reactions, but some do admit to writing for mere pleasure, because they feel like it, or because they feel better as a result of it. And "let he who loves me follow me", as Philippe VI de Valois would say. ("Qui m'aime me suive!") 

La liberté guidant le peuple, by Eugène Delacroix

Deriving from that, he who does not love me can simply leave the blog.

By writing a blog, after all, you get to express everything that comes to mind without exhausting others. People can chose to read it or not. Those who are not interested simply disappear in the blogosphere never to come back, and no one is annoyed or upset in the process. Those who do stay and come back out of common interests and a similar outlook on life can become wonderful interlocutors (here I wink at my "blog pals" - wink back if you recognize yourself!) ;-)

For many, blogging might be just that: an outlet, a place to express, following your mood, an endless introspective monologue or any kind of superficial soliloquy... in all impunity. After all, according to the French writer Jules Renard, writing is nothing else than "a way to talk without being interrupted" ("Écrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu"). Sometimes, that feels good indeed. The blog becomes the repository of your thoughts, from the deepest to the most insignificant. When you sign out of your blog you know it will be there, waiting for you until your next visit.

In some cases, blogging does have a stated objective, albeit a rather egocentric one (but what blog is not egocentric, I ask!): to be read, to receive feedback, accountability, support. People in a weight loss process, for example, might want to use a blog to that end. In the process, however, bloggers might find themselves arousing unexpected reactions and gathering more readers than they had imagined. What started as a personal reflection becomes an inspiration for others. What started as a simple list tools becomes a source of information. The blog then becomes much more than an accumulation of navel-gazing musings.

This process, albeit not always deliberate, brings us closer to Michel Tournier's views on writing. According to him, the writer's function is to ignite, by his writing, reflexion and even protest. Tournier goes all the way to say that writers should write in a standing position, metaphorically and in reality. To that end, one can use an old-fashioned, tall desk.

A lady writing at her desk, by Vilhelm Hammershoi

What does writing stem from?

But before all those reflexions and analyses on the role of blogging, one has to acknowledge that writing, just like any other behavior, arises from a need. Why do people start blogging (or writing) in the first place?

Don't call the psychiatric hot line just yet, but at this point I think I need to tell you that the first reason I write...

... is because I hear voices in my head.

Not really.

Well, I kinda do.

Let me explain.

I constantly find myself "receiving" ideas, sometimes whole sentences, from a mysterious place that for now we will assume simply is my grey matter. (I have not yet reached the point where I think it's "the divine" trying to communicate me some sacred revelation!) Whether I'm waiting in line at the grocery store, pumping iron at the gym or watching a movie, these incessant "voices" constantly suggests post lines. Sometimes (often) it comes in full sentences. The blog dictates itself in my mind at all times of the day and night. I don't do anything in particular to make it happen. It seems like the more I read, and the more I write, the more wants to be written. What am I supposed to do?

(This inspiration seems to reach its peak whenever I read a good book. Walden or Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau, is such a book. I started gluing sticky notes in it, thinking I would come back to it and transcribe my favorite quotes, accompanied by my comments, in this blog, but within a few pages only I realized I was stopping to catch my breath at every other sentence. I even repeated one out loud a few times, entranced, so much that D eventually looked at me knowingly and said "You're having one of those literary orgasms, aren't you?")

Those bouts of inspiration following each other at a relentless pace, I find myself scribbling notes on pieces of paper, on napkins or, when out of those, on the back of my hand. It's exhausting, really. Sooner or later, I have to pour it all onto the page, somewhere! And after years of misplacing pieces of paper, notebooks and even Word documents, I came to the conclusion that a blog would be the best place to "put all my stuff".

Some people cannot stop applying paint to the canvas. I cannot stop putting words on the page. And a blog page is the only "safe place" I've found to do it. Plus, it comes with the unparalleled advantage of an immediate publication. How convenient!

This inspiration does not come without its downsides: the balance I strive for in life prevents me from writing as much as I would like to, and sometimes (often), that pains me. There's never enough time to write.

In brief, for me, writing primarily stems from a compulsion. In fact, a lot of prolific writers say that if they didn't write, they would fall to pieces. 

I say do what you need and can do; if you need to write and if you can write, by all means write! (I can also sing and swim, but for some reason writing is more compelling.)

Maybe one reason why writing is so compelling is because it serves an explicit therapeutic purpose (singing, swimming - and running, in comparison, are implicitly therapeutic). I hope you will forgive me if I indulge in the most narcissistic behavior of quoting myself, but as I recently said on another fellow blogger's post, in life we are our own satellite... gravitating around our true self, first at a certain distance, then getting closer and closer until we finally find the right place to "land" on ourselves. I find that writing, even if circular at times, helps me move toward that "enlightenment".

For as long as I can remember I have always written. At least half of the lucidity I have attained to this day comes from that writing. Yes, there has been a lot of circling around the truth, but slowly, surely, I have found answers. By writing on this blog specifically I have also found "my voice". We all have something to say, and we all have our own unique way of delivering it. By writing over and over again, you discover your "inner artist" as much as your "inner personality". The kind of writing you ought to do, and the kind of writer you are, emerges and takes shape.

For more on the therapeutic and artistic virtues of writing, I recommend you read Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. She gives plenty of insight on how to make writing a habit, and on how to make sure you replenish the well of ideas regularly. I read her while doing my Master's in French Literature and Creative Writing. It undoubtedly boosted my confidence. For more inspiration on the writing act, I also recommend Stephen King's On Writing.

Writing for posterity

At this point I think we ought to mention that blogging is not solely a compulsive writer's indulgence. One of my main motivations when I write this blog is to transmit my interests, passions, and the little bit of knowledge and wisdom I have acquired to my two daughters, who are too young at this time to fully understand most of it. My hope is that one day, they will read this blog and find in it a least a little bit of useful insights.

I've been following a few blogs and you know what I've noticed? I've noticed that no matter what the contents and container (or message and presentation) are, whether it's highly informative, useful and varied or highly repetitive and superficial and narcissistic, the true test is the readership. If what you write and the way you write it touches others, they will react to it, and your blog will flourish. 

But if you find yourself being the only one appreciating your own blog, don't despair. Remember the good this blog is doing to you. Isn't that sufficient in itself? And remember that if you want to be read, it does not suffice to write well; you have to make yourself visible! Tell your friends and family about your blog (unless you use it to vent about them!) Post comments on other blogs. Eventually you will get some response.

Other than making yourself visible, one last advice you could follow is the following old adage: before you say (or write) something, ask yourself the following questions: "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it useful?" I sure hope what I write has a little bit of the three... at least some of the time.

Have fun writing!


  1. I read that it takes two artists to do a painting.
    One to do it and the other to tell them when to stop!

    I write because I have a lot to say :-)

    It gives me a voice to reach people with a message.

    To paraphrase, "I am not of this blog, rather, I am in this blog."

    1. Maybe that's why we need to interact with other writers, Dr. J: so they can tell us when to stop! :-)

      If you like painting stories, I recommend, by Michel Tournier: The Midnight Love Feast. It's a collection of short stories. I wrote my Master's thesis about it. One of the stories is a "Legend of Painting". :-)