Friday, May 15, 2015

What ho, blog writer? The perils of talking to oneself.

A state-of-the-blog address. Very meta. 

I keep reading that the traditional blog format is dead. Whether that's true or not, I can't say, but I suppose if one looked at the frequency of my posting they'd be inclined to number this blog among those interred in cyber cemeteries.

Reports of my cyber-death have been greatly exaggerated, though, for I do post regularly and eclectically on my eponymous Facebook page. It's the long-form writing on this site that I've not done much -- uhm, at all -- this past year. There are reasons for that.

1. True confession: I don't like to write. Seriously. I usually have multiple topics worthy of exploration in mind. But I enjoy research more than writing, so I read and I read and I read. If pressed, I could say that I enjoy having written. But the process itself is tedious and my thoughts too often are light years ahead of my fingers. I mentally synthesize what I've read and move on without having written a thing. I love words, and words about words, but I don't feel driven to compose in the way that I imagine 'real' writers must.

2. Whine: blogging sometimes feels like an exercise in talking to oneself in cyberspace. It's also lots of work. No matter how appealing your content is to the masses (and mind you, I have no illusions about this for myself), all the promotional bits one has to engage in to find and maintain a readership can be wearying. Also, one's readers aren't always inclined to comment on what they've read (I know this for true facts since I'm guilty of it myself). Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook seemingly offer the assurance of instant gratification vis-a-vis 'likes' or re-blogs and tweets, but such assurance is not consistent given the readership rubrics of those platforms. And while online 'reach' statistics do help combat that feeling of babbling to oneself, stats can be deceptive. For instance, I'm pretty sure the astronomical number of hits I get on my post about Father James Cox have less to do with a groundswell of interest in the Pittsburgh labor leader and more to do with the late priest's vaguely pornographic last name. Plus the dynamics of social media 'following' can be disturbing: I flinch every time I see a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi 'like' one of my WWII German history posts or follow my Facebook page. I don't have control over who I'm reaching when I put things out there.

3.  Self-reflective interlude: content is problematic for a dilettante like me. Yes, I know that the word 'dilettante' has a superficial, pejorative modern definition and as such may have been a questionable choice for a blog title. (My other choice was "Le Patrimoine Culturel" but even I realized that was way too pretentious).

Seriously, the term 'dilettante' has been debased. I prefer the example of an Enlightenment-era dilettante, someone who possesses a credible competence in multiple subjects. That's me...I'm no idle dabbler! I embraced the now nearly-archaic sense of the word for my blog because I liked the idea of writing a blog from the perspective of an amateur appreciator taking delight in learning much about much. Also, I figured it might appeal to others who consider themselves historical dilettantes.

But since my interests are eclectic and seemingly ill-defined (though they make sense to ME), I haven't created a blog that is rooted to any one topic, era, or region. I've had fellow bloggers link to me based upon an article they liked, but who then deleted the linkage once they realized I'm not always "on" about that particular focal area. I don't begrudge them that choice, but I'm also not about to narrow my interests to suit established niche categories (although doing so has been kindly suggested to me more than once).

4.  The tone argument: I'm old enough to acknowledge without apology that how you say something matters. It shouldn't matter as much as your content, to be sure, but tone counts. People who claim otherwise are fooling themselves and lying to you. 

I perhaps flatter myself in thinking that I have developed a unique "voice."  But I readily (and I suppose proudly) acknowledge that it's not a voice pitched to stand out over the stylistically snappy, flip, hipper-than-thou tone that's favored by many mainstream culture and history bloggers. There's a certain "gee-whiz would you believe what I found, wow, history is so cool" attitude that characterizes popular regional history pieces that I find exhausting. I mean, yes, of course, history is cool. But I weary of wading through the emotional gushes.

I definitely think the kind of slangy approachability that has come to dominate popular blogging has its place. It can amuse, and it certainly draws in readers who might otherwise not read a piece about history or culture. But, it leaves me feeling talked down to, as if I'm in grade school and the teacher is trying too hard to engage students. I don't come away from reading those pieces with a sense of wonder. At worst, I feel like their writers have sold themselves cheap into cultural prostitution, choosing to trivialize topics for fear of alienating readers by seeming too interested or intelligent. It's akin to that hide-your-light-under-a-bushel mentality that my teenager tells me is evident when teens denigrate serious students as "try-hards."

Full disclosure: I'm totally a try-hard. I'd like people to read and comment on my stuff, sure, but not at the expense of disrespecting the content or my own interest in it. I DO take things seriously. Things matter to me.

Why bother to write about them otherwise?

Of course, that's the million-dollar question: why write? I've listed all the reasons why I haven't been writing. Given that I'm not willing to change anything related to my content, tone, or style of blog, logic might dictate that perhaps I ought to quit. But I'm not ready to buy a cyber casket just yet. I've got things to say, sporadically and self-consciously perhaps, and with no illusions of widespread relevance. But they matter to me, and that kind of manifesto ought to count for something.

So, whither blog? It's right here. While it might not be going anywhere in one sense, I promise that I intend to take it somewhere. 

Writing is as much about discipline and effort as it creative inspiration and technique. So, what am I gonna make myself stop researching and write about?

I've done a few reviews and cultural round-ups here, but that's not quite what I want to devote my time to writing. I appreciate that the Internet allows us all to be curators of our own content. But I have come across many reflective pieces that ran away from their authors, become conflated with attempts at literary/artistic criticism -- criticism that the author had little substantive foundation to build upon. As a result, there are way too many online pieces that employ critique instead of contemplation, thereby applying subjective preferences in a global, dismissive way. The resulting glut of negative and petty "reviewing" splinters cultural communities rather than strengthens them. I don't want to join the legions of wanna-be Dorothy Parkers (Speaking of tone! I wish I could skewer with her rapier wit, but not at the expense of alienating readers). And I'm insightful enough to recognize that what I don't know ought not be applied as an objective standard of judgement.

So, no, I'm not here to review. I am here to reflect. There's a distinction to be maintained, damn it, and I'm pedantic enough to maintain it.

And, I think, I'm really more here to create content than to boost someone else's content. That doesn't mean I won't shout out when I've come across something fab, but I think that's going to happen solely on FB and Twitter. Not here. Here, I'm refocusing on history, art, and culture. And (with occasional exceptions) it'll mostly be Pittsburgh-centric, because that's what I know and best love.  

Thus, the state of this blog is this: it remains as it is and hopefully more so, long and mentally meandering and mainstream irrelevant though it may be. As a self-avowed cultural contrarian, I'd very much like it if I could set up a social media block that would allow me to avoid coverage saturation of whatever is 'trending' at any given moment. Popular culture generally doesn't appeal to me. I mean, I'll look at red carpet fashion pictures out of sartorial curiosity, but I do so once and move on. I can't be bothered to judge and rip down anyone's personal choices, plus I don't know (or care about) most of the celebrities and am bemused by our cultural obsession with the famous. I'd like to say that I don't care if you, gentle reader, DO care to read 27 gazillion articles about award show fashions. But honestly, I think doing so feeds into a cult of celebrity and joy in criticizing that troubles, I do care. I believe that dumbing-down entertainment to a primal element of mockery harms us culturally and individually. (And I blame the late Joan Rivers for popularizing this nastiness, so there).

I can't change the world, only hope for moderation and forge my own path. Which is why I created this blog and its accompanying Facebook page, so I could reflect on what personally matters to me. You're welcome to come along for the ride, and I hope you'll be a chatty passenger because I welcome feedback on the journey!  But as the chauffeur I intend to arbitrate the directions taken, and the pace.

Perhaps I'll leave it that my interests can be summed up thusly: one part fashion photo spread perusal to 98 parts of Frank Hurley Shackleton expedition photography, and 1 part looking at cat memes on the Internet.

Speaking of which....

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