Shaped by the Audience

When introducing the audience as a key component of weblog writing, Steve wrote:

We’re not writing an account of our lives just as a record of our lives, we’re trying to say something about our lives, and that can’t be done if we stick only to ‘facts’: the facts that will speak to me about my life—me, with all kinds of insider knowledge and secrets—is hardly going to speak to you in the same way.

We can’t read weblogs the way we read other literatures—it isn’t appropriate. They aren’t the same as novels or memoirs or what not, because of the play of time and because of other factors that would only serve to muddy the waters of my present point.

In this excerpt, Steve makes two assumptions: that we write in these weblogs to say something about our lives; and weblogs aren’t read in the same manner as other literature. He has surrounded and captured the spirit not only of the debate about truth and weblog writing, but also the expectations readers bring with them when they read our weblogs: we’re here to tell people about ourselves, and weblog writing must, above all else, facilitate this effort.

For many long-term webloggers, and for the majority of this generation of webloggers, this assumption works fairly well. However, let’s pivot our understanding a bit and ask, what if a weblogger does not see their weblog as a way of describing their life? If we change this one underlying assumption, what does this do to the rest of our assumptions?

I am a writer. I created my first story when I was too young to put it to paper and would tell it to my cat and any adult foolish enough to listen to my prattle. No matter the obstacles, the criticism, or worse, the silence, I’ll remain a writer until I return to that same state of being unable to put my stories into words.

When I started this weblog a long time ago, when it was originally called “Bridge-to-Bridge”, I did so because I wanted to use this new medium to reach a different audience; to try writing something other than technical articles and books. Somewhere along the way, the Twin Towers happened and I wrote about it and my anger against the Arab world and someone left a comment at my weblog. I was astonished! This changed the equation of my weblog — from being a new way to write essays, it now became this interactive forum, a virtual neighborhood. A way of connecting with people all over the world, and I was delighted. In that time when all of us were reaching out to each other, for comfort and for companionship, the conversation weblogging brought was welcome.

But I still remained a writer.

During the tenure of this weblog, thanks to my virtual neighborhood and the people who’ve stopped by and stayed awhile, I’ve been able to try different things and to get feedback and suggestions. Because of this, I’ve grown: as a writer, a photographer, and as a person. I am no longer afraid of exposing myself through stories and parables, or of writing fiction as well as non-fiction. I’ve even discovered poetry, to my astonishment. I am half again more than I was before starting this weblog.

At the same time, though, I’ve become aware that there are expectations associated with weblog writing. There is an assumption that ‘I’ will exist in everything we write, as well as an assumption of honesty and an acknowledgement of of the mechanics of the medium. In the last few months, I’ve come to know that there is no place in Burningbird for some of the writing I want to do; however, thanks to the support I’ve had with my fledging efforts into new territory, I’m now willing to take that writing, and the photography, elsewhere, to give it a chance on its own out there; to learn and grow in new arenas.

Would you listen to me going on about myself? If I continue, someone will think this is a weblog or something.

Steve made an important observation when he wrote:

When we read an isolated essay, by Annie Dillard, maybe, we read it as a discrete, ‘closed’ unit—there is no context unless we set out to find that context elsewhere, in biography and criticism. A weblog, on the other hand, is all context—every post we read is read through the lens of the other posts we’ve read, and if you only read one post from a blog you’re not reading the blog—which as a whole is the text, not the individual post.

We could take this farther and say that every post we read is read through the same lens of posts from other webogs, too. We don’t write these things in a vacuum, and unlike a book, sitting down in an evening and catching up our favorite weblogs usually means that we’re reading more than one weblogger’s writing at a time. Compound this with RSS aggregation tools, and other webloggers can form a context for our writing that even supercedes our own posts over time. When we experiment or tell ourselves that we’re going to write what we want to write, our audience is till reading us within context, and they will comment accordingly. Not only can this abrogate our bold ventures in writing, it can discourage them.

However, the context that discourages non-format aware writing enourages writing that enables conversation. In particular, if our weblogs contain verbal cues that fit in with other posts of the day, particularly those relevant to a specific virtual neighborhood, we’ll most likely have more comments, as well as comments more focused and relevant to what we’re saying. Think of it as fishing, and the posts are hooks. Our readers are all little fishies swimming past, and the context cues form bright little lures calling out, “Here fishie, fishie, fishie.”

A comment that Stavros (Chris) wrote to Steve’s posting would seem to corroborate this:

But must say that if there’s a schism that I find it hard to leap across, it’s not between entertainment and truth, but between entertainment and conversation, or to use slightly different words to better express what I was trying to say, between a showman and a friend, between being amused and being schooled, between passing time and carpe-ing the bloody diem, if you get my meaning.

Not to say that it’s not possible to glean a deeper understanding of who I am and what people are about from a carefully woven blogfiction, but I’ve always found (as has languagehat, I’m inferring) that the raw stories of a life teach me the most, about others and myself equally. Thus my relative valuations of the two. Like I said at Shelley’s, about you and Jonathon, but it applies equally to many others in this neighbourhood of ours, with a strong enough writer the distinction doesn’t matter as much.

…with a strong enough writer the distinction doesn’t matter much. With a strong enough writer, no distinction matters.

If we see weblogging as more conversation than literature, then we can see how the injection of ‘artistic license’ into our writing generates so much resistance. There’s a difference between reading a book or essay from an author we don’t know, and sitting down to shoot the breeze over coffee with a person who we’ve come to know as ‘friend’.

In my comments, Dale Keiger wrote the following about mixing fiction and non-fiction:

I believe there is a problem, though, when a writer presents work as nominally nonfiction, but it contains imagined material that goes unlabled. Annie Dillard is an estimable writer, a writer I teach to undergraduate and graduate writing students alike, but when she writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek about a cat walking about with bloody paws, and it turns out that the incident never occurred, she has broken a covenant with the reader because she presents the book as nonfiction, as verifiab. That book contains a wealth of scientific information about the natural world that the reader takes for factually accurate. How am I to regard all of that after learning that she fabricated the cat with injured paws?

In Wolf Willow, another work of nonfiction, Wallace Stegner invents a long narrative to convey the experience of a brutal Saskatchewan winter. But he tells the reader at the outset of that chapter that he’s creating the story based on historical record. He declares that he’s going to write fiction for a while. To me, this allows him the creative latitude he felt he needed for the work, without deceiving the reader.

Dale’s point about the writer breaking covenant with the reader matches closely with the pushback we’re seeing about adherance to facts within weblogging. I can understand what he’s saying and his points are good, but I don’t necessarily agree with him. At least, not in all instances, with all due respect.

The ‘bloody paws’ story of Annie Dillard’s that Dale mentions is the following passage:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half-awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as thought I’d been painted with roses.

I found the following comment associated with this passage:

Not long ago, Annie mentioned in print that this didn’t actually happen. She told this story as a kind of metaphor to set the tone for the book. Many people got angry, saying that nature writing should be based on FACT. But I understand why she created this story. What could better bring together the child and her wonder and acceptance with an example of wildness, of nature’s violence blended with beauty. Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little.

Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little.

Dorothea writes:

I know I am vulnerable to deceit, as both deceiver and deceived. I am easily fooled, and if I let myself, I could easily fool people, could easily come to accept the benefits I could gain in so doing.

In its way, deceit is even more insidious than alcohol. It has plenty of innocent uses. In some contexts it is all but impossible to avoid. It has infinite guises, tastes, appearances, whose quality and utility can be endlessly argued about. Many people manage it with ease, brilliance, audacity; it is their tool and not their master.

Yet one can shut the door on alcohol, as I have, in a way that one cannot with deceit. As Jonathon’s sly quotes point out, deceit is part of language, part of life. All truths are partial, all statements deceptive. Honesty too is a pose, is unreal.

I cannot run away from lies. Cannot shut them out. Must try to find purchase on the slippery slope. This only makes deceit all the more frightening.

Dorothea’s forthright statement is understandable and hard to deny — deceit, especially among friends, is very frightening. I would rather face upfront rejection than deceit from those I care for.

But at the same time, and without any intention of being critical of Dorothea, who I care for as friend, she also puts a burden on those webloggers whose writing she reads. I’m not sure any of us can measure up to the level of Dorothea’s honesty, because it is Dorothea’s honesty, and unique to her. D, it comes as part of a burden you’ve put on yourself.

When Jonathon wrote

That’s it: where my own interests lie. In other words, hardly anything to do with telling the literal truth; and everything to do with fashioning an authentic persona from bits of alibis and consistent lies.

he wasn’t making a statement warning people he would be deceiving them from that point on. He wasn’t breaking covenant with his readers. The key to his statement was the word authentic, but so much focus since this was written has been on the word lie. Jonathon is a friend and one of my favorite people; rather than feel betrayed by his words when I read them, I was relieved. “Thank God,” I thought to myself. “I’ve missed the real Jonathon’s writing.”

Sometimes to tell the truth, you have to lie a little.

Someday when I write a book, a real book, I’m going to start it off with Assume everything you read from this point on, is a lie…

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