Since part of my resolution for 2013 is to write every day, it seemed fitting to begin the year by trying to stitch together some disparate things that have been floating around in my brain on the subject of writing, particularly writing on the internet.
When it became clear that blogging was going to be much more than an ephemeral phenomenon, there was much discussion of blogging vs. writing, blogging vs. journalism, etc, and much prating about the importance of distance from readers, strong editing, etc, valued in the traditional journalism industry. As a beginning journalist who never worked in print media, I considered the line of argument that wanted to preserve “journalism” or “magazine writing” as a sacred form superior to blogging to be prissy and conservative. I took it as motivated by self-preservation and laziness, as in, a desire to have one’s comfortable career barricaded from people who hadn’t paid their supposed dues in the industry, and to be held at a remove from the speed of events and the criticism that working at that speed inevitably occasions.
That was somewhat correct. The explosion of blogging and online writing has done wonders for global journalism, and has displaced many ensconced gatekeepers whose positions as arbiters were far too often unearned and undeserved. Most of the stuffy objections to the web and to blogging have been silenced by its enormous success and popularity, and by the clear superiority of blogging as a platform for certain types of journalism. We now get better information faster, and sharp analysis almost as instantly as events take place. Young writers who learn fast and work hard don’t have to spend years as anonymous editorial assistants before anyone ever hears of them; they can start developing voices right away.
I’ve been blogging regularly for about 7 years now on a pretty wide variety of topics, both professionally and not. Everything about the format matched my sensibilities, particularly the independence from authority and instant gratification, and the ability to use my own voice rather than some insufferable “objective” formula. Learning to write quickly, getting a near-instant response (especially as social media developed), and having to defend oneself against any person who happens to be listening has always been exhilarating and motivating. Through blogging, I could work on developing a (still very much in progress) fusion of reporting, commentary and academic study, something that would have been much more difficult 15 years ago.
But despite my general enthusiasm for every innovation in information-dissemination, I’ve gradually seen the limits of blogging for people who think of themselves as writers and not just information-delivery vehicles along the lines of a traditional beat reporter. If you are blogging in an open-ended, perspective-driven format, and not simply commenting on a limited sphere of information, the primary appeal to readers is you: your voice, your personality, your beliefs, and your ability to argue. Your perspective, then, which by definition must draw on your knowledge, experience and ability to express yourself as a thinker. And here’s the thing: perspectives calcify quickly. I’ve seen this both in my journalism and my blogging, and was reminded of it by Hamilton Nolan’s takedown of this New York Times piece arguing that young writers should reveal their personal secrets to get attention. Nolan responded: “By plundering your own life for material, you are not investing in yourself as a writer; you’re spending the principal.”
This is true beyond just telling personal secrets. Plundering your own perspective for material is also a way of spending the principal. Your current perspective, especially if you are young, is pretty limited, and the world it encompasses is constantly shifting and evolving. Maybe if you’ve worked in a field or government position for decades, your perspective is substantial enough on that particular issue to sustain a lifetime’s worth of blogging. But for most of us that’s not the case, and our perspective very quickly becomes a shtick, a rote performance, a reflexive mechanism for avoiding critical thought that rivals the “ritualized viewlessness” of traditional journalism. Pretty soon, you’re saying the same thing over and over, and realizing how often you use the same arguments, back them up with the same old links, etc. I realize this problem is not the internet’s fault, as many print-newspaper opinion columnists are some of the worst incarnations of it, but I think the pace and exposure of blogging intensify it.
To be a fresh and relevant writer means, I think, that you have to be something like a fresh and relevant person, one who reads slowly and widely, has idiosyncratic interests, goes new places, meets new people, and regularly changes their mind. Feeling my own perspective plundered and empty over the years has pushed me to appreciate the value of, if we use Nolan’s terms, “building up the principal.” I don’t know any universally applicable way to do this, especially if you work in the media. Graduate school has played that role for me: being forced to read difficult books I cared about but would never have worked through otherwise, pushed to make new connections and learn about worlds and historical events I barely knew existed. The more you can be forced past your current perspective, and not just by other bloggers and journalists, the better. The more you can participate in something besides consuming media and blogging, the better. The more you can really learn about something the better; good writing can’t survive all that long on nothing but voice and other people’s reporting.
These are, I’m sure, mostly banal insights to people who have thought seriously about what it means to be writer and how to challenge their own voice and perspective. But the time to “build principal” is what I think, in their better moments, the magazine “old guard” was defending against the ravaging terrors of internet instantaneity. That’s a valid concern, because very few of us are interesting, unique and learned enough to run on nothing but our bare perspective, day in and day out, and remain worth reading.
Update: It’s hard to beat this ultra-awkward Elizabeth Wurtzel piece as an extreme example of where one can end up by trying to make a career out of nothing but their viewpoint.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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