The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Blogger
January 29, 2013 § 2 Comments
In the very early days of blogging, an old friend in North Carolina, a talented writer who had worked with me when I was a newspaper editor, began sending me weekly postings. I printed each one out, read each one carefully, and always returned some kind of reply, sometimes short, sometimes lengthy. I was responding as an editor, friend and, above all, as an engaged reader. “Your piece leads me to think about x, y and z.” That was more or less the format.
Those experienced in the world of blogging (as I now am too) will be able to guess how my friend responded to my responses. Hardly or not at all. That is, occasionally I might get some kind of brief thank you, and more often just nothing, no response. It did not take long for me (not understanding the game) to reach a place between demoralized and angry. I asked another friend, a Tunisian woman whose office was a few doors from mine, what I should do. She, knowing even less about blogging than I did, suggested I write a frank letter expressing my feelings to my old friend. (Never a good idea, but it’s also probably never a good idea to ask one woman with whom you have a warm relationship about how you might improve your relations with another woman.)
I wrote my blogging friend that I was more than happy to be in written dialogue with her, but I did not want to just be sent, as by a machine, bits of her writing and to have my considered responses to this writing seem not to deserve any consideration of their own. Result: Not only did I stop receiving the blog posts, the friendship went cold.
I write on the occasion of my 52nd weekly post. Like the Grateful Dead, I am impressed by what a long, strange trip it’s been. (Adapting an old joke about eating health foods, we might say that blogging does not make you live longer, it just makes it feel that way.) The person with whom I share an office, a young computer programmer, has been impressed, too, by what I seem to be gaining by the constant effort to explore and articulate my thoughts in these weekly posts. I could not agree more, and in this regard I might urge anyone and everyone to blog or keep a journal, write reflective e-mails, etc.: all the various means at our disposal for exploring and articulating our thoughts.
For me writing is, or is also, a drug, the best one I have found. I assume that there is a good deal of narcissism in the drug’s effectiveness. Through writing I am connecting with ME!—with the wonder that is me with all my particular thoughts and experiences, and with the wonder that is the experience of connecting with oneself and of connecting tout court. I have an image of a human body folding in on itself in some kind of Tantric pose, and electricity also comes to mind: the lack of activity when there is no connection; the incessant activity and flow when there is a connection. I recall, too, E.M. Forster’s best known passage:
Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire. . . . Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.
Depressed or highly stressed people are often counseled to seek ways to connect with other people—volunteer, sign up for a class. I appreciate arguments for this. If the problems are inside, try to get outside. In seeking to help or listen to others, you may open yourself up to the possibility of being helped or heard yourself. I “get this,” as people now say. But I have also been struck, in this first year of blogging, that connection begins in the connection we may (or may not) make with ourselves, e.g., through writing. (And to what extent is it a lack of connections, a lack of a feeling of being connected, that drives us to blogging?)
Certainly connection and it lack also begins at home, in our original families. Our inabilities as young children to feel connected—warmly, reliably, securely connected—with our parents, siblings, cousins: this must haunt and shape our lives. And, on the positive side, if as young children we enjoy close connections, if—this is primary—our parents are able to play unreservedly, un-self-consciously with us, to hold us and comfort us when we are suffering, to sit quietly beside us, to talk openly and freely, person-to-person with us: this may be the greatest gift a child can receive, the one that really matters. I might write, too, of the joys or problems of living with a lover and of being connected to or not being connected to her or him, or of no longer feeling connected and even if we are still having sex or appearing in public as a happy couple.
But my proposal here is that for those of us who emerged from childhood like boats without moorings, consigned as it were to forever sail seas (seeing much and resting little?), connecting may—may have to—begin, and perhaps also end, with connecting with ourselves. There are of course those who go to psychotherapy in order to do this work, and one may need to go continuously in order to keep the lines open. I am also proposing here that this can also be one of the benefits, one of the often ignored benefits of blogging—a benefit, for example, of attempting to write something post-able every week.
What then to say about all the “friends” who may or may not “like” what we (I) have written, who may attach their name or their avatar next to our words, or who may post an enthusiastic comment? Here, I’m afraid, I have become more cynical in the course of this first year. (And I remain open to learning a quite different lesson from the second year, now dawning.) In addition to being a prolific writer, I am a big reader and a big believer in reading (and in the connection between reading and writing!). And my sense is that visitors to and likers of and commenters on blogs are vastly more numerous than readers of posts. In this sense blogging is a social as opposed to a literary activity. I’ll like you, you’ll like me. I’ll give you a comment, you give me one. This of course involves a lot of connecting, but I (here after Malcolm Gladwell) would call these cool, even chilly connections. These attachments to other blogs or bloggers seem largely if not entirely instrumental, based on a desire to appear to have something that, within in the blogosphere one has in name or avatar only: i.e., friends (IP addresses who like us and who we like too).
There are also of course also all the “friends” and “likers” who are in fact trying to call attention to products or services they are selling, and there are those who stumble on our sites because we used the word “faith” or “chocolate cake” in an essay, and they are greatly attached, not to essays, but to faith or cake. But rather than foundering on such shoals, I would seek out deeper waters. Channel surfing one recent evening I happened upon James Taylor, the folk-pop singer-songwriter, talking to Charlie Rose (the pop serious interviewer?). Taylor was speaking quite romantically and winningly about we human beings. We are by nature couplers, he was saying, made to exist in pairs. Further, he proposed that artists, in addition to seeking immortality, create and try to attract attention to their work as an outgrowth of this search for the other: for that one other person with whom we were made to pair. Our songs or sculptures—or blogs, I am proposing—are like flags we raise in a crowd or on the sterns of our ships in the hopes of being recognized by just that one person.
We might say that the existence and appeal of such observations is a reflection of the lives we are now living in the “Western” world, with likely a larger percentage of human beings now living by themselves than ever before, and with few relatives or friends with whom they might talk intimately, unguardedly. There have been several prominent empirical studies and articles that speak of these phenomena. My point is that our desire to connect—compulsively, it often seems—even my repeated use of the word “connection” in this piece has a compulsive quality—I take all this to reflect the difficulties we are now having in this regard. We cling to the idea that there is one person out there in cyberspace with whom we are not only made to merge but will want to merge, for whom we are willing to let down our guards and open our hearts, with whom “I” would be willing to trade my autonomy for something greater.
And would this include sharing a computer? (You show me your porn sites, I’ll show you mine?) I will save for another post, or for the posts of others, commentary on how our technology and its sales agents have gotten us to make quite another trade. We used to often talk with our friends both face to face and undistracted by electronic devices, and as if it were nothing special, the most natural thing in the world. Now the devices keep us constantly connected to other devices around the world. We are everywhere and nowhere, with everyone and no one.
Rather than dwelling on this sad subject, however, I will, and by way of closing, make yet one more, not very salacious confession. Some years ago I realized (and this was neither an easy process nor a short one) that many of the things I had been given to say were not of interest to the vast majority of Americans or of human beings more generally. Indeed, many found my work quite off-putting (too intellectual; too erudite without being certifiably scholarly (academic); too long-winded for a culture that has little time for reading; and—above all—not sufficiently positive! Life can be hard enough even without having to read or think about how hard it can be?) Around the same time, however, I realized that the few people who did find my work of interest were quite taken by it, quite admiring and enthusiastic. (It is intriguing that the word we use to express our enthusiasm for another’s writing or other creations is “love.” “I love it!”)
One morning I did a “back of the envelope” calculation on a restaurant table’s butcher-paper table covering. The conclusion: There are 6,000 English-language readers in the world who are interested in reading my work and who will be pleased to come across it. I do not recall how I arrived at this figure (though I am sure it is correct). I ran for president of my high school, which had 3,000 students, and I have often thought that this was more than enough people to reach or lead in one lifetime. So now . . . ? My ambitions have doubled? I started this blog with the idea that it might be a way of finding “my” 6,000, or of helping them find me, some of my writing. Studying the “analytics” WordPress provides, it is hard for me to judge if, in the course of these fifty-two weeks, these relatively short essays have found or been found by, say, one hundred people or perhaps by just one. (You, bless your heart, would know better than me who you are.)
Among the valuable lessons I have learned from Montaigne, one is to not be afraid to either admit or reveal that others have already said, and perhaps said better, something quite like what “I” feel compelled to say, or to repeat. And thus I will offer, again, these famous words from T.S. Eliot: “[E]very attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure . . . With shabby equipment always deteriorating . In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion.” In the end, there is “neither gain nor loss . . . only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Eliot worked in a bank and then for a publishing company. Instead of as a business, I would refer to my efforts at blogging—and at life more generally—as one small part of a Herculean labor of love.