Wednesday, December 08, 2010

How (Not) To Blog

Not too long ago, a young European guy who was considering starting a poetry-oriented blog sent me a nice email asking if I had any advice on blogging. My first reaction was surprise: I don't consider myself to have been blogging long enough or seriously enough to be seen as a source of advice. Then I looked at my archive, and realized that I've been doing this since 2004, which counts as the Neolithic Period in blogging history. So here, suitable for printing out, crumpling up, and hurling into the nearest trash bag, are what will have to pass as my Words of Great Wisdom.


Advice? God, you make me feel old. No, wait, that's not you making me feel old, it's the wheezing noise I'm making after walking up three flights of stairs to my office.

I suppose it all depends on what you want to accomplish. For me, the blog is just a place where I can type out whatever it is I've been thinking about. I don't treat it as an obligation, and I don't try to stick to any kind of imposed system of topic, post length, engagement in current discussion, or schedule — if I'd looked at blogging that way, it'd be a burden, a bit of alienated labor, and I'd never have kept at it.  If there's any unity to the thing, it's the unity that comes from it being an expression of one person's interests.  I imagine that there are people who would consider this terrible advice, who would tell you to post regularly on a defined topic.  They're probably right, if what you want to do is cultivate an audience.  

So.  I'm not sure if what I have to say pertains to the kind of blog you want to have.  But since you asked, I suppose my advice would be this:

1.  Post comments. I didn't for years, but when I started I actually enjoyed the conversations. It's a good idea to moderate them to weed out the spam. There's a lot of spam.

2.  Don't let people be miserable, angry, argumentative bitches having-at-one-another for no good reason in your comments stream. That's what killed the comments streams at the Poetry Foundation blog and at Ron Silliman's blog.  I've only had people get this way a few times, and I've stopped it by saying "Hey, don't make me start not posting comments — I don't care who started the shouting, but let's stop it right about now."

3.  Don't do it if you don't like it. Don't talk about anything unless it interests you, and don't be afraid to talk about something just because it isn't your "field." As Max Weber might have said, "I am not a donkey, so I do not have a field."

4.  I try to be sort of positive, since the paranoid freak-ass weirdo wing of the online community is bound to take everything the wrong way. I mean, don't shy away from saying what you believe, but it's probably wise to begin with a surplus of generosity. Also, roll with any negative feedback. I mean, if you decide to be the bigger man, you don't come out looking bad. It took me a long time to learn to thank people who set me straight about things, rather than getting mad at them for being right.

5.  I don't think this will be a problem for you, but I'll say it anyway: say what you mean, as clearly and unpretentiously as you can. Don't hide behind academese. I mean, there are no complicated ideas, not really. You can explain most of Kant's aesthetics to a teenager in fifteen minutes. You can explain the basic literary moves of Gertrude Stein to your bartender over a single drink.  I've heard a physicist explain quantum theory to a room full of lunkheads like myself in less than an hour.   Anything you actually understand can be talked-through easily enough, and you'll be considered kind if you give examples. And there's no shame in not knowing everything -- grad school seems to make people afraid to say "I don't actually know much about Baudelaire" or "I never finished Middlemarch" or "Derrida? I don't get him yet." I guess what I'm saying is this: don't bullshit people, or yourself -- you'll only look like another frightened guy who wants to hide behind sophistication that he doesn't really have.

6.  If you absolutely, positively, want to get some hits, post images of naked celebrities. By which I mean: don't worry about getting hits. If you care about poetry, you care about stuff that won't get lots of hits (at least not by the standards of people whose blogs actually do get lots of hits).


I'm sure there are other kinds of advice for other kinds of blogs.  Hell, there's probably better advice for this kind of blog (whatever this kind of blog may be).  But this is all I've got.  Hope it helps.  And if it doesn't, ignore it and do whatever works for you.

I should, before I sign off, add that there are two things I really love about blogging.  First, there's the writing of the posts themselves: it makes one focus one's mind, even more than writing in a notebook does.  The public nature of the posts is a kind of discipline.  Second, there's the community.  Looking at that list above, I fear I may sound like someone who thinks of blog readers as angry, argumentative, thin-skinned people looking for trouble.  And there are a few of those. On a bad day, I can be one of them.  But I really do enjoy being in touch with the people who comment or send emails, or come up to me at conferences or seminars.  Weirdly, I've been recognized in a couple of different countries, and even on the street, by people who got to know of me through the blog.  Sometimes they've even bought drinks for me.  What's not to like?


  1. Those are all great guidelines. I find number 3 particularly important. There is no obligation to post anything more than you want to, and wanting to is the main reason to post. I don't post every day, and I don't feel any obligation to, or to post to a given length. And other days I might have four things to say, and post three or four times.

    What I like most about blogging is that it's often akin to the art of the personal essay at its best. I find myself writing essays on a topic that has me on fire at the moment; occasional reviews; the odd poem; a fair bit of photography. It's in the moment, like a journal, but more than just a diary. It's what you're thinking about at the moment. It sometimes shapes itself, during the process of thinking about it. It reminds me a lot of Montaigne; and I know I'm not the first to suggest the connection.

    I actually started a Road Journal on my website; I still write that, as more of an actual journal, although I haven't updated it for awhile. It's not closed, I'm just behind in my updates. Things evolve in their own way, in their own time.

  2. I feel the same way about poetry, about literary criticism, about scholarly writing -- there's really no reason to do it if it doesn't please you to do it, and if you do it for some other reason, it shows, I think.


  3. I agree completely about poetry, where I think it shows particularly clearly. It's one of my main objections to a lot of contemporary poetry, this sense one gets that it was done for some reason other pleasure and/or passion. I've never been one of those disciplined, craft-oriented writers, especially of poetry. I don't write a poem-a-day, and never have. I might write something every day, but it might be a journal entry not for public consumption. My discipline has always been to just be alert and ready for when something is going to strike, creatively. To be ready to get it down. But not to go hunting it down and killing it, and skinning it, and using its hide to clothe the writing with—which is how some highly-disciplined writers come across to me. LOL

  4. Perfectly put Rob. As you say, '.. it makes one focus one's mind, even more than writing in a notebook does. The public nature of the posts is a kind of discipline.' That's certainly the main reason I do it.

  5. Sorry Bob, I meant 'Bob'.

  6. I wish you luck on #2

  7. Thanks, Ron! Luckily, my blog is enough of a backwater that I don't face the challenges you did.