Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Writing, Blogging, and Online Community

Some time ago I wrote that a surprising amount of my intellectual, spiritual, and emotional life takes place here, in the writing of this blog. It only does so because of the community of readers and writers which supports it. An online community is a strange thing. The ties between us are light and ephemeral, in a way; though at this point in my life, several of my blogging friendships have outlived many of my supposedly more grounded and durable “real life” friendships. Events that rock or destroy “real life” friendships – moving to the other side of the country, illness, taking to drink, marrying – can leave these supposedly lesser relationships quite undisturbed. People drift away – or vanish abruptly -- and return unpredictably: but the conversation goes on, and it deepens year by year, as the context grows richer.

Plus you can do something with online relationships that you can't do with real ones: you can go back in time. It's not something any of us does very often, but can be strangely illuminating, sometimes, to go back in your own or someone else's archives and revisit conversations from five years ago. It's never exactly what you thought it was. Some blogs of course disappear over the years, and accidents befall digital records just as they do paper records. Things disappear. But I don't think there has been anything in the world, not even in the copious letter-writing 19th Century, quite like the preserved conversations we have in the comment-threads to our blogs and the archives of our yahoo groups.

I love the quirkiness of what people write in the comments. You get to see your audience, in a way that writers have seldom been able to see them, except in the rather stilted and often agenda-ridden context of formal readings. You get to see them squirm and object; you get to see them admire fulsomely. You get to know that some of them will just be happy whenever a certain sentiment gets expressed, no matter how un-apt or clumsily worded it may be. You come to learn that some bonnets are always going to buzz the same way no matter what you bat them with. And you get a few of those invaluable readers who can tell exactly what you're driving at and will tell you baldly either that you got there, or that your car is in the ditch and you better haul it out.

And if you're very fortunate in your readers, as I have been, you'll find that they're up for anything, that there's nothing too risky, too pathetic, too strenuous, too boring, too complicated for them. My imagined audience, I have found, is much more narrow-minded and censorious than my real one. I find that when I take risks in my writing there is always some reader willing to see my bet and raise me -- to dare me to risk even more. You find that some things you'd always thought of as weaknesses are in the opinion of your readers strengths, and vice versa. My writing has become in many ways much more disciplined, but in other ways much more extravagant, than it was before I had this wonderful audience. I will write things now in my blog that I would not have dared to write even in my private journals ten years ago.

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