One of my friends, who prefers on principle to remain anonymous to the web, asked me yesterday about how exactly I go about writing for the web. She is, and I hope this does not threaten her anonymity too much to say so, a teacher of writing and composition, and she is interested to know how it is that writing in the mode of a blog, or in other web modes, differs from more traditional writing practises. She claims that writing for the web can be paralleled most closely to the tradition of the personal essay, a form that is strongly connected to print journalism in various forms, and her hypothesis is that it may be productive to compare the writing style of print journalism at the height of its influence with the writing styles emerging in new media journalism today.
I am not sure if my responses helped her very much, but our conversation did cause me to spend some time thinking about the process through which I come to write in this space. What I realized is that writing for the web, at least my writing for the web, may indeed resemble the personal essay in function and even at times in form, but that it is a mode of personal essay that intensifies the personal to extremes that would rarely have been possible in print journalism. This is the case even in my own writing, and I am someone who consciously limits the amount and the nature of the personal information that I include. It is this intensification of the personal, this intensification of personality, that I think is a key marker of writing for the web, so I though that I might explore the reasons why my own personality has accorded so well with tthis mode of writing.
What I realized, in effect, is that I enjoy the nature of writing for the web because I am not a focussed thinker. I never have been. This was true even when I was under the duress of having to perform in the academic institution. It is still truer now that I have little external direction for what I need to think and read and write. At any given time, I am thinking through several problems having to do with a whole range of activities, from gardening to teaching to philosophy to whatever. A short list at the moment, for example, would include the following questions, some of which will very likely provide the source for future writing in this space or elsewhere:
1. What is the nature of home on the web? What does it mean to be at home in virtual spaces?
2. How exactly might I create a physical barrier around the corner of my yard that would protect the garden that I want to plant without blocking the view of the house? Might it be possible to do this in a way that would integrate the barrier into the garden in a productive way?
3. How might it be possible to encourage spiritual community in the home or the neighbourhood as a way of contesting and resisting the homogenizing influence of church institution? Can something like this be conceived that would not immediately become a church institution by another name?
4. What are the ways that I might pattern a reading practise to my students that would model an appreciation for the classic literature that we are studying precisely in terms of reading contemporary culture? How do I contextualize this kind of reading historically? How to I represent its significance personally?
5. How will I schedule this fall’s canning around our new household rhythms? When might I pick and prepare and cook without interfering with with my Mother-in-law’s physiotherapy practise, with my increasingly napless children, with my family time, and with my activities outside of the home?
This is only a very partial list, but it gives a sense, I hope, of the unfocused nature of my thinking, which is directly related to the unfocused nature of my living. I am interested in many things, so I think about many things. I do not have, not in sufficient quantities, the capacity for the kind of sustained and focused writing that is required in traditional academic work. I recognize this and am not terribly disappointed by it. What I need is a mode of writing that enables me to write on the various things that interest me, but in a way that also enables me to return to these things, as I will, building a broad and integrated writing and thinking rather than a narrow and isolated writing and thinking.
My process of writing for the web, therefore, as I said to my friend yesterday evening, is not very different from my natural and personal process of living and thinking and being. What I write is personal in this sense, though it does not always take the form of the essay or always include personal content. It appears best on the web because the web enables precisely this kind of personal writing, this kind of personalization. While there may some similarities between current writers of the web and the old personal essayists, therefore, the very personalization that the web allows, and the variation that this personalization allows in turn, will mean that there will also be a great number of dissimilarities. The web does permit and encourage writing in the mode of the personal essay, but it also permits and encourages writing in very different modes, because it is open to the personal and the idiosyncratic. This may be, in my opinion, one of the web’s greatest strengths. It is certainly one of its greatest attractions to me.