On Writing (and Evolving) Online
My husband is obsessed with Chinese tea. I’m more of a coffee gal, but I enjoy watching him prepare a cup of tea, from choosing the type in our cupboard to letting it steep to pouring it. There’s an appreciation for delicateness here that I’ve not really experienced, at least with coffee. He recently wrote a piece on Medium, “The Walls We Build Around Us,” on writer’s block, obsession, and the Egyptian Revolution — a story, he says, he has needed to tell. And so I entertain the idea that he has patiently steeped two years’ worth of thoughts — on his six years in Egypt, his life as a nomad, and his struggle with writing — in a teapot he bought in Chinatown last year, when he moved to San Francisco and we started our life together.
I, too, struggle with writing. I experience lapses of drying up, in which I don’t write for many months. It happens each year, and no matter what I’m immersed in — an MFA program, or an editorial position in which I read many blogs each day to find stuff worth sharing — I’ll hit a wall and nothing, or no one, can offer the spark I need to get going again. I’ve written about this before and have accepted these lapses, but they never get any easier, especially as I see fellow writers writing all the time — and seemingly everywhere on the web.
Which brings me to a question that Nick, and also my friend Miranda, have brought up recently: where, online, does your writing live?
In his piece, Nick talks about freezing up as a writer and wonders how to build and maintain an online presence:
How, exactly, do you organize your online presence? Where does your writing live; how is it compartmentalized; to what extent should you strive for an overarching coherence?
On her blog A Literal Girl, Miranda ruminates on this bit with her usual eloquence; she struggles to find an online home for her writing, and a space that best reflects her:
I keep imagining a kind of perfect online mobility: not having a website or a singular blog and trying to keep this one plot of web-land mine, but taking all of my content, all of my stuff, with me wherever I go. Finding a way of being on the Internet that better respects the fluidity of self.
Her post is worth a read, and the comment I’d left on it planted the seeds for this post, so I suppose I have both Miranda and Nick to thank for the spark I needed. I’ve also wondered where my writing lives, and what this blog, Writing Through the Fog, has become — and what it should be. A few years ago, when this blog was picked up for the first time (by The Atlantic, The Verge, and The Daily Beast), I made a pact with myself: from then on, anything published on this blog would be as polished as possible. Standalone pieces I’m proud of. Writing that’s good enough to share. Anything else didn’t belong.
Since that pact, I’ve tightened up my writing and always consider my readership — even more so than when I was freelance writing and reporting, probably because I was writing, completely, as me. It was a great personal goal, but has also been quite paralyzing — I’ve inadvertently frozen up in my own way.
Now, despite this blog being my very own online home, there’s really no space here that’s just for me — no room for experimentation and process. I’d mentioned several months ago that I had many drafts in my dashboard — posts forgotten or not good enough to pursue. And in these abandoned posts, many (probably decent) ideas have died.
I struggle to find a place online for these ideas. Should I create another WordPress.com blog for these bits of writing? What about another Tumblr? How about expanding my creative space on Medium; creating yet another appendage of my online presence on Hi or Ghost or Svbtle; or working on the submissions for other publications that have kindly invited me to write for them?
* * *
I finally published my first post on Medium — a two-minute read called “Trashing Photography.” I’d been working on a longer piece weaving two threads on the death of album listening and my process of taking digital photographs, the latter of which ultimately won the battle. But I was unhappy and frustrated with what I wrote, so I ripped the piece apart and ran the remaining 300 words that didn’t completely suck.
After publishing the post, however, I realized it was an abridged version of something I’d already written on this blog last year — regurgitated musings on the new way I take photographs. So I wondered: What’s the point of setting up an account on another publishing platform? Am I saying anything new? Does this space offer a different angle of me — an extension of the Cheri you encounter here — or am I just repackaging my thoughts?
A writer who publishes on various platforms on the web is like an animal peeing in different places. I’m simply marking my territory — expanding the Cheri Lucas Rowlands brand far and wide. While this analogy makes me laugh, it also makes me feel rather dirty, but I get that that’s what we do these days.
* * *
In her post, Miranda refers to her blog as a wasteland. Her blog isn’t really that at all — if you dive in, you’ll see she writes thoughtfully about place, technology, the internet, music, and writing. Yet I understand why she uses the word wasteland in that perhaps her blog, much like mine, has ceased to best reflect her at any given moment. That maybe this blog I’ve maintained — increasingly stagnant and sterile, made up of approved, carefully curated offerings every several months — no longer represents me, flaws and asides and all.
How could I even continue to shape and expand my online presence if I no longer allow myself to visibly grow and make mistakes and change?
I’m not sure if anyone has noticed, but I removed the dates on this blog. I’ve been dissatisfied with the design, but I’m not quite ready to change my theme — and to be honest, I’m not sure how I want it to look. All I know is I don’t consider myself a “blogger,” nor do I have time to write on a regular basis, so the traditional blog format — with posts listed on the home page, recent first — no longer fits me. When I do write, I rarely do so in response or in haste; yes, this piece has sprung from the posts I mentioned above, but my writing has no timestamp — I’m more reflective than reactive, and I suspect my writing would be better organized into categories than by dates.
So, I removed the dates. You can’t immediately tell when I last posted, making it harder to detect stagnancy. You can click on a post and, no matter when I wrote it, come away thinking it is fresh and new, and that I’m caught up and on top of things and busy and relevant. But more importantly, I wanted to create a sense of timelessness. It made me feel better not to place dates on my ideas — and myself.
But after thinking more about this timelessness, especially after reading Miranda’s thoughts on being on the internet in a way that respects our constantly moving and evolving fluid selves, I wonder if this is a silly idea. How would a reader distinguish a post I’d written in March 2011, summarizing my initial thoughts on digital life and online friendships, from a post published a year later, on one such online friendship that blossomed into a relationship? Or how would a new reader know that this site began as a travel blog in 2008, and that some of my most popular posts from web searches — like cliff jumping in Ibiza and places to swim in Austin, Texas — are totally unrepresentative of the writer I am now (and is writing I’m actually embarrassed about)?
In “Trashing Photography,” I talk about how my photography has evolved: the final product has become more important than the actual process of taking photos. Gone are the outtakes and the contact sheets — these days, I seem more concerned with what’s publishable. My Instagram feed, then, is a study of anachronism — random moments plucked from my day, good enough to share, yet out of context.
sifting through my Camera Roll
thousands of images not posted online
I hunt through my library
see the outtakes
and rejects of my days
the stuff I’d felt wasn’t good enough to share
yet these are the photos
that really tell my stories
I realize, as I finish up here, I’ve approached blogging in the same way. As if I’ve no longer given myself room for error, growth, and change, at least publicly. But I sense, more and more, that not writing creates unwelcome holes in my own narrative that I weave, and even if I’ve nothing to say, or feel uninspired, I should still write. My husband says this in his own way:
I already knew that the sole thing I actually needed to do was to write. . . . And yet somehow along the way I had got tangled up and trapped in the maze, fallen for the deceit — magnified by our hyper-connected and increasingly digital lives — that writing is primarily for public consumption, for sharing, and that it must therefore possess a certain quality.
I realize the in-between lapses to reset — the posts that act as breathers, like this one — are valuable and worth documenting, too.