Tuesday. October 21, 2014.
Ernest Hemingway when he could still sit down to write without the pain killing him. I think Hemingway would have taken to blogging. In fact, I think he’d have been a blogging maniac. He would, however, have appreciated the value of taking time to rewrite and revise. Photo courtesy of the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
My students are blogging maniacs. Tonight after class one of the maniacs came up to me to talk. He’s the maniac’s maniac. I usually assign three blog posts to write each week, due by noon on the following Monday, the day before our next class meeting. Give normal students that sort of deadline and you’d expect forty-eight blog posts popping up in your feed reader at 11:59 Monday morning. Most of these maniacs get their assignments done by Friday. This maniac is almost always the first to get his posted. And he’s not just the first with the first. He’s the first with all three. And usually by the next day, if not that night.
Like I said. A maniac.
I love it.
Anyway, tonight he wanted to talk about how he could improve his blogging overall.
Slow down, I said.
You’ve got time, take it.
You’re not a political blogger. Fast reactions and quick turnarounds are imperatives for political bloggers. For political bloggers, getting out in front of an issue of the moment is necessary or you risk irrelevance. And blogs aren’t the best platforms for that anymore, anyway.
I’m not trying to turn students into political bloggers. I’m not trying to turn them into any particular sort of bloggers at all, except smart ones. The stated goal of the course is to get them using a variety of social media platforms to join the professional conversations taking place in their chosen fields of study that have moved out from the classroom, the lab, the office, the studio, the conference room, and the dig site into the ether and onto the web. Their blogs are one platform. My job is to guide them in their wanderings across the internet.
I hope along the way I’m teaching them some things about how to write well, in general and for the web in particular, and how to think, period. Sherlock Holmes is our spirit guide on that second point.
So the only students I’d expect to be blogging about politics and therefore posting at a fast and furious clip in order to keep up with the issue du jour would be political science majors who intend to run for office someday or work for politicians or particular causes and journalism majors who plan to cover politics as their jobs and as it happens there are no political science majors in this class and only three journalism majors and one is interested in international finance, one is a photojournalist, and the other is already at work editing a student-run magazine mostly devoted to pop culture. There are two scientists, a sociologist, a future lawyer, a couple of marketing and advertising majors, a language arts and literature major, someone who is on her way to becoming a writer although I’m not sure she knows it yet, and three film majors, one of whom is the maniac’s maniac.
Still, the ability to write fast and post immediately is useful for any sort of blogger. No matter what your field, there will be issues and events that you’ll need to respond to in real time or in fairly short order, at least. The maniac’s maniac has this ability and I don’t want to advise him to make changes that will cause him to get in his own way. But, even so, it’s not enough to be able to write fast. You have to write well and that means more than turning a clever phrase. You have to show you’ve thought through what you’re writing about. Your thinking has to be coherent in order for your writing to be coherent.
This student’s posts show the virtues of being able to get it all down in one go. They’re charged with the energy of his conviction, his excitement and enthusiasm, and his determination to make his point. And he can turn a clever phrase.
But they also often feel rushed because they were. Sentences break down, go vague, repeat themselves, fill space without moving his points forward. Grammar and usage sometimes go by the wayside. Words aren’t chosen as carefully as they should be. Sometimes he uses the not quite right word and sometimes he uses the wrong word entirely. His first few sentences, sometimes his first couple of paragraphs are warm-ups. You can see how he’s writing just to get himself going. His engine’s running hot but he’s not in gear and his wheels are just spinning. Then something pops and he’s off to races. But he takes turns too fast, fails to keep his eye on the traffic, loses control, fishtailing and three-sixtying for whole laps.
(I don’t remember if I warned him to avoid driving metaphors into the ground.)
But when I told him he needs to slow down, I didn’t mean he should stop writing fast. I meant he should not post fast. Write the way you’re doing, bang out your posts, but hold off on posting at least one of them for a few days. Let it sit, don’t think about it, and then go back and read it over to see how it reads.
Chances are, I said, you’ll find things that need fixing.
After you’ve done this for a while (a few hundred posts down the line, I didn’t say), it’ll become reflexive, a kind of writing muscle memory. You’ll revise as you write without having to interrupt yourself and stop writing to think about it.
He seemed to get this, and promised to try it out. One thing worried him though.
One of the reasons he likes to pound out his posts one after another at one sitting is he has a habit of letting time get away from him. And he’s obsessive and a bit of a perfectionist. He has a lot of work to do this semester (Of course he does, He’s an honors student. They’ve all piled the work on top of themselves.) and he knows himself well enough to know that if he lets himself get wrapped up in one project, he won’t leave himself time to do three others. He wanted to know how much time I thought he should allot to the writing of a single post.
How long does it take you to write a post, he asked.
Too long, I said.
At least, far longer than I wish it did.
Far longer than it used to, that’s for sure.
I used to be like him, a blogging maniac, able to bang out post after post in a single sitting. Two, three, even four posts, bang, bang, bang. And these would be Mannion-length posts.
How much time would I sit there then?
Couple of hours, I said. I wouldn’t let myself spend much more than that amount of time at the keyboard.
He was impressed, but wanted to know what happened.
I got old, I said. And nodded at my cane which was propped up in a corner.
I can’t sit still the way I used to be able to, I said.
Hurts too much.
And this is the fact, which you probably know from my whining about it. I used to be able to write from any position. Sitting at a desk, at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair in the living room, with my feet up on the railing out on the porch; standing up; walking around---wrote large chunks of some good posts while making my way between exhibits at the Museum of Natural History or moving from room to room at the Clinton Global Initiative---stretched out on the floor. Nowdays I have to sit and can only manage to write in fifteen minute bursts before pain forces me out of the chair and I have to take a long break until things stop hurting enough that I can return to the keyboard.
I didn’t go into the details with him. He understood right away. His father has the same problem. I steered the conversation away from me and toward Ernest Hemingway, who---I asked him if he knew---had to write standing up because of his many aches and pains. Towards the end, and possibly bringing about the end, he couldn’t write at all. He hurt too much in too many places to sit or stand.
He should have learned to dictate, but he was having a hard time concentrating and probably felt he couldn’t focus enough.
And that’s how we left it, with the maniac setting off to bang out his posts but planning to post only two right away, saving the third for later revising, and the implicit and vain comparison between Hemingway and me left hanging in the air.
Here’s the thing.
I didn’t tell him the whole truth.
Yes, it hurts to sit at the computer. But I actually began to slow down and even cut back on the blogging a couple of years before my back began troubling me.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened. It probably began at some point early in President Obama’s first term but I date it to the fall of 2011 when it truly sank in that I am not anywhere near as smart as he is.
When I wrote about this last month, many people thought I was saying that people shouldn’t criticize the President because he’s such a smart guy.
Smart guys can be wrong.
There’s a whole book about this.
What I was saying was that I felt I needed to be a smarter guy in order for my criticisms to carry the weight I think they should.
Dumb criticism is more useless than no criticism.
And suddenly I felt dumb.
And once I’d faced up to that about myself, I began to see all the ways I was being dumb.
What I despised and condemned in Right Wing pundits and bloggers I was guilty of myself: Orc logic, opinion-mongering, confirmation bias, attraction bias, parroting of received liberal conventional wisdoms, seeming to root for bad things to happen in order to be able to say I told you so, a habit of thinking I knew stuff I hadn’t actually looked into for myself, demanding that other people’s political views somehow validate my own and in so doing validate me and confirm that I was smarter, wiser, and more moral than thou. I did a lot of casting of stones and praying at the front of the temple.
I relied too much on my memory. I trusted too much in my ability to turn a phrase. And I was vain. I prided myself on being a smart guy who knew lots of stuff.
When I realized I was guilty of all those blogging and writing sins and that I couldn’t resist the temptations, I decided the next best thing would be to reduce the opportunities for temptation by not blogging so much about politics, by not blogging so much at all.
So there it is.
Once upon a time I was a blogging maniac.
A blogging maniac’s blogging maniac.
Then it hit me.
I could write that fast because I thought I was smart.