About a year ago I contracted to keep a weekly blog for The American Scholar. I agreed to write 48 entries, and this is the 48th. I’m done. Surprisingly, it was more fun than I expected. Having embarked on the project with disdain for the very word blog, assuming incorrectly that it was an invitation to half-baked, sloppy prose and self-involved twaddle, I had to overcome an initial dread that I would never be able to meet that weekly deadline over 12 months. I promised myself that in a pinch I could steal from old diary entries or reuse older material. In strict truth, I did that only three times, recycling two holiday pieces (Valentine’s Day and Yom Kippur) and one collage of diary snippets. The rest of the time, I banged out 45 individual blog entries, essays, essaylettes, whatever one chooses to call them.
Were they in fact essays? I’d like to think so, because that would be an incredible feat to boast about: writing 45 new essays in the space of a year. The prose style in the blogs is fairly similar to the one I employ in my essays: the I-character or voice of the narrator I employ, the humor and irony, the attempt to reach some honesty and compositional shapeliness, all basically the same. How could it be otherwise, since I’ve trained myself as a personal essayist and at this point in the game could not learn a new “blog” style (if such a thing exists) even if I wanted to. I will say that the prose in these blog pieces is looser and more informal than in my essay collections, and the endings were often more abrupt than I would have allowed myself in a typical essay. I would come to the end of an idea and think, “Well, heck, it’s only a blog, that should be good enough.” Originally I was told my blog entries should be between 400 and 1500 words, and since I almost always went over a thousand words, I figured a rapid closing was legitimate. Leave ’em hungry.
The freedom to exit quickly was only one of the advantages inherent in the form. I also permitted myself to discourse on a range of subjects—books, movies, politics, travel, education, painting, jazz, urban form, past friendships, obituaries, family life—that might have appeared random, presumptuous, or amateurish in another format. I was not putting myself forward as an expert in these matters but only as an observer responding to the latest exposures. In that sense, the blog functioned as a diary. The other model I had in mind was The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. That great catchall of everything and anything has been a temptation to many writers besides myself, who have thought: if only I could find a proper vehicle to deposit all my thoughts, however trivial. None of us possesses Shonagon’s tart genius to unify the disparate, but I still always fantasize doing a modern pillow book. This blog experiment is probably the closest I will ever get to it.
Each week I would send in the blog entry to my editor at The American Scholar, Sudip Bose, and he would do some light editing, correcting infelicities, while adding an encouraging word, like “wonderful, as always.” I doubt he found them equally wonderful, but he was a helpful, tolerant, and reassuring colleague. I needed morale-boosting, because from time to time I would panic that I’d never be able to last the full course. Sudip told me I could quit whenever I felt I had run out of gas, which only made me determined to keep at it.
What I discovered was that I could use the blog as a sort of sketchbook. I could sit down at my laptop and verbally doodle a few sentences, and before I knew it would have the weekly entry roughed out. I would generally wait a day or two before sending it in, and invariably I’d find ways to improve it on the second or third go-round. Having the weekly deadline also gave me the courage to try certain pet ideas that I had long had in the back of my mind but that seemed too provocative or risky to commit to paper: for instance, “On Being Popular and Well-Liked,” “The Eros of Teaching,” “Trapped in a World of Women,” and “Marrying a Widow.” Telling myself it was only a blog, which probably had the tiniest of audiences, I could dart in, entertain perverse notions, and then get the hell out fast before I really put myself in trouble.
It always came as a surprise when someone I knew mentioned that he or she had been enjoying past entries. I had no idea how many “hits” the blog was getting, and I did not want to know. It suited me fine to think that no one was reading it, except for a few loyal friends or dark souls who needed to get a life. Meanwhile, besides keeping a blog, it was a busy year for me: I traveled to India and China (twice), published a new book, wrote other essays and commentaries, taught my classes at Columbia and directed the graduate nonfiction program, went to museums and film festivals, read a ton, and participated in family rituals and quarrels. My daughter graduated from college, moved back in, and got a job, learning certain hard truths about the world of work. The low point in my year, as you might have predicted, was the presidential election, after which I had to wean myself off MSNBC and the nightly news, and not obsess about D***** T****’s latest mischief. Some of this got into the blog; some didn’t. I did not tell the whole truth or reveal all my secrets. And now it is done. The deepest response is one of pure relief: I had dodged a bullet. But I will miss that weekly pat on the head from Sudip, and that momentary euphoria, canceling panic, when I realize I have figured about what my next week’s blog will be about.
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