Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

14 December 2007

Some Thoughts on Blogging

For their final exam the other day, the students in my Composition Theory course read aloud brief analytical accounts of their own writing histories. I always love it when students read their writing aloud—which I have them do in most of my classes, often at the end of the semester—and I also love it when they tell stories from their lives. I learn so much, not just about them, but about life.

In recounting what they had learned about writing and how they came to learn it and how their writing had changed over the years, my students typically began in early childhood, back before they could write at all and their concepts of writing were determined by the writing in books their parents read to them or that they read themselves. That was my first surprise: the attention they paid to the writing of others, often before they even entered school. They retold or added to, in stories of their own, the stories they had liked when they were younger.

One student perpetuated the Narnia series for a child she often babysat. Another wrote detailed notes just like the love notes her father left lying around for her mom. That student also wrote miniature research papers, sometimes just a couple of sentences long, in which she retold information she found interesting in books and newspapers and such. (In her paper for my course, she referred to these works as micro-essays. You elementary school teachers out there need to consider assigning such essays in your classes!) Another woman told of how, in middle school, she was asked to write from another person's point of view, and she chose the point of view of a fictional character she still loved from a series of chapter books she had read when she was younger, Junie B. Jones. She wrote in first person, but took pains to tell her life in Junie's voice, and she returned repeatedly to check and make sure she was getting it right. Unconsciously, these women, as children, taught themselves to make art via a method that is not often practiced among writers nowadays: mimicry. I found this so interesting.

It may be a gender thing—the class is all women, with the exception of a student who was taking the class via independent study because of a time conflict and stuck his head in the room from time to time—but almost all of them wrote about journaling. For some of them, it was a brief flirtation with writing in which they wrote for a few days in a diary—they remembered and described these in minute detail, the picture on the front, the color of the pages, etc.—and then abandoned it. They felt bad about this. Guilty. There is something about a journal that makes you feel obligated to keep it up. One student returned to the same abandoned journal on occasion throughout her school years, beginning in elementary school and continuing on through high school. Imagine it, that Bildungsdiary. The voice maturing with the events depicted. The focus narrowing to comprise the gestalt of the woman before us. In their papers, my students wrote about how journaling archived the emotional minutia of their lives: their friendships and crushes, their fights with their parents, their reflections on matters of faith, their thoughts about the future.

To a woman, they summed up the essence of journaling in one word: private. A diary was a safe, private place to explore dangerous topics you wouldn't want made public. It was a place to confess, to fantasize, to hope.

One student, in sixth grade, was asked write an imaginary page from her journal that was representative of who she was. "One page from your journal has come loose and fallen out on the floor," her teacher told them. "What would it say? What glimpse would it give of you?" The eleven-year-old incarnation of the student before us wrote, of course, about the boy she liked, and she was aghast when she was asked to turn the page in. You don't turn in journal writing, my student reasoned. Journals are "private property"! Turning them in makes them public. (For the writing teacher these days, by the way, the current and absolutely appropriate lingo for turning writing in is "publishing"—that is, "making public.") The teacher commented on the crush in the margins of the student's journal, counseling her that, at her age, it was better to be "just friends" with boys. That is, the teacher judged the student's confession. And, to make matters worse, years later, she even made mention of it to the student. She joked, at a public event, with others present, about the girl's youthful feelings for the boy. She called him by name.

What's all this got to say about blogging? I know you're wondering. I think my students' way of looking at journaling says everything about my struggles with blogging. The trouble with blogs—and perhaps in some ways it is also their appeal—is that they are like journals: emotionally-laden, but only minimally processed stuff from one's life. Stuff that typically remains private—at least until some potentially smarter, healthier editor-self has a chance to have a go at it. Blogs are the private made public. Boringly public—as boring as a teenage girl's journal is likely to be most of the time. Embarrassingly public—as embarrassing as one's crush, once outed. Self-consciously public—as I often find my blog-voice to be. Careful. Half-squelched. Cramped, like a diary entry, by the date at the top of the page, the inadequate number of lines, the emphatic date on the next page, reminding you that you must do it again soon. Often, it seems to me, my blog-voice as false as the little lock on the outside of my own childhood diary—a chinzy little decoration of a lock that never really felt secure. I opened it with a bobbypin whenever I couldn't find the key.

Perhaps journals, I sat thinking as my students read, should remain private. For the students' sake, at least. Teachers shouldn't give journal assignments, I decided. (I've never liked assigning journals, which I find students often do all at once, at the last minute, as they do their papers but with much more license to say whatever.) Or rather, teachers can give such assignments, but they shouldn't collect them. Shouldn't grade them. Certainly they should never read them or comment on the entries or censor them or in any way stand in judgment.

Assigned journals threaten the privacy of students, but, at the same time, there is this sense that the teacher really isn't reading them at all. The other day my daugher Charlotte was telling me how, in a reading journal she had to keep about In Cold Blood (She's fifteen, and it's a pre-AP literature course, and they're reading true crime—go figure!), she wrote in all caps and wrote, in gigantic letters in the margins, READ THIS!!!, to be sure that the teacher actually took note of some joke she wanted to make.

The voluntary divulgers among us—and, if you haven't guessed, I am one, as are you, if you blog or even comment on this or any other blog—are a mystery, even to ourselves. READ THIS!!! we shout, without thinking much about what that entails. We are blind to all that goes along with the publishing of the private. The boredom. The embarrassment. The falsity. Consider: Blogging is like sending that ill-advised email that, once sent, can never be erased. The email written in a hot moment. The kindly meant email (or so one tells oneself) in which one's real nature is revealed in a glib remark. The email that defines one, as surely as a page torn from one's journal and dropped on the dirty floor.

That's blogging, I think. Much as I try to fight the natural contours of the form—despite my fastidious editing and even though, from habit, I set out to write each post just as I would set out to write an essay that might go into one of my books—I never feel quite in tune in my blogs. Never entirely me. Or maybe it's that I feel too much me: the glib me, the ill-advised me, the messed up me, the pushy preachy arrogant me, me in all my meanness.

I have written here or somewhere—that's another thing about blogs, you lose track of what you said where in them—about this odd thing that happens with my blog posts for Today's Christian Woman (http://blog.todayschristianwoman.com/walkwithme/, if you would like to go there). I write what are supposed to be posts on the subject of spiritual formation—I think of them as little essays in which I report on my own struggles to grow in faith—and the people who comment frequently give me advice and try to solve me. I think that, too, is symptomatic of blogging. In blogging, you are submitting your thoughts to the democratic urge out there. You become a project for others. Your secrets become the stuff of the people—solvable, fixed, known—and your voice potentially the Junie B. Jones of other would-be writers out there. Or not.

Anyway, that's what I have been thinking today about blogging. It's funny, too, how bloggers often blog about blogging—resultant from a self-consciousness that, again, has something to do with the public-private tension of blogging, I think. Anyway, as I say. Anyway.