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Writing as Solitude
Contributor
Written by
State of the Art
August 2018
Contributor
Written by
State of the Art
August 2018

Why everything we write shouldn’t go instantly to readers, by Sarah Glazer.

Blogging, self-publishing, Facebook, Twitter.

Our words go directly and instantaneously to readers thanks to these new formats, but maybe we're losing the time for reflection and sifting--dare I say editing?--that makes writing an art, not just a personal confession, a narcissistic exercise or a superficial crowd-pleaser. In the midst of all the celebration over today’s torrent of immediate transmission, New Republic art critic Jed Perl recently raised a finger for silence—or at least for the moment of creation when writers are alone with their own words.

Here are some of Perl’s wait-a-minute gems:

“We need to remember that a book—or a painting or a piece of music—begins as the product of an individual imagination, and can retain its power even when largely or even entirely ignored…"

“[W]riters who live for their readers—or for what their editors imagine their readers want—may end up with an impoverished relationship with those readers."

“Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. For many of us who love the act of writing … there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other readers.”

As a writer, I warm to Perl’s description of writing as “an extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page.” It reminds me of how many times I surprise myself by coming up with a phrase that captures what I want to say as I sit alone with my keyboard in some kind of trance—a phrase I didn’t know was inside my brain beforehand no matter how many times I’ve thought or spoken about the subject. And yet, as a workaday journalist, I'm not sure I’d be writing this piece now if I weren’t up against a deadline—or if I didn’t have in mind all the possible She Writes readers out there.

At the same time, I wonder if I’m trying too hard to increase my audience by writing a first sentence crammed with the kinds of contemporary terms I’ve been assured will make my blog pop up in google searches. The process of writing and polishing often involves rejecting what one has composed or even holding back from readers.

The inability to hold back, epitomized by 28-year-old blogger Emily Gould, may explain the mixed reception of her book And the Heart Says Whatever, recounting her career as a writer for the gossip site Gawker and as an independent blogger. She cheats on her boyfriend, breaks up with him, then blogs about him against his wishes. Writing about this for the New York Times Magazine, she admits, “I was compulsively seeking gratification from strangers at the expense of the feelings of someone I actually knew and loved.” That article leads to their ultimate estrangement. The result for her writing? She settles for the “shallowness” of instant cocktail-party name recognition but doesn’t seem, entirely, to realize it, according to Times reviewer Maria Russo. OK, I get it that everything we experience is just “material” if you’re a writer.

But I wonder if the very personal Internet blog, by breaking down the traditional privacy of the diary, can actually make for worse writing—when there’s no time for reflection or for the critical eye of an editor. A kind of garrulousness descending into logorrhea. Wondering if bloggers ever feel that constraint, I read with fascination the interview that Victoria Mixon posted on She Writes with The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, who draws a half million page views every month with her very personal and funny blog TheBloggess. Is there any line the Bloggess won’t cross?

To avoid hurting people she’ll first read posts to friends, who laugh hysterically and then say, “That was awesome and you can NEVER, NEVER publish it.” Good friends make good editors, she observes. And good editors know what to cut.

When it comes to personal revelation, I’ve written some pieces that I felt compelled to put on paper to sort out my feelings but I’ll probably never publish them while the people I describe are still alive. As the Bloggess says, “The problem is when I start writing about my life it’s not just my story anymore. It’s my parents,’ inlaws’ husband’s’” children’s. … you can finish the list.

I’m interested to hear what other writers out there think—Are we losing quality with the breakdown of our traditional filters—or is it worth it to gain voices we would never have heard?

 

* This post was originally published in July 2010.

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Comments
  • Alissa Johnson Writing

    Good questions to ponder for sure! I love those gems from Perl.

  • Ms. Reality Space

    Hello & thank you for your post... 

     

    I find it much more peaceful to live without a facebook account (which I had at one time)... I don't have a cell phone, and actually I just got my first cordless phone a few months ago!  Yippee!  I spend a lot of time at the library... nothing like holding a real book in your hands.  Guess I'm old school, but not unaware.  Thanks again for sharing your words... a valuable topic for sure.  Be well, Melissa

  • Cheryl K. Bennett

    I joke that my blog is the life I wish I had.  It is relatively upbeat and happy.  I do not share intimate details about my relationship with my significant other.  I try to never write anything that may hurt another's feelings.  The exception to that seems to be times when I've written about how I grew up or my relationship with my parents.  They have read my words and responded with hurt and anger when that was not my intent.  It is interesting to note that the Bloggess says we are not only telling our stories, but the stories of those who surround us.  Such is the case with my parents.  The times I have hurt or upset me serve to help me be more sensitive about how my words affect others.  And, the written word serves as a matter of record. 

    Some readers seem to enjoy reading the nitty-gritty details.  Those readers may find my happy-go-lucky blog to be boring.  That is fine with me.  I will keep things as they are.

    You may find me at:  www.cherylkaybennett.blogspot.com

    best, Cheryl in Indiana

  • Even though we writers are for the most part a very hungry bunch, wanting to show everyone our talents and have them agree wholeheartedly and thoughtfully, I'm with Maryellen -- I write to please myself first. My dad, who is a prolific writer also, and I were just having that conversation the other day. She Writes materialized at just the right time -- I was craving a place to gather my works and publish them, but even more so to open a creative vein that had been too sealed off for too long. Blogging proved to be the key to a new world for me...and the "She Writes On Fridays" became my deadline, my glorious deadline that is working exactly the way I'd hoped it would: my mind is busy again, and I feel that my work is gaining in importance. Though most of the posts I've written have probably never been read. Or if they have, the reader left no comments. I wish they would -- it's so gratifying to know that someone took the time to read you. Gratifying and disconcerting at the same time, of course. Anyway, I often go back and edit posts after I've pushed the "Publish" button. That's no biggie. And I have found a wonderful new medium to immerse myself in, finding blogs of great info, humor, style, insights and just plain beautiful poetry and prose. It's a new world and there is a time to run with it!

  • Brooke Linville

    I find that my writing is better when I leave behind the constant chatter of the internet. It is so easy to give away my words to a discussion on breastfeeding or toddler sleeping habits... and those are some of the more productive topics. And then when I sit down, I feel like my word well is dry. Though there is something more instantly gratifying about real-time conversation and posting.

  • Pat Goudey OBrien

    Mmm. That final question Sarah asked ... Is it worth it to gain voices we would never have heard? Pointing the question outward to other writers, not just inward to what we might write ourselves. I didn't look at the question that way when first reading this post and responding. It takes on a different coloring. Not so cut-and-dried.
    Over this past weekend, a bunch of us in my family (it's a writing family) were discussing how the language changes. "Presently" was the topic. Because people so often use the word to mean "now," it's beginning to be officially accepted as meaning "now." But I've been around too long and can't hear the word as anything but "soon." When I edit, I change it to "currently," or "right now," or whatever fits the piece.
    Which leads me to that question: Are the changes in our language (what some of us may see as damage, and others will see as no big deal) worth it for the gain in new voices, for opening up the dialogue to so many who rarely joined in before?
    For my part, I don't know. Oh, for sure some of the changes are worth it to bring more people to the conversation. That has to be a good thing, doesn't it? More thinking, more sharing. That's good.
    But what are the acceptable limits to what might happen to the language? Presently can become now, I suppose, though I'm not using it that way anytime soon (that's another phrase that's become really popular the past year or two).
    Are we happy to hear "should have went"? I hear that often from educated twenty-somethings on line and in conversation. If "gone" is gone, is that OK?
    LOL. I have no idea. I'm not going to say "should have went" anymore than I'll use "presently" for "now." And I hope I'll keep on writing my very best when sending the words out to the world.
    But what will I accept from other writers, so they will feel comfortable and empowered to keep on communicating?
    That's a question of a very different kind.

  • Zoe Zolbrod

    Thought-provoking piece and comments. I started blogging and social-networking as soon as I learned my novel was finally going to being published, because I believed those who said communicating online was going to be the most effective means of getting the book read. I still believe that, and I actually wish I had started sooner. But I've also noticed that I've become sort of addicted to the quick thrill of posting. And I also suspect that the desire to promote my book—and myself, something I never thought of doing before—in a noisy marketplace has led to a bit of whoring, or at least mongering. But I'm a writer at heart, also craving the solitary exploration, and the quote by Jed Perl really rang true for me. I can't wait to read the article.

    Still, as a parent of young children who also has a day job and a new book to promote, I am grateful for the inspiration to put my thoughts in any kind of order at all, and the chance to get them up online has provided that. It took me over ten years to write and publish my novel. I don't want to go that long again without any kind of reach outward.

  • Anna Leahy

    This piece comes at a great time for me, as I'm launching a blog with my husband on July 1 (it's about aviation, science, and writing as a couple). As a poet, I have lingering concerns about how it might affect my writing, including the temptation to diminish the refection and editing that matter to my work. The larger issue is time, I suppose. I expect that blogging time isn't the same kind of writing time for all the reasons brought up in this piece and the comments, but also that it's reading and conversation time we might not "count" very accurately. Your piece also introduces another issue for me: how personal do I want to be? Good question, because I know I won't be super-personal, but my story isn't just my story and we're tackling personal interests at some level. Thanks!

  • Sarah, thank you for this piece, I agree with you. Just because the internet allows us to respond quickly, we should not drop standards. This has already has been the fate of many emails that are sent out.

    However there is no reason for this to happen. We just have to treat each communication, twitter, blog, email, etc with the same respect. Actually we should convert this easy means of communication into an opportunity and take advantage to flood society with good writing.

  • Pat Goudey OBrien

    Hear, hear! And, oh, dear!
    How right you are.
    And yet, for so many bloggers, it's all that personal stuff right off-the-cuff that has readers coming back -- like watching reality TV or a demolition derby.
    Hmmm, so is that what most of us really want to be? The literary equivalent of a demolition derby?
    I know very well that I often write something -- a response to an article on-line, a comment on a forum, or what-have-you -- and then think better of posting it. Sorry are the times I post too fast and wish I had not. (Curse Google! It's all searchable! Aaagh. Our past haunts us!)
    As someone who edits others as well as one who receives editing, I hold that part of the writing experience in high regard. I'm not one who thinks editors should be drawn and quartered. I'm one who knows that editors have occasionally said, "That's not clear to me," or even worse, "Did you mean to say ...?" and helped me to see where someone not inside my own head might misunderstand my gorgeous syntax.
    (Got that?)
    A good many of us can be our own editors, if we have the time to stop and think, or to come back in a day or two before "publishing." We can try to do it on-the-fly, anyway, so what goes out into the world is thoughtful, one hopes. At the very least, we should realize that the written word doesn't enjoy the benefit of inflection, facial expression, or body language. Words that say one thing to us may send a completely different message to a reader (there's that editor again, asking "Did you mean to say ...?").
    I like a quick and off-the-cuff conversation on an email list or forum as well as the next person, but I do agree that we must recognize it's not the same as a face-to-face chat where you can immediately fix the misunderstanding when you see your partner in conversation doesn't get it. Writing -- books, articles, essays, forums, blogs, et al -- is a different animal. I do think it deserves the mind of an editor -- either inside the writer, or somewhere near by -- to be a part of the process.

  • Ardee Eichelmann

    Traditional filters are falling by the wayside, IMHO. Sometimes I am aghast at what I see in writing on-line where anyone can read it. I think we need to stop and thing about what we say and how we say it. There is a line between being open and unzipped. We need to fix our zippers as writers and just work with being open.

  • Jenny McPhee

    ps Just tweeted this article!

  • Jenny McPhee

    Great piece Sarah. For me a blog or twitter, both of which I like to do, could never replace the work I do in fiction or an essay. Blogging is a new form, spontaneous, off the cuff, risky, almost like being a stand-up comedian for the writer. The internet communications are also an intriguing way to procrastinate--way better than doing the laundry--and to be a little less lonely in this very lonely endeavor of writing. Movies never replaced theatre and tv never replaced movies--though there was great fear of these things happening. Blogs won't replace books, we'll just know about the books faster.

  • miranda seymour

    Fascinating stuff, Sarah. And lots for me to think about when Elaine Showalter and I are due to speak on the thorny subject of women and self-promotion at the London salon that Sarah (brilliantly) hosts.
    Writers like me, who also do a fair amount of book reviewing, have enoyed a fairly comfortable ride over the past quarter of a century. Our books have been given generous coverage on newspaper book-pages (where I've learned, with pain and pleasure, that two columns of lively hostility can do more for a book's sales than a few paragraphs of anodyne appreciation).
    Book-reviewing was never a way to pay the rent. It did, nevertheless, enable me to keep up with current writing while quietly promoting my own name as the review's author.
    Times have changed. John Panatella's lead piece for The Nation (issue 21 June) discussed the phenomenon of the disappearing review section. Some have vanished altogether; many in the US have been drastically reduced (as is the case with most of the leading UK papers) to a motley selection of pieces dealing - in the main - with hot topics, or ones that can be appealingly illustrated, and for which the reviewer's words offer little more than window-dressing, a tidy print-frame.
    The signpost for the future, unless something like the emergence of The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books from a period of disruptive printing strikes should occur (and this is pretty unlikely) points towards what Panatella pithily describes as the 'unfederated cantons' of the web.
    Which is where we come to the problems that Sarah Glazer brilliantly delineates. Blogging, along with Twitter and all the rest, provides a magnificent tool by which we writers can reach out to and communicate with friends, allies and - let's not be too starry-eyed - potential readers. I agree with Sarah that digital exchanges don't allow for the thrills achieved, occasionally, in the monastic cell of the print-writer. Here, in this slightly scarey new world, everything is about speed and impact and sensation, rather than about honing the perfect sentence. (It's also, of course about time-consuming - I'm tempted to say time-wasting - conundrums like the choosing of a Twitter name. With enough mirandas and mirandaseymours out there in the ether to people the milky way, what name can I find that will be witty and short but also convey the 'I' that is myself?)
    Blogging, for a writer, is not an innocent art. Neither is writing a memoir. I wrote one and published it. There, however, within the generous amplitude of some twenty chapters, I had room to play games with the truth, to elide, structure, change points of view, while keeping, as best I could, to the only truth I know: the truth as it seems to me.
    Blogging doesn't allow for this kind of approach. Sarah quotes the Bloggess as saying that she never publishes anything that her friends, having screened the words in advance, would deem objectionable. Nevertheless, the nature of the blog (generally speaking) is to sensationalise. And this does worry me. I think we need to give thought to where the boundaries lie. Integrity is the writer's one irreplaceable treasure. Blogging tempts we who seek to use it as a form of self-promotion, and to attract new readers to our books, to tamper with the concept of integrity by creating a false persona, and by - in the pursuit of our own goals - playing fast and loose with the lives of those we love. And that's a dangerous road to follow.

  • Good points about our new modes of communicating.
    It is a commentary on society, overall, I think. Each day, each new television season, each new blog, it seems that boundaries are being pushed. Time to take a look at quality not quantity of tweets, views, posts????

  • Lauren B. Davis

    Terrific piece, Sarah. Couldn't agree more. I've reposted to FB and Twitter. Well done.

  • Maryellen Brady

    Very thought provoking. I write to please myself first. May not be the best thing to do 'business-wise', but I can't imagine trying to please a mass of people I don't know. Writing is a reflection of who you are, if you choose to edit or just post unfiltered thoughts, is also a reflection of the person. I don't think technology is the breakdown, it is just a tool for the communtication.

  • Sarah,

    You elucidate some critical issues here...I know I felt pretty timid when I started blogging, but it was sort of a desparate act (starting a blog) to establish some kind of deadline for myself against the all-consuming (at the time) task of parenting, and I noticed early on that the blog falls between private diary and polished work, though my intention has been to strive towards maintaing the intimate voice of a diary while very consiously choosing which material to cover and striving to put my best writing foot forward, wether posting an entry or responding to someone else's blog, or even here, commenting, where all our comments are pretty much googleable and thus public.

    I'd be pained to lose a relationship with someone I love over something I'd written; I also know as women, can I generalize? we tend to censor ourselves at our own expense. It is such a private decision; and definitely, some insights are better meant to remain within the covers of our journals. I struggle with it daily. I understand the lure to pull in readers, but I can sense how having that solely serve as the basis for posting could lead to undermining the quality of one's work. I have enjoyed the relative quiet and obscurity of my own blog, and see a blog as a tool towards the creation of new work; work that can be later revised, honed, and published in other venues as the ideas and thoughtlines mature. Maybe the blog is another indication of our "transparency" hungry culture; does the upside--connecting with others, chronicling the daily terrain of the psyche--outweigh the downside (estranging others, posting prematurely)? I don't know yet--and certainly writers don't all share the same values, I realize. But thank you for helping me revisit the subject. I too will be curious to see what others share here in response.