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September 23, 2002

On Writing A 'Blog

"'Blog" -- short for "web log". Having only been introduced to the concept yesterday, my understanding of the form is pretty fuzzy. However, my impression is that the generic 'blog is a webpage with serial entries -- suitable for a daily online diary, or a pundit's column. Seizing the inspiration (and the generous offer of tech support from Michael Hall), I've decided to give writing a 'blog a shot.

The Generator's Previous Incarnation
At the beginning of September 2001 -- just over a year ago -- I announced that I was going to publish a weekly essay series via email. Unfortunately, that announcement was the last anyone heard of it. A number of things happened. (A) Writing, editing, and publishing the introductory essay took 20 hours -- more than I could expect myself to accomplish every week. (B) A new partner joined our poly household -- so there was relationship work to do. (C) The World Trade Center fell on 9/11, making an emotional shock that took some time to get over.

My big plan with Generator was to create a number of books, writing the chapters in a serialized form. I left my position as president of the Portland Bisexual Alliance in July of 2001 largely because I'd come to realize that my books would never get written, given the amount of time that PBA was consuming. However, as I picked up the writing project again this spring, I made a self-discovery: I don't actually know how to manage writing and editing long essays, let alone a book.

I was working on a piece titled "Equal [does not equal] Same" over the course of several weeks. I was up to my seventh draft, and still kept on discovering new sections that needed to be written, old sections that ought to be severed and turned into separate essays altogether. The problem was that I hadn't started with a rough draft that deserved so much editing. So I switched my approach. I figure there's probably going to be about a 1:10 ratio: for every ten rough essays I write, there'll be maybe one that I'm really happy with and deserves to get polished up to a publishable form. So, during the late spring and summer I adopted the strategy of "previsualization". That's a term I stole from George Lucas and the making of Star Wars Episode I. "Previsualization" in movie-making is the period where you're making sketches of alien critters, costumes, architecture, and landscapes, before the script is even written. [The word itself seems weird to me -- how can you start "visualizing" before you're visualizing?] I figured I would try writing the books that I have in mind without doing any editing -- simply to get them out of my head and see if the general shape makes sense. If I like the whole, then I could use these "previsualized" essays like a storyboard as I make the real thing -- the serious, edited chapters.

That writing strategy actually worked really well. I don't have any problem creating volume, so I got to try out two long arcs of essays and discover that my overall approach to one of my book projects needs to be shifted. The lingering problem is that it's been a year and still nobody's read my work. It might as well not exist!

Embracing Imperfection
Content. My interests haven't particularly changed during the past year. The seven book ideas that I described in "An Introduction to the Generator" are still the projects I want to tackle:

  • an overview of the oppression / liberation framework
  • a description and analysis of adult oppression of youth
  • strategy for youth activists who want to resist and dismantle adult supremacism
  • an overview of current sex / gender debates that also attempts to resolve theoretical conflicts between the feminist and transsexual movements
  • a look at how pro-feminist men and feminist women can do principled, ethical intimacy
  • know-how and theory for the bisexual movement gleaned from my work with PBA
  • 100 famous bisexuals -- short biographies documenting our past

What I'm beginning to question, though, is my investment in the format we understand as "book". I see in my self someone who's internalized the notion of publication as immortality... which is of course a lie. I think most writers probably get sucked into this one. We hope that we will write one of the Great Books that critics and public alike canonize, a book that is remembered for centuries to come. Reality is that we laugh at books written in the fifties because they're so tragically dated, we remember only a handful of books that were published a decade ago, and most of the stuff sitting on our bedstands right now only gets one reading -- and we skim through the boring parts.

...It becomes a question of economics -- how much greater impact am I getting for every hour spent trying to craft the perfect paragraph? An off-the-cuff conversation is more powerful than the essay that never even gets published. And an essay now that is topical, that responds to current events, is more powerful than the really polished writing that comes out six months too late. The metaphor I need to embrace -- especially as someone who thinks about politics and activism -- is writing as conversation. As the post-modernists say, culture is constantly engaged in "discourse"; for my writing to matter, establishing myself as a participant in the conversation has to come before considerations about the quality of what I have to say. To put it another way, it's better to put my foot in my mouth than to not open my mouth at all.

Conversation isn't like making a business presentation or a press release. In conversation, I say something dumb, muddled, or just plain wrong -- which evokes a response from whoever I'm talking with -- then giving me the opportunity to correct myself, elaborate upon a point, make my position more sophisticated. It's a dialectic. Contrast this with the metaphor for writing that I, like many other writers, have absorbed: writing as product. A piece of writing should be complete, polished, shrink-wrapped -- something that you can put on a shelf and sell. It's a metaphor that originates, I suspect, in the modern book publishing / distribution industry. "Success" is getting a publishing house to make several thousand copies of your work and put copies (2 or 3 each) into chain bookstores around the nation. There's so much distance, so much alienation, from the people you're writing to -- one's focus gets stuck on the production process.

I think I have a block against publishing because the stakes seem so high. Trying to make the perfect product, the one that every anonymous consumer will buy, that will immortalize me as a household name , is a good way to get burnt out. That's why I'm excited to try writing a 'blog. It feels less heavy -- like jazz instead of classical music, like improvisation.

Here's what I want to do: write for two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, and post what I come up with sans editing (just a spell-check). The problem of distribution is essentially done away with, and I'm not putting upon my readers because it's their choice to visit the site. And yet, what I've done is available to them, and I can respond in my writings if I do get feedback. For me it means accepting and living with the fact that I won't like a lot of what I write -- it will seem transparently dumb, wrong, and muddled to me. ...But I can move in the direction of creating a lifestyle where writing is more about how I live with people, less about the shame of failing to get my product out by its announced release date.

A Writer's Routine
Any large project, that requires sustained effort over time, needs a plan. Over the past few years I've developed a routine that works pretty well for me when I'm writing. Here's the outline, including my latest tweaks...

  • I get up at 7am. Time before noon is the easiest to secure for myself and defend against distractions. I can even not answer the phone -- no one needs to be called back until after noon.
  • 8-10am I walk a 5-mile circuit on Powell Butte. This is vital -- I can never just sit down and write well off the top of my head. The walk is a meditation, allowing me to collect my thoughts and brainstorm notes into a 3x5" pad I carry. Walking also gets my circulation moving and keeps me healthy -- just sitting and writing all day is terrible for the heart.
  • Afternoons are time to work on an ongoing project. My first project is to reorganize the house and get it ship shape for this fall's work. After that I need to work on typing up this past summer's backlog of writing (I write long-hand), and then work on producing animated movie versions of my essays for possible use by activist communities.
  • Evenings are time for social interaction, or spending time with my self.
  • The preceding routine is for Monday through Thursday. I like to take all of Friday for cleaning and general home maintenance activities. Weekends stay open, since that's when most people are free for larger social events.
  • To secure the support of my close friends and loved ones, I've come up with "the ice-cream plan". There are three main bits to my writing routine: getting up at 7am, walking, and writing two hours. I'm going to make a point of reiterating my goals to three different friends (possibly again each week). If I succeed in meeting my goals, I'll buy each of them a pint of icecream at the end of the week. It gives them a reason to root for me instead of resenting my time alone; it's easier for me to reward my friends than myself for success; and it gives me the feeling of paying back the community for my privilege of self-expression -- even if that expression is being done in the name of activism.

...I'm going to try writing this 'blog for two weeks. If it goes well, I'll continue. I'm optimistic -- the way to becoming a better writer is more likely through volume than sporadic frenzies of editing. Over time I may even have enough good fragments to put together the books I keep fantasizing about. And hell, if I die, now no one's saddled with the job of trying to compile and publish my stuff posthumously. Here it all is.

September 23, 2002

Posted by Sven at September 23, 2002 07:02 PM