I’ve been trying to figure out why writing has become so difficult for me. I used to really enjoy it. Writing provided an outlet for observations that would otherwise fade too quickly from my consciousness, and although those observations were not necessarily of much importance to anyone else, I found them amusing most of the time. I liked writing in public because it suggested some measure of responsibility to the act- it’s best to strive for a degree of accuracy or at least fairness when others might be reading. But it has some drawbacks: leaving yourself naked and vulnerable, subject to judgement by friends and strangers for what are often momentary thoughts and impulses.
When I was an active researcher, I liked writing online because there are just so many interesting cul-de-sacs that aren’t developed enough for a full treatment, but simply beg to be blogged rather than lost. These often have a personal resonance that would be out of place in a professional or academic context. For “scholarly” purposes, I really think that this sort of context is best stripped away. I hate it when academics waste time telling you about their personal baggage- if I wanted that sort of information, I’d read their blogs. Research is fun and most people like fun stories, which is why I think they sometimes include them, but when reading/listening to papers it uses up time and brain space that would be better used for more relevant information.
My paralysis in the area of academic writing is fairly easy for me to comprehend. Insecurity, in a word, about any possible relevance of my research to a subject field focused on symbolic inducements. I found myself spending more time reading about the niches carved by such labels as “Composition,” “Writing Studies,” “Communication Studies”, “Journalism,” etc.. Each one has some degree of interest to me, particularly in the way they all deploy “rhetoric” as a descriptor of what they study. There has been a lot of progress in deforming the boundaries between symbolic/non-symbolic inducements- “material rhetorics,” “post-humanism” and whatnot. Visual rhetoric, to me, still seems mostly caught in the ditch of the symbolic. To stay interested in it, I broadened the net of my reading so wide that I slipped through the disciplinary weave. I no longer have any idea of who I would write for if I actually managed to write something relevant. This isn’t to say that I plan to stop writing or researching, it’s just admitting that I have had a crisis of confidence that has lasted years now. Paralysis, I think, is the best way to describe it.
Paralysis is also a good word to describe my inability to blog. But the lack of blogging has nothing to do with insecurity or a lack of confidence, and nothing to do with an ill-defined conception of audience. Quite the contrary, it is primarily a hypersensitivity to audience and a fear of appearing too confident or smug to people I care about. The last straw, I think, was when a famous writer misread something I posted (months before) and launched a vile ad hominem attack from his professional site. He repeated this performance of nauseating bile, directed at other people who participate in this wonderful agora shortly afterward. When otherwise smart people just fail to “get” the internet it gives me pause. Is there any chance of just sharing your thoughts publicly without being made the butt of jokes, threatened with legal action, or worse still- sympathized with to an inch of your life? Yes, nothing quite equals the experience of emails from well-wishers that want to stop you from killing yourself when the thought has never crossed your mind.
I’ve always had reservations about the “read-write web.” In the beginning, comments were thought to be an interesting and valuable addition to instances of public writing. Then came comment spam, and of course the ubiquitous troll. Anonymity, I thought, was part of the problem. I could circumvent the problems of undesired feedback by writing anonymously or turning off comments, as many have done. But as I mentioned, part of what I find special and irreplaceable about writing online is its accountability. You speak or write differently when there is a chance that someone will read it- I think you write better, unless you somehow get a thrill from being an ass. Read any newspaper’s comments, or an unmoderated forum and you’ll soon find a stream of bilious non sequitur nonsense. It does seem that some people enjoy being asshats. I don’t think unmoderated comments happen much anymore.
Even when benign or banal, though, comments have always been a problem for me. When blogging, I’m frequently holding many concepts and intensions in suspension in my head. When someone comments, it’s like a shock to my system. Everything sinks to the bottom when I find myself formulating a response. Most often, I don’t respond at all because a response really isn’t necessary. But pointless or not, I end up thinking about it. Worse still, when a response would be polite or at least civil, I think it over for so long that it would be downright weird to suddenly respond so belatedly. I’m simply inept in dealing with comments. Especially well-thought out private ones- those have increased in frequency over the past few years. It might surprise some to know that I get private comments on things written years ago, and that though I have seldom responded I have thought about responding at length. Turning off comments doesn’t really solve the response problem. In fact, I’d have to say I prefer public comments because other people can share in what are sometimes gracious and heartfelt responses. Comments can be a value-added component, and as such should be preserved. I recognize my problem coping with them as a personal problem.
Nothing has happened in this regard in the recent past, mind you. It’s just the gradual effects of thinking of the responses that I left hanging years ago and the responses that I wished I hadn’t found out about. It makes me feel downright antisocial and uncivil. I’m not, really. It’s just that when I step up to this stage I feel that way- struck dumb, paralyzed like a deer in the headlights.
Talking to Krista yesterday it sort of came into focus for me. Writing in public is much like stepping onto a theater stage. There’s a reason why they turn down the house lights. If you can see who you’re acting for, it is a hundred times more difficult. If the audience heckles you it’s hard too. Even applause, particularly when a dramatic moment is still in process of unfolding, disrupts progress.
I’ve aways thought of blogging as writing in process. And like it or not, it has a tendency to stop and start in the oddest places.