small voices

c. 1975

small voices

When I was driving to San Antonio, I thought about a photograph that hadn’t come into my head in a long time. When I was first learning to make photographs, I found myself drawn to certain arrangements of things—commonplace objects, really. My parents never “got” it. When I showed this one to my brother David, he immediately launched into an allegorical explanation:

“Oh, this is a good one. It really shows what happens when somebody steps up front to be a leader!”

David died around three years ago of chronic pancreatitis. He was an alcoholic who never managed to kick it, stuck in Orange county until it was too late. He had an arsenal of degrees— in electronics, in business administration, though he fell just a little bit short of his final hope of passing the bar exam to become a lawyer. Because he was thirteen years older than me, I hardly knew him really. He’d come up to Bakersfield for visits, always being encouraging to me as a kid. His was a small voice, but an insistent one.

“You really should go back to school, it’s never too late.”

It took decades for me to take David’s advice. I was too busy standing in the front, getting beat-up, rather than taking shelter behind. I wasn’t satisfied to be a small voice.

When I started maintaining a personal web site around 1998, I was more amenable to just being a small voice. When I started blogging around 2000, I was pretty sure that just being able to say something in public was enough. I didn’t really care who read it, or what they thought. When blogging really started to take off, I couldn’t understand why or how some people always seemed to garner so much attention on the web. But then, by luck or accident, I found other small voices. It became more like a conversation, and less like an exercise in pure vanity.

I wrote, as I was getting degrees in writing and literature. My pictures fell away, gradually, as I exhausted my nostalgia for who I used to be. I started writing more about other people’s pictures instead. People who mattered to me. I thought that writing each day was the best sort of release a person could have; audience be damned, I never worried too much about what other people on the web thought. My blog probably averaged about ten hits a day for the first two years. I wrote mostly about what I was reading, on or off the web. I got really bored really fast with just collecting links and writing brief snarky comments on them. According to the classic definitions, I wasn’t a blogger, I was more of a writer.

Since writing regularly in a web environment worked so well for me, I thought I would try it in the classroom. By 2002, I was in a master’s program, and my blog probably had the phenomenal traffic of 50 hits per day. I never read any of the big players, because they were boring to me. I liked the small voices. I hoped that my students might find small voices too, but instead my experience was that the typical student preferred things like e-bay, or shopping sites. After using blogs in the classroom for a couple of years, I pretty much stopped around the time everyone else I hear presenting at conferences started. I started using group blogging instead, because at least that way there is better control over forging a “community” of voices. And I became less interested in digital discourse as a whole, and more in the uneasy relationship between words and pictures.

I suspect I’ll return to using blogging in the classroom soon (the classes I’ve been teaching just haven’t seemed well suited to the exercise) but overall, I still believe that the strength in blogging is in the small voices. The voices that aren’t aggregated. The voices that are seldom heard. I really think that the beauty of the web is in being “famous to fifteen people,” as Weinberger has claimed. It is a way of fighting back against loneliness, without being beat-up endlessly.

It’s a way of speaking without leading, without imposing, without heavy-duty risks. That is, until the strength of Google, of metadata, and Internet broadcasting via feeds makes it dangerous to stop and reflect about lives that are lost, lives that have had only the most local of impacts, for fear of offending someone or exposing oneself to the most vicious sorts of interpersonal abuse. I suppose the internet can be a force for massive social change, but these changes don’t interest me that much.

It’s the small voices that matter to me. The small voices in the classroom, and the small voices of people with too much spare time (as many might describe me when I started this long ago). It’s the people who talk too much, or say too little, to fit anyone’s idea of viable publishing. It’s the people who write for themselves, rather than to increase their marketability to others.

Often, the best gratification I receive when I write here, inside my own space, is that no one much really reads it. Especially when I talk too much. They just stop by to lift images from my archives, to leave advertising messages in my comments. But the few people that my words do connect with are priceless. I wouldn’t trade this space for anything now, and I value those few “regulars” who do stop by to skim through my endless navel-gazing.

Sometimes, the comments that end up on old entries though, make me smile. like this one on an entry from 2001, written on my birthday this year. When I was writing this stuff seems like another life, as will this, as I change cities and schools again soon.

I don’t want to trade a content-creation space for a content-collation space, though both have their uses. I’ve begun to draft papers here, become nostalgic sometimes (like now), and sometimes just made a total ass of myself. I want to hold onto my small voice, and not let it get dissipated amid the 150 or so random search engine hits, which occasionally bring smiles. But today, I just want to remember David, and a time when the world and the voices in it all seemed so much smaller.