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Blogging Like a Beast?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a film about a young woman trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to recover from her traumatic stint as a member of a rural cult, sexual concubine of its charismatic spiritual leader. It is one of those “art house” movies that ended with surprisingly little warning. When the closing credits began, audience members gasped. “What?” “You’re kidding me!” “Is that really it?” That’s only what I heard in the theater seats nearest my own. And I laughed, because I knew exactly what they were reacting to.

The writer had taken us on a complex and nerve-racking journey with the film’s female protagonist (who, at different moments in the story, answers to each one of the names that make up the film’s title). By the “end” of the story, our filmmaker hasn’t really provided us with any resolution. There is no simple (artificial?) closure to the narrative, just a final tension-filled scene rife with unanswered questions and uncertain outcomes.

It isn’t necessarily the way we’re taught to write screenplays, but it was a valuable reminder of what some good storytellers try do accomplish. And how.

Many people have made the claim, but it bears repeating: Good writers write like beasts. They don’t worry about the “audience” in any simplistic and condescending sense. And they certainly don’t care to placate them. They write without self-consciousness (at least, without the kind of self-conscious anxiety that allows for any too-precious preoccupations with making readers happy).

As I craft one of my final few Brainstorm blog postings this week, my final week as a Brainstorm blogger, I can’t help but think about all the interesting and energizing exchanges I’ve had with Chronicle readers over these past few years. From posts about the potentially racist underpinnings of “Obama-as-anti-Christ” rhetoric back in 2008 to a knock-down blog-brawl (played out over several postings) sparked by some comments I made about attending an academic conference, from defenders of Michelle Malkin keen on rebutting my (passing) characterization of her work to more recent debates about Herman Cain’s theories of race and class, one of the most conspicuous features of the blog (as platform and/or genre) is its almost immediately dialogical linkage of readers and writers.

Anthropologist Johannes Fabian has discussed the possibility that on-line exchanges between researchers and research subjects, exchanges modeled on the back-and-forth interactions between bloggers and blog readers, might be the beginning of the end for traditional forms of ethnographic writing, differently configuring those conventional relationships in radically new ways.

At its best, the interactivity of the blog format clears space for the rehearsal of real debates and differences of opinion, especially when the anonymity of the Web doesn’t help foment the worst forms of unproductive incivility. I really have enjoyed my time on the blog, and I feel like it taught me to think about writing in a very meaning-filled way, especially when readers made good-faith efforts to challenge some of my positions. (Even the responses that I’d describe as more like “bad faith” offerings were sometimes useful.)

At the same time, however, I realize that I used to feel as though I wrote (or, at least, tried to write) like a beast, with a cultivated indifference committed to getting my point across as honestly as possible (come what may). Although I have always tried to be honest in my Brainstorm posts, I certainly didn’t feel the freedom to write without self-consciousness, without having to worry about which readerly eyes stood in my path. On the contrary, I feel like I have gotten increasingly more self-conscious over the course of my blogging stint, which I know isn’t necessarily how everyone responds to this platform and its many possibilities (and may not, ultimately, be the worst thing). Sometimes that heightened self-consciousness found me pandering to the gods of sensationalist punditry, trying to be purposefully provocative (even unnecessarily harsh and fairly mean-spirited) as a way to drum up more explicit comments from readers. Any response seemed better than none.

At other times, I started (or conceived of) many posts that I never finished/published, all too mindful of how many colleagues actually look at the Chronicle‘s blogs. If some of these same sentences were tucked into a book that few people ever read, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a series of emails and phone calls after the writing, which also became a kind of immediate gratification that was, at times, far too intoxicating.

All of this meant blogging less and less like a “beast” every single day. It would be the equivalent of being a filmmaker forced to sit in the theater and listen to audiences complain about the inexplicable ending to your latest movie. You experience that immediate feedback often enough (the audible gasps, the palpable disappointments), and you start to hear those same complaints at your computer screen as you work on the next project. Even positive responses, received as the film’s final credits roll, over-determine a self-conscious writer’s subsequent decisions. Such hauntings can be the kiss of death to any would-be author, and they are incredibly hard to exorcise.

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