Monday, December 06, 2004

Serialization and the Blog Medium

Some people are serial killers.

On a much less gruesome note, in the blogosphere, I've discovered that I'm a serial writer. (As we'll see, this approach doesn't fit the blog genre. It's like trying to swim upstream. But, hey, trout and salmon aren't extinct yet.) In blogworld, just as in paperworld, I write a draft, and immediately revise it five to ten times or more. I'm revising each sentence even as I put it down the first time. I don't care how many times I have to wrestle with the process; the process has long been part of my nature, sister to my soul. I'll work it over or throw it out without compunction--as many times as it takes to carry the intended message to the intended audience.

But once I publish a piece (on a blog or in any other medium), the work's by no means over. To use a couple of bad cliches, the fat lady hasn't sung yet. And unless the message is literally written in stone--think Rome and a chisel--it simply isn't written in stone. My "stone" is more like Silly Putty. For me, the process of writing a single, coherent piece dredges up many back-burner tangents and good ideas that, for one reason or other, don't qualify to make the final editorial cut. But often I discover that these off-theme ideas have their own worthy structure and life, and justify entire essays themselves. And even though it might have been put out for the world to see, the "mother theme" is never really finished, either. It's simply more evolved than its earlier incarnations.

Because I'm a textual blathermeister who can't shut up, I can never completely let the better tangents go. If I indulge them, they yield a goldmine of other things to say on a subject. While I edit one piece, the next piece is lurking around the corner. For instance, a companion piece to this blog's "Curtis, the Birthday Buffalo" is brewing at the moment.

One adage to would-be writers advises, "write what you know." Nice thought, and supposedly it works for many. But this is not the kind of writer my experience has shown me that I am.

To explain: One of my favorite "virtual teachers" is Zen practitioner/writing practioner Natalie Goldberg (, whose books taught memethods that flipped my stale approaches upside down. Working through Goldberg's exercises helped me realize that I can't write what I know. When I start a piece, I never have more than a glancing hunch. At that moment, I feel that I don't know anything! But the trust in process I've gained through practice eliminated my self-imposed shame about not being able to write what I know. Goldberg taught me to write both through and despite fear, so that all the mind's natural energy and--more importantly, truth--could tumble out. When you have to snuggle right up against the fear of blanking out and harness its energy, the fear has no power anymore; it's just a vehicle.

So more often than not, I write to find out what I know, not the other way around. Writing is a phenomenally rewarding process of practice, not just a goal with a specific end in mind. Just as a journey without a map can sometimes be more interesting than pursuing a discrete destination with a rigid plan in mind. (Not that I advocate this approach for all writing situations; when I'm wearing my technical writing hat, this approach would never work! The road to your own best practice can be long and arduous, and you might find out that your most fruitful process is entirely different.)

Sometimes, a piece of writing wanders into what ultimately winds up being a scary cul-de-sac. It's like the TV ad for flexible storage bags in which an elephant plows into an impenetrable, strechy bag and can't escape. It's big, it's trapped, and there's nowhere to go from there but the rubbish heap. So not every promising idea is recyclable. I'm not afraid to trash it--remember, it's not written in stone! But usually, after writing a while, I find out I know much more than I knew I knew, and thereafter like to use the extras I've gathered in the process.

Hence my habitual serialization of ideas. One phone story, for instance, begets another (see earlier posts). Thus, for my particular writing habits, the "natural order" of blogging can be problematic.

Let's look at some familiar writing formats. If you're writing in a physical paper journal, the entries are chronological, just as in a virtual journal. But, unless you're writing in the physical book haphazardly or deliberately backwards, the story unfolds as any "traditional" narrative does: first to last. If there's suspense for the reader to find or the writer to perpetrate, it's the result of a gradual buildup. The writer can purposely manipulate the form from past to future.

I immediately noticed that this particular blog venue ( --and there are many others) orders entries antithetically to my serialization habit, which requires a means to create a first-to-last sort order rather than a last-to-first sort order. This knocked my narrative hat off. It truly is a different medium. Just think: What accounted for the phenomenal success of Victorian serial novelist Charles Dickens (aside: at our house, we like to call him Darles Chickens). What would have happened if, say, the crowds waiting at dockside for the packet boats carrying the latest manuscripts had received the final episodes first, and knew the endings to Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities before they knew the beginnings? What if they started off knowing Sydney Carton's final act and words, and had to work their way back to discover the roots of his devotion to Lucie? If I were among the expectant masses, I'd cry, "Why bother?"

So I'm in a Narratology Quandary here, falling back into my old nemesis, the literary-theory pit. Brand new to the blogosphere and well set in my ways, I already have some two-part entries, and there is one case in which Part II ruins Part I if Part II is stacked above Part I in the entry heap. On this occasion, I followed the lead of Jane Austen, who taught me to appeal to my Gentle Readers' good natures and ask them to read Part I first. (Good God! Hasn't my narrative technique developed beyond that of the early 19th century?)

I'm sure the phone sseries won't be the last time. I already know "Curtis: Part Deux" will prove the point again. Even if it's months before it appears, it will still appear above "Curtis: Part I." Maybe the posts have to be written somewhere else first and then put up backwards? There you go . . . but this flouts the spontaneous nature of the medium; it's too calculated, even formally subversive.

My husband says I have to quit thinking and analyzing the process so much. I should just use the format for what it is and not limit myself to saying, "I can't write in this format." But I think he's missing the point. I never said I can't write in blog--I'm doing it right now. And the format taught me a significant lesson about the relationship between style and medium, and that's a GOOD thing!

Whatever. At some point, I'm reasonably sure I'll figure out how to manipulate the form to serve my function, and prevent the blog format from becoming an online "serial killer."