If you got it immediately, congrats! This was the icon I used when this blog first began, back on Blogger. (The old url is written at the top, in barely-visible red.) I got the idea from the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, and then I made it yellow, because… I dunno; the King in Yellow, probably.
When I started this whole thing, I had no idea where it would lead. I was on break from college, and felt like I should be doing something at least vaguely productive. So, I started a blog, and posted about whatever random things struck my fancy.
I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this before, but I almost quit blogging in 2012. I came very close to it. I had my farewell post written and everything. But then I thought, nah, maybe a change of scenery is all I need. So I switched to WordPress, and here we are today.
I looked back at some of my old posts while I was writing this, and I noticed something: many of them–perhaps most of them–suck. I cringe while rereading them: Why did I ever write that? I ask myself.
But that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing–it means I’ve gotten better. Far worse would be if I looked back and wished I could write as well now as in the past.
I was able to pick out a few of my personal favorite posts, though:
My review of the movie Jackie. The least fun things to review are the ones you enjoy. It’s tough to write something interesting when the point is just “I liked it.” Writing reviews of things you hate is a bit more fun. But best of all for a reviewer are things that are just freaking weird.
My Halloween Special. I’ve wanted to make something like that for years. Finally getting to do it was awesome.
My page of indie book reviews. All right, that isn’t really something I did. It’s just a list of things that better writers have written. But read on to see why it’s included.
For a long time, at the top of the site, I had a motto: Quis leget haec? which is Latin for “Who will read this?” Originally, this was just a joke. But over time, I have received an answer to that question: writers will read this.
I’m incredibly lucky to have so many writers who read and comment on this blog. That’s the main reason I’ve improved: I’ve gotten to know all of you wonderful folks offering feedback, as well as serving as great examples with your own work. It’s been invaluable to me, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting. And thanks for writing.
I’ve been writing a long post about politics. It’s detailed, and wide-ranging, andit criticizes everybody in politics for various things, and I think it’s pretty much guaranteed to make lots of people mad.
I’ve been down this road before, though. I’ve written many, many posts like that over the years. Looking back, I’m not sure there was much point in it. I espouse my views, and in the best case scenario, the people who agree say “Yeah” and move on. The people who disagree keep on disagreeing. I don’t think anyone does anything different as a result of reading political blog posts.
The other day, I jokingly said on Twitter:
What if all our problems *can* be solved by politicians giving speeches, it’s just that no one has given the right one yet? pic.twitter.com/DxnwjTjZKE
I wrote that after watching yet another politician bemoaning the state of the country, for what felt like the millionth time. You could make same joke could about political blog posts, though. There are so many of them written every day. You’d think if things could be fixed by blogging, it would have happened already.
Longtime readers may have noticed I’ve dialed back the political posts a lot over the last couple years. It’s ticked up a bit again recently but it’s nothing like it used to be. Politics was nearly all I posted about back in, say, 2011. But lately, I’ve shifted to posting more about writing, entertainment, and criticism.
That’s not an accident. Those subjects produce far more rewarding and engaging discussions than political blogging does. And for a simple reason: people enjoy it more. Pat Prescott, my fellow blogger and longtime reader, can probably comment on this, since he’s been with me since the days when the blog was heavily political.
I used to enjoy writing about politics. Or I thought I did, at least. But at some point, once I realized I wasn’t really changing anything by writing about it, I started to lose my zest for it.
The funny thing is, most people are way more open to new ideas, creative reinterpretations, and even harsh critiques, when it comes to the world of fiction and entertainment than they are when it comes to real-life politics. I include myself in that. There are people who lose themselves in the political intricacies of totally fictional worlds while holding the most simplistic and unexamined views of the world they live in. I mean, there are probably people who could tell you they understand both sides of the Geth/Quarian conflict, but couldn’t do anything beyond parrot the talking points of their preferred real-life political party.
That sounds kind of harsh, but I don’t actually mean it to put people down. People like what they like, and wishing they liked other things is like wishing we all had wings and could fly.
That’s why I decided it was time to shift my focus to things that were more rewarding, both for me and for my readers. Things like book reviews, and art, and writing fiction. (Now admittedly, I did put some allegorical references to my politics in The Directorate. I figured that way I could say a few things in a way that was entertaining rather than stridently preachy.)
Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and there’s no doubt that politics is inherently combative. Which means everyone tends to be in fight mode when talking politics. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but it makes collaboration nearly impossible. I sometimes think that asking for cooperation in modern politics is almost an oxymoron.
If you can get people out of the political sphere, however, you’ll usually find a lot of room for communicating, making deals, and exchanging knowledge that is useful to everyone involved.
As a result of the shift from political blogging to topics like writing, I’ve met all kinds of wonderful writers and readers. And in many cases, I have an idea of their political leanings from following them on social media. I have readers and authors with widely diverging views—and I’ve learned plenty from each of them, especially the ones I disagree with.
So it might be that that the key to improving political discourse is… not to engage in it so much. It’s easy to hate people when you know nothing about them other than their politics—but if you’ve already met through some other common interest, it becomes much easier to see their side of things.
This is a longish post, but it makes some important points. Important enough that I want to include an executive summary for those of you too busy to read it all:
There are a lot of petty distractions in day-to-day life. Don’t get obsessed with them. Deal with them, by all means, but don’t ignore your loved ones at their expense.
Writing about an experience is a great way to capture what was most important about it. You will realize things about it that you never would consciously notice otherwise. Writing stuff down, and sharing it with other people, might seem trivial, especially in the age of social media, but don’t underestimate its importance. It’s the most powerful tool we have for preserving who we are and what we care about.
Read on if you want my supporting evidence.
I met my dog Jack on a December day in 2005. My Mom and I were driving on a back country road, and he crossed the street in front of our car. I thought he was a coyote at first. Once we realized he was a dog, we assumed he belonged to someone in the area. When he was still there when we were on the way back, just waiting for someone to pick him up, we realized he’d been abandoned. Mom stopped the car, and I coaxed him in. He was scared, but I think the warmth convinced him to take a chance and get in. It was a snowy, chilly day.
I wasn’t a dog person—or really much of an animal person. But Jack was mostly German shepherd, and I decided I could train him up. Much of that winter, I spent walking him and our basset hound, Bart, around in the woods behind my parents’ house. I wrote this story about that time—I can remember thinking about it while walking with them. I also read Thomas Hardy’s books for the first time around then, and I remember discussing them with my mom while walking with the dogs.
At the time, I didn’t stop to think about any of that stuff—I was mostly focused on studying for the SAT. Walking dogs, reading books, and writing stories were just my leisure time. I had to do well on the SAT in order to get in to college, so it was my main focus.
In retrospect, I realize that what was really important then was the time I spent with my mother, with Jack and Bart, and writing. Those are the things that I’ll remember most, and the ones I’ll wish I could do again. I can’t even remember what I got on the SAT.
I’m not saying tests don’t matter, but they don’t matter near as much as they seem to in the moment. At the time, it was the defining event of my life. Looking back, it was just a hoop to jump through to determine what new series of hoops I would jump through. One way or another, I’d have probably managed to jump through enough hoops to keep going. The world will always give you hoops.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been hearing about how important adaptability is. It’s the sort of thing people say so much I tune it out. What I only recently figured out is why it’s important: because if you are adaptable, you know you can probably navigate whatever series of hoops life throws at you. Which gives you the confidence not to get so hung up on one particular hoop that it drives you to distraction.
As a teenager, I wasn’t smart enough to understand this. “Adaptability” was a meaningless phrase applied to successful people, like “clutch” is to athletes who win big games or “populist” is to virtually all non-incumbent politicians. It was only later that I realized what it really meant: that you had enough faith in your general abilities that you would never become consumed trying to get one thing right.
There are some things in life that are worth being consumed with getting right, of course. But they’re rarely the ones we actually do become consumed with. When I think about it, for everything that I wish I’d focused on more, I usually realize that at the time, there was some other, vastly less important thing that I was focusing on instead.
I tweeted about Paul Graham’s essay “Life is Short” the other day. What he says in there may seem obvious to many people—as he himself admits, saying “life is short” is a cliché. But the way he describes it, breaks it down into quantifiable shortness, resonated with me. And it resonates more and more with the passage of time, especially the part where he points out all the things that life is too short for, and all of them are things that people easily find themselves focusing on.
Maybe these are lessons everyone has to learn as they get older. Lord knows that if I didn’t appreciate the important things in life, it wasn’t for lack of my elders telling me I should. Maybe it’s inevitable that everyone takes things for granted when they’re young. The world seems like it’s always been a certain way, so the mind instinctively assumes it will continue to be that way. And anecdotes and second-hand information won’t alter the perception that the world is a steady-state—only living long enough to see it change can do that.
But I think it’s only partially innate. Environment and upbringing also play a role, in the sense that when you’re young, you get told a lot about what you “should” be doing. In fact, some of the same people who told me to appreciate things also told me to focus on getting ready for college and a career.
And this is probably good, on balance. Children need to be made to do certain things, or else they’ll make bad choices. If you had left ten-year-old me to my own devices, I would have done nothing except eat candy and play video games.
16-year-old me was getting closer to striking the right balance. Thanks to my (his? our?) parents, he was splitting his time between what he needed to do to prepare to earn a living and what he truly liked to do. The only problem was, he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of having the freedom to do the latter.
Looking back, I wish I’d been blogging then. I could have documented everything I did at the time, rather than waiting and reporting it now, when it’s just a grainy recollection from long-term storage. Writing about your experiences forces you to get to the heart of what they really mean to you, and it reveals things you noticed without even consciously realizing it. Not to mention that it allows you to share a moment with other people, which—for me, anyway—somehow makes it more consequential. Maybe you’ve never had a dog, or a chance to hike in the woods. But now you’ve at least heard about it from somebody who did.
Again, this is something that wouldn’t seem important to a teenager, but when you write about something, you’re effectively making your experience live on, letting other people in on a moment they otherwise would never experience.
I forgot to mention one other thing I did as a teenager (longtime readers know it already): listened to lots of Gilbert and Sullivan. I had all the 1950s D’Oyly Carte recordings of the Savoy Operas. In fact, Jack was named after Jack Point, the ill-fated jester in The Yeomen of the Guard. Martyn Green played him in those recordings, and in the 1953 film, The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan:
I read Green’s autobiography as a teenager. It’s funny–here was a man semi-famous in the 1940s and ‘50s for playing characters written in the late 1800s, and I was reading his memoir in the early 2000s.
And—as absolutely weird as I know this sounds—I feel like I knew the guy. He died in 1975, but I still listen to his voice and read his words. This is why I like history generally—there is something awesome, in the most profound sense of the word, about the way learning history lets the past live on. I’m not much for belief in the supernatural, but it’s the rational equivalent of being a medium: you channel the thoughts of long-dead minds.
I have two major points to make in writing this essay. One is the same as the point of Graham’s essay: to tell you to savor the things—and especially the people and animals–that matter the most in your life. Someday they’ll be gone, and you’ll wish you’d spent more time with them, instead of worrying about ephemeral things.
The second point is both a means of savoring and of commemorating: write about the things you care about. Your family, your friends, your pets… write it down in some form. It can even be fictionalized, if you want. Alter names and places if it makes you feel more comfortable, as long as it keeps the core feeling of your experience. Ideally, write for some audience besides yourself, just because that will force you recall the experience as best you can. And by sharing it, it allows it to endure.
Most older people probably already grasp this. I’m really writing this for younger people, teenagers like I was, who don’t understand why they need to appreciate life. Well, I can’t make you appreciate it, any more than the adults around me could when I was your age. But I think I can help you savor it, and keep it for later. So maybe one day, you can look back and revisit it. And, even better, you can share it with people who weren’t there, and they can get a sense of who you are, and what you care about.
My dog Jack died today. I am writing this in his memory, and also in the hope that it will encourage people not to make the same mistakes I did. There’s no way to not miss someone you care about after they die, but you can make sure that you got everything you could out of knowing them, and to make it count for something.
Write about the stuff you care about. Record it to share with people who couldn’t experience it with you. It’s not the same as getting to relive your happiest moments again and again, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got.
However, I suspect I am in the minority. When I asked for advice on redesigning this blog, quite a few of my readers and fellow bloggers said they rarely look at sidebars, and from all indications, few of their readers look at the sidebars on their blogs. And my impression from my traffic stats is that visitors almost never look back through the archives or browse a particular category. And never mind the “ads”, which is effectively what the book icons are. My hunch is that people have been trained by internet marketing tactics to automatically ignore anything that looks like an ad.
Given that, is it worth having these sidebars if only a small percentage of visitors use them? It seems like a waste of space for the majority of users. And yet almost all blogs have them, including some very widely-read ones.
I admit, I have a slightly irrational attachment to my sidebars—they represent a gateway to nine years’ worth of writing, and I’d be reluctant to lose that unless readers say it actively harms the site’s usability.
But I still can’t help wondering if that space could be used better. Devoting 35% of the blog to content that 80-90% of users ignore seems inefficient.
First of all, thanks are in order to loyal reader Natalie of boatsofoats.com. She notified me about a problem with the annotations on this page. I’m not even sure if I’ve completely fixed it yet, but I figure if not, I can at least make it up to her by directing some traffic to her excellent blog.
As for the annotations: I know nothing about HTML. But doing the original annotations for that page was not bad–it was just this:
<span text=”Whatever blithering comment I had”>Actual story text</span>
I then highlighted it in red to make it obvious which parts to mouse over.
But the problem was, it wouldn’t work on mobile devices–tablets, phones etc. And this bothered me. I tried to tell myself it was ok. But it was the sort of thing that would nag at me.
There must be a better way, I thought.
Mind you, I said I think. I’m not actually sure if it works on all devices yet. It definitely works on my iPad, which it didn’t originally when I was just using HTML.
That’s where you come in. I am calling on readers to come to my aid and check out the page to see if the annotations work for them. In exchange…
Let’s see,… I will teach you something about weird fiction from the 1890s?
How’s that sound?
Oh, another thing; some of the modifications I did seemed to (temporarily) play merry hell with the comments. (e.g. reducing my all-time comment count to zero, removing comment ‘likes’, stuff like that.) I think it’s fixed now, but if you notice any comment issues, let me know… unless the issue is that you are unable to comment, in which case you can use the form below or tweet at me
I have friends who don’t get blogging at all. “What’s the point?” they ask. “Most blogs are not even reporting; they are just people pontificating about things.”
Which is more or less what I do. And I have to admit, they have a point. After all, when you are not reporting new information, all you can do is give your take on it. And let’s face it: when you are giving your take, the three major reactions are:
I don’t care.
If they agree, there was no reason to read it, since they already thought so. If they disagree–well, this is the internet, so they will probably just insult you and leave. (I have been fortunate to have intelligent readers who can disagree civilly and with reasoned arguments.) Or they don’t care, in which case… they don’t care. That’s probably worst of all, since it means the least traffic.
So, given all that, what’s the point of blogging if you are not going to be a shoe-leather reporter bringing the latest news?
One of my favorite quotes from literature is Lovecraft’s “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” This, as longtime readers will remember, was on the footer of my old blog.
But despite the pessimistic tone, I actually like correlating contents. In my opinion, the best post I have done so far is this one, because it involves correlating a lot of disparate ideas and information. It’s not like I did any original work, but I like to think it led people to information they might not have been aware of otherwise.
The other thing I like about blogging–and I realize many bloggers do not take advantage of this–is that it can be collaborative. This poem, which I started and then Thingy and P.M. Prescott completed is a good example, and I’m sure I could find more.
I guess that’s really what I like about it more than anything else: the opportunity to exchange ideas with interesting people.
I’ve had similar issues with “likes” on here. When someone “likes” a 1,000 word post 3 seconds after I posted it, and without apparently viewing my blog, I know that something is rotten in Denmark. Or Russia. Or wherever the spam “likes” happen to be coming from.
Also, I don’t think I’ve ever “liked” a blog. I prefer to comment, even if it’s quick, just so they know I’m not a spammer. I’ve also never re-blogged, although I considered doing that for Peaches’ post, because it feels a little lazy to me. Just my opinion, though.
P.S. I’m leaving “likes” on for this post. I’ll be curious to see how many it gets–and how many are genuine.
UPDATE: Too awesome–this post earned me my “200 likes” award! And my pageview count remains the same as it was before.
Ultimately, she comes to the same conclusion I have, which is that blogging is worth doing even if no one reads it. I read a good article about this long ago, back when almost nobody read my blog. The advice the author gives is spot-on from my experience–writing this blog has helped me think better and more clearly about all kinds of issues. (And I have acquired a few more readers since since I read that article!)
There really is nothing like blogging for helping you think.