April 18, 2016
I have started unfollowing all the people on Instagram whose corporeal selves are represented sole by a pair of legs. Not necessarily because it’s repetitive, because certainly they change up their knee socks and stripy tights, but because it’s just weird. How are we to know that these people are not (part of) an octopus? How much do you ever know a person when you know her only from the mid-thigh down? And what are these disembodied limbs (that are not entirely distinct from the kind you’d find at a crime scene, albeit a carefully arranged, colour-coded crime scene with impeccable lighting) telling us about the way that people are decided to construct their selves online?
I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post since reading Melanie’s Instagram post on social-media burnout a few weeks ago. She’d been contacted by someone wondering why she didn’t separate her bookish Instagram posts from ones related to her personal life, her family and her health, and become “a real bookstagrammer.” It’s advice I find so baffling as someone who’s been sharing my life online for nearly sixteen years, as well as reading about other people’s lives. Because for me, these windows into other people’s worlds has always been the most remarkable thing about web 2.0 and beyond it. In the very best book blogs, it’s not necessarily the reviews themselves that are so compelling, but what they tell us about the person who is writing them, and how the books fit into the larger narrative of the writer’s life. And I end up having a better understanding of where the writer is coming from and how their reviews work because I’ve read the posts in between (and between their lines even) and have a sense of who these people really are.
Partly this is a question of medium, of course, of platform. Superficially, old school blogs and Instagram are different, though I would argue that the latter is definitely informed by the former. And because there is no character limit on captions, Instagram has the same potential for in-depth posts which is followed up by the kind of community engagement we haven’t really seen on blogs for about a decade. But there is not the same sense of ownership of an Instagram account that one has of a blog, a “homepage,” and more of a tendency toward conformity and memes. With the immediacy of Instagram, it’s simplest to learn how it’s done by watching others. The community connections resulting from hashtags and memes are as such that Instagrammers are less inclined to operate beyond the lines of wider experience. Blogging was about being on the margins; Instagram is about being central. And of course, the platform is image-driven, and so how things look will always take priority over how things really are.
For me, a blog has always been a little bit like a selfie. (I don’t mean this in a bad way. Selfies are wonderful. Nothing tells a story like the human face, though it’s true that a little less duckface would go a long way.) This was the case even back when I started blogging, when platforms didn’t support images and no one’s phone even had a camera. The appeal of the blog has always been its human face, even with blogs as divergent as those lists of links that were essentially internet filters or those that functioned as online diaries. Whatever the material and how it was presented, a blog gave the reader a sense of the human being that was behind it. (Now whether that human being was an accurate representation of its writer is another story; I also love May Friedman’s suggestion that a person being about to construct their own online identity is not particularly a bad thing.)
Sometimes I get the sense that Instagram is about obscuring the humanness though. Pip Lincolne has written a terrific post about virtuous intentions and true character—that one is about becoming while the other is about simply being. She posits that true character is less easily displayed through visuals and more likely to be found on Twitter or long-form blogs, while Instagram is the ideal platform for these people striving to be their best selves. Which can be kind of crazy-making. Which can have the effect of reducing a person to a pair of limbs, because everything else is too complicated.
(I love Instagram. Have I made that clear? It enriches my life exponentially, and has connected me with amazing people, and inspires me immensely. It highlights that beauty is everywhere, even in the most curious corners. I also find it fascinating that Instagram, like blogging, is impossible to generalize about. For every pair of legs, there is a girl tight pants doing complex yoga poses on the beach or posing in the bathroom mirror showing off her fantastic outfit. I love the radicalness of Instagram accounts that give fat women or non-binary people the chance to construct their identities and be seen. And if the human face is what I’m looking for, there are many Instagram accounts that feature nothing but…though these accounts come with their own questions and complications.)
Blogging is about process. This is what I tell my students, and for many of them their biggest challenges involve overcoming notions of perfectionism and letting their unpolished selves show, using a blog post as a kind of working-though (which is what I am doing right now). But Instagram, and more visual-driven blogs, are about results. It’s about polished veneers and flawless skin tones. There’s less room for nuance, for delving into the realities of being, warts and all. Instead, there’s just a photo of a wart. And who would ever want to look at that? And now it seems I’m getting confusing because if blogging is about process, then isn’t that the “becoming” that I connected with Instagram two paragraphs back? What’s the difference between becoming and process? But I think the distinction is that with blogging, process itself is a way of being. It’s accepting life itself as a work-in-progress, and the destination is never ever the point. (Arriving at your destination, of course, would only mean that you’ve finished blogging; it would only mean that you’re dead.)
In blogging, process means showing your work and necessitates a bit of a mess. You’ve got to be a bit vulnerable, which goes against all the general advice these days about building a brand online. But the reasons for not positioning oneself as an online guru are tenfold, least among them that you’re totally lying (and if you weren’t, you’d probably have a platform that wasn’t a blog), although ultimately it’s just not sustainable. As I explain in my blogging course, if you’re writing only about those things on which you’re an expert, you’re probably limiting yourself, whereas if you’re willing to explore all you don’t know, the possibilities are infinite. It also means that if you’re making your online project an act of discovery, you’re getting something out of it beyond the (likely) pennies of ad revenue coming your way. Anyone who has ever read a novel too knows that discovery is so much more interesting to read about than somebody who knows everything already.
I also think that the pressure to know everything and be everything all the time is a lot to put on a human being, one who is doing unpaid work at that. And that allowing that human to be human is healthy and therapeutic. When a person is feeling lost and alone, there is nothing more heartening than learning there is somebody else out there who’s been there, who understands…the amazing miracle of human connection that has always been the best part of blogs anyway.
Letting humans be human then means that a person is not simply a pair of legs, or only a bookstagrammer. But rather that a person is a bookstragrammer with an actual life of which bookstagramming is simply a facet, and there are also friends and family, an interest in wildflowers and bundt cake, messy bedside bookstacks, children with dirty faces, an obsession with The Bachelor and Little House on the Prairie fan fiction—do you know what I am saying? Also, when you’re scrolling through photo after photo of impeccably arranged books on tea trays with sprigs from the garden and an artful jug against a painted wooden floor, don’t your eyes kind of glaze over?
Hybridization is the best thing that blogs have on their side—in terms of form and technology. And I am convinced the same can be true of content, no matter who’s out there persuading others to becoming “real bookstagrammers”. And who, by the way, are the people doing that kind of persuading? I do suspect their marketers looking for the peddling of their own wares, and it’s far more simpler and salubrious to have your products marketed (without pay, no less) by people who have no human foibles and are wart-free. It also makes me sad that there are people living who’ve never known a time in which the central experiences of being online were not selling stuff and being sold stuff. In the words of Bonnie Stewart, “forget agency and voices and relationships. if you are using your network solely to sell the message of a corporate entity, what you are doing is NOT social media, no matter your platform. what you’re doing is at best a marketing job, and more likely something akin to Amway.”
I am hopeful though. I’ve been noticing a trend among Instagrammers to show their faces once in a while, with various hashtags attached to this, latching onto some kind of meme, and positing the whole thing like some kind of revelation. With these big reveals too have come some genuinely fascinating insights: one woman explained that she’s been dealing with a debilitating skin ailment for the past while and she’s been terrified to show what she really looks like. Another reviewed the new book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and wrote about being fat, something she’d never dealt with in her blog before and which never been clear in her carefully positioned photos. And I can’t help but think how liberating it must have felt to finally admit these things, to own one’s imperfections, to put these things out there for everyone to see and discover that the world still likes you anyway. And for readers I am sure these posts were most remarkable too; certainly here I am still thinking about them weeks later.
March 29, 2016
I suppose I was expecting something more transformative. You know, that I’d turn into Gwyneth Paltrow, or be a mermaid, and have organized spice jars at the very least, but there was none of that. At the end of it all, I was still only me, and I still had to empty potties and make lunches and try to stuff my weird three-years-post-c-section stomach inside a humble pair of pants every morning. My kids didn’t care what had happened—to them, I was still their mom. My husband was happy for me, but it didn’t exactly reframe his perception of my place in the world (i.e. put me behind the frame of a recycled vintage window from a farmhouse or something made out of birch twigs). And all of that was kind of a blessing, really, even if it didn’t seem so at the time, because these are the things that kept me real.
It’s easy to lose touch of what really matters when you live much of your life online, to be duped into aspiring to LIKES and followers above all things. It’s not hard to become the sort of person who screams at small children for knocking the table and upsetting the oh-so-carefully placed scattering sea salt over avocado toast, interrupting the flow of twitter threads, or casting a shadow over a teacup just as you’re about to Instagram it. It’s terribly frustrating to have your five year old go into hysterics because you’re adamant about refusing to Instagram their artwork, which is actually a toilet paper roll tube scotched taped to the phone bill. “Do it, Mommy! Instagram it,” they insist, no matter how patiently you explain that aesthetically it’s just not consistent with your brand, even if the paper phone bills suggests a vintage vibe that you’ve been trying to cultivate. You tell them, “Honey, you don’t even know what an Instagram is. It’s a noun, not a verb, and it comes with a whole lot of impedimenta, with ramifications you’ve not even begun to glimpse at your age.” Serious adult matters. You start to explain about the new algorithm, and requiring followers to turn on notifications, and by the time you’ve stopped speaking, the child has put himself to bed. So there is that. It’s easy to get thrown off course.
But some of it matters, it does, so you really can’t blame me for carrying myself differently after the fact: holding my head a bit higher, swinging my hair from side to side. People started commenting on my glow, and that wasn’t all due to goddess bowls and kale smoothies. I started thinking a whole lot more than usual about doing handstands on beaches and antique birdcages. About wicker. I wanted to install a chair that hung from the ceiling, fill the floor with throw cushions, and wear glasses in order to look serious. My hair in a bun secured with two pencils. Or chopsticks. Wooden floors with well-worn paint. Creative ideas for nail art.
It’s different now, from when I used to pursue these things for leisure. The stakes are higher and I claim it on my taxes. I’ve published an e-book, twelve pages long but who’s counting? I’ve got a social media strategies e-course available on my blog, and the testimonials are amazing. And for a long time I’ve been grappling with an advanced case of Imposter Syndrome (in both lungs, no less), carrying on as best I could, but nonetheless afflicted. But no more. I once was blind, but now I see. And what exactly do I see?
A craft. On Pinterest. Me! Me, who tried to glue a cotton ball to a pinecone on Sunday in order to make an Easter Bunny on my mother’s porch, but the glue wouldn’t stick so I turned the whole thing into a game of, “Can You Throw A Sticky Pinecone Into Traffic?” (and I could, in case you were wondering). Me who invented the party game, “Disappointing Pass the Parcel,” the parcel packed with citrus fruit (and the one at the end received a lemon). At every birthday party my children have ever had, we’ve tied pipe cleaners stuck with styrofoam balls to cheap plastic headbands, which has suited every party theme that I can think of (Aliens! Insects! DIY Radio Transmitters!). I honestly thought I’d gone as far in my life as I was meant to go.
But this. Saved to a page called Library Craft Ideas 3. I once made a dollhouse out of a shoebox and now it’s up there for the whole world to see, alongside peg dolls, repurposed lightbulb air balloons, and a rocket made from a paper towel roll. Egg cartons spiders, FTW.
I’ve published a book, created actual humans inside my body, and wrote a letter to the Prime Minister in 1988 imploring him to save the pandas, but none of that means anything in light of my latest achievement unlocked. Somebody put a photo of a goddamn craft I did on Pinterest, which makes me officially the person I always wanted to be.
March 22, 2016
Since writing about blogs and blogrolls last fall, I’ve returned to being avid about blog reading, using my Protopage reader to keep track of blogs I love and ever looking forward to updates. And happily, I’ve been adding new blogs to it, revelling in the writing and inspiration, in the serendipity of experience and connections made. Here are three to watch out for:
- Homeward Odyssey, by Christine Nielsen: Christine was a student in my blogging course last fall, and I’m so pleased that she’s continued blogging into the new year. After years of travelling the world via her career in journalism, Christine is becoming preoccupied with notions of home. Her writing is wonderful, and each of her posts is its own journey, rich with twists and turns and unexpected astonishments.
- Creative Critique, by Margrit Talpalaru: I know Margrit from Twitter and her blog is brand new, and while usually I’d wait a bit to make sure a blog has legs before jumping on the bandwagon (for do you know how many abandoned blogs litter our internet?), I want to spread the word about this one in the hopes that an audience will inspire her to keep going. Posts so far are about hair and running, and they’re terrific.
- The Huron Playschool Blog: Our playschool has started a blog to increase the visibility of our website and our programs, and I am excited to be tasked with keeping it because our school has a really great history (nearly 50 years long) well linked with our city and amazing neighbourhood, as well as a great community and excellent programs, and it will be nothing short of fun to write about it all. Hope you’ll check in once in a while!
December 11, 2015
The best news is that I’m finally getting better, and I’ve even been to a place lately that isn’t my bed—last night I ventured out to Harriet’s holiday concert to hear her sing in the Primary Choir. This weekend, we’re planning to hang up the Christmas bunting, and the plan is that by mid-next week, I might be up and about in the world again. But until then, and even after, we’ll be taking it slow. The nice thing about the Christmas holiday is that it’s a perfect time to have that happen.
But other things have been happening as well, perhaps sustaining the illusion that I’ve been more active lately than I actually have been. First, the Winter 2016 issue of U of T Magazine is being mailed out soon, and it includes a short piece I wrote about the curious trajectory of my life in blogging. I wrote about how I started blogging at a point when blogs were poised to take over the world, which never quite happened, but for me (and for many others) blogging has played an enormous role in my career and evolution as a writer and a person, even. Blogging has sustained me during periods of high and lows, and through the throes of literary disappointment, and it’s now integral to my process—so much so that my forthcoming novel is about the secret life of a blogger. I was really grateful for the opportunity to write this article, and you can read it online here.
For Understorey Magazine, I got to be part of a conversation with Ali Bryan, Alice Burdick, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Natalie Corbett Sampson, Natalie Meisner, Shalan Joudry, and Sylvia D. Hamilton about whether it’s possible to be both a mother and a writer at once. (Spoiler: I say YES). There’s lots of great advice, stories and wisdom from women who’ve been there, and I love the effect of so many voices together. I love this line from Sampson: “Shutting the world and your experience out in a ‘no diversion’ and ‘no intrusion’ approach leaves you open to missing things that can be shaped into stories. ” Naturally, I encourage women to let their children watch Annie all summer long in order to get that novel written, which worked for me. Read the whole thing here.
And finally, I took part in a very fun conversation with Corey Redekop about what happens when a wonderful writer turns out to be a terrible human being. Examining my own bookshelves, I really couldn’t find a single horrible human being among them. My authors are mainly crotchety old women, which many people construe with horrible human beinghood, but crotchetiness is these writers’ entitlement, I think. I love them better for it. Anyway, we talked about whether being an asshole was a male writer thing, I refer to Barbara Pym’s Nazi sympathies, we discuss what red lines are for us as readers (not Nazi sympathies, apparently…) and what if Rush Limbaugh was authoring the next The Phantom Tollbooth. You can read it all here.
See? I have been busy.
November 17, 2015
Truthfully, I have little patience with notions of perfectionism. Partly, this is because I’m so far from perfect that I’m envious of anyone who could purport to such an affliction, but also because most perfectionists aren’t enacting perfection in the slightest, but rather using it as an excuse for artistic paralysis. Which I always take as kind of a slight, like those people who’d write if they only had the time—”I’d like to do what you do, but I can’t because I have much higher standards for my artistic output than ordinary mortals.”
In my blogging course, I encourage my students to eschew perfectionism. There is no place for perfectionists in the blogosphere. Blogs are inherently raw, wild and unpolished. The important thing is to write the best you can, get to Publish, and then onto the next post. There will be spelling errors, and sloppy grammar, and things will be formatted weird. You’ll get facts wrong, and often you will change your mind. (Ideally, you should always be changing your mind—or at least entertaining the possibility. The resolute blogger will quickly learn that he is ridiculously low on material.) But no matter. For the blogger should not get hung up on these things, instead remaining forward-facing, putting one post in front of the other, ideally getting better and better at blogging all the time. The journey the very point, you see, because the blogger never ever arrives.
I mean this literally, in one sense. A blog, like a life, is inherently a work-in-progress. Being done is being dead. But also because blogging itself is not a path that leads to somewhere. Although it can be—we all know the examples of bloggers who’ve quit their day jobs and now live off the fruit of their blogging labours (although that’s a path with its own curious trajectories). Certainly blogging has delivered me tremendous rewards, not least of which are (recently) lupine seeds and other surprise parcels in the post from kind readers. And also contacts and experience that have led to professional gigs, and it’s true that I have blogging 100% to thank for your pretty solid writing career at the moment. But note this: my blog worked as a tool (a path to somewhere) because I wasn’t deliberately trying to make it so. I was blogging for blogging’s sake, rather than to write my way to somewhere better, and that I actually managed to get anywhere at all is kind of incidental. It’s the blog that I keep returning to anyway. Warts and all. It will never be perfect, and I will never be done.
I’m comfortable with all this, so much so that I’m so looking forward to speaking on a panel about mistakes on Sunday at Draft 11.1. But then yesterday, while walking down the street, I had a devastating revelation. Which involves Rohan Maitzen’s review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic. Now, keep in mind that I’m Elizabeth Gilbert-agnostic. I’ve never read a single thing she wrote, but I AM an avid Rohan Maitzen fan. And I loved her smart and thoughtful review of Gilbert’s book on creativity. She’s clear about the book’s strengths (“Gilbert’s advice to just get on with it, without excuses or apologies, is rousing”), its wackiness (the part where Ann Patchett steals her book idea by osmosis?), and, yes, its unrelenting banality. But the big problem Maitzen stumbles upon is Elizabeth Gilbert on the topic of perfectionism, which, she says, is just a manifestation of fear:
“Done is better than good,” [Gilbert] proclaims; “you may want your work to be perfect …. I just want mine to be finished.” Don’t bother interrupting what she proudly calls “the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass” with cavils about aspiring to excellence: it turns out that along with the all-purpose permission slip she offers us comes an injunction against judgment or evaluation. And that’s where, for me, Gilbert loses her magic.
And this is what stopped me, as I was walking down the street. Because I too am a disciplined half-ass, although I haven’t written an actual song about it yet (and once I get around to it, the song will probably be a bit crap. And I won’t care). So am I basically Elizabeth Gilbert after all, but just not rich or successful, or generating Ann Patchett novel ideas? And the reason why this matters is because the very best part of Maitzen’s really excellent review is when she recalls recently reviewing Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things. The novel that, Gilbert writes in Big Magic, is decidedly imperfect (including, in her words, “an unfortunately underdeveloped character”) but which she decided was “good enough.” The novel that Maitzen sat down, read, and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about in order to write her review (which was, shall we say, mixed). Maitzen writes:
I suppose on balance, then, mine was one of the “bad reviews,” but I certainly didn’t toss off my opinions lightly before moving on. I assumed Gilbert had put everything she had into her novel and that it was my responsibility to take her writing seriously in return—to read and think as hard as I was capable of, and then to be scrupulous in reporting my conclusions. It never occurred to me to approach The Signature of All Things as a novel that wasn’t intended to be anything more than “good enough.” I’m not sure I know how—or even whether—to review work by a self-proclaimed “half-ass” … but here I am, doing it again.
Here is the flaw in that great liberator, imperfectionism, then: because do you know how many hours it takes to read a book? Moreover, do you know the value of a dollar, or twenty, or thirty of them? And so how dare to any of us expect a reader to make that investment if the work that you’ve produced is not the very best it could be. (This is my big complaint about self-published books too. The number of self-pub’d books I’ve read that aren’t conspicuously imperfect is less than a handful. This is even more the case with e-books, which can be put into the world so rapidly. It drives me crazy when I hear about authors rewriting/editing versions of their books after I’ve actually bought them and read them—could I have my time and my money back please?)
So here I’ve come full circle. And spent the hours since my revelation in the street trying to reconcile my philosophy of imperfectionism with my aversion to bad books. And my conclusion this: eschewing perfectionism is about getting out the draft. And it makes sense in blogging, because a blog is only ever just a draft—certainly, if you’re going back over your posts and ever polishing and changing, what you’re doing isn’t really blogging (which is raw and wild, remember?). Or sustainable. And this is why blogging is useful for a writer, because it’s practicing the habit of putting your ideas into words, one word after another, which is the same way you write a draft of a novel after all. A draft that is rarely going to be wonderful (although who hasn’t dreamed of the editor snapping up your first draft, saying, “There! You’re a genius. This is done.” So easy!). The draft is your chance to go wild, trip up, make a mess, and experiment. To see what happens next.
And after that is where the work comes in. Where the perfectionist’s tendencies come to be advantageous, and the best part is that no one even expects you to do it all on your own. When you get back to your manuscript, and—with the help of a few good editors—make it the most perfect book it can be. Which you’re always going to fail at, but you’re a blogger, well-versed at and most comfortable with imperfection anyway.
November 10, 2015
I’m more than halfway through teaching The Art of Blogging at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies again, and once more finding the experience inspiring and incredibly enjoyable. But unnerving also, because the world of blogs is ever-changing, shifting ground beneath my feet. It’s like what May Friedman writes about in her book on mommyblogs: “In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge.”
Which means that trying to teach someone what a blog is, let alone how to make one, is faintly preposterous. And that the blogosphere(s) I taught my students about in 2011 is a very different world than the one we’re addressing right now in 2015. (As Ferris once said, things move pretty fast.) This occurred to me a couple of weeks ago as I found myself once again telling my students that a blogroll is a nice way to situate oneself within a wider community online and otherwise, to attract traffic (via bloggers checking out their incoming links), and to give your reader suggestions for other places online they might like to visit. “Of course,” I added in a caveat. “These are becoming less and less common.” I think I also mentioned that they’re incredibly annoying to keep up to date.
And then a day or two later, my friend Rebecca Rosenblum wrote about blogrolls on her own blog (which is, obviously, on my blogroll). She’d just gone to the trouble of updating hers after ages and ages. “As I say,” she writes, “no one clicks on these links and I doubt anyone will now.”And it’s true. In fact, nobody really reads blogs anyway, or at least not the way they used to when one might have clicked through someone’s blogroll. (I have actually been blogging for FIFTEEN YEARS as of last month, and I even remember when there were such things as blog-rings.) “What are the blogs you like to read?” is a question I always ask my students, and they have to search to come up with answers.
Although it’s not really that no one reads blogs. I think the same number of people read blogs but there are so many blogs that the readership is stretched further. And blogs themselves, as we’re understanding them, are more focussed and less about everything than they were once thought to be. And we come at them more laterally than we once did—I read cooking blogs all the time, but I don’t pay attention to what blogs they are; I’m there for the recipes. People arrive at blogs for specific information. We also show up when directed by social media, and it is rare that interest is sparked enough that a reader will return again and again. Which is not to say that there aren’t blogs with huge followings. Or that blogs like mine don’t have a small but loyal readership (and not just my mom—but, hi mom!). It’s just to say that the way we encounter blogs in 2015 is very different.
Part of this is that many of us are exploring the internet on smaller devices in which much of our experience is personalized, leaving little room for serendipity. Part of it is because we’re so overwhelmed with information online anyway that going out of our ways to seek more would be ridiculous. And also because the platforms from which many of us read blogs have disappeared—I was a devoted used of iGoogle, the personalized homepage on which all my favourite links were organized, until Google killed it in 2013 (because it wasn’t popular anymore, wasn’t relevant to a mobile experience). iGoogle was a like a blogroll outside of a blog, a page I checked every day to see who’d updated their pages, what was happening in the world. Not fashionable, but it was useful, and I really missed it when it was gone. And then I even began to be the kind of person who could have said things like, “I don’t really read blogs,” too.
After trying out a couple of blog-readers that were disappointing, I arrived at Protopage at few months ago, which allowed me to recreate my s0-last-decade personalized homepage experience. And it’s proven wonderful. There are so many excellent blogs out there, and I like knowing where to find them, deliberately seeking them out—every day, even. And in the spirit of the blogroll (and, inspired by Rebecca, I’ve even updated mine—for about five minutes it was current even!) I want to share with you now a few of my favourites that might be worth adding to your own daily or weekly routine:
My friends at the 4Mothers Blog have been reborn as a magazine-style blog called Plenty; Sarah’s Edge of Evening continues to be my favourite blog on earth; my friend Julia has rediscovered her blogging mojo at her birding blog, and I love what she’s been up to lately; my friend Athena’s La Parachute is a directory of delicious and delightful things; “Novel Readings“, a literary blog by Rohan Maitzen, kind person and admirable critic; I love this food blog by Lindy Mechefske, author of new book Sir John’s Table; Girls Gone Child continues to inspire me as a mother and a person and a California dreamer; check out Swimming Holes We Have Known for a blog that’s swimmingly good; I still love Matilda Magtree; and Calm Things; my former student Ann-Marie’s A Dainty Dish, about the intersections between picture books and recipes; and another student, Marina’s blog, full of life, wisdom, exuberance, and Marina-ness; there is Two Purple Figs, a recipe blog by the mother of one of Iris’s classmates; and for Canadian Literature fans, don’t forget the 49thShelf.com blog, which is the blog that pays my bills.
Happy Reading! (And PS, I don’t usually do these end-of-post prompts, but I want to know: what great blogs am I missing?)
August 31, 2015
My course, The Art of Blogging, starts October 5 at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Our last session was fun and inspiring, and I’m really excited about doing it again. You can learn more about my approach to teaching blogging here.
And the following is some of the feedback I received on my previous course evaluation, just to give you a sense of what you can expect from The Art of Blogging:
“I really enjoyed how Kerry tied the art of blogging to other art forms—literature, visual art, etc—and encouraged us to see blogging as part of a larger context. Was engaging and thought-provoking.”
“This course was exactly what I needed to get going with my blog.”
“A worthwhile course! I would recommend it to those who want to learn about blogging and all it encompasses.”
“Excellent! Very enjoyable learning experience.”
“I think Kerry did an excellent job of encouraging our individual voices and maintaining a respectful and productive learning environment. Loved the class—thanks, Kerry!”
July 15, 2015
It’s a familiar story: an isolated mother begins sharing stories of her family life, expressing her frustrations with domestic life and the challenges of motherhood. Building a platform out of adversity—she’d been a single mom for a while, had a fraught relationship with her own mother. Largely self-taught, not necessarily ambitious. Hard-working, yes, but credits her success to doors opening by happenstance. Her platform growing to huge audiences, but she’s still not properly respected. She’s telling stories about kids and laundry, after all. But she keeps on telling those stories for nearly three decades, her success bringing with it fame but also certain challenges: what are the ethics of writing about one’s children, one’s family? When you’ve made a career out of telling their stories but their lives are becoming separate from yours, what kids of stories do you tell instead? And how to deal with trolls, online critics out for attack who seem to forget that you’re actually a human being?
It’s a career trajectory not so far removed from that of many popular bloggers, although Lynn Johnston’s began in the 1970s and her “platform” was the comic, “For Better or For Worse”, syndicated daily in newspapers across North America. And when I saw recently that she’d listed a book Erma Bombeck as one of her most influential reads, the whole thing made sense to me. That Johnston, like Bombeck, was one of blogging’s foremothers, and in particular with the immediacy of her strip, domestic life unfolding in real time.
Lynn Johnston’s life and career are outlined in the new book, For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, a book released to coincide with a retrospective of Johnston’s work on exhibit now at the Art Gallery of Sudbury until November. The book includes full colour and black and white comics from the course of Johnston’s career, as well as examples of her early work, a discussion of her influences, and notes of the creative work she’s been up to since her strip ended in 2008. It’s fascinating reading, a behind-the-scenes look at her work that’s still so familiar to me—the Pattersons, their friends and neighbours. Which, like the best blogs, is not ephemeral at all.
May 20, 2015
A lot went wrong when my first child was born, most of it involving the loss of my mind, but there was also the fact of the loss of my hard drive when the baby was four weeks old. I lost everything on my computer, which was actually kind of liberating—this all happened on the day I turned 30, and I was intrigued by the idea of a fresh start, a clean slate as I embarked upon a brand new decade. The only thing we lost that I truly regretted were photos, unflattering ones taken soon after the birth, photos of us in the recovery room as we were learning to breastfeed for the very first time. These were the kind of photos one wouldn’t post on Facebook, all bare boobs and double-chins, and besides, I was still then the kind of person who didn’t want to put too many pictures of my child on Facebook. I didn’t want to be one of those people.
The baby had only been around for four weeks, but those early weeks are such times of enormous change. At four weeks, she’d already amassed multitudinous selves, passed through several incarnations, and it was impossible to keep track of all them. And most of that was irrevocably lost when my hard drive went kaput, taking all my photos with it. Except, ironically, for the few photos I had posted on Facebook—an exercise I’d undertaken with remarkable restraint. And suddenly, those few photos were the only ones I had. Facebook was my saviour—who’d ever have imagined?
So I was converted by the time my second daughter was born four years later. There were going to be so so many pictures. We were also going to have her photographed immediately after her birth by ceasarean, all purple and gloopy and as foetal as she’d ever be again. I wanted to see it. I’d missed it before, when Harriet been all cleaned up and wrapped in a blanket before I saw her at all, her father by my side reporting that, “Our baby has so much hair.” There had been a gap between her birth and her life that I was never able to get over, the medical screen never really coming down, and perhaps I’m just coming up with metaphors to explain my failure to process that this child was mine, but there it was. I wanted pictures this time. Of all of it. I didn’t want to miss a single thing.
When Iris was a few weeks old, my computer began to fail again, laptops seeming to have a similar lifespan to the space between my children. But we’d learned our lesson and backed up our photos, so that all of them now live on a portable hard drive. Which means they’re inconvenient to access, but they’re there. And I pulled them out not long ago to prove my case in point
“Words and pictures—survival gear for our stories,” writes Myrl Coulter in her memoir, A Year of Days, and I underlined that part. Survival gear indeed, for when I started looking at photos—hundreds of them—from the days after Iris’s birth, I scarcely recognized any of the moments documented within. At least not at first, but then the memory of these moments started returning to me. Mundane things that would be of no interest to anyone but me, for whom they’re unbearably precious—photos of me lying in bed at home with my children, who were discovering each other as sisters; crazy eyed bloated fat face photos from post-op; breastfeeding pics galore; and even a photo my incision just before the staples came out, because I couldn’t actually see it and was unbelievably curious.
I’d forgotten all of it, which is natural, I suppose, and it’s possible that it’s unnatural to have so much documentation, that it may tax our minds to have so much evidence of… of what? Of life, I suppose. And these photos bring it all back so clearly. Having taken them certainly does not mean that I was any less in the moment (and really, being a mother is to be eternally in the moment no matter how you try to swing it). If it had only been about the moment and not its preservation, those memories would have been lost altogether.
There has been a lot of criticism thrown at my generation, and those younger, for oversharing, for selfies, for self-absorption, and toward mothers in particular for conspicuously mothering on social media. (This is a criticism I was responding to when I resisted baby photos on Facebook so many years ago). But the idea of survival gear frames it all in another way. In her book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, May Friedman writes against criticisms that mommy blogs will cause harm to the children who later in life encounter their own childhoods documented online. She writes:
Children are silent witnesses to their own parenting, unable to recall the nuances of their own infancy and early childhood. Indeed, it is arguable that children can only remember parenting as it becomes combative. By reading not only about their mothers’ struggles, but also about their mothers’ obvious love and care, perhaps adult children may find their relationships with their mothers bolstered rather than damaged. Whether the outcomes are positive or negative, mommyblogs allow children to see their mothers as three-dimensional individuals…
This morning when I read of the sudden death of Today’s Parent editor Tracy Chappell, I thought about her post from December, “Why I’m breaking up with my blog,” which is one of the most thoughtful pieces on blogging I have ever encountered. I’m going to be using it in my course going forward. She writes about blogging makes you live your life in a more reflective way, see the world differently, and how blogs are such remarkable records of these lives we live.
Chappell writes, similarly to Friedman:
I hope that, through this blog, they will learn to see me as not just “Mom” but as a woman who had her own things going on—a career, relationships, dreams, struggles, goals—as I was wiping bums and making dinner and gently (oh-so-gently) brushing knots out of hair. I hope they’ll see the value in taking lots of pictures and marking special moments. I hope they’ll understand that parenting is really hard and also has great rewards. I hope they’ll see how much fun we had. I hope they’ll see that I recognized and appreciated their many beautiful, individual gifts, even if they thought I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time. I hope they’ll see how hard I tried. I hope they’ll see how much they were loved. I hope they’ll see how proud I’ve always been to be their mom.
These would be poignant words anyway, but mean so much more now with their writer’s death. What a legacy for her girls, all those posts, which will provide them answers to those questions all of us have about our childhoods, answers that are forever lost to time, confusion, blurry brains. How they will still have this remarkable access to their mother’s voice, even now that she is gone. It will never make up for their loss, but what a gift too, to be able to know who she was. And how profound her love was for them.
All of which underlines my sense that these acts of documentation are some of the most important things we’ll ever do.
March 25, 2015
You’ll see up in the top of the right-hand column that I’ve started a Pickle Me This newsletter, which will be referred to with the far more literary title of “Digest.” The Pickle Me This Digest will be the best of the blog delivered each month to your inbox with a smattering of book reviews, picture book reviews, and other features. I know that fewer people are visiting blogs on a regular basis these days, and instead come to specific posts via social media links, which is all fine and well, but I thought the Digest might be a great resource for anyone who’d like to stay better in touch on a regular basis.
Even better? Anyone who signs up for The Pickle Me This Digest in the next month will have their name entered in a draw to win a copy of the essay anthology I edited, The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, which was published last year by Goose Lane Editions. Mother’s Day is coming up soon, so the book is timely. And if you have a copy already? Well, why not pass your extra copy along to a friend? As Deborah Ostrovsky wrote in the Fall 2014 issue of Herizons magazine, “… You won’t keep this book; you’ll pass it on to friends whose current vocation is changing diapers, or to friends who want a child, and those who don’t.”
If you’ve already signed up for the newsletter, I’ll add your name to the draw. And as ever, thank you for your support of Pickle Me This!