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Pickle Me This

November 17, 2015

The Principles of Imperfectionism, and its Inherent Contradictions

IMG_20150828_151617Truthfully, 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.

bigmagic-197x300I’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

Blogroll, Please?

davenport-sunsetI’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.

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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 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

The Art of Blogging starts October 5.

learn0moreMy 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!”

Sign up for The Art of Blogging here!

July 15, 2015

For Better or for Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

for-better-or-for-worseIt’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

Survival Gear for Our Stories

IMG_20130605_154726A 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

a-year-of-days“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.

mommyblogsThere 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…

Smears-of-Jam-Lights-of-Jelly_MP_071_RGB-300x240This 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

Pickle Me This: The Digest

springYou’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.

m-word-coverEven 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!

December 10, 2014

Great New Blogs in the Neighbourhood


Cake and cookies from our final class!

Teaching The Art of Blogging at UofT’s School of Continuing Studies this fall was an incredibly inspiring, enjoyable, and educational experience. I was pleased to be teaching the course again after a hiatus, and to be changing my approach based upon the blogging workshops I’d done over the past two years. Our class turned out to be a group of wonderful, generous and intelligent writers whose approaches and backgrounds were so diverse and complementary. Our class readings ranged from blog posts on tech by Mathew Ingram and Navneet Alang, to a Rebecca Solnit essay, posts by Bonnie Stewart, Kyran Pittman, and Shawna Lemay, and my own blog post of preservation and the work of Mary Pratt. I was also tremendously inspired by having just read May Friedman’s book on Mommyblogs, which really gave me the confidence to follow my own instincts about what blogging is and can be, and to celebrate the form as Friedman approaches it: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.”

And now with the course completed, I am really pleased to share with you some of the blogs that have emerged from it. I hope you will add them to your bookmarks.

  • Check out gem city, a literary blog with a singular point of view, a wonderful and wondrous take on books and reading, and such haunting kazoo solos like you won’t believe. I’m excited that this excellent writer has recently settled in Toronto and look forward to seeing where her blog takes her to.
  • Peas and Honey is the most curious hybrid, about aging parents and old houses, grief and memory, and full of really good story telling, and the most surprising connections, which is what the best blogs do.
  • a dainty dish is a blog that owns my heart already, a baking blog whose recipes are inspired by beautiful picture books by writers (so far) including Sara O’Leary, Julie Morstad, Cybele Young, and Jon Klassen. It’s so gorgeous and original, and I’m finding that I’m always hungry for her next post.
  • For those of you who like to gaze upon beautiful things, here is Barbara Ishwerwood’s blog, whose short and perfect posts offer insight into art and art history. Check out the links to Barbara’s courses too!
  • And you’ve never had a friend like Marina Hasson, whose own stories and experiences have powered her remarkable approach to life. She’s inspiring, lovely and hilarious, and there is such a generous spirit to everything she does. You can befriend her here—and lucky you! 

The Art of Blogging will be offered next in September 2015.

November 19, 2014

Happy to Be Affiliated

mcnally-robinsonWe’re getting toward the end of my blogging course, which has been the most wonderful, inspiring experience. I have enjoyed it so much, and look forward to following my students’ blogs as they grow. Though next week is the lesson I know the least about—the business of blogging. Even though my blog is ideal for an affiliation with an online bookseller, but I’ve never done this because I don’t like the predatory practices of the big online booksellers, and don’t want to profit off their gains (which tend to come at a loss for literary culture on the whole).

But it recently occurred to me that there was another option. Indeed, Canada’s largest online bookstore, McNally Robinson, does online orders and has an affiliates program, and I’m pleased to announce that Pickle Me This is now a part of it. When you purchase a book by McNally Robinson via a link from Pickle Me This, I will receive a cut of the profits. You can learn more about McNally Robinson’s Affiliate Program here. I will be adding links to my archived book reviews, and links will appear on all posts in the future.

I am pleased to be affiliated with McNally Robinson because I recently used their online ordering system to send a gift to a friend in Vancouver, and was really impressed with their customer service. (The book was not in stock, an actual person emailed to tell me so, and to give me the option of cancelling my order; when the book came in stock a few days later, the person emailed me to let me know.) I will be sending Christmas gifts to my sister’s family in Alberta via McNally Robinson this year for sure now, a nice alternative to Amazon. They don’t have the same discounts, but I’d gladly pay a higher price for the Amazon behemoth not to devour the entire literary world.

And books cost money because books have value anyway.

I am also pleased to be affiliated with McNally Robinson because we had such a good time there last spring when they hosted The M Word. The Winnipeg location is an incredible bookstore, a magical space, and we need more spaces like it in the world. So I’m happy to be directing some business their way, and also pleased to be leveraging this blog as a channel to my becoming a billionaire. When I make my first fortune, I promise to buy you a cup of tea.

Thank you for supporting independent bookstores, and book bloggers too.

November 6, 2014

Five Star

five-starToday I was quite thrilled to find my recent post, “On Uncertainty, Mistakes and Accidental Cake” included on Elan Morgan’s Five Star Blog Roundup. I was thrilled because this was some great company, writing-wise, but also because of how the Five Star Roundup reminds us that we are all readers online, as well as writers, and that there is a whole world of thoughtful writing out there to explore. So do check out the roundup, this week and every week, and many thanks to Elan for including me, and for all her work fostering community and action online.

September 29, 2014

May Friedman on Mommyblogs and uncertainty as a valuable critical end

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. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” –May Friedman, Introduction, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked.” —Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” 

It pains me to link to this smug and stupid post I wrote in May 2009, just 11 days before my first child was born. When I purported to understand anything in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, because I really didn’t. And when I tried to pin down mommybloggers, detailing my discomfort with the form, and my discomfort with that discomfort. I thought I had it all sewed up, because I was surer of things then, and I had no idea of the seas of uncertainty I’d be wading into when it came to mothering, motherhood, and issues around motherhood. Five years later, The M Word was to be partly my means of coming to terms with the beauty of the mess of it all—when in doubt, make an anthology.

When, three months after that embarrassing 2009 blog post, I reviewed the book Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the Mommy Blog by May Friedman and Shana Calixte, my thinking had evolved somewhat, but I was still pretty stupid. (This is the curse of any blogger: you are forever presented with undeniable evidence that you were pretty stupid. And that mostly likely you still are.) But I was getting a sense of things—that motherhood and any ideas surrounding motherhood refused to stay put in my tidy pat conclusions, and that there were many women who didn’t want even them to.

May Friedman’s new book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, occurs at a pivotal intersection in my writing life. Outside of my blog, it is my writing about motherhood and my mothering life that has found most resonance with readers, so much so that when a recent published story contained nary a reference to mothers anywhere, I was a bit relieved. And I’ve also been blogging for 14 years this October, which has led to the opportunity to teach the course, The Art of Blogging, at the University of Toronto (whose latest session starts a week from tonight!). In my blog teaching, I embrace and celebrate the messy chaos of the blog form, as unpindownable as mothers are. (You can read my posts with thoughts on blogging here.) I welcomed the reflections, revelations and insights of Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood not just for what they had to say about mothers and mommyblogs, but for the perspective the book provided on the history and implications of the blogosphere with a lens on women (who, as in any history, are so often left out of the story).

True confession: I have an allergy to Foucault, and once they start referencing Bahktin, they’ve already lost me. As an academic text, Friedman’s book stands apart from others that I’ve encountered in that her critical framework serves to transform the familiar into something altogether new, rather than rendering it intelligible. In Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, she examines mommyblogs in the frameworks of hybridity (as a form, of the identities of blog authors, of the experiences of readers), cyborgs (of the author and her text via technology, and also of the complex and nuanced networks created through blogging communities, how mothering is reworked away from being an individuated task) and Queer theory (a movement away from the patriarchal institution of motherhood toward an otherness) to show that mommyblogging is indeed a radical act that has already changed the way motherhood is regarded in the public sphere, and whose further implications are still before us, rich with possibility.

It is as applicable to that mythic blogosphere as a whole what Friedman has to say about “the mamasphere”: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.” That lack of generalization doesn’t freak me out anymore, and I appreciate Friedman’s excellent book for reminding me why certainty is anathema to everything I like best about the world, both online and off.

See also: “Mary Pratt, On Blogging, and Preserving Light and Time”

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