I’ve been teaching writing in one way or another for over forty-five years, and yet on my sabbatical in 2014-15, I discovered an entirely new approach to the conquering the practical challenges of knocking out a piece of writing—the blog. But that wasn’t even the best part. What really surprised me was that blogging profoundly changed my thinking about writing and made me more creative, a glow that has stayed with me.
I spent that year living in Dublin, reading, writing, carrying out research, traveling all over Ireland—and blogging. I had never blogged before and didn’t really know what it was. For the sabbatical, I had planned a substantial writing project having to do with Irish literature, history, and landscape and thought I would also write a blog about what it was like to live in Ireland. After all, doesn’t everyone who studies or lives abroad plan to blog about it? Kimberly Knight, who managed the college web site during that time, kindly gave me a crash course in the mechanics of blogging and set me up with WordPress. Calvin Burgamy helped me with other technical aspects of using Google Drive and related applications. I named the blog The View from Here” and created a logo and a look for it. I was ready—or so I thought.
We moved into our apartment in Dublin on June 29, 2014. It took me a week or so to get the place set up, arrange for Internet, and get an IKEA desk for my computer. After going through the usual procrastination techniques such as organizing my papers and books, stocking up on “writer’s supplies,” trekking all over town to find ink for my fountain pen, and “alphabetizing the china” as Dudley Sanders likes to call these pointless activities, I started thinking about getting the blog going. Already the mysterious, amorphous blog seemed so much more appealing than my very well planned sabbatical project, so I put the latter aside temporarily.
But the blog wasn’t exactly easy to approach. What was I really going to write about? Times four! The format Kimberly and I had chosen for the blog had four boxes or frames for images on the home page, each leading to a post when clicked, so it seemed necessary to create four posts before going live. Empty boxes, I reasoned, would portray me as unproductive, a dilettante, but coming up with four stories right away struck terror in my writer’s heart. Suddenly I realized that although technically I was up to speed, I didn’t really know what the blog would be about, what it would and would not cover, what special features or characteristics it would have, how often it would be updated, or, most important of all, who I would be as I wrote and created it. I knew I didn’t want to be the type of blogger who uses the format to list daily activities or post comments like “Well, this week was really busy, but next week I promise I’ll write more.” What did I want?
The first couple of weeks were filled with stops and starts as I tried to find answers to these questions. That kind of mucking about, painful as it always is, seems to be necessary to many creative endeavors. One day in late July, I did what all writers need to do: I stopped musing, fretting, researching, and planning, and started to write. Ever so gradually, the four boxes became four pots into which I threw ideas, hyperlinks, images, and little bits of writing, waiting to see what would bubble up. Slowly they began to take shape, become distinct from one another, and emerge as individual posts. A few ideas got squeezed out and put aside for later use. As I worked out what I wanted to write about, I also began to figure out who I was in the blog, what would be consistent across the posts, and the answers to many of the questions that had seemed so daunting at first. By mid-August, I was ready to go live.
Here are the still tentative but opening lines of post number one titled “1 Greyness Run to Flower,” published on August 19, 2014:
In “The View from Here” (“An Radharc d’Anseo” in Irish) I’m writing about living in Ireland from the perspective of someone who has visited the island many times, taught Irish literature and history, helped countless friends plan their Irish trips, and led groups of students on study tours (eight so far), but never stayed longer than a few weeks at a time. I’m excited about the opportunity to see Ireland in a new way and expect everything I think I know to change during this year—to shift, deepen, flip-flop, or multiply. I take my inspiration from Belfast born poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), who talked about appreciating plurality and variousness in “Snow”:
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
I can’t tell you yet what I’ll write about—but it will come from that perspective, and it will draw on literature, history, and landscape, as well as on daily life in Dublin—where I’m based—and elsewhere in Ireland. There Will Be Poetry.
With this post I gave myself permission to grow with the blog. And I did.
Even while still fretting about “the four,” I started coming up with ideas for future posts. At first my ideas were too big for the blog format I had sketched out, but I soon realized that a big idea could give birth to reasonably-sized baby ideas that were more manageable. I realized early in the process of sorting through possible stories that blogs are most successful when they take advantage of the medium, offering hyperlinks, photographs and other images, audio and video clips—all the enhancements that don’t work or work as well on paper. My role as a writer suddenly expanded to that of resource collector and designer. I tried to think creatively about the kinds of links that would enhance a story, sometimes following digressions as well as providing the basic URLs. The ability to use more than one medium and create a multidimensional “scrapbook” story was exciting and inspiring for this “words are everything” person.
I began to go on “photo shoots” around the city, snapping pictures for an existing story or two, while eyeing things for future stories. Sometimes an idea for a post would even originate in an image or a photo. Everywhere we traveled around Ireland during that year, I was on the lookout for story ideas or for connections for stories already in the hopper. There was so much to write about! I set up a calendar of posts and dates, reminding myself to be flexible, so that if a post I had planned for a certain date wasn’t coming together, I could switch it one from the back burner that seemed more doable. I created a “waiting room” for topics and rough rough drafts and for sentences or paragraphs that needed more time to gestate. So many ideas were bombarding me that I set myself the seemingly impossible goal of posting one thoroughly researched and revised essay every Monday—fifty-two posts for the sabbatical year. I worked ahead of the posting schedule so that when I was going to be away from home, Monday’s post was always ready to go. I had to force myself not to write all day long or on the weekends. I was on fire.
The creative process behind the blog was the most exhilarating thing I had ever done with writing, but that exhilaration increased dramatically once I started having readers. Friends, acquaintances, and eventually total strangers were willing to read what I had written each week and sometimes even to comment! Their interest filled me with wonder and gratitude. Some readers even kindly said they looked forward to my Monday posts. Knowing people were reading inspired and encouraged me and gave me the confidence to keep going. Thank you to all the people who read silently, many of whom told me later they had “been there all along”; and thanks especially to those who read and commented because you let me know you were out there, interested in what I had to say and engaged enough to open up a conversation.
During the early stages of the blog, a realization was starting to creep up on me, an annoying ghost haunting my thoughts. A “sabbatical project” idea would emerge in my mind, only to quickly morph into a blog post or two with the photographs, links, and the lived experience that made it more engaging and compelling in my mind than the manuscript limbo where the other would necessarily be trapped. By mid-September, I’d already posted eight or nine essays on the site when a friend from graduate school, Maureen O’Leary, came to visit from California. She had read the blog, and while we toured Dublin and parts of Ireland together, she talked to me encouragingly about it. One day Maureen said out loud the realization that was also hovering in my mind: “Your blog is your project.”
She was right. When I looked back at the formal sabbatical proposal I had written a year earlier, only the organization or format of the material in The View from Here differed from what I had proposed to write. During the course of the year, instead of writing five or six chapter-length essays as proposed, I ended up creating a far more diverse array of fifty-two revised and researched pieces. To write and post one of these every week meant that some had to be shorter than others—they ranged in length from a few hundred words to closer to 3000—and the different lengths made variety in approach a necessity. The ability to add images and links to the writing greatly expanded my knowledge and understanding of the subject matter and certainly added to my enjoyment of the writing process. The online format and the existence of readers, known and unknown, made me more comfortable adding a personal dimension to many of the stories, something readers told me they craved. Blogging had shifted the genre of the work a bit but in the end had given me many more ideas and made the work—I really believe—more original, deeper, more authentic.
Giving myself permission to experiment with a new way of writing, the many dimensions of the online blog format, and, the presence of readers who expected weekly posts and cared about what I was doing changed me for the better as a writer. That was the big surprise of my year as a blogger.