"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Monday, March 19, 2012

Blog as Personal Essay: Friends, Flight, and Norton

How Flight by Sherman Alexie and Joseph Epstein’s Introduction to Norton’s Book of Personal Essay shine some light on writing blogs
1. Writing for friends or strangers
Do people read blogs?  So many people want to write a blog for their business.  Or to sell a book that they haven’t written yet.  Or just to be heard.   An assumption behind writing the blog is that one has something to say that is interesting to strangers.  Gertrude Stein said that she writes for herself and for strangers.  Her writing is not easy to pick up, read, and feel like a friend.  Joseph Epstein says in his introduction to the Norton Book of Personal Essay, published in 1997, that to write an essay, one must imagine writing for potential friends.  I didn’t know I’d find so much insight into blog writing in an essay on personal essays.
I love quotes and Epstein has the good quotes.  He says that V.S. Naipaul has said “lucky is the writer who has found his or her true form.” Vaipaul, a well-written novelist, said that he won’t write any more fiction.  He considers the novel no longer “a useful form for conveying the complex truths of our day.” 
2. The blog is the new democratic essay
I just finished Flight by Sherman Alexie.  In it, Zits, the half-Indian teenager, time travels in other people’s bodies through violent wars between Native Americans and the FBI, General Custer and other armies, as well as modern day streets of Seattle, where people step over his homeless Indian body by the dumpster. Near the late middle of the book, Zits, aka an Indian boy in the late 1800’s, discovers that he doesn’t know who is good and who is not good anymore, which killing is right and which is not right.  “I am myself, and the white soldier my father wants me to kill, as well as the Indians he has killed, and his own family,” Zits thinks to himself while standing over a soldier’s body.
Flight makes its reader question how they know something to be true or to be right.  The reader questions even if it is possible to know something is true or right.  Well, I know what is right, but you do too, and we differ. Epstein mentions that at different time periods, various genres become the dominant form according to circumstances of the day.  George Lukacs, a Hungarian critic, predicts the personal essay may become the reigning form of the modern age, a time of transition, because it is the form for uncertainty and skepticism. 
But is the essay the form best suited for the time we live in?  Maybe the blog is the quick democratic video-version of the essay, a new form better suited for the information age. If the blog is in some ways a modern day personal essay, then the crucial element of an essay that Epstein outlines is relevant to how we write blogs; how do we write in a way that makes our personal experience significant as universal experience while still somehow distinguishing our individuality? 
3. Make our personal experience significant to others
Epstein suggests that discovering how our individual experience transcends into universal experience is the “magic” of the essay.  He says the essay is a form of discovery in which the writer tests their own feelings with a personal honesty, through a familiar style that creates an “amiable community” between the reader and the audience.  Not quite the definition of a blog, and yet, a description of an exceptional blog. 
A few blogs draw me into their text because I sense something that connects with and shines a light on my own experience.  Or the blog expresses an experience extraordinary, as Epstein writes of essays, in a manner that allows me to recognize that extraordinariness.  I would want this writer to become a friend because they have honestly shown me a bit of what makes them who they are, their own truth, and it shines some light on my own.


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