Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Something from SLATE Magazine

Blogroll Me!

The following article was reprinted in our weekend newspaper, and I thought it was wonderful! Apparently, you can link to an audio version of this; click on the title of my post.

This Is My Last Entry: Why I Shut Down My Blog
By Sarah Hepola

Posted Wednesday, April 19, 2006, at 12:24 PM ET

One morning last month, I woke early, finished a book I'd been reading, and shut down my blog. I had kept the blog for nearly five years, using it as a repository for personal anecdotes, travelogues, and the occasional flight of fiction—all of which I hoped, eventually, might lead to a novel. And then, somewhere between the bedsheets and 6 a.m., I realized something: Blogging wasn't helping me write; it was keeping me from it.

I had come to this realization before, but the moment would pass, and I would find myself percolating with small, quotidian stories that I wanted to share: This funny thing happened on the subway; you'll never believe what so-and-so said. Not revelations by any means, but I live alone, and blogging was a way to vent the daily ups and downs that might otherwise be told to the cat. Also, I couldn't help but notice—even the cat couldn't help but notice—the growing number of successful bloggers-turned-novelists. They were sexy, dishy women with pseudonyms, Wonkette and Opinionista, like they were dispatching from behind enemy lines. I was starting to feel like the only one left in the blogosphere without a book deal.

Actually, agents and editors had contacted me before, based on my blog as well as the writing I did for an online magazine called At the time, I was living in Dallas, and to be e-mailed by an actual New York agent felt like the 21st-century equivalent of being discovered at the mall. The e-mails were flattering, but, ultimately, they all asked the same annoying question: Have you written a book? Apparently, this was a requirement. When I told them I hadn't, they moved on to the next blogger with potential, and I was left back in the mall where they'd found me, riffling through the sale at Hot Topic.
That is not a complaint. The arrival of such correspondence far exceeded my expectations when I started the blog in 2001, back when the word blog was still something you had to ease into conversation, like an obscure scientific term. I started the site at the beginning of a four-month trip to South America. I told only a handful of people, and the privacy of the blog—the illusion of privacy, that is—was the best thing I'd done for my writing since shelving the thesaurus.

Just prior to that, I'd been writing for an alt-weekly in Austin, Texas. What began as a great job had curdled into an anxiety nightmare. I would burn to write a certain profile and then, deadline looming, I would stare at the computer as another beautiful Saturday ticked away. I can remember crossing the street one night and thinking, absently, "If I got run over by a car, I wouldn't have to finish that story!" Don't get me wrong—I didn't want to die. I just wanted a really long extension. Thus my decision to leave the job. Thus my journey to the southern hemisphere. Thus the blog that I started, thinking no one would read it and secretly hoping they would. The blog was the perfect bluff for a self-conscious writer like me who yearned for the spotlight and then squinted in its glare. When I needed to pretend that people were reading, I could. When I needed to pretend that nobody was reading, I could. (For this reason, I never checked the reader stats on my blog, unlike most of my friends, who check it as regularly as their e-mail.)

Eventually, I began enjoying my writing again. I stopped worrying about deadlines, audience, editors, letters to the editor, all the stuff that had smothered me before. I was writing so fast that I didn't have time to double-think my sentence structure or my opinions. What came out was sloppier but also funnier and more honest. I started getting e-mails from people I'd never met, and they were actually encouraging. (At the paper, it seemed like most e-mails from strangers begin with a variant of "Hey, dumbass.") I continued blogging for years, through cities and jobs and relationships, and though the blog entries never amounted to much, they always gave me a fleeting joy, like conquering some small feat—opening a very difficult, tightly sealed jar—even when no one is around to see it.

And yet every once in a while those agents would check in, to ask how that book was coming. And the book wasn't coming, and wasn't coming, and I became one of those people who talk about a book but never write it. At times, I started to feel that jokes and scenarios and turns of phrase were my capital, and that my capital was limited, and each blog entry was scattering more of it to the wind, pissing away precious dollars and cents in the form of punch lines I could never use again, not without feeling like a hack. You know: "How sad. She stole that line from her own blog."

Blogging had been the ideal run-up to a novel, but it had also become a major distraction. I would sit down to start on my novel only to come up with five different blog entries. I thought of them as a little something-something to whet the palate—because it was easier, more immediately satisfying, because I could write it, and post it, and people would say nice things about it, and I could go to bed feeling satisfied. But then I would wake feeling less than accomplished because a blog wasn't a whole story told from beginning to end. I had shelves lined with other people's prose while my best efforts were buried on a Web site somewhere, underneath a lot of blah-blah about American Idol and my kitty cat.

I suspect I'll come back to blogging eventually. It will be something I quit on occasion, like whiskey and melted cheese, when the negative effects outweigh the benefits. Practically every blogger I know has taken their site down at some point—for personal reasons, for business reasons, for boredom reasons. It's no different from the way we have to turn off our cell phones or stop checking e-mail so that we can actually focus on something. As much as I loved writing online, it's a relief writing offline: taking time to let a story unspool, to massage a sentence over an afternoon's walk, to stew for days—weeks, even—on a plot line. What a modern luxury. Now, if I could just turn off the TV, I think I could finally get started.

Sarah Hepola is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.