Writing a blog 4-5 times each week teaches you some things about yourself. I've always been fascinated by the old-time newspaper columnists who churned out 5-6 columns every week, and I wondered if I could do that. In the last five years, I've shown myself that I could. The discipline of writing the blog has been good for me, pushing me to track down and read reports and articles that might otherwise have just flashed across my personal radar screen before disappearing. I've used the blog as a memory aid, so that when I dimly recall having seen a cool graph or read a good report on some subject, I can find it again by searching the blog--which is a lot easier than it used to be to search my office, or my hard drive, or my brain. My job and work-life bring me into contact with all sorts of interesting material that might be of interest to others, and it feels like a useful civic or perhaps even spiritual discipline to shoulder the task of passing such things along.
It's also true that writing a regular blog embodies some some less attractive traits: a compulsive need to broadcast one's views; an obsession about not letting a few days or a week go by without posting; an egoistic belief that anyone else should care; a need for attention; and a desire to shirk other work. Ah, well. Whenever I learn more about myself, the lesson includes a dose of humility.
The hardest tradeoff in writing this blog is finding windows of time in the interstices of my other work and life commitments, and the related concern that by living in mayfly years, I'm not spending that time taking a deeper dive into thinking and writing that would turn into essays or books.
In a book published last year, Merton and Waugh: A Monk, A Crusty Old Man, and The Seven Storey Mountain, Mary Frances Coady describes the correspondence between Thomas Merton and Evelyn Waugh in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Merton was a Trappist monk who was writing his autobiographical book The Seven Story Mountain. (Famous opening sentence: "On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains in the borders of Spain, I came into the world.") Waugh was already well-known, having published Brideshead Revisited a few years earlier. Merton's publisher sent the manuscript to Waugh for evaluation, and Waugh both offered Merton some comments and also ended up as the editor of the English edition.
Waugh sent Merton a copy of a book called The Reader over My Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, one of those lovely short quirky books of advice to writers that I think is now out of print. Here's a snippet from one of the early letters from Waugh to Merton:
With regard to style, it is of course much more laborious to write briefly. Americans, I am sure you will agree, tend to be very long-winded in conversation and your method is conversational. I relish the laconic. ... I fiddle away rewriting any sentence six times mostly out of vanity. I don't want anything to appear with my name that is not the best I am capable of. You have clearly adopted the opposite opinion ... banging away at your typewriter on whatever turns up. ...
But you say that one of the motives of your work is to raise money for your house. Well simply as a matter of prudence you are not going the best way about it. In the mere economics of the thing, a better return for labour results in making a few things really well than in making a great number carelessly. You are plainly undertaking far too many trivial tasks for small returns. ...
Your superiors, you say, leave you to your own judgment in your literary work. Why not seek to perfect it and leave mass-production alone? Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask "Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliche where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled around the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?" ... The English language is incomparably rich and can convey every thought accurately and elegantly. The better the writing the less abstruse it is. ... Alas, all this is painfully didactic--but you did ask for advice--there it is.In all seriousness, this kind of advice makes my heart hurt in my chest. Take the extra time to write briefly? Rewrite sentences six time? Put things away for a month and return to them? Bang away at the keyboard on whatever turns up? Far too many trivial tasks for small returns? Wobbled around the point instead of hunting for six well-chosen words? Many of these blog posts are knocked out an hour before bedtime, and I often don't reread even once before clicking on "Publish."
Here are some snippets of Merton's response to Waugh:
I cannot tell you how truly happy I am with your letter and the book you sent. In case you think I am exaggerating I can assure you that in a contemplative monastery where people are supposed to see things clearly it sometimes becomes very difficult to see anything straight. It is so terribly easy to get yourself into some kind of a rut in which you distort every issue with your own blind bad habits--for instance rushing to finish a chapter before the bell rings and you will have to go and do something else.
It has been quite humiliating for me to find that my out (from Graves and Hodge) that my own bad habits are the same as those of every other second-rate writer outside the monastery. The same haste, distraction, etc. .... On the whole I think my haste is just as immoral as anyone else's and comes from the same selfish desire to get quick results with a small amount of effort. In the end, the whole question is largely an ascetic one! .....
Really I like The Reader Over Your Shoulder very much. In the first place it is amusing. And I like their thesis that we are heading toward a clean, clear kind of prose. Really everything in my nature--and in my vocation, too--demands something like that if I am to go on writing. ... You would be shocked to know how much material and spiritual junk can accumulate in the corners of a monastery and in the minds of the monks. You ought to see the pigsty in which I am writing this letter. There are two big crates of some unidentified printed work the monastery wants to sell. About a thousand odd copies of ancient magazines that ought to have been sent to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a dozen atrocious looking armchairs and piano stools that are used in the sanctuary for Pontifical Masses and stored on the back of my neck the rest of the time. Finally I am myself embedded in a small skyscraper of mixed books and magazines in which all kinds of surreal stuff is sitting on top of theology. ...
I shall try to keep out of useless small projects that do nothing but cause a distraction and dilute the quality of what I turn out. The big trouble is that in those two hours a day when I get at a typewriter I am always having to do odd jobs and errands and I am getting a lot of letters from strangers, too. These I hope to take care of with a printed slip telling them politely to lay off the poor monk, let the guy pray.I find myself oddly comforted by the thought that a monastery may be just as cluttered, physically and metaphysically, as an academic office. But I'm not sure what ultimate lessons to take away from these five-year anniversary thoughts. I don't plan to give up the blog, but it would probably be a good idea if I can find the discipline to shift along the quality-quantity tradeoff. Maybe trend toward 3-4 posts per week, instead of 4-5. Look for opportunities to write shorter, rather than longer. Avoid the trivial. Try to free up some time and see what I might be able to accomplish on some alternative writing projects. I know, I know, it's like I'm making New Year's resolutions in May. But every now and again, it seems appropriate to share some thoughts about this blogging experience. Tomorrow the blog will return to its regularly scheduled economics programming.
Homage: I ran into part of the Waugh quotation from above in the "Notable & Quotable" feature of the Wall Street Journal on May 3, 2016, which encouraged me to track down the book.