Thursday, July 20, 2006

blogging and the isi

This from our writing project tech liaison Todd Seal, the person who, half my age, has served as my mentor in the art and practice of blogging:

"Blogging daily not only makes me a better teacher; it makes me a better person."

Whoa. Hold on there. A little extreme perhaps? Yet another promise that we're just on the cusp of a brighter and more generous-hearted future? As us older and not necessarily wiser 60's types might say, "Haven't we been there before? Haven't we learned to be a tad more wary of the essential magnanimity of the heart, once the 'barriers' to its 'essential nature' have been 'removed'?"

Perhaps. But perhaps it might also be true that it's time to 'unlearn' those dispiriting post-60's lessons--the disappointments and difficulties that served as our primary 'teachers'--and to pay a little more attention to what those in their late 20's and early 30's have to tell us about blogging.

First some facts: 147 million Americans use the internet; about 1/3rd of these users read blogs; about 1/5th of these blog savvy internet users--12 million--maintain a blog (see today's front page article in the San Jose Mercury News for these figures and the following quotes). The largest percentage of these bloggers write about their "life experiences" and say the major reason they blog is to "express themselves creatively." And the great majority of bloggers focus their blogs on events and experiences at the "hyper-local level" rather than using their blogs to attempt to influence national policy.

What's surprising to me about these facts is that they bear such eloquent testimony to our individual and collective need to express ourselves, and perhaps the need we all have to maintain the enabling illusion that others 'out there' are reading what we write. "It's good to get feedback from people you don't know," writes blogger Christina Palsky, 'but even if I didn't get feedback, I'd still do it."

Why? My own answer is that blogging makes you a 'good noticer,' to use the term JoAnn Freda recently employed to describe my co-director Laura Brown and me in her account of the final on-site session of our summer institute. What she wrote is both compelling in itself and a good example of the 'heightened noticing' that daily writing in general, and perhaps daily blog writing in particular, can enhance significantly. I can think of no more convincing way to make the case for the potentially ameliorative effects of 'electronic acts of appreciation' than to quote her scribe notes in full. Here they are:

Scribe Notes from Memory, Tues July 18, by JoAnn Freda

"I have to be honest. I signed up for the very last slot on the scribe notes board with the hope that Jonathan and Laura wouldn’t notice we didn’t need a scribe for the last day because we wouldn’t be meeting after that. I really underestimated them. They noticed (good 'noticers') the mistake almost immediately and skooched everyone back a space to fix the 'problem' and restore me to my duties. So that plan really backfired and now I have the challenge of trying to come up with something fresh after our clever scribes have explored genres and exploited genres, created genres and corrupted genres and one member even tried to use every genre in one set of scribe notes. I thought about writing the notes as a love story (you were there today, it could be a love story) but it just wasn’t working for me:

"What can you say about an exceptional group of people
that are parting ways. That they were beautiful and brilliant?
That they loved Lamott and Spinelli , Cisneros and each other?

"The mood in the room is tense and excited and expectant. We’re not quite sure what to expect but we’re eager to get started. Our Bird by Bird reader is stuck on 880 and so Craig fills in. He reads the last page of the book. Lamott says we write because:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen our sense of life . . . When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or our life, our buoyancy is restored.

"Over the next few hours, this group of writers will prove the truth of these statements. But before we can get started we need to take care of business. Lina and Donna read their notes recounting Jay Richards’ completely engaging presentation. Next, in the most stunning display of patience I have ever seen, Laura endeavors to explain to the group how to use our new community blogsight. Using as many modes as she can, she walks us through the steps several times, never once letting even the slightest hint of irritation slip into her voice. She does everything but promise to make house calls to help us with this and still one gets the feeling that she’d have better luck teaching this procedure to her cat. It’s not you Laura, it’s just that many of us were working late into the night and we may have hit a wall. This whole exercise reminds me of the MTV show called “Boiling Point” where they put an unsuspecting contestant through some very trying and frustrating experience to see how long they can take it before they blow up and start swearing. Laura never reaches the boiling point.

"Undaunted, Laura tries another activity with us. She gets us to brainstorm ideas for our two Saturday sessions that will complete our obligation to ISI. I am in a dangerous situation. Given the state of euphoria and goodwill that I’m in, I would agree to do anything this group wants. Fortunately, Nicola interjects a bit of practicality and suggests we link our get togethers to the Super Saturdays.

"The moment has arrived. Jonathan explains how we are going to present our portfolios. He says that everyone will take a turn reading their one page reflection and we will take turns in a counter clockwise direction. Someone makes the obligatory “turn to the person on your left remark” (are you wondering when the statute of limitations will run out on this one Mary?) and then he tells us that we will just listen, no applause (to save time). Patrick is the first to read. Of course we can’t restrain ourselves and we burst into applause. We are admonished. We move on to Craig who reads his letter and we make a feeble attempt to curb our enthusiasm. Then Karen reads Sandy’s letter and even though Sandy isn’t here, we still feel like applauding her. Karen reads her letter and by now there is a palpable feeling of mutiny in the room. A discussion breaks out about the viability of the “no applause” rule but Jonathan is congenially adamant. Next is Erika’s turn and she points out that the “no applause” discussion is actually taking longer than applauding would. Erika reads her letter which is a beautiful explanation of her attitude toward “crummy” first drafts and how she had to reach back to her experience as a young musician to gain an understanding of the importance of being willing to do something imperfectly. We can’t stand it any longer. We are bursting with appreciation. We have to do something and so in a show of defiant obedience, EN MASSE we throw our hands into the air hokey pokey style and wave them wildly - even Jonathan. There’s no stopping us now, we wave wildly after each reading. Jonathan’s time-saving rule has set us back several minutes now and while we are in the middle of one our crazed hokey pokey waves, SJSU Provost Carmen Sigler walks in. This will surely make Jonathan think twice about ever making another unilateral executive decision. Jonathan explains the situation and asks the Provost how much time she can afford to be with us this morning. She says she would like to stay and listen to the four remaining participants who have not read their reflections. Catherine’s reflection compares her writing process to giving birth to an alien and we are all midwives. Tori does a great job of comparing learning to write to learning to surf. She goes on to tell us how difficult and overwhelming it has been for her to participate in the institute because of the recent death of her father. She isn’t the only one who cries during her letter. A pile of napkins is passed across the back row and several of us take one to wipe our tears. Nicola’s reflection tells us about the intense feelings about her son that surfaced during the poetry writing. Martha takes over the reading of Nicola’s letter and I am deeply moved by what she has to say. It is like Anne Lamott says when she compares writing to singing on a boat in a terrible storm. “You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

"Laura is the last to read her reflection. We are about an hour behind schedule. The provost presents us with our certificates, graduation style. Having had to show such great restraint during the reading portion of the morning, we go nuts applauding and whistling and high-fiving for our fellow writers as they receive their certificates. When Grant receives his certificate he takes a victory lap, Rocky style. The only thing missing is the beach ball.

"For the next 2 hours we read the portfolios in quiet reverence. The silence is punctuated by an occasional battle to get to a portfolio before Patrick can. We don’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. The room has been broken down, all that remains is Jonathan’s little island with his laptop and printer. Finally Patrick moves in . . . "


Todd said...

Did I really write that!? Honestly, I don't remember that and it does look just a tad hyperbolic. But maybe there's something there.

I guess that what I meant is that it makes me think more about my day, what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it.

I don't have many readers, judging by the amount of comments I receive. When I get feedback on what I'm writing, it makes things more interesting. It's one thing to think enough about your life to write about it. It's another thing when someone forces you to really explain your thinking.

That sense of audience, the "others 'out there'" that you mention, is important to keep you going and that "enabling illusion" has its importance. Those comments I get are gratifying. But, as your source Christina Palsky intimates, I blog for myself first and foremost. I blog so that I can make some sense out of things and so that I am certain to consider and reflect on things. Others finding my words something worth responding to is a bonus. But even those comments I get are really just a way to force me into further consideration.

If I think even more about why I believe what I believe, does that help make me a better person? Hrm...

Anonymous said...

Sounds like it was a really good institute.

Sandy said...

I am so sorry that I missed that last day. I am glad for the fact that I would not have had to deal with that heavy feeling that I have when I cry hard and deeply, where the emotions are so raw, but I do miss the feeling that I belonged to any group of people, but more importantly to this magical group. I can't wait to see you all again in the fall. Craig and Patrick, I look forward to the carpool.

suz said...

In my naivete, I am looking for one more thing (please, sir, may I have more?) - and it's this - adding the capacity for spoken word to blogging - especially for poetry, much of whose beauty resides in the aural.
Okay, so who is anonymous? Hmmm?
Sandy is spot on - I need to "talk" writing - I know it is my obsession and I have no shame in feeding it, but that's certainly not going to be happening at my school site. So next best thing to the Institute is using this blog business to post, read, and respond to you all.

grant said...

I'm really enjoying the blogging experience so far (I'm new at it). I read the testimony of how blogging functions as a liberating expressive medium and as a real or potential audience for the writer, and I would add too that its a good source of provacative reading. So keep blogging, 'cause I'm out there 'noticing' as JoAnn put it.

gemma said...

Congratulations to all the SI participants. I was for a moment transported back to Charlene Delfino's beautiful backyard. As I recall there were Mimosas on that very hot summer day. But I think the thing I remember most was the sense of accomplishment and community. It was a day when every moment I felt blessed because every single person was really present for each other.

nolacaliente said...

Marie and Suzanne have complimented this ISI group; that it is spirited and lively must be an understatement after reading this fun posting.

The best thing is the friendship that evolves in the process; and the impetus to begin writing again. A great opportunity for us all. I just finished summer school; I had three children in the classroom with hearing impairments. The enjoyed reading poetry, and writing their own and especially, being respectfully heard and listened to, then each child (all seven) getting applauded no matter what. Toward the end of the summer school class, the kids actually wanted to read, to write and to recite! So ISI has been great for my summer school kids too, like a mini ISI!

Love to everyone
Thanks for clueing me in Jonathon

Nancy Green