15 July 2012

My Blogging Philosophy

While chatting about Ingmar Bergman films with a Swedish pal of mine, somehow we hit on the subject of my philosophy about blogging. He insisted he would love to read about it, and as I am a river to my people, here it is.

I had heard of blogging years before I first ventured into it myself. I was unclear; was it an informal sort of journalism? Was it merely a diary in a different format? What was the objective of blogging? How did one begin as a blogger? Was there some kind of Official Registry of Blogs whose approval one needed? What about readers? How did one connect with them? Was there someone operating as an editorial director? Was there money in blogging?

I've still never answered most of these questions, or any of the myriad others that first appeared as barriers between the blogosphere and myself. I cringe at my early blog posts, which read to me as embarrassing attempts to emulate journalism. I'm not a journalist. I have never been trained as one, though I like to think I understand the journalist's objective of distilling an issue without being reductive. My early movie reviews are laughably objective-minded, trying to remove myself from the commentary. I had been taught in school that one does not write in the first person for anything "serious" and for some reason, I had the notion that discussing films online merited such "professionalism" from me.

At some point early on, I realized that I wished to discuss different topics: movies, music, books and politics were the most obvious themes. I created a different blog for each of these, and a few others. It seemed to me that if you, Dear Reader, came looking to read and discuss movies, you didn't want to have to sift through talk of books and music between posts any more than you wanted to read about me.

Then, in 2009, I read something in Roger Ebert's Journal. A reader and his friend had debated the merits of Ebert's value as a film critic and constructed what became a trial using criticism from Dan Schneider as their evidence for and against his work. What struck me was Ebert's casual acceptance of one of the primary charges against him, and his deflection of it:
I would agree that I am a more emotion-driven critic than Siskel or Schneider, and indeed many others. My reviews usually include a reflection of how I felt during a film, since film itself is primarily an emotional, not a cerebral, medium.
It was an epiphany for me. In another of his posts around the same time, he expanded on this point and explained that it was his belief that the appeal of his reviews originated in the reader's ability to appreciate his personal context for the viewing at hand. If he entered the theater frustrated with his professional life, that would color his sensitivity to a story about the workplace, for instance. Here was perhaps the most famous critic of our era not only not trying to remove himself from his criticism, but actively promoting it! The "star" of Ebert's criticism isn't film; it's Ebert himself. Read through a handful of consecutive reviews of his from nearly any period and it becomes evident that you're not really coming to Ebert to learn about film; you're using film as a forum through which to learn about Ebert.

That changed everything for me. I had permission to exorcise the admonitions of my former teachers and insert myself into my blog posts. (Why not? No one was reading anyway!) I consolidated my blogs, on the basis that if you're using my discussions about film to learn about me, then you would do well to also learn about me through my thoughts on literature and politics, as well.

My Swedish pal said to me, "You tend to be more frank and open than most, though. It makes for great writing." I thought that was terribly kind of him. I know plenty of bloggers who are just as candid about their personal lives as I have been, but I also recognize that many others are much more reluctant to share of themselves the way I do. I've been asked about this in the past, so this seems an appropriate time to address that.

When I was first diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2005, I initially tried to hide it. I didn't want to be seen differently than I had been before the diagnosis. I didn't want to be "defined" by it. Of course, the truth of the matter is that I am different with Crohn's than I was before it. As I began to connect with other Crohnies via the web, it became increasingly obvious to me that in addition to the obvious health concerns we face, there was one other bogeyman in our lives: the lack of understanding by the general public.

I am not a doctor or a research scientist. There's nothing I can do to treat or cure Crohn's disease. However, I can use my voice (spoken or written) to help raise awareness and understanding of what life with this stupid disease can be like for people. It was a natural outgrowth from that to begin discussing my experiences with depression, though there's something else at play about that topic. Depression works in isolation. It makes one withdraw from one's family and friends. Every foible is bathed in self-conscious shame, discouraging discussion. "If you talk about that, you'll sound stupid." Depression takes your self-respect hostage.

I decided to shoot the hostage.

By sharing here the kinds of things that I do, I deprive depression of its power to lord over me anything that could seem embarrassing or compromising. I've put it out there for the whole world to read. Now what, depression? Yeah, that's what I thought. Shut up and sit down!

That leads me to the final part of my philosophy and that's that I have put my name on this blog, coming out from behind the shield of an anonymous screen name. It's because my name is on my blog that I'm able to entirely negate the ability of depression to make me feel self-conscious. If I published under a pseudonym, I might still feel cathartic for sharing and you may still connect with what I shared, Dear Reader, but it wouldn't be the same because I could still deny the blog is my own work. I can't do that this way, though, and that's surprisingly freeing.

A few years ago, I happened upon an interview with Aaron Tippin. I'm relatively sure it was on TV, but maybe it was in print. Anyway, he was talking about the fact he doesn't perform in bars anymore. He said that at some point he began to feel funny that his young son couldn't come to those shows and that led him to decide that if the venue is somewhere his son can't be, then maybe he shouldn't be there, either. I really liked that philosophy and I adapted it to my blog. I decided that if I wasn't comfortable putting my name on something that I wrote, knowing that the kids in my family could find it, then I didn't need to be writing or publishing it.

That brings me to the final component of my approach to blogging, actually. I have long been fascinated with storytelling. I realized at some point early in my childhood that it seemed my family only recycled the same handful of stories time and again and I was certain there were countless other tales that no one ever shared. It wasn't that they were some kind of secret to be obscured, but simply that the storytelling canon only had room for so many anecdotes and the rest fell by the wayside.

If my blog was now a means of using different topics to get to know me, then it seemed perfectly allowable that I would sometimes share things about myself outright. My blog took on a new dynamic of also being a depository for my personal stories and recollections. It may sound silly, but this blog is more or less my personal legacy. It is what I will leave behind one day, and through this my family and friends will have a permanent record of anything chronicled here. Maybe they'll recall things differently than I do, of course, but at least they'll have my version there to even remind them and they can share their differing interpretations with others.

I am proudest of my sub-series about depression, because of the feedback that it has generated since I began sharing about that. Not all feedback has come in the form of comments here on the blog. I've received messages through Facebook and Twitter, and I've even had a few offline conversations where someone wanted to discuss a specific post with me. It was my hope all along that somehow, I might be helpful to others by sharing my experiences with depression and it seems that maybe I have been.

I've recently opened a new email account (TravisSMcClain@gmail.com) and you are welcome to contact me privately in case you're not comfortable commenting openly. Just send no spam and don't hack me! I'll send a team of ninja assassins if you forward me chain letters.

That said, my personal favorite posts to write are the ones that merit the My Memoirs label. I don't always know when I begin writing whether a post will seem appropriate for that. After all, if my perspective is that the whole blog is ultimately about me, then isn't the entire thing a sprawling memoir? I try to reserve it for those posts that are specifically, or at least primarily, about my life rather than how I relate to a given topic. Those are the posts where I feel I have the most room to laugh and become entirely conversational, and I hope that each time I indulge in my reminisces that I've written in such a way that at the very least, they're amusing but also I like to think that even though they're specific to my life, that somehow they're accessible all the same to you, Dear Reader.

There you have it, folks. These are the specific reasons why this blog is the way it is. I realize I have not discussed my actual writing style. This post is already rather lengthy, though, and besides that there's the fact I'm still not comfortable thinking of myself has actually having a writing style. Real writers have a style, and I'm not one....yet!


  1. This was a very interesting and enlightening post. Pretty much everything I hoped for when the subject came up in our talk. Well done.

    I think the first time I came upon the term "blog" was on noted caustic critic Maddox's website, where he pretty much stated that it was a stupid word and everything associated with it was stupid. This must have been before blogging really took over the internet. It seems nowadays that every website has to be of the blog format, or at least have a blog section. And why not? It works.

    It's true that many (most?) blogs, at least in certain fields, seem to strive for a journalistic impersonal approach. A lot of it is probably due to, as you alluded to, that it's the way that writing is taught. Perhaps some bloggers have hopes of someday landing a paying job as a writer, and want to show the world that they can write "properly". That said, blogging and journalism are two different things. There's nothing saying that you can't use a blog as a platform to write journalism-y reviews, but I'd like to think of blogs as an off-shoot of newspaper columns, rather than articles or reviews or what have you. It makes for more fun reading to me, at least.

    I can honestly say that I had never heard of Chron's disease before I encountered you and your writing. I admit that, at first, I wondered why you kept going on about it so much. It didn't take long though before I started learning about the disease and understood that this was precisely the why. I won't pretend to comprehend what it's like to suffer from Chron's, but your writing has enlightened me at least to some degree, and for that I thank you.

    I'd also like to say that your observation on recycled family stories is spot-on and definitely something I can relate to. It's still something of a thrill every time I learn some new tidbit my family - both for the learning itself and because it's something different than hearing for the millionth time about the occasion when my dad thought Barcelona was in South America or some similar oft-repeated piece of trivia...

    Thank you for writing this, Travis!

    1. I almost mentioned sifting through various perceptions of the blogosphere when I first heard about it. There's one point I was going to make but it seemed too detached from the rest of this so I dropped it, but here in the comments section I suppose it's fine to present this "deleted scene" kind of thing.

      My first understanding of blogs was that they were written and maintained by highly dedicated, knowledgeable people about specific topics. Politics seemed to me the dominant theme of blogging, with whole blogs dedicated to monitoring every floor vote cast by each legislator the way obsessive baseball fans track stats of every player from Little League onward for the purpose of arguing who does and does not belong in the Hall of Fame. Not only were these political bloggers passionate (obsessive, even), but they were the modern era's Woodward and Bernstein, identifying, following and exposing stories that the mainstream press was too timid to investigate.

      In my mind, bloggers were often "insiders" who used the web to circumvent the traditional barriers of publication. Of course, I know now that the majority of bloggers are no more insiders than I am. At times, I feel that pull of elitism that makes me wish people with nothing more than fan sites had a different name for what they have so as not to detract from what I do as a blogger. At those times, I remind myself that my own blog doesn't resemble in the least anything of the kind of quasi-professional standards I once thought governed the blogosphere. I'm sure someone finding this blog in a search about, say, Rand Paul is initially elated but then sees I've spent even more time discussing the new Batgirl comic book and wishes that people like me wouldn't bother cluttering their Google search results.

  2. Oh I'd say you're a writer alright.

    Excellent piece. (And I guess I haven't stopped in for awhile, because I didn't realize that your blog's appearance had changed. Love the current look and style).

    This is where I discern a distinction between blogging and writing film reviews. One of the reasons I don't write reviews on my blog is that I don't like to use "I" in a film review. I think that's a valid style that's been earned by people like Ebert, who realize that they ARE part of the review, like it or not. Me? I flatter myself only that you might be reading my piece because you want a solid recommendation or a persuasive argument to avoid a film at all costs. I am merely the humble servant who brings the criticism to you. Then again, you could argue that you are being more pompous if you state opinions as implicit facts, as though there's no possibility of disagreeing. But it's that good old fidelity to "classic journalism" that ultimately trumps.

    That's why I enjoy being looser on my blog than I've been as a critic. It's my chance to weave me in. I'm assuming in this case you've come to my blog to learn about ME -- not because there's a new film out and this is a source that has led you right in the past. That may be true, but I wouldn't have led you there without having it clearly be ME who led you there.

    Anyway, keep it up. Methinks your legacy is far from written yet ...

    1. I just realized that you weren't "A Swedish Pal" commenting a second time. That's what I get for fielding questions when I'm groggy.

  3. The tinkered look is brand-spanking new, actually! I've been working on it since I replied to your first comment. I felt it was time for a change. I'm of the mind that periodic redesigning helps keep a blog feel fresh.

    It's certainly no surprise to me that you strive for objectivity in your film reviews, because I know where you stand on the matter of viewing films objectively. Whenever I address elements I view objectively, I write them as such. Whenever I address how I reacted to something, I write more conversationally in the first person. It's become common for me to weave between the two within the same review: introduce my mindset going into the film in some way, then a cursory overview followed by a "pros & cons" cross-examination before delivering my personal verdict. It's formulaic, sure, but I think it works.

    That reminds me: I really wish that my Letterboxd movie reviews could be imported into one's blog the way Goodreads book reviews can be. I've really come to like recording my thoughts there as opposed to here. I think part of it is simply that on Letterboxd, I'm free of any obligation to add metadata about the film; it's all right there for me and I can just get directly to my thoughts on the film at hand. Plus, I really enjoy the diary section there which organizes my movies seen quite handily (though they need to make navigating several pages easier).

    Lastly, regarding my legacy: I certainly hope you're right! I suppose I employed the term in a sort of future sense, rather than as a finished product of some kind. I have actually thought about indulging and ordering a book made of posts from this blog, just kinda for myself. I may treat myself to it for my birthday in December (or Christmas). Regardless how many posts I may include, it would certainly be branded as "Volume One"!