Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Giving away the milk for free

As I entered adolescence, my mother often repeated, “Why buy the cow if the milk is free?”-- an adage that was supposed to inspire me to keep a teenage boy from taking clumsy advantage of me.

(My mother had other cow-inspired adages, perhaps because we were country people, especially, “Everybody to their own taste said the old woman who kissed the cow,” which was quoted whenever neighbors showed strange taste in clothing, spouses, etc.)

Blogging feels a little like giving away the milk. I’m putting out for free here--I don’t see anyway of making money doing this. That wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, since the slim possibility of being seen outweighs the even lesser possibility of being paid for this stuff, and I don’t know where else to place it anyway.

What bothers me is that paid publications seem to be filling more space with what are essentially blogging posts--letters and submissions on particular topics from anyone anywhere. In the Washington Post, instead of running a columnist on page 3 of their Metro section, they now fill the space with submissions from people recalling strangers’ good deeds or cute moments with children. (Every few days, they fill that space with excerpts from a Post online discussion board.)

I often read and enjoy these letters, since it’s like voices of the sane and sincere freed from the chaos of the Beltway. What bothers me is that none of the letter writers is paid.

The Post Magazine also runs a paid reader-submitted feature called “Editors Query,” asking readers to submit a response to questions they pose, like, “Tell us about a time you made a dining faux pas,” or “Tell us about a time you had to admit your parents were right.” They pay $50 for these gems. That’s a lot less than they paid a writer friend in the early 1990s ($250) to fill essentially the same space in that magazine.

Many of the Post’s feature writers have taken on the chatty, immediate style of blogging, especially in their Sunday Source section. If this is happening in what was traditionally a staid print publication, I shudder to think what will happen elsewhere. How much chattier can People or Us get?

Worse, the Post-owned local Gazette newsweekly has cut its staff columnists due to budget constraints. They seem to be filling the space with more pictures, more ads posing as features (such as stories about local houses for sale). I assume more reader-written submissions are just around the corner.

I like the idea of blogging as an act of democracy—no opinion suppressed, everyone having access to a forum. But blogging culture—the instant and the free--is seeping into traditional print culture and I think all writers and writing will eventually suffer for it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Urban legends and bad poetry

A few summers ago, my son and I were each obsessed with starting an urban legend—we wanted the kind of infamy you can only get when people start forwarding something you have written so many times that you get it once and then again a few months later.

He taped two pie pans together, hung them from the clothesline, then drafted a story about the mysterious appearance of flying saucers over Maryland, which he put on his AOL space. No one seemed to forward it to anyone else, or at least we never got it back, so he mostly forgot about it.

Not wanting to write something that would terrorize gullible people and not wanting to lie outright, I had trouble writing the start of an urban legend. In the meantime, I decided that I could start one of those email questionnaires you’re supposed to bother all your friends with. It included such challenging (and now dated) questions as, “If you could date one of the men on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, who would it be?” A few friends politely (perhaps grudgingly) sent it back and that was the end of it.

Another summer came and suddenly the urge to be Internet legends overtook us. We heard about a contest ( Wergle Flomp ) to write the worst possible poem and submit it to one of the vanity poetry contests, like those perpetually found on

My son became “Joe Abstract” and I, ridiculously in hindsight, did not use a pseudonym. His poem consisted of the words that came out of a malfunctioning MSWord speech recognition program. ( has now, helpfully, added ad-links within his poem, so that if you click to rate his poem, when the poem reappears on a new page, the word “garden” links to an ad for the Biltmore Flower Festival.)

Within days, mail began to arrive for Joe Abstract and for me, congratulating us on our excellent poems, certifying us both as semi-finalists in their International Open Poetry Contest, presenting us each with an “Editor’s Choice Award,” and inviting us each to read at a poetry conference that also featured Ruben Stoddard and Tony Orlando. Another year we were invited to read our poems and party with Florence Henderson.

All this for a poem about flatulence with the hopeful title, “Beautiful Poem.” (If you’d like to read the poem in its awful entirety, see: Beautiful Poem. Be sure to rate it while you’re there.)

Sadly, neither of us was nominated for a Wergle Flomp, the prize we most keenly wanted.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Blogging as confession booth

Blogging seems akin to those confessional booths in reality shows, where the participant steps aside from the everyday activities of the group and unloads her thoughts. Then she walks back into the scene as if nothing has happened—a strange and false dichotomy of private thoughts shared with potential millions.

Writing for a publication, then, would be more like a scripted TV show—a less narcissist effort made with greater scrutiny and quality control and, therefore, potentially, much more of an art form. And then I remember there are scripted shows like “The King of Queens” and almost any silly little trifle on the CW and the analogy doesn’t hold up so well…

I don’t know who I am writing this for. When I write in my journal I am addressing my future self, telling myself things to remember about the time I am describing, suggesting things I might want to think about or write about later, when I have more time. Part memoir, part raw material.

Maybe writing is like praying—we’re really still only talking to ourselves, but sometimes someone (a higher consciousness, a future self) hears us.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

"Writing Home"--Not such a unique name, after all

I named this blog "Writing Home" thinking it was a clever play on words. I was very spontaneous and didn't take any extra time to Google the phrase first, afraid I'd get lost in cyberspace and not make it back to writing the actual blog last night. I googled it tonight--not only are there many books with "Writing Home" as a title, but someone else already has a blog called "Writing Home."

Is that allowed in the blogging universe or is using a title that's already in use considered rude? I also found that "writing home" as a phrase picks up a lot of junk, like "Writing Home Page," etc.

How much thought am I supposed to be putting into this blog anyway? It might take me a couple of weeks just to think of a title that hasn't been used before unless I start tagging numbers onto them like an overused email address (e.g., "Writing Home293").

Monday, April 7, 2008

Is blogging the new little magazine?

Blogging doesn't feel natural to me. I don't understand who might read this; if I don't publicize this and provide a link to it, how will people ever come across it? Who would take the time to go through a universe of anonymous blogs? So, maybe I am just writing this to myself, storing my thoughts in cyberspace rather than in a notebook--the benefit that it is a journal I can access from anywhere.  

I am assuming that blogging is what the zine scene used to be in the 1980s to mid-1990s. I used to publish a little magazine (a very small magazine) and was sort-of part of the underground zine scene in the 1980s to early 1990s.

It used to be a tedious process to publish and distribute a little magazine. Even when it was mostly my own writing, I would have to type everything up and lay it out (the first few issues were actually done on an electric typewriter; the middle issues were done on an old Mac Plus, with a screen the size of a trade paperback; and the later issues done on the comparably larger-sized Power Mac). Then a trip to the copy store and back home to collate and staple. Later on to the post office to mail it out to the people who were brave and kind enough to subscribe to it, as well as to other people who published their own zines, as a freebie exchange.

The good thing about publishing a zine was that I would get 3, 4, sometimes 10 zines in one week in my mailbox. People would read about my magazine in FactSheetFive and other paper directories of little magazines and send a sample copy of what they were doing and ask for the same. The process became a lot more tedious when I asked for contributions. Increasingly, all my spare time went into answering my mail--and most of that time was simply stuffing the sheets of paper back into the return envelopes, especially when it was supposed to be poetry or long fiction or other things I didn't ask for. But there were writers I really liked and liked publishing and with whom I sometimes collaborated via long-distance phone calls and letters.

How fantastic that I can type this up onto a computer screen and potentially send it off to hundreds of people at once, without involving paper, envelopes, mailing labels, stamps.  (Or, I can put it on the Web and have it just sit there, the same as if being inside my own computer.) But there is something a little lonely about this, a little isolated. In doing so, I don't see the people in the copy shop, the guy at the post office (most memorably, the one with the handlebar moustache in Chapel Hill), the people on the Metro as I take back my stack of copied sheets home in my lap, the people I would meet at small press fairs.  What is the present-day equivalent to getting sample zines in the mail? An email with links?