Welcome to the blogosphere...
To post, or not to post? That is the question.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.
Well folks, I’ve finally done it. I’ve started a blog.
Maybe I’ll start a blog, I thought back in March, when the world began to shutter. It seemed like a good thing to do with all the extra time I was presumably going to have over the proceeding few weeks. Why not plaster one wall of the internet with my thoughts? At least they’ll have somewhere to go. Plus it’ll pass the time.
The time passed. Weeks became months. So as not to lose my job as an audiobook narrator, I turned a storage closet into a recording studio on the top floor of my childhood home in Hartford, to which I decamped when New York became the epicenter of the pandemic rather than the entertainment world. I cut up old t-shirts and hand-stitched face masks. I Zoomed with friends and classmates. I had twice-weekly nightmares about Zoom. When I’d recovered from what was probably a mild case of COVID-19—more on that another day—I started doing the shopping for us and a few of our neighbors, spending hours wandering unfamiliar grocery stores as my glasses fogged and unfogged above my mask. So perhaps it was unsurprising that for the first month of quarantine, I found myself unable to write anything that wasn’t a grocery list.
Who had time to start a blog? There were real things to do.
Nine weeks in, the thought resurfaced when I had what for me is a fairly common experience: I got a really good writing idea while in the shower. I often wish I could hook my brain up to a kind of intellectual IV and just drip its contents directly onto paper, because I always seem to get my best ideas when I’m nowhere near a keyboard or a pen. (Or else they wake me up at 5 a.m. and refuse to let me sleep until I’ve scribbled them down.) This time, the idea was accompanied by a more macro concept. I have things I want to write about, I thought as the water streamed onto my too-long hair. Why don’t I just write them?
Of course, I realized instantly, the real issue lies not in the writing-down, but in the putting-out. To post or not to post? That is the question.
* * *
Remember when to post was just British English for to put something in the mail? And when the words message, friend, text, and facebook were nouns? Back then, in the late 1990s, blogs were one of the first frontiers in the democratization of written media. The term weblog had only recently come into being when, in 1998, the website Open Diary was born, followed soon after by such sites as Blogger and LiveJournal. These platforms allowed anyone with an account to write whatever they wanted and instantly publish it online. They also allowed readers to post comments in response—a phenomenon that now seems ubiquitous, but which Open Diary was the first to introduce.
In high school, some of my friends had LiveJournal or Open Diary accounts. I recall being at once intrigued and horrified. My own diary—which I’d been keeping, in a long string of colorfully decorated journals, since I was eight years old—was absolutely, unconditionally, top secret. Why would anyone want to put their innermost thoughts on the internet?
And yet, as a teenager desperately wanting to be “understood”—as most teenagers are—the idea of sharing one’s thoughts with the wider world, and receiving in return not only attention but validation, was a provocative one.
In our age of infinite information, it’s easy to forget how extraordinary online self-publication was in its infancy. The advent of blogs meant that writers of all stripes could effectively publish their writing without asking anyone else’s permission. There was no need to pitch, to submit, to type a cover letter, to mail copies, to wait for response letters, to deal with those pesky SASEs, or to seek the approval of any Power That Was. One click, and poof: millions of people could access your words. Your opinions. Your stories. Your ideas. Your self.
Nowadays, it seems like everybody has a blog—or a vlog, or a website, or a Facebook page, or a YouTube channel, or any one of the hundreds of platforms that comprise one’s “online presence.” (When a friend told me in 2007 that YouTube had been acquired by Google, my response was: “What’s YouTube?” When the premise was explained, my follow-up question was: “Why would anyone want to watch other people’s home videos?” After an hour of watching cats do silly things, I started to get it.) I myself have an online presence in several places: as a performing artist and a writer, “content creation” has become an increasingly important way for me to promote my work. So why, at this moment, have I decided to add to my website, Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, Spotify, and Medium presences…a blog?
The fact that I’m asking myself this question is part of its answer. As artists, we can create material on our own—we can write music, paint pictures, compose poems, even rehearse performances in near-complete isolation. But the point of all works of art is, ultimately, that they be seen. We write, paint, compose, or act because we have something to say that we want others to hear. We create in order to express, to persuade, to change, to enlighten, to move, to inspire…all verbs that act on an object.
In short: art requires an audience.
The trouble is, that audience has gatekeepers. Casting directors decide which actors get to audition for a given role. Gallery owners decide whose art gets displayed. Editors decide whose articles get published. Artistic directors decide whose plays get produced. We can create on our own to our heart’s content, but in order to reach an audience, we almost always have to get somebody else’s permission. The gates are locked, and we’re not the ones holding the keys.
So, I’ve been asking myself, should I spend time pitching articles to online journals in the hope that they’ll publish my work? Or should I devote that valuable time to the writing itself, secure in the knowledge that the only thing required for its publication is to click the word “publish”?
Am I less of an artist if I don’t wait for an authority figure to tell me that my art is worth something?
Am I less of a writer if I write a blog?
* * *
As I’ve written this, I’ve thought of several people I know personally who have very successful blogs—not to mention the even more people I know personally who read other people’s blogs on a regular basis. I respect these creators and I admire the work they share online. So what’s the problem? Indeed, how would my theoretical blog be any different from my debut EP, Unlearning, which I self-produced last year? Anybody can record music nowadays, in any location, from a professional studio to their own home. And with only a small fee paid to a distributor (I used DistroKid), poof: that music can appear on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and virtually every other streaming platform, occupying the same space as the albums released by the world’s most popular artists. Talk about democratization: the music industry has become unrecognizable in the past ten years. But I found it incredibly empowering, last summer, to be able to record and release my original music. It’s one of the only things I’ve been able to do as a professional artist that didn’t require anybody else’s permission.
Actors and playwrights are some of the only artists who literally cannot do their work unless other people say they can. Theatre is a collaborative art: in order for actors to perform onstage, they have to be vetted by casting directors, producers, choreographers, directors, and creative teams. In order for a playwright’s work to see the light of day, artistic directors and theatre companies have to agree to produce it. In both cases, one of the first steps toward getting work is getting an agent—yet another process that depends on the whims of those “in charge.” One person after another, at every step of the process, has to say I choose you. At any point in that process, the door can close—and for many of us, most doors never even open.
Some say that actors are inherently addicted to approval. After all, why would we go into this profession if we weren’t constantly seeking validation? But I think actors become addicted to approval because it’s often the only means by which we advance. And so, for a long time, the prospect of creating my own work felt somehow less than the prospect of being chosen to take part in someone else’s work. Sure, I could create a solo show, or perform at an open mic, or self-produce a play reading…but it seemed to me a little less good, a little less professional, than waiting for somebody important to pluck me out of the teeming mass of artists and say: You’re it.
It took me more than ten years to realize this wasn’t true. To notice that some of the actors I most admire are multi-disciplinary artists who have been creating their own opportunities throughout their careers—who have, in some cases, made their careers by cutting their own paths through the industry. The entertainment industry doesn’t work the way it used to—more on that, too, another day—but it can work for those of us who forge our own unique ways through it.
Enter that great democratizer, the internet. Now—especially right now—we can put our performances, our writing, our artworks, and our music online, without having to pass through any gates at all. Have smartphone, will travel. The result, however, is a barrage of content that cascades down on us at all times. The field of online art can’t be oversaturated; the fuller it gets, the more it stretches to fit. But the more voices are out there, the more difficult it can be to reach your target audience—even when you appear to have direct access to it.
Which brings us back to our need for approval. Creators spend their online lives chasing clicks, views, likes, shares, claps, and comments. If a YouTube video drops but nobody views it, does it really exist? If I publish an article on Medium but nobody ‘claps’ for it, has it made any impact? And don’t get me started on the Facebook and Instagram algorithms, which pretty much guarantee that if nobody likes your post within five minutes of its posting, it will vanish into the realm of the unseen. Ultimately, most of these platforms are elaborate versions of the old-fashioned popularity contest. Not exactly a healthy environment for producing high-quality art.
I keep a running list of essay ideas in the Reminders app on my phone. Now and then, in the shower, or on a walk, or while brushing my teeth, one of those ideas will begin to take shape—sometimes so suddenly and fully, I have to hold it like an eggshell in the center of my mind until I’m clothed or home or rinsed and can get to a writing utensil. It happened with the very words you’re reading: I wrote the first draft of this post longhand, at 11:30 pm, in my diary, because I was in bed and the notebook was to hand and the words wouldn’t wait. (And I haven’t figured out that idea-IV thing yet.) I wish I could write a weekly column for someone, I thought recently, looking wistfully at my ideas list. Then I thought: Why wait for ‘someone’? I can write these on my own.
I’ve had a few essays published in ‘real’ publications, and getting those acceptance letters is very satisfying. The rejection letters, however, are not—and I get enough of those in response to play submissions. So maybe it’s time to flout the gatekeepers and build my own set of doors. Because all I really want, ultimately, is a place in which to wrestle with questions such as these—a place to traverse the horizonless landscape of the written word.
* * *
So: welcome to my blog. I hope you’ll join me as I explore ideas big and small, experiences silly and profound, and topics ranging from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous. I invite you to go on the ride with me. The only rules are respect, compassion, and a healthy dose of humor.