Notes on writing

Five years a blockhead

Leonid Pasternak

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

(Samuel Johnson, from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson)

My first blog, These Islands, was five years old last month. Though it’s not exactly my first blog — I had a couple of false starts which are best not mentioned here. In any case, this anniversary seems a good time to consider why I still blog (and I wish there was a less ugly term for it) and what keeps me going, given that the short-lived golden age of blogging is assuredly over. I suppose I should have called this post ‘Ten things I’ve learned about blogging’, or ‘Six reasons why blogging has changed in the age of Facebook and Twitter’, or even, ‘Why everything you know about blogging is wrong and what you can do about it’. But clickbait has never been my thing, which might explain the pitiful amount of traffic I get, even after five years.

I started writing These Islands because I spend a fair amount of my spare time wandering around Britain (England mostly, but I’ll come back to that) and because I thought a blog would be a way to record what I saw and what I thought about it. It was to be an on-line journal of places I visited, with a bit of history thrown in. If I said I wasn’t bothered about whether anyone else read it, that would be disingenuous. But I certainly wasn’t expecting a huge audience. I just had a notion that my musings might be of interest to people of a similar disposition, a way of connecting to people with similar interests.

In the early days, I did that thing that WordPress advises you to do, which is to follow other blogs and comment on them, as a way of building up a little network. But I quickly found that, far from being a social activity, blogging for most people was a more solipsistic undertaking. My comments were almost wholly ignored and almost nobody followed me back. From time to time I would get a gushing comment and a follow from a blogger with an established following. This was flattering. Of course, I would follow them back, read and comment on their posts. But it quickly became clear that they were only looking to build their audience numbers and had no real interest in my writing. Concurrently, I came to feel that my attempts at attention-seeking were undignified and inauthentic. So I resolved to plough my own furrow, in my own obscure field. And it has been much more enjoyable that way. I still read and follow other blogs, lots of them, but I don’t expect anyone to follow me back. In a funny way, I’d rather they didn’t. I’ve embraced my own solipsism. ‘Writing,’ said the French author Jules Renard, ‘is a way of talking without being interrupted’.

On some rare occasions, one of my posts has been picked up by someone with a decent Twitter following. The first time this happened I got very excited. The post got 600 views in a single day, which, for me, is remarkable. There were a couple of hundred more on the following day. When I looked at the tweet I noticed it had been retweeted over two thousand times — incredible! But I soon realised that the majority of those retweeting the link hadn’t even looked at the post, let alone read it. I was baffled and I still don’t understand why people do this. So it goes. I had learned at first-hand the shallowness of social media. Despite this fragile bubble of attention, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I would pick up some new followers, some visitors to my books pages, perhaps even some book sales. As it turned out, those metrics were respectively zero, zero, and zero. So it goes. I’ve gone viral (in a very small way) on Twitter a few times since then but now I ignore it.

I always saw blogging as a prelude to writing books, a way into the discipline of regular production that the serious writer must embrace. Now that I have published several books, blogging might be thought to have served its purpose. Most experienced authors will tell you that while it may — may —help to sell non-fiction books, it’a waste of time for fiction writers, especially those, like me, with day jobs. Better to spend your limited writing time on producing more books or on marketing them more effectively. Those old hands have a point. I’ve published both fiction and non-fiction books in the last three years and not a single sale has come via either of my websites. It may have been possible in the past, but there were lots of things that blogging did in the past that it doesn’t do now. Social networking, for one. Why put the time and effort into crafting a five-hundred word post when a five-word tweet will get you more eyeballs and interaction?

Still I persist. I enjoy thinking up and writing these short pieces. Blogging is part of my writing practice, in both sense of that term. I write about subjects that I would never touch on in my books and I can experiment and mess about as I please. Knowing that nobody cares or is paying attention means I can write about pretty much anything I want. That sense of freedom is what makes it fun. The newer blog, the one you are reading now, is tied no particular topic at all, other than what I’m thinking about or reading about or writing about. For the time being, I’ve settled into a routine of posting on both blogs once a month. That seems like a good balance between keeping them updated and leaving time for more important writing.

I don’t keep a journal or a diary so these blogs are the closest thing to it, places where I can note subjects and items that interest me. It’s a habit now and also a partial record of a life. I’ve mentioned that I continue because I enjoy it and because it’s part of my writing practice. There’s another reason too, I think, which is that it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings about whatever the subject happens to be. It’s not so much that I change my mind about something halfway through writing a post, more that my thought becomes more organised, my feelings more focused. That too is a very useful exercise for a writer.

I will keep going also because there seems to be so much to write about. I want to cover much more of Britain in These Islands — I haven’t even been to Scotland since I started the blog — and I want eventually to extend it to Ireland, as the title ‘These Islands‘ indicates. The Kit Ward blog will remain a catch-all for everything else, and especially posts relating to my fiction. I’m looking forward to the next five years.

[Image of Leonid Pasternak’s painting The Passion of Creation courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]