Confessions of Ineptitude; or, How Not to Blog

Hi! My name is Marcia Aldrich and I am an inept blogger. Here is my story.

Before I started Backhand Blog—a name that turned out to be surprisingly prescient—I had some concerns. I was embarking on a kind of writing, topical, occasional, friendly, that I had never been invested in. This lack of devotion seemed to me a bad sign, perhaps an omen about a venture that wouldn’t go well. If I distrust water, should I take up kayaking? If kitchens get me claustrophobic, should I channel Janette Desautel?

Permanent Status Update

I can’t get to the books I want to read or the literary journals I subscribe to or all the writing published by my friends. My daily workload, like most academically employed writers, consists of reading and responding to piles of student writing, and a range of other obligations too numerous and time-consuming to mention. I should be finding ways to focus my reading, not further my distractions. So too with my own writing. I have a file cabinet with drafts of essays I haven’t managed to complete, drafts of books I’ve abandoned in boxes that block movement in my study. One might say I have a real problem finishing what I’ve started.

So why take time away from my primary pursuits to write a blog? Wasn’t I going to contribute to the problem, writing more stuff no one has time to read? And yet blogging was one of the crucial elements I was advised to undertake in the service of promoting my book.

Backstory

When I began my blog, Companion to an Untold Story was coming out, a book I had labored over for years. I felt as if I had written it in my blood. Since I had published my prior book, responsibility for promotion of such a work had changed—firmly shifting toward the author. Truth be told, responsibility had already started to shift by the time of my earlier book; I just didn’t know it. Now I did. I couldn’t entertain the illusion that someone else, a team of cunning publicists, would take care of creating buzz, setting up a wardrobe malfunction, getting me attacked by the right types so I could stage some faux outrage. The University of Georgia Press was publishing my book, a sober institution, and not a major commercial press. UGP has one publicist for all its books. That can’t be true, you might say, but it is.

As a self-reliant writer-publicist, I received from UGP a short guide full of steps I should take to promote my book. Many (hypothetical) readers will already be familiar with them. At the annual AWP Conference, where creative writers affiliated with postsecondary educational institutions gather, sessions on such matters occupy more and more slots on the program. Innumerable websites are available to consult, as well as hundreds of articles detailing the well-rehearsed steps authors should take, all written in the optimistic pep talk style of self-help. The steps are mostly about social networking: join Facebook and create a book page, join Twitter, create a personal website, create an author’s page on Amazon and anywhere else you can, and start a blog—oh, and make a trailer for YouTube!

I am going to focus on my experience with the blog. I am not going to go into my experiences with all of these strategies except to note that the guides imply that if you follow their simple steps, news of your book will spread like wildfire. Okay, maybe not like wildfire. But they do not tell you your promotional efforts will have the effect of a wet match.

On Not Picking a Topic

According to the guides, successful blogs have a theme, a topic they consistently return to. It stands to reason that an identifiable, consistent subject is a good strategy. People on the prowl for a word on that subject will find your blog and then follow it. Each new post adds more readers, like lint on a sweater. Many publicists advise picking a subject related to the book you are promoting, blogging before its release date to drum up interest.

Targeting a subject seems like sound practice, yet I did not follow the advice. That was my first big mistake (or maybe my second, depending when you start counting). I decided my blog would be eclectic and not confined by a focus. Perverse, right? Do I have an oppositional disorder? Possibly. That and a grand notion of the panorama of topics on which I had things to say. In my “About” description of the blog, I said: “Most blogs have an announced subject: a sport, yoga, a dog. I don’t intend to follow that pattern, despite my title’s reference to tennis.” One sign of my deep confusion, or opposition, or whatever it is, is the name Backhand Blog, when I had no intention of talking about tennis. I even had a subtitle—returning servers—to maximize the bafflement. There was a pun on “returning serve,” but I was serving off the wrong foot, so to speak.

I went on, “I envision my blog in the shape of a spider with its jointed legs and the hair on those eight legs picking up scents, sounds, vibrations, and air currents. In other words I want a blog with an abdomen that moves in all directions and an exoskeleton that is periodically shed.”

Good God! What does that even mean? What was I thinking? Was I thinking? Was I practicing the art of self-sabotage? If so, I was talented. Who would know what to expect from such a description? If a person roaming the Internet wilderness stumbled upon my blog, would that individual ever come back? From the statistical evidence, I’d say no.

On the one hand I sounded like a tennis freak, and on the other I sounded mighty literary, pretentiously so, the kind of literary to be avoided. My blog had no identity and no identifiable focus. I had gone out of my way to say I would operate like a spider ratcheting around to see what fell into my web.

Another Problem with Taut Focus

One of my problems in blogging my book to fame was that it concerned suicide. Need I say more? I think I wrote a compelling book on the subject, but I am not a credentialed expert in the field and did not want to set up shop as one. I am a contrarian, as I’ve said, but it’s not just that—there’s something disturbing about me opining on that ultimate subject. Don’t you see the promotional possibilities? my friends asked. I could become an authority, create a publicity persona, speak knowledgably about my insights, give advice. Many writers have carved out a niche for themselves doing just this, and very profitably, I was told. My friends named highly visible writers who were also gifted entrepreneurs. There was just one little problem with this scenario: once the book was finished, I’d rather go all Oedipus on my eyes than say more about that suicide, reliving my friend’s death and the involuntary role I played in it. I’d rather have the book languish on the dustiest shelf in the world emporium of remaindered books if to sell it I had to perform his death over and over. I had done that in writing the book, and it was all I could do.

So let’s review. With no intention of focusing the blog on tennis, I nonetheless began with a post called “The Drop Shot,” about Roger Federer and his deployment of that trick late in his career. Naturally it attracted people interested in tennis. They were probably genuinely confused to read such a literary consideration of the topic. I should add that my post came in at 2,204 words, not the recommended 300 or so. And when I say it was about Federer’s deployment of the drop shot, I’m not drawing the accurate shape of the twists and turns it took as it went about picking up scents, sounds, vibrations, and air currents—including a sweep back to my thorny relationship with my father. One of my smartest students told me she couldn’t figure out what I was up to, writing about drop shots. Of course, she knew nothing about tennis. Thus, people who knew nothing about tennis but knew me as a writer visited the blog and were taken aback. And people who knew about tennis visited the blog and were also taken aback.

I had scored a double own-goal, a two-handed knockout punch on my readers. (Federer, by the way, is one of the last of the one-handed backhanders.)

Did I follow up that first post with more on tennis? No, I did not. The next post was about a young buck that was severely injured when he was caught on a fence down the road from where I live and ended up in my yard in a terrible crumble. It was a sorrowful post with no silver lining. Even I can’t reread it. After that I veered to a humorous post about literary rejections called “The Art of Saying No.” That post, tagged as it was with the words rejection and literary journals, attracted the most visitors of all my posts. On March 29, 2012, 136 people visited “The Art of Saying No.”

If I had been smart, which I obviously was not, I would have carried on with that theme. But I did not. Of course not. I did not continue with literary themes, or tennis themes, or the heartbreak of deer themes. I posted nothing at all for a long time. Another poor move. You aren’t supposed to drop out of the blogging hemisphere for months—you lose all momentum. But momentum is not something I had achieved. I was the antiblogger, who created reverse momentum. I had to start from the beginning over and over.

In Before the Topic Fades

Why such inconsistency, you ask? Well, the answer leads me to one of the other oft-stated formulas for popular blogs—the writing is tossed off rapidly, triggered by the occasional, resembling a diary. I have never been a successful keeper of a journal or diary. I do scribble notes to myself, which I later find painful to read. The few times when I’ve attempted such a thing for longer than two days, I’ve discovered depressing truths. I repeat myself. Actually that’s too kind a way of putting what I do. I get into an emotional rut in journal entries, going over the same well-trod ground. A journal is private, or pretends to be, even the ones written for publication. But my entries really are written for me, private in the sense that no one should ever read them. In my journal I tend to take stock—that’s what I called it—of where I am in the looping narrative of my lot in life. Reading the entries is as enlivening as watching my elderly Aunt Virgie unload the contents of her fancy salt shakers after Christmas dinner, unto the last grain. I am not a good candidate for a school of writing that is diaristic.

Tossing something off sounds appealing—a stark departure from my ordinary painstaking rigor (not quite mortis). But could I transition to an informal, off-the-cuff mode? This seemed doubtful, even at the outset. And I will say that none of my posts were tossed off in a spontaneous manner. They were not flung onto the page. They were personal essays that I ended up trying to perfect, just as I do all my writing. I was not capable of changing a lifetime’s habits just because I was writing a blog. Someone commented on my first post that my entry wasn’t at all like blogs she read. It was meant as a compliment, but I should have read it as a warning about a problem. And that problem was never resolved.

Evidence of said unresolved problem is the post you are reading, which isn’t finished yet but just passed 2,000 words!

Conclusions or Takeaways or Maybe Just Questions

My experience may be the result of gross incompetence. Perhaps I live and write too far outside the social networking culture in which blogs have prominently figured, and can’t grasp how they operate, what purposes they serve. The student who didn’t understand why I was writing about drop shots asked, Aren’t blogs just self-publishing? It’s hard to get around that essential fact. That’s exactly what they are. No one asked me to write a blog, and no one vets the entries. I am the author, editor, and publisher, and perhaps audience, too. And even if I attempt to maintain self-imposed standards of writing, will anyone notice that the posts are well written—or care? So far I don’t see any evidence they care. Readers of blogs read for reasons other than tasting literary quality—making connections with others, sharing an interest, gleaning information, advice, solace. All good reasons to read.

Digression

By way of example of the point about literary merit: I blogged on thanking those who helped the writer on her way, a post called “Cordelia Does Acknowledgments.” It came in at 2,292 words. Yet another personal essay, quirky and twisty, but also filled with information I had gathered and sifted. Soon after I posted it, an article on the same subject appeared on a much-visited site. It was economical, informational, tried to add a pinch of controversy, but it was not memorable. Thousands read it, no doubt, stripping from it whatever copper they could get. (Maybe my post wasn’t memorable either, but I hoped it would be. That was my aim. That is always my aim.) There was nothing in the writing that stopped the popular article from being consumed and forgotten. A throwaway. That is what I fear blogs are, unless they can be collected and shaped into something else, like a book.

My long view (forgive a wild leap here), unsupported by anything factual, suggests that blogs will be defunct in time, perhaps soon. Perhaps they are already going defunct, replaced by other media. Perhaps people will grow sick of blogs. Perhaps if they are going to read something, they’d prefer to read my book on suicide rather than my blog posts about writing the book on suicide. Not my book necessarily—someone’s book. This could be wishful thinking. We do seem absorbed by writing about writing, writing about writing about grief, rather than the real thing. Reading about dieting rather than dieting. As home cooking declines, we have an explosion in cookbooks full of recipes we won’t make—we’ll just read them.

The annual report of stats for my blog arrived the other day. I had 1,300 visits for the year. In 2012, I had 1,500. My busiest day for 2013 was March 16, when I posted “I’m Not Writing about Trees.” That post was visited by 95 people. WordPress, the host of Backhand Blog, helpfully suggests I “consider writing about these topics [the topics that drew the most visits] again.” And who could argue? Should I heed that advice, having learned something about blogging, or should I call it a day?

In rereading my first post, on Federer’s faulty drop shot, there are words applicable to my blogging experience: “Maybe I have to accept Federer’s defeats at the hand of Nadal and accept, too, that his strengths are his weaknesses. None of us has absolute control over whether our shots will make it or not. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? We do have to be prepared to accept the consequences of our attempts, those failures and successes, and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.”


Gotta Serve Somebody

On the last day of our trip to Seattle to visit our children, Clare and David, their friend Austin graciously took us out for a day on his motorboat. We started in Union Bay, where he rents a slip, and headed out at a no-wake pace past Gas Works Park and the University of Washington campus, under the Montlake Bridge and through the Cut, and then at higher speed into the more open waters of Lake Washington. Our cruise brought us to Andrews Bay, offshore from Seward Park, where we set anchor. Here we stayed for many hours, into a late afternoon so brilliant that Mt. Rainer, hidden by gray on most days, a ghostly flicker on others, was prominent throughout.

Austin at first anchored close to shore but, noting the thick weeds, moved into deeper water. The water was solid and dark and I couldn’t see beyond the surface. Nevertheless, I was eager to swim, and dove headfirst off the back of the boat without a flicker of concern.

The entry was fine, more than fine—it was a euphoric moment, piercing the water and then rising to the surface. When your very blood is hot, there’s nothing so bracing as a dive into a cold lake. I swam freely around the boat and then ventured farther out, where larger boats had anchored and a few people were sunning on flotation devices. Clare and Austin inflated two tubes and launched them. At the bow, David sat reading Wild. Eventually Richard jumped in feet first, wearing his shorts and shirt.

In and out of the lake we moved throughout the afternoon. I dove off the boat four or five times and never considered whether it was prudent. Swimming, floating—it was glorious. Above us a bald eagle drifted on the rising currents of air, and a juvenile eagle perched on the topmost branch of a fir, notching its head right and left to survey the lake as if it were the floor of history.

Eventually sirens broke our tranquility. On the opposite shore lay Denny Blaine Park, where a group of boaters like ours dotted the nearshore waters. Three or four fire engines, including a ladder truck, converged on the park. We were too far away to make out clearly what had happened, but from our anchorage we followed developments, passing around a pair of binoculars. The ladder truck raised its ladder, and a firefighter ascended to scout in the manner of the eagle. An ambulance arrived next and then two police boats, weaving at high speed around the anchored craft and plowing to a stop. A police helicopter and another from KOMO-TV burred up and hovered strategically. After the hours of calm, the racket was awful, and our young eagle, which had moved from tree to tree, launched from the fir and departed for good.

For about fifteen minutes, maybe more, we passed the binoculars among us, training them on the expanding scene. We searched our phones for a news flash, but to no avail. A stretcher was wheeled down to the water’s edge; Austin thought perhaps a body lay on top. None of us had seen a person pulled from the lake.

We lifted anchor and cruised back west. Soon after, the ambulance sped off, sirens going, and now I found a post on the Seattle Times blog: a thirty-two-year-old man, located by a dive team, had been pulled from Lake Washington and was being transported to Harborview Medical Center. Soon there was a fuller account: he had been underwater for ten to twenty minutes about thirty feet offshore.

Clare and Austin are both nurses. Clare works at Harborview, a Level 1 trauma center serving five states. A few days before our boating trip, she had shown us the landing pad for helicopters at Harborview. Austin said that the man would be put on a ventilator and his lungs cleared. But after fifteen minutes underwater, he was likely brain dead. Later updates described his condition as critical.

In another news update there was speculation that, diving in, the drowning victim had struck his head on a rock or some other submerged object. I realized how lucky I was. I was strangely pained that I should be spared and this young man was not.

On the Seattle Times blog I read about a string of recent swimming deaths—all involving males. Why males? Was the answer too obvious? That males are more reckless, more likely to take chances, not to perceive danger? Without a hint of caution, I had gone headfirst into water I didn’t know. Some would say my behavior was rash, and I now agree. Many drownings involve alcohol. Swimmers underestimate the power of a current, the effects of cold water, and don’t care what lies below the surface. Alcohol certainly clouds judgment, but there are other causes for carelessness, and I mused on my own.

We continued on with our day as planned. I tubed for the first time, even though I harbored twinges of anxiety now; we trolled past Bill Gates’ sprawling display of daring and good fortune, docked at Kirkland, shared a final farewell dinner of Thai food at Thin Pan, and made our slow way back to Austin’s slip as the sun set. The skyline of Seattle was aglow with magic. In the harbor we slipped quietly past pale boats that gleamed in the dark like milk, and I pondered admiringly all the people who had responded to the call for help for the young man in the lake.

**

The day after our return to Michigan, I visited the pool where I swim, and saw a young disabled man, without the use of his arms and legs, lowered into the water by means of a chair. He wore goggles and a nose plug, a white T-shirt, and a flotation device on each arm. A woman about my age positioned him on his back, keeping his head out of the water and guiding him evenly down the lane. Three boys who had arrived with him also entered the pool and swam alongside like a pod. The boys and the woman bantered with the young man, full of pleasure and enjoyment. They were having a really good time, the picture of easy camaraderie and joviality. I found myself smiling at their water parade, and everything seemed right in the world. Of course, all wasn’t right in the world, for the young man was without the use of his arms and legs, and that’s why he had to be buffered and supervised. Yet in comparison to the man and his retinue, the other swimmers looked positively grim, ticking off their laps. He was experiencing the euphoria and release that water gives, like my joy in piercing the water’s depths and rising to its surface. And he was surrounded, supported; many hands did the work of bearing him. It was not an onerous task. These boys and this woman made their service appear as light as the play of sun upon the water.

As I watched, Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” from his gospel album Slow Train Coming, came to mind. The song avows that we must serve the Lord or the Devil. John Lennon hated the religion that, in his opinion, infected Dylan’s music of this period, saying the lyrics were “just embarrassing.” I disagree. I believe that one can understand Dylan’s two necessary masters in different ways. But I must serve someone other than myself—the emphasis falls on serving and what it means. For me it means the opposite of self-serving; it means doing something, it doesn’t much matter what, beyond myself, and for someone else. Maybe it means hearing someone’s cry for help and responding, maybe it means floating someone in a bed of water. Maybe it’s bringing something out of yourself to bear upon another—offering a towel, a hand, a dish, a word—putting yourself at the service of another. And in Dylan’s words: you gotta do it.


Drop Shot

You’re up 5–2 in the first set, advantage to you. If you make the shot, you’ll win the set. It’s Paris, France, the home of stylish flourish, and you can’t just win the point with a high-percentage, low-risk, workmanlike crosscourt forehand, even if the angle is dazzling. Oh no. Not you. You’ve done that before. They’ve seen your forehand, and while it’s one of the best forehands in the game, it won’t take anyone’s breath away today. So you decide to hit the shot that if you make it will be legendary, on everyone’s highlight film for the ages. Words like daring, panache, and touch will be synonymous with your name.

You can feel the crowd ready to erupt at the sight of the shot you are considering, the shot you hold on your racket: the drop shot. Notorious fizzler, falling short, hitting the net, drifting wide, low percentage. Not the shot to choose, finally, in this circumstance. Maybe on another day of little consequence, or in the middle of a game in the middle of a set in the middle of a match you know you are going to win, but not now, and not against him. If you miss, he’ll take courage from your error. He’ll come to life like you’ve never seen before, roaring back with interest. And you, what about you? You will sink. There might as well be a hole on the court that will open into which you will stumble and there will be no hauling you out. You will be distracted by what you did and can’t take back, can never take back ever. As the match goes forward you’ll be looking back at that ball falling one inch wide, and that’s all it takes to call the ball out and go on to lose the game, the set, and the match in Paris, France, home of style and flourish and now heartbreak.

I’m talking about the finals of the French Open in 2011 between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer had unexpectedly defeated Novak Djokovic in the semifinals and landed across the net from his old nemesis on the red clay. Nadal loves to play Federer because he’s got the advantage in the matchup with the record to show it, and he’s chipped away at Federer’s confidence over the years. Federer’s the better player in terms of talent, shot-making ability, and artistry, but he is not resolute when he needs to be. For any Federer fan it was exhilarating to see him command the first set, up 5–2. I felt optimistic that coming off the win over the hottest player on the tournament Federer would play with confidence against Nadal, and the momentum from the win would do the trick this time. That optimism was tempered by remembering that Federer often starts out well, comes out in the first set with all guns blazing, only to lose steam somewhere in the course of the match, often in the third set.

So when he attempted the drop shot in the first set when he was up, I wished he hadn’t. I thought his gamble was unwise and would be costly. I didn’t find myself admiring him for going for the dazzler. Yes, if he had made it, we’d all say it was brilliant. Nadal would applaud and he’d go on to lose the first set. But Federer had to know that if he didn’t make it, it wouldn’t just be a point he’d lose—his shaky confidence would be exposed and Nadal would make inroads on Federer’s error, hewing a thick vein of doubt because that’s what Nadal does.

Thinking about it almost a year later, I find that the call doesn’t seem quite as simple as I thought during the match. If you rob Federer of his audacity and artistry and try to substitute prudent caution, would Federer lose more than he loses when his gambles fail? Would Federer be Federer? That is the question. Tallying the wins and losses is one measure of worth and greatness; it can also obscure what stays with you. Nadal went on to win the French Open again. He holds the record for most wins and that record will likely be his forever. It’s quite an accomplishment. Speaking personally, I’m not fond of Nadal’s style of play. Oh, I admire his tenacity and determination, how he wears other players down. But it doesn’t move me. I get impatient watching him line up his water bottles and bounce the ball fifteen times before serving and tugging at his pants while looking up to his uncle for a sign of what to do. The guy who wore others down. That will be Nadal’s tagline. Maybe I have to accept Federer’s defeats at the hand of Nadal and accept, too, that his strengths are his weaknesses.

None of us has absolute control over whether our shots will make it or not. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? We do have to be prepared to accept the consequences of our attempts, our failures and successes, and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.