I spent all of yesterday with a deep feeling of being unsettled and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it till this morning, and this post will be my attempt at getting a better grasp on it. The vagueness of that last sentence already betrays a bit of the source of my anxiety. It is this: writing. Or rather, the writing part of blogging. (This will likely be a long, meandering post, but if I don’t try to hammer it out, I won’t be able to focus on much else.) I started blogging a few years ago, back when I was just getting my dissertation project off the ground. That’s only something that I see in retrospect, however. At the time it didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere at all. I spent my days writing down isolated thoughts going on the thinnest of hunches that there was something bigger going on, connections I wasn’t yet comprehending, only sensing at the level of intuition. I turned to blogging because I wanted to be able to put out short pieces of writing on topics that stimulated me intellectually, but which had nothing to do with my dissertation. That first blog was about the plain living ways of the modern Anabaptist groups, and I invited just a handful of friends to read it. As my dissertation gained momentum I found myself with neither the time nor the inclination to keep up the blog (barring a brief period when my dissertation stalled once more). But what I loved about blogging was being able to have some kind of finished product at the end of days when I had little to show for myself on the dissertation front. I suppose this blog feeds a similar need. It began as a repository for ideas and resources, and then I started using it to reflect on my experiences as a student and teacher. Since most of my work these days is behind-the-scenes, it’s nice to have some kind of public venue for sharing what I do.
What bothers me, though, is that I haven’t clearly defined my readership. I have some idea of who’s actually reading the blog from comments and emails, but I’m not so much referring to my flesh and blood readers (for whom I am grateful, of course), than my intended audience. To explain this, I’ll have to give you a bit of back-story:
Back when I was a graduate student I got into the terrible habit of taking an epistolary approach with my research papers. That is, I wrote them as private missives to individual professors, and with very few exceptions, they were largely intended to demonstrate what I got out of their seminars. This “worked” for me insofar as I got good grades, but in hindsight I see it as a result of two problems: a weak sense of my scholarly identity, and the misguided notion that writing was what one did after thinking. Everyone talks about the immense gap between a dissertation and a book manuscript, but more people should address the yawning chasm between seminar paper and dissertation. (As my adviser put it, his dissertation was the first piece of writing he did that he couldn’t fit entirely in his head at the outset.)
Writing the dissertation took care of both problems for me. I came to embrace writing as part of the process of thinking (see this blog post as a case in point), and I also learned to write for more than one person. The latter sounds more trivial than it is. I don’t refer merely to having to write for five different committee members (this can be a short path to insanity), but to the larger task of needing to define the composition of one’s ideal audience. On the surface, defining one’s readership is an act of strategic calculus. Who is most likely to take an interest in my ideas? What can I assume they have read before? What references might be unfamiliar to them?, etc. But arguably it is also an act of the imagination—at least is was for me. Suddenly, I was no longer a graduate student sitting in a specific seminar, writing for a particular professor who more or less knew who I was. As a budding scholar writing to my peers, I felt liberated to fashion my voice as I pleased. I love the performative aspect of writing. Voice, to my mind, is not something that emerges from a hitherto suppressed authentic self, but something that is emitted by a self always in-the-making.
So to return to this blog, I am still deciding who my readers are and what my writerly voice to them should sound like. That process unsettles me immensely. I worked hard to craft my scholarly voice and (so I’m told) it’s quite engaging. But my blogging voice? What a drag. I envy those bloggers who put out long, thoughtful, and well-written posts that look like they’ve been polished to perfection. How do people do that? If writing is performance, are they just brilliant at extemporaneous speech? It takes me long enough to write out a blog post and edit it for mistakes. If I took the time to polish it, I’d be here all day. I really miss that part of writing—smoothing out the wrinkles and making sure the music of it sounds right—but i don’t think this blog is the right place for it.
At any rate. There it is. I have no idea who the audience is and (because of that? apart from that?) I don’t know how to write for them. The main thing that keeps me going is the expectation that I will eventually hit my stride in my work (both off-line and on) in much the same way I did with my dissertation, and the matter of voice will no longer be as pressing.