On Blogging and Essay Writing, and a Random Ten

When I was interviewing for jobs last winter, I talked to a lot of different people about personal essays, which prompted several of them to ask if I had a blog. The answer to this question was yes, but that I had stopped updating it some time before, partly due to time constraints (I was teaching four classes at two different schools, finishing my dissertation, and interviewing for jobs), and partly due to the fact that, a few months before, The Chronicle of Higher education ran a few First Person columns that made the argument that, perhaps, keeping a blog was not the smartest thing to do when one is on the job market. If a prospective employer can type your name into a search engine and discover that you’ve claimed to have adopted a virginity pledge, or coined the term “Crapbot 3000,” or frequently typed out the phrase, “Fucking’ what the fuck?” in response to an outrageous political statement or action, well … The employer wouldn’t exactly be wrong to question your maturity, would she?

Still, when you deliver a job talk about the personal essay in the 21st century, the logical follow-up question seems to be, “Do you keep a blog?” and probably with good reason -- the forms are remarkably similar, in the sense that they each offer up an individual’s perceptions and insights, written for an audience (as opposed to the more traditional diary or journal, which is also reflective but not designed to be read by anyone else). Phillip Lopate writes:

“The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue-- a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.”

This sounds a lot like what happens on The Daily Kos or Feministing, doesn't it? In fact, Lopate also points out that the personal essay is marked by a "conversational dynamic" which "serves to establish a quick emotional intimacy with the audience"; blogs usually have a "Comment" option which allows actual conversation to take place-- blogs seem to take this idea of intimacy between reader and writer and turn it into a reality.

Of course, there are significant differences between blogs and personal essays. It seems to me that blog postings are typically shorter than most essays, and less developed (it's hard to imagine a blogger creating something like Montaigne's "Of Some Verses of Virgil," which is well over 150 printed pages and covers a whole lot of ground). Of course, the reality of hypertext means that the blogger can create links to provide his reader with more information, where it's necessary, which means that the blog post itself doesn't need to be as detailed or as long as the essay in order to be considered "complete."

Most of the time, I blog simply because it's something I enjoy doing. It keeps me writing everyday, and keeps me connected to the larger world of politics, pop culture, and art. But my blog posts are also places to throw out ideas to see what I really have to say about them-- and, occasionally, what began as a blog post will turn into a personal essay. My James Frey posts from last year (re-presented here this week) were slowly turned into the critical introduction to my dissertation, which was then further revised into the article that College English is publishing this fall. My post from earlier this summer about watching horror movies and presidential debates has been turned into an essay that's almost finished. And my posts about marriage and feminism are, slowly but surely, being crafted into something designed for print as well.

But, you know, most of the time, I just enjoy typing the phrase "Fuckin' what the fuck?"

Anyway, for those of you interested in reading some thoughtful, essayistic blog posts, I'd direct you over to Mark at Culture Industry. He's recently written a reply to my posts about James Frey, honesty, and capital-t Truth that had me nodding along in agreement until I realized "Wait a minute-- he's disagreeing with me" (Damn you, Mark-- stop seducing my assent). He also called me a Lucius Malvoy look-alike, which I thought was rather kind (Lucius Malvoy is the elegant, distinguished villain character with the long hair, right?). I'm afraid I'm more of a Hagrid-type-- unkempt, out-of-shape, well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual. My colleague is too kind, I think. But a really persuasive writer.

And also-- one other thing, since dissertations came up earlier: Renaissance scholar/ Christian dominatrix Emily has finished her dissertation and mailed it off to her committee. This is a project she's been working on for a long, long time, but it's finally out of her hands (for the moment anyway). It's a lot like that new book Harry Potter and the Filthy Sparrows, except it's a pop-up Choose-Your-Own Adventure book with scratch-n-sniff pages and a coupon you can mail in for a free TEAM BRISAACSON T-shirt. I assume. I haven't actually read it. Still, let's give Emily a hand-- she's been busting her ass for well over a year on this thing, writing everyday while her jag-off husband plays videogames, writes asinine blog posts, and complains about his hangovers.

Right. Here's the Random Ten. Go up to the jukebox, hit it Fonzie-style, and write down the first ten songs that come out. And don't lie to us, either-- we know you've got "Pac Man Fever." You've got all the symptoms.

1) Eminem-- "Mosh"
2) John Cale and Brian Eno-- "Cordoba"
3) Elvis Costello-- "There's a Story in Your Voice"
4) Franz Ferdinand-- "This Fire"
5) Prince-- "La, La, La, He, He, Hee"
6) Cheap Trick-- "I Want You to Want Me"
7) Bruce Springsteen-- "Atlantic City"
8) Tomandandy-- "The Carol of the Bells"
9) Reel Big Fish-- "Beer"
10) The Velvet Underground-- "I Hear Her Call My Name"

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