Today Beth of The Cassandra Pages celebrates her 10 year blog-birthday, and the entry she posted to commemorate the occasion raises for me the usual questions about what my “real work” is. Is it writing blog posts? Writing books? Teaching? Taking care of pets? When it’s all done and I’m dead, will it make any difference that I blogged, or that I did anything at all? What does it mean, after all, to make a difference in a world that keeps spinning—change and impermanence reigning supreme—whether I do anything or not?
What, in other words, is any writer’s “real” work? Annie Dillard, whom I’d like to emulate as much as anyone, said at the beginning of Teaching a Stone to Talk that her short nonfiction essays weren’t written to supplement her “real” work; instead, her short essays are her real work. Another of my literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau, wrote essays, poetry, several book-length works of nonfiction, and a multi-volume journal he spent his entire adult life adding to, page by page. So what was Thoreau’s “real” work? The books published during his lifetime? The books published after his death? The journal he spent his entire creative life adding to, and which served as the source of his published essays and book-length nonfiction?
Blogging is an ephemeral genre: what I wrote last week doesn’t matter much tomorrow. But if you look at a blog as being an ongoing project, then the dedication it takes to keep a blog going long-term has to count for something. As Beth herself writes,
…what emerges is a body of work. It isn’t conventional, or even graspable, and perhaps will be impermanent, but I know that it is, in fact, THE body of artistic work accomplished in my lifetime which most closely represents me. It’s also taught me the most. Once upon a time I wasn’t satisfied with that. Now, I am.
Ten years is a long time to do anything faithfully, much less thoughtfully and with care. It took me ten years to get my PhD, and between you and me, those letters after my name haven’t meant much in terms of professional prestige: I make no more money and have no more job security as “Dr.” than I did as “Ms.” So is my dissertation—a book-length work that was the culmination of ten years of scholarly work and now sits in the archives of my alma mater—somehow count for more than Beth’s ten-year body of blog-work just because my dissertation was “published” and earned me some letters after my name?
Both Beth’s blog and my dissertation reflect ten years of work, but one has been reaching out to readers and encouraging them on an almost-daily basis to think, write, read, draw, paint, take photos, sing, make books, speak out, and otherwise be active and engaged, whereas the other is considered a scholarly work and collects dust. So what is the “worth” of an active mind engaged in creative pursuits? What is the “worth” of ten years of showing up, paying attention, and sharing what you see?
If you’re a writer of nonfiction prose, it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing your work on the basis of its length: sustained, book-length narratives are “real work,” and short, self-contained essays are something else. If you’re a writer of nonfiction prose who also keeps a blog, it’s even easier to get confused by these categories: short, self-contained essays that are published in print count as “real work,” but blog-entries (no matter how carefully crafted) do not.
I would love to write a book, as Beth has: I have always wanted to write a book. At the moment, I have the vague, sketchy outline of book-length narrative in my head, but whenever I turn to work on it, my ideas turn tail and flee. Given my desire to write this book, should I force myself to work on it exclusively, even when it doesn’t “want” to be worked on, or should I follow my muse wherever it appears, even if that means working on the book while also writing “mere” blog-essays that may or may not ever “lead somewhere”?
That is the sticking point, isn’t it: this idea that what we do should “lead somewhere”? The other night I had dinner with Seon Joon, whose blog is younger than Beth’s, but just as deep. Seon Joon asked me, point blank, whether I was working on a book, remembering (I’m sure) that I’d mentioned one, vaguely, the last time we’d talked. My response to her was yes, I’m working on a book…but no, I don’t know whether that work is leading somewhere, or whether the product of that work will ever be finished, much less published. But in the meantime, I know I’m enjoying the process of working on a book, keeping a blog, and basically being creative in one way or another every single day.
Regardless of where the road leads, in other words, I’m happy being on that road. Did Thoreau know when he started his journal that it would eventually fill some seven thousand pages and be published as a work in its own right? Or did Thoreau keep a journal simply because keeping a journal felt right as he was doing it?
I for one am glad that Beth has been blogging faithfully and thoughtfully these past ten years. She is one of the writers who inspired me to start a blog of my own, and the fact that she is still posting is immensely inspiring. Maybe the real work isn’t a noun—a product you finish and publish—but a verb: a thing you do and keep doing. If that be the case, then here’s hoping Beth keeps up the real work for a very long time.