Head of the Charles regatta

Today is the last day of November, which means it’s the last day of National Blog Posting Month, or NaBloPoMo: a conscious commitment to post once a day, every day, during the month of November. I’ve done NaBloPoMo for several years now: it’s a good, annual nudge to get me blogging more at a point in the semester when I don’t have much time to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Since NaBloPomo is basically an experiment to see whether I can balance blogging atop a teetering pile of daily demands, at the end of the month I like to look back and see what (if anything) I’ve learned from the experience of posting something every day, even on days when I technically didn’t have the time or inspiration to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Every year, I realize (again) that I can always find something to say, even on hurried and uninspired days, and every year, I discover (again) that I sometimes surprise myself with the posts that seemingly materialize out of thin air. There is, I’ve found, something magical about the simple action of setting your fingers on a keyboard: once you start typing, your mind will furnish you with something to say, even if you had no idea what you were going to blog about.

Head of the Charles regatta

I sometimes think of this as being the “stone soup” nature of blogging: even when you think your cupboard is bare, you can always find a little bit of something simmer. The magic, again, happens when you set fingers to keyboard or pen to paper…or when you open Google Drive on your phone and start tapping out a new Doc.

Head of the Charles regatta

(Yes, more than a few blog posts this month were initially composed on my phone, that ubiquitous device that doubles as a word processor if you don’t mind typing with your thumbs. You’d be surprised how much you can write during the spare minutes you’re waiting at the vet, at your favorite take-out place, or in line at the drugstore.)

Head of the Charles regatta

As in past years, I’m a bit relieved to be posting my last November blog entry for the year. Now that Thanksgiving break has come and gone, the busiest part of the semester looms, and I need to focus on things other than blogging. But before I press my nose to the proverbial grindstone, it feels good to look back on a solid month’s worth of blogging: proof of what I can do when I set my mind to it, even if my mind claims to be too busy and uninspired to write.

Today’s photos come from this year’s Head of the Charles regatta, which happened back in October. The best stone soups are sometimes simmered from long-overlooked leftovers.

Degas' Little Dancer

Last night I shared on Facebook a link to an article about famous writers and their journals. The article begins with a quote from Madeleine L’Engle, who tells aspiring writers “if you want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you.” Now that we live in an age where it’s incredibly easy to publish one’s thoughts for all to see, L’Engle’s advice seems outdated and even quaint. What is the value of writing solely for oneself in an era when everyone can have an immediate online audience?

Noh masks

As a writer who keeps both a public blog and a private journal, I feel particularly qualified to comment on this. In many ways, my blog and journal repeat one another: I often blog essays that started as journal entries, revising and expanding upon an idea that arose in my morning scribbles. Occasionally, I’ll write in my journal about something I already blogged, either because a reader’s comment led me to think more deeply about the matter or because my published post didn’t feel “done.” But even though my public blog and my private journal often overlap, I don’t see either as being redundant: instead, they each have an important place in my writing practice, and they each offer their own unique benefits.

Hollywood glamor

Keeping a public blog forces you to consider issues of audience, especially if you blog under your full name. Using your name on your blog means you necessarily have to stand behind anything you post, and you have to be comfortable with the possibility of anyone reading what you write: friends, family, coworkers, strangers, and casual acquaintances alike. This forces you to make conscious decisions about what you will and won’t share to protect your own and others’ privacy. Some would decry this as a form of self-censorship, but I don’t think such limitations are always a bad thing. Professional writers have always made decisions about self-disclosure, deciding how and how much they should include personal details in their writing. In my mind, this kind of discipline is a good thing, as it forces you to express yourself in a careful and deliberate way rather than just spewing your raw thoughts without any thought about consequences.

Protest dress

This isn’t to say, however, that raw thoughts don’t have their place: that’s what both journals and first drafts are for. If my public blog is where I publish and stand behind the work that bears my name, my private journal is where I can go nameless. Nobody reads my morning scribbles, so I don’t have to protect my own or others’ privacy, and I don’t have to worry about making sense. In my private journal I can blather on about whatever inane thoughts happen to be rattling around my head without the need to pretty them up for publication. To mix metaphors, if my blog is where I put my best foot forward, my journal is where I let my hair down.

Degas' Little Dancer

In my mind, the point of keeping a private journal isn’t to write something that is useful, even though I do sometimes use the things I write there. Instead, my journal is a place where I can practice the art of thinking on paper without worrying about those thoughts. When you don’t have an audience, you don’t have to stay on topic, and you don’t have to make sense: you can, in a word, contradict yourself, exhibit faulty logic, say stupid things, and admit all kinds of foibles and hypocrisies. Your journal will never judge you for what you say: your journal, in fact, is simply a mirror of your own mind, reflecting your thoughts without comment or condemnation.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

When you establish the habit of writing without an audience, you become intimately acquainted with your own mind, seeing the ways you repeat yourself day after day. Over time, you become increasingly familiar with your mind-habits as they unspool in sentences across the page. Even if you never revise or recycle any of this material, you still derive a benefit from producing it. Whereas talking comes naturally, writing is necessarily a second language, and a journal gives writers a place to babble like toddlers, establishing a near-native fluency as we train ourselves to think on paper.

Brown-eyed girl - March 5 / Day 64

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?

Cool

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?

Diamond-eyed skull

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.

Spray can

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?

KB / DP

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?

Black door

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.

Orange

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”?

Sponge Bob?

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.

Rise up

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.

Tiny pollinator

It’s a question I’ve been repeatedly asked by both my blogging and non-blogging friends. When you write a post, which comes first: the pictures or the post?

More raindrops on hosta

The answer, of course, is “It depends.” In some cases, I have a specific topic or theme I want to write about–often, something on my mind that I’ve written about in my paper journal–so then I find pictures to accompany that theme. These pictures might go along with what I’m blogging, or they might simply be whatever pictures I have on hand. This latter scenario is why so many of my posts about Zen are illustrated with pictures of graffiti. Because I typically walk through Central Square before sitting at the Cambridge Zen Center, on any given day that I blog about Zen, I usually have lots of graffiti pictures close at hand.

Kousa dogwood

In other cases, though, I have pictures of a particular event that I plan to blog, so I start with those pictures and basically write an essay “around” them. Some examples of this kind of post would be the entries I’ve written about the Boston Marathon or pretty much any of my sports posts. Given a bunch of photos from a hockey or basketball game, I try to think of something to say that would go along with the pictures. These posts feel more like news articles than journal entries: I’m basically reporting on something I did, and I’m illustrating with pictures of what I saw. These posts feel different (neither better nor worse–just different) from the more “personal,” journal-inspired entries.

Orange beetle

And then there are days like today when I simply have a picture–in this case, a tiny bee pollinating a cluster of pink flowers, which I took in our backyard one morning this week–that I want to share because I like it. There’s no big story behind how I came to shoot a picture of a bee in the backyard, or how I shot any of today’s other photos on various dog-walks this week. I just had these pictures lying around, so after posting them on Flickr, I tried to think of a reason (excuse?) to use them on-blog.

The all-time classic unanswerable question is “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” For writers who both blog and take pictures, though, a close second in the unanswerable question department is “Which comes first, the pictures or the post?”

Evil eye

Today is Halloween and the last day of October, which means we’re on the brink of November’s National Blog Posting Month: that time of year when many bloggers make a public commitment to post something every day for the month of November. Once again this year, I’m planning to participate in NaBloPoMo, a commitment that can seem even scarier than the creepiest Halloween decor.

Floating ghoul with shadow

I participated in NaBloPoMo in 2008 and 2009, and in both cases I appreciated the discipline of making a conscious commitment to post something every day. Most months, I blog when I’m able, but once a year, it feels good to shift my blog-practice into overdrive. Making a commitment to post every day is an act of faith, a sign that you really do believe your mind is an abundant source of insight and inspiration even on days when you feel like you don’t have anything to say, much less time to say it. Making a commitment to post every day is a way of making a once-a-year declaration that writing isn’t something you do when you have enough time; it’s something you do every day, regardless.

November is a busy month for college professors–as I type these words, I have three stacks of student essay drafts to read and two online classes’ worth of end-term grading to tackle–so it’s a good time to make an arbitrary commitment to my own writing. November isn’t any more special than any other month, but NaBloPoMo forces me to act as if it were, finding something interesting to say and show even on days when the daily grind has me ground down. Here’s hoping I can keep blogging throughout the busy days of November without losing my head.

Decapitated

Click here for more information about National Blog Posting Month, a slightly more tame version of the National Novel Writing Month that sends so many writers to their keyboards in November.

Why did the chicken cross the road...

Somehow, this picture of the proverbial chicken crossing the road, which I blogged in February, strikes me as being the quintessential WTF moment here at Hoarded Ordinaries this past year. In a world where beer is Buddhist-flavored and even fences wear glasses, why not ponder the eternal question about pedestrian poultry?

Got glasses?

This past Saturday marked my fifth blogiversary: yes, it’s been five years since I posted my first tentative blog entry on December 27, 2003. On (or soon after) past blogiversaries, I’ve compiled a post that looks back on the previous year’s bloggish goodness: an annual excuse for me to re-visit my own archive. For my first few blogiversary posts, I chose my favorite five or so posts to link to, but last year I chose to link to a whole slew of posts in a variety of categories, figuring readers could pick and choose their own favorites. So in the spirit of last year’s blogiversary post, here is a montage of the past year.

Be a good sport

It’s a simple fact I’m well aware of: I like to watch sports, and most of my readers do not. When I go to sporting events, I take lots of pictures, which leaves me with a bloggish conundrum: should I force these photos on readers who probably don’t care, or should I leave them to gather digital-dust on my hard-drive?

Nobody can guard KG

This past year, I’ve settled on a kind of compromise: talking about sports on-blog is perfectly fine as long as the sport at hand is somehow a metaphor for something else. So what you’ll find under the “Good sports” category here at Hoarded Ordinaries isn’t your usual sports-bar conversation; instead, you’ll hear what I’d like to think is a slightly more highbrow view of basketball, hockey, and the like.

Thus in “Emotions,” I argued that watching a good game is as cathartic as watching a good drama. In “Fighting words,” I compared a red-blooded hockey fight to the controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s public distancing of himself from his then-pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In “Girls who wear glasses,” I described the hockey film “Slap-Shot” as a metaphor for working class responses to economic emasculation. And in “Up against it,” “Where happy endings happen,” and “Unimaginable,” I used images from my favorite sport (basketball) to illustrate how our daily lives are really just a game.

Zen and the Art of Graffiti

The categories of “Zen” and “Graffiti” might not seem to go together…but since I almost always take a stroll down Central Square’s graffiti-rich Modica Way on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center, my posts about Zen tend to be illustrated with pictures of graffiti and my posts about graffiti tend to carry more than a touch of Zen.

Mixed messages

My first attempt to link the phenomena of meditation and street art was “Random,” where I suggest the lawless nature of graffiti makes it as unpredictable as the spontaneous thoughts that pop into mind while you meditate. In “Art,” I explore the classic question of whether graffiti qualifies as highbrow culture, and in “Not-quite-busted,” I describe my experience photographing Modica Way on a morning when one Cambridge cop was looking for breakfast. This theme of police on patrol influenced “On the beat,” where I compare meditation to the act of reconnoitering a familiar neighborhood, and both “While you can” and “Scrambling” admit how difficult it can be to find the time to pay mindful attention when the rest of life is tugging at one’s sleeve. Somehow, amidst life’s clutter and color, we find time to do the things we simply can’t live without.

Light and dark; life and death

Some five years after this bloggish experiment began, I still am obsessed by many of the same themes that captivated me early on. One of my first posts, for instance, focused on particular quality of late afternoon light as it illuminates winter skies, and this early fascination with light and shadow hasn’t diminished. In “Eclipsed,” I describe how I mostly missed a lunar eclipse only to revel in the shadows cast by low-angled light the next morning. In “Made in the shade,” I began collecting a new phenomenon: twiggy shadows I dubbed “shade trees” and which I blogged again (just recently) in “All clear.” And in “Alien oddity,” “Take me to your heater,” and “Straight from the (Holy) Mothership,” I continued to collect the weird window reflections I call “alien eyes.”

Alien eyes

Like sports, shadows are often metaphoric. Whenever I write about light, I have in mind the idea that light is finite and thus can be spent. In my mind, light is always a symbol of time, time always calls to mind time’s passage, and an awareness of time’s passage always points toward impermanence. So to my way of seeing, light is like life and shadow like death, with both light and shadow reminding us to pay attention, for these pyrotechnics won’t last forever.

With all this in mind, in “Memento mori” I described the unsettling sensation of stumbling on a grave with my (sur)name on it, and in “Not the rainbow bridge,” I talked about learning to live with an aging (but not yet dying) dog. And in “Without ceasing,” I return to the theme of impermanence–illustrated with images of light and shadow–in response to a fatal MBTA trolley accident that happened not far from J’s house this past May.

The art of blogging, or the blogging of art

Crouching Spider with Bay Bridge

Lest you think street art is the only “art” I partake in these days, I did manage to blog several otherwise artsy things this past year. In “Tableau,” I described the accidental (but nevertheless artful) juxtaposition of unrelated artworks at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In “We meet again,” I had another accidental art encounter, this time with a monumental metal spider along the San Francisco waterfront. And in “I’m feeling…,” I used the occasion of an apt Photo Friday theme as an excuse to blog several encounters with Boston artist Bren Bataclan, with whose paths my own repeatedly cross.

If blogging is itself an art, then I’ve had some stuff to say about that this year, too. In “The wheres and the whys,” I explore (again!) the question of why I blog about the places I find myself. In “Just a note,” I announced the desire to return to more frequent blogging (conveniently timed for November’s National Blog Posting Month), and in “The art of inside,” I gave a status update on how that more frequent blogging was working for me. (In a word, I like to blog often if not early, at least when my schedule allows it.)

State of the nation

Obama and McCain

I seldom blog about politics per se…but inspired (I think) by this year’s historic Presidential election, I did (briefly) crawl out of my patriotic shell this past November. In “Here’s hoping,” I described the scene at my neighborhood polling place on Election Day, and in “The mornings after,” I described what it’s like (after the fact) to live in New Hampshire during a Presidential campaign. In “Passing the Bataan,” I used the occasion of Veteran’s Day to post (and of course ponder) some images from a Navy amphibious assault ship J and I had toured last summer.

And in a year when the U.S. economy has been direly hurting, its seems that frugality is finally stylish. By way of determining, then, that I am (at long last) a trend-setter, take a second look at “Economic stimulus,” “Not a thing to wear,” and “Food,” all of which insist that contentment and self-worth aren’t things you buy but attitudes you can (cheaply) cultivate.

So that is Hoarded Ordinaries past year in a nutshell: heaven knows what blog-fodder 2009 will bring.

If your mouse isn’t worn out from all the clicking, you can check out past years’ blogiversary retrospectives here (2007), here (2006), here (2005), and here (2004). Enjoy!

The Art of Inside

It’s been a week that I’ve been blogging more regularly, and so far I’m happy with the result. Even when I wasn’t blogging much over the past few months, I was writing more or less daily in my handwritten journal, but blogging is somehow different. The act of writing in front of a live audience adds an element of intentionality and accountability: I can’t just “say anything” here as I do in my scribbled journal. In my journal, I can (and do) write ad nauseum about basically the same old stuff day after day, but online, I make an attempt to say something interesting or useful. It’s the difference between dressing to go out and lounging all day in sweat pants. My scribbled journal is a comfortable place where I’m concerned only with myself, but my blog is a place where I’m mindful of various “others” (both known and anonymous) who might be watching.

Coca-Cola mural

When I compare the experience of blog-keeping vs. journal-keeping, I also like the intentionality that comes from my practice of either adding photos to blog-posts I’ve already envisioned or actively gearing my words to accompany pre-selected pictures. Regardless of which comes first, the pictures or the images, there’s an added level of thought, consideration, and care: I’m not just scribbling the absolute first thing that comes to mind. It’s as if I’m sifting through words and images to choose only the best to share, and even if the best on a given day are still only mediocre, they are better than the raw, unfiltered Whatever I scribble in my journal. Even on days when the additional craft of figuring out what to write and which pictures to post results in something that doesn’t look very planned or polished, I think the practice is good for me. It’s like playing tennis with rather than without a net, as Robert Frost once said about writing rhymed vs. un-rhymed verse. The care you take to tend to one technical detail makes you consider everything more closely.

Kristin's Bistro and Bakery

I remember how–during my college days when we wrote first drafts by hand and then typed them on typewriters–one of my undergraduate roommates, a philosophy major, used to write her first drafts in calligraphy, insisting that the slowness of the medium helped her consider every word as she drafted her carefully-reasoned arguments. Although I myself am a fan of the sloppy, shitty first draft–as my scribbled journal fully illustrates–I like the way that blogging offers a third alternative between “completely rough” and “completely polished”: a still-rough something that nevertheless is crafted enough to share with the world.

In a word, I think blogging is good for me, so I look forward to doing more of it, seeing it as an intentional practice that helps me and my writing. It’s good, I think, to have a format and forum that force me to check in with myself, as it were, to see how I’m “really” doing from one day to the next. In my teaching, I encourage my students to practice a three-step process of inquiry in their reading and research: first, notice what you see (the art of observation); next, ask questions (the art of inquiry); and third, explore potential answers to the questions you’ve posed (the art of hypothesis). What I do here in my blogging is a combination of all three, tossed with a dollop of contemplative self-reflection: the art of inside.

This is a lightly edited version of part of yesterday’s hand-scribbled journal entry: proof that blogging and journal-keeping aren’t always at opposite sides of the writing spectrum.