Monday, January 14, 2013

On Blogging

The other day I came across an interesting Slate piece called "Bad Memoir Writing: Rules for doing it well". I enjoyed the piece, which you can find here.

While this blog is not entirely devoted to "memoir writing", the author (Katie Roiphe) advice did highlight two points I aim to attain in my posts: Self-Critique and Honesty.
Here are her words:

1. The writer should turn her fierce critical eye on herself. (One of the great masters of this is Mary McCarthy, who was terrifying and brilliant in her critiques, even of her own pretentions and snobbisms.) It is always satisfying to read a writer who sharply and deftly attacks the hypocrisies and delusions of the world around him, but we trust that writer more completely when he also attacks himself, when he does not hold himself to a different standard, or protect himself from scrutiny. Take David Foster Wallace’s famously dazzling essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.” He obsessively, comically, gorgeously dissects everything around him on the cruise ship, but does not exempt himself from his high level satire:
All week, I’ve found myself doing everything I can to distance myself in the crew’s eyes from the bovine herd I’m part of, to somehow unimplicate myself: I eschew cameras and sunglasses and pastel Caribbean wear. … But of course all of this ostensibly unimplicating behavior on my part is itself motivated by a self-conscious and somewhat condescending concern about how I appear to others that is (this concern) 100% upscale American. Part of the overall despair of this luxury cruise is that no matter what I do I can not escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness. … I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance conscious, ashamed, despairing and greedy: the world’s only known species of bovine carnivore.

2. Personal writing should seem honest. The reader likes personal writing to feel “honest.” (This does not mean that the memoir is “honest”—who knows how the writer really felt about something that happened 20 years ago, or yesterday. It just needs to feel honest.) The reader is as adept as Holden Caulfield in detecting phoniness, fakeness, posturing, and is as allergic to them. If the reader senses the writer is lying even to himself, or using the essay as a piece of propaganda, a forwarding of his own personal mythology in too clumsy or transparent a way, she will react against it. (This can cause readers to react against the personal writing of even very intelligent and stylish writers like Jonathan Franzen, who will include great scenes of penetrating self-deprecation but seems to be doing so in such a self-conscious writerly way that he may in fact be celebrating himself by way of self-deprecation.)

I think her motives are different from mine, though. She emphasizes that both of these are necessary in order to earn the reader's trust. That's true, but for me it's more because these are critical for teaching. I find it easier to convey an ideal by describing my own shortcoming, than by highlighting the way others fall short. And I would propose that honest teaching will go farther than dishonest teaching, of course...


  1. If insight was a common psychological trait, the blogosphere would be 95% smaller.

  2. One lowlight of my secular studies was having to read the autobiography, Confessions of St. Augustine. The quick version of this book is, "I used to be a total jerk, but now I'm wonderful".

  3. Garnel-
    I don't think it's quite that bad... But being someone who will write about your own life may be a trait that selects against insight.

    Anonymous 12:08 PM-
    Should have written "spoiler" there...