So, Todd’s taking a…

So, Todd's taking a break from journalling for a while. I'm a little sad, but not surprised. He's been sounding more and more frustrated in his journal for a while now, and that's often a sign that a journal is about to go on hiatus -- sometimes to be resurrected when the underlying problem is fixed...sometimes not. I think it's probably the right decision for him, and it made me think a little about the functions of an online journal in a writer's life.

Journal as writing practice. I think for me, the journal does serve this purpose. It gets me writing almost every day. Over time, I think doing the journal has made it much easier for me to get over the little wall that appears every time I think about starting a piece of writing (whether it's fiction or poetry or an essay or a book review). The wall still shows up, pretty much every time I sit down to write. But my brain now really knows that if I only start, it'll happen after that -- the words will flow onto the page. And having an audience waiting to read the journal (even if there are only six of you), is far more of a motivator for me than writing to myself. So it works a lot better for me in that regard that some injunction to 'write a thousand words a day' would. At this point, I'm not sure I need the journal for that anymore -- but it still helps, a little. I'm guessing that Todd doesn't feel that this aspect is a significant help to him. Fair enough.

Journal as community. Writing is an intensely solitary business. If you're at all the stressed, insecure type, it can really help feeling part of a writing/reading community. Being all alone can block your writing. I get a tremendous amount of value from writing to you and having you write back (even if I write terribly brief responses to your individual e-mails). I imagine journals serve a community function for most journallers; I also think many writers are especially in need of that function. But again, even if Todd found value in that (and I'm sure he did), it wasn't sufficient value to outweigh some of the negatives of journalling. More on those in a bit.

Journal as personal revelation. I actually think this is the most valuable part of the journal to me, and perhaps to you, and I suspect to Todd's readers (both of his journal, and of the old-style mouthorgan). We are hungry to know each other and to be known. I am delighted when I start to get a real sense of someone else -- whether it's a character in a book that I fall in love with, or a journaller who rather repulses but also fascinates me, etc. and so on. As a journaller, I can reveal myself to you -- sometimes in very small doses. Telling you about the minutiae of my day does in fact give you some sense of who I am (someone who prefers sitting in cafes or staying up late having pseudo-intellectual conversations to jumping around a tennis court or lifting weights in a gym, for example). And perhaps more importantly, there's an odd dynamic that occurs in which telling you the minutiae day by day, getting back little e-mails from you guys advising me on this or that, building something of a relationship -- that creates a space in which I can occasionally say something really revelatory. Something I might have trouble saying to friends in person. It's a medium that offers the opportunity for a particular type of speech, and one that I really value.

As a writer, I tell certain big truths about myself in my fiction -- I can't help that, if I'm honest in my work. But other things stay hidden, and I tell some of them here. I think Todd does understand this dynamic, this relationship. I think deep down he understands why people had a great fondness for the old mouthorgan, the one in which he pontificated on this subject or that, occasionally with a charming interjection by Debby. We weren't reading it to be enlightened -- we could just scan the news for that. I'm not a newspaper reader at all -- I read the old mouthorgan for the personality that came with the sex news. It was sometimes funny, sometimes acerbic, often insightful, sometimes quite blinded by preconceptions...but always willing to engage in debate, to question and consider and think hard. It was idealistic and charming. And if I keep reading mouthorgan now, I do so for the little bits of Todd that slip through still, even in this weblog format. I may be the only reader that does so -- but I doubt it.

It's not about the quality of the writing, you see. Sometimes I try to craft some pretty prose here, but mostly I don't worry about it. That's not what this journal is for. I don't think there are any journals that I read solely for the prose style -- even when I read Pamie, it wasn't just that she could tell a funny story. It's that she could tell a funny story *and* she revealed herself to her readers; she was honest and open about some things that are sometimes hard to be honest and open about. That's what I really think is the heart of online journalling; it's what I value, at any rate. A fine prose style just helps carry you along -- it's not the important part.

And I think the real problem with Todd and journalling is that he wants people to value him for his fiction writing -- and until that happens, he's only going to be disgruntled if we value him for other things. That's fair enough -- it's an artistic choice, to decide what part of your work you want to concentrate on (and have others concentrate on). Sometimes you need to step back from one part and really work hard on another. But I hope he realizes that even if he ends up writing very good fiction (and as an editor who has looked at his work, I do think he has the potential for that, though I don't think he's pushed it nearly as far as he can yet), that doesn't mean that the kind of writing he does in the journal and mouthorgan aren't worthwhile in their own right.

They're a form of non-fiction writing, like essay-writing, and that is a remarkably difficult field in many ways. It's not so much in fashion these days; the personal essay doesn't sell the way fiction does. And even when it does sell -- in the pages of Harper's, or the New Yorker, for example -- it does so in a much more tightly crafted form than Todd has created in the journal or mouthorgan. I think he could go farther with nonfiction writing too, but what I devoutly hope he realizes is that he does in fact have a gift for nonfiction writing that reaches out and touches his readers; that moves them, even as he informs and entertains. If he wants to set that aside for a while to work on his fiction, that's fine. But I hope he is not undervaluing it; I meet far more good fiction writers than I do good nonfiction writers, these days. It's a rare gift.

So is he right to stop the journal? For a while, maybe. Journals can suck up writing energy. They can keep you trapped in negative thought loops, where you write about the same thing over and over again. They have, in a sense, a very narrow focus -- the journal is, one way or another, about you. Fiction has a much broader palette, in some ways. More importantly, until Todd gets some real validation for his fiction -- and in his mind, that means sales, means people actually paying him money for it (I may think that's a slightly silly definition, but hey, we all have some silly definitions engraved into our skulls) -- until that validation happens, he's going to feel every word of praise for the journal (probably including the ones above) as a little drop of acid eating into his writerly heart.

So go, Todd. Go and write and edit and send things out, dammit, and publish and be paid. And when you're finally feeling satisfied with that, come back to us and tell us how it's been. We'll miss you.

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