In an interesting review of a book by David Shields, Zadie Smith discusses definitions of the term ‘essay’ and why novelists write them. It set me thinking about the whole blogging process, and the resonances between blogging and essay writing.

Smith calls Shield’s book of essays ‘an engaging form of bricolage without obvious authorial structure … we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is “built” rather than written,, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement … Conventional structure be damned’.

Smith refers to Virginia Woolf’s contention that the essay is ‘a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking’ which nevertheless takes as much art as fiction.  She describes the choice facing writers between ‘the comforts of limit’ (as in a conventional novel) or ‘the freedom of irregularity’ promised by the essay form. David Shields’ argument is for ‘the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call “truthfulness” – over the careful creation of novelists’. For Shields it is exactly what is ‘tentative, unmade and unpolished’ in the essay that is important. This sounds remarkably like many posts I read and write.

So, why do I blog? Samuel Jahnson’s quote above rather describes my style. I would not dream of ennobling any of my posts with the term ‘essay’. But my writing is an attempt to strive to make sense (if only to myself), to try to explore ideas in a little depth for greater understanding to emerge. Apparently in the 16th century an essay was ‘the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, a rehearsal’. I think this describes my writing better than the 19th century version: ‘a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range’.

The intention when I started blogging was to compile short articles about my area of professional interest with a view to developing my thinking. The overarching theme is education, specifically dyslexia, but I frequently wander off. I interject information sharing with ruminations on the wider picture relating to learning and teaching. Occasionally I meander into the realms of holidays, my family, and personal experiences. There may come a time when I might actually organise these random thoughts into some sort of coherent form.

I plan to publish a series of posts about, say, dyslexia, with some sort of structure but then I get distracted by events. These can be everyday activities intruding on the writing process, reading a fascinating article or book that fills my mind so that I need to put it on paper to work through the ideas, or seeing a news item that I feel requires an immediate response. Thus I have evolved a scattergun approach rather than the beautifully ordered sequence of erudite discussions I had in mind when I started. As Stephen Downes writes in ‘How to be Heard’:

… all writing – even fiction writing – is to a large degree reactive. It has its origins in the prompts and stimuli that inform a person’s everyday life.

He goes on to say that:

Readers that want to be writers recognize this, and organize and cultivate these supports.

It is only recently that I have begun to participate in the wider community by commenting on a range of other blogs. I even join in discussions now with people to whom I have never been introduced. As in many areas, I have a reasonable grasp of the abstract notions surrounding the use of digital technologies but I take much longer to acquaint myself with the real world.

I have become somewhat addicted to the process of blogging and find that my mindfulness is sharpened, as Seth Godin and Tom Peters remark in this clip: