On the Short Essay

Though lapsed from the the craft twenty years now, I am a writer by education and trade.  The last substantial writing I did was a monthly column for a now-defunct technical magazine, a few hundred words on whatever topic happened to be stirring me (or whatever I could summon up on deadline).  One of my favorite comic strips years ago talked about the writer’s craft involving “staring at a blank sheet of paper until beads of blood start to form on your forehead.”  Writing is like that.  

Video, computers, and the Internet now deliver so many saturated media experiences that reading was pronounced dead years ago, and the assumption is that writing predeceased it by some time.  The common joke now is about the illiteracy of kids who have to squeeze their thoughts into 120 characters and numbers typed on a keyboard the size of a baseball card.  How can writing survive, much less thrive?

I’m sorry to say that blogs are the answer.  I hate blogs.  First, anything invented by Dave Winer is clearly an exercise in broadcast narcissism.  Second, it’s hard to achieve both a frequency of update (to make it a habit) and compelling content (to make it worth it).  Rapid-fire blogs devolve into simple Internet meme aggregators, and sites with good content aren’t updated frequently enough for me to make a habit visiting them.  I read several of the larger, better-funded political and tech blogs, but I rarely read one-person opinion blogs, and have resisted writing one for years.

But I’ve changed my mind.  And what changed it is the realization that the blog has revived what had become almost a lost art: the short discursive nonfiction essay.  For a blog, a paragraph isn’t enough and two pages is way too much.  Several hundred words is about the right length for a blog entry.  It’s really tough to squeeze a big idea into 400 words; it’s also tough to stretch a little one that far.  But I’ve been finding lately that I have things I want to say to my friends and ideas I want to get straight in my head that don’t fit in a dinner-table conversation or a Twitter post.  They’re short essays.  They’re blog entries.

Looking around, the better bloggers have mastered the short-essay form.  Heather Armstrong (dooce) in fact published a book entirely composed of longish blog entries.  The Internet isn’t breeding a crop of novelists, but it is creating, and consuming, more short essays than have ever been written in the history of the language, millions a day.  And that’s fundamentally good for literacy.

So I’m writing again.  I’ll use this blog to write on current events, politics, technology, and trends.  My day job prevents me from talking too much about my line of work; my desire to protect the privacy of my family means I won’t be telling delightful but embarrassing stories about them.  For now I’ll stick to the fair game of the political, business, and technical worlds, with a smattering of cultural and sports commentary.  You know, like, a blog.



3 responses to “On the Short Essay

  1. Welcome to the wide wacky world of the blogosphere!

  2. I’ve read all of your blog entries so far and every one of them is a gem. Please keep writing them.

  3. Thumbs up, wrists together, elbows together, chest out, bum out, feet crossed, head back, tongue out… but we called it “aristasha.” Where did you learn it? I learned it in mid 1990s in Texas at YRUU events. http://www.uua.org/yruu

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