How Autobiographical?

Awhile back, I started out a fitness update with a passing reference to an encouraging sibling of mine who once told me “no one cares” about my swimming, cycling, and running.

That begs a larger question. What type of writing do readers, blog readers more specifically, find most interesting?

I’m not entirely sure, but I have some hypotheses. Think of the blogosphere in terms of a continuum with writers either off the stage altogether, on the stage’s edge, or center stage. Put differently, there are blogs focused almost exclusively on impersonal specialized content of some sort; other blogs that focus on the sometimes personal application of relatively impersonal specialized content, and blogs whose content is in essence the personal details of the author’s life.

I don’t read a lot of blogs, but here are a few that I do that represent fairly well the different points on the continuum. Each is wildly successfully at least measured by readership. Also interesting, Cowen and Trunk self identify as having Aspergers.

Example one, Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen, an economist. Written primarily for other economists, the content is sometimes a reach for me, which is nice. Cowen is scarily prolific posting several times a day. The main thing to note about his blog is he’s mostly off-stage. Sure he’ll ask for restaurant suggestions for where ever he’s traveling next, and he’ll summarize what he’s reading every few weeks (also scary, seemingly a book a day), but don’t look for him to write about whether he’s getting along with his wife or daughter or his non-academic interests.

Example two, DC Rainmaker by Ray Maker, a triathlete. I highlighted Ray’s blog recently. Written primarily for other triathletes, the content tends towards the science of triathlon training. His reviews of triathlon related electronics are the clearest, most detailed, and intelligently written up on the internet. He’s also an outstanding photog who sprinkles twenty or so pics in his three or four posts a week. Ray is my “stage’s edge” example. Two-thirds of the time he focuses in on all things triathlon. The other third, you learn about his worldwide travels (I’m guessing he does IT for the State Department), his fascination with sharks, his love of cooking and food, and “The Girl” who he was recently engaged to.

Example three, Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist. Penelope is the undisputed “center stage” champion. She’s successful I suspect for the same reasons the authors my writing students and I are reading—Esme Cadell, Sherman Alexie, and Frank McCourt—are: 1) She understands that not every moment in every day and not every day in every week is equally interesting. She’s skilled at teasing out from the details of her life “critical incidents” that encapsulate the most interesting elements of her life that also resonate with other people. 2) When describing and exploring the meaning of the critical incidents of her life she grabs readers by the collar by providing intimate details even when they are not flattering. Scratch that, especially when they’re not flattering. And there-in lies the third reason. 3) She doesn’t self-censure herself, instead she opts for authenticity, transparency, the unvarnished truth, pick your phrase(s). In the same literary vein, Tina Fey’s or Liz Lemon’s self-deprecation on “30 Rock” is pure genius.

So in essence, my sib didn’t go far enough. If I self-censure myself and churn out safe, vague, self-conscious descriptions of the personal aspects of my life no one will care for any parts of my personal life story let alone the swimming, cycling, and running chapters of it.

And in all honesty, three years in and I still haven’t figured out yet how to follow Trunk’s, Cadell’s, Alexie’s, and McCourt’s examples in this format. For example, I’ve consciously chosen not to write about the most personally significant thing that has happened to me this year. I’m not quitting though and I suppose this post is another step in the process of figuring where I want to sit on the continuum and exactly what type of blogger I want to be.

One thought on “How Autobiographical?

  1. Brother Ron:

    Certainly not prying but if the most personally significant thing which happened to you this year was attaining tenure as a full professor I am terribly proud of and happy for you.

    Hope it was!

    Don

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