Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Conversation

Blogging is a new, strange experience for me, and not one that I'm fully comfortable with. I love to write, and long-form discussions come naturally to me. Those who know me well are aware I pass through short-term obsessions where I learn everything I can about a selected topic and go on and on about every fascinating aspect of it. Writing blog posts is the perfect outlet for that. I can sit down for a few hours and empty out my mind without talking anyone's ear off. That part comes naturally to me. But putting it up on the internet and telling people to read it is not my idea of a good time.

There's a certain weight placed on anything published, even if it's just put up on a free-to-use blogging website. If something's in print it takes on a different voice - for better or for worse - and I don't enjoy it much. It's too much pressure. When you're talking with your friends about your thoughts on life it's just a causal conversation. But put it in a blog and suddenly it's “Oh,look at you with all your big opinions.”

So why do I do it? To challenge myself. You can never grow unless you try new things, specifically those that frighten you. And I do it for practice. I see myself as a writer. I doubt I'd ever be good enough to do it professionally, but it's a skill I have and like any skill it can only be developed through practice. When I put it up for others to see it holds me accountable for quality. I'm aware exactly how cynical and nit-picky I am when reading what others write, so I know if others are reading what I write I can't half-ass it.

But the real reason I do it is to be part of the conversation. I am fascinated by media and politics and the clash of ideas that make up our culture. It's why I'm a news junkie. It's why I love opinion pieces.
I've spent a lot of time reading the ideas and opinions of others, keeping track of the twists and turns of public opinion, but I was never part of it until I started blogging. Now my small, quiet voice is part of the discussion. In my small way I am having an impact on things. I am participating, not just observing. And it's not just politics – in fact I rarely write about politics. I prefer writing about the arts and my progress in life. But whatever topic I choose to cover I am impacting the culture by putting my ideas out there to float around in the mix.

There is so much power in the way things are defined. One of my favorite examples is the 2009 health care debate in America. If you polled people on their support of “universal health care” it scored significantly higher than polls asking about “government takeover of health care.” Two names for the same policy, completely different reactions. Of course, I'm less interested in short, convenient labels than I am in the exchange of actual ideas. But it demonstrates how we are all battling for the way things are understood and defined.

This is why I love participating in political opinion polls. I was first called for one around the 2010 election and couldn't have been more excited. The constant state of campaigning and elections in Wisconsin right now has given me even more opportunities to answer these multiple choice questions about my political views. Because that is the real way to get your voice heard. Voting is the most important thing, but there are major limitations. There's no place on the ballot for “I don't think this guy can fix any of our problems but I trust him more than the other one.” There is simply yes or no. In a survey you can share your more nuanced stances. And despite what they'll tell you, these things effect the decisions politicians make. And they effect what gets discussed in the media and therefore among the public. It doesn't have the clear yes-or-no distinction of election results. Your ideas become part of the shifting, nebulous mass of public opinion and policy. The dirty process of democracy.

I believe in the popular modern philosophy that there are very few absolute truths. There are my ideas and there are your ideas and they are both right and they are both wrong. And when I hear your ideas they change mine, and when you hear mine they change yours. And the conversation is a journey to understand more and more, and move closer and closer to a truth that we will never actually reach. But if you talk and if you listen you will move yourself closer.

My goal as a writer is never to lecture to a captive audience. I don't mean my essays as definitive statements on the way things are. I consider myself most successful when an idea I muse about is filtered through the experiences of a reader and then comes back to me as a new idea. I realize that sounds like the kind of pretentious, convoluted and ultimately meaningless description you'd read in an avant garde literary zine, so I'll give some examples to try and clarify what I mean. I started this whole blogging experiment with a two-part exploration on independence and dependence. This was inspired by and centered around my experience working with people with disabilities. But upon reading it my able-bodied friend told me he reached some very important conclusions about his own life and his dependence on others. That hadn't been my intention, but the conclusions he reached were there in what I wrote. I laid out the dots, he connected them, and we both learned new things that we couldn't have individually.

My most recent and most successful post was about my idea that a major part of human behavior comes from the need to be understood. It spurred a few interesting dialogues. I had been serving as an apologist for young folks, explaining that their actions are a lot less selfish than older generations would assume. This got one of my friends, a choir teacher, to start a conversation about how difficult it is to teach something as long-term and patience-based as music to children who live in the instant. Another friend explained that, despite my stance suggesting it's not the main motivation of our generation, she indeed does want to be famous. And in discussing it I had to admit that I too have a secret desire for notoriety; it's another factor in why I write. Both of these conversations were branches off my original point, things I mentioned as minor details to get my point across in my essay. But seeing these connections made is what gets me to keep posting my writing for public scrutiny, despite the accompanying anxiety.

Let's be clear here. My blog is not going to change the world. I'm lucky if I get 30 views on a post. I've had this thing for four months and it has been viewed less than 700 times, which I think includes times I've signed in to edit things. But we can't ever really know what our full impact is. Everything we take in changes us, and everything we put out changes others. I know I inspired one of my friends to start writing himself, and that's pretty cool. And I think of all the fantastic articles I've read without ever giving notification to the author how their writing changed me. Maybe I've had that same impact on others. Maybe not. It's not important. It doesn't matter if I receive recognition or gratification for what I do. All that matters is that I am participating.

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