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Monday, 14 February 2011

A Year of Attempted Essays

A year ago today, I started this blog. Although it was an idea I’d been playing with for quite a while, the decision to actually do it was taken quickly. It was a Sunday afternoon, I’d just checked my mails and then, almost on a whim, went to blogger.com and had the whole thing set up in less than half an hour.

One year and eighty two posts later, this first anniversary is an opportunity to take stock. According to the counter you can see to the right, the site has had over 30,000 hits in that time; in fact, according to the statistics with which blogger.com supplies me, the number is over 36,000.

36,000 readers in a year? That would be nice! Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat more modest. Examining the statistics I have more closely, I have to admit that – entirely by accident – I’ve done a couple of things right; at least as far as the hit, and therefore the overall internet ratings (in the top quarter million sites in the world, according to Alexa) are concerned.

The first fortunate choice was the name of the blog. I called it Attempted Essays because I wanted to explore the Essay as a particular form of writing. As a form it has advantages because it is very loose, but for me it involved the aspects of dealing with a particular theme in a personal manner, coupled with a certain attention to writing, style and form. Recently I came across some reflections by Aldous Huxley on the subject and was relieved to find that he sees it much the same way as I instinctively did:

By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly as can a long novel ... Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. 

The essays I have posted here in the past year have touched all three of Huxley’s poles though – in common with him, I may add – the fewest fall into the third category, and what he calls poles are (in my case and indeed in the case of most essayists) more to be seen as tendencies rather than hard categories.

What I had forgotten on choosing the title was that the essay is also a form of writing with which millions of students have to struggle daily and that most young people nowadays have access to the internet. So, when I look at the “search key words” which blogger.com helpfully supplies as part of the statistics, I regularly find phrases like “essays about the American dream,” or “essay on early risers.” Then my heart goes out to those young sufferers who, out of ingenuity or despair, have resorted to the world wide web as a resource for homework help and can only hope that they have the intelligence and capability to rewrite what they find in their own style, for they should not forget that teachers too have computers and that most of them are just as capable of using Google as their students.

But, astonishingly, the largest number of hits are the result of another phenomenon, one with which I had not reckoned at all – people’s attraction to pictures. Three of the four most popular posts (Depression, The American Dream, and Hippies, Hair and the Baby Boomers all with thousands of hits) are nearly always clicked onto as a result of Google searches for pictures. Now, I only started to put pictures in the essays as a means of lightening things up a little and improving the presentation and very few of them are original to me; I have found them just like those thousands who find them on this blog by searching the web. This fact makes me feel something of a fraud but, on the other hand, friends have assured me that I should relax about this and see it the way one would see advertising. You put up a sign to get people to enter your shop in the first place and, for every hundred that come in, maybe five or six will actually buy something. That’s the way things work and, as my daughter commented recently, in terms of internet rankings, a hit is a hit – it doesn’t matter what the people who came to the site were actually looking for.

In fact, in terms of popularity, the site has really only started to develop in the past couple of months. The first major thing that happened was that Chris Jenkins, a virtual friend of mine (and an awesomely talented web guy), reposted something I wrote in September on reddit.com, and the result was nearly 7,000 hits in the space of a few days. That got me to thinking about my number of visitors a bit more and I started spending considerably more time surfing the blogosphere and making contact with other bloggers.
 
It has been a very fruitful experience. I freely admit that there is an awful lot of crap out there in the blogging world, but there is also a cornucopia of great talent and wonderful, creative people – many of whom I have got to know in the past year. They visit my site and often post comments, I visit theirs and do the same. You can see some of my favourites listed here on the right.

In my opening piece I promised, “I will try to stick at it, if only because, in my experience, people don’t tend to continue to visit web-sites where nothing happens for weeks on end.” This was a promise made to myself as much as anyone else – and as much a challenge as a promise. In the course of the year, I’ve found a rhythm where I try to post something new every four days or so. At times this has made this blog into something of a tyrant; a monster lurking in a corner of my life which demands regular feeding. But anything decent I have ever read about writing emphasises how important discipline is for the whole endeavour. When once asked about how he wrote, Stephen King (who has produced many millions of words in his career) answered, “one word at a time.” It’s not very productive to sit around waiting to be enticed and seduced by a Muse, the only way to write – if you feel that this is something you want to do – is to actually sit down and do it.

In the course of the past year, I estimate that I have produced around 120,000 words for this blog, about as many as are contained in an average sized novel. Of course, writing a novel is a very different kind of project and one I don’t (as yet) feel is imminent. Although the experience I have gained in the past year – particularly the experience that it is actually possible to write so much in addition to working full time and living a pretty full life with other priorities and interests – has me thinking a little more seriously in that direction.

For now, I will go on writing essays and posting them here. Because it’s, for the most part, fun. Because I still have ideas. Because I’m still driven to test my own limits, to see if I can do it better, to produce something that I think is good. There’s stuff I’ve posted here in the past year that I’m not particularly happy with, but there are some other posts which, in my own humble opinion, worked pretty well. Where I managed to produce something that I was proud of, even when I reread it later.

And, after I’ve excluded all the picture searches, all the results of internet searches which weren’t what people wanted (even excluding those genuine hits on that one post about “the other 9/11) my efforts here have been read up to ten thousand times in the past year. That is something which continually awes and humbles me. To those who visit my blog regularly I extend my sincere thanks and hope that I can continue to produce essays interesting enough to keep you coming back here. If you’re new here, welcome and why don’t you take a little time to look through the archives? Behave the way you would in a good bookshop – take a few books from the shelves and have a look inside!

There are many who claim that the joy of any kind of creative endeavour is the act of creation itself. There is a lot of truth in that, but it’s not the whole truth. The other side of it is the process of sharing it with others, in giving them pleasure, in – let’s be honest about it – winning their approval too. For in every artist who exhibits a picture, every musician who performs publicly, every writer who publishes anything, apart from the joy in the creation and the personal belief in what they have produced and their desire to communicate, there’s something more basic, more primitive; that little girl or boy jumping up and down, shouting, “Look at me, look at me!” And hoping that the world will deliver responses like, “Oh yes, aren’t you wonderful!”

I’ll finish this with another quotation from the great Aldous Huxley, also taken from the Preface to his “Collected Essays” quoted earlier:

But “please do not shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.” Doing his best, selon ses quelques doigts perclus, to make his cottage upright say as much as the great orchestra of the novel, doing his best to “give all things full play.” For the writer at least, and perhaps also for the reader, it is better to have tried and failed to achieve perfection than never to have tried at all.

P.S. It has become part of the form of what I post here to finish with a piece of music. Feel free to listen to it or not as you will; I only want to explain that I see the music as a part of the essay I’m attempting. You may sometimes have to think about the connection but, I assure you, it is there, somewhere, even if only in a line or two in the lyrics. Some readers like to switch the music on before reading the essay – a good idea, I find. I would place the YouTube video at the start of the post, but this would mean that it would always be the image featured when the essay is shared on social networks or linked on other sites and that would, in my view, misrepresent the sense of what I’m trying to do here.
I would often like to post other music versions, but there’s a major war going on in Germany between most of the big record companies and Google (as owners of YouTube) over royalties, which means that an awful lot of stuff just isn’t accessible here – at least not by conventional, approved means! And sometimes the live recordings which are available have a charm all of their own …


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