Lessons Learnt

Friday, 14 December 2012

The last post I wrote was one of my favourite posts on my blog this year. As was my birthday post. They are my favourites because of the enjoyment I had from the act of writing them. Yet, they were definitely not my most popular ones. I actually checked my stats properly yesterday in preparation for this post – doing research on my own blog, ha! My most popular posts tend to be ones that have pretty pictures that are re-blogged on tumblr or Pinterest, without the context of the words I wrote to engage with the images. This is a rare exception, which surprised the hell out of me. You’ve heard me talk about this before, I won’t repeat myself. The unspoken message is clear though: my blog is a useful repository for images for many, and that’s all. Not to mention the steady emails I get, along the lines of: ‘I only visit your blog for the images, I don’t really read anything’. If you think I’m kidding, I’m not.

I also get emails from writers seeking advice about how to build a blog. If you think I have simple answers for you, or that I’m ‘successful’, you are deeply deluded my friends. I also sometimes get the feeling people want me to give them a falsely optimistic notion that they can realistically build a wildly popular writing blog, similar to the many Design, Fashion, Home and Lifestyle blogs followed by many. With the current blogging trends, I don’t see this happening. Popularity is built on image – quite literally. Writing blogs are considered more ‘niche’ or ‘literary’; with ‘literary’ apparently being the kiss of death for blogs, as I was told. I know I’m speaking in generalisations here and there are obviously exceptions.

Throughout this year, there has been a growing disconnect between the writing and freelance work that I do ‘behind the scenes’, and the way I see myself fitting into the developing blogging culture – or rather, not fitting in. My work with editors and various publications has been growing. I published a book this year! I tend to stupidly ignore that achievement as if it didn’t occur, or doesn’t mean anything. This growth is occurring against a backdrop of my increasing alienation from dominant blogging trends and the dominant blogging culture.

I guess I’m writing this both for myself and in response to people who have asked for my honest opinions. Too many of these conversations about blogging occur in private, and I really have to wonder what the hell we’re so scared of in discussing this in public. There are far more scary and important things in life to be wary of! The good things about blogging as a writer for me have been meeting fellow writers, having an outlet to write that is a little wider than my private notebooks or my group of editors/writer friends, and having my blog as a constantly updated ‘portfolio’. That’s all been really great. Editors have reached out to me because of this blog, and I’ve been able to figure out what I can do. I hope I’m improving as a writer as a result.

But if you’re looking for popularity, an income, mass audiences, stop right now. You will hit a glass ceiling. My thoughts about how little writing is valued in the indie blogging community haven’t changed since I wrote this post with Jane. I’m saying this with full knowledge that the internet is a big place with outlets for everyone. But if your aim as a writer is to replicate the blogging model of career fashion, lifestyle and design bloggers, I think that’s unrealistic. Their mass ‘success’ is dependent upon a vastly different system of creating content than that of writers. If my own motivation to blog was based on gaining their kind of popularity and mass readership, I would have closed down my blog a long time ago.

Another lesson learnt: there really isn’t a big, all-encompassing blogging ‘community’ as such, or a willingness to engage with critical thought on the whole. The ‘inclusivity’ is quite selective, and there is a general reluctance to engage with ethical concerns in blogging practices that don’t directly affect a blogger’s income or popularity/readership/traffic. This is a mirror to life I suppose. I have met some wonderful people through blogging. They are my friends, and I say that honestly. But the idea of an all-embracing indie community that welcomes diversity and difference and offers an alternative to mainstream media trends has been debunked for me throughout this year. From an objective and research-mode perspective, I’ve noticed that the blogs that are wildly popular and receive attention from the mass media and readers (resulting in the kind of popularity many bloggers crave) replicate the mainstream media, allowing the status quo to flourish. And bloggers themselves often replicate one another (intentionally or unintentionally), blogging about the same people and things, in the same style. Once again, I know I’m speaking in generalisations here, there are of course exceptions.

I like blogging. I’ll continue to do it until I don’t like it anymore. I’ll continue to be motivated by the act of writing, being better, and writing posts on feminism and other important subjects. But my focus has shifted this year. I’m no longer looking to a large (and perhaps non-existent) blogging community, but to a handful of blogs, friends and writers I admire and respect. I once quoted this advice from Zadie Smith on one of my blog posts, saying that perhaps we should extend it. But I now agree with her completely, with no annotations: “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.” And this is also true: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” I’ve told the truth as I see it; others may agree, or disagree. The only way I can summarise my own feelings about blogging at the moment is by saying that if a blog helps you practice and test your craft as a writer, it’s a worthy enterprise. Everything else is background noise.


Jane Flanagan said...

You're the best. And this post (wild generalizations included) is so spot on.

It can be very tough for me to maintain the state of mind you describe here (that sense of doing it just because I enjoy it, which I do, and because it helps hone my craft, which it does) without becoming indignant about the swirl of superficiality.

But I'm not just indignant for myself, but for people I admire and respect too. You're right -- having a book published is a MAJOR, MASSIVE, EPIC achievement. It represents so much hard work. And yet the blog community would fawn over you way more for a DIY on a magazine site, or an Instagram photoshoot of a wedding.

And I know your approach is right; to buckle down and do it alone and forget the cliques. But I'd be lying if I said I don't struggle with this. But I've also been happier when I take this approach (and lonelier when I look outwards for a sense of belonging or support).

But, to end this incoherent comment on a happy note, I am simply so grateful for you and your blog.

Hila said...

Jane: I become indignant too. I think that's natural. But hopefully, I don't wallow in that feeling too long! It's not productive, or particularly healthy to me. I've been trying to examine this issue objectively, and honestly see what kind of 'advice' I can piece together for people who have genuinely asked for some. I don't believe in false, happy shiny advice. Especially since there's so much bullshit online about 'authenticity', when I rarely see it being practiced. I'm most definitely not perfect. But I feel I've told the truth here.

Also, this: "You're right -- having a book published is a MAJOR, MASSIVE, EPIC achievement. It represents so much hard work. And yet the blog community would fawn over you way more for a DIY on a magazine site, or an Instagram photoshoot of a wedding." Yes, and I'm annoyed with myself for downplaying something I worked very hard for, simply because it doesn't fit with popular trends. I should know better by now.

I'm much happier as well when I buckle down and ignore the bullshit. But I struggle with this as well.

I'm grateful for you and your blog too! I say that in a completely non-ass-kissing way.

suzie said...

Hila, you should rightly be so very proud of being published. Blog popularity in itself means nothing at all. (For me, when you called out on Joanna Goddard, you gave me concrete proof that the blogging world can be as ridiculous as popularity at school.) I admire you very much for avoiding the pitfalls of seeking out a clique.
I love the Zadie Smith quote…I fall in and out of love with blogging constantly, but I now realise I have a need to do it, to express myself and share my thoughts and work.
Over the 3½ years I've blogged, I have completely changed my readership. Those with me at the start have long gone and I see shifts in the types of followers/commentators I have had over that time. I think it's because I have no clear niche, and my blog content fluctuates wildly!

wingeddeer said...

I too am grateful for your blog. And although I don't consider myself a blogger (my blog is mostly an extension of my music website, I'm not very active on it and not very many people read it, which is perfectly ok with me)- your post echoed some of the same dichotomy I am faced with at times- popularity on the web vs personal and artistic achievements in 'real life'. I have to say I'm pretty pleased with the latter group this year in my case, so it makes the first one lose its urgency, importance...thank you for the Zadie Smith quote/link and YES major congrats again on being published!

hannah debbie said...

bloggers are so cliquey. It took me a while to realize, but now I just blog because I feel the need to write.

also, for what it's worth, I really enjoyed your post about Brazil.

Megan said...

Thanks for writing this post. I've been fussing over how to start my blog and make it as readable as many of the blogs I enjoy reading... which are a lot of crafting/sewing blogs, lifestyle... things which are conducive to images.

I come to a deadend when I realize that I'm a musician who likes to write. People don't seem to have time to read writing or even take the time to listen to a song or piece. It's not instant gratification. I love pretty pictures and pinterest, but sometimes I wonder if it's overload. I wonder if it dampens my own creativity. Too many beautiful inspiring things per day? Is that possible?!

Anyway, I do enjoy reading all your posts. Thank you for your thoughts on blogging and the blogging world. You should be proud of your book and being published, & it seems a testament to the weird-ness of blogging and the internet that to you those achievements sometime pale in comparison to your blog and its success.

erin said...

Well. I just wrote a very long ramble, but have decided it is perhaps mostly fitting to offer hearty congratulations on your book and a thank you for your candor. How true that all of this is so little discussed. How refreshing to read your thoughts here.

Sera said...

I definitely come here for your word-smithing as much, if not more that the pictures!! Jane and you are two of my favourite blogs to read, because you always give me something to think about and mull over. I think, maybe because I'm not a blogger, I don't have to grapple with this issue of internet popularity vs real world achievements (GO YOU for having a book published!! and for making such a beautiful online space for your Mum's shop, and, and and!!). I for one, am just super glad that blogs like yours exist - a quiet place on the internet where I can go to think, and not be bombarded by the noise that is images. Thank you!


p.s. I also really enjoyed the beautiful connections you made in that post about Brasil and your family and the sea. The way that everything came together, I felt like I was listening to the sea, somehow.

Libby said...

I always enjoy your posts, but (as with so much, which I really regret) I am often too lazy or busy to comment.
I'm part of a funny little blogging community, teenaged girls who are grappling with big issues (faith! love! future!) whilst still writing about little things, like cups of tea and favourite books. I have become close with several of these girls, exchanging our drafts of stories and sharing advice about building a photography portfolio. There are talented photographers, artists and writers in our group, and every day we get better at supporting one another and overcome any initial jealousy. And it is hard to explain how much I want these girls to keep on blogging, because I think it's a community that is unique to us. No one is making money off their blog. We're just doing it to learn and practice and grow -- as poets, painters, and people.
And goodness knows there are issues within our 'community', but we are recognising them and discussing them.
And that may have been all a bit rambling for you, but basically: I like the blogging community I am part of, and I want to keep it strong. It isn't competitive -- it's caring. It's not flawless, but it is a good community.
And we write. Most of us feel a little bit alienated (all teenagers do though, don't they, for everything they do?) for writing and caring about books and learning poem structures. But I think as long as we keep up a community of young writers online, we will keep literary blogs going. The popularity of them may dip at times, but I don't believe we're losing them completely. I refuse to believe that.
(also, contrary to popular belief, I actually find tumblr the best place to find talented writers. There's a lot of poetry there, which definitely has quite a style to it (I love punch-in-the-face-poetry and anna peters) but also strong political debate and good shorter pieces.)
And I don't know how much of that truly related to your post, but it got me thinking, so thank you for that!

sarah said...

Thank you for writing yet another thought provoking post.

I read numerous blogs but yours is the only one that elevates itself above the usual empty search for the beautiful and photogenic.

Congratulations on your book, I too completed something this year that I am proud of-my first degree this year at the age of 38 with the Open University.

What I become disillusioned most with blogs is that if you scratch the surface they are nothing more than an alternative selling tool for either themselves or their artistic community. I also have this nagging feeling that it would seem that if you aren't crafting, making, selling or have some so called fabulous sense of style then you aren't as interesting person, that your life isnt worth a mention. Maybe I am just reading the wrong blogs!

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

I'm nobody, just an amateur reader who isn't interested in streams of images. And I don't currently have the brain power to read more than reviews, and blogs. Still, for what it's worth: You're blog is just terrific. I hope you end up with a great professor job. Or that you somehow have work that generates security to enable you to write what you will, and perhaps work with young people.

√Čireann said...

Amen! Especially to the nonexistence, in great part, of a culture of openness, thought, and critique. You say so much I've been thinking about.

Chuck said...

It doesn't bother me that writing blogs aren't super popular - I'm not sure it is realistic to think they could be. They aren't quick or easy or consumable and that is what the internet thrives on. It makes me sad that there isn't a more supportive community for those kind of blogs though... Oh well, I agree that you have to blog for yourself, whether it is as a scrapbook or a practice space, if you start letting other people define your blog it sucks the pleasure right out of it. x

Hila said...

Suzie: Oh yes, I've felt I've been watching a game of high school too lately. But we're talking about grown people here. It still astounds me that Joanna Goddard has such a loyal following, but to be brutally honest, if you look at the people who tend to comment on her blog, they are generally vying for attention - and ethics rarely come into their mind. This is so sad for me, because I'm still pretty much an idealist at heart. I have been blogging for almost 5 years now, and I've also seen change - in myself and my readership. I think I've debunked a few myths to myself as well, and in the process, defined what I find acceptable, and what I do not.

wingeddeer: This dichotomy has been growing for me too. And the more my writing develops in 'real life', the more I realise how ridiculous these blogging popularity games are. I am grateful to have access to this blogging space though, I'm just more aware now of how I use it. And my pleasure about the Zadie Smith link, I think her advice is spot on.

Hila said...

hannah debbie: That's worth a lot to me, thanks.

Megan: I went through a period like this too, in the 'early days' of my blog. But it quickly faded. I can't pretend to be something I'm not. "it seems a testament to the weird-ness of blogging and the internet that to you those achievements sometime pale in comparison to your blog and its success": well, they don't really pale in comparison to me - I'm fully aware of the hard work I put into my book, for example, and how hard it is to get published by a reputable press. I think though, I've been putting my energy into useless avenues, when I should have been focusing on others. My friends have jokingly said to me though that if I released a pretty design book, the blogging world would have been more impressed :)

Erin: Thank you!

Sera: That means a lot to me, really. So thanks. I find it hard to describe the sense of pure pleasure I get from writing posts such as 'In Brazil'. And when you finish writing something that makes you feel that good, you want to share that feeling. It can sometimes feel lonely to hear silence back, but at the same time, I don't write these pieces for an audience. And yep, there are very few bloggers like Jane out there, I think she's a gem.

Hila said...

Libby: The camaraderie you're describing here is something I've experienced too. I guess what I meant by a 'blogging community' here is the idea of a large, all-embracing community, as is often posited by so-called 'alternative' companies such as etsy. In many respects, large blogs are aligning themselves with this idea of being an 'alternative community'. But they often fail to see how they're replicating exactly the same unethical behaviour that we happily criticise in 'mainstream' business/media. In some cases, it's even worse, as mainstream media for example have certain ethical rules that they have to follow, whereas bloggers often get away with some incredibly unethical stuff based on their popularity alone. When all this attention-seeking and unethical behaviour gets sold to me as a 'community', I have to roll my eyes at the hypocrisy of it all.

BUT, I do realise there is a vast difference between that, and the smaller friendships formed by individual bloggers. I think it's wonderul that you've found a group of people you can relate to, and who support you. That's the good side of blogging. I know that like you I've 'met' some smart and incredible people myself through blogging. Which is all to say, keep writing, and thinking, and supporting each other.

Sarah: Congratulations on your degree! That's certainly something to be immensely proud of!! I think you give me too much credit though, because there are other blogs that raise themselves above the superficiality games. While I too have been disappointed at finding the lack of substance when I scratch behind the surface of many blogs, I still think there are many quality blogs out there. It's a shame they're not more well-known.

Hila said...

Anonymous: This is the kindest anonymous comment I've ever received, thank you. Thanks for the encouragement, it's gratefully received. Getting to work with young people would be great (even if I am technically still in that group myself).

√Čireann: It really bothers me, the lack of transparency, and the lack of critique and thought. I'm glad this resonates with you.

Chuck: "It makes me sad that there isn't a more supportive community for those kind of blogs though": yes, it makes me sad too. Which is why I felt this post had to be realistic. I'm not going to offer a fantasy to people when they ask for my opinions.

heleen said...

I have somewhat disappeared from the whole sphere of blogging, in both the active sense as on a more distant level (reading and looking at blogs), but yours is one of the few I still check regularly. The reason for this are not the pictures or the shorter, more frivolous, articles. It's your writing and its thought-provoking quality. I appreciate your blog not for its aesthetics, but for the intelligence behind it. It's indeed a rarity amongst the more popular blogs circulating today. So thank you for that, and for staying true to yourself.

Hila said...

heleen: You've certainly stuck around with me longer than most! I think you followed me from the beginning? Oh gosh, my memory can't stretch back that far! I do miss your own blog, but understand your need to step away. Thank you for this comment. It's really nice to receive this kindness.

Sally said...

Oh I feel you. It's going to be a life-long process for me to learn to do things because they feel right, not for approval. I feel this own shift in myself recently, and that translates to visiting blogs less and blogging infrequently. Of course, it still hurts a little to see no comments on my writing posts or to find that all of my hits are from Google Images...but again, trying to do what's best for me.

Fiona M said...

This past week or so I've really not been wanting to connect with the internet-world and those blogs, bloggers etc who 'live' within it. I came here and read your posts, but just didn't have words for a response. Now, a few days later I've come back, wanting to participate in the discussion you create, and interact with you. This isn't something that's induced by many blogs where the aim is to obtain as many followers/comments/clicks as possible before moving onto the next post.

My own pretty shoddy blogging attempts have only developed (if they've developed at all) by cutting out an ever-increasing amount of the blog-world-noise.

Niina said...


I feel too that images are at this point in time rule the world. And somehow pictures don´t seem -despite the media criticism- need any explanations.

Your blog is my favourite because of the writing. And because almost all content is original. I love that you have your own venue, no editors or media segments to please. Blogs at their best work as channel for individual voice. And I wish you would not get bored with this scene any time soon ;-)

laura // BOOKM▲▲RKS said...

as someone whose blog is full of images rather than words (heck i'm not a writer and not trying to be one, even though i wish i could write a bit better), i fully appreciate and adore you for being yourself and not afraid to speak up your mind and heart on your blog!

Amy said...

Hila, your blog is my favorite, though sometimes when I get busy I have to put off reading your posts because your words deserve time to be considered and digested. It is true that there are many pretty blogs with mostly pictures - and those are usually what I turn to at the end of a busy day, but I save up your posts like special treats to revive my mind after all the hurry and the mush that it encounters daily. Thank you for writing!

vegetablej said...

The one thing I absolutely love about blogging, as I said before, is that you get to control your own voice and make it available to others without passing through any censorship. As a woman that's so rare.

I see you as being very successful because you are stimulating discussion on feminist issues, which are very under-served, getting lots of responses from women and building community with them. That's so valuable.

Thank you.

Hila said...

Sally: of course it hurts, because we're human, and all of us have an ego :) It's how much we pander to that ego that counts. I just find it too exhausting and pointless to care about people who don't care for me, and to care about things I don't respect or like at all. Approval is only a short-term 'feel good' thing - self-recognition is far more meaningful and long-lasting. I try to remind myself of that when I get cranky or indignant!

Fiona: There is something sort of desperate and even sad about blogs whose main focus is to gain traffic, followers, etc. Not to sound ridiculous, but I honestly find it stressful to visit such blogs. So I've stopped.

Niina: Thanks, I really appreciate that :) I'm not bored just yet!

Laura: Thank you Laura! I absolutely have nothing against image-dominated blogs. Some of them are quite stunning and I would love to be able to create such images myself. But my craft is writing, and I wish the same respect/adoration was shown to words. I know you get that :)

Amy: Thank you for reading! Your comment warmed my cranky, writerly heart.

vegetablej: You're right, it is quite rare for women. Which is why I feel I have a responsibility to contribute to feminist discussions here, uncensored. This is also one of the reasons why I'm not tempted to close down my blog just yet, despite all the disillusionment I feel about the dominant blogging culture.

I'm Jen said...

Oh I got a real buzz after reading this post. The Zadie Smith quote is so timely - it makes me laugh (sometimes out loud) to see popular bloggers (I'm talking the blogs that are specifically set up to make a dollar under the pretense of 'helping people') bemoan the loss of the old blogging days. I guess you're right about the lack of the 'community' that I used to believe in years ago. There are definite trends around popularity and timeliness. Hmm... not really my thing. I'm just about to write my thoughts on Christmas 2012 - now that would almost be considered "so last year"! :)

Yes, as long as a blog fills a spiritual need, it can make one happy.

I'm Jen said...

And another thing... I have to say that yours is one of the few blogs I find a genuine urge to discuss a topic in depth (well, as in depth as one can get in a comments box!). It's still a little weird having an online conversation with time differences between posting and commenting and then replying... but the words on the page (screen) at le projet d'amour always resonate with me, and I am constantly reminded to come back here because of it. It's the words that matter and that etch themselves in my mind. There is no substitute for independent thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hila,
I've been following your blog for a couple of years now and your writing, the presence of ideas my brain can crunch on (like a good vegetable!) and debates that I can re-examine within myself (eg, your posts on feminism and current media definitions of it) is the reason I keep returning. I'm as guilty as most blog-readers of following the pictures, but I get bored with those. Whilst you always have beautiful images on your blogs, it's the words that count and, for me, that set you apart and that I enjoy.

A friend of mine is just starting her PhD and is struggling with the same ideas that you and Jane have been articulating this year about whether genuine debate (particularly in the academic sphere that you, Hila, inhabit) is given any room or a genuine chance on the web. I directed her to your blog as proof that it can, even if this is through a conscious, definite effort to shout against the trend.

Keep on, keep challenging, keep strong!

Hila said...

I'm Jen: I'm no longer a believer in a big blogging 'community' either, especially not the pseudo-'authentic' one often used as marketing ploy by big-time bloggers. But I do appreciate the friendships and connections I've made with people through my blog, and honest comments such as your own. So thanks.

Anonymous: Thank you, that's very kind. I often feel my blog exists on the margins. And while sometimes I resent that position, it is what it is. I wonder too if there is enough respect for writing and critical thought on blogs to allow for real, substantial debate. It's a question I don't have a straightforward answer to.