Monday, March 21, 2011

Blogging has made me soft

Anyone who reads “The Ogler” will be forgiven if they don’t realize I’m a journalist. To my chagrin, this blog carries but the faintest scent of my profession. I make no pretence of objectivity in what I write, for example, and I verify what I learn from other sources less often than I should. Most of my quotes are from people I’ve never met, much less interviewed. I bring certain powers of observation to what I write, but no more than what many other non-journalists possess. We can all learn to play back in words what we record with our five senses. That talent is not the exclusive domain of any particular vocation.

I also admit that my sentences contain more subordinate clauses than they should, and that I have a weakness for technical and arcane expressions that make a show of words I would never risk using in casual conversation. I am less ruthless at editing myself than I am others. I figure that a sloppy blog post can always be fixed later. Someone who doesn’t know me might guess I’m a writer, but not necessarily the hard-bitten reporter I once fancied myself to be.

Blogging, in other words, has made me soft.

Almost all journalists blog these days, which requires them to turn their reporter’s gaze inward. This often leads to linguistic schizophrenia. After years of training ourselves to set our egos and biases aside when we report, we’re suddenly invited to indulge them both when we blog. Thus, our writing becomes “edgy”—the ultimate postmodern compliment. What results is better than 95% of the dreck that clogs the blogosphere, but the writing can be oddly dissonant with the more rigid and conventional patterns of writing from which we’ve made a living. Even after years of effort, most of us are still struggling to find our voice as bloggers. And just as we’re about to, the new age of texting and tweeting is demanding another transformation in how we communicate.

These thoughts came to me while plowing through the blogs of several journalists who have written on—and through—their experiences with cancer. This remains an exclusive club, but one with more distinguished members than you’d imagine. Chief among them was Leroy Sievers, who wrote “My Cancer” for two years until his death in 2008. Sievers was a war correspondent and later an Emmy-winning TV producer who began writing his blog for NPR in 2006, shortly after the colon cancer he overcame in 2001 resurfaced in his lungs and brain. Even after the cancer “exploded” in June 2008, he continued to write nearly daily until his death three months later.

Sievers’s writing is terse and reportorial. His posts are mostly short and unflinchingly focused on his disease and how he responded to it and was shaped by it. Towards the end, it’s almost unbearably sad to read. You know how his story will end well before it arrives.

Joe Matazzoni, an executive producer at NPR who helped launch the blog, describes it as “a wonderful public performance of what is usually a private drama.”

That, in essence, is what a trained journalist brings to documenting a journey with cancer. A cancer blog done well not only describes the disease in its manifold expressions but also attempts to make sense of its near-senselessness. This can make it almost embarrassing to read. The curtain that was previously drawn tightly around those contending with cancer has been flung wide open. When you read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” which Tolstoy wrote in the late 19th century, you can barely tell that it’s cancer that’s being described. In contrast, Sievers and others like him write about their cancer with a frankness that borders on the obscene. You want to avert your eyes at times, but you don’t. Cancer is a topic both exotic and familiar, repulsive and almost addictive. There are enough people who have been touched by it to assure a loyal following for those who can write about it with power and persuasion. Sievers did.

In a hyper-mediated world filled with the incessant drone of the banal and trivial, we long for strong voices of clarity and truth. We want to read something where it feels like another human being is talking to us. Another human being who can write well. When that person happens to also have cancer, an otherwise small voice amplified by the Internet can move people in a way that Russian novelists could never imagine. A real-life drama of life and death plays out over time on our computer screens. We are left with the decision of how or whether to invest it with meaning. In the early 21st century, this is what it means to be in community for many people.

My aspirations for this blog are more modest. My story is still being written. Despite the emotional indulgence that blogging practically demands, it also communicates more of the depth and height and width of what we experience than straight reporting ever can. When I was a young journalist, we called this a “stunt story”—making some zany exploit of the journalist the whole point of the exercise. When it's done well, first-person reporting can blow you away. You feel the thrills and chills as if you're there.

That’s what serious writers have always tried to accomplish: to insinuate themselves into the hearts and minds of readers and make them part of what they're experiencing. It only happens when the writer knows what he’s doing and the reader is a willing accomplice. A cancer blog like this one, or what Leroy Sievers did with “My Cancer” to great acclaim, strives to make those meaningful connections. It may be "soft" journalism, but so what? It's a literary form yet in the making. There's always a risk to sharing raw truth about cancer whether it's done on a blog or in quiet conversation. I believe it's a venture worth writing about publicly and letting others decide for themselves what to make of it.


Anonymous said...

“Soft journalism” or not a blog is an experiment for the writer as well as the reader. Your blog explores much of your personal journey with cancer and should be viewed as such- a journey. And I believe it has been rewarding for both writer and reader.

grsmouse said...

Just keep on blogging. I'm sure that most of us are not concerned about the degrees of journalism. We are happy joining with you on your journey. By the way, I wish that I could come just a bit closer to journalistic writing but find my own views get in the way. You're helping at least one 'old timer' along the way.


Anonymous said...

You have succeeded in insinuating yourself into the heart and mind of this reader. Thank you for sharing your journey.

Your truly,
a willing accomplice,