Tag Archives: blogging

Muse Blues

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a question most writers have heard. And struggled to answer.

Those of us with blogs or columns get our ideas from daily life – family, news, travel, and what’s going on in the world around us. For example, I’ve written about ratatouille, possums, education, books, toilets, advertising, bipolar disorder, ghost towns, grocery shopping, and feminism, to name a few. Subject-specific blogs get their ideas from (duh!) the subject matter – recipes, medical conditions, politics, or whatever.

But sometimes the muse eludes us. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. That’s when you know what you’re writing about, maybe have even made a start at it, but hit a blank wall. This is the blank sheet of paper phenomenon, or Creative processthese days, blank screen. It gapes. It mocks. It snickers. It yawns. You rack your brain for amusing anecdotes, clever observations, strong opinions – anything at all worth writing about.

We’ve all been there.

But what can we do about it?

First of all, do not ask any friends or relatives, “What should I write about?” Ninety-nine times out of hundred you will get either “I dunno” or something exceedingly lame. That’s why you’re a writer and they’re not. Don’t ask a writer friend either. You don’t want to take an idea that she or he might want to use later.

Look at pictures. These can be snapshots of yourself, nature photos in National Geographic, or other sources. I belong to a photo service that I use to find the illustrations that accompany my blogs. Sometimes I browse through them and see if something strikes me. Mystery writer Sue Grafton even goes to secondhand shops and buys old photos from other people’s abandoned shoeboxes. It worked for Ransom Riggs, too.

Go somewhere. Really, you’ve looked at all the stuff in your house a million times and it’s just not speaking to you any more. Walks in nature often work for Thoreau-types. People-watching in malls and cafés (and, frankly, eavesdropping) can work too. Go to your basement or attic and see if that stirs memories as well as dust.

Read. Read a novel. Read the newspaper. Read your Facebook newsfeed. Someone else’s thoughts can trigger your own. Agree, disagree, explain, apply something to your own situation or town or friends. Read your old blog posts. Maybe you’ve changed your opinion, found a better recipe, or seen a follow-up news story. “Bathroom books” full of trivia and weird facts are good for topics to explore further.

Do research. This is for the truly desperate. You’ve spent all that time staring at a blank screen, and there’s not much left before your actual or self-imposed deadline (if you have one). Treat your topic like you would a research paper in high school or college. How many for-profit prisons are there in the U.S.? Are we the only country that has them? What about the time an elephant was electrocuted? What was up with that? How many raisins are in a box of Raisin Bran? Calculate the size of a “scoop.” (Okay, that was a dumb idea, but you get the gist.)

Google writing prompts can be fun too. Simply enter your name and a verb in the search box and see what Google suggests. One that I got was “Janet has a secret daughter.” Topic: If I did have a secret daughter, what would I want her to know about me? Other prompts: Janet shoulda known better. Janet is a party pooper. Janet loves jewelry. I could write 650 words on any of those.

If you’re getting down to your deadline and nothing else has worked, there are two more solutions. One is to ask one of your blogging buddies to do a guest post. The guest doesn’t even have to write something new for the occasion – an old post from his or her blog will be new to your readers. Then later, you may be able to return the favor and write a guest post, expanding your readership.

The other last-ditch option is to re-post something you wrote when you were first starting out. Maybe you had 50 readers then and 600 now. That means that most of them won’t have seen the piece. And some of them hold up quite well, or will with just a few tweaks.

And once you’ve chased down your muse and found something to write, don’t let her get away again. Write down good titles or one-line drafts. Save the URLs of interesting news stories. Keep digging in that attic, or whatever worked for you this time. Or try a different suggestion.

If all else fails, take Hemingway’s advice: Write drunk. Edit sober.

What’s Different About Blogging?

Just as fiction and nonfiction are different, prose and poetry are different, and romance and science fiction are different, blogging is not exactly like any other form of writing.

Blog Weblog Media Online Messaging Notes Concept

For the casual or non-professional blogger, those who aren’t trying to build a platform as a subject matter expert or make money from a blog, the writing in a blog will likely not conform to any particular style of writing.

Here are some of the kinds of writing you often find in blogs.

Journals. Many blogs are used as online journals. Bloggers record observations about life; events in their day; personal feelings they wish to share with others; and assorted photographs, memes, jokes, trivia, and perhaps random thoughts. But stream-of-consciousness or confessional style journals are not likely to be appealing to large groups of readers. No one has so interesting a life that others want to follow the minutiae – unless, of course, you’re an Arctic explorer, a circus acrobat, or a pop star. And even they have dull days sometimes.

Articles. Fact-based articles on various topics – food, sex, crafts, pets, children, aging, media, politics, literature, and even swearing – can be good blog fodder. But if you’re aggregating news and facts from other sources, that’s not the same as writing your own content. And while it’s possible that an expert on a particular topic might be able to write factual articles week after week or month after month, such a blog will likely appeal to a limited number of readers in the same field.

Editorials. Opinion pieces are the meat and potatoes of many blogs. The problem is that bloggers most often want their writing to reach an audience – and not everyone’s opinions are well-thought-out, well-expressed, or even interesting. And unless you’re a “name” blogger with a wide following and a certain amount of credibility, who is going to be interested enough in your opinions to keep coming back? I mean, who really cares what I think about the Flint water crisis or where Caitlyn Jenner should be allowed to pee? Even super-opinionated blogger Jim Wright (http://www.stonekettle.com) occasionally gives himself and his readers a rest with cat pictures and woodworking info.

Funny stories. Let’s face it. Few of us are capable of being reliably, consistently funny. Humor writing is a very specific genre and craft that only a few – Erma Bombeck, Jenny Lawson (http://thebloggess.com) – ever master and that many fall flat with. Again, if you’re writing your own material rather than aggregating humorous quotations and stories from elsewhere (and you are giving proper credit to the original authors, aren’t you?), humor blogs can quickly become limited to only the readers who share your specific taste in what’s funny and how to express it comedically.

So what kind of writing is best for your blog? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. I recommend some mix of all of the above types. But achieving balance between two or more types of writing can be difficult. How much personal revelation is too much? How many dry facts are too many? How can they be blended into a cohesive whole?

I have two blogs that I play around in. One (obviously) is this one – what I call my general-purpose blog. In it I try to post mostly funny stories and opinion pieces on some topic I have experience with or strong feelings about. Here are some examples of each: “When I Say Shoes…” (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-c8), I Blame the Cats. Always. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B), The Education Argument (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-6G), Post Feminism: Back to the Future (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-4P).

My other blog, Bipolar Me (bipolarjan.wordpress.com) is topic-specific. As such, it contains a blend of journal (personal experiences), factual information, and occasionally opinions. Again, here are some of each: I May Have Miscounted My Spoons (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-g6), More “News” About Mental Health (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9L), A Response to the Dalai Lama (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9T). Even more occasionally, I include humor – The Depression Diet (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-db) – or poetry – Sense of Self (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9O).

I experiment with styles of writing in an attempt to keep my readers interested, but also to keep myself interested. In particular, I don’t want Bipolar Me to be all gloom-and-doom or perpetually “what I did today.” Et Cetera, etc. was conceived of as a blog where I could write whatever I wanted on any topic I wanted – books, cats, family, humor, rants, and to a lesser extent social issues I feel strongly about – education, feminism, etc. Bipolar Me seems to be the more popular of the two, but Et Cetera, etc. has had some unexpected surges. (I have thought about changing the blog’s name, but haven’t found anything I like better.)

At any rate, my advice to the newly blogging is this: Mix it up. It will help you find your voice, attract new readers, and keep you from burning out. Unless your blog is very topic- and tone-specific, a little variety is a good thing.

What’s So Funny About Ohio?

If you’re a 3rd grader the funny thing about Ohio is that it’s the state that’s round on both ends and high in the middle.

If you’re near Columbus the funny thing about Ohio is the field of concrete corn that stands majestically by the roadside.

"CornhengeDublinOhio". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CornhengeDublinOhio.jpg#/media/File:CornhengeDublinOhio.jpg
“CornhengeDublinOhio”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

If you’re in Cincinnati the funny thing about Ohio is the Flying Pig statues, marathon, and assorted paraphernalia.

If you’re near Hamilton, Ohio, the funny thing about Ohio is the statue formerly known as Big Butter Jesus. (1)

King of Kings (aka Big Butter Jesus)

King of Kings (aka Big Butter Jesus)
Photo by Cindy Funk

There are undoubtedly other oddities and roadside attractions in Ohio that can be found in various books and websites about the peculiar and amusing sites to be found in various states.

The really funny thing about Ohio, however, is that the state has produced some of the best humor writers ever.

The one that all Ohioans study in school is James Thurber. I was surprised to learn that outside of Ohio he is not as well known. At the very least, Ohio students read “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Catbird Seat.” (2) His loopy, scrawling cartoons of men, women, and dogs are classics not so much for their artistic merit but for the captions. My favorite is a man and woman in a lobby and the man says, “You wait here and I’ll bring the etchings down.” For some reason that always slays me.

Thurber managed to be funny despite his failing eyesight and rampant misanthropy.(3) He also wrote a series of essays on grammar – a parody of H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – that is enormously amusing to those of us who are amused by that kind of thing. In particular his piece on the subjunctive and sex is worth the price of admission. (4)

The high points of Thurber’s work have been collected in an anthology called The Thurber Carnival. I highly recommend it.

The other native Ohioan who has made her mark in humorous writing is Erma Bombeck.(5) Beginning as a writer for the Dayton Daily News, Bombeck turned her suburban trials and tribulations into comic fodder for such national bestsellers as If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?

She is much more widely known than Thurber because of the near-universal appeal of her books and the fact that nobody makes schoolchildren read her.

Every two years there is an Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop held in her memory at the University of Dayton. Attendees work on humor writing, memoirs, and other forms of expression. There are events called “Pitchapalooza” and “Speed Dating for Writers,”(6) a writing contest, and even a showcase for stand-up comedians.

This year the faculty includes Jenny Lawson, the Bloggess; Kathy Kinney, “Mimi” from The Drew Carey Show; multi-talented writer Sharon Short; as well as other authors, speakers, agents, and literary mavens.

I will be there too, as an attendee.(7)  I hope that after this experience, which occurs at the beginning of April, I can use the knowledge, practice, and advice I receive to improve this blog.

Erma Bombeck and James Thurber set a high standard, but those of us who aspire to write need people of outstanding talent to inspire and instruct us. As well as flying pigs and rows of concrete corn to entertain us.

 

(1) Also known as “Touchdown Jesus.” I always called it “Kris Kristofferson Jesus.” Unfortunately that statue was hit by lightning and replaced by another statue of Jesus made from exactly the same materials. And that’s pretty funny too. I call it “Jesus-Needs-a-Hug Jesus.”

"Lux Mundi"
“Lux Mundi”

(2)”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is another well-known work. But the Danny Kaye movie of it has too much Kaye and not enough Thurber.

(3) Often mistaken for misogyny. But by the end of his life, he couldn’t stand anyone.

(4) You can find it online at http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/whichthurber.htm, but hardly anywhere else.

(5) After whom my armadillo purse, Erma (duh), is named.

(6) Not actually a venue for making dates, this consists of time-limited one-on-ones for aspiring authors to ask questions of pros.

(7) I was lucky to register in time – the workshop sold out in under six hours from the time registration opened. There is a FB page and the website is humorwriters.org.

Weeding Followers, Friends, and Fans

Name-calling. Shaming. Trolls. Hate speech. Threats. Doxxing. These are increasingly common on the internet.

They are also problems I don’t have, given the relatively few Facebook friends I have, the relative civility of most of them, and the relatively slow growth of my blogs.

Personally, I have only ever blocked a couple of people on Facebook, one for use of the “n-word.” I don’t often post about controversial topics on my timeline, though I’m sure people can figure out my general leanings from the things I do post and the comments I make on others’ posts. I accept friend requests from people I know, who are on all points of the political and social continuum. Some of my friends and I disagree totally on, and stay away from discussing, sensitive issues.

But I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at how other people handle such problems.

First, let’s look at someone whose situation is similar to mine: a private citizen, Georgianna, who has unfriended and been unfriended. She says that what has pushed her over the edge at times is situations like this:

On posts I made about shootings of unarmed blacks by cops, [the person in question] kept commenting things like why do they riot and why do they run if they’re not guilty. I ignored those. The final straw was when I posted about Cecil the Lion and he commented what about all the babies murdered by abortion. His posts were off topic, annoying, and displayed stupidity. I was done.

I guess I just got tired of folks highjacking my posts for their own purposes and not adding substance.

Fair enough. I think that sums up most people’s experiences. But what about more public figures who regularly discuss – indeed, argue about, promote, or decry – volatile topics?

Tom Smith is a professional singer/songwriter with a modest-by-national-standards but impressive-in-certain-circles following. His songs and his Facebook posts clearly show a progressive/liberal bent. Among his friends and followers are a rather large number of highly opinionated people (I am one of them), and the comments on his posts can run into the hundreds.

Because he began fearing for his blood pressure, Tom established Rules covering comments and what would get a person blocked.

1: BE POLITE DAMMIT. You don’t have to be polite to whatever person or persons are the subject(s) of the original post, although I will not tolerate name-calling or crude sexual insults or fat-shaming or anything like that. But, by damn, you WILL be polite to your fellow commenters. You are all guests at a party at my place, and I don’t like it when my friends fight, especially IN MY FRONT ROOM.
2. Facts. Back up any assertions with facts — to credible sources, please. Breitbart.com, anything associated with Fox “News”, The Weekly Standard, anything by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pam Geller, Michelle Malkin, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly are ESPECIALLY right out. They are known, proven liars and nutbar conspiracy theorists. If you got it off Reddit or Free Republic or Townhall or someplace like that… get some confirmation from the damn New York Times or Washington Post or CNN or BBC.
3. I reiterate: no sexual shaming. No fat “jokes”. No ethnic jokes. (Yeah, I know a shitload of ’em. Some people just take them wrong). Nothing that you think might be triggery. You can swear your head off, if that’s your style — it certainly is my style sometimes. But, basically, if you have to stop and ask yourself if it might really offend someone, there’s a decent chance it will. Use your words, and find a different way to phrase it.
4. Did I mention facts? Whatever you think you know about climate change, Planned Parenthood, Benghazi, Obama’s birth certificate, or the wonderful benefits of fracking, there’s a good chance you have at least some misinformation. No, not that site. No, not that one either. Science denial will get you Blocked faster than two days of eating peanut butter.

Recently, Tom has (quite sensibly, in my opinion) moved his political postings to a separate page called Political Noise (https://www.facebook.com/politicalnoise?pnref=story), where he has basically the same rules as above, but has also articulated this:

If conversations go off the rails, if people are snarling at each other and no one’s going to change each other’s minds, I will step in and say ENOUGH. When that happens, THE THREAD IS CLOSED AND I EXPECT YOU TO STOP COMMENTING. We’ve reached the loud, circular phase of the argument, and it’s time to let it go and move on.

If someone is being a particular jerk about things, I may hit you with the Ban Hammer and say BUH-BYE. Usually, this is just for a couple of days. If you’re a really special snowflake, however, it may be permanent.

He adds: “Anybody got a problem with that? Tough. My wall, my rules. Now. Go forth and play nice.”

As of a few days ago, Tom’s main Facebook page is reserved for personal updates and musings, his professional page (https://www.facebook.com/tomsmithonline?fref=ts)  for his music, and the new page for political/social opinions.

Then there’s Jim Wright, widely known writer, blogger, Navy veteran, and unrepentant curmudgeon, whose website Stonekettle Station (http://www.stonekettle.com/) and Facebook page are platforms for his strongly worded and often iconoclastic views. He has maxed out the number of Facebook friends allowed. His rules (which I asked permission to quote, so don’t bother reporting me to him):

Things that get you booted off my Facebook page:
1. Acting like an asshole.
2. Acting like an ignorant asshole.
3. Acting like an asshole to other commenters.
4. Acting like a condescending asshole by explaining to other commenters “what Jim ‘really’ meant.”
If you act in this manner, you will be summarily removed. Period. There will be no warning given ….
_________
Addendum: You get booted, DON’T email me begging an explanation, forgiveness and/or reinstatement. I already gave your slot away. If you don’t want to get booted, don’t act like an asshole. If you’re not sure what I consider acting like an asshole is, then err well on the side of caution. I am not going to argue about this.

Jim has also been known to publicly mock any truly and/or amusingly stupid comments, tweets, or messages, and, under certain circumstances, to send forth his “minions” to do likewise.

Another Famous Writer weeds out friend requests in advance. Apparently he goes to your home page and looks at whether you post cat photos and pass-alongs from Upworthy and Buzzfeed. I quit trying. I like cat photos and sometimes find Upworthy and Buzzfeed interesting. If that rules me out for his roster of friends, so be it. I have plenty of friends who follow things that I consider dopey. Then again, I’m not even within shouting distance of the Facebook friend limit.

All things considered, I am glad not to be even a semi-public figure (except insofar as my blogs make me one, which is not very far at all) – and glad to have non-troll friends, however opinionated.