I recently stumbled across an online art project (found here) called Sorry I Haven’t Posted: Inspiring Apologies From Today’s World Wide Web. A young artist, Cory Arcangel, lifts blog posts with the phrase “sorry I haven’t posted” and presents them as a cultural cross section, posting a new (borrowed) post every week or so. I thought perusing them would be funny—if not rife with story ideas—but it got me thinking: Who are they addressing? And what makes them worth the trouble?
Like a journal entry, the blog form assumes that there is an audience; however, while the journal is addressed to a future self, the blog is addressed to the entire world, going as far as to assume that, not only will someone read the post, but that the reader will be an active participant. Take, for instance, the comment box. Or consider that many blog posts end with a question. In any case, a blogger has a very intimate relationship to his or her readers—so much in fact that they feel compelled to apologize whenever they miss a few days of posting.
In a way, the pressure that bloggers feel was anticipated by creative writing programs; if the MFA has no other value, it would be enough that it provides an audience for student work. The pressure that audience provides, along with a few deadlines, gets the writers writing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, while I sit here at my desk, banging my head against the wall—trying to squeeze something out of my aging MacBook, which may or may not have anything left to give. And there’s no illusion about the imaginary nature of my audience. They won’t exist for a long time, if ever. How terrifying to think, that even the contrived MFA audience will be gone, come spring.
This is what makes the Sorry I Haven’t Posted blog so depressing. A lot of these people have no audience. They are chronicling diets, or cooking escapades, or social anxieties, or simply recounting the events of their days. And very few people are listening. But it seems to me like a form of insanity, one that has become quite popular these days with the rise of social media—the compulsive telling of one’s own story to an often imaginary audience. This compulsion used to be safe, when it was restricted to the privacy of a journal or letters but now that this compulsion has become readily available, there’s a dangerous amount of crossover between the insanity required to be a writer and the insanity required to be a person.
As fiction writers, we are often dissuaded from directly addressing the audience in our stories. It knocks the reader out of the story, reminding them that the fictional dream is just that, fictional. Of course, the reader knew they were picking up a work of fiction before they started, but that is the tight rope we walk. How can we facilitate the reader’s imagination without alerting them to the fact that we are there, at every turn, manipulating the world they’re dreaming? They promise to pretend our story is real, if we keep our promise to pretend we don’t exist.
Which is insane, and that’s fine because no one asked us to be writers.
The trouble is, there’s a lot of pressure to broadcast ourselves these days—so we do. But when we blog or use social media sites we are writing into a void—universal access, which breeds universal isolation—so we invent an audience for ourselves. The solution can’t be to get actual people to read our blogs because, whether the reader is real or imagined, the audience that social media formats address is constructed by the writer, as a conversational foil.
Which is also insane.
Though, as writers, perhaps we should consider inviting some of this imaginary pressure into our process. Thinking more about an audience—perhaps one that expects and eventually demands something from us. One that makes us feel guilty when we have nothing to show for the hours spent staring at the screen.
But perhaps we’d find ourselves in the bloggers’ predicament—compelled, not to write, but to excuse our absence. Because if you are going to invent an audience, why not make them wait? Let them know you’re worth it.
I promise to try harder, you’d tell them. If you promise to listen.