Welcome To My Bed

How-To Lists Gone Wrong, and The Attention Span Antidote

It seems that most blog posts take a "how to" tack these days, with steps listed out as if the road to success always happens in a discernable secquence.  The same way that music magazines fall back on the top 10, top 100, best of, must listen format, bloggers are wont to reducing their most brilliant insights to any easily digestible list of wisdoms.  I get tired of reading things in this bulleted format.  It is the literary equivalent of a powerpoint presentation--snooze worthy, even at its most successful.  Invented to battle boredom by distilling everything down to it's barest, most essential set of points, the format has become not only ubiquitous in the blogosphere but hokey in its omnipresence.  Fancy transitions, links, photos; none of the bells and whistles make how-to posts any more compelling to me than the most assinine "advice" articles in Cosmopolitan, regardless of topic.
However.  There are times when it's actually an appropriate organizational tool.  This week, I read an excellent compilation of advice to young writers by Sarah Manguso on the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Work In Progress blog.  No catchy headings, no overwrought humble-brags or even any anecdotal evidence whatsoever.  Just clean prose presenting sound advice.  Here, we have an example of a restraint I feel is lacking in a lot of online writing.
 
The internet is a glorious arena for writers, as it offers so many avenues of expression, and nearly limitless posibilities.  Our stories can become multi-media extravaganzas.  Any reference made can be linked to, anything seen can be inserted into the readers view via embeded photo or video.  The writer has ultimate power via the internet to footnote their thoughts in attempt to provide a reading experience as close to the writer's process of synthesis as possible.  And this is exciting.  Of course it is.  But with the ease of inclusion comes the peril of drowning the reader in distracting ancillary information.  Does my audience really need to see a picture of me holding the pie I baked to understand a written description of it?  Do they need to be link to all semi-relevant Wikipedia articles in a post that is not about fact, but about the experience of information?  By reudcing your thoughts to single-serving format and drowning them in unnecessary ephemera and minutae, you are saying that your reader isn't smart enoguh to find her way through what you have to say without extensive assistance.  You are calling her a bad reader, and calling yourself a bad writer.
 
Manguso's article links to nothing.  There are almost no specific details.  We get common nouns and simple sentences.  Her advice carries more weight for this absence of direct context.  No apologies for what she knows to be true.  No approval sought.  Quite simply--she presents the truth as she knows it, and leaves it to the reader to provide context.  Think about the best novels you've read.  In my reading life, the books I want to live with longest and most often are the ones that have made space for me between the lines.  This can be said of all successful writing.  It is not only a reflection of a recognizable image, but a space to inhabit.  Manguso's advice makes a space where I can imagine my writing life more fully realized and attended to.  That space is not typical of the how-to form, and that she is able to break the form and emerge with something sparse and necessary is a gift.
 
The way the internet is structured draws out our impulse to individualize everything in service of creating an identity in a vacuum.  But identity is not solely based upon personal signifiers.  What kind of car I drive (or whether I drive at all) has little bearing on how I feel after a long stretch of highway.  Why cloud my point of view with product placement, or even an overexposure of the self when I can trust what is felt, and the writing that comes from it?  I'd much rather sit down with a small kernel of meaning, however unclear, to work towards articulating, than draw an explicit map (landmarks inluded) of how to get there from here.