Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On not blogging

There’s nothing more pitiful than a dead blog.

The most pitiful are those that die as soon as they are born. If I had to guess, these fallen infants — with less than two entries — make up over ninety percent of all the blogs out there. The introductory entry is always the same: the blogger is excited, hopeful, and self-effacing, but six years have passed and we’re left wondering if Ashley ever did embark on her South American travels, or if this gleeful entry was merely the regrettable outcome of a fleeting caffeine high. Some of these blogs get covered in dirt without even being named.

Old blogs that are dead are almost as bad. No matter when or why the blogger decided to pull the plug on the blog, the blogger, from our vantage point, is someone who gave up, who became less interesting, and whose life fell into the ranks of the ordinary. We, the living, with our bright futures ahead of us and our blogs that have yet-to-be-written, can’t help but feel superiorly alive.

Still, as someone who starts things more than he finishes them (I gave up on my goal of learning the bagpipes before even squeezing one), I suppose I look back with some pride on this blog, which I kept going — with about an entry a week — for four whole years (or 744 years in blog years).

But around a year and a half ago I more or less stopped writing. I did so, in short, because I no longer felt compelled to write, and I only write now because the compulsion, now so foreign to me, has momentarily become strong enough to break my blogging silence.

I suppose I stopped writing in part because my life had become far less interesting than it had been. I was no longer living in a van or hiking across the country. I was no longer broke and struggling to make my way as a writer. I was back at David’s place in North Carolina, where I resumed living the same sort of existence I’d been living off and on for years. My life didn’t seem new and exciting to me, and, now that I no longer felt as if I was on an interesting journey, I no longer felt that I had material interesting enough for public consumption.

Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of interesting stuff happening, but most of it was of a private nature that ought not be shared, even though I knew this personal stuff — the stuff that no one really writes about — would have been supremely entertaining to practically anyone. I speak of romances, quarrels with friends, unflattering observations about myself. But I’ve long known that, when it comes to writing for a public audience, it’s a lot easier to make sweeping statements about cultures and countries than it is about individuals. My need for self-expression, for understanding the world through the act of writing down thoughts, was mostly satisfied, anyway, by writing emails to close friends.

After some post-book fame last summer, and a trip to the British Isles last fall, I went on a brief speaking tour, on which I discovered that I’m a decent but not great speaker, and that speaking probably won’t be an adequate source of income for me, and may not be worth all the stress of standing up in front of a big (and sometimes embarrassingly small) audience. 

Last winter, when I came back to North Carolina, I proceeded to work on my Keystone XL book by not working on my Keystone XL book. I zipped through over one hundred books on the Great Plains, the history of oil, sociobiology, climate change, twenty-first century agriculture, the history of trespassing, and a number of other esoteric subjects, aimlessly wandering through the Wake Forest library book stacks in search of everything and nothing. I wasn’t sure if I was doing hard work or procrastinating the actual writing of my book and living of my life.

Meanwhile, I watched more HBO than was good for me, and dealt with some of the concerns of a thirty-something American: Should I plant cantaloupe this season? Should I upgrade to a Mac? Is that a lump on my testicle? Should I sign up for Obamacare? Should I start a microbrew or am I having a thirty-year life crisis?

Neglecting the blog did feel like I was neglecting an old friend who I really ought to keep in touch with. But I consoled myself with the belief that sometimes it’s best to take a break from writing and books — to let your mind lay fallow — so that it can bloom thoughts more brightly in coming seasons.

I only half-believe that, though. Writing, I know from experience, is just good for the mind and soul, and my day always feels a bit fuller when I’ve forced myself to flesh out some thoughts. That’s because it’s not just that thinking leads to writing, but that writing leads to thinking. In other words, I wouldn’t experience some thoughts — and enjoy the fulfillment of having those thoughts — if I didn’t force myself to work them out on page.

Here’s another reason why this blog has died: I’d rather that people not know how truly ordinary I am. Occasionally I’ll receive an admiring email from a fan of my book and they’ll confuse me for someone of significance. Based on my online persona — which I have much control over — it’s easy to conclude that I am someone who constantly goes on journeys and who lives a wild and exciting and purpose-driven life, and not someone who gets groggy when he doesn’t get his two-hour-long afternoon cat nap and who’s watched Season Four of Game of Thrones twice. Best let them remain inspired by this somewhat-fictional adventurous figure, I'll think.

And lastly, as the years go by, I find that I’m becoming more uncertain about literally everything. Opinions I once held dear to my chest are, with inspection, unsettlingly brought into question. I find that everything is just so complex and ultimately unknowable. And it’s difficult to have a clear opinion on anything the more you learn about it. I remain silent not for a scarcity of thoughts, but for a want of conviction in those thoughts. When researching a subject, one minute I think I understand an issue, and, the next, I feel like I know less about the subject than I did before I started researching it. The only thing I can state with conviction is the degree of my doubt.

It’s why I feel slimy sometimes after sharing an opinion: because, deep-down, I know I really don’t know. The very act of putting words onto page can seem like an act of falsehood.

Think about it. Every word in the English language is a meager and incomplete attempt at describing something ultimately indescribable. Take the word “happiness,” for instance. It describes a feeling of joy, but truthfully what we feel is far more complicated than the simple, three-syllable word we use to describe it. “Happiness,” and every word for that matter, is an imperfect approximation. We can describe the sky as “blue sky,” but that does nothing to describe the literally infinite shades of color, the congregation of different cloud shapes, each changing into something else every second, or the angle of the sun, similarly changing from moment to moment. We could describe the moment we looked up at the sky for years, and never get close to transferring the trillion subtleties of color, touch, smell, and noise onto page. Language may be the best tool we have to communicate, but it always falls short of sharing “the whole picture” with someone else.

Sometimes, when talking with someone, I'll feel an odd sense of guilt for no apparent reason, as if I’m knowingly lying to them or doing something wrong. I won't look them in the eye and it may look like I'm hiding something. I think this is because, unconsciously, I know that everything I say is an approximate truth and thus a falsehood, even if it is my goal to most accurately transfer the truth from my mouth to their ear. So maybe instead of writing half-baked opinions and adding to the heaping piles of Internet drivel, it’s better to write nothing at all.

In the end, that’s probably not true. Even though the act of writing and of thinking may seem like it gets you further away from your subject — as it takes you down the disorienting Wikipedia wormholes of limitless information — it’s likely that you’ll come out the other side a more knowing person, aided by the act writing, even if thoughts must be written in a fog of uncertainty.

This is why I so respect one of the first essayists, the French writer Montaigne. His thoughts are not emboldened with conviction, but festooned with doubt. And somehow he was able to use his doubt as a source of creative energy. Doubt was his reason to write. Doubt, after all, unlike simple-minded faith, requires that we try to paint the complexity of ourselves with a painstaking diligence, so that the skies of our mind are not merely “blue,” but colored, to the best of our abilities and with our feeble palette of English words, with its thousands of subtleties and shades.

I suppose I’d like for this entry to be a declaration that I’ll force myself to write again, so as to reclaim the weekly fulfillment that comes with the expression of a (foggy) idea, but as one who, as stated above, starts things more than he finishes, I’ll spare the reader the excited and hopeful tone, as it’s probably safer to think of this entry as a nighttime “leg kick” — just a jerky sign of life — from a blog that’s fallen into a deep sleep.


Lee said...

I work and teaches at a community college. I'm in my 60s and still do what you write about in this blog. I am a big fan of your work, especially "Walden on Wheels" and recommend to every college student I come across. I like and respect that you are questioning what you are doing and your ethics. it's healthy and is part of maturing. PLEASE KEEP WRITING and questioning and exploring.

Scott said...

There is a fundamental difference between blogging and other writing--reader feedback. Use that to your advantage:

Ask us questions.
Propose lifestyle experiments.
Survey the minds of people interested in your success.

When you take this approach, you'll find it easier to reveal your doubts.

Your readers are a resource. Make use of us.

S Monroe said...

As a 62 year old woman....I can identify with much of what you are writing. Most of my life I was sure about my thoughts and I realize that almost none of it matters and I constantly am questioning what my life meant...if anything! You at least can look back and know that your experiences touched so many people and thank you for that! Keep writing...

mOOm said...

This sounds like what we call "imposter syndrome" in academia. The secret is that most other writers or researchers are not that perfect either.

Maura said...

Honestly, I just enjoy what you write and this post is no different. You are a growing maturing man and your thoughts are important if not Life changing! What I chuckle at is your sense that 'we' see you as exciting..not really. I actually like your writing, your blog.. because you share what most of us feel...stupid! you connect very well with the human existence.


Anonymous said...

Hey, Ken, thanks for affirming the obvious to us old folk (62 at this point, and yes, I DO have my NPS senior pass!) about some of our universal truths garnered through years of life experience. What is truly amazing to me is your acceleration in learning. You catch on quick(ly), dude! That's entertaining for us and is of enduring value to be able to eavesdrop in so we can witness someone else's learning curve. I feel like a peeping Tom on occasion tuning in to your thoughts, but then I am reminded of how strikingly similar they are to my own. One way of looking at it is you have I caught up to yourself in learning the initial ropes; now, time to wrap around twice and project yourself to an outer ring, always ripe with new truths to discover. They are out there. Don't excuse yourself from being a participant just because you got there earlier than the rest of us. Oh, and really, the longer you look, the more you'll discover you haven't even tapped the surface yet. I'm still 'giggling and blushing,' but content to share in the connection. Keep writing, keep musing, and don't mind any of us old codgers. We're just coloring in our mental maps so we can describe what happened to us.

Jes said...

As someone who has been blogging for over 7 years now, but has hit a dry spell recently, YES, exactly what you're saying about not wanting people to know how ordinary you are. I have a sneaking suspicion that's why I've been so mum lately too. I figure my inspiration (or whatever) will come back at some point. Yours too. In the meantime, don't stress about not posting, enjoy life, that's what's really important anyway :)

D said...

Do you know how many times my finger has hovered over the "Delete Blog" button?

Blogging was easy at first in my case because nobody was reading it so I could ramble on carefree. Now that a few people read it I've suddenly become self conscious and second guess myself. I don't "write" so I just "blog" instead. Some of the most incredibly daring or interesting achievements come from ordinary people.

Keep writing Ken....and do it for yourself.

Anonymous said...

"Neglecting the blog did feel like I was neglecting an old friend who I really ought to keep in touch with."

We are a different kind of "old friend" Ken, but friends none the less. When I open my reader and see you have a current posting, I say to myself-It will be nice to get caught up again! We're all just finding our way Ken, questioning life and just living. It's wonderful you have shared so much of yours. Thank you.

Trish said...

so very glad you are going to blog again. I hate it when a blogger simply ceases activity. I wonder to myself what may have happened. Or am disappointed that they are no longer sharing their experiences. One of the most disappointing blog losses was Frugan Living. A young woman who regularly dumpster dove shared what she found, both food and sellable items. She simply stopped posting without explanation.

You know, I love hearing about people and their ordinary lives. And you are unique, whether you realize it or not, because rather than shuffling through life with a steady though uninspiring job, you managed to figure out a different path. It is so very interesting to hear what you will do next. I often tell young people about your story, usually young people who are struggling to find some sort of path for themselves, and don't know what to do. Looking forward to reading more posts.

Unknown said...

I am glad you are still keeping your blog. You are an inspiration to your readers! Sure, most people go through a time where they tell themselves serious thoughts like, "I don't think I can keep this up." or "I am just an ordinary person; no one is really interested in what I have to say."
You inspire people to really get out, see and do things for themselves! I loved reading the part in Walden on Wheels where you quit the Home Depot and went on a trip!
When you just posted, "We can describe the sky as “blue sky,” but that does nothing to describe the literally infinite shades of color, the congregation of different cloud shapes, each changing into something else every second, or the angle of the sun, similarly changing from moment to moment." It sure got me to think about your description of the Aurora Borealis in Walden on Wheels. This sure got me to saying to myself, "I have really got to go on an Alaskan adventure and see the Aurora Borealis!"
You may not believe it right now, but you really are an inspiration for many people! Keep up the great work!

Unknown said...

I just love the way you write! The sheer beauty, candidness, authenticity, candor and honesty of your writing captivates me. Your sentences, your words are so apt, so right, so gracefully, insightfully thought out and written. Your words put together in phrases, sentences and paragraphs bring more light and meaning to our common humanity. A single word may not be adequate for a full description and definition of what it represents, BUT your words strung together manage to illuminate and clarify not only each word but so many more insights into the human condition -- thus, making for such satisfying reading! Write on, please!

dude said...

Welcome back, Ken. There is no such thing as ordinary (or, as I recall reading many years ago in "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior," "there are no ordinary moments"). Even the ordinary is unique in and to each individual. The key to life, I think, is to appreciate the mystical in "the ordinary."

Anyway, glad to see your written word again.

Ross Pesek said...

The problem you are describing where your writing or speech are not fully capable of describing the object is an interesting thought. This, among other things, is discussed in the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." If you haven't read it you should. Some thing are knowable only through direct experience and attempts to describe them always leave a distortion. Still, don't let that stop you from trying to communicate. The problem is not unique to you. It is a problem for all of humanity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken, I hadn't visited your blog in a while--so remember that next time you worry about it languishing. I was actually glad to get back to it just as you were. Keep up your writing, even if you do it for yourself only from this point forward. I can always enjoy what you've already written, returning to it or perhaps focusing more on my own explorations rather than only living vicariously through some of yours. And thank you for your writing. It has meant a lot to me.

Anonymous said...

Seems your time away has done you well. This is GOOD writing. I am sensing a more skeptical, aware --and dark side Ilgunas. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

I read authors who explain an idea I have never imagined, or a feeling I could not put into words. You have done both. I hope you continue writing.

Anonymous said...

Ken, no pressure. If you find writing worthwhile but don't have anything currently that measures up to some of the previous stuff you've done ("quit at the top") you can always write privately. I'm sure we'll hear back from you when you find your next mission in life ("I'd rather be among the reformers than among the reformed").

Scott Wardle said...


Like so many others, I have really enjoyed your writing and blogging over the years.

Now that you've crossed into your 30s, you might be feeling a little of that post 20s nostalgia. 30s can be an awkward time for those who lived large on adventures and accomplished so much at such a young age.

But here's the deal. Your greatest adventures and best writing is still ahead of you. You haven't reached any kind of summit or plateau just yet.

Trust me on this. Even though you are feeling burned out on the books and pen, if you're willing to take a leap of faith, you'll go back to the likes of Thoreau and other great classics and you'll discover new treasures of meaning that you never even knew were there.

Before you know it, you'll have new thoughts, ideas, and new trails to follow. The pen once again becomes a compass that will lead you to the next chapter.

Good luck, Ken!

VJP said...

Hi Ken, I've been thinking of you lately. I moved to the NC mountains; would love to see you sometime!
Maybe it's just time to rest?

Luis said...

Yes, Ken, we don't have to write at all, and can go on breathing just fine. (I am a former daily newspaper journalist of ten years who these days doesn't write at all). But consider this. I read Walden on Wheels and it affected me deeply, reaffirming my conviction to lead a simple and fulfilling life not controlled by money. I experienced that tremendous feeling because I read the many words you took time to write. It seems honest writing is akin to our best philosophies: to do and live for others. Thanks.

Unknown said...

I've noticed that your blog has died off even more recently and I started going through older posts and found this gem. Does the recent silence mean that life has become rather boring? There has been nothing since January which is rather uncommon for this blog.

Your blogs are a breath of fresh air. Hopefully you'll pick this up back eventually?

Anonymous said...

I concur with the most recent comment; your blog was a place to go and read something fresh and exhilarating as opposed to the million other blogs and pieces on celebrities and pop culture. I visit David's Into the Woods blog frequently to check in with what he's doing. I've been following you both since about 2009, and you and I are close in age ('84), so I wonder what you're up to and compare it to my life. I do admire what you've done with your life. I hope you blog again someday.