• Ken Ilgunas

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.