Navel Gazing Ahoy!

There’s a subgenre of blog posts on the internet that are intensely interested in the business of writing and sharing blog posts.  It’s kind of a weird thing.  People who write blogs as a hobby spend a not insignificant portion of their mental resources on talking about how cool it is that they write blogs and what that means for them as citizens of the internet.  There’s more than a small sense of elitism that you get from these posts–“I blog and that means that I am a serious person from the serious part of the web, not a passive consumer like folks who sequester themselves on the *shudder* social media networks!”

It’s a little obnoxious, but mostly harmless, I guess.

I write all this because I recently had a post on this very subject catch my attention while I was reading the news, and because I am just like every other person on the internet, I fell for the clickbait (if you claim to never fall for clickbait then you are a liar and probably not a good person).  Here’s the post, if you have any interest in reading it yourself (I understand if you don’t click the link; most visitors don’t bother, and that’s totally okay).  It’s over a year old, which is fine (the art of the evergreen post is a strange one that eludes me; I only ever seem to write them by accident, and then they annoy me for months or years as they dominate my web traffic over the more current posts that I actually care about that week), and it does have more than a little of that pretentious, “How great is it that you blog?” attitude.

Still, one salient point from the post did grab my attention, and I do think it’s a valid one (this is where I reveal my blogging hypocrisy because, you guessed it, I’m already waist deep in a meta post about the benefits of being a blogger; flee now; it’s not too late for you to escape to some other less self-absorbed digital island).  The writer whom the blogger quotes (because how bloggish is it that one blogger extensively quotes another blogger making a point and then just reiterates that same point?) points out that the value of writing a daily blog comes from the intellectual exercise of picking a thing to take an opinion on every day and practicing defending that opinion in a public space.  Realistically, most people will not care about your opinion (actual discussion in this space is so vanishingly rare that I just accept the majority of my posts will simply float unobtrusively in the ether of the internet for the remainder of human civilization without ever drawing so much as a passing thought from another person), and to expect otherwise is a vanity that only has the lie put to it in the most exceptional of circumstances.  Still, the act of taking a position on an issue and breaking down for yourself why you hold that position is an invaluable one.

I began blogging because I was in the middle of a summer break where I was overcome with endless boredom; I had far too much time on my hands to just while it away playing video games and watching movies.  By starting my blog, I gave myself an artificial structure around which to build a schedule for regularly formulating thoughts about something.  In the four years that I’ve been maintaining this blog, I’ve run the gamut from thoughts on faith to video games and gamer culture to movies to politics and more.  The only set rules for my blog are that I must do it on the schedule that I’ve set for myself and I need not constrain myself from whatever subject catches my attention.  Generally I try to aim for posts that can be read in three to five minutes (a thousand words is not a bad goal) and I must remain mindful of my probable audience–primarily family and friends.

By traffic metrics, I’ve been moderately successful with my blog; every year I pull in more views than the previous year, and if I maintain my current level of output it’s conceivable that I could have enough of a web presence to consistently garner over ten thousand views a year before I reach my ten-year blogging anniversary.  As a game of how many eyeballs can I draw to corner of the internet, I’m doing decently well for someone with no professional credentials that would justify attracting a large readership.  Even so, that’s just a game, and it’s not the primary reason that I continue to maintain this blog.

The primary reason has to do much more with the mental health that I associate with regularly engaging in intellectual exercise.  I feel better about myself when I take time to form opinions about things and express those opinions, even if I understand that most of the time no one will hear or care.  The practice of trying not to be a passive consumer of culture is a useful one because it cultivates critical thinking skills in a way that’s not generally encouraged if you don’t take the time to produce your own intellectual product (I am aware that this is coming dangerously close to blogging elitism).  Though most opinions on the internet are worthy of hard eye rolls (Sturgeon’s Law applies to all intellectual output, not just stories), it’s still good to celebrate when people take the time to try to reason through why they hold the opinions they hold (except for Nazis and white supremacists; any rationale that leads you to promote genocide as a solution to your problems is pure garbage and should be condemned in the strongest terms).  Explaining why is a skill that I see so rarely exercised in my day job as a teacher that I’m always happy to see it being used by adults in a recreational capacity.

So yes, this post is hypocritical for its blatant indulgence of the undying idea that blogging is a virtue in and of itself, and I expect full and throaty rebukes to my elitism in the ensuing firestorm.  Or no one will care, and I’ll have spent some time sussing out thoughts about a thing that I have a passing interest in, and I’ll feel better about my place in the world as a result.  Either way, this was a worthy endeavor.

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My 2016 in Review

Well, that was a digression.

Setting aside all the stuff about the imagined malice of the year and the actual malice of people who are scared of their fading grasp on the world, I should offer some reflections on the year as it relates to my personal life.  The list of major events in my private life this year is a short one.  I left my job at the special education school where I worked for five years and began a new one at a regular high school.  My grandmother died.  I had a fight with my parents over taking some time to lick my wounds after the election, and then we reconciled.  It’s a mixed bag.  On the balance, I think that I’ve spent more days feeling generally happier this year thanks in large part to my new job.  At the same time, I’ve also had some extended periods where I think I was coping with low-level depression (summer was a particular low point; the combination of processing grief while being on an extended break from work is a potent one, especially when I filled so much of my time with news of the wider world’s troubles).  If my world were small enough to only encompass my friends and family, then I’d say that 2016 was not the worst year I’ve ever had.  The problem is that 2016 is also the year where so many white liberals like myself were also forced to confront just how fragile our carefully cultivated view of the world is.  To remain innocent is to remain ignorant, and there comes a point where you have to accept that trying to hold on to innocence for yourself is an act of violence towards people who need you to see their suffering.  That’s probably the big lesson I’ve learned from this year.

On the blog, things have been generally good.  At the time of this writing, these are my top five most viewed posts of the year:

  • “On the Collective Personification of a Year and the Devil in Our Current Politics” – So, this post apparently struck a nerve, because in the weekend since I posted it, it’s become my most viewed post for the year.  It’s been really nice to see the immediate response; I didn’t really think that I was hitting on anything that novel in my analysis, but I’ve seen at least a couple people note that they hadn’t considered fear of mortality as a motivating factor in the behavior of older voters this election cycle.  That’s been an idea that has floated around in my head for a couple years, so I figured it was old news.
  • “Is Final Fantasy Anti-Religion?” – I keep getting hits on this old post from 2014, which is great (I do love getting traffic), but it feels like a throwback to a time when I was deeply concerned with different things.  I don’t especially care anymore whether Final Fantasy is anti-religion; it’s a series that holds a significant place in my childhood, but as I get older I see it more and more as a series that refuses to grow up with me.
  • Gilmore Girls is Terrible to Lane” – This one isn’t a huge surprise to me.  Gilmore Girls has been in the zeitgeist this year with the revival on Netflix coming out.  Lane’s a character that I think a lot of fans really love, and it’s frustrating to see that the writers on the show consistently under served her.  I wanted better for her in the revival too, but she didn’t really get it.
  • “This is Not a Deconversion Story” – This guest post by my wife Rachael pulled a lot of traffic early in the year.  We had these grand plans to develop a series about exploring different religious traditions outside white evangelical Christianity, but we never could follow through; there was too much other stuff that makes up a life getting in the way.  Maybe someday we’ll return to this idea.  If not, that’s okay too.
  • “Religion in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII – Folks apparently really want to explore the religious themes of the Final Fantasy series, which I figure is the reason this post from summer of 2015 was one of my top posts this year.
  • Honorable Mention: Hamilton and Literary Terms”– [This post was originally in my top five when I first drafted my year-end reflection, but then I had a traffic explosion, so now it’s out.  I’m keeping it on the list though, because it entertains me.]  2016 happened to be the year that I discovered Hamilton: An American Musical.  I still haven’t seen it, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack endlessly, and one of the small projects I did back at the beginning of the school year was to think of some examples of lyrics from the musical that can stand in as examples of a small number of literary terms.  People love Hamilton, so there you go.  I hope my obsessive memorization of song lyrics aids teachers and students alike who just need to know what sound devices you can find in Thomas Jefferson’s verse about Hamilton being Washington’s favorite.

A fun side activity to look at as well is the variety of search terms that brought folks to my blog this year.  To those people who ended up on my little feminist blog looking for how to draw erotic superheroines, teenage girl simulators, and Nagate/gauna fanfic sex, sorry?  I mean, I get that you had to have been disappointed that you went looking for porn and ended up on a page with nothing but commentary about how terrible various depictions of women and intersex persons are.  Probably you just clicked away after you realized this was not what you wanted, but I hope you spent a moment reading my thoughts, and that you went away a little more enlightened in your quest for self love.  To all the people who searched for some version of Final Fantasy being either pro- or anti-religion (and that one special person who searched “final fantasy is anti christ”), I guess I have to say congratulations?  Those are, in fact, things that I discussed in this space in the past; thanks to you, it continues to be my most viewed topic.  To all the folks who continuously land here after searching for ideas on some catchy title to go with a particular topic, I offer my sincerest apologies.  I’m no good with titles either (you probably already figured that out though).  I want to give a special shoutout to the person who searched “catchy message titles for ten commandments”; I don’t know what post you landed on, but I suspect it was very far from what you wanted.

In terms of overall traffic, I’m closing out the year with nearly a thousand more total views than I had at the end of 2015.  My blog’s a low-traffic affair, so this difference comes mostly from a couple of special events that happened this year, including “This is not a Deconversion Story” and its follow-up posts, the death of Jack Chick (which precipitated a bit of renewed interest in my old posts discussing the theology of various Chick tracts), and now the first part of my 2016 reflection (many thanks to Rachael for boosting that one).  I often find myself playing the game of wondering what my traffic would look like without these unique events, but I suppose that falls into speculation about things that didn’t come to pass, and, well, that’s not a terribly productive use of time, is it?

Outside the blog, I’ve begun branching out and trying to build more of a presence on Twitter.  It’s hard; I still don’t fully understand the platform’s etiquette, and I’m regularly intimidated by the prospect of tweeting at folks who don’t know me.  We’ll see how I can improve on that in the coming year (as I’m writing this, my phone is blowing up with new Twitter follows; thanks again, Rachael).

And that’s my year in a nutshell.  How was everyone else’s?

Hooray for Blogs!

The other day I came across this article by Rian Van Der Merwe thanks to the regular Friday link roundup at Natalie Luhrs’s site Pretty Terrible.  It’s a short, thoughtful piece about the importance of maintaining your web presence in a place that isn’t walled off in the way that social media platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter typically are.  Those places are designed in a way that they want to keep you within their network rather than branching out and exploring other interesting places on the web.  The general motivation behind this design is, naturally, profit.  Big social media platforms get revenue from native advertising and their ability to mine user data for information that’s valuable to marketers, and the more users stay within a given ecosystem for their web browsing, the easier these companies can get that data.

For the content creator, this model means that it’s highly lucrative to base yourself on one of these platforms.  On Facebook you have the built in audience of your entire friends list, and the number one thing that creators want is eyes on their work.  Going to a platform where you’re starting at more than zero is really tempting, especially when it’s so hard to build an audience (I’ve been blogging for two and a half years now, and though my site metrics say that I’ve gradually increased average traffic, it often feels like I’ve yet to build a consistent audience; I can’t shake the feeling that increased pageviews for me is tied to a growing library of content, though timeless posts are a lot harder to come by than timely stuff).  Nonetheless, the point that Van Der Merwe makes about how valuable personal blogs are for getting to know other people in a way that the curated, algorithm derived feeds of social media don’t really allow is a good one.  If I stuck to just Facebook and Twitter (and in this case Twitter is a still a superior platform, though we’ll see what happens when the extended character limit rolls out), then my exposure to interesting things and thoughts from other people would be relatively limited (my Facebook feed especially feels like it’s mostly just people sharing things they’ve read without offering their own particular thoughts, and it comes across as pretty isolating sometimes).

So I’m on board with Van Der Merwe’s idea.  The joy of personal blogs is that they help you get to know people in strange, quirky, sometimes roundabout ways.  The topics they cover helps you learn about what they think is important; the arguments they make help you see how they think about things.  And, of course, their sites help you get away from the curated platforms and dig around the more open web.

In the vein of that last, point, I was thinking I’d just share some links to blogs that I enjoy following on a regular basis.  Many of these I’ve mentioned at one point or another in the past, but not everyone’s seen everything I’ve put out, so here’s a collected set.

  • Slacktivist – I discovered Fred Clark’s blog a few years ago by way of his ongoing review of the Left Behind series, which he started about a decade ago (he’s recently been able to pick it back up with the help of his Patreon supporters).  I don’t think I can overstate how instrumental Clark’s blog has been in helping reshape my faith away from the conservative evangelicalism I was steeped in for most of the last decade.
  • Samantha Field – Samantha’s primary focus is on exploring the ways growing up in Christian fundamentalism has affected her life as an adult and working through the damage in order to find healing.  If Slacktivist helped me see the problems inherent in conservative evangelicalism and grapple with them, Samantha’s blog helped me recognize just how abusive the subculture can be.
  • Love, Joy, Feminism – Libby Anne’s blog is similar in subject to Samantha’s but Libby Anne writes from the perspective of an atheist who left the Christian faith altogether after her experiences with the fundamentalist subculture.  Libby Anne’s experiences as a parent trying to navigate child rearing while dealing with her past exposure to abuses by the home school subculture are interesting and help provide focus on an aspect of American Christianity that I’ve not seen elsewhere.
  • Pretty Terrible – Though I’m not hugely engaged with the literary community at large, I do hear about a lot of major things that go on by way of my wife, Rachael.  She turned me on to Natalie Luhrs’s blog back when it was still called Radish Reviews because her Friday link roundups are always full of interesting articles related to social justice and issues in the fiction world, and now it’s a regular part of my weekly perusal.
  • Whatever – Though John Scalzi’s best known for his sci-fi writing, I’ve actually never read any of his novels (I do have copies of Lock In and Redshirts sitting in my bookcase waiting to be read, whenever I get around to them).  Instead, I started following his blog a few years ago when I heard that he’d announced that he wouldn’t be attending any conventions that didn’t have an explicit and thorough anti-harassment policy.  Like the name of his blog implies, Scalzi writes about whatever strikes his fancy, from issues in publishing to politics to Twitter absurdity.  I follow him because he consistently offers his thoughts in a cogent way that’s entertaining and easy to follow.
  • Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men – I’m primarily a fan of Jay Edidin and Miles Stokes’s weekly podcast, but their companion blog feels like essential reading for the visual companion that they put out to go with each episode.  Since comics are such a visual medium, being able to see precisely what it is they’re talking about is always interesting and informative.  Besides that, pretty much everything supplemental that Jay posts on the site, like guest essays and reviews of X-Men: Evolution episodes, is well worth a read.

And that’s it for the major stops in my blog rotation.  If there are any blogs you particularly like yourself, feel free to drop them in the comments with an explanation of why you like them.

Idea!

Alright, so this is a blog post, but it’s not really a blog post because I’m not going to discuss a specific topic so much as propose a couple of potential topics for future blog posts.

As I wrote last week, sticking to a regular update schedule can be a little demanding, especially with the ever-looming specter of “I’m out of ideas.”  On the other hand, writing about things for an audience on demand does help stoke one very important impulse: to be able to talk about interesting things.  That’s a good impulse.

Following this realization, I picked up Paradise Lost and began re-reading it.  Keep in mind that this is not your run of the mill poem, but a twelve-book-long epic (granted, they’re very thin books).  It might be, objectively, the best thing, especially as I was looking over the editor’s note for the edition that I have where the editor said quite explicitly, “Paradise Lost is meant to be read aloud.”  Heck yeah!  I feel like I’ve only developed an appreciation for good poetry as I’ve gotten a little older (couldn’t stand the stuff when I was in undergrad), but now it’s just so delightful to read some fine lines of verse.

So maybe I’ll blog through Paradise Lost.  That may be an incredibly overambitious project to undertake, but it should be interesting (at the very least I promise I’ll write a post about Milton’s weird obsession with explaining how pre-Fall digestion worked for Adam and Eve).

The other idea I had is kind of a spin off from the mild popularity of my recent post about Disney’s Frozen.  I’m still not entirely sure why the internet’s in love with the whole movie when it’s really just those couple of songs that were so spectacular, but it’s gotten me thinking about the deep well of old Disney movies that I’ve seen (and all the ones that I haven’t seen which are just sitting around on Netflix waiting to be watched).  I like writing about movies, and I think people like reading about other peoples’ opinions on movies, so this is a good fit.  There’s also the wonderful angle of adaptations in Disney movies (I honestly can’t recall a single Disney film that isn’t an adaptation of other works of fiction).  People complain a lot about the Disneyfication of these stories, so it could be really interesting to examine that a little more closely and consider what gets lost and what gets found in the process of making things family friendly.

I think I’ll start with my favorite Disney movie, and then just move on from there.  If you have an opinion on a movie you’d like me to consider, let me know.  Otherwise I’m just going to go all willy-nilly and probably end up just watching Pixar movies instead, because they’re, objectively, better.

So I’m Writing Again

That’s kind of cool, I guess.

It feels weird coming back to blogging on a semi-regular schedule after taking so much time off, especially since I just finished that long series on talking with a fundamentalist.  I mean, I went from having a new post pretty much daily to posting virtually nothing for about two months.

It’s one of those things that I suspect all bloggers have hanging in the back of their minds: “What am I going to write about next?  How am I going to keep generating content?  What if I just run out of ideas/words/motivation?”  That was part of the reason behind that intense schedule that I was maintaining, if I’m honest.  I wanted to keep this thing going regularly because momentum is a great thing, and being in the habit of coming up with new topics feels great.  You know, you start thinking about what you’re going to write on, and then the ideas keep coming along because that’s just what you do when you have a blog to maintain.

Taking some time off has been really hard on my idea generation habit.

Of course, if I’m fair to myself then I know that there were some good reasons to take a break from blogging back in December.  January and February probably not so much, but I didn’t get back in the swing of things then, and the whole point I’m trying to make here is that inertia sucks.

In fact, it sucks so much that here I am after two weeks of solid updates and the thought of putting something on the page is frustrating me to no end.  I feel like I need something to help jumpstart my thoughts, but I don’t know what.  Honestly, I’d love to get some input on topics.

In the meantime, I’m also trying to get into writing fiction again (I know everyone’s so pleased with the prospect of more of my horrid single draft flash pieces showing up here) through a support group that kind of popped up on the forums at Escape Artists during NaNoWriMo 2014.  In a moment of thinking that giving myself a hard deadline to meet would light a fire under my butt, I agreed to do a monthly writing exchange where I and several other folks post our current fiction projects for critique at Escape Artists’ private crit forum.  My first showing was miserable, mostly because it was little more than the stub of a story, and now I’m trying to muddle through revisions on a short story that I conceived about a year ago but never got around to finishing.

Did I mention that I’ve never done serious revisions on anything I’ve written before?  That’s part of what I’ve enjoyed about the blog format, because it’s very much a fire-and-forget medium where my thoughts go down and if I need to clarify them later, then that’s just another post to write up rather than having to try to fix the first draft.

It’s this kind of lazy attitude that I suspect will keep me from ever getting anything published for actual money, unlike Rachael who just made her first professional sale on a short story she originally wrote in August and has continually revised and refined since then.  It’ll be appearing in the upcoming May issue of Penumbra magazine for anyone who might want to check it out.  I’ve read the story many times through the revision process, and I still think it’s a fantastic piece.

Anyhow, I’m writing again.  Mostly blog stuff (though I’m not doing the crazy post-a-day schedule anymore), but some fiction thrown in too for good measure.  If anyone has any suggestions for things they’d like me to consider, I’m certainly listening.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing movie posts (they’re quite fun when they’re about films that are thought-provoking), but that feels a little one-note, especially since I’m not focused exclusively on movie-watching.  What was my tagline again?  Right, thoughts on stories, spirituality, and superheroes.  I guess I should take another look at those topics.

Relation

I have a great fondness for Donald Miller.

Shortly before Rachael and I got married, we took a road trip up to Ohio to visit her parents, who were living there at the time.  It was an eight hour drive, and in order to help pass the time, we decided to get some books on CD, and we picked up a copy of Blue Like Jazz.  That book had made a splash in Christian circles just a couple years earlier, and I’d never read it, so I was excited to see what it was about.

I honestly don’t remember much about it, but it was good.  It reminded me of my college roommate Chris to a degree, so after we were done with it, I loaned the audiobook to him.

Chris, you still have my audiobook.

Cover of "Searching for God Knows What"

Cover of Searching for God Knows What (image credit: Amazon.com)

That’s not important, though.  What is important about this story is that I got introduced to Donald Miller’s writing, and so I went on to consume the other books that he had written, which were also all very good.  My favorite was Searching for God Knows What.  Miller puts forth a theory of the human condition that suggests we are inherently relational creatures, and all our definitions of ourselves rely on a relationship to someone else.  Miller points out that while relationships between people are important, they’re never fully satisfying.  God created us to exist in relation to him, and forgetting that relationship leaves a void.

I think Miller’s most poignant example of our relational nature is his explanation of the middle school pecking order.  Middle school kids are constantly forming up an imaginary line where the most popular kids are at one end and the least popular are at the other, and your worth is determined by how many people are less popular than you.

Richard Beck describes it simply as people’s desire to matter.  He very rightly points out that everyone wants to matter in some way, and we all do things to let others know that we’re important.  I have to duck my head when he brings up the example of keeping track of blog statistics.  I’ve been blogging for only a month, but whenever there’s a lull in my day, I compulsively check my stats.  I want to see that people are reading what I’ve written, because that makes me feel validated.

There’s a common maxim in Christian circles that what you do should be done for God.  According to this line of thinking, I shouldn’t be concerned with my hit count so much as I should be concerned that what I write honors God.  Now, I blog about a lot of stuff, and while I do believe there’s room for talking about Christ in relation to comics and video games, I’m more concerned with writing good posts that people find entertaining and informative.

Instead of saying that it doesn’t matter to me how many people read my words (that’s a lie) I’d rather say upfront, “Yes, I do want more people to read me.”  It ties into the concept of vocation, which in simple terms means trying to do your work to the best of your ability because that is honoring to God.  If more people are reading what I write, then that’s an indicator that my writing is getting better, and if my writing is what I do to glorify God, then improving my writing is God-honoring.

And at the same time as all that, Jesus said that the last will be first, which is a hard thing to grasp when we so desperately want to matter to someone.  I think Richard Beck’s right that this wanting to matter is an obstacle to being a better follower of Christ.  Donald Miller suggests that this is because we’re looking for fulfilling relationships, and our relationship with God is the most fulfilling of all because our relationship with him defines us completely.

Yet, I find myself wondering at how to reconcile all these disparate ideas.  The last shall be first and the first shall be last.  Our relationship to God is the most important relationship.  We want to matter to each other.  Trying to be better at my work, which involves measuring how much other people are hearing me, honors God.  All of these things are interrelated, and at the same time they seem to be in tension somehow.

I think, and this is just a shot in the dark so feel free to offer your opinion if you have one, that the key to reconciling these things is community.

When we put our talents towards serving the community, we are both honoring God through our vocations and making ourselves less important than others, because we emphasize our relation to one another over ourselves through service.  In serving the community, we find fulfilling relationships with one another, but we also see the echoes of God’s relationship with us through his own service.

What do you guys think?