A Taste of the Vox Populi (A Journey Through Blogging Advice)

The blogging process.

I started blogging because I am a writer and needed a creative way to express myself on a variety of subjects.

Actually, that’s horse pucky – I started blogging because I am a writer and I desperately want people to read what I write and think I’m the most talented thing to ever wear pants while typing. It’s a narcissistic ideal made complex by the large number of other narcissists out there who think they are the most talented thing to ever wear pants while typing. And some of them think they’re the most talented thing to NOT wear pants while typing. Whatever. Bottom line is, I had an ego to feed and nothing at my disposal to feed it. Thus, the idea of blogging appealed to me.

So I signed up for WordPress.com, found a design I liked, and started cranking out little missives. My very first blog was A Southern Gentleman, and I chose this handle because all of the articles I read (yes, I did research on how to become the World’s Most Famous Blogger and Earn $10 Billion a Year By Being a Smart-Aleck) suggested that, to become outrageously famous, you had to have a niche – a thing – that set you apart from other people. Those articles also recommended first-time bloggers “write what you know” and “use humor to lure readers.”

Thus, A Southern Gentleman was born with an inaugural post about sweet tea. I felt great – I was writing what I knew (being Southern), I had created a niche (filling the void left by Lewis Grizzard) and I was funny (never an issue for me). I sat back and waited for the blog hits to pile up. The returns were modest, about 15-20 people per day, a number that I found depressing.

I had followed the rules: niche, know, humor. Why weren’t more people coming to my site? I crashed Google searching for more articles on how to increase my blog traffic. I read about SEO, tags, keywords, and cross promotion. I learned that I needed to read 5,000 blogs a day and comment on every one of them and make sure to link to my URL every time. I became addicted to the Writers Market series of books via Writers Digest via the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum. I suddenly realized that what I wanted would require more hours than I could afford. I needed to dedicate myself to writing if I wanted to become the next Literary Genius.

So I dug in – I tried commenting, linking, tweeting, and everything else imaginable to get my name out there, hoping against hope that I would somehow be discovered and lavished with the praise my frail writer’s ego hungered after.

It didn’t work.

I ran out of steam with A Southern Gentleman. I love being Southern, but there’s only so much you can say on the subject and honestly, I found myself ripping off Lewis Grizzard the more I wrote. I also found myself becoming exceedingly negative about my writing; instead of writing what made me happy, I wrote what I thought would draw an audience. I let imaginary readers I didn’t have drive my voice and ignored the input of my actual readers because they were too few. So I did what all writers do. I quit.

I laid low for a while, but got the urge to write again. Since the non-fiction humor/essay route didn’t work with my first blog, I got the brilliant idea to start a blog dedicated to short fiction. I called it StorySouth (then later, The Southern Muse) and I decided to make things easier (and to increase potential traffic) I would solicit other writers I knew for stories. I would post them on the site, link to them via Facebook, etc., and the authors would in turn pimp the blog out via their social network. Great concept, right?

Except I learned the hard way that some writers are only interested in writing as a part-time gig. As in, they only write part of the time, or to be more accurate, they only write about 1/1,000,000th of their waking lives. This created a content vacuum that I tried to fill. And let me tell you – as easy as it sounds, making crap up out of thin air is HARD. Very hard. And it didn’t help that readership (my life’s breath as a writer) was only marginally better – around 25-30 views per day.

Having learned from my previous blog that when the going gets tough, real writers quit, I opted to take a bit of a break. I lamented. I wept. My ego suffocated, revived, then suffocated again. Finally, I opted to make another name change and start things all over again. Jason Muses was born. I decided that since I wrote both creative nonfiction and fiction, I would showcase those talents whenever I felt the mood (because I am like a cheap 70’s novelty – a mood writer) and wouldn’t worry about readership. I would write because that’s what makes me happy.

And things were fine. Readership about the same, though I did manage to increase little by little. I figured out how to use Facebook and Twitter appropriately (I think). I learned to be happy if I could make 2-3 people laugh or think or read per day. I still longed to be in print. I still hungered to be well known. But I was okay with the knowledge that, if it ever did happen, it would take years of faithful blogging.

That was about 2 years ago. Things finally clicked about two weeks ago when my wife went out of town to help her sister after surgery. I opted to blog about my experience as a parent without my wife. Readership went into the 150 range each day that I blogged about my kids and my own ineptitude in parenting them. I suddenly had a large audience – and was writing stuff that was genuinely fun to write. My blogging finally paid off.

Until this past Friday, that is.

I woke up and put in a movie for the kids. For some reason, I got inspired to write about my daughter’s singularly most annoying habit, so I posted a quick blog. My wife and I got the kids together and went to the gym. Normal morning.

But when I got home and checked my email, I had 84 new messages, all from WordPress.com. Sixty-three of them were “likes” for my blog post, a phenomenon that had never happened before for any post. Twenty emails were pending comments on the blog post I’d written that morning (My Daughter, The Writer (I Hope)).

It was the last one that told me the story. “Jason Muses Post Promoted at WordPress.com” The email informed me that my post had been selected for Freshly Pressed and encouraged me to keep up the good work. That was all.

I soon discovered that Friday is a great day to get FP’d because you get to stay on the front page ALL WEEKEND LONG. I’ve averaged 2,250 people each of the last three days thanks to FP and WordPress.com.

I may never see print. I may never be famous. I may never be able to fulfill my dream of walking into my local Barnes & Noble and having a signing for my latest book in front of my friends and family. But for one weekend I was utterly amazed as a writer to know that well over 6,000 people took the time to read what I wrote, and almost 300 took the time to either “like”, comment or tweet my post. My writer’s ego, as malnourished as it was, is now a fully gorged tick in danger of exploding. I have heard from the voice of the people, and it has been an overwhelming, “Good job. We like this!”

And on a Monday morning, that’s a really nice thing to have in your pocket. Thanks to all who’ve read. I hope you’ll come back.

How Lewis Grizzard Changed My Life

I was filing out an application for a men’s mentoring program today (it’s with the C.S. Lewis Institute here in Atlanta), and among the many questions I had to answer was this:

20. What book, other than the Bible, has had the greatest impact on your life? Explain why.

It took me a while to think of it, but once I settled on my answer, I was amazed at just how much that one little book changed the trajectory of my future. This is not spiritual, at least not on the surface, but the book that most changed my life was Lewis Grizzard’s Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

I first read the book when I was in the sixth grade. My mother bought it as a pleasure read, but never quite got around to it. Something about the yellow paperback’s cover, a picture of Grizzard with a thermometer in his mouth and ice pack on his head, struck me as fascinating, and I quietly snuck the book out of my mom’s room and read it in one afternoon. I remember that I laughed at all of the jokes – even though this was an adult book with adult humor, everything resonated with me. It was the first glimpse of a truth about me: that I identified better with the generation ahead of me than I did with my own peers. My sensibilities, sense of humor, interests, observations, politics, and manners were more Baby Boomer than Gen X and I felt the same thing I felt when I stayed inside to listen to my parents and grandparents talk while the other kids went to play: that I was at home.

I loved the language, the irreverence, the risky-but-not-overt humor that everyone knew wasn’t like Mama’s but wouldn’t make Mama blush if she heard it; I loved the way that Grizzard was able to tell me about his plain life and make me interested. I had never read non-fiction before that (unless you count the Bible and my school books), and I had always assumed that non-fiction was boring. This opened up my eyes to the truth about story—narrative is the ebb and flow of all life, not just the stuff creative people make up. Grizzard’s book showed me that the average person is the central character in his or her own story while simultaneously being a major and/or minor character in countless other stories.

But I suppose what really makes this book most transformational in my life is the sheer fact that it made me want to write like Grizzard. I became a huge fan of his column in the AJC, and when it came time to select a career, and the college that would help prepare me for it, I followed in Lewis’ footsteps and chose the University of Georgia, majoring in Journalism. I gave up on that dream after my freshman year, but Lewis Grizzard’s book was so central to my choice that I never bothered considering any other school. It was UGA all the way.

I still find myself writing in the Grizzard tradition. I enjoy writing fiction, but I find that most of the time I connect best with people when I write in that columnist, everyman-observer, Southern boy style. I’ve found that I can write about anything that I want and be funny, serious, emotive, or all of the above within a single piece and people identify with it and embrace it. If I could have a career writing essays or columns that deal with my life as a parent or pastor or husband or Southern gentleman, I would be among the happiest men in the world, and I think in part it comes back to my salvation: I want to know that my life contributed something to the lives of others. My life – not what other people might expect from me, but who I am inside, no filters for public consumption.

I could go on, but in ways I couldn’t articulate, Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself was the awakening of the man I wanted to become, the man I am still striving to be. It remains a book that I read on a regular basis, even though some of the jokes aren’t as funny anymore; I can see in Grizzard a spiritual emptiness that leads to bitterness that I never noticed before, and it makes me sad for him, even as I determine to go in the opposite direction. But the book still reminds me of the stirring inside me to tell stories, to write well, to connect with people in a way that earns me an audience and the privilege to write about what I see is funny or true or meaningful or important about life. And it compels me to continue working toward the goal of being a published author, no matter how stacked the odds are against me. It is part of my purpose, I suppose, and Lewis Grizzard helped me find it.

The Most Influential Book Ever

I’d never heard of Gary Wills until Robert Siegel interviewed him on NPR’s “All Things Considered” the other day. I listened because I was in the car on the way home, and NPR is the best thing for preventing high blood pressure in Atlanta traffic. Also, I like Robert Siegel’s voice – there’s something about the calmness of it, with just a hint of a lisp, that makes it seem comforting without being pretentious. So when he mentioned “Pulitzer-Prize winning” and “historian” in the same sentence, I smiled at my good fortune and turned the volume up.

I’ll spare you the details on Wills (besides, this link on NPR.org sums it up better anyway) but I will say that I became fascinated by one of Siegel’s questions: “You’re signature question came about during an interview with Richard Nixon. You asked him, ‘What book has influenced you?'” Wills answered that Nixon’s response caught him off-guard because it was A) long, and B) thoughtful. Nixon’s book? “Beveridge and the Progressive Era” by Claude Bowers (1932).

Wills has asked the question of countless people since, including Hillary Clinton (“The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky, for opening up spirituality in a new way). It’s a fascinating way, if you’re a reader, to learn about other people. It’s not flawless, of course – taste in books is like taste in wine or fashion or movies: usually, anything that doesn’t match yours is to be scoffed at – but it does give us a common ground from which to examine people.

Needless to say, the interview, and the revelation of Wills’ most reliable and delightful question, has gotten me to thinking: what’s the most influential book that I’ve read?

Being a Christian, the Bible is tops. Nothing else stirs me quite like the Good Book, especially once I learned how to read it properly and not like a right-wing political manifesto. But that’s also an easy answer, and a bit bland. Like Amish prom dresses, it doesn’t reveal much.

So I’ve been wrecking my brain for some answers, and I have a few.

Most influential non-fiction? There are two. Lewis Grizzard’s “Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself“, which I read as a pre-teen by sneaking it out of my parent’s bedroom one afternoon while they were outside working in the yard. It was the funniest book I’d ever read up to that point (and still holds up pretty well, actually), and one that I would re-read countless times over the years. Grizzard showed me that the world I grew up in – Southern, down-to-earth, slightly awkward – was one that could produce stories that both moved and delighted people. I learned that you could bring people to tears with hysterics and profundity; that if you were honest about what you saw and felt (with maybe a dash of fictionalization tossed in for good measure) you could communicate simple truth in a powerful way.

In short, I learned that my natural knack for humor and storytelling was something that people might one day want to read. It changed my life, literally.

The second non-fiction book was “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Enough has been said about this book to fill a million blogs over, but Lewis’ straightforward and unorthodox (compared to how I grew up) approach to the faith gave me hope that I didn’t have to be ashamed of being smart and being a Christian. Until that point, there were powerful messages of shame that had been lobbed at me throughout my youth (not by my family, but outside sources) because I was smart. Because I liked to read. Because I could see things in the Bible that other people couldn’t see and teach those things in ways others couldn’t. I was told to not be uppity, or high-falutin’, or bigger than my britches. I was told that college was not for a good Christian man. I was told a lot of things, and Lewis showed me the exact opposite: that God wanted all of me – brain, imagination, soul, body. It was liberating.

But I came to Lewis’ non-fiction by his fiction. The first thing I ever read by C.S. Lewis was “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and it still remains the single-most influential piece of fiction I’ve ever read. Sure, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl stirred my mind in a more evocative sense with his chocolate river and great glass elevator and endless use of smell to ignite my imagination, but Lewis’ work was deeper, more profound, larger in a sense that very few books have matched since. Before I knew about Lewis’ Narnian tales and what he was attempting to do through fiction, I was amazed and awed by Aslan and his roar. I could imagine his mane being as golden as Lewis described and wanting to bury my face in it alongside Lucy’s. I could feel the coldness of Winter But No Christmas, and even got nauseated with Edward on Turkish Delight. I knew that the White Witch was an evil unlike any other, and I cried at the Stone Table. I experienced all of this without knowing its subtext, without knowing that Lewis was telling me a story that ran deeper than Narnia’s Deep Magic, ran deeper than the blood inside my veins.

And once I knew the Story behind the story, had experienced all of Lewis’ thoughts on fiction and art and beauty as a path to God, I became that much more enamored with the world behind the fur coats. I’m no Narnian scholar, not even an expert, but I know what I’ve taken away from the books, and how it’s changed what and how I want to write.

I could go on, but that would only serve to cheapen the books I’ve mentioned. I think, as I look back on it, while I’ve loved a great many books and had certain epiphanies as I read or shortly thereafter, none have impacted me as much as the three I’ve mentioned.

But in the spirit of knowing and learning, indeed in the spirit of Gary Wills, I would like to ask: what’s the most influential book you’ve ever read, and why?