The Notebook of the Web

Sarah Gerard recently ruminated on what it means to keep a notebook for the Paris Review. Sarah is an accomplished writer, so keeping a notebook, for her, means something more substantial than for most.

It wasn’t always that way. As a child, Gerard didn’t have any preconceptions about what it meant to keep a notebook:

Most of my childhood notebooks are lost–begun in a state of excitement but half- or quarter-filled and abandoned after a few weeks. It wasn’t until high school that I began to think about my notebooks as things that needed to be preserved.

Through the simple act of living in a world which cannot fail to impose its social constraints, Gerard began to assign more and more weight, not just to the concept of keeping a notebook, but to the notebooks themselves, spending vast amounts of time considering which particular notebook would be suitable for her purpose:

It took me a long time to write them: several hours spent sitting in a café using several different pens. I had chosen the notebook carefully after considering many options; there were rules about how durable it had to be, how broad the pages, how tall the lines (it had to be lined). I looked at different brands: Rollbahn (an old favorite), Leuchtturm, Moleskine, Rite in the Rain. I didn’t want something with a hard back (although this is ultimately what I ended up with). I didn’t want something too small because I was afraid it wouldn’t encourage longer entries.

Gerard’s concept of a notebook as an adult became a staggeringly different thing than the notion of the notebook that she held as a child. When she was young, it was a place for secrets, for stolen glances, for private observations about herself and her world. As she grew, the notebook took on a role of gravity, of her own perception of herself and her ideas. Having spent so much time choosing a notebook, she sat down in a cafe, and, when faced with the blank page, the child again took over. She wrote until her hand was tired.

We live in a time of thinking in public. The tweet, the status update, the blog post... all, by now, are tired clichés of the mundanity of an offline life spoken through the mouths of our avatars. This, of course, is the same offline life that mutated Gerard’s perceptions of a notebook. Might it not do the same, then, for our concept of online speech?

In the early days of social networking, there were few, if any, rules. Over time, we’ve developed a system of etiquette, of norms, of the “proper” way to tweet or write for an online audience. Some are useful, and extend common courtesy: don’t be too cynical. Don’t tweet your lunch. Don’t complain, and for God’s sake, don’t make your kid your Facebook avatar (it’s creepy). All of these can be distilled into one thing: respect the time and attention of those who follow you on social media. They have lives, jobs, babies, hobbies- and they choose to temporarily suspend those things in order to see what you have to say. Respect that.

Other norms have developed more subtly, like rivers slowly carving out the shape of their beds. Stay positive. Don’t get off-topic. If you keep a blog, you’ll find a mind-boggling amount of articles telling you how to do that effectively (try this, this, or this.

The effect of all these constraints, this “advice,” is the same as the effect of adulthood on Gerard’s approach to keeping a notebook: we think too damn much about it.

One of the most beautiful and exciting effects of the modern web is the fact that it’s melded professional and personal writing. You still have massive publications like the Times and Atlantic, of course, which exemplify professional writing (and thank God for that), but the web also brought about the professional writer who gets a bit personal, and the personal writer who gets a bit professional. These norms (read: constraints) that have arisen are pushing those writers back into their respective corners. If you’re professional, stick to your topic. Remember: you have a brand to uphold. If you’re personal, stick to your topic: you’re building a brand, you know.

So we talk about the things we’re supposed to talk about, whether on our blogs or on Twitter or Facebook.

If I may, fuck that.

We’re not wired that way. We’re built to tell stories, to go off on tangents, to broaden our horizons. We do ourselves no favors by walking through this tunnel when there are entire valleys to be traversed.

Nor do we do our followers, our readers any favors. Think about the last four or five pieces you’ve read, or the last few hours of your Twitter timeline. How much is regurgitated thought? How much is a slightly different take on the same thing? We’ve homogenized the web (or, at least, that’s the path we’re walking).

Humans are built to tell stories. We connect with one another not by our approach to Syria, or by our credentials, or even by our interests. We connect because we hear stories we can relate to. We connect because we know the heartache of losing a loved one, or of being bullied, or of failing. We connect because we know the soaring triumphs of overcoming adversity, of seeing our child’s first smile, of finding ourselves.

If we’re not careful, though, we’ll lose those stories, that ability to connect, to the homogenized, hyper-focused web.

I am not advocating that we all throw away our chosen disciplines, our interests, in the name of making the web our own personal diaries. I am merely saying this: the next time you see a blinking cursor, think about the limitations of years of being told what to write. If you feel like working within those limitations, so be it. If not, though, open yourself up, and put yourself — and your words — out there.

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