Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Elizabeth Bishop, On Blogs

One of the questions I’ve been trying to answer with this blog is why so many people (myself included) feel compelled to keep blogs at all—especially ones that delve deeply into people's personal lives (see 12/2/07). It occurred to me that the answer may lie in an Elizabeth Bishop essay entitled “The U.S.A. School of Writing” that came out long before the advent of online eavesdropping. Though Bishop was better known for her poetry, her prose—especially this essay—is well worth the read.

“The U.S.A. School of Writing” opens as Bishop, a recent Vassar graduate, has just received a job at the eponymous correspondence school in New York, which is nothing more than a mail-fraud scheme to swindle aspiring authors. Bishop’s task is to respond to students’ assignments, though many of them are barely literate individuals who dream of glorious writing careers after seeing the school’s flashy advertisements in farming magazines. Bishop responds to her students under the name of her predecessor Mr. Margolies; and after reading their humble letters and awkward, confessional stories, she begins to understand what drives them to writing:

Henry James once said that he who would aspire to be a writer must inscribe on his banner the one word “Loneliness.” In the case of my students, their need was not to ward off society, but to get into it. Their problem was that on their banners “Loneliness” had been inscribed despite them, and so they aspired to be writers. Without exception the letters I received were from people suffering from terrible loneliness in all its better-known forms, and some I had never even dreamed of. Writing, especially writing to Mr. Margolies, was a way of being less alone. To be printed, and to be “famous,” would be an instant shortcut to identity, and an escape from solitude, because then other people would know one as admirers, friends, lovers, suitors, etc. (44)

James suggests that writers must separate themselves from the world they wish to portray in their work in order to be successful. Bishop’s students, however—many of whom work as sailors or ranch hands far from any sort of social activity—use writing as a way to gain entrance to a greater community where people will know their names and experiences. They choose writing over more direct ways of alleviating their loneliness because they have no close friends to relate to or confide in. This is not to say that all blog writers are friendless sheepherders, but they too want someone to share in their experiences, their successes, and their failures. It is in our very nature to reach out for human contact in this big world of ours; and now we can do so simply by updating our Facebook statuses.

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