Writing is terrifying. You have no idea where your words will go or how they will come back to haunt you. It freaked Plato out twenty-five centuries ago and it freaks me out today.
Your only hope is that the reader will assume good faith. That she is willing to step inside the text and feel through your words, rather than put them on trial and find them, as they will always be, wanting.
The internet is wonderful in more ways than I need to tell you, but it does not abound in a willingness to assume good faith. Words unaccompanied by bodies are more easily misunderstood. It is easier to be careless or unpleasant through a keyboard than in the flesh. Mailing lists go to war over which way to open a boiled egg. Comment threads sprout into a hydra of misreadings, some wilful, some innocent. Not always, but often enough to make us wary.
Years ago, at an exhibition opening, I staged a battle reenactment of a (pretty tame) mailing list fight. Twelve of us sat around a table and read aloud twelve minutes of extracts from what had been twelve thousand words of mails. The guy whose attack on me had triggered the original episode agreed to read my words and I read his. It shook us both.
The internet is not often a safe place to be vulnerable. Good writing, unless it is well-armoured polemic, requires vulnerability. I suspect this is why so many of the writers I know have an angst-ridden relationship to the internet.
To write with no fear that your words will be held against you, that is what it takes for written words to come alive. And the model for this, I think, is the letter you write to a friend. There are certain books which started life as letters and they come alive in this way. I am thinking of John Berger’s ‘and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’, parts of which must have been written as love letters, but I realise that I could be thinking of any of a dozen of Berger’s books or essays. I am thinking also of Hugh Brody’s ‘The Other Side of Eden’ which grew out of his letters to his friend Ted Chamberlin. Where technologies open gaps between us, whether the technology is the internet or the alphabet, friendship can make those gaps disappear into irrelevance. When you write to someone you know to be a friend, you don’t worry about whether they will assume good faith.
I stumbled into blogging more than ten years ago. I was living in wild west China, one of maybe two dozen foreigners in a city of 400,000. This is not the place to try to explain how the experience changed me, but some days it was all too much. I started writing “round robin” emails to friends back home, then I got guilty about clogging the inboxes of those I never heard back from, so I started using a site called LiveJournal instead. After a couple of months of posting there, I realised with a jolt that two people I’d never met had started following my posts.
For a long time, though, blogging still felt intimate, a place where I could talk through whatever I was working on and assume that anyone who was interested enough to be reading would assume good faith. Then it didn’t feel like that anymore. Lots of other things happened, I moved countries and changed the shape of my life, and I let my online life drift for a couple of years. Then this year, as I found my feet in Sweden, I started this site as a place to write about the work I’m doing.
I think it works. It’s a public home, a place for publishing things. But lately I’ve been feeling the itch for a more personal way of writing over the internet. Around the same time, I started reading email newsletters from people like Warren Ellis and Deb Chachra – and I was struck by how different a newsletter can be to a blog.
A newsletter arrives in your inbox without demanding any response, which makes a pleasant change from most of the rest of the email you get. Still, it has to be interesting enough to actually make you want to read it. There’s no comment thread. Often, there’s not even a public archive, so it lives somewhere just a little more intimate. Sometimes it can feel like a personal email a stranger has sent you by mistake.
So, because clearly none of us has enough words in our inboxes already, I thought I’d try joining in the renaissance of the email newsletter. I give you Crossed Lines, an occasional letter about what I’m reading, writing, thinking and talking about. And about what ever else I feel like writing about. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
The first letter will go out at sunrise, one morning in the near future.
Sign up for Crossed Lines here – make sure you click on the link in the Confirm email from TinyLetter.
(Image from here.)