I’ve been reading some occasional writings by one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, and a vague response I was feeling when I reached the ends of a few them has become clearer, at least somewhat. Adams wrote columns and also had a website in which he would send some of his wonderful, zany ideas out into the world and then, at the end, he would have some kind of cobbled-together, non-really-sequitor paragraph asking, essentially, “what do you think?”
It’s now obvious to me what I think was going on, because I recognize the symptoms in myself. On one hand, Adams had thought up something he liked thinking about, liked stirring around in his mind, and gotten himself to sit down and hammer the thing out, maybe revising a bit, maybe not. He complained constantly about writing but was drawn to it inexorably, too. So this bit, the part about having an idea, and playing with it, and then sitting down and writing about it, seems familiar to me.
I don’t think Adams was a greedy man; it’s not as if he would only agree to write something or send it out over the airwaves if he were guaranteed huge payments in return. That’s not how “play” works. At the same time, he wasn’t just interested in reading his own words…or in forcing people to read his words. I think of what he did as more like spontaneous, playful sharing, like an impromptu dance (I know this completely overlooks the whole editing aspect).
On the other hand, add to this, in the case of his columns and his website, which was an early attempt at this sort of thing, that Adams was looking in these cases for some back and forth. Some conversation. His H2G2 site was really trying to build an online community, as far as I can tell. And that’s where the “what do you think?” paragraphs come from. He was struggling with the ignition side of a conversation. Struggling in part because it was like a pick up line in a bar, uttered to someone he didn’t know personally but felt he wanted to know. Struggling also because it wasn’t part of the playful playing with the idea that had generated the rest of the column. So it was like this: spontaneous, impromptu dance, followed by feeling a need to deliver a pickup line to someone we don’t know but think we want to be talking with.
I recognize this now, because it is my experience with blogging. A little impromptu dance (in my mind at first, as an idea), and then it meets the constipating influences of my “responsible adult” brain and my “I’m trying to have a conversation” brain. The “responsible adult” brain is the atavistic guilt telling me that I should be doing something “useful” or “productive.” The “trying to have a conversation” brain is my loneliness in not having more impromptu dance partners, more bizarre and brilliant half wits and one-and-a-half wits around, responding to the clearly nutso world we inhabit (frequently wonderfully nutso) by dancing at it. So that loneliness, with the carrot/used-car-salesman con of “the blog is the solution to your existential orange alert,” leads me to try to public-ify my dance, write it down in a blog entry, and close with “what do you think?”
I’ve had some generous commenters on the blog, who have made feel less silly about sending out so many pickup lines, but, and I guess I’m pretty slow to pick up on these things – shortcomings I’ve heard people talking about for years and have probably even pontificated on myself – the online world isn’t doing it for me, as far as the dance partners go. For a while, I tried to get myself around that by making an effort to find other people’s online dances, but it was still a pretty hollow feeling. I love all the context that comes from being in the same room, on the same physical dance floor, as another person. Text alone, graphics, audio, video – they don’t cut it for me.
Trying to use a computer screen as a window to the larger world sounds great, but I don’t want to be limited to making up the context for the characters I spy through that window. I’d rather be dancing in person, with people. My favorite writers make me feel that way, oddly enough. It’s lower bandwidth than my computer; it’s even completely asynchronous in that some of the writers, like Douglas Adams, aren’t alive today. But the writing can still make me feel (is it just imagining?) that Douglas and Doug would be, could have been, are, partners and friends.
I’m not going to write a “what do you think?” paragraph here. I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, or whether. It’s tempting to write, “so long, and thanks for all the comments.”
But I won’t. Or at least I’ll write this little bit more to say hmm, this whole thing sure is a tough nut to crack. I did enjoy this little chat (thanks, Douglas). Who knows what’ll come next? (That’s a rhetorical question. Don’t fall for it.)