A Blogger’s Lament


    willburn rantA productive weekend is behind me.  I’ve re-organized the shed, wired in a new light for the barn cats, planted six five-gallon Itea and marked out the corners for the spring vegetable garden.  There’s a new straw bale encampment for the leftover camellias, a water barrel installed on the barn downspout and my family is currently sleeping off the remains of a damn good roast dinner.

    Now I’ve got to blog about it.

    Never mind the fact that I’ve already written two print columns this week.  I’m a garden writer in the digital age.  It’ll take more than 600 twice-weekly words of well thought out copy, wickedly injected with humor and carefully wrapped in clever cultural references to grab the attention of gardeners digging with the hand that isn’t holding their phones.  They want daily updates, tips, trips, edge, ten-star photos and reviews on the latest tool. Don’t bore them with too many adjectives.  Don’t jade them with too many facts.  Just give them your status. And then do it again.

    Staring at the screen, I can’t help remembering a lecture I once attended by the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Russell Baker who bemoaned the fact that writers today have no time to think.  Blog blog blog.  Find some time to do the work we’re blogging about.  Blog blog blog some more. I fought the title of “blogger” for years.  I’m a writer, a columnist, a freelancer…anything but a blogger.

    Oh no my darling – own your hell.  Blog.  The screen is still blank.  WordPress wants a title – something catchy. Key words, key words….Well, ‘garden’ obviously, but does that negate the need for ‘gardener?’  I list ‘garden’ and all variations thereof and write the required two paragraph update on my plot, my life, my dress-size for the stalkers and my headache for the sympathizers.  Facebook is updated, the sidebars are changed, a photo is added and Sisyphus is once again at the top of the hill.

    Yet the boulder will roll down again, and  in my thoughtless keystrokes and hurried references I will lose my voice.

    A writer’s voice, their greatest strength, ebbing quietly away in a world of one-sentence tweets and indulgent diary-esque musings. The voice that made you want to live with Lloyd at Great Dixter, sip sherry with Sackville-West, and take Amy Stewart to a party.  The voices that charmed you and delighted  you and never over-used the rule of three.  Those voices are busy gardening . Do you have the patience to wait for what they write?  Will you have the time to read it?

    Marianne Willburn is a garden columnist and freelance writer gardening in Northern Virginia.  You can read more at The Small Town Gardener or follow her work on Facebook.


    1. ‘Those voices are busy gardening . Do you have the patience to wait for what they write? Will you have the time to read it?’

      If there’s one thing that captures the ethos of gardening — apart from dirty fingernails — dirty fingernails and a sore back — dirty fingernails, a sore back and a bewildered spouse who’d rather visit the dentist than garden — dirty fingernails, a sore back, a bewildered spouse who’d rather visit the dentist than garden and kids shrieking ‘Mom where’s my hamburger?!’ — dirty fingernails, a sore back, a bewildered spouse who’d rather visit the dentist, kids shrieking ‘Mom where’s my hamburger?!’ and Scruffles the Terrier digging up bulbs — dirty fingernails, a sore back, a bewildered spouse who’d rather visit the dentist, kids shrieking ‘Mom where’s my hamburger?!’ Scruffles the Terrier digging up bulbs and an infestation of midges — never mind. You get my drift. That word is indeed Patience. Blogging is to writing as plastic flowers are to gardening. Just not the real thing.

    2. I can’t disagree with Daniel’s and Jerry’s comments about blogging vs. writing–and yet here we are: reading and responding to….a blog post! So, what is it we want or expect from blogging? A place to have our say (even if no one is reading), a community of like-minded souls, a virtual hang-out to take a break during our day?

      I check in with a few blogs regularly, but I never read all of the posts, because the topics don’t always interest me (including on GardenRant). I also don’t expect the writing to be top-of-the-line (although it’s always a pleasure to read good writing), I probably choose what I read based on content mostly.

    3. My intent in this piece is not to self-aggrandize or to demonize ‘blogging’, but to call for quality over quantity and an audience who values the same.

      Whether it is about cooking or gardening, philosophy or historical events, good writing takes time; and to write with any credibility whatsoever, one must use a great deal of that time exploring, researching and working in the field one has chosen. Unless one has a staff, or comes together with others to run a world-class website (such as this one), that life is not compatible with posting, following, commenting, uploading, updating and tweeting on a nearly constant basis. It is particularly not compatible with a profession that values patience, time, and the natural world above most things.

      There has always been a large aspect of self-promotion present in a writer’s life, but the digital age has taken this necessary evil to a new, overwhelming level. For many, it can take much of the joy out of the work itself and water down our voices as we struggle to get new content out there…whatever it is.

      Blogging IS writing and writing is an art form. You should want your words to be read and you should want them to be exceptional. The digital age makes that process challenging.

    4. I used to do a monthly garden column in a local paper and I eventually ran out of anything to talk about… partly because distilling the thousand fleeting but profound thoughts and observations I’d had while gardening or puttering around the potting shed or smoking on the porch or sitting at a red light seemed contrived and stale by the time I had assembled them into a kind of meatloaf of gardening advice.
      How does telling house wives how to pot up succulents in a whimsical container (perhaps an old cowboy boot?) convey my fleeting suspicion that gardeners are able, at times, to fathom the entire universe by holding an Echeveria in the palm of their hand?
      Is it possible that the immediacy of garden is similar to the immediacy of blog?
      I don’t know.
      If my hands weren’t so dirty when I’m in the zone I could maybe take a second to jot down a thought without gumming up my iPhone.
      All this to say – blogging might be good.

    5. I have to add my voice to those who don’t quite understand the point of this – it sounds like a bit of an apology, and what is there to apologize for?
      Nobody is making you blog – there are no rules to it, you follow your own path. If you feel you need to be caught up in an endless cycle of tweets and status updates and instagram photos of your latest garden visit -and that it is a burden, I’d look at your own motives and motivation. If you want to post one quality post once a week, or once a month – who is stopping you from pulling back?
      The beauty of blogging is that it is yours. And I love blogs written by non-writers! This is garden writing anarchy, and it’s GOOD! Of course, not all of the writing itself is good – but are we really advocating that only the voices of those like Amy, Christopher Lloyd, or Ken Druse deserve hearing?

      I personally LOVE what blogging gives us – the immediacy, the diversity, and the breaking of control over readership that magazine editors/publishers had on us. Sure, not all posts are pulitzer prize winning, but why do they have to be?
      Blogging is what you make it. Some make it delightful and fresh, and those are the blogs that I read. You might like a different style -well how great for us, because the diversity that blogging brings to garden writing means there is a garden blog for every garden reader.
      So I really don’t get what this lamentation is all about. If you are having a bump in your writing process, take a break (I have been on a “break” from my blog for a while, and I think my writing practice is getting revitalized because I took a vacation) and re-thing why you feel you are just writing “words of well thought out copy, wickedly injected with humor and carefully wrapped in clever cultural references to grab the attention…” instead of communicating your passion.
      Reading that line made me sad.

      • Hmmmm….. ” words of well thought out copy, wickedly injected with humor and carefully wrapped in clever cultural references to grab the attention of gardeners”……Well, there is a certain amount of self-deprecation there certainly, but we should all of us be truthful about our own style, don’t you think?

        My aim is to get people chuckling, then get them thinking, and then, I hope to find them gardening. We come to it in many different ways.

    6. Professorroush, in an sentence you capture the essence of my post here “My broader writing impulses are crushed by short blogs of momentary focus.” So the question raised by Ivette (which is a very good one) is, “Must we blog? Are we forced to blog as writers, and more specifically, as garden writers or columnists?” I would love your answer to this question, but I feel that the message from writers’ conventions, workshops, web developers and chat rooms is a resounding “YES!” Why? In order to build and retain an audience that is trained to follow hourly headlines and minute-by-minute dramas. If you make writing your career, you ignore this new world to your peril, whether you are passionate about gardening, cooking, economics or politics.

      I actually wrote this post in response to (recently) reading a 2010 Rant regarding Anne Raver by Susan Harris. Great article, which said two things that bothered me.

      A) “Anne Raver is the long-time garden writer for the New York Times, now an occasional contributor there. (Because yes, coincident with the rise of gardening, especially among the young, the Times has reduced it to an afterthought.)” and;

      B) “Like all garden writers not regularly employed by a newspaper, Anne needs to get herself on the web, but doesn’t know where to start. So friends, what would you suggest for a small website that’s easy to keep current?”

      Susan highlights the point that the marketplace is changing. No matter how well Ms. Raver writes, and no matter her street creds (I’d say GC for the NYT is pretty impressive), she’s being counseled to get on the web and stay current. Three years on, she may have created an amazing site, and she may very well inform us that she absolutely loves constantly updating it – I only know that I read that second sentence and thought “Oh no! Don’t make her blog! She’ll lose that voice!” Whether we hated the power that the editors and publishers had over us as writers (and the subsequent loss of good voices who never got a microphone), it cannot be denied that it stopped good voices from being buried in an avalanche of information overload.

      • But how does all this online time translate into income for professional writers? My writer and newspaper and magazine friends are complaining about being required to give away the milk – but no one’s paying for the cow.

        • Exactly. I think that’s what Russell Baker was getting at during that lecture I attended – the modern writer is expected to do all the things that Anne was mentioning in her comment, AND write – not much time to make an income. Don’t know about the rest of the writers out there, but “IT guru” wasn’t part of the job description when I signed up. The absurdity of swearing blue murder over computer issues when the whole reason for the computer issue was to communicate the sweet joy of gardening has me gritting my teeth some days. Again, a site or blog like GardenRant, where many people come together to create and manage content seems like a better option than one guy or girl holding down the whole show. But then, I don’t know the inner-life of GardenRant either 🙂

    7. I’ve heard it said that writers (even much-published ones) sometimes have to make themselves take a break from on-line writing and blogging in order to spend more time doing their “serious” writing. The amount of time we spend dashing off e-mails, twittering, facebook-posting, and also blogging (or commenting!) adds up, and there are only so many hours in a day.

      Besides conceiving, researching and writing a post, then one has to respond to the comments and maintain the site. Therefore one becomes more than just a writer: also editor, IT specialist, website designer, marketing exec, blog moderator, etc). And then, when is there time for gardening???

    8. The thing about blogs that’s different from books and columns and even magazine articles is that you can take photos in the garden and then blog about a photo.

      The hard part is having clean-enough hands to use the camera, or remembering to bring the camera to the garden, or being able to think about anything but what needs to be done in the garden once you’re in the garden. And then if you do manage to take photos, you have to leave the garden to put the camera away, so it doesn’t get watered or mulched or composted.

    9. I like the “salon” type environment that blogging creates, though. If I had to carry on these kinds of conversations about what I’m truly interested in among my friends – who mostly are into football – I would be very lonely. It’s nice to find like-minded people who are as passionate as I am and willing to discuss, debate and critique.

    10. I don’t know what all the complainings about. Blogging’s not so tough. It’s getting an audience that’s the killer. I happily post on my blog at least once a year, but somehow most of my audience seems to be English-challenged spammers and photo scrapers. Go figure. Getting the million viewers you’d need to make the thing pay is the hard part!


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