Saturday, February 21, 2015

Beyond the Literary Monologue: Engagement and Empathy

I've been pushing my students to develop their personal essays in more social ways -- trying out parts of their drafts with their friends and family members, and then doing the same but in broader circles among strangers. This has had mixed success: it isn't easy to take incomplete, in-development kinds of writing and put this in front of others who will not always understand the intent or purpose of our writing. It has been a risk, and not always an easy one.

Reframing Writing in Two Ways
I've done my best to try to give my students a new framework for understanding this writing -- two frameworks, actually. The first of these is coming to terms with new ways of creating and communicating that are part and parcel of our social-digital environment. Sharing in such contexts isn't something that awaits the kind of perfection that literary authors often want to give to their refined writing. In fact, you have to think of the refining process as not being as effective if it is purely private or minimally shared with one or two confidantes.

The second framework is more Mormon, but related to the first. And that is that we Latter-day Saints are being called to communicate and to participate within the new media. We are being asked to be digital pioneers in a clear parallel to our actual pioneer forbears: we are going through deserts of unknowns, and there are clear threats to venturing outside of the civilized comfort zone of the past and into the digital wilds where there are wolves and paths to nowhere.

Into the Digital Wilderness
I hope my students are catching the vision, recognizing that we are faced with not just the dangers of the unknown but also with a range of possibilities few have had before. Just what is it that can happen when you can be in touch both broadly and yet somehow intimately with thousands or millions of strangers? Is it possible to look beyond the pitfalls to see things like God's hand at play in this awkward, complicated, powerful, bizarre new world we now inhabit?

When the early Mormon pioneers were contemplating their westward journey, they relied upon reports from Jim Bridger and others who had gone ahead just a bit and could report back. We need to do the same with our digital pioneering. In this case, some of our blogger pioneers (like DeNae Handy and Luisa Perkins whose writings we've recently read) have provided some maps. Their published writings are not those maps; their blogs are.

Writers Read and Respond
Print-based publishing gets you thinking more in terms of making finished (completed, refined) products that get mass produced and distributed / sold so that the idea of audience that goes along with print is comparable to mass media: success is counted in terms of large numbers, and not so much in terms of any kind of personal connection or interaction you might have with readers. People writing online can still get caught up in numbers (of sales, of "likes"), but the ones who are having the most joy with their writing -- if I dare claim as much -- are those who aren't thinking of their writing as products to sell, but as opportunities to connect.

Take a look at DeNae Handy's blog post, "Falling for You." But once you've read the post, which is quite short, go back and spend real attention going through the 50 comments made by readers. This is evidence not just of the topic being of inherent interest, but of the presence of a real community. DeNae and her fellow bloggers spent as much time reading and responding as they did writing. They grew to know, love and interact with their fellow reader-writers. In building community, they built an audience. Or, the "building up" of an audience wasn't really about numbers but about building up their readers in terms of sustaining and supporting them in a human way.

This is not the way that most students blog, or most writers. Most people blog because they have something to say and they want the world to hear it; but DeNae and her friends blogged as much to learn, to engage, and to show empathy as to write anything on their own. What did they figure out about the digital wilderness? That cultivating it happens less through monologue and more through dialogue, and that the "messages" that circulate online are powerful in proportion to how much listening, connecting, and responding that one does, and not just how much publishing one did or how much care was given to the writing.

Let's Listen
I want my students to pause from writing and sharing and to refocus on connecting and listening. If the goal is always how-can-I-get-someone-to-read-or-respond-to-my-writing, we can be missing the real opportunity that online writing can provide: human connection. Now, human connection is a funny, slippery thing. How do we find these people? How do we interact with them? What if they don't interact with me when I reach out? What if I am not already part of some tight community of online fellow writers?

All good questions. There are more variables. It's far easier to control a paragraph you are revising than to manage getting a response you want from others. So, let's change the goal, just a bit, for a time. Instead of aiming to find reviewers or even anyone who cares about my-great-stuff-I-want-to-share, what if we aimed more at finding and listening to people with whom we might have some common ground?

This week I want my students to focus on finding, listening to, and responding to others online, and to do so by going beyond their close friends or family with whom they already regularly interact. I want my students to take a chance on finding people and groups that have something that speaks to them and to which they can make modest, human-centered contributions. I believe that before we can follow Elder Bednar's instruction to "share goodness," that we need to follow the 13th article of faith and seek after what is of good report and praiseworthy -- the content, and the ones who are making and sharing it.

I'd like each of my students go into the digital wilderness along several new frontiers, to look for those who are expressing ideas or generating content that is sympathetic to their interests, and then to read or watch thoughtfully. I want them to be a good audience, thoughtful responders, generous and civil and engaged. And I don't want there to be an expectation of reciprocation. Find goodness first, and then the good you have to share will come into play more naturally along the way, a bit later. You aren't out to exploit people as prospective audiences or pseudo-friends; you are trying to be a good reader, a good Christian, a seeker of what is of good report and praiseworthy, and then you will praise and engage and report on the efforts.

For your Sunday blog post (2/22/15), report on the new places you've gone online, the interesting people you've discovered, and the praiseworthy content you've found and responded to. Push beyond token responses and try to leave the kinds of comments that you wish others would leave on your posts. Have some faith it will lead somewhere worthwhile, and don't let thoughts of your own writing project interfere with the more human, humane connecting I'm urging you to do. By Wednesday, be ready to report on the good you are finding and the good you are feeling by being a thoughtful reader for awhile, not just an aspiring writer.

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