Blogs and Letter Writing–Reading today’s Sunday The New York Times Book Review


R.M. Rilke

I first pulled blogs into my college literature and writing classroom four years ago in part because I guessed that if implemented carefully within the course structure, blogging would invite students to experience the pleasures and rewards of, surprisingly enough perhaps, writing the extended letter. Indeed, I often remark here on the wonderful irony that this speed-tool, this hand-it-to-ya-quick-n-easy format, actually encourages the slow, the discursive, the thoughtful and thought-out extended correspondence between my students, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes one-to-many, sometimes many-to-many communications–dialogues or letter-like exchanges via meaty postings and comments rather than adjacent monologues or the rat-a-tat of repartee. The key is audience. On the blog, they are writing to someone, for someone, for many someones. And they get it very quickly. And it’s downright heady to know that if you have something to offer your reader–something expressed authentically, with all the deep thinking and feeling you can can muster, well then, someone else will hear, and respond, and most likely be touched in some way. How often do we encourage our students to aspire to such ends with their writing? How often do we let our students know that it will take a great deal of practice to learn how to feel the shape of the letter, the compression as well as the flexibility of the form? How often do we say, go ahead, and do it wrong for a while–you’ll get it when you’re ready?

I’ve learned over the years that it takes considerable and well-considered guiding and mentoring and modeling to ignite the blog-letter flames. They often have no experience whatsoever in letter writing or any kind of extended written discussion before being introduced to blogs in a class. It takes careful planning on the part of the teacher. And a willingness to write blog-letters, too. And slow things down.

And so reading today’s New York Times Book Review on the heels of teaching a workshop this morning during Middlebury’s Project for Integrated Expression both made me nod and say, yes, exactly, and then sent me to last spring’s course blogs to ask, but did I really insist on the kind of depth and range and daring required of such a communication. Two kinds of letters struck me–first the Letter to the Editor, as written by Francine Prose, taking V.S. Naipaul to task for his perspective as reported by Rachel Donadio in the August 7 Book Review. What a beautifully written letter, for one thing, and for another, an example of a noted writer taking the time to carry out her part of the age-old dialogue about the purpose of art, the novel, stories. I’ll use it as a model in one of my classes.

A little further into the Review comes David Orr’s essay, “On Poetry,” that touches upon some of what I just discussed with my workshop this morning: the power of stories and of the poet writing letters (I should have read the online version early this morning before class…). The essay sent me back into my classroom blogging work, making me look once again at how my students are blogging–really– . In writing about the power and lasting beauty of the letters written by a handful of great letter-writing poets, he bemoans (though not bitterly) the disappearance of the literary letter in this age of email and text messaging. He’s both funny and wry when he gives the test-message equivalent of Keats’ letters to his brothers in which he explains his notion of “negative capability.”

Of course, something shifts when we take away the heavy-bond paper, when we cannot touch the actual paper and words put down by the sender,the smears and tears that give a lived, felt dimension to the missive.

He writes:

…the correspondence of Pope, Keats, Rilke and many others is more than simply an interesting supplement to the poetic canon; without these letters, poetry as we know it wouldn’t exist.”

Even email messages, which bear some resemblance to letters, are probably too short (not to mention too easily disposable) to maintain the letter’s literary position. So we’re likely down to our last few poet correspondents.”

Yes. But really? Or is it too easy to send letters off into Never NeverLand? Could blogs (and I am talking about the few bloggers–just as he was talking about the few letter-writers) save the art of letter-writing, even extending it into a new form of communication between many? Something with an equal richness?

And then there’s the back page of the Week in Review and the 1963 T.S.Eliot quotation about television:

“It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.”

This is one of the great challenges for teachers incorporating computer technology into the classroom, a question that came up several times at Antioch last week–we must ground our pedagogy in learning communities, be they Pierre Levy-type reciprocal apprenticeships, or Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice. We can use technology to bring people together rather than to isolate them further into themselves through using social software to connect communities, through the age-old community-building friendship-bonding, extended ruminating, reflective practices such as letter writing.

And that’s the promise right there, I think, of blogs in the Blogging the World Project–not just to give students a space to gather their thoughts about their own, particular, separate immersive experience abroad, but to connect with one another, student in Russia with student in Germany, say, and to reach out and say, this is what is happening here, and this is what blogging seems to mean and how it feels.

Lots to think through as the semester looms. Lots to keep in mind. Lots to thread into my teaching.