Water and Fire: Metaphors I Blog By

Contrary to Marc Prensky‘s popular binary, I don’t see myself as a digital native, or a digital immigrant.  Rather, I am a reluctant, reformed Luddite, washed gasping onto your shining silicone shores of technology because the formerly lush pre-technology terrain has ebbed and eroded beneath my feet.  So I used a laptop as a life-preserver and floated across the digital divide, trying not to drown.  No, I am no digital immigrant, one who came here by choice following the dream of electric sheep and your Statue of Technology’s gleaming beacon, a flickering iPod held aloft. 

I am a digital refugee. 

I don’t speak the language. 

I plead digital asylum. 

But now that I’m here, I’ve come to discover that, just as there are activities that thrive in the face to face world—or, worse, “F2f,” the shorthand for what used to be called interacting, talking, or being human—there may also be opportunities that technology creates that are not pale imitations of personal contact or just more expensive versions of previous, now obsolete technologies like paper, paint, or vinyl.  Rather, there may be whole new avenues to travel, channels to explore, waters to drink. 

Two weeks ago I wrote about the things I learned after six months of blogging, focusing on how I felt to get page views and to view how readers viewed me.  And that was interesting and enlightening for me in a kind of techno-sociological way, my time-traveler’s view of my strange new home in the future.  So on the surface, the least blogging has helped me see are the ways in which I can now easily and frequently incorporate images, video, and links into posts.  It’s plenty fun and entertaining for me (and, I hope, others), which I do not denigrate.  

But it has also helped me to learn more about the creative process, something I was very interested in well before six months ago.  I started this project with the hourman concept—one topic covered in sixty minutes of writing, and, as I’ve said, I’ve mostly stuck with it.  But what I haven’t discussed is what I’ve done with that writing time.  It has occasionally been linear, the way students are forced to write essay exams in school, or the Alice in Wonderland approach: “Begin at the beginning…  and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”  But mostly, while I may spend the hour composing, I spend the day, or sometimes week before, composting, to borrow the metaphor of writer’s writer Natalie Goldberg.  Before I even sit down, and before I start the clock, I already have my topic, my angle, even if it’s vague, and preferably, my way out.  I’ve always believed in the importance of endings—one of the things I try to emphasize to my writing students is that you can’t tack on a conclusion.  Perfunctory, fake conclusions sound like this: “In conclusion, here’s what I just said.”  But now, I take them even more seriously.  Like a good war, a good piece of writing needs to plan its exit strategy before it even begins.  

But I also now build the link and image searches into my writing process as well, so that I’m not simply writing for an hour, then looking for apt an entertaining images or videos, or deciding in the editing and posting process which terms or ideas would benefit from or be bolstered by a missing link.  Instead, I Google as I go (possibly sing to “Whistle as I Work”?), and often enough, something that I see online gets me rethinking what I’m working on right then and there.  Blogging allows for a less hermetically sealed approach to writing: not the frustrated, isolated Artist on a mountaintop, quill and parchment in hand, awaiting divine inspiration—nothing that I’ve written would merit that kind of pretention anyway. But rather, writing online, using online tools, for online readers, has challenged the digital native/immigrant/refugee metaphor’s very foundation.  John Donne knew that no man is an island.  But every link, piece of writing, image, reader, and writer can become part of a vast digital island chain, a sweeping archipelago connected by legions of lightspeed Google ferries.

In addition to challenging the pseudo-Romantic cult of the lone writer, blogging has also challenged my romantic idea of creativity. Too often, we imagine writing can be blocked, as though it were a physical and terrestrial thing.  But if creativity is water, it flows and resists blockage.  Yet water may not be the best metaphor now, since water can indeed be dammed.    And while people do refer to writer’s block when they can’t produce, I don’t think that blockage is really the best metaphor for creativity or lack thereof either.  Nonwriters don’t get blocked; only writers do.  So what writers mean is that their creative process is like agriculture: it is capable of being grown, harvested, and exhausted.  We can overfarm and deplete our imaginary crops or clearcut our creative forests, leaving a fallow period of, we hope, restoration and germination.  We hope the ideas will come back, but we never know.  So when I committed to one blog post per week, I wondered how soon I might, shifting to another familiar metaphor again, burn out.  But instead I’ve come to think of the writer’s ideas as fire.  Yes, Plato, Prometheus, and Jesus beat me to this metaphor, but I think it’s a crucial one: rather than thinking of ideas as blocked vs. flowing, or developing vs. producing, we can think of them as a flame.  When we take from the fire, it does not get any smaller.  With the right conditions—air, kindling—it can perpetuate itself indefinitely, producing and reproducing at any rate.  You can’t put out a fire by taking from it; rather, that’s how you make it grow.  Creativity can operate in this way, too.  It does not need to burn out at all.

Yet even the fire metaphor falls short in describing what I’ve learned.  The commitment I’ve made to writing this blog—a commitment that has no obvious benefits, no product to push, no money to make, no political agenda, and no foreseeable purpose at all—is a reminder of the cliché about life being about the journey and not the destination. 

A little trite, though, so let me update it: life is about the journal and not the desperation.   

Time: just under an hour.  And I didn’t have this ending planned at all—it came as I wrote it. So much for what I’ve learned.


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3 thoughts on “Water and Fire: Metaphors I Blog By

  1. Hourman says:

    So two days after posting, here’s another lesson: the previous post about blogging had a far more internet-friendly title, “5 Things I’ve Learned about Blogging.” This one’s title, referring to the essay’s extended metaphors, is more poetic but less enticing. It’s better as a title but worse as reader- and search engine bait.

  2. Johannes says:

    Wait!! I just read your comment, and now have to assure you, my first reaction to this entry (before reading your comment) was, of course, “I love the title!!” (Well, since you know me, it was actually “I love the title!!!!!!”)

    I’m intrigued by the refugee/asylum metaphor (and I’m also thinking of people learning a so-called “second language”; I think at some point the notion of “mother tongue” dissolves)–and, you know, I think it’s so difficult to NOT get into an “I reject” / “I embrace” binary around current technology. It’s so easy and tempting to declare, say, the Kindle is the end of civilization (or the opposite pronouncement),instead of simply staying with the experience. It’s so tricky, I often get into this “Okay, I don’t want to be prejudiced so I’m just gonna be pro-technological blablabla thingy” mode. Instead of moving towards a, um, “technology-blind” stance. Maybe one doesn’t have to be polemical (i.e., distort the actual experience) to find that, yes, “real” books can provide a different experience than Kindles.

    (I remember a friend once saying [and I agreed with him], there might be an ethical problem with digital pianos. At the same time, I remember the first time I sat at an acoustic piano, I was completely confused you didn’t have to plug in a power cord. I was baffled that just pressing a key produced a tone.)

    So, one thing I really like about this entry is that you’re not going down that binary road.

    BTW, did you see the article in yesterday’s NYT, “That’s No Phone, That’s My Tracker”? I thought it was right up your alley.

    Sorry!! Messy comment!!! Linearity Lost!

  3. Hourman says:

    Thanks as always for reading and commenting, Johannes. I’m torn between titles that are more likely to get views vs titles that are imagistic. No one looking for images or information on either fire or water will find what they are looking for in this entry. Google’s algorithms are tediously literal.

    I wish this entry had discussed Prensky’s digital native/digital immigrant divide at greater length before diving into the digital refugee image. For me, the problem is the extended metaphor of immigration itself: presumably, it is voluntary, whereas American culture has made it impossible to opt out or escape from escalating technologies.

    The Times is nearby, in paper form. I haven’t gotten to that article yet. But I can, since it won’t go away until I recycle the paper, as opposed to falling off the feed.

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