Reclaiming the Pleasure of Writing Online

Will News Leave a Comment

Almost fifteen years ago now, I started up my first blog. At the time, I was grappling with questions of Buddhist thought and practice, and so I set up a blog called thinkBuddha. I saw the blog as a way of thinking out loud about the things that interested and concerned me.

I didn’t really know what I was doing back then, but very quickly thinkBuddha gained a small but engaged readership, and sitting down to write one or twice a week became one of the joys of life.

At the time, I was half way through a PhD, trying to find a way of writing that might have sufficient rigour, whilst being as free as possible from the unspeakable horror that is academic prose. And although I am not sure I was wholly successful in this, when the PhD was finished, the writing style I managed to forge was largely thanks to my practice of writing on the blog format: chatty, accessible, sometimes digressive, sometimes directly personal, willing to test out wild connections between seemingly disparate ideas, unafraid of whimsy and base humour.

Then in 2008, after I finished my PhD, things started to change. One reason was that in this year, I took up part time work in a university. As I settled into my new job, I found it harder to write and to think in the way I was accustomed to writing and thinking. (I’m not particularly convinced that contemporary universities, at least in the UK, are particularly good places to think in at all). When I went full-time the following year, I found this writing and thinking even harder to maintain. It was not just a matter of time constraints — although the new job was demanding — but also a matter of the particular kind of thinking that the research culture of the university encouraged.

Something else changed a couple of years later. In 2010, I signed up to Facebook. It was new. It was fun. It had an ugly blue interface that at the time I naively imagined they would get round to changing before too long (because, I asked myself, how could anybody think that looked good?). But despite the interface, I was soon hooked. I’m pretty excitable when it comes to social interactions, and Facebook pushed all of my buttons.

Over the next couple of years, I blogged less and less. Finding my interests moving away from Buddhism, I retired thinkBuddha in 2012. I set up another couple of blogs, but I somehow couldn’t sustain them. The ugly blue interface not withstanding, I found I was giving increasing time to Facebook.

But in the end, this post is not about Facebook and its dubious and often mendacious business practices. There are all kinds of good reasons to mistrust Facebook, to oppose all it stands for, to leave the platform for good. But that’s not what I’m writing about here. What I’m writing about is the pleasure of writing. Not the dopamine-hit when somebody likes the photograph you uploaded of your breakfast (I confess to guilt here, having just uploaded a picture to Facebook of some very good arancini I made this morning); but instead a deeper, more substantial pleasure. The kind of pleasure I found in blogging. The way that blogs allow you to follow a thought through to the end. The kind of pleasure that comes from a more considered, intimate and free-wheeling approach to communication, free from any murky algorithmic voodoo.

I have been thinking about this question of the pleasure of writing online for a while, and toyed with setting up a new blog. But it seemed a strangely archaic and futile move. Who reads blogs? Isn’t the golden age of blogging long gone? So a couple of months back, I thought about trying something different: a monthly newsletter.

Writers are told sometimes that they should have newsletters for ‘marketing’. Because, as we all know, it is no longer the job of publishers to promote and sell books, but instead it is down to individual writers. These newsletters, we are told, should have links to reviews, promotions, book ‘giveaways’ and such-like. But I’m not primarily interested in a newsletter for the purposes of self-promotion. What I’m more interested in is reclaiming the fun, the pleasure and the sense of exploration I used to find in writing online, albeit in a new format. I’m thinking that a newsletter might — just might — allow me to combine several things: the more substantial reflection that happened whilst blogging; the zingier “this thing is fun… I should share it” vibe to which I’ve become accustomed through social media; and the gratifying slowness of sharing such things only once every month, which might be a way of stepping outside of the dopamine-fuelled frenzy of social media.

I’ll see how it goes. It’s been a pleasure to have so many sign-ups since I announced this. And it is interesting, too, that just thinking about the newsletter has made me return, in a quiet way, to blogging as well. So I’m looking forward to the launch of the first issue in July. It’s been huge amounts of fun thinking about how to shape it, and what content to put in. There will be a couple of ongoing features (“Mr. Liu’s Tips on Writing”, “Obscure Philosopher of the Month”, “From the Kitchen”), quite a few links to interesting things online, and no affiliate links or dubious marketing practices. And maybe people will read it and go and buy my books, or maybe they won’t. But that isn’t really the point (given the margins in the book trade, the difference to my longer term financial well-being will be negligible either way). The point is human communication. It is connection. It is the pleasure of writing. And, I hope, it is the pleasure of reading too.

Let’s see how it goes.

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(I’ve archived thinkBuddha as a subdomain here. I’m still doing some renovating over there, but you can read a few articles by going to thinkbuddha.willbuckingham.com.)

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