77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 20, 2016

This is my 1,000th blog post and I’ve learned a lot from blogging.

My first post was “Access time in a fifty-five year old brain” published 12/26/2006. Here’s the first paragraph:

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

Well, I’m still struggling to organize my thoughts, but I’m quite confident Auxiliary Memory has been an huge help as an external memory device. Blogging is also a form of mental exercise that keeps my declining mind in shape. After nine years, or 3,314 days, and over a million words, I have forgotten most of what I’ve written, but it’s still there for me to retrieve. I’m often surprised to reread what I write. Blogging has turned out to be an incredibly useful tool, and I wonder why more people don’t blog.

To celebrate these nine hundred and ninety-nine essays, I thought I’d note some of what I’ve learned.

  1. Blogging is like piano practice for writing.
  2. Essay writing is a concrete way to organize thoughts.
  3. Original thoughts are thin and vague, and it takes a lot of work to make them coherent.
  4. Often coherency doesn’t show up until days of writing and rewriting. 
  5. We don’t realize how unclear our thoughts are until we try to put thoughts into sentences.
  6. Thinking improves with editing.
  7. The quality of my writing is directly related to the number of times I reread and edited an essay before I hit the publish button.
  8. There is no relation between getting hits and what I’m interested in writing about.
  9. I can’t predict what people will want to read. The old essay that gets the most current hits is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” If you search Google for “Dreaming about dinosaurs” my piece is 2nd in their listing. Evidently 30-50 people a day research this topic. I never would have predicted that.
  10. If my goal is to get hits, then I should review products. Product reviews are my consistent hit getters, but I quit writing them. 
  11. Science fiction is the subject that has garnered my most readers, and my favorite topic to write about.
  12. Don’t expect your friends and family to read your blogs.
  13. Only a few of my friends have subscribed to my blog and will occasionally mention reading an essay, or post a reply.
  14. I’ve learn to write what I feel like writing and not to worry if it will be read. I’m currently getting 250-350 hits a day, mostly due to Google searches, but also because of a handful of regular readers. I have 1,500 subscribers. But I can’t assume that a hit means a read. Just because a person clicks on a Google search return doesn’t mean I’m providing them with information they want to know. And many of my subscribers are other bloggers hoping I’ll read their blog. (Which I do try to do.)
  15. It’s extremely hard to write a 1,000 words that someone else will want to read.
  16. Few people want to think about a specific topic the same time that I do.
  17. There are very few people that have the same mixture of interests as I do.
  18. Blogging is a way to embed your personality into words.
  19. Blogging is a way to find out how many of your friends, family, and strangers think your interests are interesting.
  20. Blogging is a way to express yourself without boring your friends.
  21. If you want to find out how interesting you are to your friends, blog your thoughts. You might be surprised.
  22. There is a direct relationship between how much time my friends are willing to listen to me talk and whether or not they will read what I’ve written. My most chatty friends, the ones that never let me get a word in, never read my blog. I don’t say this as a hurt ego, but to show that blogging will reveal which of your friends are actually interested in what’s going inside of your head. Don’t blog if you don’t want to know.
  23. Blogging will reveal what your true interests are to yourself, and how fanatical you are about them.
  24. Blogging is a good way to meet people like yourself online.
  25. Blogging is a good way to learn if you have common interests or obscure fascinations.
  26. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is faulty.
  27. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is political incorrect.
  28. Blogging is a way to learn things about yourself that you don’t see – because readers do.
  29. Blogging is a way to test the limits of your memory.
  30. If you blog about a past event and try to document it with photos, outside reference material, interviews with people at the event, you’ll learn that memories are piss-poor at best.
  31. A well written blog about an event written within 24 hours will provide a better memory than your brain.
  32. If you get an idea for a blog post start writing it as soon as possible because the idea will disappear quickly.
  33. Blogging is mostly memory, opinions and reporting.
  34. Reporting is when you document events outside of yourself.
  35. Being a good reporter is hard.
  36. Opinions are a dime a million, essentially worthless unless you can back them up with evidence.
  37. The more evidence the better. 
  38. My personal memories are only interesting to people if I can frame them in a universal theme. And even then, few people will read them. One of my favorite memory-lane pieces, “Super Men and Mighty Mice” has gotten the least amount of hits. It was about being kids and pretending to fly, and begins like this:

    During the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was seven and people called me Jimmy, my sister Becky and our best friends Mikey and Patty, would beg old tattered terry cloth towels from our moms and pretend to be George Reeves. We’d tie those old faded pastel rags around our necks, stretch out our arms, hands flat, fingers pointing forward, tilt our heads down and run like Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, occasionally jumping with all our might, with the hopes of getting airborne like Superman, or at least Mighty Mouse. And when we were burnt out and our little bodies too tired to try any more, we’d go to sleep at night and have flying dreams.

  39. It’s hard to write Jean Shepherd type nostalgia and get hits. Shepherd is famous for A Christmas Story. Nostalgia just doesn’t index well on Google.
  40. Nostalgia does appeal to readers who have similar past experiences. It’s lucky when you find those people, or they find you. 
  41. Blogging teaches elements of journalism. If you want hits, you have to write what other people want to read. That means focusing on current popular topics, and writing short pieces that don’t exceed the common attention span. I decided long ago to write what I’m interested in and at lengths longer than most people want to read. So it goes. 
  42. I’ve learned that I naturally think in 500-1500 word essays.
  43. 500-1500 words is far longer than what most people want to read.
  44. Titles are very important.
  45. Delete all the words that people will skim over.
  46. I’m a verbose writer and don’t delete enough.
  47. Over the years I’ve often written about topics I’ve already written about but have forgotten that did.
  48. I have common themes I repeat but I hope are refined with each new approach. 
  49. Regular blogging helps with my writing and thinking skills.
  50. Regular blogging helps with my verbal skills. This was a real revelation.
  51. Regular blogging keeps my vocabulary active. If I don’t blog for a week or two I start forgetting words, and forget how to pronounce them. That old saying, “Use it or lose it” is true.
  52. Blogging has been a great social outlet since I retired.
  53. I can express myself better in a blog than I can talking.
  54. Blogging helps me listen to other people.
  55. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so I could read their thoughts.
  56. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so they would make their thoughts more coherent.
  57. Blogging is somewhat like being in a hive mind.
  58. I wished I had started blogging when I learned to read and write.
  59. I wished I had learned to read and write at age 4, when I started being self-aware.
  60. I wished my parents, grandparents, and ancestors had blogged so I could read about their inner lives.
  61. I wish the Library of Congress would archive blogs.
  62. I wish politicians, famous people and people doing interesting jobs would blog. Sound bites on television makes people seem shallow, tweets make them seem snarky, and Facebook makes them seem silly.
  63. Everyone approaches blogging differently. Some people use it like a diary, making short notes about their day. Others post photographs of all the places they visit. Some people repost other people’s blogs that they like. Some people write excessively about tiny topics, or say essentially nothing about big topics. There’s no one way to blog.
  64. Folks want to read about your dreams about as much as they want to see your vacation photos.
  65. Sometimes you have to guess what you remember. In recent years many writers have gotten into trouble for writing nonfiction that turned out to be fiction. Memory is closer to fiction than nonfiction. That’s just how it is.
  66. Wikipedia is my absolute best memory bank.
  67. Google makes a great spelling tool and dictionary.
  68. Sometimes I have to play Six Degrees of Separation to remember a person. IMDb is great tool for that.
  69. I’ve learn to fact-check my memory.
  70. I always try to send friends my blog when I mention them, but most people don’t care.
  71. I generally get photos from Google and use them without credit. I shouldn’t do that. I do try to get generic photos, or things in public domain.
  72. Sometimes people use my posts and photos without credit. Sometimes I think it’s flattery, other times I think fraud.
  73. Blogging is good for my mental health.
  74. Blogging gives me a sense of purpose after I retired.
  75. Blogging is a way to examine my life – remember an unexamined life is not worth living.
  76. Blogging is a way to be philosophical.
  77. Blogging is a way to push myself to do more.

Pug10

JWH

Publishing Outside My Blog

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I’ve had two essays published at SF Signal that normally I would have published here. I don’t know if my regular readers, all seven of you, will miss these stories or not, but I thought I might mention them. They were “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want To Hear” that was written for my 64th birthday, and “The Literary Novels of Philip K. Dick.” SF Signal is a website devoted to tracking anything on the net that deals with science fiction and fantasy. It won a Hugo award in 2012, 2013 and 2014. So it’s ego boosting to get published there. And I want to thank it’s editor John DeNardo for linking to this blog in the past, encouraging me to submit, and accepting these essays.

I’ve been writing Auxiliary Memory since 2007, and this is my 993rd essay. I consider blogging piano practice for writing. Now that I’ve been retired for two years I’ve decided to push my writing ability by submitting to other sites. I’ve gotten comfortable with blogging, and I need to dial up the intensity knob, aim higher and push against my limitations. I’m starting by submitting to non-paid sites for a while, to get used to writing for editors. After that I’ll work up to submitting to paid sites. Writing is a fulfilling hobby to have in retirement—and it helps strengthen flabby memory muscles.

I will keep blogging, hopefully at a regular pace, but I need to spend more time on substantial pieces that I’ll send elsewhere. I need to learn what kind of essays are best suited for this blog, and what kind are best sent elsewhere. I’m also hoping that getting published on other sites will attract readers for this site. WordPress says I have 1,500 followers, but I know most of them are just folks promoting their websites (which is cool by the way). Writing something that another person will take ten minutes of their time to read is a challenge. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of new works to read on the internet every day, maybe even in the millions. Competition is fierce for eyeballs. Deciding on a writing topic that is reading worthy is a difficult task. It’s work that pushes my brain to think harder, and since I’m at a stage in life where my brain cells want to kick back and watch TV, it can feel like walking two miles to school everyday, both ways uphill, in the snow,

JWH

Blogging, Aging and Maintaining Mental Abilities

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 31, 2014

It’s amazing how some old sayings reflect unfathomably deep wisdom. Two of which that come to mind are “Use it or lose it” and “You don’t know what you’ll miss until it’s gone.” Some of these old sayings don’t become relevant until you’re old, which is a shame, because such knowledge would give the young a savvy advantage. It’s always difficult to predict what to keep using until you need it in the future.

handwriting

Take handwriting. Until a few weeks ago when I discovered it was gone and I missed it, I never gave it two thoughts. When I had a pinched nerve in my neck and couldn’t type for a few weeks, I truly missed the ability to write in cursive. Now that I can type again, I’ll probably forget that I really needed to write without a machine. I’m sure one day I’ll again regret the loss of that skill, so I should practice it now. But I won’t, will I?

The trick now is to recognize the skills we do wish to keep, and keep practicing them. Blogging has taught me the value of practicing verbal skills. Both for writing and speaking. If I stop blogging for any length of time I feel my ability to use words begin to fade. It’s subtle, but it’s there. If I go without writing long enough, it’s not even subtle.

When I was younger, and watching my father’s generation of men die off, my uncles and other older guys I knew, seemed to withdraw into themselves as the years passed by, and talked less and less. I know I’m making crude generalizations here, but men, and maybe women, seem to lose their conversational abilities as wrinkles become more numerous. When I was young I assumed aging involved a withdrawal from life, either from boredom, lack of interest, or a diminishing urge for self-expression. Now I wonder if it’s a fading ability to communicate. Either put words together into concise thoughts, or lose the ability.

When I don’t blog my mental muscles to shape paragraphs gets flabby. Since most of my friends are women, I tend to spend most of my time listening. I’ve lost the ability to argue, and my verbal skills of discussing ideas are beginning to fade too. When I do talk to men, our old ability to battle with words has been lost to a détente of friendship.  My old buddies are guys that I agree with, and I’ve given up on confrontational acquaintances. Maybe I should be more aggressive in my blog writing and find some wordy foes to spar with.

If the only thing you do is watch television, then the only skills you’ll have when you get old is sitting and watching. Maybe that’s why all the old men I knew stopped talking?

Every time I write an essay I can feel my brain working out. It’s like being at the gym and pumping iron – I can feel I’m lifting heavier concepts with systematic practice. I doubt blogging is for everyone, but I expect everyone needs some kind of verbal exercise that includes both conversation and writing. And it may even help to learning handwriting again.

JWH – Happy Halloween

The Job of Blogging

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blogging is an interesting hobby, but strange in some ways.  Most blogs are like diaries, yet before the Internet most folks would be horrified to have their diaries read before they died.  Blogging is a bit like writing papers for school, and most students absolutely hated writing research papers and book reports. Blogging has an element of journalism, so maybe its popularity reflects a strong desire for bloggers to be reporters. However, there’s tens of millions of blogs, most going unread, as are most daily newspapers. If I really wanted to be read I should try and write stuff for popular web sites, that’s where the readers are going. Writing for professional sites should be my ambition, but its easier to just to be my own editor.

In some ways blogging is confessional, and that doesn’t require readers. Writing is therapeutic. But I don’t think I’d take all this time to write if I didn’t think I had readers. The urge to write encompasses the urge to inform and entertain. I’m not sure how entertaining and informative I am, but I keep trying. Before I changed my domain name, I was getting 200-400 hits a day, with occasional spikes.  My best day ever was 4,521. Evidently switching names has screwed up things with Google, because now I only get 100-150 hits a day. Most of those lost hits were for product review pages. And that tells me something – web surfers mostly want information from the Internet. And that’s reasonable. Most of the pages I still get hits on deal with science fiction. When I write about me I get no hits.

The common advice to bloggers from successful bloggers is to publish regularly.  At least once a week. That means writing 52 read-worthy essays a year. Most popular bloggers publish several times a week, but often, they are the subject of their writing. My life is not as entertaining as The Bloggess. Even if I was more fascinating, I doubt I could handle the stress of making myself more interesting. Besides I love writing about interesting things that aren’t me.  For instance, last night on PBS I started watching a new series, How We Got to Now.  The first episode was called “Clean” and it was about how America started cleaning up its act. It featured a fascinating segment about how Chicago first built sewers.  They actually raised up the buildings to make space. Now that grabbed my attention!

Street_Raising_on_Lake_Street

[Click to enlarge]

If I could, I’d want to write nonfiction books on science and history, but I’m not that disciplined and dedicated. Thus, blogging for me is a way to write tiny reports about the books I read, the documentaries I see, and the web pages I discover, that are worthy of wider attention. People do the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter.  Blogging is just more verbose. Blogging gives me more time to make my case.

Few writers write original content. They report on people, places and events. Most journalism is a kind of history. Reviewers report on other content creators. For example, the raising of Chicago’s buildings is something I could research and write about, but why should I compete with what Wikipedia has published, or PBS? Blogging is more liked linked lists in computer programming. If you read other web sites about the topic, for instance Gizmodo, you’ll see no one writes much on the Internet about any particular subject, and they often share the same facts, links and images. The image above is at every site I visited. If you follow the links, you will get more information, but not much. Following several links give a bigger picture. If you want true in-depth reporting, you have to read books.

A great blogger will consolidate a greater amount of information, closer to magazine pieces in size. Open Culture and Brain Pickings are my favorite examples. Open Culture just provided me with a wonderful piece about Alice Guy-Blaché, a women director also mentioned in last week’s Makers on PBS that I wanted to research. I wonder if Jonathan Crow was inspired to write his piece because of Makers? Or was it an interesting coincidence.

As a bookworm and documentary junky, I’m constantly finding new facts that startle me. For example, the other night I watched The Galapagos Affair, about a tiny historical incidence from the 1930s, involving a German couple moving to an uninhabited island in the Galapagos. Their letters home made them world famous as a modern day Adam and Eve. Eventually five more people join them, and two were murdered, leaving an interesting mystery. I found this bizarre history riveting, and highly recommend the documentary that’s available on Netflix Streaming.

eve and adam

If I was a better journalist, say up to Maria Popova’s standards, I’d go research to see if more people in history have tried to play Adam and Eve. If Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter got the idea, so must have others. As a kid I was always fascinated with Swiss Family Robinson type stories. As a blogger, that should be my job, to track down more information. But to be honest, that requires a lot of work, and I don’t know if I’m up to it. I’m now working in a space beyond Twitter and Facebook, but not yet a full article.

That’s what this essay is about. Even though I’m not being paid, I feel blogging is a kind of job, and comes with responsibilities. While I have been nattering about blogging, I hope I’ve provided some useful information, and maybe turned you onto some interesting reading. Is that enough though?  How much information do I have to provide to make it worth your time to read what I write?

JWH

A New Look

path-through-trees

If you are a regular reader of Auxiliary Memory you’ve notice that things look different.  The URL has been changed to be easier to remember – http://auxiliarymemory.com.  The purpose of the new layout is to make online reading more pleasant, and to simplify the look on smartphones or tablets.  There is one simple menu at the top of the page under the three horizontal line symbol.

My new goal is to write more enjoyable essays to read.  Essays with more content and structure.  This will involve more research and study.  Most readers come to this site because Google directs them here, but I do have a few friends who are regular readers.  Readers from Google are researching a topic.  Now that I’m retired I have more time to study, and this gives me an opportunity prowl the web for fascinating subjects to write about.  This exercises my aging mind and improves my writing skills.  Writing has become my main retirement hobby.

I’ll continue to write biographical pieces, but I want to write less about me.  As I’ve worked to research new subjects I’ve learned that journalism is  stimulating and challenging.  My hit statistics show certain kinds of essays get no hits.  There are many reasons for this.  First, the essay is blather about nothing, so there is nothing for Google to index.  Second, many other people have written about the topic better and Google points to their essays.  Or third, I’ve written about something that no one even bothers to query Google.

Yes, I do have friends and a few subscribers that read whatever I write, and I’m grateful for their encouragement.  To replay their kindness I feel inspired to work harder.  I must write about things that interest me, but the challenge of being a writer requires I be more interesting to others.  The simplicity of my new layout is intended to keep my focus on words and sentences worth reading.

JWH – 9/20/14  

I, Sisyphus, Blogger

Sisyphus was a Greek dude the gods condemn to roll a rock endlessly up a hill.  Albert Camus came along in the 20th century and gave The Myth of Sisyphus an existential twist.  Camus said living is like endlessly rolling a rock up a hill, but if we can find personal purpose while we’re doing something so meaningless we can overcome the meaninglessness of reality.  I think of blogging as chronicling my life of endlessly rolling  a rock up my hill.  I beat the gods by understanding the nature of reality, even if I have no higher metaphysical purpose.  Camus saw the lack of meaning in reality as a form of absurdity, but I don’t.  The randomness of reality might feel like we’re rolling a rock up the same hill over and over again, but we’re not.  Humans have always lied to themselves that we serve God’s purpose to console ourselves with imaginary meaning, but isn’t finding our own purpose in an indifferent multiverse actually more empowering?  Sisyphus was condemned to his task by the gods for having hubris.  A godless reality has condemned us to a short existence of self-awareness in an awe inspiringly huge existence.  Although we are born into the limits of our natural design, it appears we have a mind that will allow us to out think those limits.

Sisyphus-wide

Blogging is not a chore for me, but it does require I make an effort.  In fact, I want to make the best possible effort.  If I don’t, I’m just rolling a rock up a hill.

Blogging has to be more than puking words out through my keyboard.  Blogging is anti-entropic.  This universe is entropic, so overall things are coming apart, but as it does, there are swirling eddies of highly organized anti-entropic events.  Life is one of those events.  Even though I shall return to dust someday, and the atomic elements in my body will dissipate and join less organized states, I exist momentarily in a highly organized, self-aware, anti-entropic state.  I have a window on reality.

We are all windows on reality, observing existence.  I can see why pantheists like to think that everything is God—but that’s an illusion too.  Reality is unaware of itself, only we rare eddies of complexities, swirling in the dust of existence, notice that something is here.  We’re quite insignificant in the scheme of things.  We roll our rocks and then we die.  Our window on reality closes.

Blogging is my way organizing words in highly anti-entropic arrangements about what I see from my window.  We all struggle in our own way against the heat death of the universe.  We each see different views while looking through different windows, but we’re all looking on the same reality.

Each essay I write for this blog is an effort to create order against the tide to disorder.  My body has long past the point of its most organized state, but I believe even though my mind is beginning to come apart, I’m making the most organized observations of my life.  Sometimes the most complex eddies of organization come when larger organized structures are breaking apart.  Creation always comes from destruction. 

There are dynamics to blogging that I’m still learning, and will always be learning.  The medium is sometimes more complex than the messages.  My job is to write.  If I write something interesting, something that’s anti-entropic and interesting from your window of observation, you’ll enjoy what I’ve written.  The more I’m read, the more I’m challenged to write even more interestingly. 

How long can I do this?  Sometime between now and when I die, I’ll run out of mental momentum and my writing will fall apart into disorder.  But until it does, I’ll struggle to write more and more precise observations.  If dementia doesn’t overcome me, I should get better at writing, which is creating ever more ordered anti-entropic essays and observations.

Some days when I sit down to write my mind is not very orderly, and I produce crappy essays.  Other days, something comes together, and the words come out in patterns I didn’t anticipate and I catch a wave to ride, and writing feels like I’m surfing something big and moving.  I know what I do is a product of my conscious and unconscious minds in relationship with the random events of my life.  Life really is like a routine of rolling a rock up a hill over and over again.  It’s seeing the patterns and making the observations that give our meaningless existence an existential fulfillment.

JWH – 7/31/14

Why Blog?

This will be my 671st post.  I must be approaching or just passing my millionth word written, so I think it’s time to evaluate why I blog.  When I started I wrote whatever I felt like and didn’t worry if anyone read what I wrote.  Sometimes I’d ask my wife Susan or a friend to read something, but for the most part I considered my blog a diary that I left around opened.  I’m interested in a lot of things my friends aren’t, so I used blogging as an outlet for discussing various topics I had no one to talk about with.  I guess that might mean I use blogging as kind of therapy.  Blogging is also a great way to practice writing, organize thoughts, and learn to research – sort of junior journalism.  All of these various purposes are great so long as I don’t think too much about being read.

During the last year I’ve been getting more readers.  Mostly by accident.  Sometimes I write about a subject that people are researching on Google, like encrypting files for Dropbox, or science fiction books from the 1950s.  I have a few friends that actually follow what I write, but you can count them on one hand.  I do have 468 followers on WordPress, but I think that’s mostly due other bloggers wanting to attract readership themselves.  But it does make me think about what I write.  If I hit the publish button and hundreds of people get an email then what I write can be an annoyance or entertainment.  That thought has made me delete most of the posts I’ve written lately.

My friend Annie has even been critiquing my posts, with comments like, that one rambled on for far too long, or you didn’t stick to your point, or that topic was boring.  I don’t disagree with her assessments either.  If I’m going to write something people will be reading then I have a responsibility to make it worth reading.  And this presents some problems.

There are three kind of readers on the internet:  browsers, subscribers and searchers.   Some people get to my pages because writers link to me, others subscribe and get everything I write, but most people read what I’ve written because it’s something they Googled or Binged.  Just look at my stats.  (You might need to click on the image to make it large enough to read.)

stats

I get the most  hits for writing about something specific, like a Toshiba netbook or LG Blu-ray player.  But I also write about a lot of topics few people are interested in.

stats2

Most of my favorite essays I’ve written get few readers.  That’s because they are personal and personal essays don’t get hits.

If I want lots of readers then I’d need to write about something that lots of people want to read about.  Well, that doesn’t actually work either.  Writing about what everyone else is writing about gets damn few hits.  The key to getting search engine hits is to write about something few people have written about, but enough people want to read about.

The key to get subscriber hits is to always write about a specific topic and find fans for that topic.

I don’t do ether.  I write about whatever interests me at the moment.  That’s good for me but bad for regular readers, and gets few search engine hits.

What I need to do is decide what kind of writer I want to be – at least when it comes to blogging.

JWH – 6/25/13