Bloggers parlay their online success into print
Blogs-to-books are a hot commodity these days, it seems. Everything from the subtly conservative (and slightly less subtly racist) satire of Stuff White People Like to the disastrously frosted confections of Cake Wrecks (out later this year) is getting the bound treatment. Three blogs in particular teach us how to be – and how not to be – human.
Just about everyone has been the recipient of the passive-aggressive (or sometimes just aggressive) e-mail from the co-worker/roommate/neighbor/stranger who hates coffeepot abuse/slovenliness/excessive noise/the way one parks one's car. In fact, those e-mails are such a pox upon human communication that freelance journalist Kerry Miller, who recently moved to Austin from Brooklyn, found her claim to Internet fame by collecting and publishing a pantheon of reader-submitted notes on her insanely popular blog, www.passiveaggressivenotes.com. Last year, that blog spawned Passive Aggressive Notes: Painfully Polite and Hilariously Hostile Writings (HarperCollins), a small, slight coffeetable book trafficking in Technicolor crazy.
Of course, that's not necessarily what Miller intended upon starting the blog back in 2006. She just thought it would be funny to start a website documenting those Post-it-sized mainstays of roommate life and family dysfunction, starting with her own personal collection. While she figured it would be worth a few yuks, the site grew into more than she bargained for, including a vibrant commenting community that has developed a language of its own, one populated with fucking delicious stolen bread, a communal unitard that functions as a virtual dunce cap, and a recurring character named Anytime Stan. After a while, the actual notes themselves take a back seat to the various stand-up acts taking place within the comments section.
"That's kind of what I wanted, the community. That's what keeps you going back. My ability to post, that's limited. But the community is what really makes the difference between it being a site that you look at once and a site that you keep going back to, just to see what's going on." Stripped of that hilarious and uniformly crass community in the comments section of the blog, though, Passive Aggressive Notes becomes something else: a 161-page snapshot of the human condition in all of its crusty-dished, lunch-thieving, nakedly insane ugliness. Granted, the book is laugh-out-loud funny, but taken as a whole, it is a sad commentary on what constitutes civility in Western culture. The message? "There's nothing wrong with open and honest human communication," Miller declares. "We should strive for it."
Where Miller's book provides visual evidence of the worst of the human condition, Heather Armstrong (author of arguably the most popular blog on the planet, www.dooce.com) and Shauna Reid, otherwise known as Dietgirl, got book deals as a result of their online documentation of their personal struggles to be better humans.
Reid, an Australian expatriate living in Scotland with her husband, Gareth, began her blog, the Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl! (www.dietgirl.org), when she embarked upon a weight-loss regimen of epic proportions: In 2001, Reid (née Marsh) weighed 351 pounds and could barely walk a flight of stairs. She sneaked chocolate from a tub inside her desk all day at work and subsisted on a diet so fat- and calorie-dense that it rivaled Michael Phelps' much-touted "pound of bacon chased with a full stack of chocolate-chip pancakes" training menu. It was the sight of her gigantic unders flapping on a clothesline in the Australian breeze that brought Reid to her senses. In addition to joining Weight Watchers, where staff had to add an extra weight to the scale to get an accurate measure of Reid's weight, the then-22-year-old wannabe journalist secretly started an anonymous online journal to track her progress and, more importantly, keep herself honest and accountable to an unseen, unknown audience reading out there in the world.
"I started blogging because I felt lonely in my weight and body image struggle," writes Reid in an e-mail. "Spewing my thoughts into the void was me reaching out and saying, 'Helloooo? Anyone out there as screwed up as me?' Turned out there's thousands of us." Over time, Reid gained no small amount of readership and support as she slowly shed the pounds – exactly half of her starting weight – over the course of five years. In fact, she got so much support that a running coach from Italy helped Reid train over the Internet for a 5K. And, given the uptick in flab in the First World, it's no surprise that DietGirl.org and the story of Reid's ongoing success (with the occasional setback, of course) in the battle of the bulge became insanely popular among those searching for ways out of their own personal fat suits.
"I remember how desperate I felt when I started out so I try to be helpful and share what worked for me in the hope they might find something useful in that," demurs Reid, who denies the designation of weight-loss guru. "The whole point of my book was that there's no secret to weight loss – you need to be your own superhero and figure out what works for you. Even so I get emails that say, 'I really loved the message of your book ... but pretty please tell me, what's the real secret?'"
There are very few secrets when it comes to Heather Armstrong, who will appear on Tuesday's panel UR Blog Sux and Print Is Dead. Armstrong's own blog-to-book project meant translating her experience as a new mother to now-5-year-old Leta into a book titled It Sucked and Then I Cried: How I Had a Baby, a Breakdown, and a Much Needed Margarita. Back in 2004, legions of Dooce.com readers watched in horror as Armstrong imploded online, spiraling into a deep postpartum depression that led to a brief stint in a psychiatric ward; now they can purchase Armstrong's memoir of that experience.
"When I initially wrote everything, it was a survival instinct," Armstrong recalls. "It came absolutely naturally, and it was something that I did to get myself through every day. I actually thought I was going to give up the website when my daughter was born. I had planned in my head what my final entry was going to be – I've gotta board this place up because there's no way I'm going to have time to update this website when I have a baby." But then the specter of postpartum depression crept in, and Armstrong found an outlet in her blog, posting entries confessing that she cried all day.
"I found that writing about it helped me to articulate my own feelings. My husband would call me from work and say, 'I had no idea you were feeling this way.' And I was like, 'I didn't either until I sat down in front of the computer.' So going through it at the time was a really natural experience for me, but then going back and reliving all of it as I pulled it all together was hard. It was a really difficult time, a very dark time, and it was very difficult to try to craft the words to show people just how devastating an experience it really was."
All three blog-to-book authors describe how difficult the process of adapting material from their sites was, Miller with a roll of her eyes and a semidisgusted grunt. For Reid, it was an exercise in embarrassment: "I had five years of blog archives when I started writing the book in 2006 – over 200,000 words, a great percentage of which were awful! There were also huge gaps in the narrative when I'd run away from the blog during tough times (usually weight regain!). ... People email me about an event from the book or early blog archives like it happened just yesterday, and I squirm at the memory ... did I really say/do that!? I'm 31 now and the most cringeworthy bits of my 20s are trapped in the public domain!" Armstrong is, characteristically, more blunt: "I don't know if my marriage could survive another one."
The end result for all three bloggers, however, is similar, despite the disparate genres within which they operate: You can always be better. Don't be the asshole who leaves a shitty note about someone's less-than-stellar parallel parking job. You can lose those last 5 (or 50) pounds – all it takes is the simple act of reaching out. Even when mental illness comes knocking, salvation might just lie in the act of typing into the void. Someone is always reading, waiting to inspire or be inspired.
From Blog to Book Deal: How-To
Tuesday, March 17, 5-6pm, Room 18BCD
UR Blog Sux and Print Is Dead
Tuesday, March 17, 11:30am-12:30pm, Room 18BCD