Sandra Hurtes created a blog, felt she had a book there, and engaged in the process of selecting and shaping the entries and adding to the material to create a book-length account of herself as writer. The result is the very recently published The Ambivalent Memoirist: Obesessions, Digressions, Epiphanies, which has already garnered praise and positive reviews. Pick up the book, and I believe you will reflect not only on Sandra’s life and quandaries but on your own. No matter how different your background may be from Sandra’s life in Brooklyn and Manhattan, or how different your non-writing life is from her teaching life or is different than how she came to writing, you will recognize the writer’s questions and the way we all struggle to answer them, the writer’s hesitancies and how we find a route to come into our own. In this article, Sandra posed the questions others have asked as well as the questions she has asked of herself regarding the blog to book project. Her answers are a generous and informative personal essay. And at the article’s end, she reveals the new blog she’s started that you’ll want to check out.
Here then is Sandra’s interview with herself:
Why did you start a blog?
I was impressed by people who could write and immediately make their work Live—no fussing over words, no self-doubt. The idea of having a thought or idea, writing it, and then putting it out astounded and also excited me. Normally, I fuss like nobody’s business.
Also, I was stuck in my writing life; I had hundreds of manuscript pages that went nowhere. A blog was dynamic and readily available to readers.
Did you have a theme in mind?
I did. I wanted to write about my life as a single woman at midlife with yearnings and confusions, trying to live in the moment. At first, I wanted to be funny; but I didn’t think I could pull that off. Sometimes my humor is sarcastic or dry, and it translates terribly on the page.
I began scrolling through blogs and saw people doing all kinds of things—promoting themselves, reviewing art, sharing recipes (remember Julie & Julia?), political commentaries (heavy-handed and not-so), where to find the best New York pickles, best yoga classes, just about everything.
I decided my most comfortable voice is reflective and personal. The question was, how personal could I get without embarrassing myself?
How did you work through that?
That was five years ago; I sat with the question and the idea for almost a year before going forward. I decided to start out anonymously. My goal was to get comfortable with writing Live and personal, while no one knew about my site.
I had thought about writing practice-blogs in Word. Actually, I had tried, but it didn’t work. I needed to know that I was on the line—meaning I had a reader right there and was talking to her or him. That is always the energy that drives blogging.
What was writing anonymously like?
Exciting, gratifying, freeing. My first post was about being lonely. I would never have written that with my name, as loneliness is one of those feelings I’ve believed I should hide. The next day, I had a “follower”! That was amazing. It was a woman who blogged about yoga—I didn’t know her. That just about blew me away—I had written something that resonated; I wasn’t a freak or oddball.
I then told my close friends my nom de plume—Isadora—and they read me. That was important—they were my test audience. I was just slightly insecure (there goes my sarcasm) and emailed my friends and asked, did you read my post? Do I sound normal? If it’s weird, tell me. Promise you’ll tell me.
All they told me was to keep on going.
Did you build a readership outside of friends?
Well, I didn’t get a chance to work on that. One month into being Isadora, my father, who was 94, had a stroke. He was in Florida; I immediately flew down from Manhattan and held onto my laptop as if it were a lifeboat. I instinctively knew I would blog. Knowing my friends would be reading about my feelings was like taking them with me.
My father lived for one week. In the hospital I sat with him, then went to the cafeteria, took out my laptop and wrote out my heart. That’s how I found comfort and also expressed so many feelings, the kinds that rise up through grief and fear, and especially knowing my life was about to radically change.
It sounds like the blog was a connection beyond a telephone call or a shoulder to lean on.
It’s weird, but it was. Words are my truest self—not the ones I speak, but the ones I write. Losing my father was a terrible time; but on the page I was direct and focused.
Did you think about revealing your name once you felt comfortable?
Not until I was absolutely ready, which was three months of posting almost every day. What I wrote of my father I needed to keep private—not because of secrets—but the loss was so fresh and intimate. When my grief became manageable, and I could write about him without tears, as well as other topics, I was ready. Also, I knew by then that I could pull off writing Live. Therein was born: “Finding My Place Through Writing and Teaching”
Your theme had changed?
Yes. I wanted to write about myself, still as a searcher, but to keep it much less personal. My students and employers might read it; I was very concerned about appropriateness and not insulting anyone. Having boundaries was a great discipline. My students and teaching jobs were my material, but always in a thoughtful way that respected their privacy. Even if I was upset with a student or employer, I couldn’t let that direct what I wrote. Sometimes I saved a post as a draft and returned to it a few hours or even days later. That was my credo: if unsure, don’t make it Live. Delete or revise.
How long did you keep your blog going?
Three years. Sometimes I strayed from my theme of teaching and writing, but that was good, because my life wasn’t static. I became more involved in yoga and added that to my post topics. I also had to move out of my apartment because my sublease was up; looking for a new home also became great material. What was off limits were dating, sharing about people by name, unless it was mundane, and venting. I never forgot my readers (aka students and English department Chairs). I’m being repetitive on purpose. Writing in the privacy of home is intimate. The Internet is not.
What made you decide to turn your blog into a book?
That was a process. It began when I knew the blog was complete; I had nothing else to say on the topics and had resolved something within myself. I downloaded the blog to my hard-drive and printed it out. I had over two hundred pages. I brought it into my Freshman Composition class, held it up, and told my students, “This is what happens when you write every day.” It was a moment!
A student asked, “Is that your book?” And, I said, “Well . . .maybe.” The funny thing is, on the side, in my “real” writing life, I was writing a book, or at least, trying to. It was a memoir with so many threads I couldn’t find a focus to tie them together. But in my arms I held a body of work, memoirish, with a focus.
At home that night, I read through the pages and thought, Yeah, this is good. I went back to my real book-in-process and thought, Yep, this is a mess.
What is the difference then, between blogging and writing?
When I blog, I measure my thoughts, censor, and always think of readers out there. It’s as though I have a note on my computer: be comfortable with this being public. That sounds harder than it is. I enter what I call my blog persona. It’s me, but not all of me, just like when I teach or adopt any of my roles in life: What does this role require of me? Blogging requires thoughtfulness, engagement, saying something worth reading. And then, letting it go.
Writing is sloppier yet more of an art. Essays and short stories require a beginning, middle and end, which always take several drafts. In revision is where the next level of writing happens; I work on technique, for example. Maybe I’ll create a scene out of a paragraph that’s all narrative. Imagery will come to me, and I take descriptions further. Most important, it’s only in revision I gain insight. First draft of an essay isn’t the insight draft. The way I look at a painting—up close, then step back, then up close again—that’s how I look at something I write. My best pieces have always involved several drafts and two good readers for feedback, whether they’re professional editors or friends. If I worked at a blog like this, I’d never have gotten past Day Five.
Do you have a preference?
I love blogging but can get stuck when I stay away for too long. Then, it’s like any other writing; I force myself to sit, think of a topic. Sometimes I’m blank. So, I reflect on the news or a television show, anything that caught my attention; I muse on that. This will sound sickeningly corny, but my fingers lead me to what I need to write.
Now writing: My feelings are mercurial. I don’t think I will every recapture the awe and love I had of the process as a beginning writer. That was such a discovery, that I could write. Twenty years later, I’ve matured and regressed. I’ve had deadlines that were stressful, rejections that broke my heart, successes that mended me; I’ve made good and not-so-good choices in my writing life that took me on a jagged path. I long ago gave up the idea that I could support myself as a writer; that frees me to write for readers—if publication works out—and always, for myself.
What was turning your blog into a book like?
Much more intensive than I had imagined. Writing two hundred pages just by showing up at the keyboard is great; but it is not a book, even when it has a theme, as mine did. But I had to learn that. My first step was to slowly go through my blog posts and take out any that didn’t offer much and that were repetitive. I rearranged the posts, made a few minor edits and sent the manuscript off to a copyeditor—thinking I was close to ready. I asked her to be honest with me and not just copyedit, but tell me if read like a publishable book. Thankfully she was honest.
She said, “Maybe because I’m a fiction writer, I like a story. What question are you asking? What is the story?” That completely opened me up to the realization I had work to do: it began with reflecting on the reason I began the blog. What was my purpose? I had two. To find my place in life and to show the reader my journey. So, my question was: Where do I belong?
That was huge. From there I reorganized the pages again, revised to address that question. When I had done as much as I felt I could, I sent it to an editor. That was necessary; she saw a book emerging, but not there yet. Her feedback on what to develop took me back to revision; I pulled some material from the “real book” and added material that had been off limits—my dating life, deeper feelings about family and teaching life. Again, when I did as much as I could, I sent it back to my editor for another read. After addressing her comments, I sent it to my copyeditor again. Because I was self-publishing, the editorial end was my responsibility. I wanted my book to be as professional as possible. It was a little costly, but I loved having a team working with me.
How do you feel now that the book is published and being read?
A huge burden lifted. The real book, the one that wasn’t going anyplace but taking an enormous amount of time, is now off my shoulders. I flirted with memoir for fifteen years. I’m ready to go steady with a new project. As for the being-read part of the question, there’s anxiety and pride. I want everyone to love it and that’s not possible. I’ve gotten great reviews from professionals and also from readers. I love the cover art that my designer created. That was a huge plus, finding a great designer who understood the book.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to start a blog?
Write about something you know a lot about or are passionate about. You’ll have to show up often to the page to keep the blog going and want to have lots to say. You want what you say to sparkle.
Always remember your reader. If you think your post is too personal or hurtful toward someone, it is. Don’t post it. Don’t air grudges.
Decide on your purpose. Is it to get business, build a social community, relay a message? Your purpose may change as the blog develops, but start with a very clear idea.
Don’t count on the blog being turned into a book. That will hinder your writing and set up high expectations. Instead, put out your best self. Proofread. Spell check.
Read blogs. See what people are doing.
Have fun! It’s work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be pleasure.
I have a new blog: “Musing on Life in the Present Moment.” I hope you’ll check it out and leave comments. I love hearing from readers.