In which our humble host answers questions submitted from the gallery. It’s a long one, friends, but it took almost three years to get here. Let’s go!
I met Annie Wong when I started work at the bookstore, shortly after arriving in Toronto. I doubt she remembers it, but she was actually the first person I met in the company; I asked her where to go for my group interview. We didn’t really become anything resembling friends until long after we stopped working together, building a relationship of mutual respect over instant messaging programs, as you do. She writes poems and makes art, some of which I chronicled here.
What do you think makes PFG distinctive from other blogs?
Oh, lord, I don’t know. What makes me distinctive from other people? I do think over the years as the site shifted away from being a somewhat generic chronicle of a guy trying to be a writer into what it is now, it’s become more reflective of who I am as a person. So I think the blend of hip-hop/books and literature/ tech/lowbrow art/occasional pro wrestling nerdery that dominates most posts makes for a unique mixture, but I don’t know that it has a very wide appeal.
I do struggle a lot with the notion of writing to appeal to some sort of “market,” catering to what they might want and just doing what I want and letting an audience find me. So much writing advice says to just do what you do, try to do it well, and the people will find you, but it’s still not something I’m totally comfortable with.
How do you decide what to write about?
I only write when I feel like I have something worth saying, which is really no better than writing when the spirit moves. It’s a step above useless. Try as I might, I just can’t bring myself to revert back to the “and then I did this and then I did that,” school of bloggage, as discussed in last week’s entry.
Sometimes it’s easy enough, I’ve seen a cool movie or gone to a concert or read a great book or discovered a great song I didn’t know existed or there’s a story in the news cycle that’s pertinent to my interests. It’s when I have to actually seek out something to write about that I stumble, because…because I don’t know. I think I’ll bore people, maybe. People who are so enthralled by what I think about a forgotten rap track from 1997 [laughs].
Where did the idea for PFG come from?
You mean the title or the blog itself?
When I started the thing, I’d just come off maintaining a blog for the student newspaper in Windsor, a job I did for two years, twice a day Monday-Friday. Some link-farming, some longform commentary on local issues and campus controversies, stuff like that [some of my better moments can be found on the Works page under “Best of the Blog”]. The job ended up getting downsized after I moved to Toronto, rightly so. Maybe it was working in the bookstore, being surrounded by novels, maybe it was two years of “journalistic” content creation, but I really wanted to reconnect with fiction writing. I had the age of 33 circled in my mind as a deadline for some reason, I think I read it was when Murakami finished his first novel. So the initial idea was to chart my attempts to get published anywhere, or at least finish something by the age of 33.
I blew that deadline, obviously. I wonder if I always knew I would. But instead of getting published I got…this, instead. Would I’ve stuck with this if I’d been more focused on fiction writing? Probably not. So there’s a give and take there. Even though the site’s original intent may have been obscured by the endless nostalgia for 90’s hip-hop, that original motivating factor is still there.
The title, that came from that rarest of things, an actual moment of inspiration. A “brushing your teeth at two in the morning,” type of moment. Those are dangerous, you know? They make you think that you can get by as a writer that way. But yeah, Poetry for Gravediggers was just this phrase that popped into my head while I was brushing my teeth, thought it might make a good name for a story collection or something. It stayed scrawled on a white board for over a year before I decided to use it as the blog title.
It’s funny, though, apparently in Marxism the rising class is considered the “gravedigger,” of the ruling class. If this whole endeavor is at its heart supposed to chart my attempts to get over, I think there’s a nice congruence there.
Also, top Google result for that phrase. No quotes, even! Thank you very much.
Caitlin MacKinnon is a coworker in the bookstore, studying English and Marketing at Ryerson University with ambitions to work as an editor. She is probably the only person who has made an effort to know me. She’s also been one of the strongest supporters of my writing since she first read it, which actually gets through to my awkward embarrassed humility, since we weren’t friends for long beforehand, so she never had to spare my feelings. We try to grab brunch once a month if we can. It’s her turn to pay.
What initially motivated you to write a personal cultural review style of blog? Or a blog in general?
The idea to blog in general was kind of a no-brainer once the means to do so became available. If I’m remembering this right, back in ’97-’98 I was thinking of putting a zine out as a sort of vanity project [called GOOFSMACK, it had an amazing logo drawn by my best friend]. Then I got turned on to this website called OpenDiary, one of the earliest social blogging sites [and the first to allow comments, I think]. I kind of forgot about the zine and tried to spend a few days a week putting entries up on there. Even then I think it was a means to get back to writing poetry after I stopped going to university. Mostly I treated it as the name implied, recounting what I’d done, talking about my friends, the usual things a twentysomething in a small town working at a gas station would do.
Have the reasons for writing PFG changed?
Definitely. The original subhead of the site read “Jordan Ferguson’s Ongoing Struggles and Failures,” because the idea was to chronicle the ongoing attempts to get published and work on my fiction. I suppose that reason’s never changed, you could argue things have been one long struggle and failure since then.
Over the last 10 years how has your blogging developed?
I read an article I don’t know where about the trend in Web 3.0 or whatever we’re in now towards authenticity. In the early days of the Web we all had handles and nicknames, nobody used their real names. The first sign of online intimacy was when you learned someone’s real name.
Now for whatever reason, the narcissism of youth, advances in online security, populist content creation, people want their real names associated with their online activities, and I’ve been no different. PFG is the first online venture I’ve attempted that didn’t use a pseudonym, even though I used the same pseudonym for everything I did online pre-2004. I figure now if I’m going to do the work, I want the recognition for myself, good or bad.
Oddly enough, as I’ve said a lot lately, while I pulled back the curtain on my name, I clouded over my personal life in my blogging. I might relate an anecdote from my life now and then, but I don’t relate the minutiae of my everyday, something I used to do a lot in older blogs, musing about girls and people I knew, et cetera.
I also think I’ve gotten better at writing in this medium. My efforts before J-school are horrifying compared to the sort of work I’ve done since.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I wish I made more of an effort on promotion. I think I’m kind of at a saturation point with people I know. Something goes up on Twitter and Facebook when a new entry goes live, but I need to start engaging with the other bloggy types in the city, I think, try to connect with that community more. I also think I blew it by using obtuse tags on my entries. Sure, I think it’s funny to use a tag like “Namedropping for Googlejuice,” or “Confused White People,” but it makes search engine optimization impossible and only makes it harder for new readers to find the place. But at this point I feel like that horse is out of the barn, so I need to make the best of it now.
Around the time I realized the original mandate wasn’t sustainable, I started thinking about this idea of myself as brand, spreading the PFG name to other media [podcasts, videos, etc]. I still have this great logo I don’t make use of enough that I sometimes consider making stickers of or making a stencil of it and tagging up some garbage cans. Then I panic about how pathetic I would look if one of the beautiful people saw my sweet logo and actually came to the site to see what’s here. I can’t fulfill the promise of that design [laughs].
Is your initial Mission Statement still something you try and look to or has it been abandoned for greater and grander things?
I think the Mission Statement was the greater, grander thing, ha! I don’t know exactly where it is, but I know there’s an entry probably somewhere in 2010 where I admitted if I only blogged about how a blog about writing by a guy who didn’t write anything wasn’t exactly scintillating reading, so I’d need to vary the content up a bit. The Mission Statement is always in the back of my head, but I know if I adhere too closely to it, the gaps between entries will grow ever wider.
Which blogs have brought about the most responses?
If I had to pick a moment where the site started getting a bit of traction, at least where people I knew started reading on a regular basis or even found out it existed in the first place, it was when I did the Song-a-Day meme in 2010. That seemed to resonate with people for some reason.
But the one crazy moment was when I wrote an appreciation of the graphic novel series Phonogram. Not only did the book’s writer link to the post on Twitter, he emailed me personally to thank me for it, and to tell me about a scene that got cut from the book relating to a critical observation I’d made about it. That was pretty awesome. and while that Kieron Gillen has no recollection who the hell I am, I’ll never forget that short, two paragraph email he sent me.
Which blogs have been the most controversial?
I don’t know that any entries on PFG have been controversial, per se, at least not like the hate mail I used to get sometimes when I ran the blog for the University of Windsor. Certainly the one that caused me the most grief wasn’t even a proper entry, it was a brief note announcing I’d cleaned up some of the links to my work on the menu, giving each story/poem/article it’s own page instead of linking to a PDF, drawing renewed attention to things that had already been sitting there for over a year. Someone I know read something she saw herself in, and we had a huge fight over it. Like, a “throat raw from screaming,” sort of fight. She was furious with me for writing about her, even though it wasn’t her; it was a character with certain similarities. I was furious with her for trying to make me feel bad about one of the few things I’d written and finished.
Even telling the story, I’m somewhat fearful the whole thing could fire off again, which is murder for a writer, because it really amounts to self-censorship, and I’ve always been a believer that all writing should be fearless. If you think it gives to the story, it should be used.
What do you do with negative or positive feedback?
It depends. If it’s just someone needing to troll and call me a fat asshole no woman would ever love, I’m old enough and been at this long enough I can file that in the appropriate circular bin. Positive I tend to shrug off, but that’s been true with me since time immemorial. I still don’t know why that is. Catholic upbringing, maybe.
Do you find that feedback changes what and how you write?
If it’s constructive, I try to remember it going forward. I’m pretty stubborn [as you know], especially when it comes to my writing, but I think I can acknowledge when I’m in the wrong and make appropriate corrections when needed. There are many people who would likely disagree.
Are you ever at a loss for subject matter and what do you do? (Besides harassing your friends for topics.)
At a loss for subject matter is pretty close to my natural state [laughs]. When I don’t have one, I don’t write. Which is a problem, because only hacks write when inspiration hits.
Is it a bad thing to leave blogging for too long? Or does a break sometimes help recharge the creative battery or give you perspective?
It depends if you want to be recognized for it. The key to having a successful blog has always been regularly posting in a consistent voice. Readers need to know what to expect from you, and even if you veer outside their expectations, it should still read like you.
When I was doing the blog for the paper back home, it felt like the worst sometimes because I was on the hook for at least two entries a day, usually a link-farm in the morning and either a commentary or something lulzy later in the afternoon. That’s a lot of content for one dude to churn out on a regular basis. and I’m not about to sit here and say everything that went up was golden.
Ultimately, I do think it’s a bad thing to leave it alone for too long. The proof is in the pudding, I can see it in my stats. When entries are regular, more views. The longer I go without posting, the views go down by the day.
Which bloggers do you most admire?
That’s an amazing question. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever given it much thought. Neil Gaiman’s blog was one of the first “famous” people blogs I started reading; he was a guy who just seemed to understand the medium from out the gate [and I still never know how he gets the time or energy…I feel like if I could watch his workday from start to finish once I would have the Rosetta stone on how to do this whole thing]. I always liked a guy named Graeme McMillan who used to run a site I miss to this day called Fanboy Rampage that skewered the worst parts of comic creators and fans.
If there’s anyone working today I really admire though, who is still primarily a blogger in what I consider a blogger to be, it’s Jay Smooth at Ill Doctrine. There’s nothing worse than drafting a blog on any subject and then finding out Jay Smooth made a video about the same subject, because not only will he say everything you were going to, he’ll be sharper, smarter and funnier when he says it.
Look at that shit. Dude just summed what I’m always battling with in three minutes. And he knew it five years ago!
Do you feel that blogging has changed writing? Including journalism, fiction, etc.
Definitely. As I was thinking about your last question I started and stopped about five times thinking, ‘Well, is that guy a journalist or a writer?’ Does Grantland count as a blog? Is The Millions a news site?
The lines are still hard and fast in the traditional media channels, as they should be. But in many places on the Net, the tone has become much more personal, laid back, casual, snarky at worst.
I don’t think it’s become as apparent in fiction, with a few exceptions, usually authors that make me want to birth kittens from my ass like Tao Lin, with his constant mentions of G-Chat conversations and such [I honestly didn’t know that many people used G-Chat until I read some of his work]. I think blogging has changed the publishing industry, how many writers have managed to spin one good blog idea into a book deal, whether that’s some sad little collection of photos spun out of a Tumblr or a memoir that expands on what someone already wrote about on their blog?
What I notice more often is how Twitter changes how I write. I’ve probably been more thoughtful about editing something down to 140 characters than I’ve been about any sentence in a short story ever.
What are your views on breakfast food?
I’m for it, at any time of day. Eggs Benedict, side of bacon, bottomless cup of coffee.
Nicole Bryant is an educator, theatre director and the love of my life. She’s also seen more of my writing than anyone else on this earth and is the one who dubbed me “The Hip-Hop Chuck Klosterman of the North.” So if it catches on, she gets a cut.
Where is your favourite place to write?
Anywhere my two dozen requirements can be met [laughs]. I need to leave the house, I know that much. It’s probably the only thing I do when I want/need to be around people. I don’t like to do it by myself. This may be another of the many things I have to get over. So currently, favourite place to write is the middle table in the big window of the first floor of the local Starbucks. The high school kids never socialize in that part of the building, they always go upstairs, and every table in that row is near a power outlet.
What is your biggest regret?
There’s probably a tie for the top spot: when I was flipping through that book you got me for Christmas, I opened it randomly to a piece on “writer-proofing your life,” including shutting the door on loved ones and lowering your standards [as in, the sink full of dirty dishes will wait]. I have never been able to do either of those things. It’s like even though getting my act together on this is all I want to do, I worry about what you might think if you came home and found me clacking away with last night’s dinner dishes in the sink. The fact that I left them there as I left today to finish this is a victory in itself.
That I allow fear to rule so much of what I do, what I’ve allowed it to cost me, take from me. That I allow it to consistently piss on the faith so many people have always had in me. And that I still don’t know how to overcome it.
Do you think you will ever be a successful writer?
Is Skyrim still in the house?
Depends what one means by successful. Publish a novel that gets sold to Hollywood producers? I don’t think so. Get the freelance hustle going, turning out little stories here and there to support myself? At that level, maybe not. Do I think I could get my name known in some circles and get some creative work published….anywhere? Could I fulfill the promise of what this stupid blog was supposed to be about in the first place?
Yes. I do. Even now, I still do.
Why do you like Macs so damn much? Did you have a man crush on Steve Jobs? Who do you have a man crush on?
Umm, because they’re awesome. I can acknowledge that part of my appreciation for them is based on hype and the status they convey, but I also find them the easiest to use. They do the things I want to do in a way that’s intuitive and deceptively powerful. And they’re sooo so pretty.
You know I struggled with how much the thing was going to cost me, but all it took was one unnecessary McAffee window popping up on your laptop to confirm that I could not deal with CTRL+ALT+DEL’ing my way through unnecessary processes that booted up without my knowledge.
I certainly had no mancrush on Steve Jobs, I was well aware of the saltier parts of his personality, his thievery and his litigious nature. Who do I have a mancrush on? I used to always say Harrison Ford, but the guy still wears an earring at his age.
It’s such a cliché to say Clooney, but as he’s entering his late phase I find him even more charming and charismatic than he was during the ‘Oceans’ period.
Favourite song of 1994?
At the time, probably this:
As of now, this:
What would you make with two empty toilet paper rolls, a roll of masking tape, ten straws, three cotton balls, and a full box of kleenex?
The best damn Fleshlight you ever saw!
Finally, a bonus question from my old college classmate Melissa Pulleyblank, who has managed to turn a job at McDonald’s into something that’s bought her a house. Unbelievable.
Why the interest in junk in the trunk? most women think it’s awful, most men would find cellulite icky and yet you find it awesome. Please explain.
I honestly can’t figure out when the switch from boob to ass man happened with me, but it was definitely sometime in the last seven to ten years. You know what it is? Yes, there’s appeal in the…curvatures, but for me it’s all about the walk. Maybe the bum is just okay but if the walk is mean? It’s a wrap.
One time over a civilized dinner an acquaintance and I had a ‘boobs v. ass’ discussion and he made an insightful observation I hadn’t considered before: when you see some great boobs, as a man, your brain doesn’t immediately go to a sex place, you can appreciate it for what it is. But when you see a great ass, the appreciation usually comes from a compulsion to do something to it. It’s a passive v. active thing. You see the boobs and say, ‘Damn, those some nice boobs!”; you see a gorgeous ass and you say, ‘Damn, if I get my hands on that I’ma…” and so on. As the bard said, “When a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist and a round thing in your face you get sprung.”
Thanks to Annie, Caitlin, Nicole and Melissa. Maybe we’ll try this again come entry 500. I’ll try to have done something worth asking about by then.