Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Perils of High-Stakes Mommy-Blogging

[Heather] Armstrong tried joking with [her daughter] Leta, then hugging her, then distracting the two children with another game that didn’t require as much coordination. Noticing that I’d been taking notes during the meltdown, Armstrong winced but didn’t ask me to stop. “It’s all fodder,” she said. “It’s all material.” 

Or is it? It’s true that the most-trafficked personal bloggers appear to have few boundaries, in part because so many found their followers, and their voices, in times of crisis. Yet the most successful of the genre, the women who manage to turn this into a living, or at least part of one, pull off the neat trick of seeming to share more than they do. “Nobody reveals every piece of themselves online,” [Ree] Drummond says. “It’s not really inventing a personality as much as shying away from certain subjects". . . .

In other words, she will write about Leta . . . but not really. She will tell readers something is going on . . . but not what. She will let strangers feel as if they know what she is going through . . . but not completely. It’s a sleight of hand that seems a necessary part of this evolution from online diary to online business.

Read the rest of this fascinating article.


lissla lissar said...

Thanks. That was fascinating.

Melanie B said...

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. It really does make you pause to consider the whole blogging phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

That is a fascinating article. Blogging on the day to day really has become it's own business, which I kind of don't get - and I don't mean that in a disparaging way, more power to them...what I mean is why is someone else's broken washing machine more compelling than one's own life?(in a culture who's mantra has become "if I only had more hours in the day..."). I wonder about it from a marketing perspective, is it on the same plane as reality tv, for instance? Or is it more like a magazine article, or ready access to decent writing in short form? It's interesting to consider.

Pentimento said...

It reminds me of a discussion a while back on Betty Duffy's blog about blogging as a type of memoir-writing, in which truth is, essentially, the true-enough. It seems to me that blog-readers have got to expect that the bloggers they follow are not going to spill all their beans online.

Pentimento said...

When you think about it, these mommy-bloggers provide an antidote to the isolation of motherhood, an isolation I know keenly now that I live in middle America. There is an air of sincere sharing on these blogs that is seductive to lonely readers. But for the high-stakes (financially speaking) mommy bloggers, there must be some concealment. So a reader will feel as if her own emotional connection to the blogger is being exploited for money.

Enbrethiliel said...


What a fascinating and absorbing (if slightly gossipy--LOL!) read. Thanks for linking to it, Pentimento. =)

I think most of us who share our personal lives online with people we have never met in the flesh can find something to relate to. I know it makes me want to take my PayPal button down. =P

And once more, I'm reminded of Madeleine L'Engle's children's reaction to her biographical writing. They didn't agree with the way they were portrayed and one of them described all the non-fiction as merely "good bullshit." But they couldn't really do anything about her writing and her publishing, could they? I know I didn't learn their side of it until after L'Engle had died--although it might have been an "open secret" before that.

On the other hand, the immediacy of blogging means that the people who are blogged about can have a say in "real time." Heather Armstrong's daughter can run out of the room when her mother grabs a camera . . . or throw a tantrum when her photo is taken without her permission! And Heather must adapt accordingly. Can you imagine any pre-Internet writer of a memoir showing that kind of consideration to the people he has written about?

Off on a tangent now: I recently reread Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, which I disliked for years. I was really surprised to find I no longer do! I have a vague memory of why it didn't work for me the first two times (neither Harriet nor her friends seemed to have learned "their lesson" in the end), and I have just as much trouble putting my finger on why I kind of like it now. I think it has something to do with my blogging experience having made it easier for me to relate to Harriet. I really don't like Ole Golly's final word of advice to our young spy, which is the de facto moral of the story: that sometimes we should lie to other people but must always tell the truth to ourselves. But isn't that also a good rule for bloggers? I know it's a tightrope that I walk every time I write something about my own life.

Pentimento said...

E, your comment came in just as I was reading the debate amongst Catholic theologians about whether or not it's justifiable for Live Action to lie to Planned Parenthood in the interest of exposing that organization, and dovetails nicely, in some strange way, with that discussion.

Pentimento said...

PS - as I think I've mentioned to you before, I also was not a Harriet the Spy fan when I read the book as a child. Perhaps I'd feel differently now too.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Some strange way," indeed! =P

For me, the big issue in the Live Action case is not whether certain lies are justifiable but whether lying to certain people is justifiable. The pro-life movement has always seemed to me to be more the child of US politics than of Catholic teaching, due in great part to its "Us vs. Them" mentality. I really think most of the people who are saying, "It is all right to lie to save a life," actually mean, "It's all right to lie to abortionists."

So now I know what kind of spy work Harriet M. Welsch ended up doing when she grew up! ;-)

But in all seriousness, I do have a problem with the novel's moral being, "Sometimes you have to lie." I just wish I could be more articulate about why I think it's wrong.

Enbrethiliel said...


PS--Yes, I remember that! =)

Pentimento said...

E, as you may know, I blog occasionally at Vox Nova, where most of the other writers and a good number of commenters would agree with you about the origins of the American pro-life movement.

Enbrethiliel said...


OMG! Vox Nova writers would agree with me?!?!

I just wish I knew whether to be overjoyed or outraged. ;-)

Pentimento said...

Heh. Well, it's sort of like what Heather Armstrong's husband says in the New York Times article: you've got to ride the hate for all it's worth.

GretchenJoanna said...

That article was very informative and thought-provoking. It makes me want to be even more restrained in my blogging! Maybe reading this revelatory type of blog serves a similar purpose to watching soap operas, with the added excitement of having a virtual connection to real people.

Melanie B said...

P. It reminded me of the Betty Duffy true-enough memoir discussion too.

I loved this description of blogging from the article: "a meeting of 18th-century journaling, 19th-century magazine serials and the intimate universality of cyberspace." I think that captures it fairly well. Definitely part of the appeal is the cure for isolation. Though I find that I am not really drawn to those big blogs for that.

Dom and I were talking about my blog and how it's been a sort of chronicle of our relationship. But how I've changed the way I write about myself and our family so much from the first baby till this one. With Bella Dom posted something on his blog right away but I didn't blog anything till I'd been home for some days. Now I'm blogging from the hospital. People's surprise at that has made me pause to wonder if it isn't too much; but you know I write as much for myself and for our family's record as for my current readers. I like having the quick snapshots and in the moment reflections. I rather wish I had more from when Bella was a baby.

I find the blogging for money phenomenon curious. On the one hand the commercialism really turns me off and I can't even put my finger on exactly what it is I find so repulsive about it. (Is it just that money makes it seem exploitative? Or just that what I enjoy about blogging is the sense of intimate community which totally doesn't exist on those big commercial blogs?) On the other hand, I can sort of see the appeal: why not get paid for what you'd do anyway?

E, As a mother who writes about her children, I think quite a bit about the L'Engle children and other such scenarios. I hope that I won't one day find Bella and the others reacting in the same way. I worry about walking that fine line. Not so hard now; but once Bella becomes literate I suppose the test is what she'd feel comfortable with reading about herself. Much in the same way I am conscious that Dom reads my blog. I don't write anything he wouldn't want to see written about himself. I am conscious our families and friends read. There are definitely lines I don't cross.

Interesting points too about the Live Action debate and lying.

Sally Thomas said...

Yes, all fascinating. And being one of those bloggers who don't blog anonymously -- though I have given my kids pseudonyms, so at least people who meet them mostly don't go, "Oh! You're Epiphany! I remember when you were turning 13, and . . . " -- I constantly struggle with the tension between the need for circumspection and the need still to have something left that I can say.

I have written less and less about my children as they've gotten older, and often enough when I do write about them, I don't even identify who's saying the funny thing, or whatever. Which makes things kind of boring, but as they get older I'm more aware of their need not to be my subject matter.

This is something I probably should have observed from the beginning, though at the beginning, really hardly anyone was reading me (as opposed to "hardly anyone," which is the case now), and it didn't seem to matter so much, because the people reading were either people who saw my kids doing the things they did all the time, or people to whom I'd have told stories about my kids in person. Now, I feel more that I'd be putting them on public display (to like ten more people, not ten thousand, fortunately), so other than talking about what they do for school, I tend to shy away from writing so much about them.

Which, as I say, makes me boring. They are way more entertaining than I could ever be.

It is a hard thing, though. There's that old rule about writing what you know, and motherhood is largely what writing mothers know, so it's hard not to write about it, and equally hard to find some livable balance.

Sally Thomas said...

And yes, I've put up and taken down a Paypal button several times, and put up and taken down a modest number of ads. The thought sometimes strikes me, usually when we're eating rice and peanutbutter for dinner, that it sure would be nice to make something like a living doing what I'd do normally, ie writing a blog.

And then I realize that a) that's not really why I write the blog, and b)if it were, that would mean that I had a work ethic, which is sort of the common denominator of people who make a living.

That's when I give up and take it all down again.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento and Melanie:

I just reread Ole Golly's letter to Harriet. She wrote, "Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth."

It reminded me of the time I wrote about my reaction to something my friend told me about her brother's marital problems. Of course, she always sides with her brother, and as her loyal friend, I usually sympathise with her. But one day she told me that her brother had declined to go to Mass with his wife because he was "tired"--but then, when she was at church, accepted a surprise invitation from his mother and sister to go furniture shopping with them. Apparently, his wife really let him have it for that. =P After my friend told the story, she snapped, "Well, of course he went with us instead of with her. What's more fun for him: furniture shopping or Mass?" Never mind that it had been a Sunday.

I shared that story on my blog, concluding, "If my husband didn't go to Mass with me because he was tired, but then went shopping with his non-practicing-Catholic mother and sister because it was fun . . . well, let's just say that my ovaries would . . . go on strike, too."

My friend never mentioned the post to me, but it has been about eight months and she hasn't brought up her brother and his wife in another conversation since!

Melanie B said...

And I never have read Harriet the Spy. Guess it's another of those I should seek out one day.

priest's wife said...

very interesting!