I did not set out to blog slowly. Today the blogosphere is one of the most productive and inspiring places for writers and researchers to think and work. For historians, like me, and scholars of all varieties, it’s a space for the rapid exchange of ideas and exploratory drafts, for thinking aloud, and quick-fire responses or, alternatively, for drumming up interest in the soon-to-be-published book and reaching to an audience beyond specialist readers of the dusty academic monograph. It is home to the multi-tasking, networked researcher, twitter at the ready to turn power-point into a blog, blog into article, anecdote chopped from the latest chapter into an essay all of its own. But if we slow down, blogging can be something else. Not just a means to an end, a dissemination tool, but a creative medium in its own right, rich with possibility.
I have always been a slow writer. Blogging was a way to write faster. Since November 2013 I have been working on Conviction: stories from a nineteenth-century prison about the prison visitor Sarah Martin and her encounters with inmates, and their families, at Yarmouth Gaol. The blog, I hoped, would be the place to discover how to write a book about research that has taken nearly a decade in a way that might appeal to readers who enjoy history and not just scholars of crime and punishment. Starting the blog forced me to come up with the subtitle that long eluded me: stories from a nineteenth century prison. Story-telling, I have found, is liberating me from the confines of conventional academic history.
Story-telling is not only a way of re-crafting scholarly research into digestible form. It’s a way of seeing differently, bringing into focus multiple points of view, orchestrating many voices. It is not an alternative to analysis but offers other kinds of analysis which can exploit the devices of fiction and imaginative forms of narration and illustration. It can take time.
Ironically, I have learned this while serving time at the blogface with five boys, all sentenced to one month’s confinement at the start of 1840. Last December I wrote a blog about Christmas in Prison, 1839. Finding out about the festive dinner enjoyed by inmates and those who went hungry and cold on the streets of Yarmouth drew me up close to the timing and seasonal nature of offending, and the physical experience of imprisonment, in ways I had not considered so directly before. Pouring over the gaol registers for the year’s end, 1839, reconnected me with the five boys about to enter prison.
They were the first inmates I began searching for, years ago, when I opened Sarah Martin’s Every Day Book and came across the jagged crosses they made against their names, to sign up to the Rules the prison visitor wrote out for them. They were the subject of the first paper I presented on Yarmouth Gaol, back in 2008, that took me six years to hone into a journal article. I had failed to blog about them last November, when I stared at the computer screen, berating myself for not being able to write about the boys I knew so well. Now, I decided to join them on their ward, and measure out their sentence day by day, to feel the rhythms of the prison routine and the emotional tempo of captivity.
I planned to blog each day of their sentence, from the arrival of three boys on 28 December 1839 to the departure, 31 January 1840, of the youngest two who entered a few days later. I feared it would be an impossible task when the academic year swung back into action at the start of January but hoped it would motivate me to write quickly and daily by simply narrating each day’s events as recorded by the Gaoler in his disciplinary book and the visitor in her prison diary.
From the outset each blog turned into a mini research project as the pleasures of the medium and seductiveness of the sources took over. As in the very first post, Serving Time at Yarmouth Gaol, new questions emerged. What did time mean to the boys, serving sentences when the penal system was just beginning to regulate prisoners’ time to inculcate in them the habits of order and discipline? How were they and other inmates used to marking time when, as I discovered from the Index and Receiving Book, few possessed a watch? Each post sent me to new sources or to look at old ones with new eyes.
My commitment to blogging daily did not survive the second day back at teaching. Eventually I began to compress a few days into a single post. Most took at least a day to write, preceded by several days’ research and mulling over. The timing of the posts now reflects the rhythms and rigours of academic hard labour rather than prison time, though I plan next January to re-release the blogs to see if publication in historical ‘real time’ reveals anything I have missed about the diurnal nature of prison life.
Long before I completed the series last week, the style and tone of the blogs had shifted. Re-reading them from start to finish has made me see how much I’ve learned by spending time with the boys and their teacher, not just about their lives in and out of gaol, but about how to write and blog about history. But the things that slowed me down are also those that have been most stimulating and rewarding in feeling my way to a more creative kind of history writing. I’ll be writing about these soon for, confession, I have an article to write by the end of August on blogging, social media and the history of crime. I need to speed up!
Are you a slow blogger or a speed blogger? How do you find time or make time for blogging and what takes up your time when blogging? I hope you will share your experience, either in the comments below or on twitter. (If you comment via twitter, please use #slowblog so I can quote you, even if you are fast!). As calls grow for blogging to be recognised as academic labour, we need to be open about the time it takes, and to resist the drive for it to be solely a supplementary medium to fast-track us to more prestigious ‘outputs’ or an outlet for the stresses of being a 24/7 academic.
It’s now 13.26 and I’m ready for lunch. I began this post before 7.00am, with just an hour away walking with my long-suffering four-legged companion who has to compete for attention with my prison boys.