Medleyana: Year Two

A year or two before I began Medleyana, I idly mentioned my interest in starting a blog to a friend. “No one reads blogs anymore,” he said. That gave me pause, but eventually, I went ahead and started anyway, and the result is this blog, now two years old, give or take a day.

Within the first six months of blogging, I realized that a lot of my articles started with a reminiscence such as the one above, with the rest of the article enumerating the reasons the other person was wrong. I quickly found that as tempting as that rhetorical device can be, I needed to use it sparingly, lest the entire blog become a giant exercise in “staircase wit,” a compendium of the things I should have said, if I’d only had the presence of mind. (Of course, if I argued as vociferously in person as most people do on the internet, I’d have no friends left, online or off-.)

So, as I celebrate Medleyana’s second birthday, I don’t bring up that friend’s offhand comment to prove that he was wrong. In fact, in many ways, he was right: the time in which a blog could amass a large readership just by being out there is long passed. This summer has proven to be something of a reckoning, not just for bloggers but for all kinds of “long form” writers on the internet.

In addition to the abrupt closure of The Dissolve, “free-form” radio station WFMU’s Beware of the Blog ceased posting; as of July, both exist online now only as archives of past content. I’ll admit I wasn’t a regular visitor to WFMU’s blog lately, so maybe I’m part of the problem, but when I first discovered it I spent quite a bit of time browsing its posts and downloading files from its collections.

Looking at it now, its mixture of original articles and reposts of unusual tapes and records, comics, and other found oddities are a good example of what the web used to be like as recently as ten years ago. Industrious writers with scanners and mp3-editing software could clean out their closets and share whatever weird stuff they found with the world instantly. It’s not just that the early internet was less commercial in nature (although that’s certainly part of it–Beware of the Blog was a volunteer-driven affair): it was countercultural, picking up the habits of reclamation and subversion that had driven the alternative press in the ’80s and ’90s. And it went both ways: like many of the blogs and websites that emerged around the turn of the century, it developed a culture of users (both writers and commenters) that gave it an identity. In the past, I’ve compared online forums to bars or coffee shops that are always open, and that was especially true of the websites that attracted regulars, “where everybody knows your name.”

The passing of this ethos is part of what Vox editor Todd VanDer Werff laments when he calls 2015 “the year the old internet finally died:” now there’s so much emphasis on social media and going viral, it’s harder to create a website with an identity that is a destination, rather than a source of memes and videos to share. The content is often no less quirky than before, but the context is quite different: instead of being part of an ongoing discussion with a community of writers and commenters (something The Dissolve excelled at), each picture or link is encountered as part of the reader’s Facebook or Twitter feed; to the extent that it has any attribution, it’s more like a brand than a source to return to (one reason a lot of these meme-mills are radio stations). According to VanDer Werff, writers of longer articles (what used to be the expectation for writers and journalists) are in trouble unless they can also provide the quick hits that generate clicks.

Of course, Medleyana isn’t really playing on the same turf as The Dissolve (or the A.V. Club, or Grantland): it’s just me, not a staff of writers, and it’s a labor of love, not a job. But the landscape has changed for bloggers, as well: the same month that The Dissolve and Beware of the Blog shuttered, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan wrote about the world he remembered before he was sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for his writing:

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

Again, I’m not sure I have much in common with Derakhshan; it’s hard to read his comments and not feel that he mourns the influence he once wielded as much as the changing structure of the internet. And while he isn’t wrong about the changes in the way we exchange ideas online, there are simply more people writing then there were before, making it harder for individual voices to stand out. The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post didn’t say anything about people not writing blogs anymore, after all.

More seriously, Derakhshan goes on to point out how commercialized and homogenized the dialogue is when it’s in the hands of corporate social networks like Facebook: “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex–and secretive–algorithms.” Those algorithms tend to emphasize what users have already shown that they like with their clicks and upvotes, contributing to the echo-chamber quality of such networks. That’s a fair concern, and one shared by many observers: that the internet will become more like television, with a fragmented but largely passive audience, faced with an infinitude of choices, but less likely to be challenged by different perspectives.

Ultimately, while my readership is not large, at least not in comparison to the heyday of the form, it has been growing: this summer’s Fates Worse Than Death has been a success, at least measured in comments and discussion (some of which have taken place, yes, on Facebook and Twitter). This year I stretched myself more to post on a weekly basis, and I experienced and learned about some fascinating films that I might not have been motivated to explore otherwise. And just personally, I’m pleased that I was able to stay on my self-imposed schedule with some late nights (and a few very late nights!). I’d probably try to keep this series going all year round but for two factors: first, it’s too time-consuming, and I would burn out if I tried to keep it up for much longer; second, I have other things I’d like to pursue as well. To those of you who may have found your way here for coverage of serials, I hope you’ll check out some of the other topics. And rest assured that I’ll still be covering them in one way or the other.

Finally, thanks for visiting, and for reading. If you’ve taken the time to comment, or contacted me personally, or if you’ve shared one of my articles, know that I appreciate the feedback. If there’s anything I can to do to improve your experience in the coming year, or you have a suggestion for a topic you’d like to see covered, or you just want to say hi, please don’t hesitate to comment, send me an e-mail through the contact page, or find me on Twitter!

P. S. And keep writing!

Medleyana: Year One

Apparently, this is who I am.

Apparently, this is who I am.


Wow, it’s been a whole year already! Medleyana became a part of my life so quickly that it’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t trying to shape my thoughts into blog posts on a regular basis. In a lot of ways, this has been good for me to undertake, even though it’s been a lot of work. I probably should have started blogging a long time ago: there’s a big difference between having a thought and putting it in a form for others to read. There is often research involved, and it’s surprising how many leaps in logic one can make that only come to light when trying to write an idea down or explain it to somebody else. As someone who often reaches conclusions by intuition or lateral thinking, blogging has kept me honest and forced me to support my opinions in a more rigorous way.


The reality of blogging has also been different from my expectations. I at first conceived of Medleyana as mostly an essay series, one entry building on another until I had gotten all of my thoughts out, presenting an overarching argument made from many angles. I quickly realized that most people, including myself, don’t read blogs in that way: the format lends itself to browsing, with the expectation that not all readers will be interested in every subject a writer chooses to explore (especially true for a blog like mine, tackling a variety of subjects), and each entry needs to be able to stand on its own rather than building directly on its predecessor (not that I haven’t had some threads running through). In some cases I’ve responded to current events or arguments, but mostly I don’t consider Medleyana to be a “headline news” kind of blog; perhaps that is something to consider expanding into in its second year.

Overall, although some entries didn’t quite get where I wanted them to go, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made as a writer, and I’ve proven to myself that I can stay on a schedule (most of the time). I’ve also found it necessary to branch out in search of new subjects to write about, after exhausting most of the things that had been building up inside, the ideas that drove me to start blogging in the first place.

Fates Worse Than Death, for example, my exploration of movie serials, was a product of happy circumstance: I had a few serials on DVD but was having a hard time committing to watch them. So, like so many bloggers before me, I began a series, thinking that the summer would provide the free time to watch them with the side effect of providing a little content for the blog. How wrong I was! It turns out that watching and writing about a four-hour long movie, even on a biweekly basis, is rather time-consuming! As I often tell my wife, I don’t really take on big projects anymore: I just take on projects that I think will be small, and wait for them to expand! It has been an enjoyable process, however, and I’ve even made some friends in researching and discussing this material (and I still have plenty to look at for next summer!).

The most surprising development of the last year is how quickly I have been able to find other outlets for my writing, including The Solute (for which I will have some pieces upcoming, I promise!) and The Wichita Eagle. I’m also still awaiting publication of The Lost Worlds of Power (now expected at the end of October) and I’ve got a few other projects in the works. Some of them are larger in scale (so maybe I exaggerated when I said I never take on big projects) and might demand more of my time. My goal is to keep posting at least once a week here, but after proving I could do it for one year I’m going to be more forgiving of myself if I don’t, and I’ve got an ample backlog of material for anyone who gets impatient for more reading.

Finally, if there is one thing I appreciate from readers, it’s feedback. I have a general idea of readership through the number of “hits” this site gets each day; I can see what search terms are leading readers here (and frankly, some of you should be ashamed of yourselves). I’m aware of which posts are the most popular (for the record, it’s “Instruments of Death” by a long shot), but unless I hear from you, I don’t really know what you think. If you’re reading this, why not consider commenting and letting me know you’re there? If the commenting system is too restrictive or you just prefer to remain private, drop me a line through my Contact page. Criticism is as welcome as praise, as long as it will help me make this a blog that you will want to keep reading.

To all of you, thanks for a great first year.

To Spec or Not to Spec?

There are really two questions intertwined in this subject.  How much time and effort should be invested in “spec” (short for “speculative”) projects? And is it worth it to create original work for contests (or open calls)?

Admittedly, the answer to these questions depends on the stage of one’s career and the medium in which one works.  A poet or writer’s work is essentially fungible: it can be printed anywhere with little change (although something written with a specific audience in mind may have trouble finding a home elsewhere).  A composer who writes notated music, however, still has to get their composition into the hands of performers to bring it to life (a performing composer, or a studio composer who can realize their composition electronically, doesn’t face this hurdle in the same way, of course).  In that sense their “product” is more like the script for a play or movie, and is only finished in performance.  I’m going to speak from my own experience, but I’m interested in viewpoints from other fields, such as film or computer games.  Comments are welcome!

As a composer, I’ve seen this from several different perspectives. I’ve composed pieces that were exactly what I wanted to hear, without any regard to potential performances; I’ve been fortunate to receive offers to write music for specific performers and events.  I’ve had the opportunity to program concert series as a conductor, and been a performing member of chamber groups; in both cases, that gave me the ability to compose or arrange music for a specific ensemble and ensure that it would be performed.  Every piece is different, and not just musically: the known and unknown factors—including the abilities of performers, the amount of rehearsal time, and the nearness of the performance date—influence decisions made in the heat of creation.

When just starting out, almost any work of art is, by necessity, created without knowing whether it will have an audience.*  Art or music schools are, in part, venues where students are expected to create and display or perform, both to develop skills and good work habits and to build a portfolio, a track record for future work.  Whatever you might say about such institutions, I’ve always found it energizing to be surrounded by people with a similar passion for creation and who are actively engaged in projects.  That simple question “What are you working on?” that passes for small talk among artists is a constant reminder that you’re not the only one working to get those ideas that have been rattling around in your head out into the world.  If you’re lucky, you might find a supportive colleague whose enthusiasm for your work can be encouraging when you feel your inspiration or energy flagging.  Whether fueled by competition or camaraderie, motivated people are motivating to be around.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in my very first post here, it’s easy to talk about projects instead of working on them.  Do you know someone who always has great ideas for stories, movies, comics, songs, et cetera?  They want to tell you all about it, but it never seems to materialize.  I’ve been that guy; most of us probably have been at one time or another, and I’ve put myself on guard against talking up ideas that I haven’t put any work into, to the point that I’ve sometimes lost sight of how sharing an idea can build enthusiasm for it.  This is the downside of perfectionism: working in solitude, even secrecy, until everything is just right.  Some of those compositions I wrote with no set performance in mind now reek of the hothouse to me, overwrought and impractical.  At least I was able to cross the hurdle of finishing things, but even that must be learned—it’s hard to let go sometimes.  Again, knowing that someone, somewhere, wants to see or hear your creation is a great incentive to putting a double bar or writing “The End” on your baby.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder and harder for me to pick up the pen to write unless I know there will be someone to perform it.  Many of those youthful pieces were written not just on “spec” but on faith, and were driven by internal necessity.  Most of those pieces got performed eventually, but not all, and ultimately I don’t consider a composition finished unless I can at least get a reading, so it’s in my interest to be realistic.  Ultimately, life’s too short.

So what about contests, or open calls for scores/works?  Twenty years ago, when band composer Francis McBeth visited my college and gave a talk, he singled out competitions as singularly worthless attempts to encourage original composition: composers won’t write new pieces, he said, they’ll just pull something old that fits the contest requirements out of the drawer and send it in.  Commissions, he said, encourage new composition directly, but they represent a greater risk for the organizations running them.  I won’t argue those points; I think they are largely true, and McBeth didn’t even go into the fact that some of these contests have an entry fee, effectively asking the losers to subsidize the contest prize and/or administrative expenses.  (The subject of contest entry fees is a perennial bone of contention over at the Society for Composers, Inc.)

Having said that, there have been numerous times that I’ve read the description of a contest, and, totally against my will and better judgment, had an idea pop into my head that would be just perfect.  Most of the time, I have to let things like that go—see that bit about being realistic, above—but if I think I have enough time, and if it’s something that might have legs apart from the contest itself, I’ve been known to try to pull off original work for things like this.  An idea is an idea, and once it takes hold it’s not always easy to shake.

It doesn’t always work—I once overshot the deadline for a call for wind ensemble works by something like a year, but I was already invested in the composition so I just kept going after the deadline passed.  As for entry fees, that’s part of the calculation as well: if I think I have a really good entry, the fee is reasonable, and the rewards are sufficient, I might take a chance.  (So, you’re probably wondering if I’ve won any of these, and if not, what value my opinion is.  The short answer is yes, I’ve been selected for a few things, but nothing so big you would have heard of it.  It’s really another story which I may go into another time.)

So, what are your thoughts?  Where are you in your career, and to what degree does someone else’s interest in your work influence what you create?  What’s your opinion of contests and open calls in general?  Are they for suckers, or have you been inspired by one to come up with something that fits the requirements? I hope to hear from you in the comments!

* Actually, this never goes away, as the shifting sands of taste and the arts economy can derail the plans of even the most established artist, and the more expensive their medium, the more those outside factors can influence what gets made.  Still, if being “established” counts for anything anymore, it’s having some kind of fan base that can be expected to turn out for your latest project.