5 Blogging Essentials From Pendennis.

posted in: Art, Work 0
Pendennis, at this exact moment. Photo: Me
Pendennis, at this exact moment. Photo: Me

I’ve been working on my syllabus for the blogging class I’m teaching at the University of Chicago. It starts on Monday, goes from 6-8:30pm, and runs four weeks. There are a couple spots left if you’re interested and it would be so cool to meet you. Do it!

The syllabus is just a guide for the students to know what’s up and a little map for me, structuring how I’ll go about giving away absolutely everything I know about writing a decent blog.

“Writing” is the operative term, here. Anyone with a computer and a mouse can open a blog. Making space for yourself in the blogosphere via WordPress, say, is easier than setting up your new remote control. (Far, far easier. I hate remote controls so much.) But that writing part. That’s what my class is about. Uncovering your voice. Pushing yourself. Exploring. As hard as writing is – and it is hard – that’s how rewarding it is when you get cookin.

Since not everyone who reads PaperGirl can make it to class (I’m looking at you, New Zealand) I thought I’d share some blogging essentials. We’ll noodle on these in class and go deeper via writing exercises, discussion, practice. There’s so much more – but you’ll have to come to class to learn it.

Until then, here are Pendennis’s 5 Blogging Essentials. He’s the secret to my success, you see.

1. It is all about content.
Forget widgets, plugins, fancy web designers, social media, ads, and the rest. All that can come later. If you don’t have great content, you will have nothing to give. Content, content, content.

2. Your blog has to serve people. 
It has to help in some way. Your blog can help people by offering shrewd editorial, gorgeous photography, easy-but-yummy recipes, scuba-diving news – anything. But it can’t be about you. My aim for PaperGirl is to offer you one tiny spot on the internet that feels real. Life is funny, and sad, breathtakingly hard and unspeakably beautiful. I give you what I see because I want to see it with you. If all I wrote were complaints, if all I did was promote myself, if all I “gave” you was secretly – or not so secretly – all about me, I’d be giving nothing at all. (I have a diary for all the “me” stuff. A blog is not a diary.)

3. Show up. Do the work.
Tired? Feelin’ blue? Post anyway. I’ve been blogging for eight years. Eight! Gah!

4. Traffic doesn’t matter. Readers matter.
…which is why No. 1 is No. 1. Do you want a zillion clicks – or a few thousand readers who can’t wait to see you’ve posted something? Google Analytics tells you something called your “bounce rate.” That’s what percentage of people click on your site and then click right on out. I’ma brag for two seconds to make a point: my bounce rate is 8%. That’s…not normal. I hope it’s because people come over and take off their coat and stay awhile. I’m hoping it’s because I’m following No. 1, though Pendennis is pretty cute.

5.  Never, ever write a post about how you have nothing to write about. Ever!
No one, not even your mom, wants to read that post. And neither do you! Go take a walk, look around at stuff, think about stuff, then come back and try again.

You can do it. See you on Monday.


Taxi Driver Wisdom No. 3927101

posted in: Chicago, Day In The Life, Tips, Travel 0
Taxis. Photo: Wikipedia.
Taxis. Photo: Wikipedia.

There is something known to city dwellers — really anyone who has taken more than a dozen or so cabs — as “taxi driver wisdom.”

Taxi driver wisdom is anything profound or thought-provoking your cab driver says during the ride. Other people you encounter during the day may say profound things, but since a taxi trip is relatively short and maybe because you’re hurtling through space together, even slightly reflective or soulful things seem extra zen, extra woah. Taxi drivers are also contemporary romantic figures: they roll along all day, forearm on the window sill, meditating on humanity, meeting all manner of folks and talking with them, just as they’re talking with you now, under the intimate roof of a car. They must know something by now, right?

Of course, not all taxi drivers are wise; if they were, there would be less honking. If they were all wise, they would not try to get my phone number, which has happened five times. But if you have a chatty cab driver and you go deeper than the weather, you may find yourself having a real groovy conversation because taxi drivers are typically educated, interesting people who have come to this country from someplace else and who have plenty to consider and think about as they drive around the city. When they get someone interested in hearing about it and they’re not too grumpy, they often chat.

I got major taxi driver wisdom today. I learned all about the time this man spent living in Dusseldorf, then Monaco, then London. Israel, San Francisco. This was all in the 1980s, he told me, nearly forty years ago.

“I went on a trip to New Zealand once,” he said. “It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I went on a two-week expedition. Hiking. Camping. Nature. The expeditions left from an inn, and the other groups coming back would come back to that inn, as well. Well, one of the groups came back right as my group was leaving. A question came to my mind. I ran to catch one of the men in that group so that I could ask him.”

“I asked him, ‘What can you tell me about your experience that will change the experience for me?’ The man thought for a moment and then he said, ‘From time to time, stop and turn around. Look behind you. The journey is all forward, forward, forward, and that’s good. But stop walking. Turn around. Look where you came from.'”

“Woah,” I said. “That’s good. That’s really good.”

“Yes. It did change everything for me. I turned around a lot on that expedition. That man gave me a great gift. He told me not to forget where I came from. And I didn’t.”

$12.75 + tip.



"Secret Correspondence" by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.
“Secret Correspondence” by Carl von Bergen, Germany, 1891. Image: Wikipedia.

A couple thoughts on the blog. I will employ sub-headings for organizational purposes. I’ve been working all day and don’t feel confident I can weave anything elegant right now. Thanks, sub-heading!

1. I like it when you read it. 
When I’m out teaching and speaking and dragging my suitcase around, folks come up to me and say, “I hope you don’t think I’m a stalker, but I read your blog… I have to ask: how’s your health? How are you dealing with Claus being gone? Congratulations on grad school! When do you start??” and so forth. Sometimes the person asking is sheepish in the extreme; they feel like they’re intruding. Don’t be sheepish! Actually, sheeps are cute, so be sheepish in a cute way, but know that I love that you read my blog. I write PaperGirl for you. I write it for myself, too; this is me practicing scales almost every day, trying to be a better writer like a flutist is trying to be a better flutist. This blog affords me opportunities to use the world flutist and say it in my mind: FLAU-tist. Now that’s entertainment. But yes: I love when I meet people who read the ol’ PG and you can ask me whatever you like. I reserve the right not to tell you, but I probably will tell you even more than you wanted to know.

2. The secret to a successful blog: consistency and variety.
I’m teaching my blog class at the University of Chicago in a couple weeks and have been working on my syllabus. The research is confirming what I knew already: the secret to a good blog is consistency and variety. This is what I say when I’m asked about blogging and this is what I’ll share with my students. You can’t expect to keep readers if you post once a month, then three times in a week, then three months later, then two weeks later, and so on. That’s true for any blog, be it political, mommy, foodie, or otherwise. What is also true is that variety is the spice of blogs. If I tried to be funny-ish 100% of the time or earnest 100% of the time or anxious 100% of the time or weird 100% of the time, I’d get bored, you’d get bored, and, worse even than that, we’d all be missing out on the breadth of the human experience. This is true even in a foodie blog. I want to hear about the bad meals as well as the good meals. Maybe that’s just me.

3. I still won’t advertise.
I should. I could. But I won’t. I hate those ads. I hate them so much. I hate how web ads know that I just looked at underpants on Amazon but didn’t buy them so now they want to get me to buy them someplace else. I can’t do it to you or to me, friends. PaperGirl is an oasis for me and I hope it is for you, too, just for a minute or two in your Internet life. No ads. Ever. I promise.



posted in: Story 0
Sampling of high school seniors headed off to prom. Photo: Wikipedia.
Sampling of high school seniors headed off to prom, c. 2012. Photo: Wikipedia.

At the hotel in St. Cloud on Friday, I saw two high schoolers in prom attire headed toward the restaurant. The girl had chosen a red sequined dress and there was a corsage pinned on it; her date was in a tux with a matching corsage.

As I passed them, I smiled a friendly smile and said to the girl, “You look so pretty. Have fun, you guys!” She beamed and her date stood up a little straighter. I know how pretty she felt and also how awkward they both were. A compliment couldn’t hurt.

When tell you I went to prom all four years of high school, that should not in any way lead you to think I was so exceedingly popular or pretty the boys in high school were counting the days until I entered Winterset Senior High School so they could bum rush me and fight for the opportunity to take me to the dance. That was hilariously not the case. It’s just that my freshman year, one of my closest friends was a junior, and he was gay, and he needed a date that year. (Our prom was open to juniors and seniors.) I accepted his cordial invitation that year and the next year, too; he was still gay and he needed a date again. We goofed off and had fun with the rest of the choir kids only he had a cummerbund and I curled my hair weird.

My junior year was the only year I nabbed a hot date: Jed. I have no idea how that happened. Did I ask him? I think I did, actually. Jed was more popular than me. Tall. Funny. Cute. He could’ve gotten another date; I must have caught him at a weak moment in choir practice. (Clearly, high school choir is the place to get a prom date.) I got lucky twice that year (not like that!!!) because someone at the town paper, The Madisonian, decided to do a story on a couple going to the prom that year. Who do you suppose they picked? Me and Jed. I couldn’t tell you why on Earth they did, but in the 1996 Madisonian archives is a picture of us in full prom attire on my mother’s staircase, me smiling so hard my teeth are about to break. Jed didn’t kiss me, by the way. I know!

But my real senior prom was the best. I went with my girlfriends Annie, Leia, and Jennifer. I got my dress at the Goodwill. It was mint green polyester with embroidered flowers at the neckline. I wore a hot Uma-Thurman-In-Pulp-Fiction wig, except it was red, so it went great with the dress. We danced like crazy to Abba. We monkeyed around for the photographer. We defied the entire “Who are you going to the prom with?” protocol by refusing everyone and going with our dang selves.

Now that I’m thinking of it: when did prom start happening this late in the year? Maybe those kids on Friday were on a real date. If kids that young are going to charity balls or black-tie political fundraisers in St. Cloud, MN, I need to reexamine what I thought I knew about St. Cloud, MN. Whatever they were doing that night, I hope they behave themselves.