Plant a Tree, Start a Forest

Lee Skallerup Bessette writes the very popular College Ready Writing blog at Inside Higher Ed. As well, she is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus. In this inspiring post, Lee encourages us to consider the nearly ecological nature of our digital writing, how it spreads and grows and populates the Internet almost of its own accord. It’s a lovely piece, and we’re glad to share it.

Plant a Tree, Start a Forest

by Lee Skallerup Bessette

Photo by Aaron Escobar

I’m absolutely horrible at telling stories.

This might seem like a strange admission from someone who reads and writes about (among other things) stories, as well as having a pretty high profile blog that melds the professional with the personal. But if you were to ask anyone who knows me in real life, they will all have at least one unfortunate experience with me trying to tell a story and doing it badly. When I speak a story, it grows and grows, twisting and turning, full of tangles like an out-of-control vine; my stories are less unified, linear narratives, more a long series digressions, asides, and tangents. The vine will overrun whatever space is left for it; my words overrun the silences and spaces with their unruly form.

Traditional writing, however, has long for me been like keeping an indoor collection of plants. My undergraduate education was in professional writing, where I learned to prune and crop my writing, turning it into an elegant little bonsai; deceptively simple-looking but hard to accomplish well, often coming from a clipping of something larger. Academic writing allowed for more room, but the conventions of the genre made it challenging in different ways; prickly cacti mixed in with strange exotic orchids. Academic writing also made it difficult to really see the connections between these disparate little pots, all growing in their allotted spaces, cut off from one another except for their geographic proximity. And only those who would take the time to come into my house would ever see the whole, understand the complete picture as I have cultivated it. Most of the time, these plants existed only for me to see.

Digital writing, however (and in this I am specifically talking about blogging and tweeting, but I am also an active Storify user), has allowed me to create a forest out of my writing, out in the open spaces, individual trees growing together, roots and branches intertwining, with entire ecosystems teeming around them. There are different types of trees, some large, some small. It’s a story that is always growing outwards, upwards, downwards, but each tree can be appreciated on its own. I can digress (through links) to my heart’s desire. I can dig into the archives, reach out into my community, feed off of the words of my friends and foes alike.

We speak about networks and webs, but I prefer to think about forests and trees and the life that they sustain, providing oxygen, shelter, food, raw materials, and perhaps most importantly, beauty. My life has been enriched by the forest that has grown from my digital writing, particularly those who have nurtured its development. It has, in some ways, taken on a life of its own, growing in unexpected directions and supporting an ecosystem I could never have planned or even imagined. I am continually surprised by what comes out of this forest, but also what I find there as I continually explore its depths.

My contribution to the forest is: 435 posts, mostly on my blogs, but also includes guest posts and other digital writing; 47,641 (and counting) tweets, which includes founding #FYCchat and participating in various other Twitter chats (like #digped or #dayofhighered); 24 stories on Storify; 147 comments on Disqus and 93 others using another name; and one Xtranormal video. But it only grows from there; this doesn’t include the hundreds and hundreds of comments on my various posts, the thousands of pageviews, the tweets and retweets, the links to my blog, and blog posts directly and indirectly inspired by what I have written (again, I’m particularly proud of #dayofhighered’s reach). Even three of my hard-to-find academic papers, those poor little potted plants, that I posted on Academia.edu have received almost 2000 views, joining the forest. This is the first time I’ve ever listed all the various trees in my forest, measured how big they have become, and I am awed by what it has grown into.

It isn’t coincidental that one of the first posts that resonated with a (small) community is about trees and their resiliency. It was this post where I finally found my voice as a digital writer. There are no links. There are only two comments. It isn’t even in one of my top-ten most-viewed posts. But, for me, it was a chance to explore, create, connect, and just write in a way that I had always wanted to but never thought I could. It was one tree, hanging on to the edge of a cliff, hoping it wouldn’t fall into oblivion, that started this forest. From one tree.

Go forth and create your forest.