I started Seen the Elephant in May of last year, though I’d never foreseen that I’d be a blogger. I didn’t read other blogs. I felt neither narcissistic nor particularly confessional. In fact, I worried about committing to something, and about the burden of it, but then I got laid off from my job—as communications director for a non-profit organization—and it occurred to me that writing a blog might work for me in a practical sense. It could become a good ad for me; it was something I could do for myself. I’d felt for some time that there was a book inside me, but I’d had no time to write it, and this might be a way to get started. I also thought that the interactivity might keep me in touch with others; it could be part of staying on top of things, since social media are clearly such a big part of communications. I also thought it might be a good way to keep track of my thoughts. My mother has Alzheimer’s, and I’m thinking about memory quite a bit nowadays.
Been there, seen that
I’d always had the name Seen the Elephant in mind as a book. It comes from the expression “Been there, done that, seen the elephant.” While it sounds as if it might be from reports of travelers returning home from the East, this is not the case. Its earliest use seems to have been in the early 19th century, meaning to have seen or experienced all that one can endure; to have seen enough, learned a lesson, lost one’s innocence, seen remarkable sights. A specific sub-sense dates from the American Civil War, when it meant to see combat, especially for the first time.
I’m American, but I’ve lived away from America for a long time. I spent nine years in England, then seven in Japan before returning home quite a few years ago. The big question for me was: can you ever go home again? It’s really a site for repats or expats—I’m not sure which—for people who have been culturally discombobulated in some way. Now, when I get into a cab in New York City, the driver asks me where I’m from—I’ve lost something about being American.
I have Facebook friends around these themes. There’s an Australian in London with a blog called Gidday from the UK, and a blog called Marmite and Fluff by a Brit living in Connecticut.
Of blogs and blogging
I’ve met these other bloggers (not literally). We all started around the same time and have thought about possibly forming a group blog, since I’ve realized that the blog is more work than I thought it would be. You’re only as good as your last post, and people expect a certain standard. Each one is about 1,200 words, includes an image, and takes me three or four days. I post three times a month. I always wait a couple of days after I’ve written a post before putting it up, on the advice of one of my favorite blogging coaches, Judy Dunn. Judy has made a business out of blogging on blogging, with a blog called Cats Eye Writer. One of her recent posts describes very well the trap that many people new to this stuff fall into.
Though I obviously haven’t quit blogging, I identify with what she says about having to fight the “princess syndrome.” But note that even Judy says she finds it incredibly helpful to let a post sit for 24 hours. I do, too! Since you’re writing and editing everything yourself, it helps to let it go for a while so that you can come back with (somewhat) fresh eyes. And maybe because I’m a “princess,” I prefer 48 hours to 24….
Making it work
I was reluctant to start the blog in the first place, as I was afraid of how much time it would take. At that point I was reading people like Michael Hyatt—his slogan is “Intentional Leadership”—who is the chairman of the publishing house Thomas Nelson and known for being one of the rare CEOs who are highly successful users of social media. Before starting my blog, I studied one of his posts—Do you make these 10 mistakes when you blog?
His number 1 and 2 mistakes were that you don’t post enough and that you post too much. He claims that the “frequency separates the men from the boys,” and says you have to find your frequency sweet spot. At the beginning, I was aiming for a post every four or five days. (I didn’t think I was up to Hyatt’s rate of four or five times a week.) And I figured the only way to do that was by limiting myself to talking about one of these ideas:
*an embedded video from YouTube (I tried that, sort of, only once);
*some current news item;
*a favorite food or recipe;
*a photo or two (I never actually did that, though I suppose I came
close with this one).
But over the summer, I started to post less and my posts were getting longer and more complex. I think it’s because I often gravitate toward writing about politics. (Even when I write about food, I tend to get up on a soapbox, though I always try to leaven it with a bit of humor.) In addition, I started posting occasional interviews with current expats. These take a bit longer to do. I’m now writing two or three posts a month. But I’m still thinking about trying to get back to posting once a week, shorter posts, more focused. In other words, I haven’t quite found my sweet spot yet. My most popular post was about Tucson, Arizona, and recent ones have been about George Eliot—she wrote about provincial life, so I think she’d appreciate the challenges of repatriation—and Japan after the earthquake.
Themes, within and without
Now that I’m back here, big themes on the blog are about dealing with American politics—and about cooking and eating, of course. I’ve interviewed several long-term expats who tell me they are the only ones in their families to have ventured to far-flung corners of the globe. It may be just coincidence, but two people I spoke to on my recent trip to Jakarta—an Aussie who lives there, and an Indonesian who lives in Perth, in Australia—told me they have a sibling who has a fear of flying and hence rarely leaves home. In my case, my sister left our hometown (Wilmington, Delaware) to come to New York City. But, unlike me, she married someone from our small, private high school, an American of course, with whom she leads an American life, despite going abroad a lot: he for his work on Wall Street, she for exotic vacations with their three kids. (I have another sister, too, who lives in Florida—which might as well be another country as far as I’m concerned. But we don’t really keep in touch—a long and rather sad story.)
Down the road
Longer term, I would like to find a way to leverage the blog. I see that trend. Like everyone else, I hope after a while that I won’t keep asking myself “Why the heck am I doing this?” and can monetize it in some way. Maybe franchise it, make an e-book and sell it online, sell T-shirts and posters, turn it into more of an enterprise. I look at Arianna Huffington getting paid $300 million-plus for Huffington Post, and yet she got all her content for free. There are a lot of expat bloggers, and some of them are very funny. I’m starting another blog with a few travel writers that’s launching April 1. It’s called The Displaced Nation.
After living in both England and Japan, I am struck by their many similarities: both are islands, both had empires with long, proud traditions—and I’m particularly struck by how Japan and England think about America, yet America doesn’t really think about them. I know that my accent has changed, my vocabulary is different—I say “indeed”—and my sense of humor has changed too. I think I’m more sarcastic. It really is very hard to fit back in after you’ve been away for a long time. I’m participating in life here again, but I’m not sure I’m a full participant.