Monday, January 30, 2012

Taking the Lane with Elly Blue

Following the online presence of Portland-based bike activist Elly Blue over the past year, her perspective seemed so different from mine that it was as if she wrote from another planet. Critical Mass, relentless activism, political organising, and the accompanying stylistic elements - It's not my world and it's not my way of thinking. But when faced with swathes of difference, it often happens that the littlest suggestions of a common thread begin to stand out and attain significance. For me, the first of these was Elly's post My So-Called Out of Control Life - a non-bike-related essay that expressed my own unease with the hyper-confessional style of writing so popular with females of our generation. It was odd to read my own thoughts echoed in this piece, and to recognise our shared cultural references.

Shortly thereafter another common thread emerged: We both decided to quit facebook, independently and at around the same time. But what's more, is that right before I quit I noticed with amazement that Elly Blue appeared to be a "friend" of one of my real-world friends. How could they know each other? My very good friend L. has nothing to do with cycling, activism, or Portland. She does not read bicycle blogs (and, like most of my friends, has no idea that Lovely Bicycle exists). So how were they connected? I didn't feel comfortable asking at the time, but found myself paying closer attention to Elly Blue as a result of this discovery. When she announced the publication of Taking the Lane Volume 5: "Our Bodies Our Bikes," I bought one with intent to review it. She then included a couple of other volumes, so that I could get a better feel for the zine as a whole. I will be distributing those locally once I am done with them.

"A zine is like a small book or a large pamphlet, but with extra magic," explains the editor. And that it is. The compact format and eye-catching cover design make each zine inviting, pick-up-and-readable. My first thought: Is this a subversive tactic? Are these zines essentially vehicles for political agitation, which the attractive exterior and diminutive size are meant to ease the unseasoned reader into? But the Taking the Lane zines (a quarterly publication "about women and bicycling") are not quite that.

If I had to choose two words to describe my impression of the Taking the Lane zine, they would be "feminine" and "folkloric." Feminine because the various pieces of writing come across very strongly as being written by female authors and for a female audience. And folkloric, because the tone of each piece is narrative and subjective. The authors do not attempt to speak for everyone, and they do not attempt to convince; they simply share their own experiences and thoughts - in a manner that is almost alarmingly unguarded in an era of self-conscious and self-defensive blog writing we are all growing increasingly used to. It is essentially lots of stories, told in lots of individual voices. In each zine, a theme emerges - and this emergence is organic, not forced. Reading a zine is like seeing the pattern reveal itself in a woven tapestry or piece of knitting, which comes back to the "feminine" feeling again. While I realise that associating femininity with folklore and traditional craft is loaded, nonetheless it is what went through my mind when reading the zines - I had the sense that I was listening to stories told in a knitting circle of contemporary-minded women.

"Our Bodies Our Bikes" (volume 5) contains snippets of personal experience as diverse as surviving cancer, worrying about body image, and having orgasms while cycling downhill. "Unsung Heros" (volume 3) contains some of the most compelling and disarming descriptions of bicycle activism I have ever read, precisely because it focuses on human experiences and not on the activism itself. "Sexy on the Inside" (volume 4) is an entire issue dedicated to the analysis of the bicycle dance troupe the Sprockettes that goes off on interesting tangents about the history of punk culture and various types of feminism. To explain the content of the zines in any more detail than this seems impossible, because by its very nature the content is resistant to summary. When there is no one succinct point, the writing is unskimmable, and the reader ends up reading everything. The message in Taking the Lane sinks in slowly and stays with you - even if you're not sure what that message is.

Whether these descriptions are making the zine seem good or bad, interesting or dull, I am not sure. It is a unique publication and reactions to it are bound to differ. Most if not all of the contributing writers seem to be from Portland, OR and the surrounding areas, which gives the zine a local feel, and as an East-coast resident I find myself not always sure that I "belong" in the audience. If this is something the editor wishes to change, she could invite writers from other regions to contribute. Based on the subject matter covered and on the glimpses we see of the writers' background, there is also a distinct sense of cycling being portrayed as a fringe subculture, which some readers may find difficult to relate to. As someone who feels passionate about cycling and bicycles, but whose style of dress, social life, and political views do not revolve around cycling, I sense that I am different from the zine's writers and intended audience. If this is not intentional, then perhaps some diversity on that end could be introduced into future issues as well. [Edited to add: East-coasters and non-cycling-subbaculturalists are welcome to email submission inquiries to "elly[at]takingthelane[dot]com"]

Publishing content in the form of a zine in itself signals that the content is of an "alternative" nature, and there are so many ways to play with that idea - which Elly very much does. How she develops the zine in the future depends mainly on what type, and how large of an audience she seeks.

As I read through the volumes of the Taking the Lane, the final question for me was whether these publications "needed" to exist in printed format. Can the same not be said online, in a blog? What would compel the reader to pay $3 per pamphlet when there is so much free content around covering many of the same topics?  In the end my impression is that this writing would not in fact exist in an online format, simply because the internet discourages it. Whereas print was once a means to disseminate information as widely as possible, it can now function as a means of limiting our audience. In that context, the writers feel safe to express themselves in a manner they perhaps would not in a blog post, and the reader benefits from thoughtful, unself-conscious writing offering new perspectives on cycling, women and activism.

When I read Elly Blue's blog and twitter feed I disagree with her as often as I agree, but I am also fascinated with the way she expresses herself. Who knows, maybe one day we will meet and will either get along or not. Until then, I enjoy her writing online and in print.

37 comments:

  1. Thoughtful post. On the question of print serving to limit audience in the age of the Internet, it's worth keeping in mind that manuscripts continued to be used in the early centuries of print as a way to disseminate ideas to a smaller, more intimate (and often more exclusive) audience. The late Harold Love did some foundational research on that aspect of early modern culture (in his case, focusing on English poetry).

    More generally, the German historian Wolfgang Behringer has written a very good book (unfortunately, thus far only available in German) on the "communications revolution" in the period from 1500 to 1800. He argues that printing, by itself, was not as significant an invention as the postal service that allowed printing, especially periodicals, to be quickly and efficiently disseminated. It was the Internet of the early modern period in Europe, so to speak.

    I hope this isn't too off topic for your post, but it's not that often that my passion for cycling intersects with my professional life in (and passion for) early modern European history, since the bicycle is very definitely a more modern invention!

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    1. Good point. But I guess what I meant was that, you know, printing made dissemination easier compared to copying by hand or transmitting by word of mouth. Now the internet is the superior method.

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  2. No, a zine doesn't "need" to be in print, but why not? It doesn't "need" to be online, either. Surely, you can understand that some people don't want everything to be mediated through the computer, through facebook and google and wordpress. As a practical matter, publishing a zine was virtually _always_ an exercise in limited readership, even back in the pre-blog days. I have to admit, I've lost track of the zine subculture since Factsheet Five went away, but it's encouraging to hear it still continues.

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  3. I enjoy these reviews of blogs and publications where you share your impression of the author and connect it to your interpretation of the writing. This and the Bikeyface post are my favorites. I hope that you and Elly get to meet!

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  4. So did you find out how she and your friend know each other??

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    1. Yes : ) They used to live in the same city. Just one of those "small world" coincidences.

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  5. Zines vs. web is all about initiates vs. general audience.

    How to turn a general audience into initiates: turn off or heavily moderate comments.

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  6. "Zines vs. web is all about initiates vs. general audience."

    You think so? It takes a blog a loong time to gain anything resembling a general audience, it seems to me. Most blogs have "regulars," and in that way it seems to me the contemporary version of zines in a way.

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  7. Who're you calling regular?

    Yeah, same as in with bands, etc. Easy enough to find now, but early on it's just zealots.

    I remember seeing REM with 25 other people in the early days. Who knew they'd spend the next half century trying to hang on to an initial spark.

    Rolling Stone, NME started as zines, little folios with great writing capturing a moment in time.

    Unless a new zine captures something new or original, I don't see the point.

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  8. "I remember seeing REM with 25 other people in the early days."

    Gaaahhh!! Very envious.

    Re general audience vs regulars, I wasn't talking about my own blog. My situation is somewhat strange in that about half of my readership now is not the intended audience for this blog. This creates its own problems - namely that most of those who *are the intended audience are now too intimidated to comment, so they send me emails instead - which of course I have no time to respond to. Not even sure how to classify that kind of mess, but I am going to have to figure it out.

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    1. This may be why Elly "heavily" moderates comments. (No offense to Ground Round Jim, who I usually find funny.) Not saying you should do this necessarily, but maybe something to consider.

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    2. Intimidated? Really? Why is that?

      In my mind, probably due to films, I tend to associate zines with conspiracy theories or the like; anything that wants to escape "the radar".

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    3. Why intimidated...

      Well, I write a post about, say, not being able to drink from the waterbottle on the roadbike while in motion. From my POV, the point of the post is to express "Look, we all have strengths and weaknesses. Some things I still have trouble with even after considerable time in the saddle. But I love roadcycling and that's the important thing." I intend these kinds of post to be encouraging to beginner cyclists - particularly women - who find themselves in similar circumstances and maybe feel bad about it. But when the post gets dozens of comments from cyclists who tell me I'm "doing it wrong" or perhaps should not ride a bike at all if I can't do such simple things, it sort of counteracts that message I was trying to send. And it most definitely intimidates those who can relate to the post from commenting and exposing themselves to the same criticism. I received more private "OMG me too!" emails from women after that post than after any other.

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  9. I was just bringing the reference back for the hell of it.

    I'm sure I create some amount of that vibe, but that's the point of public discourse. If a person is too intimidated or isn't clear on his/her view point or is clear and just wants only you to hear it, then that is a mess if you choose to respond.

    Lot of people don't do public discourse because they don't know how or are afraid to be wrong.

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  10. Anna, I agree with Elly about 42% of the time. If I agree I generally don't comment, so her editorial policy doesn't bother me, natch.

    If I happen to disagree, am fair but not attacking in a comment, I've found the comment gets killed. Recently I've found one of V's comments on a blog post approved whereas mine, which had very similar content it turns out, was not. Maybe because I'm a dude.

    I've also found comments which start with "I agree" but end up, inadvertently, disagreeing with the gist of the post approved. By women authors, of course.

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    1. GRJ in your last paragraph: hilarious! Sounds like a variant of, what in marketing is known as, "the sh*t sandwich".

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    2. Yeah, passive-aggressive is a female specialty. Supposedly has to do with evolutionary incentive to appear harmless and non-competitive.

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  11. My reply button is not working from here, so:

    Anna - I've certainly thought about it - but ultimately concluded that (1) it would be too much work parsing out which comments "belong" and which do not, and (2) it would be unfair to readers who take the time to compose long and thoughtful replies. Ultimately, when you put yourself out there and don't establish any rules to start with, I don't know how realistic or fair it is to expect to handpick your audience.

    GR Jim - I think the fact that most personal blogs start out small and with a very limited audience is what fools many of us into seeing blogs as conversations among small circles of likeminded individuals. We forget that we are essentially having these conversations in public and anyone can come up to us and at least attempt to join in at any time. This was certainly true for me at least. When I started Lovely Bicycle, it did not even occur to me that anyone who is not a woman either looking for her first city bike or recently started cycling would even be interested in reading. I thought it would be a cozy little blog, updated a couple of times a week and with maybe 10 comments per post tops, all from women who want to share their own clumsy experiences with someone who won't make fun of them or try to "teach them" in the way their husbands/boyfriends/male friends at home already try to do.

    All that aside, Elly's Taking the Lane blog is very different in that she started it once she was already an established "bicycle personality," and she knew what she wanted from the blog. In that context, it makes more sense to want to keep the audience consistent. At least that is how I interpret it. But I am also wondering whether there might be a glitch with the comment moderation thing. I could swear that I remember leaving comments both on the Facebook and the My So Called Life post, but I don't see them. Could be that I only considered leaving them though.

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  12. For sure the reply in question was nixed for unknown reasons, as the moderator replied.

    Elly was a bicycle personality at bikeportland, which has such a lose editorial policy, if you could call it that, that it was surprising her blog has taken the opposite approach. Or not.

    As for "teaching", yeah I'm guilty of that at times. Many posts in the past could be read as not a plea for help, but somewhat foundering so a dude or 20 drop in and say it's not like that. We're problem solvers, us knuckle-dragging gear heads. That you're a woman is only incidental.

    We can talk about women's racing if you want to open another forbidden topic.

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  13. Elly Blue is awesome! Thanks for reminding me to subscribe to the zine, been meaning to do that :)

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  14. Isn't it strange to have your life compartmentalized like that? In that very few of your real-life friends even know about your blog? That would feel very strange to me.

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    1. I think we all tend to compartmentalize life one way or the other. The problem with things like FB is that it tends to create a very superficial or trivialized nexus of interactions. As long as you're aware of that, and have a life outside fb with more meaningful interactions, you're probably OK. All connections are not alike, and shouldn't be treated alike, in my opinion.

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  15. I just received my copies of #4 and #5 (Elly actually threw in #4 as a gift, which was super sweet of her). I don’t have a lot of experience with zines, but in the age of the digital device (I do love my e-reader), I still give a bit more credence to words I can hold in my hands. It makes the words seem more precious, because someone had thought them worth the effort to polish, lay out, print and staple. The author’s hands tucked them into an envelope with a hand-written note, and when they arrived on my doorstep I devoured the words without pausing to take off my coat.

    Folkloric is an interesting descriptor, but I think it’s accurate. Even in Sexy on the Inside where Elly is essentially reporting on a group of women from an outsider perspective, she has no qualms about including herself in the story. In fact, you could say that it’s less a history of the Sprockettes than it is the story of the author grappling with what they mean to her.

    I was caught by what you said about the attractive packaging possibly being a subversive tactic. Why would it ever not be? Be it a blogger’s snazzy Wordpress theme, a sophisticated magazine spread, or the surrealist cover art and artificial rough edges of a High Literature Best Seller, it’s all packaging, and it’s all meant to entice the unsuspecting reader.

    As always, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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    1. That's the thing - my memory of zines is that they do not usually look cute or polished, so the cover design of these would entice those who are suspicious of zines?

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  16. the downhill orgasm thing, are there instructions for it?

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    1. You'll just have to get the zine to find out, won't you : )

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  17. Apologies, long response. So much that I have to post this in two parts, since I seem to have exceeded the max characters for a comment! Yay longwinded me!

    Unless a new zine captures something new or original, I don't see the point.

    GRJim, the same can be said about blogs. There are a heck of a lot of bike-related blogs out there. Many of them are not doing something new, per se. But what makes them unique is that they all contain the unique perspective and worldview of the individual (or individuals) who write them. Just like zines. And that's why we check in to Lovely Bicycle. Yeah, it's just another bike blog, (no disrespect to you, V!) but a bike blog with Velouria's unique perspective and worldview.

    As for why zines? Well, why to so many of the things that we like or do, like collect or restore vintage bicycles? I mean, one could go into a bike shop/big box store and buy a brand new one. Or what about collecting vinyl LPs? Just because a new technology comes in and makes things easier than they were in the past, does not necessarily make the old technology obsolete. Just because blogging is an easier way to get one’s writing out there, does it negate the worth of zines? Is easier always better? Is getting out to the widest audience possible the point?

    For me, what makes zines in particular (and print in general) special is the effort going into it. To blog, one needs access to a computer with internet. Creating a blog is pretty much free, especially if you use a free service like blogger. Note I said pretty much. I know there are costs involved with owning a computer and internet connections, though most people don’t think about these things every time they power up their laptop. (And one can use a public computer at the library and pay nothing.)
    Creating zines? One has to print the zine, then distribute it somehow. Postage ain’t cheap, and neither are photocopies, once you’re talking about printing multiple copies of a zine that may cost $1 each to print. Not so easy.

    There‘s just something about physical objects. I’ll put it to you another way: what’s more special: the random 50 emails or so a day that you normally find in your inbox each morning, or an actual letter that someone mailed you via post? Or heck, a postcard? Or heck, when was the last time you wrote a letter or postcard to someone? Yeah yeah, we’re all so busy these days computers are so much easier etc etc. Was life ever not busy? Somehow before the internet we found the time to communicate this way, busyness and all.

    Don’t misinterpret all this as me stating blogs can’t be special or blogs don’t take any effort. As a fellow blogger I put a lot of time and work into my blog, and I know that Velouria does as well. As do many bloggers out there. And I also realize that it isn’t always about the vehicle, it’s the message contained in the vehicle. The words and thoughts themselves are going to mean the same whether it’s in a zine or in a blog. And I know there are many mediocre zines out there, as there are mediocre blogs. But just because the internet is omnipresent and better at disseminating information, doesn’t mean that it’s always the best way, or does it make older ways of distributing thoughts invalid.

    Rolling Stone, NME started as zines, little folios with great writing capturing a moment in time.

    As for Rolling Stone/NME etc, while those magazines may have started as zines, I think their ambitions were always larger than most other zines, so their zine phase was relatively short. (The same goes for BUST.)

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    1. I guess for me, the contents of a blog post are a publicly viewable thought process. It may be well-articulated or it may be rambling, but either way it is a digitized idea - malleable and transient and unfixed. Once something is in print, it becomes a fixed object and requires a certain degree of commitment to one's words. To me this makes published and printed matter inherently more meaningful than online writing, my own included. I do not feel sufficient commitment to many of the posts here to fix them in print; they are not important enough to attain permanence.

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  18. Part 2: Notes and addendums

    For those of you reading who are not familiar with the world of zines, a very very brief and bastardized history: Zine is short for “fanzine". The first fanzines were sci-fi based and started in the 1930s. Music based fanzines came about in the 60‘s and 70‘s, especially with the first wave of punk rock. Around this time the term “zine" became more commonplace, as there were now independent publications that were more about personal/political subjects rather than being attached to a “fan" culture. Zine culture reached its zenith in the ‘90s with the combination of cheap and easy access to photocopiers, desktop publishing programs, and widespread attention to alternative culture in the wake of grunge. Zines were the “blogs" of their day, as there was no easier way to “get the word” out. Since the internet came into play, the amount of zines has decreased, but there are still zines out there and people passionate about them!

    And if you couldn’t tell, zines are something I feel deeply about, as I have been writing and reading zines for over 15 years, and zine culture has been part of my life. Through zines I’ve met a lot of great people and I can frankly say that zines have changed my life. Zines are still a part of my life, as I volunteer at Portland’s IPRC (Independent Publishing Resource Center), and I’m typing this missive as a way to avoid working on a zine project that is due this week. Oh, and in full disclosure I am friends with Elly Blue. And I type this while listening to Lifes Rich Pageant. Whew!

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  19. Velouria, good point. If I looked at my blog and decided that I wanted to make a zine with it, there would be some heavy editing going on. I have a few entries that I would consider "print-worthy" and I would work on those. But a lot of the "here's the progress on this project" type of posts would get cut.

    Blogs are in the moment, and that's what makes them cool to read, and cool to follow. Zines are more like when you get a letter from your college roommate you haven't heard from in a year, and they recount the highlights of the year in the letter.

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  20. On that note, I think it would be cool to see a zine with some of the posts from the Lovely Bicycle blog! Maybe it would focus on what your original point of the blog was: women who want to get into transportation bicycling but either don't know how or are intimidated by what they commonly see out there. Or it could be the highlights, like the blog posts you link to on the left-side menu? "Lovely Bicycle's Guide to Bicycle DIY"?

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    1. Well we are still working on a "non-partisan" transportation brochure with Dave Feucht of Portlandize and Matt deBlass, and that will probably look more like a zine than anything else. Then there is the Ride Report Anthology, which will probably take on the same format. For whatever reason, I am not interested in translating my blog into a zine, though I may contribute some pieces to Elly's in future.

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  21. Cool. Look forward to seeing the NPTB you're working on with Dave and all. I know you aren't interested in creating a zine out of your blog at the moment, but I still think it would be cool if there was some sort of "Lovely Bicycle's tips for women who want to get into bicycling but are turned off by spandex and/or hi-vis vests" book/zine. (Of course, I would hope that it would be titled less clumsily than I said it.)

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  22. Thank you for this post and the interesting and unexpected discussion of different modes of writing. It's funny, it has never occurred to me that a zine vs a blog would be in conflict -- like bikes and trains, they seem to support each other well.

    As for comments, I moderate them extremely lightly, though I can see why the author of some of the very few non-spam comments I've nixed on Taking the Lane might feel it's the opposite. The need for an official comment policy has never come up, but I dislike condescending lectures and assume my readers feel the same way, and moderate accordingly. It's amazing how just one comment, particularly if it's an early one, can set the tone for an entire post, or even an entire blog. Velouria, I've left every comment of yours intact, and would be interested to hear your thoughts on those posts you mentioned!

    Oh, and for folks who want to check out the next issue (or past or future issues), I have a kickstarter project going to fund printing and editing of volume 6 right now: http://takingthelane.com/2012/02/03/lines-on-the-map/

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  23. Awesome. I still have the comment, not that anyone is interested.

    I think the lecturing tone cuts both ways; just so happens my comment was based in reality and not in a bike industry concerted effort to Barbie-ize women conspiracy theory. First you make reference to "our bodies", yet in your post declare there is little difference between sexes. Huh?

    Uh, think I'll pass on the kickstarter donation, but I do recommend your writing to anyone who would like to think like you.

    Like I said, zines are for the zealots.

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  24. The post is funny only because I relate to both Elly and you on various levels. I think you are the sort of blogger I aspire to be but am too lazy to actually become. Elly does think and articulate things that parallel my own thought process but we too part ways on many topics only because I have much different experiences and have been exposed to different thought patterns.

    My husband read the Narcissism Epidemic and then subsequently told me all about it, so I've been mulling those ideas for the past months and seeing it everywhere. And we all are, at heart, story tellers. So perhaps the narcissism creeps in, in our attempt to tell our stories. I'm not entirely sure it is quite as horrible as it is made out to be but I am eternally fascinated by all the words being churned out and what they reveal about the writer.

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