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The future of Down the Road

If you take my monthly newsletter, Back Roads, you read this a couple weeks ago. The main point of Back Roads is to give subscribers previews of what I’m working on and let them be the first to know when I publish a new book. I’m also a little more personal there than I am here. If this sounds good to you, sign up here!

On February 7 my blog will turn 14. When I started it, I had no idea where it would go or how long it would last. I wrote about whatever I wanted and hoped I’d attract an audience. I paid attention to which topics got the most interest, whether in pageviews or in comments. I wrote about those topics more, and l left behind topics that readers ignored.

My blog has had four phases over the years:

  • the “I’m not sure what I want this blog to be” phase
  • the “I hope to become Internet famous by writing about old roads” phase, which failed
  • the “I hope to become Internet famous by writing about old film-photography gear” phase, which is how I became best known, though it falls short of full Internet fame
  • a phase where I gave up on Internet fame and leaned instead into building community around the topics I’m interested in, which has succeeded

It feels like this blog could be entering its fifth phase. I don’t know what it is just yet, or what to call it. But I’m starting to lean harder into publishing books of my photographs and writing, and that has implications for this blog.

NO

My next book will be of photographs I made last summer around my neighborhood. I never wanted to live in a modern suburban neighborhood like this one. I’m a city boy through and through. But it made practical sense to move here when I married Margaret, as she was already here and it let her youngest finish at his high school.

Egad, but do these houses ever feel flimsy. Even a moderate wind makes my house creak and pop. In a strong wind, you can feel the house flex and twist, especially upstairs. It’s appalling.

But that’s not what my next book is about. Instead, I’ll show you what you see as you walk this neighborhood. From the front, every street looks fresh and cheerful — stiff neighborhood regulations ensure it. But walk this neighborhood, especially the main road that loops around it, and you’ll see that everything’s not so pretty. An Interstate highway borders it, bathing half the neighborhood in the sound of heavy traffic. A high-voltage electrical transmission line cuts through, its towers visible from most angles. A natural gas and a petroleum pipeline also cut through, creating wide gaps between houses. Houses back up to the main loop road; a low fence isn’t enough to obscure all the backs of those houses. Because of the way the houses are arranged, and because of the electric and gas lines cutting through, the backs of lots of houses are exposed. A private back yard is hard to come by here. From the back, these houses just look cheap — too few windows, huge swaths of vinyl.

I really noticed the beauty and banality of my neighborhood last spring and summer. I worked from home thanks to COVID-19, and to keep active I took walks and bike rides around the neighborhood. I brought cameras along to document what I saw. I felt sure there my photographs could be arranged to tell this neighborhood’s story.

Also, I want to work on another book of essays and stories culled from this blog. I don’t know if I can deliver both books in 2021, but both are on my mind.

I also have an idea for a book about how to use a blog to share your creative work, find other people who do similar creative work, and build a community. Who knows, I might slot that in before the next book of stories and essays.

Sometimes I experience a creative flurry and write a whole bunch of posts in a short time. That happened to me in November and December last year. By last Christmas I had written posts for this blog through my blog’s anniversary date. I wrote most of this newsletter on Christmas Eve!

Other times I burn out a little on creative pursuits. That’s happened to me this month. I had hoped to produce the photo book by now, but I’ve done very little.

I have only so much time to work on my blog and my books. I have a full-time job and a family. The more I lean into books, the less time I have for blogging.

For now, I’ll keep my blog’s six-day-a-week schedule. I know the world doesn’t hang in the balance of me publishing as often as I do. But when I publish this often, you respond with the most visits and comments. When I publish less, I get less of both. When I publish more, interestingly I don’t get more of either. Six a week is the sweet spot.

Besides, this blog is how most people know me. And I love writing in it. I can’t imagine stopping. But depending on how my budding publishing career goes, I can imagine writing in it less often someday. Or maybe I’ll be incredibly fortunate and end up like Mark Evanier and John Scalzi, who both write for a living and write in their blogs several times a day. Oh, probably not; I love what I do for a living and am not looking to change it. But it’s a fun dream.

I will keep writing about the same things. Sometimes I’ll publish something on the blog that I know will end up in a book someday.

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20 thoughts on “The future of Down the Road

  1. Yes, that pesky time thing. Working, family life, blogging and reading other bloggers consumes most of it. I have not finished reading a book in ages (let alone write one) and there are home maintenance jobs trying (but failing) to get my attention. The struggle is real. I now realize that I once again left “more self discipline” off my Christmas list last year.

    • I’m currently reading about four books — a little of one here, a little of another there. It’s horribly inefficient.

      I have pretty good discipline, I just wish there were about 30 hours in a day.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Self Publishing, in my mind, is certainly one of the most valuable commodities of the modern era! The technology of what we used to refer to as “direct-to-press” printing, has improved in quality and dropped in expense, and the response has been the self-publishing that in some ways, proves that there has been many “niche” voices that have been over-looked by the main stream publishers, due to the need to have a certain volume to insure profit and expense payback.

    Even tho I spent most of my career as, what I would refer to as an “assignments advertising photographer”, and have very little saved photography I would consider cohesive enough to publish as a book; I have a enough to do a decent, focused and curated book of some personal work, as well as maybe some interesting things from my “found” photo collection I’ve been amassing over the years! It all awaits the time needed after “being retired”, and all that entails, as well as looking for my next personal steps. Time, time, time; even “retired”, there isn’t enough of it and the older you get, the more it accelerates. Einstein postulated about time slowing down as you reached the speed of light, but never worked out how it speeded up as you neared the age of death!

    I understand the idea that you might feel out of sorts as a “city” person living where you live. I felt out of sorts all the time I was in Indianapolis, having been raised in Chicago and Milwaukee. I never got close to understanding it until I guy I met that owned Irvington Vinyl told me to google “Unigov”, and find out out Richard Lugar annexed vast swaths of the ex-urbs in Indianapolis, ostensibly to improve economic growth, but really to co-opt the republican votes of the ex-urbs into the democratic city, so that he could pass more conservative legislation. Weirdly a whole lot of Indianapolis looked like 1970’s-80’s apartment complexes that you’d have to drive out of the county in Milwaukee and Chicago to see! After reading that, it all makes sense.

    I was talking about this weird “Non-city-feel” in Indy one time, and realized that Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S., was 234 square miles, and Indianapolis, a fraction of the population, was 368 square miles. It’s one of the reasons I always felt I was driving miles and miles in Indy just to get things done!

    Anyway, I like the blog too, especially the “mash-up” of vintage cameras with “urban archeology”. I don’t always comment on those, but I read them all. I think doing a “lab review” once a year is truly interesting, altho the readers needs are maybe less that mine, and need to be taken with a grain of salt, and I would also appreciate a vetted camera repair shop review from the readers. In this day and age, valuable!

    • I remember going on 25 years ago working as tech pubs manager in a software company and using an early direct-to-press system created by Xerox. So cool. I didn’t foresee how the Internet would make print on demand accessible to everyone.

      My work has moments of brilliance (if I do say so myself) but most of it is average. But I publish it anyway. It’s the whole model this blog has always followed. People look at my work, or don’t, and give feedback directly and indirectly. I get better slowly over time.

      I use the same approach in my books: this is the best I can do right now.

      Even when I lived in Indy I was in the old suburbs, and it felt far more like a city than Zionsville. Honestly: if we could afford a house in the village, we’d probably stay. Margaret is reasonably happy here and this is an incredibly safe place to live. And it would be wonderful to be able to walk over to The Friendly for a beer, or over to Cobblestone for a smoked old fashioned.

      But I grew up in a small city (South Bend) in a real neighborhood, and again in Terre Haute as a young adult. I’d love to get back to that!

      I could do lab reviews. But I don’t have a professional’s eye and so I’m not sure that a lab that I give a thumbs-up to would clear your bar!

  3. James M Lucas says:

    I very much look forward to your blogs everyday, and definitely looking forward to this book. I grew up in Terre Haute a stone’s throw from Rose Hulman on Blakely Ave in the 60’s and 70’s, where my neighborhood street was turned into a four lane highway. I grew up listening to Martin Plasick give the news in the morning. WBOW was the soundtrack of my youth. I’ve lived in Boone County since 1987, when everything between Boone Village and 65 was almost all farmland and there was nothing around the highway. You are right about the houses in Royal Run. They are cheaply built. I know this because my daughter’s family lives in one of the ones that backs up to the highway and they cannot have ANY kind of fence. Not a good thing when you have kids. But relatively speaking ,it’s a young neighborhood.

    • James, I’m always happy to meet another Terre Hautean! I moved to TH in 1985 and Blakely Ave. was already a four-lane road. After graduating from Rose I lived a half block south of Collett Park. I was overall very happy in Terre Haute and miss the small-city pace of life.

      I moved to Indianapolis in 1994 and lived on the Northwestside at about Kessler & Michigan for a long time. I had occasion to come up to Zionsville and drive 334 out to I-65 and remember well when it was all rural past Boone Village. When I started dating my now wife, I hadn’t been out this way in a while and was shocked to find Royal Run here, and all of the shops at Anson! And now I live here. It was a pragmatic choice but frankly Royal Run isn’t my cup of tea and I’ll be happy when we can move elsewhere.

  4. Roger Meade says:

    Jim- your observations about the lack of quality in modern house building is something I have observed many time over the years. About 15 years ago while visiting family in New Mexico, we looked at some new model homes by a large well known builder. While walking past a south facing window in the home I could feel the heat of the sun on my skin. I asked the salesman about options for thermal windows and he gave me a funny look and said they did not offer them as an option. Now, it does get cold in that area of NM, and summers can be fiercely hot, but window options would slow down the assembly line- so no!

    We have friends who live in a condo and home development in southern Michigan. Their condos are about 15 years old and the association has already had to replace the roofs, and are now in the process of replacing cement sidewalks and driveways. Some of the owners have had to replace windows or furnace/AC units. Whatttt???

    It reminds me of the opening music for the “Weeds” TV series. “Little boxes, all made of ticky tacky, all in a row.” Give me my old neighborhood and 140 year old house made of full size lumber any time.

    On the subject of self published books, I have a good friend who is working on his sixth small book I believe, stories and memories of his and others, of our days as railroad operating employees. His audience is small I am sure, but loyal. A few of my photos have shown up as illustrations-bonus!

    • Our windows here are SIEVES in the winter! I have to install that plastic sheeting on the outside to insulate them. They’re also the flimsiest windows I’ve ever had in a house.

      My last house was built in 1969. It was a frame house with a brick exterior. It was a solid little chunk. It had the original single-pane windows with screw-in aluminum storms. I so wish this house was as solidly built. BTW, when I moved in the 40 year old furnace was still serving.

      My wife and I owned a rental house built in 1890 until last year. We saw the other side of this. Yes, it was built with solid components. But it was old, and maintenance had been deferred, and it was more expensive to repair/renovate than we had money for. We ended up selling it to a flipper.

      The great thing about this modern age is that every story can be told, and with some work can find its audience!

      • Somewhat expensive to renovate but that 1890s house will stand the test of time. I grew up in a few different homes, all built before 1920 (the oldest being 1820) and since then have lived in stuff built since 1980 and the old adage holds true: They don’t build ’em like they used to!

  5. Olli Thomson says:

    That’s an impressive agenda for the coming year. I’m glad you are going to focus on the banality of the neighborhood. Banality is a sadly overlooked source of photographs these days. One of my favourite locations to photograph was a neighbourhood called Didi Digomi in the northern suburbs of Tbilisi. It was a massive Soviet era housing estate of 1970’s and 80’s style concrete apartment buildings but I took some of my favourite photographs there. I do think there is more and more to be said for photographing ordinariness. With all the technology available for taking and processing photos so many pictures end up being spectacular, but also sterile and emotionless. It seems like its easier to take a spectacular photograph of a natural or architectural wonder than it is to take a great photo of a car park or a pipeline.

    • I agree — finding the interesting photograph in something not obviously interesting is a great challenge and it is satisfying when you get it right. I don’t know that I’ve accomplished that with the photos of my neighborhood. I was deliberately trying to show how some of this is ugly and I may have found the compositions that highlight the ugly the best!

      • Olli Thomson says:

        “To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what I am interested in.” Stephen Shore

  6. Darts and Letters says:

    while I find the idea of you pulling back on the blogging naturally a little discouraging from my perspective because I’ve just really become the most fond and attached in earnest to your essaying and writing the past year, as someone who has been journaling on wordPress for eleven years IMHO fourteen years is quite remarkable, a really good accomplishment and I certainly understand the idea of transforming and shifting your energies and priority, that’s very important. So I am thankful to have you in my circle while you are still putting time in here and enjoying the camaraderie here from time to time and who knows where it will ultimately lead, maybe someday when I’m passing through Indiana you can meet me on your lunch break for a coffee, that would be pretty cool. You are my strongest Indiana connection.

    • I’m so pleased that you’ve come to enjoy my eclectic blog! Don’t fear, I don’t have immediate plans to change anything. I’m just putting out there that I might have to pull back on the blog some to give time to my publishing projects, as there’s only so much spare time to go around. If you ever pass through central Indiana, do reach out!

  7. Congrats on the longevity! My blog will be hitting 16 years this summer, so I know how the blogging can go in phases. The first five years of my blog were not my best, as I was primarily using it as “social media” to promote things I did. (We forget how recent social media is, as when I started in 2005 FaceBook was just getting off the ground and Twitter just around the corner.) And during that era, I was still putting most of my energy into self-publishing, as I came from a mini-comix and zine background. Working on print is a lot tougher than blogging, which is why the zine scene is not what it was. I hope to do more print in 2021-22, but that takes a time commitment. So I’m trying to find balance. Good luck.

    • 16, wow! That’s remarkable. And you’re right, social media is a recent phenomenon. How much it has changed the landscape! The very purpose of blogs! I hadn’t considered, however, how electronic media might have changed the zine scene.

  8. I read this blog daily- lately around seven in the morning since I show up to work at four and get a chance to briefly spread my feet around then.

    I don’t know that I’ll miss much from a reduced posting schedule aside from your posts being a “trusted friend”. Personally, I identify most with your posts about old roads, travels, family, and faith, but I appreciate all of what you have to say. I have learned a great deal from what you’ve articulated within this domain, and I’m grateful.

    I think I speak for many who will continue to show up regardless of what the future holds. I’ve been delighted by your most recent book, which was my first “fun” purchase since getting away from spotty freelance work. Regardless of what channel your insights are broadcast to, I’m positive that a following will, well, follow.

    • Thank you, Ted; I’m pleased that you enjoy my work and get something out of it. It’s challenging to contemplate posting less often here but there is only so much time for my side things. I’m sure you know how it goes.

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