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Putting your words out there, trying to be heard

With 112 million blogs out there, will anyone read mine (or yours)?

The irony does not escape me. I am writing about a story by a New York Times journalist writing about a group of psychotherapists who write. But I've been thinking about the article "Therapists Wired to Write" ever since a morning earlier this month when my husband plopped a section of the Times on the bed, saying "here's something for you to read."

The therapists touched on a number of themes that resonated: how people need to tell stories to make sense of their lives, how deeply connected they feel in each other's presence, and how risky it is to put your words out there. (It was also risky for them to allow a journalist into their group. The comments section consists of people criticizing the therapists for using patients' stories as grist for their work. But that's another subject.)

The moment I finished the article I knew I wanted to write about writing. I started in one of my notebooks - less threatening than the computer - then headed to the library to continue this activity about which I feel such ambivalence. I hate it because it's never good enough. I love it because time rarely goes so quickly as when I'm tackling words, trying to beat their unwieldiness into submission.

Yes, it's risky to write and writing is hard. Then why are so many people doing it?

According to a report by Technarati, a search engine that tracks blogs, there are more than 70 million weblogs in existence and 130,000 blogs being added to blogosphere each day. That includes about 7,000 splogs (spam blogs), a new term for me. Since the report's publication in 2007, these numbers have likely increased by more than 50 percent.

It used to be that before getting published writers had to go through a vetting process: You either got hired by the media as a journalist or you became a freelance writer. Got a good idea for an article? Send the editor a well-thought out query accompanied by published clips. Now all you have to do is log onto Blogger and WordPress, choose a blog template and, pronto, you can hang up your shingle as a writer.

So does that make web writing less worthy? On one hand, as a former newspaper reporter, I find it sad to watch the traditional news media shrinking away. But on the other, I welcome this democratization of self-expression. Here I am writing about mental health and other issues that matter to me when I want, how I want. There's no editor asking me to deliver a 400-word service sidebar - "Five tips on how to fill an empty page."

But with so many blogs out there, you have to wonder: Will anyone read mine? We're all getting published, punching in our keywords, hoping that someone will listen.

At least when your work is in print, you can imagine you're connecting with readers. You don't have to see them thumbing through a magazine or newspaper page right past you.With a blog, you know exactly how many people are at the very least clicking on your post (if you have the guts to check the metrics). Sure, you can promote yourself. Send your blog to other bloggers who might what to link to what you have to say. You can always email it to friends and family, but then you put them on the spot. They have to read you and may feel obligated to give you feedback or comment on the blog itself.

None of this should matter to your average blogger, however, if you agree with what blogging doyenne Arianna Huffington has to say. In her introduction to the recently published The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, Huffington writes," The majority of the 112 million blogs out there will never grab more than a few readers. That's OK." Okay for Huffington, whose Huffington Post gets about 8.9 million unique visitors a month, according to Nielsen NetRatings. Huffington goes on to cite a Pew Research Center survey (from 2006) that found 37 percent of bloggers blogged primarily to keep in touch with friends and family; 52 percent said they blogged mostly for themselves rather than an audience.

Then why not just keep a journal?

Writers write for many reasons: to center themselves; take time for themselves; to discover or tell the story inside them; or stay sane and connected. As Toni Morrison said in a recent interview with Oprah Magazine: "There are all sorts of ways people try to stay connected, try not to live in hate. Religion may be one of them, but for me the central thing is the writing. The art itself. Putting my intelligence and my humanity to the best possible use ..."

Whether or not we think about it consciously, I believe we are always writing for an audience. Being heard is one of the most fundamental needs a human being can have.Writing, however, is by and large a solitary endeavor, which may be part of its appeal. It's a good excuse to turn off the cell phone. Take time away from the demands of the kids, the husband, and the dog. But it can also breeds loneliness, insecurity and, in too many cases, alcoholism or substance abuse.

Which brings me back to the therapists' writing group.The six women who meet Friday mornings on the Upper West Side have been writing away in their "safe cocoon" for seven years. The session is only 90 minutes once a week but that seems to be enough to keep them going: Among them, they've produced screen plays, short stories, novels and nonfiction books.

I am jealous of these women - not for their publications but for their camraderie, their shared history. I once had a writing group.There were four of us. We worked with writing prompts and a timer. We might get 10 minutes to write about A Person We Would Most Like to Tell off or five to write about Six Disgusting Things in Our Refrigerators. Maybe a little longer for something like What I'd Like to Tell my Father. We commented on each other's work, never criticized, and I found their voices soothing. I have notebooks filled with the writing I did in that group, some of which has already found its way into published work. I thought that the group would go on forever. Then one woman moved away; another started graduate school, and we fell apart.

The article made me hunger for that touchstone once again, and I am more determined than ever to find a new group of women who want to write, support, and encourage one another. A women writers' group (sorry guys) can offer refuge and perspective: the perfect antidote to an activity that is solitary, difficult and risky.

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