On Writing & Riding: Tales From The Sharrows
“Sometimes you’re the lead guitarist, thrashing through power chords with a raw energy and other times you’re in the back with the tambourine, beating it against the front of your leg and swaying side to side.”
If you live and ride in Washington, D.C., you might be able to guess today’s On Writing & Riding guest. Who else could it be but Brian, of Tales From The Sharrows. For more than two years, Brian blogged his commute into the office as well as the ride home. Well-known (and dare I say loved?) in #BikeDC, this series would not be complete without featuring him.
1. If you sent out a tweet summarizing your blog, what would it say?
Irreverent observations of an urban cyclist. Please RT. #yolo
2. What prompted you to start your blog and why did you choose to write about bicycling?
I needed cash and I thought that nothing would get me some of that sweet, sweet $$$ faster than writing for free on the internet about bike commuting.
Actually, it had nothing to do with money (and that’s a really good thing because in all honesty, I would probably owe the internet money rather than having harvesting any from it), but instead from an overwhelming and somewhat unquenchable desire to write things.
Sure, I would write lewd messages inside of greeting cards at CVS and put them back on the shelf and occasionally pen a screed to a local newspaper (Local Man Encourages Voters to Reject Every Referendum), but I felt that blogging might give me a better outlet and wider reach than just the readers of the Northwest Current and people trying to find Grandma the perfect birthday card.
Beset by this desire, I turned to bicycling, and more specifically bike commuting, because it was a thing that I did every day and if I wanted to hold myself to daily writing, I felt that I could use my daily riding as a framing device/crutch. So, I taught myself how to ride a bike and the rest is history. (Actually, I had been a “hardcore” daily bike commuter for a little more than a year before I started).
3. How did you come up with Tales From The Sharrows?
After I determined that I wanted to write about bicycling daily, I knew what kind of blog that I didn’t want my blog to be: namely, serious or informative. WashCycle (which is totally indispensable) and Greater Greater Washington were already doing the heavy lifting in keeping DC cyclists informed on the latest developments and news.
Reduplicating their efforts would be 1) unnecessary and 2) expose me as terrible in comparison. They do a really, really, really good job and you should read both of these sites every day if you want to keep up with all the important stuff.
However, I did think that there was a sort of niche for a first-person, mostly unserious, perspective of what it’s like to ride a bike to work in Washington, D.C. I felt that it was important to be mostly unserious and maybe even try to funny (or at least clever) because so much writing about bicycles on the internet is very serious!
It’s a lot about crashes and a lot about substandard infrastructure and bad happenings with motorists and unreceptive government agencies and community boards that thwart better bicycling and people complaining about the bikes and the traffic laws and the one time that the one guy did that thing and how it was the worst ever.
And these are all very real things and I’m glad that people write about them (except maybe the bikes and traffic laws things because that’s kind of boring) and bring attention to them. But that’s not really me and since the blog was premised on “me” getting back and forth to work, I felt that it should have a more “me” flavor. And “me” flavor, aside from garlicky, is fairly unserious.
4. Who are you writing for? Do you have a particular audience in mind?
My wife is an extraordinarily funny person, so any attempt at humor in the blog is an attempt to make her laugh or smile. My other audience was bored office workers who might bike to work (or bike sometimes) and who spend a lot of time on the internet reading stuff. I mean, I’m always looking for something to read at work (just on my lunch break, of course, in case my boss is reading. Hi boss!).
So I thought that if I could put out posts on a consistent enough basis, then maybe that would help build a bit of an audience. And I’d really like to thanks the 9 people that have ever read the blog. Be sure to look me up when you’re out on parole! You’re the greatest readers in the world.
5. Up until last year, you regularly wrote two posts per day, one about your commute to work and one regarding your commute home. That is commitment! And you always made each ride seem like an adventure. What motivated you to sustain that pace and frequency of posting for so long and how did you decide that it was time to change things up?
I’m kind of a lazy person and I’m also easily distracted. [Between writing that last sentence and now, 10 minutes have elapsed because I was chasing a butterfly.] I thought that if I was ever really going to make this blog a worthwhile project, I had to commit to it fully. If I treated it like a dalliance, then I’d probably have given it up in about 3 weeks and that would’ve defeated the whole larger purpose of “write stuff on internet.”
So, I tried to be pretty rigorous about it. But more than that, I liked the challenge that I set myself. Could I turn a bunch of banal mundanities (probably not a word) from just another hum-drum bike commute into something more than just a recollection of banal mundanities? Or, could I properly convey the sometimes very strange things that someone sometimes sees when riding a bicycle to work to an audience that wasn’t there, but who could generally relate to the experience?
Riding a bike to work meant that I was neither fish nor fowl, that I was a kind of “third thing,” set apart from all of what was going on around me, but at the same time wholly immersed in it. It’s a fairly amazing perch from which to observe the world. (Though a perch is a fish and it’s also a place where a fowl might sit, so that’s kind of confusing).
But after two years of doing it, I felt like maybe I had done all that I could with the format. Also, it took up a lot of time. Like a real lot. And I got the crazy idea that maybe I could use that time for something else and that’s why you should visit my Etsy store wherein I sell sweaters for poodles with poodles wearing poodle sweaters on them. It’s all very posh.
6. What aspects of bicycling do you enjoy writing about?
All aspects, really, but mostly the positive aspects. Biking is fun! Bike commuting is a great kind of commuting! Every so often I would complain about “jerks” and it’s good to get to vent to a pretty sympathetic audience, but I tried to be conscience of the fact that people wouldn’t want to read a blog every day that was just a litany of jerky things done by jerky jerks.
Aside the positive, I also love to write about the transient nature of cities. They change. New things come and old things go and riding the same route every day allows you an excellent perspective on these changes. You start to really notice things- bumps in the road (literal and figurative) or buildings for sale or new sandwich shops that open or your fellow bike commuters- and when you give yourself the task of writing about those things, I think it makes you appreciate them more.
7. Please tell me about your affinity for the pogo stick.
The very intentional recurring references to pogo sticks and pogo stickery are definitely the most intellectually ambitious and “writerly” thing that I do with the blog. Thank you for noticing. It’s an attempt to impose an alternate symbology wherein the reader (presumably a bicyclist) is asked to assume the world-view of a motorist (that is, the person in the position of greater authority in the power dynamic) and the disparagement of the pogo-ist thereby holds a mirror to the greater issues at play related to who rightfully and wrongfully has access to public space.
It’s all very complicated and I’ve spent years reading Derrida and Foucault in order to best unwrap the many issues associated with it. It’s a semiotic nightmare wrapped in a panoptikon within a sort of larger critical theory, post-modernist milieu.
Also, I like bouncing up and down.
8. How do you think writing Tales From The Sharrows has affected your involvement in the larger #BikeDC community?
Writing this blog has definitely facilitated my meeting many wonderful people in #BikeDC, including you! I definitely think that becoming a contributor of content to the “DC bikey internet stuff” has made me a better (and more avid) reader of “DC bikey internet stuff”- after all, you want to know how your experience might relate and compare to those of other people sort of doing the same thing- and it’s hard to read someone’s blog or twitter feed on a consistent basis and not want to meet them. And since we’re all pretty much in town, it’s pretty easy to meet up.
I also think that writing the blog, and all of the necessary thinking about writing about bicycling, has made me a somewhat more coherent advocate, or at least more acquainted with the kinds of conditions that either draw people into, or repel people from, bike commuting.
9. What are the best parts of blogging?
The fame and fortune. Also, I liked “owning” some small bit of space where I could put down the things I saw and thought and so not lose them forever to fickle memory. It’s way better than Strava.
10. Was there anything about maintaining a blog that surprised you?
The lack of fame and fortune. And how much time it takes to write posts that don’t take more than 5 minutes to read. And that sometimes people read it and they’ll sometimes even say that they like it. That was indeed surprising. Or, that sometimes people will read it and say they don’t like it. Thanks a lot, mom.
11. Do you have any favorite posts? What are they (send links, too!) and why?
I really don’t know. I would suggest a random sampling, so sight unseen, here goes:
I also wrote this about An Ideal Cyclist in April 2013: The Ideal Cyclist
12. What did I forget to ask you that I should have?
Would you like to get coffee some time? Sure, how about Friday morning?
See you there!