Blogger Anne Thériault has been has been making her opinion known on The Belle Jar for just over a year. Her longform posts on everything from mental health to parenthood to the rights of aboriginal peoples are at once meticulously researched, yet personal and provocative. Readers are responding to this winning combination; a recent post on media criticism went viral, racking up over half a million views. She shares her guidelines for writing about hot-button issues, tips for new bloggers, favorite reads, and more:
Where does your blog’s name come from?
My all-time favourite, best-loved, desert island book is Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. When I tell that to people, I often get weird reactions, because The Bell Jar obviously has this reputation of being nothing more than a depressing read about suicide — but that’s not true at all! It’s a coming of age book that’s wry and smart and funny, and at its core it’s really a story about coming to terms with the past, self-discovery, and rebirth.
As for the name itself, I have this habit of thinking up excellent band names, and The Belle Jar was going to be my all-girl punk band. I had to finally admit that I’m probably never going to start a band, and the name was too good to throw away, so I used it for my blog instead.
Many of your posts are long-ish for the blogosphere, and they flow beautifully. What does your post development process look like? How do you organize them and keep your arguments focused?
First of all, thank you! That is super lovely of you to say!
I write most of my posts in the evening, after my kid is in bed (which is why a lot of them don’t go up til ten or eleven o’clock at night). I think that waiting until I have some toddler-free time definitely helps, because it means that I’m able to give my full attention to writing. It also means that when I’m around my son, I can chillax with him instead of struggling to find the perfect adjective.
I tend to organize a lot of my posts almost in an essay format — I try to write an interesting, attention-grabbing opening, present my thesis, give a few compelling arguments/examples, then throw in a conclusion that somehow ties back to the thesis. Then I post it, and then I edit it. (I don’t recommend this part of my process — it’s much smarter to edit before you hit “publish”).
Many of your posts also deal with heated issues. What do you think are the keys to writing effectively about controversy?
I try to keep a balanced perspective and see all sides of the issue. I try to be logical and reasonable rather than emotional (although that can be tricky, because I’m basically a feelings machine). I think that the key is to be able to back up your opinions with facts and evidence. I tend to include a lot of links in my posts, because I want people to see that I’m not just making stuff up. It’s especially great if I can find government figures and statistics to prove my point, because whoa, that looks super smart and official.
Which post of yours has gotten the strongest response? Why do you think that is?
That would definitely be “I Am Not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter. I Am a Person,” which was published on March 18th, in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape trial, and has had about half a million hits since then. I think that its success is/was due to the fact that I said something that maybe not too many people have said before, and also I was just plain lucky.
What I mean by that is that a few people that I fangirl over and who have much larger platforms than me shared it, and then others shared it, and so on and so forth, until it was like this crazy snowball effect. Within a few days I went from having something like two hundred people subscribing to my blog to well over two thousand. The whole thing was pretty much bananas.
What’s the most important thing you’ve gained from the blogging community?
I’ve gained so much from my readers and the blogosphere. First and foremost, I’ve gained a ton of support and encouragement, which were especially important when I was in a really bad place earlier this year. I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am for the readers who responded to my posts about depression and anxiety with understanding, love, and their own stories of struggling with similar demons.
Another big gain has been the fact that I’ve attracted readers who challenge me and my beliefs. I may not always be grateful at the time (and obviously I don’t always end up agreeing with what they say), but I think that it’s important to have readers who are more than just yes-men. Plus, dissenting opinions can often spark interesting debates!
What are your top five daily reads? (Feel free to throw in some honorable mentions.)
Too many to count, honestly, so I’m going to use this as a chance to send a shout-out to some of my friends and their awesome blogs:
- Make Me A Sammich
- Butterfly Confessions
- The Stretch For Something Beautiful
- Tales of an Unlikely Mother
What does your physical blogging setup look like? What do you need in order to be able to write?
Usually I’m camped out on the living room couch with my laptop, a glass of water, and maybe a cat draped over me. I’m pretty easy, though — I can write just about anywhere, so long as it’s fairly quiet. For example, I once wrote a thousand-word post while chilling in a corner at the local natural history museum, and my Mother’s Day post was mostly composed during a long train ride.
The hardest thing for me is avoiding online distractions, especially those of the social media variety. When I’m stuck on a word or a phrase, it’s so tempting to go waste half an hour on Facebook while purportedly trying to figure out what I want to say (nb: wasting time on social media does not, in my experience, help me figure out what I want to say).
What are your top three tips for new bloggers?
- Write about stuff that gets you fired up. The more passionate you are about something, the more passionate you’ll make other people. It’s also easier to sustain a blog if your subject matter is something that you’re super interested in.
- Make sure to include links, pictures, and videos with your posts. These help break up big walls of text, and they keep things interesting and engaging.
- Try not to feel frustrated if you don’t have many people commenting, or if you’re not getting a whole lot of hits at first. Keep in mind that it takes time to build an audience and find your groove. If anyone at all is reading what you have to say, you’re doing great!
How far in advance do you plan/schedule posts? Any secrets for fitting such a robust blog into a busy life?
Not super far in advance! A lot of them tend to be about current events and/or feelings that I am experiencing. Actually, I can’t think of any that I’ve thought of more than a day or so in advance.
I definitely don’t sleep as much as I could, or probably should. I also have a fairly flexible schedule during the daytime (I manage a yoga studio and also work as a yoga teacher), so sometimes I’m able to write posts, or at least get them started, before my son gets home from daycare. Another thing that I sometimes do if I have an idea for a post while I’m on the subway or whatever is to write it out by hand in my journal, and then just type it out when I get home.
But yes, sleep is often sacrificed for my blog. After two years with a kid, I’m getting used to running on very little sleep.
What do you think draws readers to The Belle Jar? What things do you do to encourage readership and engage your community?
I’ll be totally honest — my blog’s success is still a complete surprise and mystery to me. Based on what friends/commenters have said, I think that I write in a relatable way, and I have a strong, interesting voice. I like to think that the Belle Jar version of Anne (who some people refer to simply as Belle, which utterly DELIGHTS me) is a brasher, more outgoing, amplified version of myself. I try to keep my readers engaged by responding to comments (a task at which I’m mostly successful) and by posting interesting and thought-provoking stuff to my blog’s Facebook page.
Or sometimes I just post pictures of cats. EVERYBODY loves cats.
Will you be visiting The Belle Jar, or do you have questions for Anne?