Rita Arens is the deputy editor of BlogHer.com, an online network of more than 3,000 blogs by and for women. She is also a regular featured speaker at BlogHer's annual conferences, the world's largest conferences for women in social media. The editor of Sleep is for the Weak, an anthology of posts from popular mommy blogs, Arens lives with her husband and daughter in Kansas City, where she blogs at Surrender, Dorothy. Her young-adult novel, The Obvious Game, was published in 2013. Arens recently spoke with Lisa Lynne Lewis about mommy blogging, writing about her experience with anorexia, and how blogging is similar to performance art.
Lisa Lynne Lewis: You've written your blog, Surrender, Dorothy, since 2004. Why did you decide to start it, and how did you choose the name?
Rita Arens: When my daughter was a month old, I felt really lost and lonely and started reading other blogs by new moms. Up until that time, I'd been focused on writing poetry and short stories, but I couldn't think straight to produce either! I realized blog posts didn't have to be long or polished, so I went to Typepad, signed up for an account, and started pouring my heart out. I wrote anonymously and posted five times a week pretty religiously until 2009, when I joined BlogHer full time. I also commented on and linked to other blogs through a blogroll on my site (this was before social media).
As for the name, I decided on Surrender, Dorothy mostly because the night I started the blog, we had a tornado warning in Kansas City. Also, parenting was making me throw my hands up in surrender. Surrender, Dorothy, with the comma, is a demand for Dorothy herself to surrender. I guess in this scenario, I'm Dorothy.
LLL: Let's talk a bit about mommy blogging. How have you seen it change?
RA: Mommy blogging started to be well known around 2005 or 2006—even The New York Times was writing about it. The original mommy bloggers have shifted focus as their kids have grown, but other bloggers now write the same type of posts we wrote when our kids were babies. The concerns are universal: working outside the home, breastfeeding, sleeping patterns, illnesses, developmental milestones, bullying, tech safety, peer pressure, and hormones (theirs and ours).
LLL: How has your own blog evolved over the years, both in terms of what you cover and from a writing perspective?
RA: When I first started my blog, I wrote almost exclusively about parenting a newborn, but my focus has expanded since then to a much wider range of topics. In addition to writing parenting- and family-related posts, I write about current events and social issues, and I also do a lot of posts on writing in general and on the books I've written or have in progress. I write a fair amount of humor pieces, too.
Also, I don't blog anonymously anymore: I started using my name after BlogHer asked me to become a contributing editor in 2008. Once I was no longer anonymous, I became much more aware that what I write has to be couched properly. If I tell a funny story about my husband, I want to do it in a way that makes it clear that I adore him. My daughter is 11 years old now, and I talk to her before I write anything about her on social media. Sometimes I'll tweet something she says, but I always run the tweet by her first.
I've used my blog as a way to experiment with different types of writing, including posts written as essays, stage directions, and op-eds. Blogging is a way for me to practice my craft. For me it's like performance art because I'm practicing in public. Blogging also helped me find my voice, which I could then tweak for a young-adult audience when I wrote my novel.
LLL: The main character in your novel, The Obvious Game, is a teenage girl struggling with anorexia. Can you give us some background on why you created this character?
RA: I went public with my own experiences [with anorexia] on my blog after seeing the coverage of Nicole Richie when she was struggling with the disorder. The discourse I was seeing about her photos angered me. I don't see many people admitting that they struggled with anorexia, even though it's so prevalent, or talking about what it took to recover and how much work that is. A lot of people look like they've recovered, but walk around hating themselves every day.
I wanted to be able to put a book in the hands of someone who was about the age I was when I got sick. Many books start at the point where the character is already anorexic, but I wanted to start before the main character descends into it.
When I started writing about anorexia, I always included my email address. Even now, I still get three to four emails a week about it. Many of the people who write to me aren't anorexic but are friends or family members of someone who is. I hope my book can help others understand how anorexia can take hold. Other people can't fix the anorexic, but if they can understand her they can be a lot more helpful.
LLL: Did your experience with social media help you when it came time to publicize your book?
RA: The following I had through my blog gave me some legitimacy when I approached other authors for blurbs for my book. I publicized The Obvious Game on my blog and offered book giveaways, and I also targeted book bloggers and emailed them to ask if they'd be willing to review my book. So far, about 90 of the book bloggers have done so. I was interested in book bloggers specifically because I wanted to reach their audiences. I also contacted reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads. One thing that's important to remember about social media is that your following doesn't always carry over: just because someone knows me or likes my blog posts doesn’t necessarily mean they're going to be interested in my novel.
LLL: You're the deputy editor at BlogHer.com, which started in 2005 as a conference organized by three women for other women bloggers. According to the site, BlogHer now reaches 100 million women each month. How does BlogHer work?
RA: BlogHer.com covers everything from food to family to entertainment to style, as well as more serious topics like feminism, race, politics, news, and media. Anyone can post on BlogHer after creating a profile. You can cross-post something from a personal blog or post directly on the BlogHer site. If you're posting as a member, there's a good chance a section editor is reading your posts.
Each week, our section editors choose which member posts to highlight on our homepage and support with BlogHer's social media. We do the same for syndicated posts, which is when we pay $50 for an existing post from a personal blog and run it on the BlogHer homepage. All of this provides bloggers with a lift in awareness. And finally, bloggers can apply to join our advertising network, which is a way for them to run ads on their blogs and receive a portion of the ad revenue.
LLL: What are BlogHer's annual conferences like?
RA: This year's conference is being held July 16-18 in New York City. We've capped attendance at 2,500 people. For newcomers, the meeting can be a bit overwhelming! In the past, we've had keynote speeches from Sheryl Sandberg, Katie Couric, and Martha Stewart, and held a livecast with President Obama. This year's keynote speakers include Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA; award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien; and Samantha Skey, chief revenue officer of our parent company, SheKnows Media, and one of the driving forces behind Hatch, our media literacy program for kids.
The conference is a great way to meet other bloggers and advertisers—there's a large trade show component. We have panels on everything from specific interests like special-needs parenting to blogging fundamentals and techniques. This year, for instance, I'm giving a presentation on writing better headlines. And we usually have a track each year just for new bloggers.
LLL: How have you seen blogging change since you started more than a decade ago?
RA: Blogging has gone from just being about the writing to being multimedia. The way we consume media has changed—now everything looks like Pinterest. Posts need to have pictures, which is my pet peeve—I'm a writer, not a photographer. As images have become more important there's also been a shift to adding text on top of the images. Blogging is a lot more sophisticated, and it takes a lot more work! Overall, the bar has gotten higher: the writing and the overall look and feel have to be better. Bloggers now have to have a custom template to look professional and need to be thinking about branding in order to stand out from the noise of the space, which now includes all social media in addition to the blogosphere. We just started BlogHer University this year, covering blogging techniques and strategies.
LLL: What advice would you give to new bloggers?
RA: Focus on your craft. We all have different voices, and there are new ways to tell stories. I think there is room for all of the voices on the Internet, but it's important to realize that not all of the voices are going to get a huge audience.
I recently ran a post on BlogHer about some of the benefits of starting a blog. People who are trying to make money need to learn about SEO (search engine optimization) and using key words—it's all about having people find your posts. I have a few posts that continue to get ongoing traffic, including one on my blog and one on BlogHer related to anorexia.
I see a lot of people who are worried about growing their audience very quickly, but it's usually a slow, incremental build. It's better to have traffic that increases slowly so that your readers aren't "fly-bys" and are genuinely interested in what you have to say.