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Retired federal worker becomes blogger, teaches his craft

If there's one thing George Clack likes better than grappling with ideas, it's sharing them online as "RasoirJ."

After retiring as head of publications for the U.S. Department of State in September 2009, Clack, then 63, figured he had the time to devote to writing an online journal.

Little did the longtime Columbia resident realize he would end up devoting 20 hours a week to composing three insightful entries on such topics as literature and movies, new media and fiction writing for 317am.net, a site he co-authors with longtime friend and colleague Steve Altman.

Clack also didn't foresee how completely he would embrace social media by teaching noncredit blogging courses at the Johns Hopkins University and Howard Community College along with offering half-day workshops at HCC on Facebook and Twitter. He also teaches an introductory course in social media at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va.

In less than two years, a casual diversion — launched over pulled pork sandwiches with Altman at a favorite Washington haunt — has become an integral part of his life.

"The most fundamental reason why I blog is to find out what I'm thinking," he said. "And that exercise forces my mind to work at a higher level."

When your thoughts flow freely and you're intensely and efficiently focused on the task at hand, you're experiencing "flow," he said.

"The concept of flow is well known; it's what happens when an activity makes you work at the peak of your skills, and you lose track of time and feel at one with the universe," Clack explained, paraphrasing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist who identified it in 1990. "I've come to realize that when I'm blogging, I'm a flow addict."

And that "inherently pleasurable" feeling is one he wants to introduce to others by helping them get started on their own blogs.

According to officials at both schools, Clack came along just as people began asking for the types of courses he was proposing.

Roxanne Farrar, HCC's coordinator of continuing education, said Clack is "an exceptional lecturer who is so well-rounded and well-read," and noted that his Blogging 101 classes draw people of all ages despite being aimed at the 60-and-older crowd.

His course description includes such topics as deciding on a niche, developing a voice and learning how to drive traffic to a blog, she said.

"More and more people are starting to see the value of blogs as modern-day journals," Farrar said. "George's classes jump-start people who are already interested in giving blogging a try."

Brian Fitzek, Hopkins' associate director of noncredit programs, agreed.

"Recently, we had more and more requests from students looking for an introductory class to blogging, and George appeared just in time to fill the niche," he said of the class offered at the school's Homewood campus.

"We had a whole medley of people with different interests and experience sign up for "So You Want to Blog," and he was able to successfully teach [that] multitude of levels," Fitzek said.

Technorati.com publishes an annual "State of the Blogosphere" report to keep abreast of just such trends, Clack said. The 2010 survey of 7,200 people revealed that "hobbyists remain the backbone of the blogosphere, representing 64 percent of respondents," according to the website.

Just over half of hobbyists say they blog to express their "personal musings," and nearly three-quarters say they measure their blog's success by "their level of personal satisfaction," results the report's author deemed "not surprising."

For fans of 317am.net — which got its name when Altman suggested the pair focus on those ideas that typically arise when they're lying awake in bed in the middle of the night — Clack's flow addiction is their gain.

Anne R. Allen, a California writer, exchanges email with Clack over their mutual blogging interests in social media and literature. Clack chose Allen's site as a "blog of the week" in December; she then began checking out 317am.net on a regular basis.

"The 317am blog has the laid-back, 'slow blogging' quality I like," Allen wrote in an email. "The tart, to-the-point reviews and writing tips appeal to the educated and sophisticated reader. It's a nice blog to stop at for a few calming moments in a hectic day."

That's one of the great, commonplace occurrences of blogging, Clack said: interacting with a broad community of writers, often without ever meeting face-to-face or even knowing the real identities behind the noms de plume.

Altman, a Virginia resident and creative-writing teacher who's known Clack since 1975, said they both began writing 300-word reviews of Netflix movies in 2005 and signed their work with nicknames known as "handles."

Clack had adopted RasoirJ after glimpsing the French phrase "rasoir jetable," which means disposable razor, on a package while shaving one morning. Altman selected Kaze, the Chinese word for wind. Both monikers stuck.

Clack had just retired and Altman was about to leave his federal government writing job when they discussed the potential of blogging as a way to amuse themselves.

The friends were attracted by the idea of airing their views for a discriminating audience "without going through a gatekeeper," Altman said. For maximum autonomy, the partners don't influence each other's entries or even read them before they are posted, he added.

"It's liberating when you're no longer writing for someone else's motives or an organization's imperatives," Clack said. "You can write what you think for an audience without censorship and feel like you're giving something back to the world."

They've enjoyed seeing their numbers rise from 15 family members and friends a day to 5,000 readers a month with the help of a tracking feature called Google Analytics, Clack said. And he's aware of anecdotal evidence that there are disproportionately more bloggers than there are blog readers, he said.

Yet the partners call themselves "old-school guys from the traditional world of print" who aren't interested in using traffic-generating gimmicks like horoscopes at the expense of content.

"More than anything else, I want people to read and be touched by something I've written," Clack said. "Everyone wants to believe they have something to say that someone wants to read."

Altman, who writes about his personal life, said he sees no end in sight for 317am.net, yet Clack points out one drawback he sees to maintaining a blog: It absorbs time and brain cells that he could otherwise divert to writing fiction.

"Fiction is harder for me than blogging, which is internally built-in" after many years of writing and editing, he said. "It's always been my dream to write short stories."

For now, Clack still feels the urgency of putting RasoirJ's voice out there alongside Kaze's.

"We have an audience, and we've built a sacred trust," he said. "Blogging has been very liberating for me."

jholzberg76@msn.com

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