Happy First Birthday, Ribbonfarm

Recently I took my usual mile-long walk to my neighborhood Starbucks, in suburban Rochester, something I often do when I need a physical rhythm to help tame runaway thoughts. I sat on the patio, sipping my drink, watching the sun set behind Bill Gray’s restaurant. Cars and Harley Davidsons (upstate New York is biker country) occasionally rumbled by. At some point, the scene quietly turned magical and surreal. The buzz of the other coffee drinkers’ conversations faded. The sunset acquired a sudden stillness. I took a picture with my cellphone.

Hard Road

Somehow, my mind leaped to one of my favorite paintings, Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks (no, I am not particularly eclectic when it comes to art).


(picture from Wikimedia; fair use)

I understood why the Bill-Gray moment had arrested me. The scene before my eyes, like Nighthawks (only more so), captured the quintessence of America; its hard-edged romance, its sadness, its big-skied, heart-wrenching beauty, and its lonely search for community.

My thoughts wandered to a little vignette in Curtis White’s entertaining screed, The Middle Mind (which introduced me to Nighthawks), which describes a visit to a hospital by the author and a friend:

Apropos of nothing he said, pointing to a length of clear plastic tubing suspended above us, “That amber light is beautiful.” And there, in fact, was a tiny amber light in the middle of the tubing, a little light I hadn’t noticed at all. It was bright like an isolated star. It triangulated us. Suddenly, the situation changed for me into something completely other than it had been the moment before. We’d been translated. Reordered. Nicolas’ comment reconstellated us. I had a powerful feeling that everything had just been changed utterly and been made — what other word was there for it? — beautiful.

What happened next, I suspect, gets to the heart of the writing-blogging instinct. As the raw material — scene, Nighthawks, episode from Middle Mind — simmered in my unstable attention, an urge emerged to do something with my mental reaction. I grew restless. The scene no longer held me in thrall, I needed to write. A recent xkcd comic captured this dynamic brilliantly:


(click to read, new window will open; Creative Commons)

If you think about it, this is a tragic thing. I imagine that the non-writer-mind is able to experience life in unadulterated ways for much longer periods (or maybe not). The writer-mind can never see the world as it is for very long. Curtains of words close off experiences as rapidly as the world generates them (other creative urges weave other sorts of curtains I suppose).

I never attempt to meditate, still my mind, or otherwise resist the urge. But there are consolations to succumbing. I read a lot, observe greedily , toss concepts around, analyze, make and break connections, synthesize, invent metaphors, and make a sport out of grabbing passing phrases and visualizations. The play is entertaining.

Cutting the Cake

I launched Ribbonfarm exactly a year ago, on July 4th, 2007. During the year, I wrote 139,519 words, or the equivalent of a 400-page trade paperback. For comparison, Balzac and Victor Hugo, among the most prolific of writers, reportedly churned out a million words a year. So my output isn’t too shabby. That was 99 articles (almost all original) averaging about 1409 words each, with over 93% of the articles being 300 words or more. And this while working only 2-3 evenings a week. I don’t doubt my urges anymore: good or bad, I am a writer. I don’t blog to make money, cultivate relationships, market consulting services or dominate a niche with my personal brand (though those are all nice things to have happen). I blog to write.

Since this blog still runs (for somebody living in America) at kid-lemonade-stand levels of cash flow, I thought I’d share the gory details.

  • I made $81.1 in organic revenue, from Google AdSense, Amazon.com referrals and PayPal donations (that classy-panhandling ‘buy-me-a-cappuccino’ link).
  • I made $243 in what you might call inorganic revenue — prize money (the odd figure is because the prize was in Indian rupees, not dollars). I add that to the ‘blog income’ because I wrote the prize-winning article on another blog, mainly to promote this blog, and ended up winning, by accident, a contest where I’d been automatically entered.
  • I made $178.06 through in-kind income — review copies of books.
  • Costs: $119.1 in hosting charges, $246 for experimentation with hired help ($103 for an artist, $143 for marketer)
  • I also paid a different artist $200 to help me illustrate my comic-book story, Mousetrap 2.0. This was a dual-use project, since I also submitted that piece as a contribution to a book, but let’s bill the spend to the blog.
  • I could not possibly view the time I spent writing and thinking as a cost, so I add $0 for that, but if you must know, I’d estimate I spent about  500 hours on this blog.

So in dollar terms — money actually spent and made, I made $502 and spent $565, a loss of $63, or 11%. If I assume that the operating loss can be viewed entirely as audience acquisition costs (i.e. an investment), it works out to about $0.63 per RSS feed subscriber (my peak subscriber count during the year was 99, according to feedburner).

My 99 posts generated 315 comments by 119 people (92 by me). There were 5 people with 5 or more comments each (tubelite, kapsio, gregory, viraje, saurabh), and 32 people with 2 or more comments. The silent majority grew steadily, from about 566 visitors in July 2007 to 3024 visitors in June 2008. Other indicators stayed healthy.

Thank you, guys.

Qualitatively too, it was a good first year. I made the New York Times. I wrote some pretty good pieces by my own reckoning. I made progress on my book-length projects. I made some new friends. I learned a lot about writing that I did not know before.

A Dedication for Year 2: Wilbur


We adopted Wilbur in February, at 7 months. This picture has been the background for my cellphone since. On the hour-long drive home from the pet foster home, my wife and I couldn’t agree on a name, so he remained Wilbur. When he got home, he immediately took over the apartment from our older, but timid and nervous-tempered cat, Jackson. He ran all over, he jumped up on our shoulders, he chased furiously after a laser pointer.

Four months later, Wilbur grew tired and began wasting away. We went from vet to vet, but it was no use. Wilbur, most likely, had feline infectious peritonitis, or FIP, which is fatal. He developed severe diarrhea, stopped eating, and grew anemic and jaundiced. A nerve complication made him stumble like a drunk when he tried, weakly, to walk, and twitch violently when touched. Within four weeks, by the end of June, he had become skin draped over bones, the long fur on his hind legs matted with feces that we could not clean. Eyes glazed over with what I imagine was dull pain looked unseeingly at me when I looked at him. Finally on June 28, I watched, blinded by tears, as the vet euthanized him. He died so quietly, it was almost as if he had been waiting for it. I sat with his body and cried for a few minutes.

The entire week before and after, I experienced, for the first time, the surreal world that surrounds the death of a loved one, and the special grief that accompanies the death of the young. So long as I was absorbed in something else, I was normal and functional. The moment I saw him or thought of him, I was blinded and frozen by grief. My wife, veteran of many pets, dealt with it much better, though she could not bear to be present at the final moment. I stayed, held there both by an unwillingness to let go, and that selfish instinct which drives me to experience everything that might possibly enrich and deepen my thinking and writing. I cannot feel ashamed of that. Yes, partly I stayed with Wilbur, and chose to experience the intense grief of watching his final moments, so I could become a deeper writer.

Ribbonfarm is a year old. Wilbur died just short of his first year. So I will dedicate Year 2 of ribbonfarm to Wilbur, the little cat who liked to be held over my shoulder, from where he curiously watched the world behind me. I hope I can bring to my writing something even a hundredth as pure as Wilbur’s perception of the world from my shoulder.

Thank you all for reading.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Happy Birthday, Ribbonfarm!

    Thanks for keeping this up. Wish I could read as fast as you can write :)

    Blogs have been at the center of my own personal education 2.0, beginning roughly a year and a half ago, with a few moments of RSS snatched every now and then from a busy life. The bulk of my reading suddenly went from mostly fiction to mostly non-fiction. Real Life is so much more interesting… Ribbonfarm hovers at the top of the list of those responsible for this transformation.

    At the end of one year, I can now go back and read some of your early articles, which went whoosh overhead the first time round, and make marginally more sense of them. Progress, I think, is being made :)