Monday morning. Cold cat-nose, green tea, sleepy checking of email. Among the messages, one from my workshop leader, asking if I could stop by her office to talk before class.
Back up, explain: I’m a brand-new, first-semester PhD student in a creative writing program. I’m a poet; I’m a woman; I’m forty-two. And I moved to this city exactly three months ago to start the program. It was an astonishing stroke of good fortune to get accepted, and I was deeply excited to move here and to do good work. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these three months have felt pretty much like trying to drink from a firehose.
That’s okay—that’s how it is when you’re somewhere new. New city, new acquaintances, new university bureaucracies and departmental eccentricities. A new roomful of bright undergraduate faces staring up at me three mornings a week. It’s a struggle to adjust, but as more or less a career academic (in the sense that I career among institutions, jostling back and forth around and between them), I’m used to transitions and I’ll be here for the next five years. I’m a little daunted, but not too badly. I may weeble but I don’t fall down.
Nonetheless when my workshop leader asked me to come chat with her, I was grateful. I knew she’d met one-on-one already with the other members of the class to discuss their writing; they said she’d been extremely helpful and frankly I kind of felt like I needed some extreme help, to get through the whole drinking-from-a-firehose part of the experience. I felt optimistic about maybe getting a dab of reassurance from her—that thin trickle of validation that lets you know there’s some point in continuing the effort.
Imagine, then, if you will, my surprise.
Well, this is awkward, she begins, once I sit down, her mouth twisted apologetically to one side. She goes on to say—I’ll tell you what she goes on to say—but it’s hard, because immediately adrenaline floods my chest and I go into a kind of shock, and I am worried already that I won’t get it right, that there will be some kind of blowback for not getting it right, but she says: So it’s about your blog. And my heart stands still.
Here we are. This is the moment I’ve been dreading and trying to avert and deliberately rashly courting for years. What did I think was going to happen? This was going to happen.
I brace myself to listen. She says something like:
…people have come to me who are concerned…other students in the program…upset…distressed…
It’s still Monday morning. I’m sitting frozen in a strange office trying to scramble my resources for some sort of a response. And I’m pretty sure I have The Wrong Look on my face. I’m supposed to be—what, grateful for this intelligence? Contrite? I don’t know. Probably warring on my features instead: incredulity, disbelief, the deepest shame and anger. Of course I am ashamed. I was born ashamed. The blog is part of my attempt to counter some of that—
(Went to the department chair? Students are upset? Who? Why didn’t they approach me like grown-ass people? Why did they go to one of my professors, why this professor? What the fuck did I write that was so awful? If my blog is so distressing to them, why don’t they just not read it?)
(And is there any irony in the fact that my creative writing program apparently wants me to put a sock in my creative writing?)
Fumbling, I manage to shake a sentence out of myself, another one. I say that, placing to one side for the moment the secondary issue of my setting fire to my own nonexistent career (at this we both laugh), this business of the mysterious upset fellow student/s is completely perplexing, and I don’t know how to handle it or respond as a writer because I don’t know what in particular s/he/they found so distressing, and I can’t find out since this person has chosen to triangulate rather than approach me directly (God, I hate triangulation). I say that I pretty much make it a point not to write in any detail about my students, my parents, my coworkers/colleagues; that I never use names. I say that I’ve been blogging for about ten years and have developed what I believe to be a fairly scrupulous set of codes. All this time I have to fight not to look at the floor. I say finally: I don’t know if you’re still in communication with this person or people, but if so I hope you’ll let them know that I didn’t intend to cause them any distress. And that I’ll read back through the last three months’ entries to make sure I stand by what I wrote.
She’s entirely sympathetic, expressive only of concern. I’m sure you didn’t mean to cause any distress, she hastens to let me know. Given her demeanor, it doesn’t seem appropriate for me to be outraged. Am I outraged? I don’t know what I am. The department chair? Really? Did he really agree with her? Agree with her on what? Are they saying I should shut down my blog? Make it less personal? Was that what I was just instructed to do? Should I email and ask for clarification? Should I pretend the whole conversation never happened?
I’ve spent this week numb and bewildered, sometimes indignant, sometimes small and chastened, struggling to get a neck-lock on the situation. As I had said I would, I read back through the few pages of entries written since my arrival to make sure I haven’t violated my single rigorous heuristic, what I call “the prime directive”: I don’t write anything about anyone that I wouldn’t be willing for that person to read, in context. I found two sentences in which I’d been catty about this same instructor, more catty than I now felt comfortable with, and it was easy to redact them to express more accurately what was really going on when I wrote them (no small quantity of self-hatred and dislike of my own writing). Per Omar Little, a man got to have a code; and until now I’ve always found mine sufficient.
So had I taken care of the problem? Was that what distressed this person, or was it something else? Are they offended by content that’s not actually about the program?
Because I mean it’s not a secret—my blog is intensely personal, as personal as I can bring myself to make it, which is kind of the point. I was so scared about this (yet so compelled by it) that until the last six months or so I blogged under a pseudonym. I write as candidly as possible about my decades-long struggle with mental illness, about sex and relationships, and about the difficulties of being a middle-aged poet with a lousy publication record. It’s really not a very interesting blog, in my opinion. I have fairly unsurprising political opinions and a predictable taste for 90s-college-girl-music videos on youtube. I quote poems and prose that have moved me, and my friends and I act ridiculous and love on each other in the comment stream. I’ve never had more than a hundred hits on any given day. (Though my late pseudonymic blog does continue to be a resource for people who want to know what “metahemeralism” is; but other than that one claim to Internet notoriety, let’s just say I’m not going to have CafePress merchandise or a book contract any time soon.)
Was this reader really that horrified by my writing about Klonopin and orgasms that they would run to my instructor to rat me out? I’m hardly the only woman on the Internet writing about her meds and hook-ups. Couldn’t s/he just go somewhere else? Isn’t that one of the beauties of the Internet—that it’s such a big, beautiful place and if you don’t like what you’re reading, you can move on? Kind of like, if you’re against gay marriage, don’t get gay married? If you’re anti-abortion don’t have one?
I thought of one of my favorite recent pieces of writing, Mac McClelland’s “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD.” Concerning its publication, McClelland had this to say: “There’s a reason I almost threw up when this piece went live.” But she added, “I’m a writer. I can’t really sit around and say, ‘I wish someone else was writing about this.'”
I thought about my favorite personal blogs by some of my favorite writers and poets—Kate Zambreno, Roxane Gay, Dodie Bellamy, Bhanu Kapil, Farren Stanley. They’re affiliated with universities, they have professional lives. Would their schools ask them to pull the plug? Or is there a difference? Am I really not being professional, collegial? Am I doing something wrong, or just something weird and unsettling?
At least I’m hardly alone in being obsessed with these questions; bloggers are a notoriously ambivalent bunch. Confessional writers in particular devote innumerable self-reflexive posts to the contemplation of quitting blogging—it’s already a cliché of the genre. (Cf. Anaïs Nin deciding again and again to stop writing the journal, and never stopping.) We worry about our parents, our coworkers, our students, our exes. We wring our hands over who will find us and who will be hurt and angry and have a different opinion and who will think we got it all, all, all wrong, and had no business writing publicly about it anyway. Will we be dooced? Will our mom flip out? Will someone not like their pseudonym?
(Do Mary Karr and Elizabeth Wurtzel and Lidia Yuknavitch and Lauren Slater and Marya Hornbacher lie awake at night and worry about this stuff? They’d better, is all I have to say. We chose this, we then must serve it.)
Maybe I am sticking my neck out too far. Maybe this position is untenable. The gifted, sweet-hearted poet Ariana Reines shut down her tumblr a few months ago and has created a more “professional” website (though she thoughtfully archived her posts); Kate Zambreno has said she may do the same. Roxane Gay mostly writes about her efforts to get published, and about films (I’m addicted to those blow-by-blow movie reviews), and Dodie Bellamy’s blog is a model of professionalism when it comes to her writing about students and colleagues. Kate will often write posts and then take them down, as do many other blogging friends of mine. We throw our writing bravely there, suddenly feel our testicles shrivel, and take a step back, chilled. But in these cases we (not our department chairs) are the ones who take the temperature of the public/private boundary and determine whether we’ve overstepped, the same way you know at a social gathering when you’ve said too much.
Speaker’s remorse—those late-night moments when you writhe in embarrassment, suddenly recalling something you never, never should have said. Bloggers are lucky (or cursed): we just hit “edit.” I compulsively reread and revise entries as a matter of habit. To me this is part of maintaining a website, tending the space; or, in the words of Bessie Glass (as reported by Zooey), “We say many things in heat, young lady, that we don’t really mean and are very sorry for the next day.”
The writer curates her blog, as a living, developing piece of performance. It doesn’t end, it’s not like a novel or a play. The tape is on a loop, no rest for the wicked.
For it’s an illusion, of course, this supposed nudity; a deliberate cultivated aesthetic. It’s not like reading someone’s journal, because in the blog I choose what I reveal. (Though couldn’t the same be said about a paper journal? Perhaps my consciousness is selecting and presenting information to me, and hiding away things it thinks I can’t handle?)
I think of performance artists; Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramović. (I’m not them. I know this.) All the same I create and destroy a presentational self, that is what makes this art and not reality; and you may not like it and you may not think it is very good, but that doesn’t stop it from being art. It may be really shitty art that makes you roll your eyes and think what a waste; but it’s still crafted, still work, still subject to exigencies and contingencies and control strategies and mistakes and rethinkings and reversals and revisions and despair, and trying again, and—that new Internet cliché—failing better.
If I’ve erred, it may be that I presumed too much safety-net from the fact that no one wants to read long-form posts anymore, much less long-form posts banging on and on about some chick’s medication management issues or her most recent painful breakup.
Or I perhaps have counted too much on the technological divide. That authority figures or people of a certain generation who would be more likely to find my project offensive in some way, would also be the people least likely to run across it—and conversely, that people of the generation who would find it and read it, wouldn’t really care about the content. This has operated as a natural, effortless sorting strategy—until in this case for the first time a peer, someone my age or much younger, another digital native, did find it and read it, apparently quite carefully so, but nonetheless took umbrage and was offended or distressed or what the hell ever they were—
Look, I can’t pretend to be objective about this. My websites are my children. I stay up all night pouring content into them and futzing with their column widths and tweaking their banners. I’m a single poet with a cat and too much time on her hands, and I just want to ask some people I respect: What do we think about this? My blog doesn’t denigrate my university or its citizens in any way that I can see. What’s the real problem here?
We’re in a new moment. Our already sketchy construction of the public/private divide is wavering, dissolving, eroding ineluctably, whether you think it should or shouldn’t. But there is a serious conversation to be had about this, on the real, on the up-and-up and not just between two people in an office: What do we as writers and professionals think about this kind of blogging, as an experimental/performative art form? Can it ever be that? Or is it just diaristic self-indulgence that (apparently) upsets and offends and alienates?
I don’t know, and you can’t look up the answers anywhere. Frankly that’s part of what keeps me here, even when I am frightened and guilty, unsure of what I write, unsure of how truthful I’m really being, unsure of whether I’m fictionalizing a situation to make me look better, to be able to stand myself—it’s a sickening and dangerous business, self-examination; and as a writer I’ve thriven on its queasy mixture.
But what about the rest of you? I know you’re out there. You’re running university-affiliated lit mags, you’re adjuncting, you’re working in the program office. Many of you are women. You came up on Livejournal and now you’re on WordPress and you have a furtive sense that you really wouldn’t like it if the department chair/director stumbled across your site, but you’re pretty sure s/he won’t, but you still cloak a lot of what you write in lyric incomprehensibility, just to be on the safe side, but also because that’s how your brain works. What are these rules we try to write by—the topics we don’t address, people we never mention, moments of felt life that never make their way into language.
And isn’t there an uncomfortably gender-biased subtext here? Would a male blogger be called into a male professor’s office and advised to cut it out? Or would a male never write about these things in the first place? Are we really talking about an assimilation, an accomodation that women writers are still, always, asked to make in the academy?
Whatever else happens, I’m grateful to the discipline of blogging as an emerging form (even though it has a really stupid timber-mill-sounding name, which grates against my poetic sensibilities) because it demands that I grapple specifically and intimately with these questions. How is it that I can best write the truth of my life, which has involved other people’s lives, without implicating them; how can I describe how I have felt in those intersections while remaining upright and immaculate.
We love each other so hard. We don’t want to hurt each other. And yet we want to write.
Ultimately, I don’t know what to do other than ignore the whole incident. One person’s secondhand complaint can’t be enough for me to call a halt to the carefully constructed endeavor of a decade. If my new community is really bothered enough by my online writing to want me to shut it down, they’re going to have to alert me some other way.
Such as, for example, engaging in the loci communes of the form, and, oh, let’s say—I don’t know, maybe leaving a comment. On, you know. My blog.
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J.S.A. Lowe’s poems have been published in AGNI, American Scholar, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Factorial, Gertrude, Harvard Review, Poetry Daily, and Salamander, among others. Her translations appear in the MLA’s An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Women’s Poetry from France, and Particle Series Books printed her limited-edition chapbook DOE. She blogs at http://lycanthropia.net.