Blog Is Still A Four-Letter Word

Human Parts
Human Parts
Published in
21 min readApr 27, 2015

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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…compromising their experience of the program…haven’t read it myself, that would break boundaries for me…affects their perception of you…their sense of you as a professional…writing about very intimate matters…damage your standing with your colleagues…makes people uncomfortable…took it to the department chair [and here my brain made an almost audible shorting-out sound] and he agrees with me…run the risk of this having a real effect on your career…future employment…could jeopardize your standing in the program….really best that you not…writing about such personal things so publicly…consider…think about the wisdom of…importance of being collegial…for your own sake….

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 theyapproach 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.

This piece originally appeared on HTMLGIANT in 2011.

Raw Meat: A Postscript

Since 2011, when I wrote this broken, confused piece, in a fragmented attempt to think through something singularly distressing — like all such attempts, well-trafficked for a hot second and then swept past in search of the new — almost everything has changed.

We’re in a new moment, I’d said in the essay; now that moment is even newer.

For one thing, what we now call “longform blogging” has for the most part died an unassuming death. Its heyday was brief, 2002–2010 or thereabouts: beginning with LiveJournal, moving through Blogspot/Blogger (some of you, cooler than the rest of us, used Typepad), and completing its life cycle in Wordpress. I have colleagues in digital humanities and fandom studies who still write weekly Wordpress posts of a highly professional caliber and, as Ash says about the xenomorph’s acidic blood, I admire their purity — and their tenacity.

Others of us migrated to Medium, tentatively testing its waters. As well, thanks (?) in part to the Gawker empire (?), the personal blogpost has actually become something that can be presented by media publications without (much) disgrace or horror. Writers as brilliant and brave as Roxane Gay have been in that vanguard, taken much of the incoming fire.

Finally, of course, microblogging devoured everyone’s attention span, including my own: most days find me on Twitter, consulting with colleagues, fangirling over television and movies, and tweeting poetry and performative existentialism after midnight. Not even Facebook seems habitable during the last couple of years, with its overwrought interface and hundreds of “friends” reposting content I’ve already seen elsewhere, as well as status updates I summarize as “look at my new book/baby,” with their gabillion Likes™.

In an unexpected plot twist, I now conduct actual academic research on tumblr, which is, it turns out, where most of the content on other social media platforms began. You can find screenshots of original posts everywhere (almost always without attribution, which makes faithful tumblr users’ eyes bleed). But as soon as we notice where “content” is being “generated,” the moment we acknowledge has already moved on. Early adopters have already begun to migrate to the next new fertile undiscovered place, wherever that will be.

All this added together might explain why the links in this piece leading to my former blog, Lycanthropia are dead (I’ve done my part to contribute to the increasing prevalence of link rot). But the truth is that in the end, I gave up that blog and deleted it not because it was damaging to my (still non-existent) career, or because I feared to write about things that were true for me in the moment, but for the most pedestrian of reasons: a persistently communicative and seemingly angry ex, from whom I wished to keep my whereabouts and goings-on private.

Abandoning and/or erasing various blogs over the years has felt like a loss as well as, sometimes, a relief, and sometimes I wish I’d left them up. Perhaps at some point I’ll add a link on my personal website, reconstruct the handful of blogs which were my primary repositories from 2001 forward, so anyone who really wishes can read those messy, untended, ill-begotten posts. (It’d also be convenient to be able to search them; old entries often contain thoughts or quotations I wish to use again.)

The last comment on my HTMLGIANT piece, left nine months ago by Ann Bogle, says, “It is too bad that Lowe’s long-time blog now seems to be disconnected, especially considering that her argument in favor of blogging is strong, and her writing about it is confident, and her confidence may issue from her ten years as a blogger. Blogging is sometimes a fearsome thing to continue to do.” It was fearsome, and times; and sometimes very important; but now it seems to be a quondam form.

So that brief but fiery debate about confessional blogging seems to have ended, given the shift away from longform posts toward microblogging. You can still easily see the slices of then-pertinent rhetoric on the HTMLGIANT comment thread, with its sneeringly repeated and overly simplistic arguments against (e.g., “if you want to keep a journal just do that, why does it have to be public” and “if it’s public then you know what you’re getting into, so no one feels sorry for you”). But a blog, with its ugly pondscum name, au fond also offered a contained semi-private readership through which the writer could not only find validation but make connections, get reading recommendations, host strange insomniac salons, feel less lonely with her dark thoughts at 3 am. In some ways it did replace a journal; in other ways it was maybe more like writing journal entries and then silently handing the notebook to your best friend, because she might be able to see there what you couldn’t say aloud.

My new research has recently progressed into a phase where I find myself citing other writers’ tweets, tumblr posts, and LJ entries, putting me at times on the other side of the divide where I’m used to hiding. It’s unnerving to do so, and I now understand more precisely what it means for an online space to occupy precisely this unsettled kind of hybridity. A piece of fanfiction on Archive of Our Own, for example, is certainly in the public sphere in the sense that anyone can find it. But it’s no great stretch to argue that it also occupies a certain subset of the private, in the sense that few readers will find it — not least because few will ever seek it out, and even fewer will read a piece all the way through.

In the case of Lycanthropia, I falsely thought myself hidden from readers who would take offense to what I wrote: family and/or faculty members of, shall we say, a slightly different generation. I don’t mean chronologically, or sociologically, but technologically — I have colleagues far younger than I who don’t use the social media platforms on which I rely. Thus, it would never occur to this group of people to search me or anyone out and follow our tracer fire across the Internet. In this case, however, someone younger broke ranks, as it were, and reported my bloggy wrongdoing to someone from outside — an Internet auslander, an interloper, someone fated never to understand the argot, the tenor, the timber, the nuances, the multimodal style of a private-public not-quite-journal-entry post.

As in real life (because the Internet is real life, it amuses me when people speak as though it isn’t, what else would it be), one imagines oneself safe among friends, protected by their well-meaning or indulgent indifference. But stand up even for a second from the trenches and you might easily wind up with a sniper round through your helmet.

Ironically, the professor who tried to warn me/bring me heel hadn’t read the objectionable entry. And none of the five members of that workshop ever admitted that she’d been the one to — the phrase comes unbidden — rat me out. Almost all of them, I think, spontaneously volunteered to me that they hadn’t said anything. I became friends of one sort or another with all five women, over the next three years of their MFA program and my doctorate.

So to this day I still don’t know who found my writing so objectionable, even experience-ruining, enough so to ask a professor to intercede and make me stop; nor did it ever really seem to matter. In my head it was more like the voice of an entire culture speaking to me, redressing me, schooling me — something which it seemed like only a few female blogger friends understood at the time. But that was actually okay, because writing doesn’t need an audience qua audience, it only needs good friends. I believe this, perhaps in part because, having no real audience, I rely on friends to keep me right.

The professor in question eventually left our program; she’s so fiercely briilliant, and didn’t seem terribly happy here, and it is very hard to be happy here sometimes, speaking personally, in this giant petroleum-suffused car city, working for an enormous and largely indifferent juggernaut R1 university. Her career continues to be ambitious and successful; I admire her writing every bit as much as when admitted, and will always regret that we didn’t work together, that we never managed to iron things out and remained disconnected.

My writing everything down for HTMLGIANT had seemed at the time a desperate necessity, an ass-covering move; if I were going to be ejected (why had I thought that? sheer panic, I suppose), I wanted it to be above the waterline, highly visible. But one faculty member told me later I had “thrown raw meat to the Internet commentariat”; and I suppose that’s true.

Actually I suppose that’s what I’ve always more or less done online: been hopelessly unfiltered, apparently incapable of decorum, swathed in defensiveness about transparency not being the evil it’s made out to be but retaining its own strange despised virtue. A poetics I created and maintain probably solely in order to justify writing the way I do. Yet so many regard it as utterly without dignity, whatever platform I use, whatever form.

Pathetic. Pitiful. Attention-seeking. Embarrassing. Excessive. Don’t tell me these adjectives aren’t rendered shameful by being feminized, I won’t believe you. The whole rhetorical exercise is not necessarily about silencing per se but about an easy dismissal: I don’t have to pay attention to you if I can write you off as less-than. And there’s a privileging too of the means, the venue, the outlet: self-publishing ever viewed skeptically at best, despite self-publishers’ ongoing litany of Blake, Whitman, Woolf.

Žižek says, in discussing Lacan’s Real, “I am ashamed when I am confronted with the excess in my body.” And that’s where we still are with it, cf. Kate Zambreno’s early analysis of Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto as embodying a literary bulimia. That’s hasn’t changed since I wrote the piece.

The one thing I regret, after all, is redacting the single post in which I unhappily discussed my feelings about the workshop. It was absolutely an accurate reflection of my experience; why did I change it? Because an unknown new graduate student in her early twenties didn’t like what I’d said? Besides my congenital Doormat Personality Disorder, I’d been afraid to start my new program amidst what felt like enmity — a well-founded fear, after all. But I wish I’d left it, as it was: sic, stet. An anonymous commenter at the very end of the HTMLGIANT thread said the objectionable entry had been that one, in which I’d written about how one must ultimately say to one’s workshop leader: Fuck you.

I absolutely stand by that Fuck you, now. I remember an early interview with singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin in which she recalled the moment that had shifted her from covering other musicians’ songs to writing her own — she’d had an unprecedented emergent ability to disagree and stand up for her own work. For some time, other songwriters had been telling her she wasn’t doing it correctly, wasn’t adhering to traditional or recognizable styles and wouldn’t be successful, but she had finally dredged up from somewhere inside her a conviction: No. You’re wrong. I’m right.

It’s very likely a different matter for MFA students in their first year, who perhaps still need to accept influence and modulate their process in order to establish a voice both faithful to their inner experience and comprehensible (whatever we mean by that) to readers. A 43-year-old doctoral student with three masters’ programs might be in a different place. So I wish I’d left that fuck you in there. It was true for me, and I failed it. I failed myself.

Marks that make meaning, that are meaningful to others — or as most of us call it, writing — this human activity, estranging yet connecting, swells like a sponge, like cork in water, and fills the entire spectrum from scrawled shopping lists (which I love to collect, when I find them dirty on the ground) to honed gleaming formality which has met the test of decades and centuries and will likely be on the shelves labeled “Literature” as long as there are shelves, and booksellers and libraries. But why writing should be schooled or reprimanded for falling at some point along that spectrum for which one does not personally care, I still can’t fathom, and will likely always fail to understand. Everyone’s a critic, including (for a small wage) me; but that doesn’t mean I’m right about what I think I know. How can you be so sure you are right about what you think you know? How can you live like that, with that kind of surety? Again I admire it, from a vast distance, but I don’t get it.

I said: We love one another, but we need to write. That’s never going to not be true.

I’m doing it again right now. Here, have my raw meat. A still-living sky burial: the writer cuts herself into bloody chunks, offers them to you on the tip of a rusting gore-encrusted machete. As the sober say, at the end of twelve-step meetings: take what you like and leave the rest. Or be freely critical of its kairotic relevance, of its enduring value.

Just don’t bother telling me to stop.

JSA Lowe’s poems have been published most recently in Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Salt Hill Journal, Third Coast, and Versal. Her most recent poetry chapbook is Cherry-emily, just published by dancing girl press. Currently completing a PhD in poetry and literature at the University of Houston, she studied at Mount Holyoke College, the University of Cambridge, Boston University, and Arizona State University.

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