When I first started blogging about 15 years ago, I had not kept a journal—something I’d done with great consistency when I was younger—for a very long time. An integral part of my practice as a young poet, journal writing provided a place to practice. I remember sitting with a bagel and a cup of tea in The Rainy Night House Café in the basement of Stony Brook University’s Student Union and writing, sometimes in verse, sometimes not, descriptions of the other students who were there, or taking my notebook to Washington Square Park on a summer afternoon and trying to capture the ebb and flow of energy—musicians, pot dealers, people on bikes, playing frisbee, walking their dogs—that moved in and out of that square block. My journal was a place to copy out poems that I wanted to learn from, poems that moved me; a place to capture and write about quotations and passages from books that seemed to me important. Most of all, though, my journal was a place where I could figure myself out, where finding words to give order to what was going on in my head, or just getting out of my head the words that were already there, helped me make sense of who I was and who I was becoming.
I still remember two moments from those years, though the journals in which I recorded those moments have been lost. The first happened when I was a junior in Terry Netter’s philosophy of art class. After an intense discussion in his office about the chapter we’d just finished in Suzanne Langer’s Feeling and Form—I don’t remember which one—I went to the library, found a secluded corner somewhere in the stacks, and wrote for a long time about the place poetry, writing poetry, had come to occupy in my life. I was twenty years old—so this was almost 40 years ago—and I can still feel the weight of commitment that fell on me when I wrote the words I am a poet. Not I want to be a poet, but I am a poet. I sat there a little bit afraid of my own audacity—afraid, and also excited that I knew something about myself, had chosen something for myself, that no one else in my life had touched. More than choosing a major (English and Linguistics), more than figuring out that I probably wanted to be a teacher (which I have now been for thirty some odd years), the moment I wrote those words, I am a poet, was the first time I knew that I had consciously, willfully, decided what course of my life would be.
The second moment came some years later. I was in love. Pat and I had been together for a couple of years and we were becoming more and more serious. Neither of us had talked about whether we wanted a future with each other, but it was, for me, getting harder and harder not to think about the different forms the future might take. Pat was not Jewish, and I, for at least the previous eight years of my very young life, had been convinced that I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew—and maybe, even, become a rabbi. If I wanted to remain true to that vision of myself, there was no way my future could include a Catholic woman as my lover, much less my wife.
I don’t remember what happened—whether it was a conversation, or a fight, between us; something a friend had said or that I’d heard on TV or read—but I found myself late one night at a diner in my neighborhood, a piece of half-eaten cheesecake and a cup of tea desperately in need of more hot water in front of me, while I wrote in my journal trying to decide which was more important: my relationship with Pat or the religious Jewish life and identity to which I thought I had committed myself. As I wrote, part of me already knew which choice I was going to make—my drift away from Orthodox Judaism, and from institutional religion of all sorts (which is another topic for another essay), had already begun—but I needed the blank pages of my journal to help me make sense to myself of what I meant when I wrote It’s more important for me to be able to love whom I want to love and to allow someone who wants to love me to do so.
While these two were certainly not the only moments when writing in my journal proved central to my life, they are the ones that I remember most clearly. Why did I stop? I’m not sure exactly, though it was a gradual tapering off, not a conscious decision that I made. The process began, I think, when I decided to drop out of Syracuse University’s MA in Creative Writing. (They did not have an MFA back then.) Two things precipitated that decision. The poet who led my first semester workshop told me that if I didn’t stop writing “bubble gum poetry”—by which she meant poetry with the linguistic and emotional depth of greeting card verse—she was going to ask me to leave the program. Then, the poet who led the second semester workshop told me that, while I definitely had the talent to be a poet—“You know your way as well as anyone else around both the line and the sentence”—he did not see any set of central concerns in my work out of which could emerge the book I would have to write as my thesis. “You’re still very young,” he said—I was all of 23 years old—“and you don’t need a degree in creative writing to be a poet.”
That remains some of the best advice anyone has ever given me as a writer. Indeed, I actually left his office feeling more hopeful than anything else, but I think that the whiplash I experienced between what he told me and what I’d heard the previous semester shook my confidence to the point where I stopped taking my commitment to writing seriously. As a result, writing in my journal began to feel more like self-indulgence, time that I might better spend doing something else, than it did the necessary exercise in self-care and self-awareness it had always been. In any event, I stopped; even after I started writing poems seriously again in my thirties, the poems that would eventually become my first book, The Silence of Men, I stopped writing in my journal.
I don’t recall exactly how or precisely when I discovered Alas, a blog I have been connected with—as a reader, commenter, contributor, and, eventually, moderator—for longer than I’ve been blogging on my own, but it is to Alas that I owe my own start as a blogger. Aside from its explicitly feminist politics, what drew me to Alas was the quality of the writing and discussion that I found there. It was the first example of blogger-as-public-intellectual that I encountered, and I was hooked. Not that I wanted to be that kind of blogger, but I liked the idea of being able to put what I did want to write—more personal, more connected to the creative writing I was doing—out into the world for people to find or not. I started a WordPress blog called It’s All Connected, with the tagline “Because it all is…”, and I started to write about whatever happened to be on my mind.
Sadly, due largely to my own incompetence, when I switched hosting companies a year or so ago, I lost posts going all the way back to the very beginning of “It’s All Connected.“1 In any event, the blog did get me writing in a journal-like way again, and that made me happy, but then along came Facebook…which is where I will start the next post.
- I wrote a little bit about that in the first post I made to the blog I currently have, and that post actually provides some small context for this one and the one the will follow.