One of my all time favourite writers is a blogger called Julia. For the last nine years she has been chronicling her life, starting with her long and arduous journey to have a second child (a struggle which involved eleven miscarriages) and later, after she finally gave birth to twins, her day to day experience as a housewife and mother in the mid west. This description makes her blog sound respectively totally depressing and utterly tedious. It’s not. It’s hilarious and insightful and revealing and her prose is just plain fabulous. No surprise then that julia.typepad.com has now had close to twelve million views, and at its peak attracted tens of thousands of hits a day.
Julia very kindly agreed to talk to me about blogging, privacy and what it’s like to share the most intimate aspects of life with the world at large.
How did you get into blogging in the first place?
When we started trying to have a second child, the whole thing was such a reproductive… I don’t even know… opera, I guess. One of the loud tragic ones… with seven miscarriages … and writing my blog was very therapeutic for me. In real life I was obligated to maintain relationships that weren’t all about me but online it was fine. I didn’t have to ask how someone’s day went or attend their stupid baby shower and look happy for them – I could just say that my ultrasound this morning was horrible. I loved writing about the stuff that was so all consuming to me (but tedious to the people in my actual life) and I loved having people respond to me.
It’s much harder to write, now, actually, I think because my life is exactly where I want it to be and sharing that with an audience feels uncomfortable. Writing about how much your life sucks is ok; writing about how great everything is seems tacky.
You’ve written about some pretty intimate stuff – are there any no go areas on your blog?
I try to steer clear of politics and religion, mostly because I finally realized that not everybody shares my views and I was being unintentionally hurtful to people who had been nothing but kind to me. When Bush was elected for a second time and I suggested that the people who voted for him suck large quantities of penguin dick I believed (and believe) it to be true but it was rude. I’ve started trying to think of my blog like a cocktail party where I’m a hostess with very mixed guest list. I can engage in spirited debate, of course, but I need to stay respectful and I regret that I was not always that way.
I’ve written before about kids and mommy blogging and privacy. You are mother to nine year old Patrick and four year old twins, Caroline and Edward. How do you navigate this issue?
Oh man. Privacy. I worry about this ALL THE TIME. When babies are little I don’t think it matters what you put online; they’re like puppies. They’re all cute, they all look more or less the same, and their caretakers are all obsessed with how much they eat, how much they sleep and whether they’re peeing on the sheets. The minute they hit, I don’t know, some age between infancy and high school, though, they became actual individuals and yes, I think sharing stories and pictures and whatnot with reckless abandon is an invasion of their privacy. So how do I reconcile the fact that I do it all the time?….I don’t. I just feel guilty and I keep doing it because I love to tell stories and they’re like my own little captive muses. It’s awful. I’m a hypocrite. I don’t know what else to say. I have certainly limited the amount I write about Patrick in the past few years. I think very carefully about what stories I share about him and I post fewer pictures of him than I do of the twins. Someone in my comments the other month accused me of favoring the twins, actually, pointing out that I never seem to photograph Patrick and I laughed aloud because I was, like, no no! I’m showing favoritism to Patrick in my failure to exploit him as much as his siblings, you dolt.
I hope if my kids ever read my blog they will see it as I do – a chronicle of our lives that reflects how cool I think they are and how much I love being their mother. I also try to reassure myself with the fact that if Patrick is ever up for the chair of a prestigious department at Glamorous University, the other candidates for the position also have mommies and all of them were blogging their heads off too. It’s what they did back then, they’ll say.
Who in your real life reads your blog?
My husband has always reads it. He started reading the comments, too, in the past couple of years and I always think it is funny now when I say, oh, hey someone suggested we might want to X and he says, yeah!I saw that in our comments. “Our.” Patrick is aware of my blog but has only read snippets over my shoulder and I would prefer to keep it that way. My mom started reading my blog maybe five or six years ago. I admitted I had one and then six months later I gave her permission to do so. I think my Dad reads it too but I have never specifically asked him and he has never overtly told me. I manage to forget this fact every time I sit down to write and a good thing too because I cannot imagine even broadly hinting that my husband and I had sex every afternoon of our vacation if I thought MY DAD might read it. Good grief.
Have you ever had any nasty repercussions in real life from anything you have written?
Actually, my in-laws disowned me (and the children by default) because I told them about my blog and they were Not Amused by the content. I told a couple of unflattering stories online about them and it was stupid and rude of me. I always compare it to saying something snide about the pie while you’re doing the dishes after Thanksgiving and you turn around to find your pie-making aunt standing right behind you. You would be mortified, right? Well it was like that and I apologized profusely. My father in law forgave me but my husband’s stepmother and sister did not and we are no longer welcome at family stuff. We used to visit them two to three times a year but now my father in law comes to us. My mother in law and sister in law have met the twins twice and have seen Patrick about that many times in the past five years. It makes me sad. It makes my husband sad. I actually miss them because even though I found things to snark about I quite liked them. We were a family in a comfortable if imperfect way.
How do you go about writing a post?
I sit down and I write. Sometimes it flows easily but most times I struggle to find either my tone or my topic. I can easily spend an hour re-working a single paragraph, especially if I am forcing the subject. I have a sense (possibly mistaken) that I owe people something in the form of a coherent narrative from post to post so when I mention something in one post and leave it unresolved I do try to follow it up when I can. I fail at this more often than I succeed and I get lots of comments along the lines of “Whatever happened with… ?” Then I feel guilty. I feel guilty about my blog a lot. I wish I wrote more often and I write posts in my head all the time.
How long does it take you to write a post?
I am embarrassed to admit this but it takes me about four hours to write a post. Sometimes five. That’s if I’m lucky and I don’t scrap whatever I have written. I do that a lot. I edit as I go and then I go back an hour after hitting publish and I edit again.
How do you manage to keep writing with a busy life and three young children?
On a practical level I manage it very badly. I cannot write if I am distracted. I cannot write in pieces. I need to have a solid five hours of undisturbed time to get a post up and that is why I do not write as often as I would like, especially during the summer when everyone is home from school. I usually can only get something written if the kids are at school or camp or if I can get my husband to take them for the six hours I need to drive to the library and write.
Are you the same in person as you come across on your blog?
In real life, although I appear outgoing and social, I am utterly shy and I need abnormal amounts of time alone to counter every social interaction I have. The blog has always worked for me in this area because I can walk away from my computer and deal with comments when I have the energy to connect with people, even if it is only with their thoughts and words.
One of the interesting things about blogging is its interactive nature. You regularly attract hundreds of comments on a single post. What is your relationship with this whole process and with your commenters?
I will apologize ahead of time for what will no doubt read as nauseating but: I love my commenters. I frequently marvel at how lucky I am to have this group of people even moderately invested in me and my problems and joys. I say this with the embarrassed sincerity of a Gen X’er forced out of sarcasm: I have learned so much from them about everything. I cannot remember a single question I have had that they did not eventually help me solve or at least sympathized with my inability to do so. Most importantly for me, they have truly transformed the way I think about people. I always prided myself on how liberal and open I am but I realized after ten years online that what I meant by that is that I was totally cool with everything I was familiar with: homosexuals and Democrats and Washingtonians and polyglots and African-Americans and atheists. Stick me with someone, say, who is deeply religious, though, and I was as bigoted as all get out. My blog has exposed me in meaningful ways to different values and I am beyond grateful. Ok, we can turn off the sweeping background music now.
Is there any one post you have written that you are particularly proud of?
I guess I am proud of the fact that I was so clear about what was going on with me and with us when I was fighting with pretty much everyone in Minnesota to be allowed to terminate a doomed pregnancy in a hospital rather than let them shove me off to a scary and crappy abortion clinic. In retrospect that was crazy. Who says online: I am currently pregnant but I really want an abortion and I am so angry that everyone is obstructing me? But I was crazed at that point and it was more important to me to write about it than protect myself from fanatics. And really what were they going to say to me that was worse than hearing that our fetus had defects incompatible with life? Nothing, that’s what. I like to believe that the posts I wrote at that time allowed a few people to expand themselves a bit. Not because I am the greatest writer in the world or what I said at the time was so compelling but because it must have been so obvious that I was in agony and trying to do what I thought was best. And who can do more than that?
How have you managed to keep up with writing so often over such a long time frame? Do you ever get writer’s block?
Most of the time my blog hangs over my head like an unfinished task and the longer I go without posting the harder it is to write. It’s like picking up the phone to call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. It’s easy if you’re calling to say that you have just been named ambassador to Togo and you want to get together before you leave; much harder if she says “Oh! Hi! I haven’t heard from you in a while” and you say, “I know. But I wanted to call and let you know that I have decided that tuna in the vacuum-packed bags just doesn’t taste the same as canned.” So I don’t write as often as I would like and that makes me feel guilty and then I get self-conscious and then I get writer’s block. I’ve started this thing to help me actually finish things because I have a terrible habit of wandering away with something half done. I put slips of paper with things to do (clean bathroom, de-clutter purse, write blog post) into a bag and whatever I pull I MUST complete. I don’t know why this works for me but it does and it has nudged me through many a post.
Do you make money from your blog? Enough to retire on?
I charge $30 for a week long ad on my sidebar and I run as many of these as I am offered, usually three at time. So, I will not be retiring anytime soon. I know there are people who monetize (I love that word) their blogs much, much better than I do but I think they either get significantly more hits than me or they are better at networking. Check out blogher for example. I’m not sure how much the blogher network bloggers make but they certainly get big advertisers.
What other blogs do you read and enjoy and why?
I read two blogs regularly: pithy dithy and ali blah blah. Pithy dithy is a blog by a very bright, very insightful woman who is a great writer and an excellent storyteller. She also has a very compelling story, having lost her husband last yearin a car crash. The way she is handling her loss and raising her sons and juggling her career and being all things to all people… I admire her enormously and I feel for her tremendously. It breaks my heart to read her sometimes and I only hope if I ever had to face something similar I could manage it with one-tenth of her grace. Ali blah blah is written by a British woman raising her daughters in Santa Barbara and there is just something about her and her blog… I wish she lived next door to me so I could stalk her until she agreed to be friends.