November 30, 2001
While I Wasn't Looking

Every once in a while I get e-mail from people looking for advice about how to build an Internet journal. How do you get started? What do you write about? Does it help if you've been keeping a paper journal since fourth grade? Or else they want more practical guidance: do you have to know HTML? How do you upload graphics? Would I critique a couple of preliminary entries? (One time a woman actually asked me if I would mind writing her first couple of entries for her ... just to "give her a jumpstart.")

My initial reaction is invariably the same:

Why in the world are they asking ME?

I'm not a "real" Internet journaler, forcryingoutloud. I'm only here for the free picnic baskets!  Real Internet journalers are people like Willa and Kymm and Tesserae. These people are the real deal. These people are the legends.  (These people are the journalers *I* was reading, four years ago, when I first started thinking about considering to plan to think about writing an Internet journal ... only I was too chicken shidt to ever write to them for advice.)  Real Internet journalers write about serious, important stuff -- or else they write about seriously funny stuff -- and they do it every day, or almost every day, or almost every-other-day, and they do it with flair and authority. Real Internet journalers occasionally find themselves living their lives around their journals, rather than the other way around ... but that only makes them a more powerful 'read.' Real journalers get together IRL once in a while and eat food and play with babies and talk about journal stuff.

Plus: real Internet journalers have real readers, don't they?

And that's when it dawns on me. Somewhere between The Tree House and The Dirt Company  --  somehow, sometime when I wasn't looking  --  I appear to have morphed from a hobbyist into the real deal.

I am an Internet journaler.

Which still doesn't qualify me to dispense advice, of course. But then again I'm not qualified to dispense advice about bruschetta-making or bike-riding or bladder control, either, but I do it anyway. (I'm not Dear Abby: I just play her on the Internet.) Not being qualified has never stopped me before, in other words. I'm not about to let it stop me now.

So what would I tell a fledgling Internet journaler if they were to write to me tomorrow, seeking advice on how best to start an online journal? Once I got over that initial "Why are you asking me?" moment, I mean?

  • I would tell them to spend some time figuring out why they want to have an Internet journal in the first place. Are you writing for revenge? Fine. Are you writing for posterity? Fine. Are you writing because you're a quivering neurotic attention junkie? Fine. As long as you're clear about your motives.

  • I would tell them that authenticity counts. Write the way you live. Don't try to sound like anybody else. I would tell them to find your voice early and stick with it ... even if your voice changes over time. It's supposed to change. Early *FootNotes* was written by a depressed runaway mom with a box of Mountain Chablis under her desk and minus $13.62 in her checking account. Three and a half years later, you can still hear her voice occasionally, if you listen hard enough ... but these days she's sort of drowned out by Oprah and Deepak and Ю僱êrvØ¡ and the gang.

  • I would tell them that consistency counts almost as much as authenticity. If people come looking for you and you're not there ... eventually they're going to quit looking for you.

  • I would tell them to forget about 100% anonymity. It ain't gonna happen.

  • I would say be prepared to have your heart broken, on occasion ... and to have your feelings hurt, and your spelling corrected, and your life choices criticized, and everything about your character/your HTML/your eye makeup analyzed and critiqued and commented upon ... usually by total strangers, but occasionally by people who also inhabit your *real* life. I would say that if this doesn't sound like something you're equipped to deal with -- or if you don't enjoy this sort of writer/reader engagement -- or if you don't 'get' the fact that hanging yourself out on the Internet clothesline opens you up to the occasional drive-by bird poopage -- you should probably consider another hobby. Stamp-collecting maybe. Or jigsaw puzzles. Or writing angry letters to the goddamn customer service department at People Magazine, since you're never ever going to hear back from THEM anyway.

  • I would tell them that a tiny pastel font on a dark background is a really bad idea.

  • I would quote the immortal words of my pal Bottlenekk: "When it stops being fun ... fudk it."

  • I would tell them that taking a chance is better than staying safe all the time ... and that the occasional screw-up is better than the constant "what if?" ... and that changing things once in a while, even if nobody likes the changes but *you,* is better than getting comfortably rut-bound. I would tell them that it isn't necessary to reveal everything. I would tell them that sometimes half a story is more interesting than the whole story. I would tell them that the entry you are the most afraid to post  --  the entry that ripped your guts out to write,  the entry that you're going to lay awake and worry about tonight,  the entry that you know is going to generate a slew of "Shame on you/You suck/Who do you think you are?/Die immediately" hate-mail  --  is the entry you'll look back on, a week or a month or a year from now, and say Wow. I wrote the hell out of that one, didn't I?

  • I would remind them that other Internet journalers aren't the enemy, or the competition, or the source of free unauthorized source code. They're the community. They're family. They're gifted and inspiring writers like Rachel and Scott and Robyn and Jessamyn. And when your family decides to honor you -- and your journal -- with a couple of awards that say "Hey! We still don't think you completely suck!" ... then you'll know for absolute certain that you've made it as an Internet journaler. And then maybe you can turn around and offer to lend a hand to the person struggling along on the road behind you.

    (Just don't offer to write their first three or four entries for them.)

Thank you, everyone. I am truly honored ... and I am truly glad to be a member of the family.

Have a great weekend!

thank you very much!

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