correspondence nostalgia (part 1: dear diary)

As is true for most of us, my email inbox count has increased in direct proportion with my age and academic status. There was a time in my early emailing years that I fetishized the clean inbox, and would sit down in front of my computer until every new message had been replied-to. Deleting messages was (and remains) a blissful feeling. Of course, now one inbox has turned to four –– five if you count the Stone of Madness editorial box –– and zero languishing messages has turned to ten, minimum, per inbox. I mean, at least I’m not someone with a thousand unread messages –– I think that to experience such a thing personally might actually kill me, and then who would clean out my inbox?

I owe my past success with inbox-clearing entirely to the fact that, until high school, email served the near-exclusive purpose of correspondence. Really, it wasn’t just correspondence, it was journaling, but journaling-as-(semi)public-performance not unlike this blog. I had a small circle of friends with whom I emailed almost daily, as well as a wider circle of penpals (acquired on a now-defunct somehow-still-active and profoundly sketchy early-2000s-era website, on which I was lucky not to meet a forty-year-old man posing as a fellow tween) with whom I exchanged denser, less frequent messages. I wish I could see the full archive of messages I sent between, say, 2008 and 2013. The ones I have seen since confirm my own memories of the time. I spent middle school thinking about religion and agnosticism, about the nature and limits of friendship (which are especially relevant topics when you’ve had a life of chronic-friendlessness, or, worse, chronic, mocking, and (you say retroactively) ableist faux-friendship tinged with disdain. I wrote about what I was reading, about the musicals I was performing in at the time, about what I was listening to (complete with the requisite YouTube links). My clearest memories are the debates I’d conduct with friends over email, mostly around philosophy and religion. Such was life for an agnostic of the fedora-wearing variety at a Catholic school.

There’s a lot to be said about the differences in emailing-Sarah and irl-Sarah, especially back then, when I didn’t realize I was allowed to be my textual self in the “real world.” In another post, I’ll probably spend more time talking about this, about what it means for autistic writing, etc. In the moment, the differences were most significant because my correspondents noticed them. They’d comment on how (and I’m forgetting the specific adjectives they used) unserious and even immature I was in real life. How silly, and even how coarse and rude (they, being neurotypical, would have phrased accusations of rudeness in a way that neatly elided similar accusations toward themselves) I was in person, when it was my mouth speaking instead of my hands. I became a little obsessed with having these hidden, inner depths, being a secret Old Soul that no one understood. Really, I was just obsessed with being heard and taken seriously. About having a place to express my innermost still-externalizable thoughts.

To write as I did and send it to no one would be the equivalent of putting on real pants for a Zoom meeting, to dress up for a day at home. I know plenty of people who do it and say they dress for themselves, but I’ve never understood it. I dress to be looked at. I speak to be heard. I write to be read, and not by some non-entity named “Diary.”

Plenty of historical figures did this with their actual diaries, writing them in order, it seems, to be read. Honestly, they probably meant for more people to read their innermost thoughts than I ever did, considering that my emails were for my and my correspondent’s eyes only. Still, there was a certain degree of effort I put into the emails, effort unavailable to me offline for brainweird reasons. Via email, I could curate Sarah, and in the body of the text construct myself anew. Plus, they (the emails and the curated-Sarah) were just fun to write, and that fun was rooted in the knowledge that they would, indeed, be read. To write as I did and send it to no one would be the equivalent of putting on real pants for a Zoom meeting, to dress up for a day at home. I know plenty of people who do it and say they dress for themselves, but I’ve never understood it. I dress to be looked at. I speak to be heard. I write to be read, and not by some non-entity named “Diary.”

At the same time as I was emailing my pseudo-entries to friends, I also kept a nightly journal. This ritual began when I was around eleven, and I don’t think I’ve missed an entry since. What, exactly, I write in this journal has varied wildly through the years, from doodles and descriptions of original characters to heartfelt teenage melodramas to compulsive projects uncannily similar to that one chapter of Fun Home. None of it was publishable. Some of it was, quite literally, illegible, whether by my poor handwriting or by purposeful and (see above) compulsive obfuscation. Theoretically, the journal and the email served similar purposes: keeping track of my life, the dates particular events occurred and the dates at which they were recorded. In practice, at least at first, I used them for opposite purposes: while my diary kept track of myself –– a psychological ass-wipe regardless of an individual day’s relative shittiness –– my emails (re)presented an archive of possible redemption from public shame.

[M]y emails (re)presented an archive of possible redemption from public shame.

Writing-to-be-published today is still about trying to outpace shame.* Instead of emails, I have this blog; while I retain my diary, into which go occasional drafts that, if lucky enough, later become Real Pieces, I’m not anticipating some archivist to be particularly interested in its contents, nor –– and this is key –– do I expect to be judged on their basis. Yet, even as I write that, I acknowledge that I happen to be journaling in interesting times. Since the emergence of COVID, my genre of journaling has undergone a fairly drastic transformation, owing in part to early-quarantine diary assignments suggested by educators on Twitter and elsewhere. Funnily enough, given that these were in many cases mandatory class assignments, the journals students kept were functionally identical in style to my old emails, though initially intended as an easy, meaningful, and potentially-critical alternative to Real School. We’re living through a world historical event, the likes of which precious few alive today have ever seen before, they said. You Are Going To Want To Remember This. And if you don’t, someone else will, so you’d better have your say.

After all, what is “Dear Diary,” but an invitation to dialogue?

Unable to disagree, I started by actively jotting down a given day’s news and my thoughts on it, interwoven with fairly-unexciting descriptions of my hygiene anxieties, cabin fever, and bewilderment at the pace at which everything I’d thought was normal in my life simply collapsed. After a few months, it was coming naturally. At this point, I look forward to writing a page or two in this new style. My entire approach to journaling has changed, and now I write in my journal not as if the whole Internet will have access to it, but nevertheless as if someone (maybe future-me?) will want to join the conversation. I wasn’t exactly anticipating a blog reader or email correspondent, but I was still packaging my experiences in an intelligible way. I implied future consumption, even reply. After all, what is “Dear Diary,” but an invitation to dialogue?

I guess this is the time to make a confession: up until COVID, I had a tradition of annihilating my daily-diary selves as soon as a given notebook was complete. I’d rip out the pages, shred them with a machine or (more often) with my bare hands, and sprinkle the detritus into the recycling basket, right on top of the day’s old newspapers and empty cereal boxes. I was the anti- (more like ante-, really, given the way I journal right now) archivist, making sure that the shamed, unpublishable pieces of myself were profoundly mutilated as to be indecipherable. It was cathartic to rip up the diaries, not necessarily out of a particularly-uncontrollable surge of self-hatred, but because, like clearing out my email inbox, I derive(d) so much pleasure from the cleanness of it all, posterity be damned. I keep my diaries now, and they stink up my room, itching like lice. I hope another version of myself will be glad they stuck around.

In both the case of my emails and my early ill-fated diary pages, my words were going to their preferred audiences: friends and nobody, respectively. Early Internet blogging efforts that began before I was born pioneered a fusion of both –– described as an Internet diary, the blog was a living archive. It spoke to contemporaries as (if they were) descendants. Even the language of “following,” more than merely of “readership” or “[message-]recipiency,” implies that a given reader is simultaneously after and alongside the author. Readers had the responsibility of consumption –– sharing in the archive-of-self presented by an author –– as well as judgement and interpretation. It’s like I’m emailing a friend, stripping the personal salutation (or implying some sufficiently-universalized alternative in its stead), and spicing generously with carefully-curated personalisms. Blog readers are to Blog as the front row is to performance. Yet Blog is also personal. Blog is (or, given the form’s steep decline in popularity over the last decade, was) curated and semipersonalized intimacy, the process of CC’ing personal reflections to a hundred or a thousand of your closest friends.

The linkages and breaking-points between emails, diaries, and blogs, as well as old-fashioned letter writing, are hard to fully disentangle. Efforts at self-preservation, self-promotion, and self-protection blur. All of them seem a little bit precious nowadays; as this post’s title suggests, the thousand-word missives I used to write to my friends are now something to be nostalgized-after. Even as I write this on a blog, I notice that the form is waning in popularity. Is the blog something I’m already nostalgic for, even as I post this question onto one? What, exactly, do I miss, if I’ve already acknowledged that my childhood emails were as concerned with public performance as this post is, albeit directed at a smaller audience? If the email and the blog are becoming obsolete, what is the purpose of the diary? If the blog is no longer popular, yet the need for public, documented performance of intimate archives remains, what comes next, and what is that form’s relationship to other now-“defunct” forms?

Basically, what I’m wondering is, what are the historians –– if applicable –– going to turn to when they wonder about the ’20s? If aughts nostalgia lived in emails and tens in blogs, what comes next?

I’m no expert on trends, technological, social, or otherwise, but I’ve been watching the way that the already-hybrid blog-form has further blended with more traditional forms of correspondence. In the last six months especially, it seems like everyone and their girlfriend’s picked up a Substack, allowing interested readers to sign up for performed-personal, bloglike updates sent directly (and, it appears, “exclusively”) to their personal email inbox. These messages often, though not always, document world and personal events. They’re designed to be remembered, but also to be deleted from one’s inbox once read. Like the traditional diary, they invite transtemporal dialogue without expecting a direct reply.

But, like, they also cost MONEY.

What are Substack’s (and similar services’) implications for the performance-documentation-consumption nexus? What does it mean to send regular messages not-unlike those I once emailed my friends…for a monthly price? Wither capitalism? What is Substack trying to be, and where in this weird landscape of (im)personal self-representations and (quasi)private social experiments does it sit? Should I have a Substack? Have I used too many question marks in the last two paragraphs?

These and other questions I plan to address in part 2 of this post, which I’m hoping to get around to in the next month or so. I want to think further about the ingenious (and sinister) implications of a service aping the personal significance of a diary and the polished conceit of the blog, all packaged as paid intimate correspondence. I’m not anti-Substack (some of my best newsletters are Substacks!) but I am anti-capitalist, so this is a development I’ll be keeping an eye on for a while. And blogging about on my dinky little WordPress, which, to be honest, I actually kind of like as a platform.

*At least for me. Maybe this is a Zoom pants situation. I kind of doubt it, though, given what I know about writers.

**For example, I drafted the points I’m covering in this post in my journal on January 10th, with the comment, “excited to get this one down when I get the chance, I’ve been wanting to write it for a while. Maybe a journal[-specific]-themed one, too.” It feels strange, and also gratifying, to visibilize that process. I think it also marks a shift in me that somewhat parallels this “Substack turn” in media, this (e)mergence between correspondence and journaling really rooted in traditions much older. But that’s for part 2.

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