My obsession began the first time I watched Julie & Julia. It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was between Netflix passwords. Back at my parents’ house in Minneapolis and trying to avoid my little siblings, I wanted a distraction. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy summer. I would be sharing a room with my two younger sisters. There wouldn’t be room for my stuff. I’d have a curfew again. I would be working two jobs at minimum wage to save up for fall tuition. Rather than dwelling on these inconveniences, I cracked open the shrink wrap on a DVD an aunt gave me back in the fall.
I practically have it memorized. Julie Powell, disillusioned 30-something, decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blog about it. There are successes. Failures. Burned boeuf bourguignon and dropped Bavarian cream. Meltdowns and marital spats. A growing fondness for Julia Child and the New York Times article that prompted an outpouring of agents and publishers. The movie always leaves me hungry for French food and inspired to make things like food or art. I settled for microwave popcorn.
There were enough similarities between us. Julie was broke. I was broke. Julie had an uninspiring day job. I wasn’t enthused about my long, repetitive work weeks. Julie wanted to be a writer. So did I. Julie was disappointed with the way her life turned out. I could see myself heading in that direction. Mostly, I wanted that feeling Julie has in the movie when she’s typing at her desk. She wears a thoughtful half-grin as the right words appear across the screen in Courier typeface. She types like she’s in a flow state, her fingers barely keeping up with her thoughts, and hits Enter with an extra punch. That was blogging. I wanted that.
I had reason to get a blog. First, I had already started telling my peers I wanted to be a writer. “A writer?” they would say with a lift in their voice and eyes of skeptical curiosity. Then, every time, “Do you have a blog?”
It was 2013. The concept of blogging was well established. If I wanted to be taken seriously, I would have to start. This plus my newfound Julie & Julia dream of book and movie deals made blogging altogether too much to resist. The promise of fame and specialness is especially tempting to Midwestern girls with a lot of younger siblings.
About a week after the first Julie & Julia viewing, I launched my blog quietly from my parents’ kitchen table. I selected a lime green blog template that I thought was cute and summery and stared at the blinking cursor on the blank screen where I would write my first post. After much contemplation, I had decided to do an immersion project like Julie. I would read books and write mini-reviews about them. My list of books was not particularly intellectual or sophisticated or even current. I read authors like John Green, Nicholas Sparks, Gillian Flynn, and the YA trilogy of the hour. Any book that made me cry from heartbreak or kept me awake in suspense, I was reading.
I agonized over my first post, rereading it multiple times in my head and out loud. This would be the last post I ever bothered to proofread. When I was satisfied, I stabbed the button in the corner that said, “Publish.”
It had begun. That easily. Once unleashed with some vague platform and structure, I was invested. Throughout the summer, I worked my retail job in the mornings and my restaurant job at night. I folded jeans and rolled burritos. I came home exhausted and irritable and fought with my siblings and my parents. I felt sorry for myself. I would get home from work at two in the morning and read by light of my phone screen so as not to wake my sisters. I took notes in the margins or on scraps of paper left all around my bed. I typed up my blog entries whenever I had a spare moment.
“Dear Readers,” I began every post, as if I were addressing a consistent group of like-minded individuals. More likely, they were a confused bunch who thought they were clicking on something else.
I felt like I was doing something important. I escaped to my laptop when I was overwhelmed by lack of personal space at home. The thought of my words alive on the blogosphere was comfort on beautiful sunny days when I had to walk straight into an air conditioned mall or dirty dish room. The thrill I got from hitting “Publish” was enough to cause shivers of excitement at odd intervals throughout the day. Blogging helped me transcend the chores of my regular life in a way I never knew before.
I started to write whatever was on my mind, giving unsolicited life updates, writing about the one movie and one concert I went to that summer, and detailing my younger brothers’ shenanigans. I wrote a disproportionate amount about Shailene Woodley because my work friends told me I looked a little bit like her. My mini-reviews, now just a few lines, fell lower and lower in my posts as my ramblings took over. I had convinced myself blogging wasn’t about thinking. It was about doing.
After failing my driving test for the second time, I wrote:
The DMV is a godforsaken place. Everyone looks like they are picturing their own death. I had to wait 2 hours only to discover my test instructor was the most unsympathetic human being I’ve ever met. The nerve of that guy. Not everyone turns their entire head (!!!) when they look both ways.
I should have been embarrassed, should have not wanted anyone to see what came out of my sleep-deprived 19-year-old brain, but I was obsessed with pageviews. Views fueled me. The few I got were enough to keep me hopeful that something could happen at any moment as long as I kept posting. I frantically spammed the internet with links to my crappy content, trying to capture more views. I was always searching for more portals. I opened accounts on social media sites I had never heard of: Triberr, StumbleUpon, Bloglovin, Google+.
In between spamming sessions, I would check my blogger account. Two views. Fifteen minutes later I checked it again. Seven views and two likes. My brain flooded with dopamine.
Google Communities was not a fan. I got a lot of angry messages from them: “***REMINDER: THIS IS NOT THE PLACE FOR YOUR BLOG LINKS!!! ALL PROMOTIONAL MESSAGES WILL BE DELETED AND THE POSTER BANNED FROM THIS GROUP!!***”
But I was unfazed. Internet people weren’t real people who could be annoyed with me. They were just vague digital waves who had the power to click on my links and up my views.
I wrote while on vacation with my family in Northern Minnesota, enduring spotty Wi-Fi in the lodge. Everyone else was at the beach or playing sand volleyball, but I couldn’t resist those delicious hours alone—air-dried hair, woodsy pine fumes mixed with stale popcorn, fingers tapping keys. I stayed home to write the two nights a week I had off work. My siblings would be having bonfires or playing ultimate Frisbee in the yard. Sometimes my friends would be out there too. They’d yell at me to come out of the house, but I ignored them.
Do you ever look at the week ahead of you and realize where your breaking point will be? I’ve been working as late as 1 a.m. and getting up at 8 to do it all over again. When I’m sweeping beans and rice off the floor at 12:45 a.m., I’m like, “Why am I here?” I can’t explain it (to myself even). My brain thinks working more will solve my financial problems, but they go beyond…I learned a new word, “solipsistic,” which I’m not sure exactly applies to this situation.
I quit my retail job after less than a month because it was horrible and boring and I hated my coworkers. I doubled my hours at the restaurant and met a girl with the word “benevolence” tattooed on her arm and a police monitor on her ankle. Another coworker told me not to talk to her because she was an atheist. She and I worked the late shift and became best friends that summer. After driving me home one night, I got a text from her saying, “I think of you like a younger version of me, except one who didn’t have deal with a lot of the shit I went through.”
Once, a stranger sent me his novel manuscript to critique. He found me because I blogged about books. I had no free time, but I didn’t know if I was allowed to say no. The guy inquired again and again. I left the emails unanswered in my inbox.
Another stranger asked me to write for his Danish website. “It’s a fine opportunity,” he wrote in the comment section. “Though we wouldn’t be able to pay you, and it would be best if you wrote in Danish.”
“Do you want to watch Julie & Julia?” I asked my boyfriend, my sisters, my mom, anyone around. Sometimes I just let the movie play in the background while I spammed the internet with links. Watching it alone was best because other people never responded as emotionally as I preferred them to.
When I went back to school in the fall, I declared a major in business. Entering the world of supply and demand involved a shutting off. I had planned to study literature or journalism, but hours spent working for minimum wage and pep talks from my blue-collar father scared me into choosing a safer major, one more geared toward employment. The blog fell by the wayside as I focused on accounting and economics classes, but my spring schedule allowed me to take one elective. I chose a nonfiction writing class, which introduced me to writers like Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Jo Ann Beard. Students in the class wrote about everything from drug addictions to video games. I wrote about my friendship with the girl at the restaurant and about childhood summers spent at Minnesota lakes. In workshops the students were wildly enthusiastic. If someone said a specific line felt too cheesy, another person would pipe up, “there’s nothing wrong with a little cheese!” Sitting in that class, I thought maybe I still had a chance at being a writer.
I took my essay attempts to my abandoned blog and emailed the links for family to read.
“Did you read it?” I asked them excitedly.
My family didn’t understand what I was doing. “Aren’t you in college?” they would joke. “I saw a lot of incomplete sentences.” They teased me about typos and the sentimental reflections I made. I knew my essays were flawed but had hoped my family would at least see that I was onto something. My writing started to feel silly and childish.
Although I was deflated, I found myself filling pages of notebooks with ideas of what to write next. I returned to regular blogging the following year when I spent a semester in Europe. Travel blogging was justified and decidedly not childish. I wrote about taking trains through Ireland, taking classes in Rome, and staying in $12/night hostels. I wrote about hiking up Mount Vesuvius and trying calamari. I wrote about the time we brought open bottles of prosecco on public transportation and about licking the walls of salt mines. I wrote about Auschwitz. I wrote about the stories people told us: cursed fairy bridges, miracle wells, and Romulus and Remus. I wrote about loneliness and getting lost. I littered each post with photos taken from my phone. I always took pictures of food.
The places I wrote: on my bed on the third floor of a historical mansion in Rome, propped up on hostel bunks next to my sleeping friends, and in my journal on trains. I didn’t write in European cafés because I never found one that allowed such a thing.
Right after eating a giant seafood lunch of mussels, octopus, and squid, we hiked to the top of Mount Vesuvius. Our guide said the hike would be more like a “brisk walk.” I think walking to school is a “brisk walk,” so Mount Vesuvius was definitely a hike! It was worth it, though—the view was like standing on the edge of the world. It was even worth the nausea that followed all that hiking and busing through the mountains, all that seafood stewing in our stomachs.
I think there was a part of me that wanted to study abroad because I wanted to document study abroad.
As I blogged, I noticed myself improving. My writing became more lively and sincere. My images were sharper and more effective. Strangers were leaving thoughtful comments, and so was my family. My sister emailed me to say my aunts and uncles talked about my blog at the latest family gathering. I pictured them asking each other, “Have you read her latest post?”
When I got home from that semester, I missed having things to blog about. I started my first business internship that summer and found myself staring at a computer screen for nine hours a day. I ate lunch alone at my desk, chewing slowly in the quiet office, and watched the minutes tick by. In meetings I would immediately tune out the group to jot down lists of blogging ideas in my little notebook. At the end of the day I went home and sulked in front of my laptop, wanting something it wasn’t able to give. I needed the blog, depended on it, but now that I was older everything felt more high stakes. I had to have something to say.
I couldn’t bring myself to post any of the dozens of rambling blog drafts cluttering my WordPress account. I cringed to read some of my old posts: half-baked ideas, poorly masked rants about certain people, blurry photos, and wishy-washy philosophical musings that didn’t feel like me anymore. I delved into lifestyle blog territory, not knowing what else to do, but the excitement wasn’t there anymore. I felt embarrassed; why was I wasting everyone’s time? Nothing I wrote ever felt good enough. The handfuls of pageviews and likes slowly dwindled away.
I scored a freelance gig writing short blog articles for a small business. My parents would ask me how blogging was going, meaning the freelance job, but I always thought they were asking about my personal blog.
“Oh,” I would sigh. “It’s going okay.”
I would invariably be disappointed to realize they were asking about my paid writing. They didn’t care about my real blog? My art?
I poured myself into research. I read books on blogging: Blogging for Writers and How to Blog a Book. I read blog posts about blogging. I wanted a go-viral-quick scheme. I had put in way too much effort to let my blog die as a typical semester-abroad blog. I spent hours tinkering with the layout of my blog only to change it back a few hours later. I spent an entire afternoon adding tags to each photo to make them show up on search results, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t make a difference. I thought back to the nonfiction writing class I took in college, how much it inspired me, made me think I could be a writer for real. But I wasn’t sure if I could go on writing without the instant gratification blogging provided.
I googled why Julie Powell got so much success. Apparently she was right on the blogging sweet spot, year wise. In the early 2000s people were reading blogs, but they weren’t yet creating their own. There weren’t as many blogs on the internet, so it was easy for fans of Julia Child to find Julie Powell.
Acquaintances started to get their own blogs, and blogging was no longer my quirky hobby. I became jaded. The conversation shifted where blogging was concerned. Where I once answered enthusiastically to those considering blogs of their own, my tone grew cautionary.
“I’ve been down that road,” I’d say. I’d shake my head, “Trust me. Not worth it.”
I remember there was this girl, a mini Gwyneth Paltrow with a lifestyle blog, who asked me to coffee to talk about blogging.
Over peppermint tea she got a sly look on her face and said, “I started this blog as something fun, but then I realized…this isn’t just a blog. This is a business.”
“You could think of it that way,” I replied.
Perhaps it was the comparison to business, the degree I had chosen out of fear, the job I tolerated. But there was something about that conversation. I started to see my shitty blog not as creative or noble or transcendent at all. Maybe in my case, blogging was a distraction. I had lost so many hours to WordPress, and what had I gained? I remembered the spark I felt in the classroom of amateur writers. I thought about novels and essay collections and felt the spark return.
I needed a way to say goodbye, so I found a website where I could print my blog posts into a paperback book. Paging through 88 pages of my diary-like musings littered with phone pictures, I found inside jokes, memories, and random interactions I had long forgotten. I felt a tenderness toward this younger voice I held in my hands and grateful for the memories she thought to preserve. Holding that book was more gratifying than any of the now-forgotten pageviews. I felt fortunate to live in a time when a regular girl can write her thoughts on the internet. I also hoped what they say about the internet being forever would not be true in this instance.
I’m in a different place now. I write a little each day, and none of it garners views or likes. It took a long time to get to this place, training myself to work slowly and thoughtfully. I’m not the blogger girl I used to be, but I still love watching Julie & Julia.