Dear Carolee

I was reading the newest posts on your blog, beginning with the one about begining again, about missing the “old days” of blogging.  And about being post divorce, post MFA and waiting in a middle space to listen to the universe and see what’s next.

In the comments you tell Dave Bonta that now that you are back at it, you struggle with what to say.  I find myself nodding in recognition. Here I am in another liminal space: unexpectedly remarried, post doctorate, empty nest. Also drawn back to blogging.

Except I was never completely comfortable with it the first time around. I kept losing track of my own voice. Common writing advice is to “know your audience”, right?  I think that was the problem. I’ve never been able imagine “my audience” for a blog. I think the hyperawareness of statistics and “followers” sucked the joy out of it for me. I’m a competitive person by nature. It was depressing. I would compare comments people left on other blogs.  It turned me into a weird, skittish person I didn’t recognise. I teach for a living, so it would be a lie to say that I am uncomfortable or dislike taking centre stage, or expressing my opinions. (I actually like being bossy.) But I see my students, look them in the eyes. It at least feels like communication. (Unless they’re sleeping – which they sometimes do despite their best efforts. They are eighteen and up late. I get it. I don’t take it personally. At least, I try not to.)

But who am I talking to on a blog? What do I want them to see? Am I the teacher/mentor? A social commentator? A mid-life paleo-runner, hiker, fitness  wannabe-guru poet? God forbid that I would be a “thought leader” (how I hate that term). Maybe I’m a wildly messed up poet with bipolar disorder, and hellofalotof baggage. In which case, I will need a new profile picture, and way to steel myself again the onslaught of advice.

Like Whitman, I contain multitudes. I was am too unsure of who I wanted to project. Toying with the idea of returning to blogging last year, I fell into this trap of an entrepreneurship group. Blogging seems to be something different now. Branding and monetising. Is the whole world like this now?

I was listening to a podcast I rather like, but the guest kept talking about “conversation” in a way that I have never imagined it. It was something about seven questions to ask the other person. Only the questions weren’t designed to facilitate conversation, so much as to ask the right questions to “help” the other person improve themselves. Since when did a good conversation begin with thinking you would help a stranger improve herself?

I joined a blogger group on Facebook. It seems almost all of the bloggers there are curating independent zines with posts like “10 ways to turn your life around”, with ads for that thing you can buy to do the turning. (I am glad I stumbled back on the poetry bloggers.)

What I truly miss is letter writing. And I miss the long email exchanges of the mid-90s, when my children were small and napping nearby – I could dig deep, take my time to think things through, but still be in conversation with a real person. Both my boys have left home. They are napping in foreign countries these days. So I’m asking myself, why is it I feel rushed now?

No rush in the mountains. But you know that.

The blogosphere, and later writing on Facebook (and God-knows, especially Twitter) sometimes felt/feels like grunting half-thoughts into a void for attention. (My Instagram feed is just pretty pictures: a respite.) And everything has to be timely. I felt an odd pull this summer to post my photos from the plateau camping trip while I was on the plateau camping trip.

Something has to give in my life. I’m not my Instagram feed, that has me almost fooled into emotionally equating little heart tallies with a sense of community.

Who am I when I blog? It is odd really, I have never had this problem writing poetry. I think, after all these years, I’m still writing to Edna St. Vincent Millay. But I doubt she would like blogs.

And then there is the fear. You didn’t say much about that, but you mentioned it. What are your fears?

And what about posting poetry? You mention another poet’s project to post on his blog rather than wait for journals to present his work online. Are we still in need of the gatekeepers?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

XO Ren

Carolee’s Reply

This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.


I was doing writing exercises this morning. Starting with one of Marty McConnell’s wonderful prompts. Seems a lot of writing prompts ask you to begin with some aspect of childhood.  Like your “childhood home”.

A while back I tried to count all the childhood homes  I’d had, and I wound up with something like 30 places we’d lived or stayed for a while between “permanent addresses”. What does come to mind is a collage of textures: metal jungle gym bars, porous decorative cinder blocks, loose dirt. My favorite line of poetry has always been from “the sound, the smell of swing set hands” (REM’s  “The Wrong Child“).

I remember lying on the hot floor of the Toyota, my back awkwardly stretched over the divider, pillow under my head, staring at the stars through the car’s back window. Nothing blacker than the velvet sky of the desert between LA and Vegas. This is my image of home, really. Continually moving through the dark.

But I did have my own room at my grandparent’s house. A guest room, but we called it mine – for my sake. I had a drawer with a nightgown that I only wore when I lived with them. It was baby doll nightgown that my grandmother must have worn. On six-year-old-me,  it reached mid-calf, and I felt like a ballerina in it. I would twirl in front of the mirror. Only now, as I’m writing this, do I think about the little appliqué anchor, and realize that she must have bought it with my grandfather in mind: a Navy man.

An odd thought, really. She would have been horrified that I might someday write about it. Allude to her sex life. But I want to write about it.

She’s been dead for several years now, and I’ve taken the liberty of imagining her puritan sense of decorum having softened in death. Instead of her icy anger, I imagine her shrugging and saying, “What does it matter now?”  But the truth is, I just don’t think that hard about it. I don’t think I could really convince myself she’d be okay with it.

It’s a bit like when I took driving lessons and had to drive in reverse for the first time. I looked back over my shoulder, shut my eyes, and stepped on the gas. I sometimes write with my eyes shut.

Right after the birth of my second child, I broke ties with everyone else in my family. I started to write small memoirs. At the time I had a correspondence with a wonderful man who lived in San Francisco. My first book of poems had just been published, and he was a sucessful playwright with a passion for poetry. He had more life experience than I did. He was in his mid-sixties and the only gay Republican I’ve ever met. We had interesting and frank discussions, and he was an excellent mentor for me, in part because of our differences.

picture-of-whyI sent him a little memoir about an incident in one of my aunt’s lives. He wrote back, “Why did you write this? Do you just want me to know you are better than them?”

I stopped writing memoirs.

When I tell people about this, they usually say he was awful to say such a thing. But he wasn’t. It’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received, and it came in the form of a genuine question.

Twenty years later, I think I’ve worked through a lot of my insecurities. I no longer write to have people reassure me that I am a good person. But now there are other considerations. Other barriers.

There are my sons. No longer children-but when your mother is a writer you can’t just leave the room when she talks about something you find uncomfortable. Her books are in the high school libraries, essays can be googled by acquaintances.

There are the ex-husbands. Yes. Plural. Both wonderful people I would never want to hurt.

There’s the man with whom I’ll share the rest of my life.

(Please don’t judge: Margaret Mead said we get three. Someone else said that we are extremely lucky if they happen to be the same person. I have been very lucky with the people in my adult life; I have just not had the skills I needed to transition each relationship through life’s stages.)

Last-and least-there are my students. I’m not concerned about their privacy, but I wonder how much can they know about my personal life and still respect me in the classroom on a daily basis? Forty years ago students would have had to put a lot of effort into dragging their butts to the library to dig up dirt on a teacher. Now they can guzzle Red Bull with one hand, google with the other, and link my name to an article on vaginal prolapse.


I know each essay, each poem has to be considered independently, and there isn’t a handbook with all the answers, but I’m wondering… Anyone out there use a checklist of some kind?

I know you won’t have my answers, but it is nice to have a starting place to draft my own.