Recently, while searching in the Narnian depths of my closet, I found my first-ever diary, a small, perfectly ’80s plastic-back book with a busted lock. When I was nine or ten, I marred the cover with handwritten bon mots from Ferngully, such as “You are one bodacious babe” and “Awesome use of the language, dude.” Within the pink and teal pages of the diary, though, I’m seven years old, growing up on a rural farm in central Illinois. I write mostly about my plans for the evening or the next day, usually sleepovers with my friends or visits with family. My girlfriends and apparently I read each other’s diaries during sleepovers; I mention several times that my best friend, Joni, is reading “not this journal, but the paperback one” as I write.
I made my first LiveJournal post at age sixteen, writing about my first break-up. I’d been online since middle school and had written about life there for years, coding websites in Notepad by cherry-picking the HTML from other sites I liked, just like many other girls I’d meet online in the next few years. We posted vague bios about ourselves. We changed our names. Our identities were fluid and often hidden, without the permanence of digital photos to anchor them. We wrote poetry. We claimed space on Tripod and Geocities, altern.org and scribble.nu and then, as girls bought their own domains and shared the paid space with their friends, we moved in with them, prefacing our subdomains with forward slashes. And when girls began to sign up on LiveJournal, we were able to talk to one another, finally in the same room.
I wrote in my LiveJournal while sitting cross-legged at my mom’s desk chair as the sun set over husked Illinois cornfields. On our first-ever computer, a Gateway 2000. Years later, I wrote while slouched on my dorm room floor or hiding my screen in a college computer lab. I wrote at night, after everyone I lived with had gone to bed. I listened to Tori Amos and Iron and Wine and Fiona Apple from CDs I fed to the computer tower and opened in WinAmp. I wrote about myself and my life, in the confessional, navel-gazey way that’s led to the 2015 connotation of the word. To LiveJournal: to write messily about your feelings.
I posted on LiveJournal throughout high school, strapping on my cheap headphones and plucking from the words piling up in my teenage heart. I wrote about the revelations of play rehearsal three nights a week, about shouting to my classmates from our respective cars in the school parking lot, about reading Sylvia Plath for the first time and literally hugging the book after finishing the last page. I fell in love, the way I knew falling in love should be—suddenly and joyously. I typed out the text of my first college acceptance letter and posted it on LiveJournal.
I wrote about starting my first job, at a bookstore, how the manager training me gestured to the shelves and asked if anyone had “taught (me) about Romance yet”—she was talking about protocol for shelving the novels, but I shivered with delight, illegally signed in to LiveJournal on a staff computer a few minutes later to tell my friends list about the turn of phrase. I loved Letters to a Young Poet and Rilke’s quote “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches.” I wanted to make poetry out of life, to believe that life was good and beautiful, and when I was younger, that never seemed difficult. I posted on LiveJournal most days, often with a great sense of relief that it was finally time to write it all down. I bound zines full of writing I’d posted on LiveJournal; I got into college using essays I’d started on LiveJournal. The world seemed to always be shedding those riches Rilke spoke of, shiny coins from shallow pockets. I wanted to collect them, keep them all, warm them in my palms.
In college, I had my first glass of wine, alone with a boy who was not my boyfriend, and LiveJournal was the only one I told. I wrote frantically on LiveJournal when my infant cousin was rushed to the hospital and I grieved on LiveJournal the next day when she died at ten months old. I wrote about going home and staying up all night with my friends, walking to a nearby graveyard with them at 3am, how a star fell above us as we walked home on the deserted highway.
Reading back, of course, it’s all a little precious, all a little LiveJournal. I was figuring out that I was a writer, but I was also young, I was very sure about many incorrect things, I felt ready for life without having any realistic idea of what life was actually like. In short, I was a teenage girl. It reassured me to filter everything, as it happened, through words. The best way for me to comprehend my own life was to read it back to myself.
And I knew I wasn’t alone. The girls who read my LJ, and vice versa, were doing the same; they, too, believed their lives were at least worth documenting, and so we were hungry together, reaching out toward the details in one another’s lives like vines toward the sun; we loved each other, celebrated surprise joys and consoled atomic hurt. We joined communities to learn to knit and to share poetry and to post photos of ourselves. We created new usernames to symbolize new directions in our lives–one for college, one for poetry, one for only extra-secret secrets. LiveJournal was a neverending sleepover for us sentimental storytellers, teenagers who were feeling every feeling. The sun was just about to come up. We had plenty of snacks. We passed our diaries around the circle.
In the LJ archives of my dear friend Courtney, there’s a post she made in 2002, as a teenage girl:
man this thing works. its like all the badness escapes when you write it down.
I stopped using LiveJournal years ago, though I gave it up in fits, came crawling back to create temporary friends-only journals that now sit dormant with only four or five posts. LiveJournal ended with a whisper; all the other girls I’d gotten to know over nearly a decade on the site stopped using it, too, seemingly within the same few months. Many of us moved to Tumblr, where there was no comment function, and our personal posts became rarer and rarer and—in my case, anyway—eventually stopped.
Last fall, after hearing about TinyLetter, a personal newsletter service, I signed up for an account. For several weeks, I sent out letters that were bad versions of other people’s fascinating TinyLetters. Finally, after some weeks of floundering, I sat down at the end of a hard day at work and wrote a letter about how I felt—very scared and lost at thirty-one. I stared out my office windows. I cried a little. I just feel like I see these lives I imagined for myself all over the place sometimes, walking around, being real. Where I’d normally sent several draft iterations to my inbox, I barely even proofread this letter. “Are you sure?” TinyLetter asked. I wasn’t. I clicked Yes, send it now and went home.
I can’t shake the memory that writing was easy in the LiveJournal days; I remember sitting at that computer desk in my childhood home, writing about my innermost joys, and pausing at the keyboard, my fingers poised over the keys. I shut my eyes and waited, knowing the next words would come soon—and they always did. Whether they came only because I believed they would, or vice versa, I still don’t know. But in the same way I knew the words would come, I knew that life would always be good to me, that its riches would always be clear to me; or at least that I could be “poet enough” to seek them out.
At the same time, I was shot through with loss since my adolescent days, terrified of how quickly time slipped by. I wrote about my life with a sense of urgency, as if documenting it could save me from getting older, as a way to cling to the hours. I stretched my minutes before bedtime to post on LiveJournal, my parents hovering in the doorway. I forced myself to stay awake on late study nights to post on LiveJournal. Weekends home from college, I held my breath, waiting for my Grandma’s ancient iMac to connect to her rural internet, so I could write on LiveJournal about the dinner we’d just had as my whole big family talked and laughed in the next room.
The reference to “the paperback one” in my childhood diary is the only indication I have that the paperback diary ever existed. I can’t find it; I don’t remember it. But I wrote about it once.
I signed in to LiveJournal recently and felt a pang of familiarity while reading the usernames on my Friends list. Even the usernames of people with whom I’ve lost touch evoked clear, hollering memories: what they were like, where they lived, who they loved. Clicking through the list of names yields lots of final posts that read “I wish I still wrote here” or “I wish LJ wasn’t so deserted.”
After I sent out my messy TinyLetter, readers and friends responded with emails and texts. I stood in my dark driveway and read them on my phone, feeling the same small lift that a bold 1 comment link gave me in the LiveJournal days, a feeling so familiar and specific that it swayed nostalgic, like listening to a mix tape I’d made as a teenager.
One of the emails was from a girl I met on LiveJournal as a teenager; she expressed amazement that my stepson is so old now, gratefulness for the TinyLetter, the easy way it led us to reconnect after so long. She wrote, “We have only ever known each other on the internet, but still.”
LiveJournal friends are still so ubiquitous in my life that I often forget how we met. Many are (still) writers. When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I see my LiveJournal friends. When I got married, LiveJournal friends stood in the sun and cheered. We’ve known and loved each other for well over a decade. We’ve listened to one another’s daily lives and confessions and complaints. Most of us have never met in person or even talked on the phone, but we’ve read each others’ diaries and found ourselves there. It’s true that we’ve only ever known each other on the internet.
Lindsey Gates-Markel's work has most recently been published in Little Fiction, WhiskeyPaper, and The Rumpus. She writes feelings-y emails through her newsletter, Dear Livejournal.