“A Document in Madness, Thoughts and Rembrance Fitted.”

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"A Document inMadness, Thoughts and Rembrance Fitted."

-Shakspeare: HamletIV, v, 155

 

Recently I have become interested in another topic that Iknow little to nothing about. Over the past few weeks, my Emerging Genres classhas been studying a modern phenomenon: the blog. The more I read about blogs,the more I felt like I had seen something like them before. It wasn't longafter that I realized how closely the modern blog, especially when made tocreate a community, resembles the Bryn Mawr College Backsmoker Diaries.

            Atthe start of this semester, while procrastinating on Facebook, I stumbled upona description of an internship. Short and to the point, it asked for a currentBryn Mawr undergraduate to transcribe entries in the Backsmoker Diaries fromthe early 1980s. At the time I didn't know the Backsmoker Diaries existed, buteven with this lack of knowledge I still decided to contact the woman who hadposted the request, a former Backsmokerite Anastasia, and hope for the best.The next day I heard the good news: I had the job. Since then, I have not onlylearned so much about Bryn Mawr, but also about the nature of communal writing.

            Beginningin the late 1970s (at least, that is the oldest of the diaries in the rare bookroom), a group of Bryn Mawr undergraduates laid the foundation for a new BrynMawr tradition, "a BMC folk culture of ‘informal group writings'" (Ashman). TheBacksmoker Diaries were group journals kept in the backsmoker rooms of fourdorms on campus: Denbigh, Merion, Erdman and Rockefellor. These rooms, formerlysmoking areas, (hence the name) are now public lounges. The diaries wereoriginally started by "lovers of fantasy and romance" and were seen as a way"to escape the pressures of Bryn Mawr's intense academics" (Ashman). Manytimes, blogs are created as an escape from the "real" world as well, but maybeescape isn't the right word. Whatever the word is that I'm looking for, blogsare acknowledged as often creating a distinctly separate world from "real"life. Geeky Mom, a blogger whorecently came to our class, even admitted that she felt pressure to spend lesstime in the world she had created. "Those of us that have been blogging forawhile have doubts every once in a while. But it made me think about thebalance between my online life and my "real" life that I have to maintain."Clearly, blogs and the Diaries share the common goal of creating a new realityfor both the writers and the readers.

            Anotherlink between blogs and the Backsmoker Diaries is the formation of a community.One of the goals of the Backsmoker Diaries is "to forge a social connectionthrough creative expression" (Ashman). The Backsmokerites connect overeverything from dating, homesickness, homework, politics, and religion. Theytie all these disparate topics together through their shared experience as BrynMawr students, just like bloggers come together through their various interestsor current place in life. Geeky Mom explains what I feel is a shared sentimentwhen it comes to Backsmokerites and bloggers alike: "The connections I madehere are real. I enjoyed reading about other people's lives and sharing inbirths and deaths, tenure and job searches, struggles with children andparents. It felt like a community here, a virtual neighborhood where we didmore than just wave at each other across the street." In the end, I really feelthat those who blog are, in most cases, really just looking for what theBacksmoker Diaries so successfully created: a community.

            Probablythe trait I find most interesting in both of these forms is the use of aliases.Online, the pseudonyms used by bloggers tend to actually serve the purpose ofkeeping one's identity secret, although of course there are always exceptions.However, in the Backsmoker Diaries "aliases are used ... though this is an openfiction because everyone knows whose alias is whose, and they function as apaper version of a BBS-- quoteboard, mailing list, scheduling, rants abouthomework and life in general, drawings, fiction recommendations, role-playing,love letters, you name it" (Rush-That-Speaks).Although, through my extensive reading of the diaries I have found that thereare just as many anonymous writers as those who know each other in the flesh.For example a backsmokerite who called herself ‘iyw' was "diary-stalked" by theanonymous ‘woman in your path." Bloggers who write under pseudonyms alsosometimes meet some of their commentors and fellow bloggers in person as well,drawing another comparison to the Backsmoker Diaries, since many writers wouldstumble in only to form ‘real' relationships with the other writers later. WhenSyllabub and Geeky Mom came tospeak with our class they talked about meeting their commentors in real life.While these aliases do not always serve as identity protectors, they are anintriguing connection between the Backsmoker Diaries and the newer virtualworld of blogs.

            Itwas unsurprising, when in my search for evidence of the link between bloggingand the Backsmoker diaries, I discovered that former Backsmokerites have made acommunity livejournel "opened in the name of procrastination!" Fittingly calledThe Backsmoker,it is an online version of everything the original diaries were and still are(although the discussion of homesickness in this case tends to center around ashared home: Bryn Mawr College). It seems that the Diaries were made inanticipation of the day when something like The Backsmoker could be created.Now, not only are current Bryn Mawr students connected through the Diaries, butBryn Mawr alumnae of all generations have a way to reconnect with a part of themany unique Bryn Mawr College traditions.

            BrynMawr, a pioneer when it came to women's education, also seemed to pioneer thethe creation of the blog with a little blogging community of its own longbefore the computer became a household item. The Backsmoker Diaries, at leastfor me, are a much needed link from other traditional forms of writing to theblog of today. Through finding this comparison however, I have also found manynew questions. The question foremost in my mind, why we as humans seekanonymity in order to finally feel able to disclose the "truth," seems only togain more relevance in the modern world of blogs.

 

Interestingly in my searches I also came upon a blog by aformer Haverfordstudent who talked about the "long history of informal group writings oncampus well before blogs existed." And Geeky Mom responded! Oh the connectionswe find!

 

"Ashman" is my way of citing emails from Anastasia Ashman,the woman who gave me this wonderful internship.

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Backsmoker diaries and Blogs

Alexandra—

What interests me here, of course, is your identifying a local, historical precedent for the blog: the Bryn Mawr College “Backsmoker diaries.” And it’s an especial delight to see that the tradition—which you see as a precursor to the blog-- has actually generated a blog of its own.

VERY cute—though I find myself quibbling with your observation that these diaries were “made in anticipation of the day when” the Backsmoker blog could be created. THAT sounds like nothing so much as turning an emergent story into a foundational one!

Anyhow: having traced the similarities between the paper and the virtual forms is really only a run-up to and a data-gathering exercise for the really interesting questions, which you have now shown not to be specific to the blog, but far more general and long-standing. The question that most interests me here is the one with which you end (which you say is also foremost in your mind): “Why do we seek anonymity in order to disclose the ‘truth’?” You ask other versions of the same question throughout the paper: why use an alias that does not serve as an “identity protector”? (What purpose does it serve, then?) What is the function of this weird hybrid genre of “the open fiction”? Why write a fiction, if it is open? Why not just write non-fiction, and tell the story straight?

And if “escape isn’t the right word” for what the diary writers were seeking, what is? Where they “creating a new reality,” as you say, or accentuating the one that existed, in the way that “Geeky Mom” or another on-line alias accentuates some aspects of the self, and leaves others in shadow? What does it mean to say that the connections made by such a self are “real,” if the neighborhood in which they take place is a “virtual” one?

You focus on the similarities between the Backsmoker diaries and blogs; another fruitful place for further thinking might be the difference between them. Blogging offers us the possibility of a larger, more extended community than that available to us in our daily, real life, “meatspace” encounters. But why would Bryn Mawr women have turned to the Backsmoker diaries to create a community with the very women with whom they were living and working daily?

Is there some help to be gotten, in answering these questions, in Paul’s insistence that Serendip is NOT creating community, or that Tim did not seek to identify his commentators? Not bothering, in either case, with the minutae of identity markers, in order to get to work on intellectual matters?

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