Culture

The confessions of LiveJournal Tara

Growing up online taught me how to narrate a life. Then I had to learn how to live one.
Culture

The confessions of LiveJournal Tara

Growing up online taught me how to narrate a life. Then I had to learn how to live one.

I’ve got a vision of my life. I think I know exactly what I want to do with my life, and that's calming. After college (ideally, D.Phil in Medieval History from Oxford, but that's all ideals)… I’ll write — travel writing, novels, plays, screenplays, poems, biographies, histories, bad historical fiction under a florid penname like Marguerite de Storme-Quincey… I’ll invite all my friends to live [with me] free of charge except for upkeep, and it'll be a huge artistic commune and we'll all play piano and put on plays for fun in the living room and ride horses and laugh and get drunk every night and say great things and create great works and the world will not matter…

I was 16 when I wrote that. I was lonely. I was a sophomore at a New England boarding school, newly thrust into those cold and Calvinist quadrangles from a young adolescence spent home-schooled in Rome. I did not know what it was like to not feel things — violently, obsessively, transgressively — and it seemed to me then that everybody but me knew how to strategically withdraw.

I was always an oversharer. I liked telling stories; I liked making people laugh; moreover, I wanted, somehow, to justify myself. I felt that if I did not share every ugly aspect of myself (my unrequited crushes, my fears, my yearnings — completely and unexaminedly sincere — to live in 19th-century Paris, or Renaissance Rome), that somehow I was lying to the people around me. If the things I felt were most fundamental, and most shameful, about me were not expressed, I was guilty of dishonesty.

At a New England boarding school, this did not make me popular. Why can’t you just keep your fat mouth shut, my mother lamented, once, after some implosion of the friend group my emotional nakedness had caused.

But online, I could be honest. Online, I wrote — daily, savagely, passionately — about, and as, the person I wanted to become. On LiveJournal, the once-popular blogging platform since overtaken by Russian bots, I poured myself out to a group of about 100 selected “friends”; nearly all strangers. I wrote about my curiosity about sex, which I’d learned about by reading my grandmother’s set of Anais Nin’s diaries. I wrote about the books I’d read, applying them with cartographic precision to my own life. When we were reading The Aeneid in Latin class, I wrote about how I related to Dido — whose emotive furor was the feminized chaotic response to Aeneas’s rational pietas — because I too overflowed the measure of my feelings.

Online, I could be honest.

I wrote about my first “boyfriends,” who inspired in me a tragic hollowness, because getting fingered the woods behind the tennis courts is nothing when you’ve already read Anais Nin. I wrote about my first real boyfriend, who quoted Tennyson and took me to Vienna and so I was finally, ecstatically sure the world I wanted to live in was real at last.

And the thing was, people read it. Of my hundred-odd followers, at least 20 were ongoing friends: posting encouraging and sympathetic comments, firing up my fantasies, commiserating in all my quotidian tragedies. They read each installment of my life. They came to know me as the character I portrayed: an ageless and far more self-assured version of myself.

LiveJournal Tara was, after all, a pastiche. She was me — my best self. But she was also a burlesque of everything that I had read. She wrote like Nin, of course, and Djuna Barnes, and Oscar Wilde, whom I idolatrously adored as the patron saint of living one’s life as art. She was at once utterly authentic and thoroughly secondhand.

I was, I think, conscious of this. When I wrote to my audience, knowing that they, as did I, saw me as a character in my own narrative, I made frequent references to other prior “selves,” often giving them different names I felt encapsulated their poetic essence. Writing about different schools I had attended before my boarding school, I talked about missing that “innocent sixth-grader” I had been in elementary school, about the pink-haired proto-punk I’d been at 13 “confident and cocky and called Claudine after the Colette novel.” “Now,” I wrote, “I feel like gradually each stage has finally come together, and I'm nothing new, really, but rather a melding of all these personas I've tried on.”

As a teenager, the ability to try on these personae, to lead these different online lives, to narrate this best of my hybrid self to a dynamic audience of other created selves, was intensely liberating. By transmogrifying my experiences, I really did live, as I so desperately wanted to, life as art.

I am now 27. I have come of age in a world in which my professional success as a writer, as a journalist, and as a “personal brand” is dependent on created externalities. I often wonder the extent to which the persona I developed online, and the way in which I learned to think of my life as a narrative for public consumption made it difficult for me to be, well, me.

The LiveJournal Tara — bold, impassioned, at once utterly un-self-conscious and yet in thrall to an audience in thrall to her — wanted to live life as art. But living life as art meant living life for art: making decisions because they fit in with the public narrative of myself. I did things for the story, and in so doing, became alienated from my own instinctual desires.

Christians have a word for this. Christ, in becoming Incarnate in the world, is said to be undergoing kenosis, a literal pouring-out of self. As a teenage blogger, I poured out so much of myself online that I did not have any authentic self left. LiveJournal Tara became not just a facet of myself, but the totality of my self-understanding.

I have come of age in a world in which my professional success as a writer, as a journalist, and as a “personal brand” is dependent on created externalities.

In the absence of that clearly-defined selfhood, LiveJournal Tara became, in adulthood, a lode star: the only way by which I could measure my own experience of life.

For years after I stopped posting regularly, I would frequently re-read my old LiveJournal entries. I would go back to phrases I’d written when I was 13, 14, 15 (I want intensity, said 15-year-old Tara, crave it, that impossible sense of madness and ecstasy and high-pitched screaming of romance. I want to fall freely into an emotional accident, to fall in love poetically, fantastically, entirely) and grow angry with myself because my adulthood had failed, in small senses, to live up to what LiveJournal Tara expected of it. Moments of contentment, even happiness, seemed anathema to what LiveJournal Tara wanted. What would LiveJournal Tara have thought, I wondered (and, implicitly, what would LiveJournal Tara’s audience have thought), about my early twenties.

In many regards, the intensity of those early writings did, define my life, and with positive effects. I did go to Oxford, and got a DPhil there — albeit in theology, not Medieval history. And I did become a travel writer and, recently, a novelist. (At 27, I know better than to take on the pen name Marguerite de Quincey).

But I have never been altogether sure whether the decisions I have been made as an adult have been made through positive desire or through fear of not being the person I invented. The insistence with which I pitched travel articles, say, or booked plane tickets, or went barreling up mountains, was a neurotic and a frenetic one. It was not that I wanted to go, say, to Armenia, or to Iran. It was that I wanted to be the person who did all those things. I did not know how to want, period, outside of the drive to be.

I owed a debt to my teenage self: the most authentic I have ever been, and when it came to personal relationships, this debt was overwhelming.

It is one thing, after all, to choose a career path based on a teenage dream. It is another thing to map one’s emotional life out in advance. Knowing that I had declared myself a votive of such staggering generalities as madness and ecstasy, I found the realities of an actual serious relationship I entered — with a long-term partner who remains the best man I have ever known — difficult. I wanted life lived purely in the aesthetic mode — Tennyson, stolen weekends, night-trains to the Adriatic. I did not know how to interpret the strangeness of real love.

Real love, after all, is jagged; it is syncopated. It lies as much in the unexpected specifics (the way somebody takes off their glasses to punctuate a point, the precise difference between someone saying “ah” to mean I agree and “ah” to mean you’re a complete idiot) as in the consummation of a plot arc. It requires seeing somebody for who they are, and not for the character archetype they play in the story of your life.

And my problem was: I did not know how to dissociate myself from the story I’d created. I’d come of age in narrative; now, narrative trapped me. I left a healthy, mutually loving, respectful relationship and later barreled into exactly the kind of emotional madness I had spent a decade writing about, with a man (a writer, of course) who told me he loved me after three weeks, and compared me favorably to heroin.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.

It is impossible to tell whether I would have become the same person, one obsessed with narrative, addicted to crafting the “story” of my life, without LiveJournal, without having had my private coming-of-age turned outward to an audience. Perhaps I always would have been that person, and my love of LiveJournal was just a sign of a personality trait already there. But regardless, the personality that I created, and developed, on that website, is an integral part of the person I have become. It has given me inspiration, impetus, and strength. But it has also made it harder to separate the “real” me — whoever that is — from the version of myself it has created.

My problem was: I did not know how to dissociate myself from the story I’d created.

I no longer use LiveJournal, of course. My use of other social media platforms has a more mercenary edge. My public creation of myself has a specific and tangible goal — to sell my books, to promote my articles, to make the people that I actually know in real life like me better. If my life is, in fact, art, it is no longer art for art’s sake. Like everything else, it has been tainted by capitalism (I of course hope that you will scroll down to my bio, and click a link, and buy my novel).

And, perhaps, it is that very distinction that divides “mostly positive” self-creation from its more soulless counterpart.

In writing this piece, I reached out to a number of old LiveJournal friends I’d later come to know in real life. I asked them whether they felt their own LiveJournal personae were an accurate reflection of who they were in real life, and if they felt that mine was, having later met me.

Nearly everyone said the same thing: There was very little difference between their offline and online personae. The difference was that their online persona was less lonely. “IRL I felt like I was a misfit and on LJ felt like I found my people,” said one woman, whom I’ve now known for 12 years.

Another friend compared LiveJournal’s authenticity, favorably, to the authenticity of later, more public-facing, social media. “I found LJ an easier place to be honest about myself,” another longtime friend said. “The audience was small and either very very close friends or people who didn't know me in person (at first), so I found it easier to show the deeper, personal issues I was going through, even if it was still only one dimension of myself.” A third woman said: “I was always being myself, just more open and more personal than I would be normally. More candid I suppose.”

One woman pointed out that my Facebook — like everyone’s, a curated selection of highlights — was far more artificial than my LiveJournal had ever been. LiveJournal had given us a place to be both utterly unguarded and utterly created. No social media since has ever been able to replicate that tension.

Almost uniformly, my friends also said that there was very little difference between LiveJournal Tara and the Tara they came to know in real life. I had matured since my teens, as one would hope, and I was probably slightly more confident online than off but, by and large, I was the same person. If LiveJournal Tara was, in fact, a construction, it was one that had long since bled over into real life so completely it was impossible to tell the difference.

But I may never know if that person was formed by LiveJournal, or vice versa. But I do know this: we are all made up of stories. Our selves are not images but narratives: multilayered overlapping, contradictory, and complicated accounts that define and shape us, even as we shape the stories of others around us. We are defined by the books we read, as I was, and by the people we meet, and the “characters” we come to know and, yes, by what we write.

LiveJournal may have made that dynamic more explicit for me than for others. But ultimately, growing up extremely online was just another form of storytelling.

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novel Social Creature and the staff religion writer at Vox.com.
Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.