The Not-So Glamorous Life of a Working Grad Student

This website first came about in 1996, when the World Wide Web (yes, we called it that) was as wide-open and empty as the American West. Fresh out of Vassar with a degree in English and a middling aptitude for computers, I stumbled on a job for a website that forced me to learn HTML. Back then, all you needed to create a website was a text editor, some server space, and FTP software. If you were feeling really fancy, you got Photoshop and threw up some images too. I’d grown discouraged trying to break into more traditional print publishing, so posting my own writing on my own website seemed a great way to circumvent the endless cycle of applications and rejections.

Like most 20-somethings, I had no idea what I was doing. There were a bunch of other 20-somethings out there stealing sharpies and Xeroxes to make ‘zines, but I felt like I belonged to a small, elite group of people with the mix of technical, editorial, and design skills required to make a website.

Being able to say things like “I was doing that before it was cool” might be fun for a little while, but in the long run it doesn’t mean very much. What we now call blogs we used to call online diaries. No matter what you called them, they were homegrown, barbaric yawps in the wilderness. Major Media still wasn’t sure that this blogging thing was going to take off (that’s a direct quote from a VP of Public Affairs circa 2008).

It’s been interesting watching the web’s technology catch up with the average human’s ambition for self-expression. Livejournal, Blogger, Blogspot, and later WordPress all made it possible for people with basic literacy to make a voice for themselves online. Livejournal predated most social media platforms by adding in a community component — you could “friend” someone else’s journal, read entries in aggregate, and comment on your friends’ entries. Comments actually mean putting together coherent sentences — this was before “like” buttons and emojis.

In the middle of all this, the Dot-Com bubble grew and burst, which meant that over the course of about six years I went from having stock options (they went underwater before I figured out what to do with them) to collecting unemployment and bootstrapping my own business.

Facebook arrived in the mid 2000s. All of a sudden, the wall between my online existence (as Okelle, the poet, writer, and one-time About.com Guide to Pagan/Wiccan Religion) and my meatspace existence (as Frances Donovan, the web designer and sometime poet) became a semi-permeable membrane. The level of discourse dropped significantly too. Posts shrank from multi-paragraph essays to paragraphs, sentences, and eventually 140-character txt speak. If you wanted to respond to someone else’s post, you just clicked a button. No articulation required.

Meanwhile, Major Media finally caught up with the Web. The Web became Web 2.0. And all of those zinesters discovered blogging platforms like WordPress and started circumventing literary establishments just like I had. The difference, of course, was that some of them were kissed by the “going viral” fairy. I never was.

In keeping with eroding online/offline privacy and the new definition of “previously published,” (most lit mags now consider posting one’s poetry to one’s own blog publication), I stripped most of this site’s personal and poetry content. You can still see vestiges of it in the categories and tag cloud widgets (for those of you still using desktop computers who can see the sidebar columns). But for the most part — just like it says on the About page — this website focuses on poetry. I’m interested not only in my own online presence (you can Google “Frances Donovan poet” if you want to read my stuff) but also in serving the larger poetry community. Before I started grad school, I would regularly post reviews and interviews of poets’ books. Now I post the contents of my packets from previous semesters — partly because I want folks to keep visiting my site, and that won’t happen if I don’t publish new content — but also because I think it’s helpful for those considering an MFA program to know what they’re getting into. And mostly because my blogging habit continues. My site traffic may be miniscule compared to some other websites, but I still get a thrill when I know someone has read something I’ve written — especially if they take the time to comment.

I’ve gotten away from posting personal blog posts. My creative process has become more private and my time has become more limited as I pursue my MFA while working a day job. There’s also way too much information floating around out there about me without my posting more. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to make the “my glamorous life” category more visible on this site because I think there is still value in expressing oneself authentically online in longer form. Even if you don’t comment, I’ll trust that someone out there is reading. Blogging is no longer sounding a barbaric yawp into the wilderness — it’s more like reading at an open mic in a busy coffeehouse, with people only paying half attention. So be it. Put my name on the list.