Megan Boyle’s LIVEBLOG

One of the fantastic things about working at a bookstore – and there were not so many, but there were enough of them, enough that I did it for a year – were the many free books that came my way. Advance reader copies came in every day; they spilled over the shelf next to my desk, and while taking breaks from answering ceaseless emails and writing newsletter copy, I’d wander over to see what the world was writing.

How could this massive, dizzying book not have caught my eye?

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It’s a great cover design, and fits its contents. The back flap begins, “In 2013, Megan Boyle was unhappy with the life she was living and wanted to document it on the Internet for an audience. Her hope was that if she documented each thought and action on the internet, then she would begin to behave in a manner more appropriate to the life she wanted to live.” It ends, “It is a book of daring length.”

No shit, I thought, flipping to the end. LIVE BLOG is 705 pages. Though some of those pages are blanks – “did not update,” over and over again, in August 2013 – lots of them are full of text, italicized and oddly capitalized, all-capsed. And all of them written by a woman my age, then published by Tyrant Books. How?

I brought it home and it sat on my shelf for a while, tripping me out. Then, in 2018, when I was at – to be honest – a pretty low point in my life, I started to read.

 

Megan Boyle, the protagonist, written by a writer who also happens to be named Megan Boyle, is, when the “novel” begins, living in her parents’ house, oscillating between activities meant to make her feel better – weird smoothies, yoga classes, and conversations with strangers – and activities meant to fill time. Throughout all 705 pages, she’s mainlining Xanax and Adderall and occasional cocaine; she’s living off the rapidly-diminishing settlement from a car accident and trying to figure out what the hell to do with her life.

There’s something interesting, artistically, about reading this as a chunk of pages ripped from the Internet rather than on the Internet itself. If I were Umberto Eco, I’d write an essay about it, but I’m just me, and so I can say: the act of publishing this as text rather than hypertext is saying something. At no point can the “novel”-reader offer feedback to Boyle, as many of her online friends did during the multi-month 2013 writing session. There aren’t comments in a book. We can only watch, strapped in, as she pulls all-nighters, sleeps with unavailable men, and wanders around Whole Foods, looking for one good thing.

The act of writing is, in theory, meant to help her figure it out, all of it. But only a third of the way through – on April 8, 2013, at 5:56pm, she writes, “I started this thinking there would be an end somehow. Like I’d figure something out and my life would improve. Maybe shitty people just stay shitty.”

As a reader frightened of my own lack of options, I envied her. It’s springtime for Boyle, though she seems to feel none of the warmth. She wanders around in an endless world, unbound by time and space, willing and able to take any drug and go to any party in search of a solution to the something that plagues her. It’s impossible, reading it, to not compare oneself to Boyle. I did, occasionally with recognition, and often with a recoil – no, I found myself thinking, I wouldn’t ever do that, I’d make at least an attempt to be home in bed rather than driving around at 5am, searching for a conversation to sustain me.

And sometimes, often, I read with envy. Though I’m admittedly a person with a considerable creative output, my problem is that I’m (mostly) private with it. There are shades of me that I’ve never seen fit to share with the Internet, or really with anyone – and here Boyle is, was, putting it all out there on a tumblr that anyone could find. How did she get away with it?

It helps, probably, that in her early twenties she was one of the rising alternative-lit darlings of New York. She was married to Tao Lin (who I’ve frankly never been able to read) and published a poetry collection called selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee; she wrote for Vice and Thought Catalog.

But in LIVE BLOG, she seems to have the creeping sense that her best days are behind her – and I, reading it, thought yes, yes.

I thought of my own days in Iowa, those dizzying nights in 2012 and 2013 and 2014 – I was hosting workshop and Marilynne Robinson was coming to my house and I was going to the Fox Head and sitting at Vonnegut’s books and I was meeting with agents who seemed interested in me. And now here I was, underemployed, unagented, sitting on a shit-ton of yellow notebooks with words in them and half-finished Word documents and a cold that crept in through our house’s ancient windows.

I don’t write about darkness, except in fiction. I’m not comfortable with sharing desperation. The therapist I’ve started seeing, a guy named Dr. Bryan, who has a bustling red beard and a leather armchair, agrees with me – I like to maintain a facade of sweetness and light. It’s not important why I do this, he says; the important thing is figuring how to reach out to people and be a little more honest.

 

 

At the end of the book, Boyle the character hasn’t quit drugs or found Jesus. She’s just given up; the last scene is her alone in her apartment, drinking a Miller High Life and sucking down used vape cartridges to see if they’re truly empty. She’s back from the store and is remembering the group she followed into her building:

made eye contact with MTA wheelchair man as he reversed into the elevator. we said ‘hi’ quietly, kind of sorrowfully, overlapping the word at intervals suggesting neither of us meant for the greeting to be heard…. remembered they both lived on the fourth floor. i didn’t get on the elevator.

And it’s over. The experiment, six months after it started, is finished. Having spent days with her, I felt entitled to know what happened.

LIVEBLOG was reviewed – quasi-favorably – in the New Yorker. Her friend Juliet Escoria interviewed her for The Fader. I think Boyle did a reading of the entire thing over a period of multiple days in New York, or at least I remember reading about that on Twitter last year, though I’m unable to figure out whether or not that’s the truth.

But had she, in the years since, sorted it out, the thing that made her hunt and hunt and feel alone even after taking everything on earth into her body? I couldn’t tell.

On Facebook, I discovered that we actually had friends in common – the alt-lit scene doesn’t have much overlap with Iowa, but there is some. I sent her a fan letter, saying: thank you for writing this, and it’s particularly great when I’m feeling down, and also sorry if a Facebook DM is creepy. She responded months later, having just checked the ghostly messages aspect of Facebook, saying that it wasn’t creepy, and thanking me for appreciating it.

I’ve been meaning to write about it here ever since. During the polar vortex of 2019, no longer employed, I spent some days staring at its hypnotic cover, thinking: yes, I really should, now is my time.

I didn’t, and thought the moment had passed – the book world moves very slowly and then, at once, very quickly, and if you don’t strike while the iron is hot, review-wise, no one will care.

Until, on Twitter a few days ago, I read:

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Hell yeah, I thought.

 

I no longer work at the bookstore. It made me sad in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate to myself at the time: I was close to so many people who were achieving what I wanted to achieve, I was sitting next to fat stacks of books that were published every day, and yet I myself was too exhausted by them to write. I’d sit at people’s readings and introduce them and clap for them when they were finished, and all the while I’d be quietly critical, thinking, I could do better. But I wasn’t.

Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, talks about the frustration of artists in artist-adjacent careers; often these careers, in nonprofits and management and cleanup, are underpaid, and often frustrated artists take their feelings out on the people around them. I certainly was. Miles said the other day while we were walking (at a safe distance from other passersby): “I have never seen you as depressed as you were that year. And now look at you.”

He laughed. “I remember during the polar vortex, you were lying in bed and you said, why can’t I just find a job that pays well and is relatively flexible and lets me work with people and gives me enough time in the mornings to write? And I said, sure, honey, you will, and I thought quietly, it’ll never happen.” He touched my hand. “But it has.”

I work now as a tutor for kids struggling with the English and Reading sections of the ACT and SAT. I’m frightfully pedantic but also, I think, funny; I get to sit across from a person and explain what it is they’re doing wrong, and then watch them as they don’t do it anymore, and it’s a pleasure. Certainly I’m bored, from time to time, but never so bored as I was when answering the same type of email for the thousandth time or sitting at a reading that I felt I myself could do better. And, in the mornings, I’ve finished two books.

The virus has thrown all of it for a bit of a loop – I’m not sure the economy will support parents’ paying for expensive test prep. However, not many of my clients have canceled, and I can do it digitally; I’ve spent the last week talking to kids from the comfort of my office, occasionally waving the cats at them as a reward. I’m in a place financially that I didn’t think I could be a year ago. I’m much luckier than most.

While kids work sections, I’ve been flicking to LIVEBLOG part 2, coronavirus edition, just to be one of the crew to catch it live, this time.

And I’ve found, thankfully, that Megan Boyle has figured it out, or at least more of it. She’s sober; she’s meeting with her sponsor and attending virtual 12-step programs; she’s sending zany text messages to her friends and working a boring but occasionally entertaining customer service job; she’s going for runs and up to her same old smoothie game. It’s a fun fucking page to hit “refresh” on, especially if you’re like me and sick of Reddit.

She’s wondering aloud, yes, if a lot of her writing was drug-fueled, and is thankful to find that it isn’t – that, as her sponsor said to her, the drugs didn’t write the book. She did.

But here I am, clicking away, if only just to say: sometimes it’s possible, these days, to feel like everyone’s streaming and no one’s listening. As artists, we can’t know for sure if anyone is paying attention to us, or if we’re saying anything worthwhile, or if all these words are good for something.

So it’s nice, sometimes, to find words that do work on your soul – it’s heartening to reach out across the electronic distance and discover that yes, you are very interested in the mundane details of someone else’s life, and that you’d read pages and pages of it if you were allowed to.

It lets a person imagine that somewhere out there, there’s a person that will do the same for you; that perhaps one day, those 700+ pages you wrote will find a vibrant cover and some fresh air.

 

 

(This is also just to say: if you want to see me read live, I’ll be doing so tonight from Miles’s woodshop at 6pm. It will be fiction and it will be comforting, but other than that I’m not sure what will happen. Please tune in, if you like! These are lonely times and I’d love to share them with you – as well as the multiple excellent artists who will precede and follow me tonight.)

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