Blogging Freehand

September 3, 2014 @ 8:03 pm | Filed under: , ,


I’ve been online since April, 1995. Quit my job at HarperCollins, bought a modem, unwrapped one of those AOL starter disks that were ubiquitous in the middle of that decade, created an account—screen name LissaNY—and I was off and running. After my free trial ran out, I think we had something like five hours of dialup a week? Ten, twelve at most? Does that sound right? Whatever the cheapest package was.

Not long after that, Scott’s company (DC Comics, subsidiary of Time Warner, which bought AOL) gave all employees a free AOL account with unlimited minutes. His screen name was StratNY, in honor of his Stratocaster. I spent a lot of time on that account, reading the pregnancy and new baby boards, waiting for Jane to arrive. She was two weeks late. By the time she was born, I had a network of invisible friends—many of whom are still friends to this very day. One by one, we delivered our babies and moved to the Baby’s Here, Now What? board. After a while, we jumped to a listserv—this big group of us who’d had babies within a four- or five-month window. Nineteen years later, more than a dozen of those women are still chatting via email every single day. On Facebook, too, but mostly on the list. We’ve met in person, in various configurations, numerous times. Our babies are in college now.


There was a big schism on the listserv around the time Jane was 18 months old. A lot of women left, and I’ve lost track of most of them. I still remember things they wrote, though, back in those days. I remember the names of their kids. When Jane was diagnosed with leukemia at 21 months, a big group of the women who’d left our original list joined forces to send us a giant box of treats from Zabar’s. Several friends from the original list visited me in the hospital, traveling from New Jersey, Boston, and even Chicago. Another woman we knew on AOL, though I don’t think she was part of the listserv, died of complications after childbirth, so horrifying, and we all made squares for a quilt for the baby. I guess that would have been before the schism, because I remember one of the departees, a New Yorker, being interviewed on the TV news about the group effort for the quilt. They shot footage of her sitting at her computer, typing a post to our group. It was such a novelty then, newsworthy, all these strangers behaving like friends. I’m not sure the reporter was convinced we actually were friends.

We are, though.


Somewhere in my first few months of being online, I began poking around the education boards. People were already asking us where we planned to send the baby to school. School? I was still trying to master the art of burping her. I flailed around a bit, reading about private vs private and whatnot, and then suddenly I discovered the homeschooling boards and our lives were never to be the same. Home Education Magazine was active on the AOL hs’ing boards back then—moderated them or something like that—and I remember Helen Hegener being a presence. And Sandra Dodd, whose kids were pretty young at the time, but she was already speaking with conviction and wisdom. Pam Sarooshian was another voice who stuck out. I seldom chimed in, I was mostly reading while nursing my infant, but boy howdy was I taking notes, mental and otherwise. I subscribed to Growing Without Schooling magazine and ordered a bunch of back issues to boot. To my mind, GWS prefigures homeschooling blogs—all those parents writing in to share details about their families’ learning adventures. I always cite John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Charlotte Mason, and Sandra Dodd as the big influences on my ideas about home education, but probably the greatest influence was GWS: reading dozens of letters by parents in the trenches about the myriad ways their kids were learning outside school. That magazine was a revelation. OH I SEE, was my overwhelming response to the first issue I read. I GET IT. THIS IS FOR US.

I made a friend on the AOL hs’ing boards, Pam, whose son had the same birthday as Jane. We were in close daily touch for years, and when Jane got sick Pam sent the most amazing gifts for the hospital. A little box of things from nature—driftwood, beeswax, beans, seeds—pieces of nature Jane could touch and smell from her bed. We still have it, all those beans and twigs intact. There was a vanilla bean, too, inside a corked tube; I remember how its lovely scent would rise above the smell of betadine and latex. Pam also made a little comb-bound, laminated book full of pictures of road signs. Her son loved street signs and she thought Jane might enjoy them too. She did, she read that book—I almost said “to pieces” except it was so well constructed it, too, is still intact.


A year or so later, I found yahoogroups and joined a whole bunch of homeschooling lists. Friends I made there, too, are still with me. Like, really with me, besties. One of them became Huck’s godmother. Eventually email lists became discussion boards (and fraught with endless drama), and bit by bit some of those faded to silence as many of us migrated to blogs and, later, Facebook. Other boards are still active, and I’m the one who faded away. I moved here, to my little homestead on the internet. January will be ten years. I built my first website the summer before I started the blog, so that’s ten years ago exactly.

Blogs brought new friends. Most of you who comment regularly here are friends given to me by Bonny Glen. Sometimes I go back and reread a friend’s blog from the beginning, if the archives are public. What heady days those were! Sharing with abandon, forming blog-rings so we could hop from one to the next in a long, delightful chain. I miss blog-rings! The little “previous | next | random” links at the bottom of the page. I was crazy about that “random” feature—it was like a teleporter. Click! Here I am in someone’s kitchen! Look, she’s making a pie!


I was thinking about the early days today because I had it in my head to write a post called “Things I’ve Learned About My Online Life.” Number 1 was: BLOG FIRST. (I never got to number 2.) This struck me because I’m realizing I turned my old writing pattern upside down, and it’s got me feeling unsettled and less productive. In the early days—years—I used the blog as my transition from Mom time to Writer time. Writing about the kids (i.e., about momming) for 20 minutes helped me shift from one mode to the other. By the end of a post, I was fully in writing mode and could turn my attention to the next chapter of Martha or Charlotte. It was a pattern that worked beautifully for me, through many novels.

Now my online time is splintered between many activities—editing, researching, banking, socializing, writing, blogging, taking classes, watching compilations of 80s commercials (you know, important stuff)—and I’ve begun to feel wistful about the simpler days of yore. Olden times, when I was astonishingly productive, writing posts for not one but as many as FOUR blogs (Bonny Glen, Lilting House, daily notes, private family blog), two fat historical novels and several early readers a year, dozens of freelance articles, and thousands of words a week in discussions of homeschooling methods and philosophy. Good gravy, that was a lot of writing.


WordPress tells me I’ve published 3,081 posts here at Bonny Glen. That tally includes Lilting House, too, which I folded into this site when ClubMom shut down. I can’t begin to guess how many words that is, especially if you add in the lengthy replies I used to make in the comments. Hundreds of thousands. (ETA: Scott, doing some quick math, reckons I’ve posted upwards of two MILLION words here. Yow.) Enough for a book, several books probably. I have it in mind to collect some essays from the site for a book on tidal homeschooling at some point, a mix of new content and old posts. The trouble is, whenever I start to work on it, I find myself wanting to turn each new essay into a post instead—blogging spoils you with the instant readership, the immediate connections. Writing about tidal homeschooling without all of you chiming in in the comments feels so lonely!

And yet I’d like to persevere and make it happen. Sometimes I think the book I’d like to write isn’t about homeschooling—it’s about the online life, about these text-first connections that become real relationships. Or, well, what I’d really like is to write both books. I got my first baby and my first modem in the same month. (Practically.) I don’t know, have not experienced, motherhood separate from the internet. There’s a story there. New parents now give thought to the Google-factor when naming their babies; some parents buy domain names and lock down gmail addresses even before the child is born. That’s practical, I get it. But I realize I and some of my friends—some of —occupy this narrow, unique sliver of parenthood: the space belonging to the parents who got online first. We didn’t know (or hardly experienced) parenting without the internet. But we grew up without it, and we remember what a world-shift coming online was for us. We may have as many friends online as off. We’ve watched each other’s children grow up through the word-pictures we sketched on discussion boards and elists, the photos we pepper our social media feeds with, and—integrating words and pictures—on our blogs.


Blog first, I’m telling myself. Not with agenda, not toward any purpose other than chronicling the adventure and integrating the two dominant sides of myself. The mother, the writer. “Blogger” is such an unlovely word but it strikes me that it more than any other identifier unites those two parts of me. My blog pulls all my pieces together. It’s the home ground I return to after venturing out into new worlds. I suppose I should have thought up this post five months from now, on its tenth anniversary. But if I’ve learned anything from blogging, it’s: Write it down today, while the thought is fresh. Scheduling a topic for later turns the post into an assignment, which dramatically lowers the odds of its eventual completion. (I really am working on getting that habits post up, though!)

There! It took me all those words to figure out what I needed to know. Blog first—that’s the thought I began with. Blog fresh—that’s what my brain was trying to puzzle out. Blog lightly, in a manner of speaking—not in the sense of avoiding deep or serious topics, but without that sense of pressure and polish that rules the rest of my writing life. So now I guess I’ve gone and written a New Year’s Resolution five months early, too. Blog freehand. How funny this is—I didn’t even know I needed to give myself a talking-to!


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39 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Jennifer Gregory Miller says:

    This was so lovely!!! Your blog has been such an inspiration. I’m so happy to read your pep-talk–more years with Melissa Wiley, yeah!

  2. sarah says:

    Such a wonderful post! You are so lucky to live in the same country as your online friends. I get sad sometimes thinking of the thousands of miles between me and the truly kindred spirits I’ve met online.

    I haven’t been online as long or as comprehensively as you though. I believe the internet improved my parenting, even if only because I had so much more information to consider. And I wouldn’t want to homeschool without it.

    Funny, I was looking back at some of my old blogging stuff the other day and thinking I should write a book about homeschooling too. But every time I have that thought I end up saying, well, why not just blog about it? (And then of course I never get round to doing that.) But I do know I would really love to have a book on homeschooling written by you – not only for my own sake, but so I could pass it around homeschooling friends here. The tidal homeschooling concept is genius. And you have no idea how many times over the years I’ve chosen books for us to read because you mentioned them!

  3. Melanie Bettinelli says:

    Oh I love this. Thank you.

  4. Pam Tellew says:

    LissaNY! So many memories! And I was only there for the early days. I’d forgotten the nature box and vanilla beans but still think of you every time we have maple syrup, because of the care package you sent me when my mom got sick.

    Your daughter goes to school in my home town. My brother lives not far from you. One of these days we will finally meet, not “in real life,” because this life is very real, but in person.

  5. Joann says:

    This made me cry. So glad that there’s an internet and that I know you from it.

  6. Mary Beth says:

    I have been reading your blog for years now, I can’t remember when exactly I started, but have never commented. Your blog is the reason I decided to homeschool my daughter and the way I convinced my husband that homeschooling was a viable option for us (he was skeptical at best at first). I am sure there are others like me that would really benefit from you writing a book about homeschooling. Thank you so much for your continued blogging. 🙂

  7. Penny says:

    Beautiful. Your words just *shine* in so many ways. They have so much heart in them.

    I had not realized how similar our influences have been. I love GWS too. And CM.

    If I can pin this post it will be my first ever pin. How appropriate is that? 🙂

    Thank you Lissa, for 10 glorious years. I’m so glad you do what you do!

  8. Penny says:

    Alas, I can’t figure out how to pin it. Let me know if it’s possible – and I surely will, or maybe people don’t pin spectacular blog posts?

    I wish I had your courage regarding the internet – then I would already know!

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Penny love, thank you for your sweet words. You should be able to pin any post as long as there’s an image on the site, since Pinterest looks for images first. Two ways that work:

      1) copy the URL, go to your Pinterest acct, click the little + icon to the left of your name (top right corner), select “Add a pin from a website,” and paste in the link.

      2) Install the “Pin it” button in your browser toolbar (for me that’s the easiest way) — then you can pin any post directly from the post itself.

      The 3rd and easiest way is when bloggers include a “Pin this” button at the bottom of their posts! I used to have those, and FB and Twitter too…I guess I axed them at some point? Now that I think about it, I think it was because the buttons showed up rather obnoxiously on my individual book pages (my own books, I mean) and monkeyed with the formatting. I should play with that again, though, and see if I can fix it.

      Thank you for wanting to pin me!! I think of you every time I see an acorn. A picture of an acorn, I mean. The only real acorns we see around here are the ones you sent us. 🙂

  9. Louise says:

    I still remember my first time signing up for an email account – visiting my sister at the college library during one of her breaks between classes, tentatively figuring out a screen name, wondering if I’d ever really need such a thing, trying to imagine a world where email was common.

    Now I start out my day checking my two separate email accounts, and can’t imagine a world where one doesn’t use email, twitter, blogs, and/of other forms of social media. Some of my dearest friends in the world have come into my life through the internet. I never would have made it through some hard places without their support, and the knowledge that it didn’t matter if we lived 5 miles or 500 or 5,000 apart, we were there for each other.

    I love your blog, your family posts and your homeschool posts and your writing posts – and I would love to read both of those books you’re thinking about writing!

  10. Julie says:

    Ah Melissa! This was incredible to read. I remember meeting YOU online and being instantly smitten with everything about you—your writing, your family, your enthusiasm for home education, your adventures cross country to my old stomping grounds, your faith, you husband (!), your warmth and openness.

    My story is like yours except I remember children BEFORE the Internet. I remember getting homeschool newsletters that were like the precursors to online bulletin boards and I would carry them around for months, re-reading mom comments until the pages were dog-eared. My first experience of the Internet came in college (my boyfriend was a computer science major). I went into the little computer lab at UCLA with him in 1981 and watched him CONNECT to a computer on the east coast. It was an amazing thing to witness!

    Within a few years, I was working on computers and learning how to use them before even most of the people I knew. By the early 90s, we were online and I was doing what you were doing—joining the endless cocktail party that online communities were. In fact, the group of women who became my best friends online in the 90s and early 2000s are all coming to my house for a grand reunion in October. We met for the first time at my home in 2001. Here we are again, all these iterations of online life later, meeting again—changed, yet the same; still friends despite many thousands of words bled on the screen (some in kindness, some not). Yet we’ve survived and still care about each other.

    I miss the random button for blogs too!

    I miss blogging! I blog for Brave Writer, but Facebook is where I connect the speediest any more. Writing “that book” is harder than ever in the digital age. Conversation is the key to writing for so many of us. I read the drafts of my “books” and they feel so one-sided and flat footed compared with the dialogue that enriches my content—just like yours.

    Keep writing here. Keep writing! You are a bright bright light in my Internet world even when I don’t comment to remind you.

    Much love to you Lissa, Melissa!

    Julie Bogart

  11. Alexis O'Neill says:

    Love this post, Melissa —

  12. Sheila Ruth says:

    Great post, and an inspiring story. Blog freehand – I’ll have to keep that in mind. I’m a perfectionist about blog posts and spend way too much time writing them, so it’s often the first thing that goes when I get busy.

    I had some similar experiences to yours, although I was on CompuServe, not AOL. Then I had a parenting website and newsletter in the 90s, in the days before blogging, and participated in the ClubMom affiliate program, as well as a few others. We had a Yahoo group listserv of people who met in the ClubMom affiliate program, and we kept in touch for many years, although for the most part we’ve drifted apart now and haven’t kept the same close connections that you have. I still keep in touch with a few people from those days. We were all sad when the ClubMom program shut down. That was a great group of people.

    I also discovered homeschooling, largely because of my online activities, and homeschooled my son for 10 years until he went to college. I’ve always enjoyed reading about your homeschool adventures; you guys sound like you have such fun!

  13. Ellie says:

    Oh the flood of memories …. My Eli is six years older than your Jane, and I did not come to the internet until, let me think now, until my Joshua, now aged 12, was one year old. 2003. Late to the party 🙂

    But way back when Eli was wee, I’d visit the Growing Without Schooling office (when visiting family in that city) and browse back issues, chat with whatever staff happened to be there, building up a hefty home library …. Home Education Magazine was sold at my favorite, local, news/magazine store. Oh that place! I began haunting it when I was in my teens, and then with Eli in the sling. So I discovered both HEM and Mothering magazine before he was born.

    By the time I entered the internet, so much was already established …. A different world than the one you entered 🙂

  14. Tabatha says:

    Glad you wrote this now while the spirit moved you! I loved hearing about Pam’s gift packages — so thoughtful and creative.

  15. COD says:

    Can I be that guy that corrects you in the comments? 😉 AOL actually bought Time, not the other way around. Also, it happened in 2000, which I think is several years later than you remember it. Yeah I know, it all runs together after a while 🙂

    I keep saying I’m going to blog more often but then I don’t. I don’t have the mental energy to take on the big issues in the world, and the kids are in college so there is no material there. So the blog just meanders on with one or two posts a month, and probably only one or two readers!

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      I always appreciate friendly corrections–it’s the editor in me. 🙂 (I originally pubished this post with a MOST EMBARRASSING APOSTROPHE TYPO in it–Jane caught it but hours later, or maybe not until this morning? I may die of shame.) And you’re right, anything that happened in that decade is a blur. 🙂

      I’m one of your regular readers, so I’m glad you do still blog occasionally! I remember first encountering you in the (always so smart and wry) comments on Daryl Cobranchi’s blog. I miss that particular bunch of hs’ing bloggers–Cobranchi and Doc and Nance and you and that crowd. Darn kids grow up and people quit blogging. 😉

  16. tanita says:

    Oh, Melissa, this is why I wanted you to come to KidlitCon – you say such profound things about blogging and you talk about what it gives to you – and to bloggers of whatever kind of blogs – and you make it valuable again. I think a lot of people have lost their focus on that. Thank you so much.

    • Sherry says:

      “My blog pulls all my pieces together.” Oh, me too, me too. Only in my case it’s the reader/writer/thinker/teacher/parent/Christian pieces. I put them all together and come out with blog posts that make me happy anyway, whether they enlighten anyone else or not. I started my blog in October 2003, and I can’t remember how I processed life, and especially my reading life, without it.

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Oh Tanita!! It kills me that I’m missing Kidlitcon. I can’t believe of all the weekends in the year, I had to have a conflict with that one. I was really, really, really looking forward to meeting you in person at long last. But it’ll happen, I know it. One of these days.

  17. Fanny Harville says:

    This post exemplifies what I so appreciate about your blogging– beautifully written without being studied, thought-provoking without making pronouncements!

  18. Vicki says:

    I just wanted to jump in with my thank you, too. Like you, I went online when I was first pregnant, looking for other moms- 2 years after you did, though 🙂 In 2008, researching advice on homeschooling for special needs led me to you. I’ve been happily following ever since, learning so much along the way. Thank you for all that you share with us!

  19. Melissa Wiley says:

    Okay so I tried out the individual-reply feature on a couple of these comments—I never think to use it—but as a general rule I prefer one big long comment string instead of threaded replies, because it feels more chummy and inclusive. So I just want to say here how much I appreciate EVERY SINGLE ONE of these replies. Seriously, your kind words are so encouraging and make me treasure this endeavor more than ever. I’m really glad y’all are here, still reading after all these years. Thank you!

  20. Cay Gibson says:

    This is awesome, Lissa. 🙂

  21. Karen Edmisten says:

    “I don’t know, have not experienced, motherhood separate from the internet. There’s a story there.”

    Oh, wow, yes.

    Love this, and love you, Lissa, and snuggle my Huck for me. 🙂

  22. Sarah says:

    Oh, yes! I found this to be true, too. I don’t know what I would have done without all of those voices of other mothers floating to me through my internet connection. The help, encouragement and advice I got through reading other moms’ blogs was invaluable.

    I have loved your blog, too. It’s such an encouragement to me and such a valuable resource.