Dodie Bellamy’s book the buddhist originated as a series of posts on Dodie’s blog, belladodie, in which she described her life in the aftermath of a protracted breakup with a Buddhist teacher. Dodie has used many writing forms over the course of her career, from poetry to academic writing, often focusing on the sometimes-blurry line between what’s considered “memoir” and what’s considered “fiction,” but she did not become a blogger until relatively recently. Now she’s making up for lost time. Emily Gould spoke to her via telephone on 2/20/2012.
EG: When did you start blogging and why?
DB: It was August, 2008. I was feeling isolated, and even though I’m surrounded by writers, I felt like opening up a dialogue with the world. Kevin, my husband, said “Okay, if you want to blog, you have to put up four posts before you tell anybody.” His other advice was, “Write about readings like a reporter, and list everybody that came to the reading, cause then people will Google themselves and they’ll read your blog!”
EG: That’s good advice! Before blogs existed, though, and before you became a blogger, what did you do that was like blogging?
DB: My book The Letters of Mina Harker is comparable, in a way. It was a project where I re-created this character of Mina (the heroine of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) as my own alternate personality, and Mina was sending letters to writer friends of mine. These friends were writing back to her – short, casual letters – but then as the project progressed I realized I was really interested in Mina as a character, and her letters got more and more involved. Every letter in that book was actually sent to somebody, and my process involved much personal confrontation. I compare it to blogging because it was the same kind of mashing around with the boundaries between personal and public, bringing a larger community into the work.
EG: In your book you talk about the video artist Kathe Izzo, who performs unconditional love for whoever’s watching her videos, and in a way that’s what your blogging also does, in terms of performing a kind of intimacy and making the reader feel privy to your private thoughts…
DB: I think of intimacy as a tone created by various levels of mediation. In ‘the buddhist,’ the book and the blog project that preceded it, I was playing with a tone of the unmediated, a tone of vulnerability, a tone of exposure. Other works will create a tone where there’s more distance between you and the reader. I really wanted to work with that point where I felt really embarrassed writing the material and where people would feel embarrassed reading it! In The Letters of Mina Harker, there’s much more edgy content , but it’s mediated through this constructed character. Of course everybody knows she’s just me with another name and a little bit of exaggeration, but there’s something about her being this other character that creates a safety net. And in the buddhist I wanted to work without that safety net.
But at the same time the reason I started writing this blog about him in the first place was that I was used to getting emails from him nonstop every day, and when they ended, or pretty much ended, I felt this loss! You know, I was addicted to getting these constant little hits of affirmation. So in a way the blog was a way to replace them. And it was effective! It created this communal way of getting those little hits of affirmation rather than just from one person. So it was an acting out, or as my friend Marcus would say, a “self-soothing.”
EG: How do you compartmentalize – teach, get work done on other projects, et cetera — when you’re working on a project like this that incorporates so much of your daily life, and is so emotional and intimate?
DB: When I was younger I was really, really bad at compartmentalizing. But that’s the thing about teaching – you have to show up and act together. Nobody wants to see your vulnerability up there on the stage of the classroom, and I think maybe it has had an impact on my ability to squelch things and then perform. I don’t think of myself as compartmentalized, but I get what you’re saying.
EG: I’m sorry if this is prying, but did anything negative come into your life because of your decision to make the fallout of this relationship so public – with the buddhist, or in your relationships with anyone else?
DB: I would say that, obviously, it destroyed any chance of reconciliation with the buddist. But I think that’s a good thing.
There’s one person who’s in the book a lot for whom, I realized afterwards it had created some tension. I think she had a lot of ambivalence, like she wanted to be in there in the middle of it but in retrospect there was tension around it.
EG: When I went back and looked at the blog, I was amazed at how much it changed in the process of becoming a book – you managed to keep the immediacy and the conversational aspect of the original posts, yet you removed everything extraneous. And it still feels like something that’s reaching out, a conversation.
DB: Blogging is in some ways like a relationship, but you’re not quite sure who you’re having the relationship with. When I was writing the blog I felt I had a sense of who was reading it. But sometimes now I’ll be at a party and someone who I would never dream of reading that blog, they tell me that they are. A lot of them are visual artists.
EG: Well the images you incorporate are such a big part of it…
DB: I had originally wanted to get a degree in photography, many many years ago. So I think that the images on the blog are acting out my fantasy of being a photographer. And because I’m not claiming that any of this is art, or any good, it makes it really fun.
EG: That low-stakes quality creates a space where so much can happen that maybe is not allowed to happen when you sit down and are like “Okay, now let’s make a deathless masterpiece!”
Do you have rules for yourself about what you can and cannot do?
DB: Oh yeah. One of the rules was that I was gonna write anything I wanted about the buddhist but I was going to keep his identity a secret. And I try not to be cruel. But, you know, maybe with him I was like “fuck it, I’m gonna do what I want here, because I’m using this as a therapy to work through something.” Again, it’s about tone. I do not write everything I think, and I don’t write everything that happens to me. I think there’s a way you can make things seem more revealing than they are. I learned how to create this tone where it maybe seemed like I was revealing a lot but in fact I was keeping lots and lot of secrets.
When I was younger I would write about personal experience in a way that was much more confrontational with the people I was writing about. I was raised in this writing world which they call “New Narrative,” where everyone was writing about each other. And people would WANT to be in each other’s books, and people would be really excited to be written about. So what do you do when you get outside that bubble and you get to the more normal situation where people are horrified to be written about?
One experience I’ve had, and that Kathy Acker would have as well, is that there would be these people who like the writing, usually guys, and they would think that by writing about me or Kathy in this way that is horrifyingly honest and then sending it to us would somehow make us happy. A friend of mine told me about Kathy receiving a letter from this one guy and just crying because it was so brutal.
EG: This is why I’m amazed when people who are serious committed Internet writers don’t know about New Narrative. It just seems so bloggy to me.
DB: One of the risks of doing the buddhist book and the blogging, given that I come out of this experimental intellectual writing realm, is that it was so straightforward. Being straightforward is sort of an embarrassment. Like, “you can’t do any more than that?” I had this critic inside me. The book I’m working on right now is more formally complex. I think on some level it was hard for me to believe that a book as straightforward as the buddhist could be of value.
EG: But in other ways it’s really not straightforward. I didn’t think you would understand how to exploit the potential of the blog medium, actually, and then I was blown away. So you’ve continued to write the blog, of course … do you see yourself writing more in this vein, using your experiences this concretely and directly?
DB: Well, I always do that. But no, I think I have some other projects going on and they’re pretty much going to take up the next couple of years of my life.
EG: You write about one of them in the book – The TV Sutras, your book about spiritual gurus.
DB: That will be out in 2013, so I plan to finish it by this summer. It’s a memoir but I’ve incorporated all this research and created characters, and hopefully what I will have is this first person that sometimes seems to be me and sometimes seems to not be me, and then you can’t tell if it’s me or not me. Which might be hopeful thinking on my part. I also have this novel that I haven’t finished, in which I was so careful to create characters with all sorts of fictional histories and traits. It became fun, making things up. Parts of the book were published in journals, and, despite all my efforts at fictionalizing, people read it as autobiography. It’s almost impossible when you’ve worked at a certain level of intimacy, people just assume it’s autobiography. It’s interesting, and it’s also really impressive when you find out something you assumed was autobiographical isn’t. That’s a genius writer, there.
EG: Did you ever read Freedom, by the way? You write about a strong reaction you had to an excerpt that was quoted in a review …
DB: No! I’d rather shoot myself! Well, I’d probably be able to read a few chapters … that’s the way I am with most of those mainstream guys, and then I just can’t go on … and they’ll always be better than I expected, but I still can’t go on.
EG: I don’t know if you can lump him in with those mainstream guys. I think he’s playing the same game that everyone else is playing but just at a totally different level. And his stuff about women is distracting and irritating, but if you can’t read books by guys whose attitudes towards women are troubling then like you can’t read so many books!
DB: I stopped reading fiction for a while but I’m having a fiction revival now. I mostly read nonfiction, especially when I was doing research for the TV Sutras book I was reading all this weird cult stuff, like one book after another. Right now I’m reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte. She’s amazing.
EG: One other question that occurred to me, and you don’t have to answer it, but now it seems like kind of a glaring omission, is — how much of the blog or the book are you aware of the buddhist’s having read? As you were writing the blog, did it seem to you like a backchannel way of communicating with him? Or were you striving not to be aware that he might be reading your posts? Or are you 100% sure he was completely unaware of the blog? If he was reading it, did he ever ask you to take anything down?
DB: When I was writing the blog I had this fantasy that the buddhist was reading it and being touched by my deep love and my pain. I would check the sitemeter, and if anybody from his area was reading it, I was sure it was him. But then, towards the end of the project, after quite some time of not being in contact, I had an email exchange with him in which I brought up the blog and the book, and he told me that he’d never looked at the blog. He told me that our worlds were so separate, he was fine with the blog and the book, which was and still is confusing, for when I knew him he was frightened of the possibility that I might some day write about him. A mutual acquaintance eventually talked with him about the book and the blog, and he was asking her questions about it that would suggest he was, indeed, totally ignorant of the contents. I’m fine with him not reading it. In fact, I hope he doesn’t. The project at a certain point stopped being about any sort of desire to communicate with him. Looking back at the process, I realize that making it into a book subverted my fantasy of covert communication. Books assume an audience, but they’re more about talking to themselves; they don’t have that active engagement that blogs have.