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Don’t look back: when online writing disappears

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On Friday, news broke on Twitter that the archives for the website The Frisky had been wiped from the internet (for the moment, you can read some tributes on the site’s official Twitter feed). I was a columnist there briefly, as well as a freelance writer, largely chronicling my sex and dating misadventures in my thirties, along with occasionally writing about books by Kardashians and others.

The essays that stand out most in my mind about going on less than stellar date with a Top Chef contestant (spoiler alert: he brought his assistant and I brought him back to my hotel room anyway), another where my date asked me to wear more makeup, and my feelings about having sex with a grandfather. I was thrilled to be able to write for the site, which was one I’d hoped to write for when it launched, poring over their writings and trying to figure out how I could break in (with a small side of professional jealousy for my peers who already had).

As a reader, I enjoyed checking the site daily and seeing fun and interesting insights into sex, dating and pop culture, whether or not I agreed with them 100%. Plus, as someone who worked as a magazine editor at a dying institution, I envied what seemed like a very fun workplace full of camaraderie. I liked my coworkers, but I didn’t feel like the content we were creating was speaking to people like me — if it was, I wouldn’t know, because even when I interviewed someone with cultural cache among my peers like comedian Hannibal Buress, I rarely had readers give me direct feedback. With The Frisky, there was feedback, and the certainty that readers were reacting, which, as a writer who’s willing to admit to my own narcissism, I crave(d).

On a cultural level, it’s a huge loss when archives like these disappear, leaving broken links strewn throughout the internet, writers missing crucial clips we could have used when pitching future editors and employers, and large chunk of commentary simply obliterated, almost as if it never existed save for what’s available via Internet Archive (aka Wayback Machine). It shows a massive disregard not only for those individuals, but for the entire history of a website, its staffers and the culture that grew around it.

On a personal level, though, I have mixed feelings about losing those writings, though it’s certainly not the first time it’s happened. My old Lusty Lady columns from The Village Voice ceased to exist online several years ago, so if you want to read my musings on “boobisexuals,” you’ll have to wait until I someday release them in an ebook.

I discovered a phantom article (the term I’m using for a piece of writing that once existed and now, essentially, doesn’t) of mine about book hoarding when I wrote about not attending BEA this year. It had been published at The Toast, which I knew had shuttered but hadn’t realized that the links had disappeared. Hoarding has become a bit of a beat of mine, so I welcomed the chance to write about my favorite subject — books — and my own struggle with keeping and discarding them. When I couldn’t find it last week, I instead linked to a Los Angeles Times blog post mentioning it, the next best thing I could find to prove, if only to myself, that I had covered the topic. Ultimately, I doubt in my case there’s anyone aside from me eagerly tracking down my old writings, especially given the volume of new content awaiting our eyeballs every day (more accurately, every hour).

In some ways, it makes sense to me that writing that once existed online could go as easily as it came. It’s not like I sit around reading my old work; when I do, usually because I want to quote from it, most of the time I either cringe in horrified recognition at some of my foolish younger ways, or go into editor mode, analyzing where I could have worded things better or cut an extraneous sentence or five.

I can honestly say I don’t regret anything I’ve written about my personal life, but a part of me is a little relieved that some of my most painful relationship memories and sex follies are that much farther removed, both in time and in accessibility. They’re the kinds of stories that make good copy if you can turn your darkest moments into something either relatable or laughable, but don’t always feel good to relive a day or a decade later. On the other hand, once in a while I read something from my younger days and admire it anew, wishing I could recapture whatever creative impulse inspired it. I reread an old fictional erotica short story recently, one I had barely any recollection of writing, and felt like I was almost spying into someone else’s fantasy life.

Reckoning with those old essays and columns that have either disappeared, or might at a moment’s notice, forces me to question whether I’m more mature now that I’m in my forties, or simply more basic. I’m in a six-year monogamous relationship where we make dinner and watch Jeopardy! together almost every night. My life just isn’t exciting enough to provoke the kind of media guesswork over which Top Chef contestant I got naked with that my The Frisky essay did.

There’s a tricky tension to writing about your sex life that has never gone away for me. For an excellent exploration of the topic, read former The Frisky writer Jessica Wakeman’s essay “I Shared My Sex Life with the Entire Internet.” Key line I highlighted: “I did not want to be someone who kept secrets.” Neither did — or do — I.

I’ve always been someone whose first instinct when faced with the best, worst or most baffling parts of life has been to write themdown. In college, I used my real name and photo in an essay about the pain of my dad’s alcoholism in Parade magazine. I faced some opposition from members of my family, but found that it actually helped strengthen my relationship with my dad, and made me feel gratified to know that I wasn’t alone, based on feedback I received.

While I’d be hypocritical to say I mind having essays I wrote over a decade ago still active and viewable with just a click or a search, the older I get, the more distant I feel from the woman in those essays. She’s me, but she feels more like a woman playing me on the internet than the woman I know as myself when I look in the mirror in 2018. That’s not to say I’m totally evolved as a human being or never make mistakes or have a perfect life. It’s also not to imply that I’ve met “the one” and my life is now complete. I met one person who I love with all my heart, even when we argue and I cry (which happens pretty much every time we argue). I’m less impulsive, less single and not quite the hot mess I was in those days, but I also fully believe that I wouldn’t have the “boring” life I have now if I hadn’t learned through the trial and error that is dating.

On a more practical level, I write not just to fulfill some creative inner need but also for cold hard cash. Filling my mind following old links does little to enhance my bank balance, so I usually only look up old published clips because I want to link to them or make sure I’m not repeating myself. I don’t think that’s a totally bad system, either. Speaking only for myself, I’m at my healthiest mentally when I’m focused on the present and future, rather than the past. So I prefer to let those writings die a natural death, rather than trying to immortalize them…though I admit that if the archives of The Frisky were to reappear, I probably couldn’t resist a little peek.

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Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) has edited over 60 anthologies, including Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 1, 2 and 3, Come Again: Sex Toy Erotica, Begging for It, Fast Girls, The Big Book of Orgasms and more. She writes widely about sex, dating, books and pop culture and teaches erotica writing classes around the country and online. Follow her Twitter account @raquelita and find out more about her classes and consulting at eroticawriting101.com. You can also follow Rachel on BookBubto get notified about new releases and ebook sales.