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A Virtual Bloomsbury

The Numbers Behind
the Speakeasy Message Forum
Number of years since the Speakeasy launch: 15
Average number of new posts per day: 25
Number of topical forums available for discussion: 31
Number of comment threads begun since the Speakeasy launch: 5,485
Total number of posts since the Speakeasy launch: 300,500+

Rebecca Makkai is the author of The Borrower, published by Viking this past June, and an active member of the Speakeasy Message Forum, an online community of writers hosted by Poets & Writers at We asked the Chicago-based author and mother of two to describe how the Speakeasy has supported her writing practice.

Rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diaryrecently, I was struck anew with something a historian once told me: He worried archivists of the future would be the poorer for our reliance on e-mail. Where would the diaries and epistles of the artists, the writers, the more observant tax attorneys end up? Of course this was before blogs were morphing into novels, before the British Library paid £32,000 for Wendy Cope’s collected e-mails. While I’m sure something has indeed been lost, my online life has created a record of my writing career that would not otherwise exist.

I don’t just mean the tedious e-mails, obligatory Facebook updates, and chipper tweets (“New interview up!” “Hear me read in Milwaukee!”). My accumulated posts on the Poets & Writers Speakeasy present a narrative not far from what I seek in Woolf: a chronicle of despair, of self-doubt, of nearly abandoning a novel, of nearly abandoning my career. Woolf had the Bloomsbury group to sustain her, but since E. M. Forster doesn’t regularly hang out in my living room, I rely instead on a community of people across the country that has been glad to absorb my neuroses for the past four years.

In November 2007 I was nursing my newborn daughter, unable to turn the page of Poets & Writers Magazine for fear of waking her, when I saw an ad for the Speakeasy. I tiptoed to the computer, baby on my shoulder, and logged on. I read for an hour and was moved to comment on a thread. I had to type with only my left hand, holding my daughter with my right, and my spotty Internet connection promptly ate the message. Undeterred, I kept logging on, and ten days later I started my first thread: Writing Moms. How on earth, I asked, would I ever again have time to write? I’d published only three stories, and the world wouldn’t really care if I never typed another word. “What do people do?” I wrote. “Strap the baby in the Bjorn and make her stare at the computer with you?” Within hours I had thoughtful answers reminding me that my baby was only one month old, that I’d have plenty of time (and nostalgia for these days) before I knew it. I knew they were right. And I knew this was a good place.

That spring, when I learned that a piece I’d written would be included in a Best American Short Stories anthology, I posted the news on the Speakeasy before I called my family. Later that year I started another thread: Novel Abandonment. I’d had a rocky love affair with a novel for years and was inspired to begin a second. “Who here has had experience with throwing away a completed novel?” I asked. “How did you know it was time to pull the plug?” What followed was an intense debate from which I took one overriding piece of advice: Go work on the second, then come back to the first. Six months later I reread the first novel and discovered there what I had loved all along. I revised it, found an agent, and sold the book, which by then was called The Borrower.  

I can’t quite fathom my life without these wise and hilarious people, only one of whom I’ve met in real life. I might still be a writer, but I’m not sure I’d be an author. Am I a little bitter that Lytton Strachey isn’t lounging on my couch? Sure. But my friends and I do just fine without him.