Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Writing and (Virtual) Community

I often consider the notion that we write because we’re trying to bridge a gap of connection to others.

Before I had ever published, I longed for a community as if this would legitimize me as a writer. But even as I craved connection, I was wary of demands and expectations put on me, for example, if I took a writing class, or let an editor touch my work. All of which happened in due time, though not before I would let myself get burned, as I saw it. Hastily, I dropped classes before I could even know the name of a fellow student, and I cut off contact with an editor who was simply doing his job.

Writers seem to be everywhere, particularly where I live, in the Bay Area, and I have taken it for granted that I should be part of a writing community. Yet I have never been able to find a long standing, mutually beneficial community.

I would have liked to have established this writing community in grad school, but as much as I made the effort, it did not happen. I went to a low residency program, and it’s been difficult to maintain connections with my colleagues over the years. I seem to befriend people who, due to whatever exigencies of life, gave up their writing dreams, unlike me.

I’m not talking about a writer’s group, per se. I’ve been involved in these over the years, and I rarely find writers who are as serious and committed to writing as I am.

I have some writer acquaintances, but they are mostly long distance email connections (an editor on the east coast who liked my work; a writer in Los Angeles whose work I follow). In fact, when I communicate with other writers, it’s usually through the internet.

Possibly true, not entirely benign assumption: Writers who have established themselves don’t want anything to do with writers who have yet to establish themselves. And I, having established myself in my own way, don’t want to waste time with writers who aren’t at least as established as I am. And in reality, aren’t all writers established in their own ways?

I think not having a writing community might come down to my own resistance. I’ve always believed myself to be an outsider; I don’t feel entirely comfortable in any group. To be embraced by a group, is, for me, to be an imposter. If I were more active in the local community, it seems that I might meet more serious writers like myself. My loner status may be a way for me to actually do the work of writing, since I don’t have the distraction of people talking to me about their work.

I can see that it’s easy to suggest that I’m complaining about the ability to find a thing I want nothing to do with. But what if I just accept that this all embracing writing community is a fantasy?

In the lack an actual writing community, I believe publishing keeps me in the writing world, though it is essentially a virtual world. I think the privilege of publishing gives me a voice, and maybe, in my own uncharacteristic perception, this gives me a community. I may still long for that community connection, but I’m content at least to have my writing practice rewarded by occasional recognition.

Writing, as primary as it is to my life, of necessity comes after everything else (I’ve got a job, and a family that demands much of my time). But this doesn’t diminish writing’s vital importance to me.

Most of my friends and family know that I write, but I suspect few of them have read my work. This is possibly because I’m uncomfortable foisting it upon them, but it may just be that they are uncomfortable reading it--or, if they have read it, they probably wouldn’t talk about it. (I’m from the Midwest, where it’s not polite to make overtures about yourself). So it doesn’t come up. I think that if they are interested, they know where to find my work.

In my early adolescence, I struggled with feelings of inferiority and self-consciousness. I developed the notion that I would have to strive to do some (or many) things better than the average person. The habit has stayed with me; I’ve always worked hard on my creative work, possibly as overcompensation. My manner of coping, of overcoming, has been working on projects.

What these early struggles did was to allow me to discover my creativity, to go inward and cultivate a craft, and a knowledge base, that is invaluable. Writing has ultimately been an exploration into understanding myself. That I have gained this and found little of the community I once longed for--and expected--often feels like an acceptable trade-off.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On the Future (Further) Intersection of Technology and Literature

One form of literature, at least the one that thrives through publishing on the internet, has been transformed by the internet. I’m talking about short fiction, the kind that is most amenable to the attention spans of individuals who use electronic devices. This is one way that we could posit that technology has made an impact on literature. This literature, in fact, is most often where the cutting edge appears because it’s not produced and hashed out by a marketing team.

What does the future of cutting edge literature look like? It’s not in traditional books, or rather, it’s no longer necessary for books to exist in order to present it.

I’m of a generation of writers who are almost a “creation” of the web. Of course, the web did not create me, but if it did go away, so would go away--at least in the digital ether--much of what I consider to be my best and most important work. Essentially, my work came of age with the web. Or I came of age when the internet did. I don’t know if I could conceive of the writing path that I’ve taken in the last fifteen years or so in any other way.

If you consider technology to be indispensable, maybe you ask that question, what if the internet goes away? On the one hand, there are those who believe it’s foolish to have any investment in the web (they shun having their work published there; they either can afford to, because they are safely ensconced in legacy publishing, or they don’t care about the web, consider it a fad or whatever, and maybe they do or do not use it as a tool, etc.), and on another extreme are those I would call the immersives who believe anything is possible, for example, that the web could evolve to the point of spontaneously producing intelligence. (If you think I’m grasping here, just watch this clip from Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World) The web, and its inherent potential, is essentially out of our hands. It is uncontrollable.

If the internet vanished, there are still the people who have created the work, they will create more, and there will be new creators to come. Are we “dependent” on it like life support, or is it rather that we don’t--and can’t--imagine it going away? And even if the internet did vanish, something new would be created to replace it, probably Web 2.0.

To look at the changes that technology has wrought to publishing over just a few years: new ways of marketing, and more venues for one to promote themselves--these tactics can seem merely superficial. On the other hand, the broad reach and availability of these tools has made the web pervasive. What is significant is the impact of the web and its potential to reflect a zeitgeist. An arguable point is that the web has only become more essential, more necessary. For those firmly entrenched in legacy publishing, the internet is a supplement, if it’s not a foregone conclusion by virtue of what it lacks in relation to traditional print publishing. Equally, print might seem irrelevant to a lot of techies.

Again, no matter what changes and developments come, as far as the web and publishing, technology will always bring something new. Because we are constantly working within the technology, it is bound to change; technology constantly evolves. It is almost a “live” organism, in this sense. Whereas there have been no major innovations in the basic technology of the printed book for thousands of years.

In some sense, even writing is static. But perhaps the capacity of the creative minds that produce literature is a realm that is unpredictable, with a potential that we might never fully understand enough to have the capacity to reach. And this touches on notions of artificial intelligence creating a kind of literature. Such expectations I think are still beyond viable; it ultimately takes a human mind to craft the narratives and imbue the poetry of language with the lyricism that humans can grasp.

Since the dawn of the internet, every social media company with a significant financial stake in it has been trying to figure out how to monetize the web; the only way--or the main way--is subscriptions and advertising. If you put any intellectual content out there, you try to monetize it. Those producing it may not have a significant or pressing financial relationship to it. People may not feel obligated to pay for something they can ultimately get for free. This puts someone like me at a disadvantage. My options would seem to be to get into more paying venues. But the truth is that I’m not going to stop writing because no one is paying me.

No matter what speed technology can provide for the processing of data, reading and writing occur at a relatively slow pace, which is more or less fixed. It’s the same as it was 100 years ago, or as it was 500 years ago, and further. Could this convince us that book technology won’t change  for a long time, if ever?

The book, in some form, has been around for thousands of years. The computer, the tablet, et al, for less than a few decades. None of these advances have changed the book. Writing is a quiet and ancient technology in contrast to all pervasive technology as we know it. The change for writers, if they choose to utilize it, occurs mainly in the means of putting the work out there. The book is a relatively stable artifact. If we consider the futurist thinking of far flung possibility, maybe at some point a chip or device planted in the brain will allow access to all books. Then you’ll never need to read a book, you will have vague memories and knowledge of having already read it. Or you will be able to access it from the cloud you plug in to your brain. But even this won’t really change the way the literature that it contains is created. Someone still has to write the literature.

(Photo by Kyle Bean "The Future of Books" website, here.)