I Started Writing / 7 January 2003

I started writing online in 1995. Yeah I know I’m awesome. High five. Ladies, please form an orderly line, etc. In the olden days, the default personal writing site was a— hey! Come back! I was saying that the default personal writing site was a homepage instead of a weblog, so your index would be like a table of contents, pointing your three readers to a permanent collection of whatever (e.g., this).

The whatever is sort of key, however — since no one knew what they were doing, and no one really expected to get money or fame or a date or anything from their web work, there really was a wide range of material. A lot of throwing to see what stuck. A golden age of half-assed experimentation. The emphasis was usually not on timeliness or journalism, but on, say, cheap invention (Andrew’s “Who I Would or Wouldn’t Fuck on the Internet,” for example — pure genius that probably wouldn’t work today) or disturbing honesty (Alexis’ back catalog). Either way, it was about putting something out there, something more or less complete, and hoping maybe somebody’d send you an email about it someday.

In 1995, I was apple-cheek’d and ready to face the world with my newly minted English degree (with an Emphasis in Creative Writing!!!). The web came along at just the right time: since I no longer had captive readers in writing seminars, I needed some way to get my stuff out into the world. Pre-1995, most aspiring writers would, I dunno, get an agent or submit something to a magazine or enter contests or somehow be motivated and action-oriented. But now, now we could publish ourselves. I.e., create the illusion that we were actually doing something with our work, actually building a career or maybe even building the buzz.

(I think most wannabe writers who work exclusively online have this kind of complicated relationship with the web. We sing its praises — the easy distribution, the elimination of middlemen, the flexibility — but harbor a deep-down resentment of it because it’s a constant reminder that we’re not in print, which is what we really want [see: Manual]. Like maybe we’re on the web because we’re not talented or marketable or driven enough to be in print, not because we think it’s a superior outlet for our work.)

So I put my little stories and essays on my website, adding something new every few weeks, or whenever. I kept everything pretty short in the hopes that people might actually read it. (Thus began the web’s stunting of my attention span.)

Then the web hit the bigtime, everyone got online, everyone got high-speed access at work, and tools arrived to make tech know-how unnecessary. The weblog — and I’m using the original definition here, namely oft-updated annotated links — became the default personal site. I mean of course: it’s easy content. It’s like when you’re in the office kitchen trying to like maybe quietly enjoy a juice box for once and some guy comes in and starts reading the paper and saying Can you believe that? And: What do you make of that?

A very consistent voice cropped up among the new writers: casual, chatty, inoffensive, usually a dash of false self-deprecation, and a kind of subtle condescension — the sound of someone who has been chosen to pass along valuable information to others. This tone of I am interesting, right? was underscored by the guestbooks and comments and karma points and permalinks and trackbacks and referer logs. Even the current vogue of web standards often boils down to: Everyone should have access to what I have to say, I don’t care if they’re blind or reading my words off a cellphone — the message must get through.

It didn’t help that we all had such similar backgrounds and interests. Although the web keeps diversifying, the kind of person who has the time and money and inclination to maintain a regularly updated personal website still falls into a pretty narrow demographic group, which is how we end up with 10,000 posts about The Two Towers, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, iPods, Volkswagen commercials, etc.

(Seeing these similarities, though, can be interesting. Something that I don’t see people mentioning enough is just how novel this situation is. Never before have you had access to this many [unfamous] people’s thoughts and opinions and personal details. It just wasn’t possible before networked computers. So even though the results can sometimes make you want to stab yourself in the head, they are noteworthy if only for their unprecedentedness, if that’s a word even.)

The voice and the content didn’t work for me (I think it just bottomed out). I wanted to pull away from it, detach myself from the site and put all the attention on the writing, which I wanted to be as insular as possible, both in terms of the stories it was telling and the audience it was telling them to. I stopped acknowledging that I was writing on a website, for a web audience. I stripped out as many web-trappings as I could, and even tried to give the design a book-like aesthetic. I was not interested in conversation or interactivity, and wrote under the conceit that I was addressing my words to a specific person.

(I realize now that’s one thing I really liked about the Burning Itch: Jim and I could write anything we wanted, boring stuff about how our day went or movies we liked or whatever, but because they were written to a specific person, to a friend, to someone with shared experiences, it all got elevated somehow. It gave it all some kind of context and I found it much more comfortable than the usual writing-for-a-general-audience-of-strangers-who-may-or-may-not-actually-exist. I’m surprised more sites haven’t adopted the weblog-as-conversation-between-two-people idea, since it seems pretty basic. And people should string-together-more-phrases-with-dashes, too. That should be the hot trend for ‘03.)

This insular sort of writing was where I was heading anyway, even without feeling the need to react against the weblog voice. Two events really pushed me over the edge: September 11th, and someone recognizing themselves in an autobiographical story I wrote and taking issue with it. That was that — I lost all interest in reality and realized that I wanted to wrap myself up in a cocoon of fiction.

My aspirations were not to take a hard look at the world, to understand how things work, how people work, to make a statement, to change people’s thinking, but to build a hermetically sealed little world where things functioned the way I wanted them to function. These were shabby aspirations, I’ll admit, but some of the results have been good enough to keep. I got maybe one email a month in reaction to it, but what do I expect when I hide behind a wall of fiction (this, I guess).

But I’m done with that for now. It wasn’t particularly fun. It was totally clenched. Which is OK since I’m a pretty clenchy person, but I’m ready to file it away. I’m a sucker for scrapping my work and starting over again (Alexis says my constant redesigns are a more acceptable version of shaving my head, which I used to do when seeking some kind of drama-queen clean slate).

So I decided I wanted to write in my own voice for a while. I wanted to unclench. Stop shaping my work around a reaction to something else and just let it roll. It’s a new year, I’m turning thirty in a few weeks, maybe it’s time to drop the pretense, just relax and see what happens.

Which pretty much makes me want to vomit in terror. But I remember this thing Paul wrote about some website: “There’s much there, but overall it feels unfinished, which is wonderful — it gives you the sense of more to come, of gaps to be filled and new ideas to come in to round out the edges. Any Web site that feels complete and finished, I think, especially this early in the Web’s history, has set its sights too low.”

So I’m coming out and admitting that this site is unfinished, that the thoughts are hitting the screen as they pop into my head, that it’s not crafted and complete, it’s not a published novel that you happen to be reading on a computer, and yes, goddammit fuck you, I am writing these words to a general audience with the assumption that they will be read and thrown away within the week.

I’ve been wincing for the entire duration of this thing. I could think of no greater challenge to myself right now than admitting that I’m writing on a website, that I read weblogs by the dozens, that I care, that I have no idea what I’m doing.So what do I do now? Whatever, I guess.

Paul Ford’s Medium of Choice
Mark Pilgrim’s Influences

Joshua Green Allen

Fireland is a rickety old website by Joshua Allen.

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