The Story is Important

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I originally wrote this nearly eight years ago, and while I’ve made a few tweaks to it the intent is, to me, astoundingly unchanged (though some of the details are freakin’ archaic at this point). I’m publishing it now because it still reflects my opinions. Don’t waste time pointing out that we all have broadband these days – when I authored this piece broadband was still reserved for the fortunate few.

– – – – – –

I may not be a professional writer but… I write a lot… You’re probably thinking, “Duh!”

But I didn’t always. Even into my teenaged years, I had no skill at manipulating words into sentences, and was even less able to form a meaningful thought into a paragraph. I managed to pass my grade-twelve English course only by submitting a collection of poetry I’d written over the preceding year. My teacher declared that I was either a genius or “severely disturbed”, and was happy to be rid of me in either case.

Got a passing grade. Worked for me.

Interestingly, even by this point in my life I was a voracious reader, chewing through seven or eight novels a week. I’d often spend my meager income at the local “used” bookshop and lug home a shopping bag full of the darned things. While I’d initially been focused almost exclusively on science fiction, I began branching out somewhat as I grew older.

Discovering that my Uncle had been reprimanded as a student when caught reading “War and Peace” in an art class, I was inspired to do the same, but for my own subversive reasons. I loathed art class, believing I had no talent. Ironic when you consider that I now do art for a living. My frustration drove me to seek interesting ways to confuse my teacher, a middle-aged woman with a Valium habit who was eventually fired after repeatedly seducing teenaged male students (no, I wasn’t one of them).

So I started bringing Dostoyevsky to class, and kept it open on my desk. I wasn’t so bold as to read to the exclusion of all else, but I turned a page every five or ten minutes. It wasn’t until day-three of this exercise that teacher finally demanded to know what I found so interesting in the book I was reading. I flipped it over, exposing the cover, and asked if she’d liked the book as much as I did when she’d read it. Humming and hawing, she asked me in an overly polite tone to please read outside of class, and then beat a hasty retreat.

The thing I’d already figured out even then was that while virtually everyone has heard of “War and Peace”, generally only people intent on becoming English scholars actually read it, and even then I suspect that far more reliance has been made on Coles notes than the actual text itself. In our modern era, reading “War and Peace” for personal pleasure is fairly rare. However, admitting that you hadn’t, particularly when you worked in academia, was verboten.

The thing is, I really did like it. Certainly the stories it tells were hard to follow, and I recognized the political leanings of the text. But it struck a chord deep within me. I sought out other works in a similar vein and discovered the “holy trinity” of existentialist literature: Camus, Kafka, and Sartre. I went through their entire bodies of work over several months, and while I never declared myself an existentialist, I had one teacher who admitted that he believed I was the only real one he’d ever met.

I have since recovered.

But for all that, I still didn’t write anything except free-verse poetry, with my few efforts at prose falling decidedly flat after a page or two. Perhaps I just lacked confidence in myself back then.

Things changed when I was sixteen. I got my own computer, an Apple II clone, and a few months later discovered a thing called a modem that would let me dial into places called bulletin boards. We’re not talking about the Internet or e-mail; this is a time before either existed. We’re talking about one computer calling another computer, reading and posting a few messages, and then signing off so that the next person could log in and have their turn. The maximum speed, a whopping 300-baud, was approximately 200 times slower than the bottom-end 56K modems that people with dial-up connections still use these days (circa 2003). Graphics? Ha! At the time, the hardware to do this cost about $200. That’d be close to a grand in the current (’03) era.

The systems were so restrictive that posted messages were a maximum of eight lines of text, with a limit of forty characters per line. That’s 320 characters, or about half the size of the previous paragraph. Further, the maximum time limit on the system was thirty minutes a day – after all, other people needed a chance to have their turn. Typically you called in, read the new posts, logged off, considered your reply, and then only logged back in long enough to add your two-cents worth.

As with many other people who have trouble handling social situations, I took to this new medium like a duck to water. The boards were anonymous, you picked a handle and nobody had to know who you really were. I enjoyed being able to discuss the topics that I found interesting (there were perhaps two-dozen “chat rooms” on a given board, compared to the sixty-thousand-plus available through Usenet today). Nobody cared who you were or where you were from, it was just a place where people “talked”.

But it’s not like you could ramble on endlessly the way folks do now. Those size and time limits were pretty tight, especially if you weren’t a fast typist. No “offline” mode in those days, either. So you had to be concise, and quick, or you’d be unceremoniously logged off mid-sentence.

So, in the midst of trying to express myself something happened. I got concise, and I got quick. And one day I sat down to write something and the words just started to flow. Paragraphs, pages, documents in their entirety, came easily. A year or two later I decided I wanted to write a screenplay for a movie, and I finished the entire one-hundred-twenty pages in just five sleepless days. It wasn’t a masterpiece – anyone reading it would probably contemplate using it to line a gerbil cage. But what a revelation it was to be able to drop something on the floor that I’d written and hear it make a resounding thud.

You might suspect those early explorations in digital communication would have evolved as the Internet did, and that I’m probably a Usenet and chat-room junkie. But that’s not the case at all. I haven’t bothered posting a message on a public board in years.

Back in the “olden days”, the community of users was small, and all of them local. Nobody was interested in paying long-distance charges to access a system, so geography gave us something in common. Further, there were plenty of folks who got together in the real world on a regular basis, so you could always head out for a mixer and actually meet the people on the other end of the terminal.

It kept us honest.

The technical skill required to set up a modem in the first place was a fairly daunting barrier-to-entry as well, and virtually insured that other users were intelligent and at least somewhat articulate. Additionally, the system’s owner moderated every forum. That was an easy task when the sum total of the contributions to the system was equal to about two typewritten pages a day. SPAM was still canned meat.

In short, things have changed. Go take a wander through a Usenet group. For the uninitiated, Usenet is “the other Internet”, a system with a huge number of “rooms” in which anyone on the planet can read messages and post some of their own. It’s not real time, so any user typing a message has the opportunity to make at least a minimal effort at editorializing its text, to present their thoughts, and therefore themselves, in the best light

Nope. Take a look at any Usenet group with a “specialized” focus, like game design. Though there are perhaps several hundred professional game designers working these days, you won’t find a post from any of them (exception for Derek Smart, who wrote some real doozies). What you will find are messages from a hoard of desperate “wannabe” designers who ask the same questions over and over again – “How do I break in?”, “Can you help me make my game for free?”, etc.

You’ll also find something far more annoying. A small subset of the crowd are poseurs, pretending to be pros, who get some pathetic ego boost by soliciting the fanboys to ask questions, and then dispensing wisdom based firmly in the fantasyland they inhabit. Generally, their advice is just plain wrong. Worse yet, these folks are the most prolific of the individual posters, and they treat the groups as if they were personal territory. Any contradictory point of view prompts an immediate flame war.

Flame wars are a cascade of messages in which all relevant discussion on the topic at hand is replaced by a cacophony of insults, slurs, obscenities, and the eventual and inevitable comparison of one of the participants as a member of the Nazi party or genetic relative of it’s leader. This is referred to on the Net as “Godwin’s Law”, and it usually causes the thread to terminate, with the author of the offending comment being deemed the looser. Don’t believe me? Look it up for yourself.

The bulk of Usenet traffic (aside from the inevitable SPAM and porn) is generated by a slew of dysfunctional personalities who have nothing better to do than rant at each other day in and day out. The toxic quality of the conversations, along with the despairing lack of anything approaching grammar, spelling, or intellect, drove anyone interesting out of the venue years ago.

Then there’s real-time chat, where you discover that people have reduced the English language to an obscure collection of short-form slang expressions (“ROTFL” equates to “rolling on the floor, laughing”) that have become the only accepted use of capital letters. It’s like hanging out with the cast of “Dude, Where’s My Car”, none of whom can actually type more than four or five words a minute.

Even a one-on-one e-mail conversation tends to be unsatisfying. I regularly write letters that are two or three pages long, and my pen pals will almost inevitably respond with two or three paragraphs — or lines — or words.

It ends up feeling like too much effort for too little reward, though I realize that most people don’t write as easily as I do. I wish they could – our society has lost the skill of writing letters, and I think that’s a sad thing. We came to know many of our famous historical figures from the letters they crafted, words they considered before committing them to paper. Future generations will only know the people from our time as sound bites that were recorded for CNN, and were often written by someone else.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the people who use and delight in the multitude of online conversation systems. Plenty of folks benefit enormously, and there is no reason they shouldn’t continue to evolve a method of communication that suits them. It’s just a pastime that I don’t have any interest in.

But I digress…

The point is, I don’t do the random-public-exposure thing any more. Instead, when I write it’s either for work, or for myself. This place is a case in point. You might think that I’ve just gone and assembled a bunch of monologues that were kicking around and stuck them here for your review. In that you are correct. This blog *has* started out (rather late in the blogging game) as an aggregation of material produced over a period of decades. Everything here was previously available only as privately scribbled e-mails, or as material that had never been read – like this particular piece.

People change and grow, and one of the best ways to see it in the way they write. Some folks keep journals or blogs. Me? I write essays about myself. Sometimes they’re for public consumption. More often they aren’t, and you won’t find those here. I’m not gonna air my angst-ridden inner demons for public consumption. That would be too easy, and frankly rather annoying.

Does any of this explain why I write? Nope. The truth is, I don’t really know. Certainly it’s a way to clear my head and express my feelings, but I could do that in a dozen different ways that would involve a lot less work. The easiest way to put it is that I write because “I can’t not”. It doesn’t matter if it’s a technical paper, computer code, a movie or a monologue. When I write, I feel content, and if I don’t write for a protracted period I feel frustrated.

I write these days for the sheer love of assembling words and conveying thoughts, even though I don’t think much of what I write is all that great.

But it’s good enough for me.

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