Writers, this is why you love and hate the Web

Writers, if you’re like me, you may feel like puking your soul along with your breakfast each day you sit in front of your computer and try to type into existence a meal to feed the perpetually famished beast call the Internet.

I’m here to tell you why.

I’ll try to be brief because being any other way nowadays means you might as well not be at all.

Our definition of writer is wrong.

Well, that’s catchy, but it’s a bit off. It’s more like we’re working off an entry from an old dictionary.

That little container called “writer” into which I have poured years of my life and joules of caffeine-induced energy was made by the hands of a story distribution system that is going away.

That system is exclusionary, expensive, slow, non-digital, dependent on marketing, and built upon centralized control over information and one-way relationships with audiences.

That system and the brilliant performers it supports create beautiful pieces of work. It spawns well-researched books. Sentences carved just-so. Headlines making poetry out of grit. Narrative twists that pull you forward until your eyes just can’t stay open. Facts like bedrock. Transitions as smooth as a sweet-dreaming roll from one side of the bed to the other. Characters you cry for. Untouchable proclamations and conclusions stuck in time like concrete islands that expose the core of being human as surely as an x-ray reveals bones.

The audiences served by these works are, as the saying goes, what they eat. They are masses, not individuals. They move like a pack of glaciers on the hunt for an ice cube. They roam ritualistically from one information meal to the next, dividing up their story time into breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

This behavior takes something important: sacrifice. Accessing the work means giving up something.

They give up time, but so do digital audiences, albeit in different units.

They spend money. That is the requirement to access an inefficient distribution system in which every copy comes with a noticeable cost. Digital audiences generally don’t do that.

But the most important difference between the rapidly fading audience rooted in the past and the digital audience of today is that the fading audience spends space.

I have to make room on my shelf for a new book. I feel its weight in my bag as I walk to the subway. Information is very much a thing in this world. By the act of accommodating its claim on my scarce time and space, I grow attached to it. It changes me in tangible ways.

Like many things, I want this information object to last. I want it to be a refuge. A place. I want it to envelop me. I want it to be complete. If this ink on paper requires that I go elsewhere to make sense of it, that means more sacrificing, more cost. I don’t come to a book with the expectation of being forced to another one to feel satisfied, just as I don’t sit on my couch expecting it will compel me to go sit on another to feel rested. I come for a beginning, middle and end. I need those components just as a day needs morning, noon and night to know the difference between sunshine and darkness.

That’s the feeling I wanted to satisfy with my writing. I wanted my stories to be so thoroughly constructed that they felt like as much of a thing as the paper in your hands.

I suppose bits and bytes could be considered things too. You use a computer to read books. But it’s impersonal. The same thing can be used to check your e-mail or play music. You look at pictures on it. It’s a general purpose container lacking an intimate tie to any one story. You can’t dogear your Kindle or MacBook Pro. Your laptop has weight, but the information it presents does not. The only difference between a novel, a short story and an article on your screen is how long it takes you to scroll to the bottom. No matter how hard Steve Jobs and the iPad try to recapture thingness, they will always fall short.

But we’re on the Web now.

A lack of thingness — a spiritness? — is where writing is at.

The Web requires us not to build landing pads, but launching platforms. Information now is air and springs, not earth and pillars. Water, not ice. Links, not lockdowns. Ideas are birds to be freed and snared by whoever is on the hunt, not obese stegosaurs to be admired in a zoo.

Okay, it’s not as simple as that. It’s both. You don’t need to write one way or the other. You can make things, and make spirits, all in one day. The Web takes both. Not without ramifications, but it does.

Bu trying to do both, all the time, makes my stomach churn with doubt about my endurance and drive.

Yet what really hurts me is a hard-to-kill expectation that passionately wrought information things will function in a world of phantasmic bits and bytes the same way they do in a world of bookstores, magazine racks and dead-tree subscriptions.

Those castles of thought I agonized to build quickly turn to huts of sand in the stream of the Internet. For a moment they are a whole. A moment later, they dissolve in the rush of the update, the new, the fresh, the next link.

Caught in the current is the satisfaction of fabricating a fortress for an idea. It lasts for ever-decreasing durations. I shorten my missives to even the balance. If I will only get 140 characters of satisfaction, does it make sense to give 140,000,000 characters?

It is cheap, easy and fast as a tweet to record and spread your stories throughout the world.

I love this, but it might be a one-sided relationship.

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