Back in middle school my friends and I put out a magazine called The Phoenix. Personal computers were still primitive toys that sat in the back of the math classroom, so we wrote it on typewriters. You gave your fair copy to Frank, our de facto editor-in-chief, who assembled, xeroxed, and stapled a run of of maybe twenty copies which we sold to our friends at school for a dime apiece. There may have been some parental subsidy of production costs because I recall that The Phoenix was a money-losing venture (some things in the publishing world never change), but adults otherwise kept their hands off. This magazine was produced by and for thirteen year-old kids in Muncie, Indiana.
The Phoenix was a mishmash of styles. Vinney and I specialized in portentous science fiction. Pete went for broad comedy. Jon wrote part one of a to-be-continued Twilight Zone-ish thing about an astronaut whose children mysteriously vanish that I still wish he’d finish. But the clear talent among us was Frank. Frank was a devoted Edgar Rice Burroughs fan who churned out spot-on parodies of pulp adventure fiction: monsters, barbarians, space marines and whatnot. Frank’s pieces were short, clean, and wasted no motion on their way to the joke. His Jaws takeoff–entitled “Chomp!”–was set in the town of Sunova Beach, which makes me chuckle to this day. At a young age, Frank already had a voice.
We also all took English classes in which we presumably wrote things that we handed in to a teacher, but this was just schoolwork with no sincere desire for communication running in either direction so who remembers any of it? In high school you moved on to writing term papers, which meant staying up late the night before the deadline and pounding out a double-spaced précis of the book you had chosen for your “research” until you reached the magic 10-page finish line. In my teens I Wanted To Write, which meant that I daydreamed about how cool my photo would look on the back of a novel, but when I went away to college I learned that girls would sleep with me even if I lacked an artistic persona, and my literary aspirations melted away. I ceased to be a writer in all but the most mechanical sense.
My prose muscles were reawoken after college by a programming job at Microsoft. My entry into the professional world came soon after the widespread adoption of email. Not too many years earlier, text generation would have mainly taken the form of memos dictated by managers, but now desktops made us all scribes. Writing email wasn’t like writing a college paper. It was terse, practical, and often indifferent to punctuation, but directed at peers and always had as a goal the advancement of one’s career. I found myself crafting, editing, and feeling out the rhythm of sentences like I hadn’t done since I was thirteen. Business email is nobody’s idea of great literature, but for me a keen awareness of the audience and the stakes made it into real writing.
In grad school I learned to write scientific conference papers, a odd little genre in which you strive for a transparent, self-summarizing tone of almost Zen-like blandness. These were always done with collaborators, and we instinctively fell back on a combination of narrative and advertising jargon to describe our work. We’d talk about how the arc of these three paragraphs would build to a payoff in this equation, which would really sell the whole idea. None of us were trained as writers beyond the usual undergraduate base-covering, but we possessed the life skills of mimicry and persuasion, and anyway this was our job now so we figured out how to do it. A few years back I started this blog as an excuse to play with WordPress. Today, with a readership in the tens, I am back to thinking of myself as a writer. Not in any grand literary sense, but rather in the way someone would think of themselves as a golfer or a cook. I go through my day thinking, how I can transform such-and-such an experience into five paragraphs, which is a slightly different way of approaching things than thinking, how will I tell someone about it face-to-face, though of course I do that too. It enriches my life and hopefully the lives of a few others.
I don’t think it’s unusual that my personal prose renaissance came about as a result of computer technology. Speech is analog: you send a signal that corresponds to the air pressure fluctuations of “Mr. Watson, come here: I need you” down the wire and have your listener figure it out. Digital transmission is a form of encoding, however, and so prefers the already-encoded format of writing. As a result, the past twenty years have seen an explosion of writing in the form of email, Tweets, texts, Facebook statuses and so forth among people who previously would have (and did) spent a lot more time talking on the phone. The internet made us all amateur writers. And the amateur part is key. This class of writing is peer-to-peer. It is not a school assignment: it’s The Phoenix magazine. (Is much of it juvenile? Yes. So was a lot of The Phoenix.) Your Facebook friend who stands out from the crowd by being particularly funny, or incisive, or just sounding natural, they’re a good writer. That doesn’t mean they are the best at aping some ossified academic or literary form, but rather that they are the best at crafting entertaining posts, whatever that means on Facebook at this particular moment in time.
The perennial complaint about the English language is that it is in a state of decline. This is groundless and easily unmasked as a fear of change, and since technology is often a visible agent of change, the decline is often portrayed as technological in origin. (Kids today with their damn cellphones are killing Shakespeare!) But it makes just as much sense to believe the opposite is true. We’re all logging more hours behind the keyboard, and expression is moving in accordingly interesting ways. This is a golden age of writing.