Friday, August 30, 2013

The Internet

I'm thirty-five years old. I had just started college at the point when the Internet pretty much began to explode.

As a person who is not quite a digital native but who naturally defaults to computer-related and Internet-oriented solutions for many problems, I think I came into it at a good time. I got my first computer in 1996 and by late 1997 I had made my first website. It didn't actually go online properly because I didn't understand what I was doing, but then I was required to take a technology-related class in music school and ended up building a site as part of the class. Initially housed on my school server, then on America Online (where I had a volunteer position in exchange for free service), and finally to my own domain, my website became the dumping ground for anything and everything I wanted to say.

I have always been a communicator and writer, so it makes sense that I'd be an early adopter for any opportunity to access resources and share opinions on writing. Before the Internet, I occasionally met other writers through pen pal situations or in school, but never once had the opportunity to exchange writing and engage in critique partnering. People in my family and occasionally friends read my work but they mostly seemed to be humoring me during my teenage years, though there were some notable instances during which I wrote a series of stories and they became really popular in my circle of friends, who would eagerly await the next chapter and pass them around to each other. Their responses weren't criticism. Just fun.

Once I had access to the Internet, I immediately began using it to seek out criticism, and I finally found what I was looking for. A novel I wrote in 1996 got a lot of valuable feedback from people I met online. Learning to take criticism was quite an experience. I was never hostile to criticism, but had a tendency to try to explain why I'd done something rather than look at what the critic was saying and figure out how I should change it so they wouldn't say that anymore. A piece of criticism doesn't mean you did something wrong, necessarily, but it does mean there is probably something you can do so someone else won't think whatever you don't want them to think. I learned how to do that and how to apply criticism, and when to reject it.

I also learned a lot about publishing in those days. I learned the proper ways to approach it and never made the mistakes a lot of people make when they think they're doing something harmless (though actually I published quite a few short stories on my website, only to find out when I began submitting to magazines that many of them wouldn't consider "reprints," some even specifying that they didn't want it even if all you'd done is post it on a blog). There are now SO many more resources online for writers than there were in those days, and so much more opportunity for connection in writing-related communities.

I feel like I got a bit of a late start. When I see young people making large strides in their careers, getting signed early in life, selling their books to large publishers, I wonder whether I would have been one of them had I been a digital native. I was always a self-starter but when I was a teen it wasn't there to find--the communities and individual connections that made my fine-tuning and publishing process possible. When I was a child I was writing weird little poems and essays and stories on my family's hand-me-down Apple II, saving files to 5½ floppies with paper labels bearing the handwritten titles "Julie's Disk 3" and whatnot. They didn't go farther than that because there was no Internet for them to go into. The best I could hope for was a nice dot-matrix printer where I could get a hard copy and hang it up on the fridge. I think I would have improved faster and sooner if I'd had what "kids today" have.

That said, had there been an Internet when I was a kid, I probably would have found a way to thoroughly embarrass myself in front of the entire world, so maybe it's just as well.

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