In the current Overland, Cate Kennedy has published a fascinating essay on the distractions of the internet – and the various ways it impedes creative writing. It encourages a lack of inhibition – and worse, a lack of reflection and analysis. It privileges currency over depth. The rush to get words and thoughts published online makes them less considered, less polished.
She quotes Wells Tower, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith warning of the dangers of the internet – all recommending that fiction writers work at a computer not connected. Wells Tower says:
‘As writers … we need to care hugely about each word, each syllable, its valences, its music, and we need readers who care enough and read closely enough to be susceptible to our art. I think the internet is noxious to this sort of aesthetic transaction.’
I see the wisdom in all of this. I agree with all these observations. And yet. My own experience offers a twist on this cautionary tale – not a rebuttal, but another dimension to what the internet can offer creative writers, beyond fact-checking and news gathering.
From the time I could form letters until the age of 20, I wrote compulsively, filling exercise books and stapling scrap paper together with invented stories. As a cousin recently reminded me, I used to turn up to family gatherings bearing stories I’d written about my relatives and force them to read them – into my early teens. At high school, I wrote stories about my friends and the boys we had hopeless crushes on under the desk during class. At home, I wrote pages and pages of ‘serious’ novels that eventually trailed off. And at university, I started a series of (now cringeworthy) short stories about tragic Adelaide characters. I had a couple of small successes – a placing in a competition, publication in an Adelaide newspaper.
Then I got a job at a publishing company, where I read through the slush pile and was jointly terrified by all those authors who were terrible and didn’t know it, and those who could write but were still nowhere near producing a publishable story. And I stopped writing for the next decade, paralysed by my new awareness. The few times I did try to write again, it was both forced (through my layers of self-doubt) and stilted. And all the fun – the pure joy of it – was gone.
A decade later, I was working at Australian Book Review, trawling through some literary blogs to get a sense of what might work for a blog I was starting for the magazine, when I took a few detours and discovered a network of bloggers who wrote about their personal lives in engaging fragments that bounced off and interacted with each other. They wrote about things like a building that intrigued them in their neighbourhood, or an aspect of work that they loved, or an incident with their kids that made them reflect on contemporary motherhood. It wasn’t just the things they wrote that fascinated me, and drew me back to their blogs – it was the way they wrote about them.
After a few weeks of coy lurking and dropping the occasional brave comment, I took the plunge and started up my own blog, on impulse – and almost against my own judgement. A large part of me thought blogging was self-indulgent and silly, that writing about myself was being an unnecessary show-off. I’d worked as a freelance reviewer and feature writer for many years by now and ‘I’ was a word that was discouraged, a word that editors struck out if you forgot and left it in. Most people I knew (including me) were sniffy about ‘I’ writing.
My first blog post was about making cupcakes for my son to take to class on his birthday at the end of a long work day, having not properly shopped for ingredients, with my husband deeming the final, laboured-over product (produced at midnight) a bit odd-looking. I have no idea why I wanted to write about this. Maybe it was because the thought of writing about ordinary life – of framing it as a story – had been percolating in the back of my mind. And so I made a joke of it, of my disorganisation and ineptness and the deadpan banter with my husband that actually kind of hurt (and my guilt about full-time work manifesting in this badly executed stint as a home-baking mother). When I finished, I read it through – this crafted but not pre-meditated fragment of my life – and I actually quite liked it. I set up an anonymous blog, posted it, sent the link to my mum and sisters, and went to bed.
At first, no one seemed to be reading my blog. Which was fine – I didn’t actively look for readers, though I did comment on those blogs I liked using my new identity. I continued to craft fragments of my life, for my own pleasure, and post them online. Then, after about a month, I got my first readers and gradually became part of a community of bloggers, all drawn together simply by the fact that we liked each other’s writing and ideas.
For the first time in ten years, I was regularly writing, and my writing was getting better. There was none of the pressure and expectation that had haunted me for the past decade. This wasn’t ‘real’ writing; this was a hobby. So, though I worked hard on my blog posts, I didn’t feel they had to be perfect. And while I do agree with Wells Tower that writers should labour over each word in a published work, this was a netherworld between draft and publication. And that lack of gravitas was what freed me to write.
Cate Kennedy says in her essay:
A writer is someone on the lookout, pretty well constantly, for patterns – patterns in speech and events, in forgetful self-disclosure, in the bigger existential narrative.
This is what I became during my time as a blogger – a person constantly on the lookout for stories, embedded in the fabric and seemingly inconsequential details of everyday life.
Two key incidents allowed me to make the leap between personal, creative writing on an anonymous blog and that kind of writing under my own name, out in the world. One of the writers I befriended through the blogosphere, Penni Russon, a published YA author, told me that she’d been talking to a friend about short stories and had shown her my posts as examples. I had never thought of them in that way before – and was blown away by the fact that a published writer I respected obviously thought I was good. Then Louise Swinn of Sleepers, someone I knew as a reviewing and book industry colleague, sent me a curious email, asking if I was the writer of a blog she’d stumbled on, and if I was, inviting me to submit to the next Sleepers Almanac. I was, I did, and to my absolute surprise and delight, my story was accepted and published – and then, in a twist worthy of a novel, republished with Penni Russon’s first adult story (which I had asked her to submit to The Big Issue, after discovering her via her blog) in Best Australian Stories 2009.
I no longer write my blog, and I have a very long way to go before I consider myself a ‘proper’ creative writer. But I am writing short stories – slowly, painfully, agonising over every word, sentence and draft – and have enrolled in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing Course. I had a non-fiction essay of the kind I used to publish on my blog published in The Age earlier this year. None of this would have happened for me had I not gained the freedom, practice and confidence in my writing that I did online.
I completely understand where Cate Kennedy is coming from. I think her Overland essay is important for sparking discussion about the subject of how the internet affects writers and writing. But I also think the internet offers opportunities – and not just the obvious ones of self-promotion and recognition, but opportunities for writers to dip their toes into the waters of creative writing, to experiment with shaping experience into stories. It can be – as it was for me – a stepping stone between the world of the mind and the world of official publication.
Kill Your Darlings has published several writers who have been discovered via the blogosphere, and has commissioned crafted, polished and extended pieces that have originated as blog posts.