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Friday, August 14, 2009

The Decline and Fall and Rise of the Invisible Writer

America is a nation of writers. Though formal literature got off to a slow start, the bulk of early American writing was done by millions of diarists writing alone. When someone died in those days, particularly someone of position or influence, the first things the family did was find his diary. You wanted know what your dearly departed had said about you that might be problematic.

To this day, old diaries represent a major source of historical evidence, despite the subjective nature of the writing. I used to wonder why people stopped keeping diaries. Teenage girls, of course, kept it up. Accumulating a secret stock of damning written ‘evidence’ against all the people who have ever mistreated you, that can be read aloud at a special high school assembly after your tragic death, has always been attractive to teenage girls for some reason.

The average American, however, has left off keeping extensive personal diaries. I wasn’t sure why until the great ice storm of 2004 left our rural community without power for nearly a week. I played the guitar a lot; listened to my Walkman till I ran out of batteries. Finally, in desperation, I dragged out my old journal. I dutifully entered daily handwritten entries up until the television came back on.

Ah, but personal writing is not dead! To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of personal writing has been greatly exaggerated. While the keeping of handwritten journals and private manuscripts may remain in decline, actual private writing may be experiencing something of a comeback. Recently I did a personal inventory to find out what all I had written over the years. I went through my stuff from the 60’s and 70’s in no time. My Sweet Baboo long ago tossed most of it in a fit of cleanliness that extended even to the top shelf of my closet. My extensive early works were gone. Then, I waded into the computer era. My hard drive and pile of backup CD’s yielded 3 full books and 3 unfinished ones, a biography of my son, some 200 poems, short stories, thousands of photographs, humorous, religious and political essays and a dozen web pages.

Then, I hit the Internet. I found 5 blogs, 8 forums I contribute to regularly, three books in progress on, an e-book excerpt from my only published book, and two poetry websites with my poetry collections. I also host a poetry class that I plan to turn into an e-book. I’ve published hundreds of web-based articles on subjects ranging from rose bush pruning to treatments for dog diarrhea.

I’m thinking that if I croak, my family is going to have a devil of a time finding the electronic equivalent of my diary. It’s scattered all over the Internet. I suspect that’s pretty common these days. Lots more people write than used to. They just aren’t using paper. The Internet conveys a sense of anonymity that attracts the shy writer. It allows us to be far more courageous than we would be otherwise. Someone who might never stand up in a public meeting and criticize the mayor, will fearlessly take his honor to the woodshed on his weblog.

The invisible writer is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

He’s just not so invisible anymore. He has a poetry web page his kids don’t know about. She writes a political blog with hundreds of followers. His family tree website has photos and stories from five generations. She teaches an on-line class for organic gardeners and is completing a new e-book on growing organic hothouse tomatoes.

The beauty of the Internet for the shy writer is that it frees us from the tyranny of the publishing industry which had built a virtually impenetrable wall about itself to keep out the riff raff. In defiance, millions of would-be writers publish their work daily on the Internet and are finding an audience. Talented people can build an audience one reader at at time. Best of all they don’t have to pass through the soul-destroying process of finding a publisher. You can work on your draft novel on-line with the help of a half dozen friends and nobody sends you a rejection slip. We may not make much money, but we are honing our wordsmithing skills.

Today, invisible writers like Emily Dickson would have had a devoted following on instead of having had to die first and hope someone accidentally discovered her manuscripts. You wonder how many brilliant “invisible” writers we lost because nobody ever opened that box in the closet after they died. Nowadays they’d simply live on in cyberspace.

How cool is that?

© 2009 by Tom King

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