It began in the nineties, with dial-up and AOL. It was slow—so slow—but that little chime of “You’ve got mail!” when I finally connected was worth it. The internet was a novelty. I could send an email to my aunt at work telling her how I scored a goal in my soccer game, or to my summer camp friends saying how I couldn’t wait to see them in June. Still, I mostly communicated through handwritten letters to far away friends and phone calls to those close by.
As a teenager, my circles were a lot smaller than they are now. I had a few friends, and I got on well enough with the people around me, but I always felt a little out of step with the world. I never quite fit with my peer group. By the time I was 14 I already identified as a writer, though not necessarily out loud. I spent many a Friday night at my desk, at home, Five Iron Frenzy blasting through my headphones from my purple Sony Discman, scribbling page upon page of teen angst into spiral notebooks with covers I collaged with words and photos from magazines.
I was looking for my voice. And I was lonely.
After my family got AOL, I found the Teen People message boards, and particularly, a group of boards dedicated to young writers. Behind the guise of quirky screen names, teenagers published serial stories, posting one chapter at a time, while the rest of us waited eagerly to see what would happen next to our favorite characters. This was my first writing community.
I was an early adopter of the communications possibilities opened up by the internet, of blogging and chatting and connecting. I have not been as skeptical as some, because such communities were a lifeline to my creative spirit as a teenager.
It’s trendy among writers to debate the pitfalls of Facebook and Twitter as potential distractions from the work of writing, but I am sometimes impatient with such discussions. Social media doesn’t distract me from my writing; I distract myself from my writing. Sometimes I use Facebook to do so, to be sure, but just as often I clean the bathroom, do the dishes, or play with the cat. This is not to say there isn’t some benefit to “unplugging”—to eliminating as many of the things you know yourself to turn to instead of writing as you possibly can. But let’s not pretend it’s all Twitter’s fault.
Twitter can, sometimes, even serve as inspiration, as it did for me recently, when I found myself going back and forth with others in 140-character bites, dissecting a controversial situation at the school where I work—only to realize I had far more to say about the topic than I first realized. I went to bed, and in the morning I re-read the tweets and began expanding them into a full-fledged article. The responses I’d gotten on Twitter helped me understand which of the points I had been trying to make needed clarification, and enabled me to produce a more precise piece of writing.
On Facebook, I have befriended other creative people, only to have those digital friendships morph into real life relationships and collaborative projects. Some of my favorite writers are those I’ve discovered via Twitter and blogs. Online, I get to participate in lively intellectual and artistic conversations with people both like and unlike me, and I have become a better person and a better writer as a result. They help me feel a little less alone in the world, when I am stuck at my desk in Durham, staring at the wall, wondering whether writing is really worth the sacrifice.
We think of writing as solitary, and to a certain extent it is, of course. But even the most solitary work benefits from the support of a community. I’ve thought of this a great deal since I returned from a week at the Collegeville Institute for the Apart, and yet a Part workshop. How did I accomplish so much writing in one week, yet also get to know so many talented, inspiring writers? Why, at a workshop where most of our days were spent in solitude, did I come home with more new friends than from many of the more heavily programmed, interactive workshops I’ve attended over the years?
The solitude that writing requires has to be cultivated carefully—guarded, really, in the sense that there is always someone or something trying to break through and steal the precious time and space the work requires. So it makes sense that a group of people who are used to having to fight to preserve that time can spend their days in close proximity and solidarity, a buzz of activity, and then allow all of the energy of a good day’s work to spill over into hikes around the lake, happy hours, and late nights spent laughing together. The relief of not having to fight for that space in the day lifted a burden I almost forget that I carry, because I am so accustomed to its presence. I did not have to explain to anyone, for an entire week, that no, I could not get together for coffee with them this morning because, in fact, I was working.
I am happiest when I am with other writers. Though I write alone, I like knowing there are others doing the same. And when they’re not in the next room, and when I can’t gather with them at 5 p.m. to toast the words we’ve written, I am grateful for tools that allow us to be supportive across the boundaries of space and time.