Into My Own
by Robert Frost
ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
|So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,|
|Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,|
|But stretched away unto the edge of doom.|
|I should not be withheld but that some day|
|Into their vastness I should steal away,|
|Fearless of ever finding open land,|
|Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.|
|I do not see why I should e’er turn back,|
|Or those should not set forth upon my track|
|To overtake me, who should miss me here|
|And long to know if still I held them dear.|
|They would not find me changed from him they knew—|
|Only more sure of all I thought was true.|
The Blessings of Info-Tech
Writers have good reason to love information technology. It’s given us lives we couldn’t have imagined back in our papercut and inkstain days. Information technology has enabled many of us to work at home, travel, promote our work, research, find jobs, and network with other writers. The former loneliness and postal system dependency aren’t often missed, and the ability to find vast quantities of relevant reading material online, much of it free of charge, is deeply welcome. I know Frost would have loved it.
I remember the trial of getting the SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) to fit into the envelope that held my poems before sending them off to publishers in the innocent hope that three to six months down the road I might see my work in print. Both envelopes were the same size (no one thought of selling large envelopes with one set slightly smaller), and so getting one to fit inside the other while keeping everything neat and tidy was a singular task. Getting that same inner envelope returned several months later, rumpled and smudged, filled with rejected poems, just added insult to injury. And because most publishers then refused to accept simultaneous submissions, the road to publication was long and marked with despair.
This article I’m writing now can be published instantly. I’m my own editorial committee. I don’t have to worry about offending advertisers. If I insert certainly popular search terms, like “Taylor Swift,” for example, I can up the odds of the article being seen. If I throw a little money at Facebook and Twitter they’ll help me promote it to English readers around the world. It can be published paper-free, can be viewed by millions, can be liked, commented on, and shared, and can be kept online indefinitely with no effort on my part.
The fact is that there’s so much writing on the Internet that the chances of this blog being seen at all are miniscule. The chances of the person seeing it having the time to read it through are even smaller. And the likelihood that this gentle reader will take the time to like, share, comment on this article, or send me feedback, all aspects of the intellectual participation so necessary to a vibrant culture . . . well, you can pretty much bet the farm that that’s not going to happen.
As for this article being online indefinitely, all this means is that it will become progressively buried under newer material and might not appear until the tenth page of a search (a search that might contain the words “writing,” “disposable online writing,” or “embittered author”), and most people, including yours truly, rarely move beyond the second page of an online search.
The growing anonymity is compounded by the fact that remuneration for writing is growing smaller and smaller. The web looks rosy at first; you can go online and email your submissions, or bid on remote writing jobs all over the world. But then you have to compete with writers from around the world, your résumé or your literary submissions buried under reams of others. The same piling principle applies to job applications and submissions as to search engines— if your résumé or submission doesn’t arrive in the first hundred, it probably won’t even get read.
For business owners it’s a goldmine; today’s entrepreneur or publisher can choose from a pool of international applicants and force them to accept bottom dollar. As cutbacks force more writers out of mainstream journalism and into blogging, editting, and copywriting, the competition grows and the financial rewards drop until we’re all working for less than minimum wage.
The job postings are clear: They want writing. They want good writing, and they want it cheap. Unfortunately most of the people doing the hiring have no idea what good writing is and don’t recognise its value.
I recently saw an entire social media department, one that supported itself and gained a profit for the company, simply shut down because a “friend” had offered the chief to do the social media work for free. Of course nothing was done and the business quickly lost online klout, receiving many complaints about the grammatical chaos of its social media posts. The chief had simply not recognised the value of what the writers had been contributing to the business.
This kind of scenario is an example of a common challenge for writers these days. To compete with people who offer to write for nothing, or next to nothing, we have to write fast, and we have to be willing to write for websites that lack legitimacy, integrity, or staying power. Both writing fast and writing for the sludge pile result in a decline in the quality of writing in cyberspace despite the brilliant ideas we can still find there.
The Cyberspace Landfill
Another problem with online writing is that contrary to decades of predictions, most of the best work being produced is still available only on paper. The Internet hasn’t yet succeeded in committing all the best writing to cyberspace. It just hasn’t happened. You can’t even pay to read certain things online, even from E-reading services; you have to get your hands on the binding. As much as I appreciate what E-reading and online libraries have made available, again and again I’m deeply disappointed to find that this or that writer, essential to the stream of ideas in the postmodern world, simply cannot be read by turning on a device.
Yet there’s always room for the latest celebrity gossip, weight loss fad, and bondage technique. And yes, one can’t help but be a little suspicious.
Writing for the Big Brain
The really dastardly thing about all of this is that we’re no longer human beings writing for other human beings. We’re human beings writing for the worldwide web, which comprises a kind of mind in itself. If you write well enough for this Big Brain your articles will come up higher in search engines (the idea behind Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO) and this will get you more attention from humans.
But writing for the Big Brain means you have to find out what the keywords are— i.e. what words and combinations of words are being looked up most often on the web— and use them as often as possible in your headings, subheadings, and paragraphs, then hope against all hope that it still looks natural. An intelligent human being will notice right away that something doesn’t seem quite right, but if I “Taylor Swift” often enough, the Big Brain will give me a seat at the head of the table.
Because of SEO and the fact that no one really has to prove themselves as experts, what clutters the worldwide web now is basically disposable writing, writing that pollutes cyberspace the way plastic bottles blight the Arctic Sea, destroying the natural beauty and endangering the ecosystem. You can argue that online writing is more ecological because we’re not using paper, but the danger posed by accumulation of internet garbage is that it hides the good writing that exists on the web, distracts us, wastes our precious time, violates our virtual privacy, buggers up our relationships, dirties our minds, robs our lives of mindfulness, and dilutes our intellectual and creative capacities. What the makers of the Whole Earth Catalogue envisioned as a free source of information, freeing us for who knows what, often just serves to bog down mental and physical dexterity.
What to Do?
How does the serious writer respond to this onslaught of meaningless, poorly crafted writing, the hyperselling of useless or harmful commodities and false information, and the marginalising of the most vibrant and potentially fruitful ideas?
Northrop Frye insisted that it was the poet’s role to keep the metaphorical, primitive, magical aspects of human thought alive despite social and cultural change. But how can a poet have any impact in a technological society that actively and deliberately shuts out the poetic?
I came up with a list (another thing the Big Brain adores) of stupidity sabotages. And then I did a search.
Thankfully, some great ideas can still be found online if you know how to look. The search “disposable writing” turned this up: Writing Post-Person: Poetics, Literacy and Sustainability in the Age of Disposable Discourse, Kedrick James’s doctoral thesis. James proposes a radical response to living in the disposable writing world. It’s something I hadn’t thought of but had at times done unconsciously: recycling spam.
James’s thesis addresses the problem of email spam and how a serious writer might function within the new digital literary environment. The fact that the tite of the thesis is “Writing Post-Person” ties in with what I was saying about not always writing for humans, but also points out that sometimes it’s the machines that are generating the writing. “Post-person” is also a pun signifying that we’ve become, in a sense, “persons of the post,” our writing mostly comprised of items we post online.
Whereas I want to shut out the noise and add meaning to the cyberspace landfill, James looks for meaning in it and suggests that the battle is not between the writer and the Internet but rather between the generation of disposable texts and the simultaneous effort to find significance in the detritus, significance enabling us to do battle with cyperspace’s dark side. The problem is not the disposable writing but the destructive elements within it, elements symptomatic of social and cultural decay.
James actually experiments with recycling the material of our virtual environments, using spam and images to create graphic poems. Inspired by the film Wall-E, he imagines a world in which the poet sifts through the refuse of the Internet’s unwanted wordage to find delight and significance to nurture toward a more organic and human environment.
And thus, in his words, “The tyrants of waste are vanquished through small heroic cultural actions capable of recreating an amicable order of things.”
Needless to say, James inspired me to add an item to my list. Number seven is his.
Seven Ways to Sabotage Internet Stupidity
- Write slowly and well.
- Make a point of milking the Internet for the best knowledge, repeating your searches to bring the smart sites up higher in the search engines.
- Build your own personal best knowledge base. Consume as much literature as possible from the distant past so you won’t be manipulated by the latest marketing tactics.
- Avoid jobs that require you to produce disposable writing. Deliver pizzas if you must, but refuse to dedicate the bulk of your hardwon smarts to the garbage pile. If, as I am, you’re sometimes called upon to provide SEO material, sneak in as much good writing, intelligent quotes, and ageless wisdom as you can.
- Be mindful. Navigate reality and the Internet with a firm sense of your true self. Pay attention in each moment, and filter out whatever makes you less aware of the real moment you’re living right now. Be like those cabriolet horses whose blinkered eyes allowed them to be driven through busy streets while not shying at everything new and different.
- To thine own self be true. As Frost implies in his poem, in the end you’ll realise that your gut was right all along.
- As James suggests, play with cyber language. I did this for a while with the spam I was getting, spam clearly generated by a spambot and containing such absurd effusions of warmth and poetic garbling that it tickled me pink. But you don’t have to just use spam. My friend Susan Malmstrom has recently been collecting “Missed Connections” ads from Craigslist and using them in her art. Sift through the garbage and find useful tidbits for your writing. Steal it willy-nilly because no one else wants it. It’s all yours.