Monday, March 11, 2019

Why I Wrote

I've already explained why I prefer writing to talking, but I might have added that it's something I just like to do. It's a great way to take your mind off the things you aren't writing about, particularly if something is troubling you.

I got off to a rough start. Through my first few years of elementary school, I struggled with both reading and writing. It was a painful experience, one that stayed with me, and one that I incorporated into my novel Joshua. I don't know why I had so much difficulty, especially with the reading part. I do know that throughout my K-12 years, and even into college, I would often shut down if the material was tedious and uninspiring, preferring to daydream instead. It's possible that I had dyslexia and dysgraphia, but it's more likely that I just didn't have anything that was interesting to read and to write about.

By the time I entered the fourth grade, things took a rather radical turn. At that age, I started reading anything I could get my hands on. My parents subscribed to a number of magazines, and they were both readers, so we had a lot of books lying around. Reading factual material opened my eyes to what was going in the world around me, but fiction, especially the science fiction my dad liked, fueled my imagination.

Dad subscribed to a magazine called The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction, which showcased the works of some of the most enduring authors ever to work in that genre – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison – the list goes on and on, and this excellent magazine is still in print today. When Dad was done with an issue, he passed it down to me, and I read it cover to cover every month.

As my reading improved, my writing followed. My teachers began to compliment me on it – even though they continued to chide me for my poor penmanship – and they would sometimes put the things I wrote up on the bulletin board as an example for others. It was flattering, but I soon made a discovery that would spur me on to write more and more: I could make other kids laugh.

Now, kids had been laughing at me for some time, as I was socially awkward and something of a klutz. Most of the time I did not care for this, but at some point, I began to write stories that made people laugh because I wanted them to. The formula was simple enough: create a ridiculous character and put him in a ridiculous situation, then let him make a fool of himself or perhaps someone else.

I don't know how many stories I wrote or when I wrote them, but I do remember one quite well. I'd seen some movie or TV show in which a criminal used a violin case to conceal a Tommy gun. I thought to myself that it would be amusing if some character could actually use a violin as a weapon. I wrote a story in which some cops catch a burglar who's carrying a violin case along with a sack full of stolen goods. They order him at gunpoint to open the case, and he does so to produce an ordinary violin. The police are dumbfounded, especially when he puts it under his chin and starts to play. The screeching hurts their ears so badly that he incapacitates them and gets away.

When I wrote these stories, I passed them around to my classmates, just the boys because I was too shy around girls. They always drew a few snickers, and they sometimes drew scorn from my teachers. I never got into any real trouble with them, because they were just silly – nothing provocative or disturbing. I think that my teachers were secretly happy that some kid in their class was actually writing stuff instead of goofing off in some less scholastic way.

This continued throughout my formative years and into college. I had learned to use a typewriter by then, so it was easier for me to circulate my stories. The availability of Xerox machines made it even more so. Nothing had really changed. I still wrote for the same reasons, to get a few chuckles out of my friends. I never considered myself to be a serious writer, and how could I? I never wrote anything serious. Writing was just an occasional pastime, of which I had many.

Besides, I had already decided what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was very good at it. I studied electrical engineering and computer science in college, and by the middle 80s, I was in the prime of a successful career. I still wrote stories, for the usual reasons, but something came along that would give me a way of reaching people far beyond my circle of friends and colleagues. It was called the Internet.

At that time, there was no such thing as a website. Although people use the terms World Wide Web and Internet interchangeably, the Web would not come along until the 90s. There was a good reason for this: link capacity. Virtually all Internet traffic was sent and received over telephone lines, at link speeds no greater than 9600 bits per second. This is between 1000 and 10,000 times slower than a typical home Internet connection of today, and most terminals worked at speeds even lower than that.

Relatively few people had access.  The only users at the time were people at colleges and universities, research labs, big companies, and government agencies. Users congregated in virtual public forums called newsgroups to exchange information, argue with one another, or tell ROT13 jokes (look it up).  This early core component of the Internet was called Netnews, and later, Usenet. Although there was some content policing, it was mostly unnecessary because there was no anonymity – anything you put on the Net could be traced back to you – and if you said something offensive or just plain dumb, you would get a deluge of "flames," that were very effective at putting you in your place.

Nevertheless, the newsgroups were read by tens of thousands of people worldwide – minuscule compared to today, but still a much larger and much more diverse reader population than I'd ever been able to reach before. At first, I was only reading and responding to what others had posted, but soon I began writing articles about things I was interested in, such as cars, music, electronics, and especially bicycles. Inevitably, I started writing stories, and to my astonishment, they became quite popular. Given the limited nature of the Net at that time, however, I suppose they reached, at most, a few thousand readers before they scrolled out of view.

In 1988 and 1989, I wrote a series of stories called, collectively, The Adventures Of Spike Bike in the rec.bicycles newsgroup. Spike Bike is a bicycle rider with a terminal – for his adversaries – case of road rage. Armed with combat skills and an array of armament befitting a Navy SEAL, Spike shoots and shreds his way through a dystopian future where heartless corporations control everything and vicious motorists think they can run down cyclists with no consequences. Spike provides the consequences.

I wrote and released them a few weeks apart. It was all a big joke, but the stories struck a nerve in the cycling community. People with Net access ran off copies to pass around to people who didn't have it, and all of a sudden, I found myself with a large fan base.

A lot of people encouraged me to get the stories into print. I knew nothing about publishing, but at the time, I subscribed to a magazine called Cyclist that encouraged submissions from readers. I sent a couple of the stories to the editor and he loved them. He ran one of the stories, along with an unrelated story I'd also sent him, and all of a sudden I became a published author.

The experience was exhilarating and a little frightening. I wasn't a serious writer, but I knew that many people who really wanted to be writers often tried and failed for years on end to get something into print anywhere. Cyclist went out of business before they published any more of my stories, but the experience made me think about my writing in a different light. I always wrote for fun, but I never expected or tried to reach a lot of people with my writing. In a way, I was kind of glad Cyclist went under. I didn't want to be famous in any way; I was content to have a job I enjoyed, one that paid well enough for me to have a few hobbies on the side.

The demise of Cyclist was not, however, the end of the story. Long after I wrote my very last Spike Bike story, people continued to read and circulate them on the Internet. As the Internet grew, they were read by more and more people all over the world, and for years on end I got requests from people, e.g., webmasters for bike clubs, who wanted to publish them on their websites. I granted permission for this so long as my byline and copyright notice remained intact. If you look for the stories even today, you can find them. I recently used such sources to reconstruct the collection, which is available here.

After Spike Bike, however, my life took a very serious turn. My father took ill, and I spent six months watching helplessly as he lost his battle with cancer. When he passed, I was devastated, and I threw myself into my work to try to cope with the loss. I lost my muse for story writing. I still did a good deal of mundane technical writing for my job, but laughs were hard to come by and even harder to elicit in others.

The Internet was changing rapidly, too. The old newsgroups were still there, but they had been largely supplanted by chat rooms and forums hosted by one special interest website or another. Now even those have receded into near-obscurity because of the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I had not only lost my muse for writing, I had lost my outlet. By the late 1990s, I was married and well into a midlife crisis that resulted in a brief foray into teaching before I returned to technology in the mid-2000s. I also had a child, at an age when many people are doting on their first grandchildren.

In 2006, Amazon launched an online community called Askville. The first contributors were by invitation only, and I was selected to be among them. Askville was a site where people could ask questions about just about anything, and contributors would select questions they had the expertise to answer. Those who answered were rewarded with star ratings and a valueless currency called Quest Gold. I enjoyed the diversion, and I answered a lot of questions about the very same topics I once subscribed to in the newsgroups.

Each question spawned a discussion area. Some of these soon became quite lively. Contributors, as well as the people asking the questions, could interact with one another in much the same way as we did on Usenet. It was fun, and I got to employ my penchant for snark and satire to get some laughs out of the friends I made there. It was not a suitable platform for writing stories, however, and after a few years, Amazon abandoned the project altogether. Nevertheless, it got me back into creative writing after a dry spell that had lasted 17 years.

I started making up stories again, too, but I was not writing them down. My daughter liked to be read to at bedtime, but she also liked it when I would make up little stories on the fly to help her get off to sleep. She still liked being read to well into her elementary school years, and we graduated from children's books to what is euphemistically called young adult fiction – stories targeted at kids in the later elementary grades and middle school.

We started reading the sardonic novels by Jeff Kinney and James Patterson about kids coming of age. I liked the stories, and it occurred to me that the genre would make good fodder for satire, my stock in trade when I was actively writing. That idea was to rattle around in my head for a while.

In 2014, I retired because of health problems. Although I no longer worked, my family obligations took up most of my time, but not all of it. I devoted my free hours to various household projects and a bit of personal enrichment, but by the summer of 2018, I decided to take a crack at story writing again. Using my ideas about coming-of-age books, I started to write stories about a 12-year-old kid I named Joshua Miller. My aim for Joshua was to get him into all kinds of outrageous predicaments, but the stories did not turn out the way I'd planned. I was writing again, but Joshua and his supporting cast took me in directions I never expected to go. Even though I was pushing seventy, I could still surprise myself. I guess that things like this make me appreciate being alive despite the problems I'm trying to cope with.

I've rambled enough in this posting, so I'll pick up that story next time. Since the story is ongoing, I expect to be here for a while.

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