Writers in the Stream

by Jack Ruttan

Originally published in Books in Canada, March, 1995

Why do writers come together in groups? For various reasons. First, there is the impulse to share things: gossip, complaints, hints on how to work. Secondly, for some it is important to get feedback and reaction to work. Otherwise, a piece can be published and there be no visible reaction. It becomes a rock dropped a down a bottomless well. Finally, there is the comfort of knowing there are others like them. Writers are strange beings, and meeting those such as themselves makes them feel a little less strange.

Yet in the end, the common wisdom is right: Writing is a solitary occupation. You are sitting in front of a machine, and it is up to you to make up the words that will go into it. Of course, the nature of that machine has changed. Remember back ten years ago, when all of those books and articles came out about writers encountering word processors. Now, with a modem, I can dial up the local university library and view a list of books on the subject of the Internet, that Hydra-headed construct allegedly linking thousands of computers around the globe into mine. My screen comes alive with words I did not put into it. Once more I encounter the proliferation of new terms, again the hyper enthusiasm. At an artist's dinner recently, a wild-eyed academic told me of the advantages of becoming a cyber-being and existing on every part of this planet at once.

I wish I had the voice of one of the great humourists to describe these new conditions, and avoid the "cyber-babble" that seems to overtake writers confronted with the emerging "Information Superhighway." Mark Twain might have liked it. After all, he was one of the first to adopt an unfriendly device called the typewriter. However, he also lost thousands investing in less then-functional early typesetting machines. Stephen Leacock had the advantage of being Canadian. He confronted novelty, but often as not found himself running away from it "in all directions."

What this new technology has wrought would at first glance seem to be a contradiction: The electronic writers' group. Now one can confer, converse and otherwise hob-nob with one's fellow writers, all the time never leaving the keyboard in one's darkened garret.

To find the electronic writers' group, one has to take a sharp left turn off the Information Super-Highway, and on to the Information gravel back-road. Fidonet is the name of a grass-roots network run by computer hobbyists based in cities and hamlets. Through an ingenious relay scheme using only long distance phone lines, they can send messages to anyone who wants them in the English-speaking world, all in the space of three days. Fidonet is not linked to institutions, costs much less than its bigger brother Internet, and goes to smaller, more obscure places. It is a tricky beast, subject to breakdowns, misdirected mail and the vagaries of volunteer labour and hardware. However, as with Dr. Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs, the wonder is not that the thing is done well, but that it is done at all.

On this network we find the WRITING "echo" (another evocative term meaning, for reasons unknown, "message conference." Fido has over 600 echoes distributed world-wide, from COOKING to COMICS and GAY AND LESBIAN ISSUES). It is called by its users a tavern--an appropriate metaphor, since many writers' gatherings take place in smoky, dirty, beer dens. Allow me to buy you a virtual soda (never, here, under any condition, say "the drinks are on me.") and introduce you to WRITING, an international on-line forum for writers.

Superficially, it bears little resemblance to a real writer's group (let alone a tavern) because it is made up entirely of words on a screen. Over 100 messages a day are posted from all corners of the network, on this continent and across-the-waves locales, by about the same number of regular and occasional posters. Messages are communicating mainly to individuals (some are addressed to that big universal "ALL"), and some may be addressed to you, but they are meant to be read by everyone. Whoever cares to may reply to, or "join in," an existing conversation. The messages themselves are more or less what might be traded around any writer's group. Points of grammar are argued, information exchanged, opinions voiced. What seems especially popular in this group are threads (that's a chain of messages under the same subject heading) where various forms of mayhem are discussed in the aid of science fiction or mystery plots. The advantage of a hat-pin in murdering royalty was one popular topic, as was the possible means of blowing up a future airplane carrier. Allegedly viable plans for a real fire breathing dragon have been drawn up.

Critiques of work in progress are also given, and here is where the electronic form varies most widely from the "real." First, on Fidonet lengthy messages are too expensive to send great distances by phone lines, so works critiqued are limited to excerpts never longer than a single typed page. Rather than having notes made in the margin, or a single paragraph at the end summing up a critic's opinion (though this last method is sometimes used), the excerpt is split open and autopsied, a line of text alternating with one of commentary. It is a very lively form of criticism, seeming to plunge into the place where the words themselves are made. Reading it is like watching a tennis match. The on-echo master (mistress?) of this technique is Patricia C. Wrede, a fantasy novelist from Minneapolis with about seven books to her credit (Mairelon the Magician, The Raven Ring). She could simply call attention to herself and let fans adore her, but she works hard in the echo, dissecting the least promising bits of sword and sorcery for no pay.

You see, impressive resumes are not what is important in this group, though the more experienced members writing-wise do answer many questions. It is participation that is the key, and the quality of such participation that counts.

Much gossip is traded on the echo. People complain about their medical conditions, or brag about their writing successes. Many are quite frank about their problems, because the computer screen, usually typed at alone, makes a kind of psychiatrist. The medium is ephemeral and receptive. Emotions, because they are contained in only a few lines, seem more elemental. At time, reading the messages is like seeing different people's diaries pop open, with all that is good about that, and bad. We get clear pictures of personalities, which may or may not have something to do with the real person. Certainly it has to do with their images of themselves. Most people's ways of posting are quite distinctive, and consistent.

Once, not long ago, a member of the tavern died suddenly. Electronic friends of the deceased were invited to send e-mail letters of condolence to the family. Such oddities are not all that is exchanged between participants. Disks with more complete samples of work make the rounds, as do photos and cards. It's not only one's electronic mailbox that becomes more interesting.

Members of the tavern take on projects on behalf of the entire group. Two volumes of collected works, called Eavesdropping (partially in memory of a tavern member's roof-repairing adventures), have been issued for the benefit of those who wish to receive it.

Works that make it out into the real arena of paper and print give some indication of the variety of the echo. Published this year was Ms. Wrede's Raven Ring book, and the Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean, whose love in the echo is writing about Shakespeare, and grammar. Lars Eighner has had praise in the highest levels of american media for his Travels With Lizbeth, a memoir of homelessness. The Horseman -- Obsessions of a Zoophiliac by "mark matthews" is exactly what it sounds like, and this frequent participant's predilection is a source of amusement for regulars, and shock for new arrivals. Works described as in progress or going out to publishers include a formally experimental novel of Kurdish life in Northern Iraq written by a B.C. resident, and a history of the television program, Hawaii Five-0.

The group is large enough that it encompasses a great range of tastes and interests. Fantasy and science fiction often dominate here, (the echo was founded by fantasy writers in Toronto and Minneapolis who used Fidonet as a means to keep in touch with each other), but experimental writing is discussed, childrens' literature, playwriting, nonfiction, even technical writing. Poetry is set aside to a different echo, which is a blessing to those who have read too many postings by first-time poets about the sky crying rain. Still, writing is a cross-section of the whole of the writing and want-to-be-writing world, meaning that for many the pinnacle of achievement in the art is the comfort and reputation of a Stephen King.

The youngest participant admits to thirteen years, the oldest, more reticent, is somewhere in her seventies. Several echo members have severe physical disabilities. A few have stayed in the group ever since its inception in 1986, and have seen every question and argument under the sun roll through it, rehearsed with different players. Women participate in the tavern to a much greater degree than in most computer message groups. One reason for this is the peaceful, cooperative nature of writing. Other conferences, such as most of those on internet, are intensely competitive, inhabited seemingly by those who it seems, if you make a mistake, jab their finger down and go "bzzzzt! Thank you for playing!" in the manner of a popular game show. Constantly, they try to one-up each other with displays of knowledge and prowess. Such individuals, referred to in computer vernacular as "twits," show up in writing once in a while, but a further difference from internet is that the conference has strict rules for conduct.

These are enforced by the "moderator," who in effect runs the conference, and is elected periodically by the membership. The moderator has the power to cut off users' access to the echo if rules are disobeyed, such as those against abusive language and personal attacks.

One such "twit," rebuffed, said angrily that he was actually a famous writer, merely testing the group with an appearance of ignorance. He gave as proof of his identity an ISBN number for a book, saying it was one of his many works. Someone on the echo searched and found that the number was for the Butterfly Plague by Timothy Findley. The deception was laid bare by another echo member who actually wrote Findley in France about the matter, and received a kind but puzzled letter in return. This incident at least had the value of getting American echo members to seek out Findley's books, and he acquired some new readers in this way.

That, then, is part of the value of this place, bringing new ideas to the attention of people. It is not possible to sit in a corner in the tavern and only see people exactly like oneself. Of course a major commonality among echo members is comfort with, and access to, a computer. These such are still a minority in this country. CBC radio records that approximately sixty percent of Canadian homes have a computer, while as of yet only thirty percent of them are hooked up to a modem. The world, however, is changing. Some of the participants in Fidonet were ham radio and hobbyist telegraph operators. They must find it amazing, and a little dismaying, that the kind of international chat they needed expensive equipment and exams and licenses to conduct is now being engaged in by bright twelve-year-olds with their new Christmas presents.

For some who are attracted to or involved in writing, but not living in cities where real writers' taverns are found, the electronic version puts them at least in touch with sympathetic consciousnesses. For others with greater social advantages, the electronic writers' group need not be a substitute for the real thing, but an extension. Laurie Campbell of Burnaby described well the virtues of writing in a message on the echo:

From: Laurie Campbell refer#: 16131

To: Jack Ruttan recvd: no

Subj: re: writing about writing conf: (117) writing ------------------------------------------------------------

That's pretty hard to put into a short message. Through the knowledge and experience that we're exposed to in the Tavern I've learned how to present my writing better, I've learned how to tighten up my writing so that I say the same thing with the same flavour in fewer, more effective words. I've learned that my telling anecdotes is considered a skill, and salable at that, which is something I would never have looked at as a possibility if I hadn't spent time with these people. I've learned how to critique my own work more effectively by watching how other people critique the excerpts posted, and arguing with others over points in their critiques of the excerpts. The way it has affected my work is to make it jell from something I dreamed of being able to do into something I know I can do. I've learned an incalculable amount about submitting my work to publishers. If ever I am published it will be because of the tavernites; their knowledge, experience, comfort, support, encouragement, generosity, kindness. They've changed the way I look at my writing and being a writer.


In the online world, everyone becomes a publisher as well as a reader, from Ph.D's to those more comfortable writing with crayons. Such a levelling gives a healthy jolt to the notion that print is some distant, unquestionable authority. A frequent sign off in echo messages is the acronym YMMV, meaning "your mileage may vary." It's not a very satisfying or final summing-up, because it leaves so much up to the readers themselves. They try and experiment with new things, finding what suits each individual. Dancing in chaos is what writer Ann Diamond called participating in these computerized forums. If you do dance with it, you can make some sense of the onrush of information. You make connections on your own: definitions or ideas you were thinking of, but could only half-conceive, strangers will go to great lengths to supply to you. Notions you didn't know you wanted to find or had an interest in appear magically in front of you. There is a lot of choice in working this way, a lot to digest. It can be trivia or misinformation at its worst. But when you jump into it, you find a way through it. You see the threads leading you through the electronic maze.

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