(I apologize in advance for any incoherence this article may contain thanks to my throbbing sinuses.)
“So this is what a real writer looks like,” was, I’m embarrassed to say, my first thought as I approached the Writer’s Dojo, a Portland writer’s resource center tucked away in north of the city. The woman who had caught my eye was wore an overcoat and carried a large Queen Bee Creations bag. I smiled, thinking of the Queen Bee bag slung over my own shoulder and feeling that perhaps I wouldn’t look entirely out of place despite the fact that I had gotten caught in a rainstorm on the way to the Dojo.
I’d like to excuse myself for these silly thoughts with such generalizations as “no one is immune to shallowness,” but that would be ignoring the truth of the matter, which is that I still feel as if I’m intruding on the Portland writer’s world instead of being a part of it. I pay attention to the way I dress because I feel as if maybe I can make myself look the part people won’t realize that I’m still an amateur. Perhaps it’s a symptom of my own mental transition from academic to writer. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the mental energy these days to devote much time to fiction, which I would love to eventually have time to do (it just feels irresponsible to dream about the lives of others while I, myself, am mostly unemployed.) But I think the most likely reason of all is that I am not yet published (though this will change in a small capacity shortly. I’ve landed a small freelance gig, but I’ve hesitated to post about it here so that I don’t jinx anything.).
This muddle of thoughts is actually central to a lot of what I got out of attending the Writer’s Dojo panel discussion on publishing, community and social media. Featuring writers, small-press publishers, and the owners of literary social networking sites, the discussion panel answered questions and posed new ones about the future of publishing: What does it mean that with technologies such as Twitter and blogs, anyone can be their own publisher? Does blogging about your day smother the seeds of stories by forcing them out into the open air prematurely? Do people still read books? And what about the fact that a lot of people need solitude to write and don’t want to constantly be able to communicate?
Despite my nerves, the atmosphere was genial and open, becoming more of a giant conversation than a lecture, and I’m sorry to simplify what was an all-together fascinating panel into this small write-up, but this was what stuck with me. This is the second panel I’ve attended on this subject, and I’m more than a little surprised about the one commonality between this one and the one I attended at Wordstock: The panelists at both were very concerned about what “the kids” think about print media, and yet, “the kids,” for the most part, didn’t attend these discussions. I don’t know what to make of the latter point, but I’d like to speak a bit to the former. Being on the younger end of my twenties, I’m more or less on the upper edge of the age group in question and felt a little awkward hearing such joking comments as “Yeah, you want a 20-year-old to do your marketing!” It’s akin to hearing relatives discuss your life at a family function, referring to you in the third person while you stand right next to them, staring at your shoes.
As the conversation moved in fascinating directions such as the usefulness of paper media for annotation, and the fact that children still grow up with books (and children books are amongst the most beautiful printed), I often wanted to raise my hand and offer a recent college graduate’s perspective. (Unfortunately, I’m short, shy, and was sitting behind tall people, so by the time I got called on, the conversation had moved in such a direction that I mumbled something about the kinds of interactive fiction I’ve seen on Livejournal, primarily in fandom, where people are supposed to respond to journal entries as if the characters were real people, and came off as a not particularly serious sci-fi dork, but that sorry tale is neither here nor there). What I had wanted to say though, is that the person who brought up children’s books hit the nail on the head: I don’t know anyone my age who sees books as obsolete. I heard of a few people who hate reading, but not even my constantly plugged-in little brother is ready to give up books yet (granted, he doesn’t hate reading.).
This brings me back to the issue of publishing and the question of what makes a “real” writer: yes, anyone can be published these days through blogs or twitter. There are sites designed to help you archive web comics and sites which which you can use to print small runs of your work for family and friends. Before all this, zinesters were self-publishing their work armed only with a copier and a stapler. But even amongst people younger than me, I don’t know if anyone considers these self-publishing tools to be “real” yet. From what I can tell, and I admit that I’ve never truly been in an online writing scene (there’s more than one), writing on the net is still seen as a prelude to a book deal. Getting recognized by a publisher still has a kind of mystique. When a fanfic author such as Cassandra Clare, both infamous and famous in the Harry Potter fandom, gets a book deal, people see it as having moved on to the big leagues. At this point, I think it’s both the seal of quality publishers assure for readers and the affirmation they provide writers that keep self-publishing in this manner less mainstream. If these attitudes change, well, the sky’s the limit.
I write a lot of articles on this blog. People have commented both positively and negatively, and it’s a lot of fun. I feel like my voice is being heard. Nevertheless, I don’t think of it as publishing my thoughts. I don’t consider myself a journalist or a published writer at this point, which is why I still feel like I’m performing something I’m not when I go to events like this panel. I still list myself in the “aspiring” category, someone who’s still striving make her output match her ideas, and then, with a little luck, her output match her dreams of publication. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind. Maybe I’ll be published before I have to change my mind. Or maybe I’ll opt out of all of worry of when I can truly call myself a writer and join the publishing world (or try and make my way in both.) Until then, I’ll still worry that I’m out of place at writing events, checking out the aura of the authentic writers and wondering when I can walk among them with confidence. Even if our publishing media has democratized, I’m not sure our attitudes have. At least mine sure haven’t.