The Writer on the Computer

Because of my illness, I often have to rest, but I don’t want to lie down and sleep. I just need to give my brain a breather from concentrating on recipes, housework, or gardening. It’s at times like these that I turn to the internet. We all know the refrain that scrolling (or doomscrolling) is a scourge, that instead of being online we should disconnect, get outside, read, or something similarly non-technological. But I would argue that being online is actually helpful to me: it’s like my own mini-MFA.  

I like to pop in and out of my Twitter and BlueSky feeds, to see what literary and scientific ideas come up that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I subscribe to several (too many?) newsletters, from which I can find out what other writers are up to and benefit from the insights and stories they share. These resources also alert me to new books coming out, so I can decide whether or not I want to review them. I chat with my online writing friends on Slack and Facebook, cheering on successes and commiserating about disappointments, and sharing our individual expertise and resources with each other. ‘Surfing the web’ isn’t a pointless activity for me. It’s a way of maintaining my community and learning new things.

It’s the learning new things part that I really enjoy. I try to read several essays a week, usually by people whose work I respect and admire. A few weeks ago I read an essay by Bathsheba Demuth in Granta, and one by Steve Edwards in The Yale Review. I spent my time on the web reading and re-reading these essays. Trying to figure out how the authors had built them to make them sing. Deconstructing them paragraph by paragraph to get at the entrails, the bits of glue that held them together. I still have more re-reading to do. But I was sufficiently bowled over by these two essays that I spent a few hours poring over them. Trying to figure out their secret.

Because I have a secret of my own. I want to write essays like that. Meandering, braided beasts that surface interesting nuggets from within a bright palette of words. Essays that surprise and delight, while maintaining shades of deeper meaning. For me, surfing the web means finding and reading (and re-reading) essays like this. It means honing my craft by learning from others. It means letting my mind free-fall into that liminal space between doing and being so I can see an essay from the side, as it were, in a slanted light that illuminates its structure and reveals its many braided strands.

Yes I can read books on craft, particularly essay structure and style. And I do that as well. In fact, a friend and I are working through The Writer’s Personal Mentor by Priscilla Long, honing our writing craft. But there’s something about finding a brand-new essay online, by someone you ‘know,’ that’s different than working from exercises in a book. Those essays grab me now, and I want to figure out what makes them tick.

Some may see me on my computer and think I’m wasting time. And maybe I am in some small ways, like when I post a funny dog picture on Facebook. But for the most part I’m developing my writing craft by reading others’ essays. I’m commiserating with my writing colleagues. Being part of a writing community, to learn from the best and contribute my own experiences and work.

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