Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Yesterday, Steve Bougerolle tagged me for the meme of listing “ten books that stayed with you in some way.”

Considering I’ve been on a diet of three to ten books per week (depending on their density) since I was eight or nine, confining myself to ten is a bit of a challenge. Nor did I simply want to name without commenting, or to bother other people with the meme, which is why I am blogging rather than just answering on Facebook.

Still, here is my list, in no particular order:

  • George Eliot, Middlemarch: I’m one of those who think that Middlemarch is the greatest Victorian novel. The story of several couples in a small industrial town, the novel has a psychological depth that is unequaled even today. I’ve read it three times, and can easily imagine me reading several more times, each time finding something new to admire.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: I started reading the first book of the trilogy one Saturday in the summer between Grades Four and Five. I spent a very long Sunday evening waiting for Monday so I could get the last two volumes from the store. The experience was overwhelming, and gave me a life-long taste for fantasy and science fiction.
  • Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Although I have been an agnostic since my mid-teens, I always assumed that a historical Jesus existed. But when I read this plausible case for the non-existence of Jesus, I was shocked for one of the few times in my life. I felt cheated that so much history and art had been founded on nothing. The book itself is obsessive to the point of unhealthiness, but worth wading through for its ideas.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign: I read this fragment of the Vorkosigan Saga for the first time a few months ago. Two weeks later, I read it again – something I almost never do. A mixture of space opera, Shakespearean comedy, and Regency romance, A Civil Campaign is one of the funniest books I have ever read, with a cast of characters that you can laugh at while still identifying with.
  • George Orwell, Collected Essays: This collection features not only the calm clarity of Orwell’s writing, but also the best record of what it was like to be an English intellectual in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time I finished it for the first time, it had had a permanent effect – for the better, I believe – on my prose style by making me much more aware of what my goals in writing were.
  • Wilkie Collins, No Name: A young woman is declared illegitimate, and seeks revenge and justice in Victorian England. Of course she has to repent at the end, but watching her get to that point is so much fun it hardly matters. This is one of the lost classics of Victorian literature, and deserves to be better known.
  • Susan Faludi, Stiffed:, The Betrayal of the American Man: I had read Backlash and admired it, but Stiffed, which was relatively ignored, is even more monumental. Feminists often say that men suffer under patriarchy as well, but, so far as I know, Faludi is the only feminist who set out to examine and prove this contention. It’s a book that every feminist should read, and every anti-feminist as well, and establishes what Backlash first suggested: Faludi is one of the great modern American journalists.
  • Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson, The Pragmatics of Human Communication: This classic textbook applies system theory to psychology. For me, it was a gateway to the works of Gregory Bateson, Jacques LaCan, and Anthony Wilden, and, as such, a lifelong influence on my habits of thought.
  • Carl Gustav Jung, Collected Works (in English): I worked steadily through these thick volumes as I was writing my thesis. Jung is not an easy read, but he gave me the intellectual framework for studying fantasy and proved to me the importance of symbols in people’s thinking. If I seem eccentric, one reason is that I am more of a Jungian while most people are Freudians or anti-Freudians.
  • Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book: As a boy, I loved the deliberately archaic language and the poems between the stories, as well as their genuine pathos. I probably wouldn’t have stayed in Cubs as long as I did, except I loved the fact that the rituals were based on Kipling’s poetry.

Give me another five list items, and I would include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which started me reading anarchists, and the collected works of Shelley, which taught me most of what I know about poetry and kept me sane during my warehouse job between high school and university. But give me another five, and I would undoubtedly want space for another five, and five more after that. For me, books are not just ways to kill time, but some of the main building blocks of my psychology (most of the rest being music and people). So when I’m asked to list influential books, in an indirect way, I’m really telling my own story, which to me seems endless.

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Will Self recently published an article in which he proclaimed George Orwell a “literary mediocrity” and his admirers even more so. In particular, he condemns Orwell’s rules for writing in “Politics and the English Language” as a reaction to the inevitable growth and change of language. My first reaction to these statements is that nobody has a right to condemn an influential writer as mediocre unless they can demonstrate at least equal skill, which, both analytically and structurally, Self has not done. My second is that his interpretation is so unsupported that it seems a willful misunderstanding.

If you have any interest in writing at all, you have probably seen Orwell’s rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Contrary to Self, these rules are concerned with clarity, so to claim that they are even implicitly about the evolution of language is forced. Besides, when “Politics and the English Language” ends with the claim that its topic “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear,” Orwell cannot possibly be said to be resisting linguistic change. In fact, far from being against change, Orwell’s rules overall advocate originality, and an avoidance of over-used expressions.

Moreover, as I used to explain every semester when teaching university composition, the rules are far more flexible than a general impression of them suggests. For example, most people reading the first rule emphasize “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech.” However, Orwell’s real concern is expressed in the words that most people forget: “which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell is not trying to ban figures of speech, but to encourage original, expressive ones.

Similarly, Orwell’s second rule does not blindly favor short words or longer ones. The result of following such a rule would be an affected simplicity of the kind that you sometimes see in Hemingway. If you mean to convey only a general sense of size, then “big” might do, but if you want to suggest something truly outsized, then “humongous” would be a more appropriate word choice, even though it is three times as long.
In the same way, “Never use the passive where you can use the active” proposes a general rule, but makes the choice a matter of purpose. If you want to suggest helplessness in a short story, “A groan issued from his lips” would be a better choice than “he groaned,” and never mind that it is in the passive voice. Nor, to judge from Orwell’s own writing, would he hesitate to use “a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word” if no “everyday English equivalent” comes to mind.

However, of all Orwell’s six rules, the last one is the most important. “Politics and the English Language” is all about original, forceful, and clear expression. With these concerns, presumably the last thing Orwell wanted to do was limit expression artificially, so in the last rules, he specifically provides for exceptions. He is talking about general tendencies, but in the end what counts for him is whatever works, not keeping the rules. “One could keep all of them and still write bad English,” he admits in the paragraph after them, and their sole virtue is that even a bad example of them would avoid the over-inflated type of English he condemns.

Of course, like all writers, when Orwell advises about writing, he is on some level rationalizing his own style, and his advice may not be as meaningful to some readers as to others. However, before Self or anyone dismisses his work as mediocre or out of date, they should at least do him the courtesy of responding to what he actually said, instead of debunking what they imagine he says.

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For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write. I took what I thought was a sensible detour and concentrated on teaching for a while, but every career change brought me closer to what I really wanted to do. Today, I make my living writing non-fiction, and I have managed to publish a few poems and stories – although admittedly fewer than I would prefer. However, one thing I have never done is join a writer’s group online or in-person.

I could do so easily enough, if I cared to. A whole industry exists to tell wannabe writers how to write, and many wannabes seem to enjoy hanging out with like-minded people. With a single phone call or email, I could probably wrangle at least an invitation to some sort of writer’s group.

Yet somehow, I never have. Although I have no trouble writing in a crowded coffee shop, for me writing is a solitary activity. By contrast, joining a group is a social activity, and the connection between writing and a writers’ group has never been clear to me. I’m not about to tell somebody else that they shouldn’t join a writers’ group, but the idea simply doesn’t attract me.

I know that I could get plenty of feedback if I did join a group. However, just because someone is a wannabe doesn’t mean that their criticism is worth hearing. The number of people who are useful as first readers is small in any group, and from occasional interactions with wannabes, I see no reason to think they would be an exception.

If anything, I suspect that assorted insecurities would make most members of a writer’s group somewhat worse first readers than the random assortment of friends and relatives I occasionally go to for an opinion now. More often than not, what I would hear is not how to improve a passage, but how the wannabe would write it, and why their suggestion was better than my implementation. If I did find some members of a writers’ group whose opinion was useful to me, I would still have to sit patiently through the criticisms from others that were no help.

More importantly, ever since I encountered a poet’s cafe when I was in high school, I’ve had the shrewd idea that writers’ groups are less about writing than the idea of being a writer. The groups do seem to produce more published writers than any random sampling, but they do appear to be places where people talk about writing more often than they produce a manuscript. Story ideas, hints about finding an agent, overcoming writer’s block, the latest software – the conversation continually circles writing, but only occasionally focuses on it.

Rightly or wrongly, I get the impression that wannabes are unconsciously hoping to find the shortcut that will turn them into writers overnight. Failing that, they want the support of like-minded people to reinforce their fantasy that they are moving closer to becoming writers. Yet at best, having writing ambitions is a hobby that justifies socializing and attending conferences.

This attitude clearly gives them pleasure, and I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong as such with living in the community of wannabe writers. Without any sarcasm, I’m sure that community can be very comforting at times. I just think that the fantasy is always threatening to become more important than having pages to send off for publication

For myself, I don’t have time for most of their activities. I don’t have time to talk about what I’m going to write, because I am too busy researching it, I can’t agonize over writers’ block, because I have deadlines. I suspect, too, that I will learn more about writing analyzing a novel that I admire and trying the techniques I observe that reading yet another article of tips.

Maybe other people have had different experiences of writers’ groups, and find them worthwhile. All I can say is that, for me, they seem too unconnected to writing to be a serious temptation.

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Towards the end of 2014, I will have been writing about free and open source software (FOSS) for a decade. The realization surprises me, because I am used to thinking of myself a newcomer. More – I still think of myself as an outsider whose criticisms do not apply to me as much as those who might be called colleagues. Under the circumstances, I hesitate to talk about the quality of coverage that FOSS receives, even though honesty forces me to say that much of it is not very good.

The outlook is not completely bleak. There are some FOSS journalists whom I am proud to call colleagues, such as Carla Schroder, with her practical outlook and wicked turn of phrase, or Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls who has been reporting and commenting on technology in general and FOSS in particular longer than just about anyone.

However, for every one whom I admire, there are many others who leave me wincing and rushing to analyze my latest article to check whether I am guilty of exactly the same tendencies that I publicly deplore. Specifically, I see at least seven problems with how FOSS is covered:

A lack of journalistic training: I was lucky to have apprenticed at Linux.com in the days of Robin Miller and Lee Schlesinger. Even though I have no formal education in journalism, they hammered into my head the ethical standards of journalism, teaching me about fairness, conflicts of interest and the differences between reporting and editorializing, as well as a dozen other things I needed to know. However, too many of those writing about FOSS – like most of the computer press in general – have no idea that they need anything beyond a fondness for the sound of their own voice. They don’t know how to summarize opposing views accurately, much less that they have any obligation to try. Nor do they check facts. Readers are the poorer for their failures.

A lack of business and marketing experience: Working in business is invaluable for a tech journalist. Such experience teaches you how far you should trust news releases and how a product is brought to market. Unless you know these things, you are likely to be credulous, accepting information that you should be questioning. For instance, when Canonical announced the first vendor for its phones but declined to say who that vendor was, most FOSS journalists focused on the first part of the news and ignored the second. Only blogger Larry Cafiero, who is a mainstream journalist by day, reached the right conclusion: Without the vendor’s name, the news was the manufacturing equivalent of vaporware and essentially worthless.

An imbalance between writing skills and technical expertise: Like the technical writers who crank out manuals, FOSS journalists come in one of two forms. Either they are people who know how to write, or people with expertise. The result? On one hand, you get well-written articles that tend to avoid technical details. On the other hand, you get expert articles that are so arcane that they might as well be written in assembly language. Too few writers seem to strive for articles that are both well-written and expert in their subject matter.

An apocalyptic outlook: Talking about companies and products, FOSS journalists tend to speak in absolutes. Linux will bury Windows one day, and Android triumph absolutely over iOS. What no one notices, however, is that such Conan-esque victories rarely occur except when you are talking about startups and very small companies. When the companies involved are larger, what you usually see is incomplete victories in which market share changes hand, but most of the competitors continue to co-exist.

Quickie reviews: Once you have experience, writing reviews is easier because you know what to look for. Yet, even then, you need time to investigate. But, instead of taking the necessary time, too many reviews touch on the least important parts of their topics, such as the installation program. Nor do they take the time to look for general tendencies in a new release, simply recording a bunch of random observations instead. Such practices frequently make reviews next door to useless.

Too much fanboyism (or fangirlism): It should go without saying that those who write about FOSS believe in it and see themselves as helping it grow. However, loyalty to a cause should not mean blind acceptance of every vagary. As naïve as it sounds, journalists are supposed to deliver the first draft of history, doing their best to tell the truth even when doing so is inconvenient for the causes they support. They may be diplomatic in their expression of the truth, but they are still supposed to express it. This obligation does not make them traitors, as you sometimes hear; if anything, they are being more useful than those who pretend that no problems exist that need to be exposed.

Encouraging personality cults: FOSS is full of colorful personalities. However, although defining an issue as a battle between a couple of people adds drama to an issue, it usually simplifies and distorts it. For instance, the existence of the armed camps of free software and open source is not due just to the fact that Richard Stallman and Linus Toravalds have different personalities and leadership styles, but also to very different motivations shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Were Stallman or Torvalds to die abruptly, the issues would be no less urgent or influential.

In making these observations, I am not excluding myself. At one time or other, I have probably been guilty of all these problems, and one or two of them, I uneasily suspect, may be habitual with me. In fact, part of my reason for mentioning this problem is to identify them so that I can do more to avoid them.

But in addition to being a writer, I am also a reader. While I know all too well that deadlines mean that articles do not always receive the amount of thought they deserve, I also get impatient with the fact that so few articles about FOSS are worth reading or add to my understanding. Many of us who write about FOSS could do much better than we do – but we are hardly likely to try if the problems are never mentioned to begin with.

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Every now and then, someone takes a harsh view of my journalism – not my how-tos and reviews so much as my commentary. From some people’s perspectives, I am trolling, trying to deliberately create controversy, specifically in the hopes of getting more page hits on my articles. I never quite know how to answer such attacks, because they are so far from what actually happens that I doubt they would believe my explanations could possibly be true.

However, if I did try to explain, I would have to start with the fact that I am a writer, not an editor. Unlike an editor, I hardly think about page hits. Page hits may affect whether a given website continues to buy my articles, and occasionally an editor will veto a suggested topic on the grounds that it has never done well, but otherwise? Planning writing around page hits sounds all too likely to mean writing about topics that don’t particularly interest me, or about which I have nothing original to say. If I wanted to write that way, I would go back to writing technical manuals, which not only pays more, but also pays more regularly.

My first consideration when choosing a topic is whether I can write about it while it is still timely. Online articles are rarely current for more than a few days, and sometimes my other obligations or the complexity of what I would like to say mean that I have no time to do a particular topic. justice, even if it interests me. Rather than do a superficial job, in these situations I prefer to ignore a topic altogether.

However, for me, the biggest perq of journalism is that I get to write about what interests me, restricted only by the need for editorial approval. When I am generating topics, what I think about is: Am I interested enough in this topic to spend the hours that the story takes to write? Are the facts interesting and important to readers? Do I have any perspectives that are different enough from those of the half dozen or so others who might write on this topic that I can contribute something original to the discussion?

Unless I can answer all these questions with “Yes,” I usually avoid a story – which is why I only occasionally write about breaking news. (Well, that and the fact that living on the Pacific coast means that by the time I log on in the morning, writers living on the east coast have probably already filed their stories). I figure that a story that will bore me will probably bore a lot of readers as well, and fortunately most editors regard me as more than a reporter on the beat. Most of the time, most editors will trust my judgment on whether a story is worth writing.

Perhaps I should be flattered that my detractors think of me as a sort of Professor Moriarty of journalism, constantly engaged in manipulations of everyone around me in the fulfillment of some obscure but diabolical agenda. But honestly? I lack both the energy and inclination for the requisite plotting.

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For most of the last week, I’ve been having a troll problem. I’m not going to provide a link, because one encounter with trolls is very much like another. Usually, it starts with a hijacked thread, and involves a lot of generalizations and name-calling based on comments taken out of context, conspiracy theories, and a kind of naive cynicism that insists that I could never have done anything except for the worst of reasons.. This encounter was no different, and, like the others I’ve had, leaves me uncertain how I should respond.

I have no trouble with someone who disagrees with me. I enjoy the benefits of a liberal education, in which differences of opinion are seen as a chance to deepen and expand the discussion. Nor am I young enough to expect everyone to like me – in fact, in most cases, I’m relieved when a troll dislikes me, because I usually don’t think much of them, either.

But as a former teacher of rhetoric and composition, I am by nature incapable of ignoring a fallacious argument – especially if it is directed at me. Let someone judge me by a single sentence from a single work, or misquote or take a sentence out of context, and I’m immediately tempted to leap in with a correction. As I have said many times, if you’re going to disagree with what I’ve said, please make it something I actually said and not something that you imagine that I have said. Whether out of carelessness, vindictiveness, or inability, very few trolls seem capable of reading or reporting with any accuracy or precision, so enticing me to reply is often ridiculously easy.

Not only that, I am all too aware of how others might interpret my silence. Will they go away thinking that the troll’s inaccuracies are true? Will they think that my silence is an admission of guilt, that I am ashamed to reply? Worse, will I think myself cowardly? With such questions buzzing in my mind, I can easily find myself wrestling with trolls before I realize what I am doing.

At the same time, I am well-aware that answering is only going to waste my time. By definition, trolls lack an open-mind, and no eloquence of mine will coax an apology out of them, ever. Anything I say will be taken in the worst possible way, if not dismissed outright, and I will convince them of nothing. If I manage to counter one barrage, another will simply start up from a different direction, often using my replies as additional ammunition against me. Under these circumstances, almost anything else will be a better use of my time.

Usually, I compromise, and confine myself to two replies. That way, I reason, I can satisfy my urge to reply and correct any misrepresentations for any audience without taking up too much of time. This time, unfortunately, I was distracted enough to make several other replies before stepping back, mainly because it has been a couple of years since I dealt with a troll, but I’ll remember next time.

This morning, after the thread’s owner had shut it down, the troll started up again from their own account. I’ve resisted the temptation to see what they are saying, but from experience I can predict it. They’ll revise the encounter to make me seem the unreasonable one, and their friends will chime in with words of support that will make them feel heroic for opposing my Satanic self.

But I’ll let them do so unopposed. I’m annoyed that I let myself be dragged in, and I won’t make the same mistake again any time soon. I never know whether attribute such encounters to hypocrisy, or incompetence, but what is clear to me is that, whatever this last week, it wasn’t a meeting of two minds. Att best, it was only a meeting of one and a half.

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Last night, I realized I hadn’t backed up my /home directory for a while. In fact, my last backup was months ago, rather than days. Horrified, I stayed up late until my files were backed up. I knew that if I didn’t, I would spend long hours brooding, completely convinced that my hard drive would fail the next time I powered up. I have an obsession about backups, and with good reason.

I bought my first computer in the last month of thesis preparation, transitioning from an IBM Selectric, which with its swappable type-balls had once seemed the highest technology I could imagine, but which the computer quickly proved was obsolete.

For the first week, the computer sat at the dining room table, where I learned the basics of WordPerfect while adding the latest versions of my thesis chapters to the files. I was proud of my foresight in having listed about twenty of the basic formatting tasks I needed to do on file cards that I taped to the side of the monitor.

By the time I transferred the hardware a week later to the computer desk that my father made for me, I was convinced that I was adjusting well to the computer. Really, I kept thinking, what was the fuss about? Everyday, I was memorizing several commands, and my thesis was developing far better than it ever had on the typewriter.

The day came that I intended how to backup my files to a floppy. I was sitting at the computer desk, enjoying a late spring day that was warm enough for me to have the balcony door open, luxuriating in spending so many successive days just writing.

Falling into full writing mode, I took a while to realize that the weather had changed. When I finally surfaced from my work, the sun was gone, and the day had turned dark. Around me, in the middle distance, I could hear thunder and I was anticipating enjoying any lightning from my sheltered position. I had no worry at all about the computer – after all, I had a surge protector.

The thunder came closer. Above me, on Burnaby Mountain, it must have been rattling the windows on the campus of Simon Fraser University, where I was studying. I was relaxed, knowing myself safe and dry despite the approaching storm.

But maybe, I told myself, I shouldn’t take any chances. I started to shut down the computer. The thunder sounded directly overhead, and in a panic I reached for the power bar. I had one plug ripped out when the loudest crash of thunder yet sounded just above the roof of my townhouse and the monitor flashed and faded to black.

For several hours, I listened to the storm, pacing and fretting. Half an hour after the last thunder, I tried to turn on the computer and my worst fears were confirmed. I had been too late, and my computer was now an expensive door stop.
One of the worst weeks of my life followed. I was tentatively booked to defend my thesis in six weeks, which meant that I had a month at the most to put it in shape for my committee to read. Any delays, and the committee members would be dispersed for the summer, and I would have to wait three months for the fall semester to defend, instead of venturing out to teach at the community colleges.

Not knowing if anything on the hard drive might be salvaged, I couldn’t wait to find out. Dragging out the Selectric, I did my best to recreate the latest revisions that I had put on the computer. I kept thinking of Hemingway leaving a manuscript on a train and other literary disasters. I started working eighteen hours a day, and dreamed of typing in the few hours of troubled sleep I managed each day.

In the end, I was lucky. The lightning had melted a transistor on the motherboard, which had prevented any surges from reaching the hard drive. My chapters were safe.

The first thing I did was make backups. The next was to make sure that I backed up the hard drive at least once a week, and more often when I’m especially busy. I had a distracted summer, which explains my recent lapses, but you can be sure that I’m going back on a regular schedule, effective as soon as I write the necessary cron job.

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A few weeks ago, an editor requested that I not start an article with a quote. They said it made them feel as though they were coming into the middle of a discussion they knew nothing about. I pride myself on being nothing less than professional, and don’t imagine that I am writing immortal prose, so I used another opening strategy as requested. However, I still believe that the request was more a matter of personal preference than a general rule.

To start with, in any opening paragraph, readers are coming into the middle of a discussion, so the same objection can be raised about any chosen tactic. Perhaps the quote I used wasn’t perfectly suited to its position, but that is no reason to condemn the use of an opening quote in general.

In fact, starting in the middle is a time-honored literary technique. It was recognized more than two millenia ago by the Roman poet Horace, who called it in media res, as opposed to ab ovo, or starting from the beginning. Admittedly, it is usually thought of as a technique for epic poetry or fiction, but a journalistic article is often a form of narrative, too. Personally, I figure that what was good enough for Homer in The Odyssey or Shakespeare in Hamlet is good enough for me.

For another, part of the purpose of an opening tactic is to attract readers’ curiosity. Sometimes the topic is novel enough or important enough that the first paragraph needs no embellishment, but that is an exception. An article published online is competing with thousands of others for readers’ attention, and, so long as you don’t mislead or make exaggerated claims, anything that helps it get noticed seems worth trying.

In this case, part of the reason that I started with a quote is that it is a reasonably uncommon tactic. But, in addition, the quote made an unusual claim, which I was counting on to raise curiosity enough for them to read the next few sentences, where they would learn more clearly what the article was about.

Moreover, because a quote implies a speaker, it is automatically personal and direct. Writers of new releases know that a quote helps interest readers – so much so that many make sure that the a quote falls in the second or third paragraph to keep readers going. In a long news release, writers will often add additional quotes further down to reduce the odds of readers’ attention straying. Although articles are less mechanically structured than news releases, quotes can have similar advantages in journalism. Starting with a quote has a strong chance of attracting readers’ attention precisely because it is so personal and direct.

Anyway, even if none of what I said here were true, a part of me always regards a general rule about writing as a challenge. Tell me that something can’t be done – or worse, shouldn’t be done – and my impulse is to try to do it successfully. So, while I have made a note to avoid using an initial quote any time that I work with this particular editor (who otherwise shows a keen sense of how to improve a piece of prose), don’t be surprised if I use one elsewhere. Being told I shouldn’t only makes me all the more likely to try.

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My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer used to insist that poetry was supposed to be heard. He proved it many times, booming out his verse at bardic circles around the Bay Area and science fiction conventions across North America. His position was a welcome reminder, but I had learned its truth while I was in university during a single magical day.

At the time, I was serious about poetry, writing and publishing regularly, and theorizing about metrics in the little time left over from my academic classes. I was skeptical about the poetic establishment (as any young poet should be), and sure I was going to shake it up (and never be one of those academic poets who taught for a living). When my friend Stuart announced a garden party during which his new poem, a Georgian pastoral, would be read, I quickly took on the voice of the Young Man in the poem.

The day of the reading was one of those hard, bright days that the Lower Mainland sometimes gets in summer. The setting was the garden of Stuart’s parents, which softened the harshness of the day with a mixture of strategic shade and explosions of flowers. Among the guests were Stuart’s girlfriend of the moment and her younger sister of sixteen, as well as my high school English teacher, who lived a few houses down.

I was proud to be taking part and doing my bit to take poetry out of the class room. Aided by a few glasses of wine, I read my part in increasingly rolling tones, like an out of control Laurence Olivier without the talent, intoxicated more by my own self-importance than the alcohol. As always happens when I start reciting poetry, I felt myself taken over by the poetry, and I floated through the rest of the party with a lingering sense of excitement.

But that wasn’t all. When Stuart drove his girlfriend and her sister to catch the ferry to Nanaimo, I went with them. Since we had missed one ferry, we stopped at West Vancouver’s miniature Parthenon.

The place was some millionaire’s folly, with a small temple built on a headland and some credible copies of Classical Greek statues. People used to stop at the first rest stop after the ferry to look down on it and take photos of it with their telephoto lenses and to marvel of the incongruity of the place in the middle of the rain forest.

It’s long gone now, divided into subdivisions after the owner’s death. In fact, it was being dismantled when we visited, the statues hauled from their plinths and a couple of the temple’s columns blackened by fire. Yet, in a way, the ruined splendor added to the attraction. We slipped past the No Trespassing signs in the growing dark, and were soon standing on the plinths, reciting bits of Stuart’s poem, our words booming off the cliffs that ringed the temple on most of its landward side.

For a while, I worried that the sound would bring the police down on us, especially since we were waving bottles of beer and hard cider as we declaimed. I was worrying, too, about how I might get the sister’s phone number before she boarded the ferry. But the sound of our voices was so impressive that I soon forgot such considerations.

Suddenly, the ruins and rocky cliffs reminded me of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” I began reciting it by heart, the sound of my voice much improved by the echoes off the cliffs. I remember experimenting with various pitches, completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the words rolling through the air around me.

It must have been almost as impressive to the others as it was to me, because when I was done, everyone was silent for a moment, and began praising my delivery. Even I recognized that nothing could follow Coleridge’s masterpiece, and that it was clearly time to go.

I don’t remember dropping off the women, or returning to my parent’s house an hour or so later. But I do remember enthusing to Stuart about the importance of hearing poetry, and turning off the light that night, still glowing from the glory of the sound in the temple. That, I decided, was how poetry should be heard, and I fell asleep full of plans to save the place as a park so that others could enjoy what I had. It was only next morning that I realized I had forgot to get the sister’s phone number, and, even then, I was still so light-headed from the experience that I only minded a little.

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This morning, I booted my computer to learn than an article of mine had reached Slashdot. It wasn’t the first time, nor even twentieth. All the same, the news made me feel that the engines of the world had received a tune-up overnight, and were now purring along the way they were supposed to.

The first time an article of mine appeared on Slashdot, I was less restrained. Actually, I shouted, “Yes!” in the middle of the office and did a sincere but awkward tap dance down the aisles while I punched the sky and alternated between chortles and meaningless ecstatic sounds. Not bad, I thought, considering that four months earlier I hadn’t even heard of Slashdot, the portal site for geeks and nerds.

However, if my reaction this morning was more subdued, it was just as full of satisfaction. As a reader, I may express disdain for Slashdot’s audience, dismissing its members as immature, misogynistic, and possessed of an instinctive ability to miss the point in any given story. Yet each time Slashdot links to an article of mine, I feel the same heady mixture of satisfaction and vindication.

This reaction is only peripherally connected to the fact that I get a small bonus when Slashdot links to one of my articles. By the time I receive that bonus, at least three weeks will have passed, and the bonus is not so large that I can indulge in much anticipatory spending.

Nor is my ego triggered by the fact that a segment of the free software world will be chewing on my thoughts down to the bone like a school of piranhas. After all, I’ve no stranger to comments, and, although I make the point of reading most of what people say about my articles, familiarity has long ago bred indifference to all but the most quirky or thoughtful reactions.

Besides, by the time Slashdot picks up a story, I’ve usually moved on. Even if only a day or two has passed, I’m working on another story – which makes me wonder how actors and writers manage to promote work they did over a year ago on the talk show circuit. How, I wonder, do they keep up the pretense of caring? If they are anything like me, the works they’re talking about must feel as though they were written or performed by someone else.

Rather, my satisfaction comes from the sense of readership. Writing, as most people who’ve tried it will testify, is a solitary business. Mostly, I don’t mind that, since the alternative is to work in an office on projects that are far less interesting, but sometimes the isolation does get to me – not just socially (which is another story), but in the form of self-doubt. Is anyone reading my stuff? I start thinking. Frequently I have to go out and swim or cycle until I’m too tired to maintain the doubting..

However, when an article makes Slashdot, the question is answered with a resounding affirmative. For a day or two – maybe three or four, if the subject matter is especially controversial — at least a segment of the free software is riffing off my thoughts. For a few days more, the number of blogs about my thoughts increases.

I know, of course, that the interest is transitory. Unless you happen to be a George Orwell, day to day journalism is rarely remembered for its thought or style. I know, too, that if people weren’t discussing my articles, they’d be discussing someone else’s.

All the same, however briefly, the interest is there. It never fails to surprise, humble, and even frighten me. But it also justifies me for a moment. For a short time, I have managed to entertain – intellectually, I hope, for the most part but maybe with some humor and emotional appeal and usefulness occasionally thrown in as well. That’s why appearing on Slashdot is better than any award could ever be (not that I’d accept a nomination in the unlikely event that I was put up for one). It’s proof that something I wrote has interested someone other than me — and almost as satisfying the latest time as the first.

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