Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hiring the Young to Save the Old

I'm thirty years old.  It finally sunk in about a month before my birthday - I'm getting old.  Or at least I'm not getting any younger.  But the entire world around me seems to lose ten years every time I look around.  Kids half my age are getting thousands of hits on YouTube videos, artists who don't remember the fall of the Berlin Wall are old enough that we can see their work beginning to mature.  And my goal is to teach people to use a seven-thousand-year-old communication technology: writing.It's a scary world, constantly changing.  And I simply can't type creative writing articles fast enough to keep up - not if I'm going to go to school full time, build a website, and market said website to all these kids who don't need a search engine in order to find writing workshop.  So I'm taking a new route: I'm hiring students to make things happen.

I feel strange, to a degree, posting this where potential job seekers might find it.  What does this say, after all?  That I'm so desperate for help that I'll write about my struggles online?  Not exactly.  It's more of an admission of the obvious - I am only one man.  I'm a single, solitary creative writer.  And I don't have ten or twenty years to wait before I "make a name" for myself just to "break even" financially.  And it's pretty clear that "making a name" will involve some kind of semi-personal contact with thousands of people.  And by semi-personal, I mean that they'll read my blog posts, they'll watch some of the videos I plan to post, or they'll enjoy some of the feedback I've written for stories they'll submit to my workshop.  But in this world, people are overwhelmed with material to read.  Somehow, as I writer, I have to convince all they people swimming through the deluge of the internet firehouse that my little drop of water is worth a second, third, or tenth look.

Hence, the need for help.  The need for younger help, help from students who grew up with this new world we've entered.  Yes, I have a new-found appreciation for Facebook - that still doesn't make me very savvy.  I'm still struggling to erect my secondary pages.  And Twitter?  I still haven't figured out how to post a Twitter Feed on my site.  I'm sure it's easy - I just haven't made it that far.
It's not necessarily the case that a college student would understand these particular tricks - it's more that the younger minds will better know how to look.  They'll be quicker.  They might not need to wade through quite as many pages of Google Search Results before finding the answer to the question.
And how do I know this will work?  Simple - it's from the way I've seen myself grow older even before I aged.  Even in college, I was ignoring the internet explosion.  Wikipedia didn't quite exist, and neither did Facebook.  Cell phones, to me, were fad, the kind of thing you carried around if you were incompetent enough to let your car break down.  Never mind that my only phone, now, is a cell phone - and I won't mention the time I hit a deer at two a.m. on an empty stretch of road.  I took on the trappings of technology with the grudging air of "I still know how to do this the old fashioned way."  Handwriting a paper, researching books at the library, laying out stacks of index cards with notes - yes, I learned how to organize paperwork in the days before laptops were cheap enough to buy.

Now, not everyone my age was like this in college, but a good number were.  A good number still are.  And then I look at the grad students who are five or ten years older than me, the ones who cannot type fast enough to outrun their own handwriting.  And then there are the faculty I've met who forward e-mails to someone else to have them forwarded to the students.  But I don't mind that much - it's my classmates who constantly forget to add people to e-mail lists who worry me, the folks my age who use "reply-all" as the only means of sending out a mass e-mail.  The faculty members, at least, recognize that they don't have time to build the lists themselves.

The problem now isn't that "the younger ones don't know how to do things the way we did them."  The problem, actually, is that we're doing things now that were simply never possible back "the way we did them."  Posting a video for thousands to watch?  Back in the day, you had to be an independent filmmaker of some means to make that happen.  Either that, or you worked for a news network, and they distributed your footage for you.  Or what about Holiday Greetings for all two hundred of your friends?  Even today I have a secret dread of Christmas cards and envelopes.  I've never sent out more than twelve in a single year - I am still racked with guilt for all the New Year's Greetings I never expressed.  And now?  Switch to BCC in your Reply All, and you've sent out more sets of good wishes in three minutes than you have in the entire rest of your life.

But this brings us around to the irony of my current project.  Back in the day - I mean back before the telephone - people used to write letters.  I mean letters.  The kind of letters that said "you've been wondering for the past month whether or not I died in that flu epidemic, and now you're going to wait and hope I reply again to prove that I still haven't died in the epidemic."  We don't have those now - at least, not often.  I have a couple hundred friends on Facebook - nearly all of them people I've personally known.  Already, in this post, I've probably written more than I've written to all of them in the past month combined.  Why express the deep flames of love when you can send a Flickr at any moment?

And yet I'm here to teach writing.  My goal is to teach others to express themselves with words in a world dominated by sound and images.  My aim is to encourage thoughtful composition in the Buzzed-Up universe of Twitter.  Aren't these goals in conflict?  This idea of using the technology of now to teach a skill of "back then"?

I don't think so.  As a writer, I believe there is a special quality in writing which the internet may never supplant.  Poems and novels - these collections of carefully-assembled words - still convey a level of meaning that can't be directed into a Flash video.  It's the compression here that matters, the presentation of thoughts so refined - so basic - that words alone are enough to convey them.  And the freedom of these words is incomparable.  Through written stories, a single individual can express lifetimes of experience without the conflict of other souls struggled for control of the camera.

But it is still hard, teaching this.  Writing might be an ancient art, but it becomes a new creation with each generation.  And with the internet as it is, we may one day need to fight to reveal just how rewarding a good story can be - not some snippets of IM conversation, but a story.  And when that day comes, we'll want to have as many authors ready as we can find.

So, in the meantime, I'll hire the folks who are most ready to live in both worlds, carrying the ancient torch of writing into the new land of electronic expression: the young.