(Originally published as part of Digital Writing Month, 2012)
Digital writing is emergent writing. It mutinies at the imposition of form, the edicts of the grammars of old. It rails to change the rules. It raises the flag of anarchy. The council of digital writing is one of spontaneity, rambunctiousness, the aloof horror of invention, the frenetic joy of dismantling what came before, and the abdication of the author. It is audacious, demanding that we writers free it from the prison of specific rigor. It emerges. It revolts.
And yet, there is something familiar about digital writing. We can go to it through the mind of theory, through the analysis of the ways it breaks down our learned structures, and the expectations we’ve been told to have for the written word. Or we can come to it in the same way an adult picks up crayons, again for the first time in over a dozen years, or two dozen years. We can find digital writing the way we find purple, burnt sienna, maroon, and forest green. As familiar and known as they are surprising, crayons stimulate our bigger hands to muscle memory. How to tint, how to shade, how to outline, how to color within or outside the lines. We pick up crayons again for the first time, and we draw a smile, or a Christmas tree, or a yellow daisy. Given enough time, though, we begin to remember how elaborate crayons can let us be. Suddenly, we’ve drawn a castle with a moat, a star ship, the Earth, or Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte. What we make is new, and it is old. It is what we’ve always drawn, in vivid color.
Digital writing is familiar in the same way. It’s territory we’ve been to before, though also unexplored. As children, not all of us worked with computers, not all of us were raised on the Internet. For those of us who were, digital writing is the only writing there’s ever been, and everything I’m saying is like a recitation of biology, a list of the muscles you’ve always used, bones you’ve never considered but have relied on nonetheless. But for those who came to the digital later in their various adolescences, the familiarity is like stretching those muscles, mending broken bones. Or like picking up crayons.
These are familiar words we use (when we use words). They are not the product of a newly learned language. The letters look familiar, the words sound the same when spoken, and the sentences follow along the tracks they always have. But they occupy digital space, space that is always wider, more open, and more blank than the paper page. Our word processing softwares offer us the familiar shape and color of the paper, as if to extend a hand to our sensibilities, to invite us in with something we think we recognize. But there’s no paper here. There’s no end to the notepad. No limitation on the flexibility afforded us. And the more we occupy this space, the more we realize how foreign it truly is, and how it seems to know more about our own creative process than we do. The more we occupy this space, the more we let our sentences derail, our words evolve or devolve, our letters become only illuminated figures upon the screen. We begin to see within the space of the digital, beyond our words to the code, to the systems behind the page, and to the binary behind it all.
We approach digital writing as if it is the same as our old familiar writing. But as our occupation of the digital continues, we discover the only familiarity left is our approach.
Language begins to fail, to become not language at all, but images. Typing is not storytelling, it is placing figures upon a non-existent background, floating our ideas upon the ether, like writing on water. They are eradicable, impermanent, unenduring. With the flip of a switch, the stroke of a key, the accident of spilled coffee, they can vanish. Or, they can be manipulated, reformed, sculpted, torn down by other authors who wish to fashion their own handiwork from our airy habit. Our words at times wait to become pastiche, to be imitated, parodied, dissected, distributed. Because digital writing is like writing on water, our words will always ripple and distribute, becoming more deformed the farther they go. We get worried about plagiarism, about others using our words and ideas, we get concerned that the face we’ve made for ourselves from the words we’ve fashioned will simply be deleted — or worse, written upon, written over.
And yet we come back to it, again and again. Slowly beginning to write not for recognition of our own authorship, but to make ripples and waves. And this is what makes digital writing worth doing. It is less the writing that matters, and more the persistence of voice.
It is a brave act to pick up crayons, whether you are a child or an adult. It is a brave act to commit to the digital the words and images, the ideas and theories, the stories and poems that we do every time we wield keyboard and cursor. There is something in the mind that wants expression. There is something in the mind that wants recognition, too, and honor for our texts. But the digital grants recognition only reluctantly. There is little else left of our efforts but our expression, our raw bellow, our “this is what I want to say.”
Within the digital, we can all be published, we can all see our works distributed and read; yet within the digital, we speak as if within a crowd, knowing only some will hear us, or that none will, and so it is the act of speaking that becomes vital, and not the return of recognition. To write digital writing is to write in and for the moment of wanting to say something, of needing to say something. And to do that again and again.
Out of this emerges the spontaneous. The spontaneous grammar, the spontaneous phrase, the spontaneous sound of our voice that may create a spontaneous listener, or a spontaneous community of listeners. Digital writing is emergent in the way that we voice it, the way others hear it. Digital writing changes the rules because it is immediate, urgent, momentary.
And so as you go out to write within the digital, to scrape your name in the sand, remember that if your words get diluted or deleted, if they do not get heard, that the important thing is speaking them. We are all animals of speech and expression, we are creative beasts with crayons, we are all authors, and we are all founding mothers and fathers of a territory yet unclaimed. So write because you want to, write because you need to, and may the echo of your voice stir others to say more and say again.
Why do you write digitally? What have you found is different about digital writing from traditional writing? Is there ever a time now when you aren’t writing digitally?
Join us for a #digiwrimo chat this evening at 6:00PM Eastern / 3:00PM Pacific to talk about what’s different about digital writing, why we choose to write digitally, and other topics.