Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Sandra Parshall

My name is Sandy, and I am an addict.

I don’t have the slightest desire to drink or shoot up or snort cocaine or throw away money at a casino. But don’t ask me to live without the internet.

I didn’t realize the depth of my dependency until my last computer began its agonizing limp toward the recycling bin.

Motherboard. It sounds so benign, doesn’t it? Comforting, trust-inspiring – until you discover that your computer has the Joan Crawford version.

My computer was “only” two years old – any geek would say it was old as dirt, but to me it still had the blush of youth – when it suddenly began losing its memory. One day it informed me that I had no keyboard attached. I assumed the keyboard was at fault. After all, the thing had enough cat hair buildup to stop any electronic device in its tracks. Three keyboards (serial and USB) later, the computer was still reluctant to acknowledge that one was attached, and it had also started rejecting my trackball and randomly crashing applications. A long telephone conference with a nice young man named Gary, who for some reason spoke with an Indian accent, ruled out all possible problems except the very worst: the motherboard was dying.

I ordered a new computer and frantically began saving files to an external disk during the old computer’s rare functional moments. I couldn’t write, and even worse, I couldn’t get on the internet. Withdrawal set in. I cast covetous glances in the direction of my husband’s computer. I needed my e-mail. I needed DorothyL and the Guppies. I needed my panda groups.

Writers still talk about the loneliness of the writing life -- the wordsmith sitting in solitude day after day, cut off from the world, living in his or her head. But such laments don’t ring true when they appear on chat lists with hundreds, even thousands of members. Company is as close as a click away. Online companions are so numerous, so talkative, so much fun that no writer should have trouble coming up with ways to avoid actually writing.

In addition to being a boon to lonely, procrastinating authors, the internet is an agoraphobic’s dream. You can order anything from books to pizza to cat litter online without ever having to leave the house. You can even get your head examined online, as my blog sister Elizabeth Zelvin, an online therapist, can tell you.

Shy people can become social butterflies, experiencing the intimacy of friendship without having to put up with the friends’ physical presence. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, and they don’t know you’re shy either. If you do meet your online friends in the flesh, you’ll be instantly comfortable because you already know them so well. And, of course, you can rush home afterward, go online and exchange dozens of e-mails about how wonderful it was to see each other f2f.

On a broader scale, the internet allows writers to spread the word about their books in a way that could not have been imagined 30 or even 20 years ago. The author who doesn’t have a web site is an oddity these days. Genre writers are all over the web, popping up on an ever-growing number of chat lists to talk to readers and other authors.

It’s fashionable to moan about the death of “real” letter-writing as e-mail takes over, but you’ll get no complaints from me. I’ve heard from many readers who might never have bothered to send fan letters if they’d had to write them on stationery, stick them in envelopes, and drop them in a mailbox. I’m a long way from bestseller status, but I don’t believe I would have achieved even a modest degree of success and fame without the internet. And I can go online and find cops and FBI agents and experts of every stripe to answer my research questions. What’s not to love about the internet?

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – there’s plenty not to love. Spam, ads on web sites, articles brimming with factual errors, idiots who start rabid flame wars in otherwise peaceful discussion groups (including – I kid you not – one group I’m in that’s devoted to giant pandas). But that’s life, the bad with the good.

The first online community I belonged to was Compuserve, back in the days when it was a members-only subscription service with an amazing 400 forums covering every subject imaginable. I was a sysop (unpaid staff member) on the writing forums, and that was where I first “met” real authors, including Diana Gabaldon and Jack Olsen, who didn’t mind talking with and advising the lowly unpublished. I still have friends I made on dear old Cserve. In time, AOL bought Compuserve and set about reducing it to a shadow of its grandest form, but by then I had a connection to the wondrous worldwide web, and I’ve never looked back. The internet has literally altered my existence, in only positive ways. So naturally, the first thing I did when I set up my new computer was connect it to our DSL and go online for a net fix.

My friends in the Guppies have been waxing nostalgic lately about the days of typewriters and carbon paper, but I haven’t heard anybody say they want to turn back the clock.

How about you? You’re reading this, so you must make a habit of going online. How has the internet made a difference in your life? Has it all been positive, or have you had some nasty www experiences?


Darlene Ryan said...

I worked with a typewriter and carbon paper when I was a copywriter and I don't miss it at all.

I like the connections I've made via the internet. I've made new friends, I've reconnected with old ones.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I don't miss typewriters or carbon paper either. Noooo idea how the early writers did it, no desire to find out.

When I discovered I could move paragraphs, NAY, entire chapters(!!!) around in a manuscript, I fell in love with computers.

Yes, they drive us nuts some days, and I'm oft reminded of my first computer teacher's favorite saying: "The computer is only as smart as the operator."

Sigh, my computer seems to have an awful lot of dumb days.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm still trying to get used to Windows Vista on my new computer -- mostly trying to make it act more like XP. The folks at Microsoft seem blithely unconcerned about presenting a new OS that won't even work with some of their own older programs! Thank goodness my word processor works with Vista -- except for the Help function. Vista doesn't support Help (yeah, I hear you: When has Microsoft *ever* been helpful in any way?)-- and that means the Help function has been disabled in ALL applications. Nice, huh?

But my internet connection is working just fine, and that's the big thing with me.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I loved your post so much I read the whole thing aloud to my husband. And thanks for the plug for my other persona, LZcybershrink. :) As for flame wars, I'm not sure if it trumps panda lovers, but I've seen it more than once among--yep: online mental health professionals. ;)

paul lamb said...

My Apple laptop is nearly three years old and acts like it. I'm just waiting for the new Apple operating system to be released then I'm getting a new laptop.

I can't imagine what it must have been like to submit stories and queries in the days before email. (Well, I don't have to imagine it because I did it.) The internet takes so much drudgery out of the mechanical side of getting published (or trying to get published).

As for bemoaning the passing of the age of letter writing, I say hogwash. If you think about it, literacy is actually a fairly new phenomenon. Letter writing may have had a glory period of a couple of hundred years at tops, but story telling is thousands of years old, and if a computer can replace an old typewriter (or a quill pen), then I think story telling will flourish even more.

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, Liz, you haven't seen online nastiness until you've been smack in the middle of an argument between people with a passion for wildlife. You would not BELIEVE how many issues there are surrounding panda breeding and conservation that provide fodder for fierce debate and mid-slinging. Pandas themselves, of course, are just about the gentlest creatures on earth. They make me ashamed of human behavior. Some of my panda group friends have urged me to write a mystery using the "pandaholic community" as the source of murderous urges. I do think there's a ton of rich material there.

Sandra Parshall said...

I agree with you, Paul. I spent far too many hours, days, weeks, typing manuscripts for submission -- oh, the agony of getting all the way to the bottom of a page and making a big messy typo! I've been using computers since 1980, and I don't care if I never see a typewriter again.

I love the immediacy of e-mail. Publishing is still the slowest business in existence, but I think we're moving steadily toward an all-electronic submissions and editing process. I don't want printed books to vanish, though. I love them -- love holding them, love reading them, love having them around me, and most of all, I love seeing my own name on them.

A Paperback Writer said...

I despised typing on a typewriter. I handwrote everything possible until the late 80s when I began using a computer -- wow.
Now, I have withdrawl symptoms if I don't get at least one daily interenet fix.