Cryptonomicon

So, today, I’m going to talk a bit about Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.

Some information you might want to know before hand: this book was published in 1999, almost ten years ago. This was a fair bit before the time of blogs and, really, even before the time of popular internet usage the way we think of it today. This was back in the days when the gray blocks of Windows ’95 had only just been updated to the gray blocks of Windows ’98. A time when e-mail was still considered fairly impressive communication. Keep that thought in mind: focus on it.

Cryptonomicon, really, is two stories combined into one. Given that the book is 1000+ pages long, and very dense reading for most of those pages, this is a good thing—it splits the readers attention nicely.

One of these plots is set in WWII, where we follow the trail of Bobby Shaftoe, a United States Marine, and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician who finds himself in the Navy (as a Glockenspiel player), and then through an odd twist of genius, as one of the single most important mathematicians in the allied forces, working on decrypting enemy messages.

The other story is set in modern times (remember: 1999) and mainly follows the hacker Randall Lawrence Waterhouse—the grandson of our WWII mathematician friend—and the company he works for, Epiphyte(2), as they seek to 1) increase shareholder value, 2) prevent all future holocausts, 3) find an entire mountain full of hidden Japanese gold and 4) use it to fund an entirely online form of currency, completely independent from taxation or regulation by any of the world’s governments.

So, if you didn’t catch it yet, the plot of this entire thing is very complex. The 1100 pages is well spent on Stephenson’s part. There’s not a lot of unnecessary narrative, and I actually felt that if it were any shorter, the book would have been hurried and confusing. Don’t be misled though: this isn’t a page-turner, Barnes&Noble best seller we’re dealing with here. This book takes time and energy to read, and isn’t one to be rushed through in one night.

Those familiar with Stephenson’s writing will know that he is very, very technical in the way he works. His roots are in science fiction, and unlike some authors of the genre, Stephenson always goes out of his way to explain the science portion, instead of just making up whatever technology he wants to suit his plot. Most of his books are equal parts educational and entertaining. Just by reading this one, you will automatically get a crashcourse in: WWII cryptology, modern information technology, computer architecture, basic economics, and a certain amount of sociology. It’s like going to a liberal arts college, only you might learn something from the gen. eds.

But don’t be completely discouraged, the reading isn’t like slogging through a textbook. We’ve got a nice little setup here, to keep the reading from getting bogged down too much. On the WWII front, we have the dual adventures of Bobby Shaftoe—always narrated in a rough and tumble sort of way that is well suited to a Marine, but not so crass and foolish as to be annoying to read—and the work of Waterhouse—who’s narrated in such a mathematical way that it almost implies a mental disorder. Bobby Shaftoe’s scenes are always beautifully narrated. Stephenson has a real talent with the language, no matter what he’s doing, but one of the places he really shines is when describing action. Action scenes are hard to write, because language is a naturally an intellectual medium of communication, rather than an emotional one, but Stephenson handles things with such clarity that you are never once bothered by the fact that you’re limited to only reading what’s happening. And on the other side, the mathematics are handled with an ease of explanation that even a layman could get it—most of the scenes of really heavy mathematics are utterly hilarious, although the humor might be a miss for some.

Same applies for the present day story, where we have action in the form of business intrigue and treasure hunting (and a little romance between Randy Waterhouse and Filipino diver and salvage worker, America Shaftoe), and intellectual stimulation from Randy’s computer-and-math oriented friends and coworkers, along with a bit of reflection from Randy himself, who has a mind not dissimilar to his grandfather’s.

(There is, for instance, a segment of about ten pages devoted entirely to Randy reflecting on the proper physics and engineering of the preparation and consumption of a quality bowl of Cap’n Crunch. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading, but this is one of many points in this book that I was rendered completely unable to read further until I regained the ability to breathe properly.)

So it’s good. Really good. On a purely linguistic level, not many can touch Stephenson: his sense of word placement, sentence structure, and style are completely top notch. The composition of this story is really ingenious too: in addition to all the above praise, it’s also completely enjoyable to watch how the WWII plot affects the modern day plot. Many of the present-setting characters are descendants of the WWII-setting, and the events between the two stories are absolutely interrelated; the present-day folks keep looking for the treasure the past-day folks hid. And, even more happily, the pacing of the two plots together is such that any plot twists you do figure out ahead of time are pleasant, rather than predictable.

With all that out of the way, there are some gripes: firstly, this book is dense. I, being a bit of a techie, really enjoyed some of the more mathematics/engineering oriented bits. They are excellently done, but might not necessarily be for everyone. Stephenson might teach well enough that even non-math-oriented people can understand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will want too. For some, this book might be a bit more work than they’re wanting to put into a read. And another thing Stephenson is pretty famous for are letdown endings, and this isn’t quite the exception. No spoilers here; the ending isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels like it could have been a bit stronger, with a few more loose ends tied up.

Nevertheless, a subpar ending is an unpleasant blemish on an otherwise good book: noticeable, but forgivable.

You should pick up a copy of this: it’s a good book. Healthy doses of treasure hunting, WWII submarine warfare, mathematics and apocalyptic economic theory makes for a read that is entertaining, rewarding, and thoughtful—and getting all three of those in one go is pretty good in anyone’s book.

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Sitting in my Panera – 4/18/2008

Last summer, when I first came to Grand Rapids, I found a Panera Bread near my apartment, and adopted it. I would go twice a week, or so, get a bagel for breakfast, or perhaps a bowl of soup for lunch, and then sit and work, writing in this very blog, or on this or that short story.

At least one person behind the counter recognized me when I cam in by the end of the summer, and I was lonesome over the summer, so I appreciated that. The fact that she was a cutie had absolutely nothing to do with it, I swear.

In coming back here, I was hoping for more nostalgia than I found. Perhaps some warm welcome or something. They did ask me if I wanted my bagel toasted, but they do that to everyone. It feels like a Panera: familiar, but not special. But then, I’ve never been one for longlasting-profound feelings of anything. I get glimpses of them here and there, but any more than that and I feel melodramatic.

I do enjoy Panera, though. It has a nice, coffeeshop-like feel, that quiets me down. For those that don’t know me personally, I’m a loud person who talks too much, and so quieting me is a big thing.

Plus, just as I started that sentence, a lady walked by and asked me if I’d like a free sample of Panera’s new egg sandwich. It had bacon, and was very good. The girl might well have been the one who recognized me last summer—I can’t remember what she looked like, so it’s possible. I’d like to think it’s true: it’s the sort of thing that happens in novels all the time, but not real life.

I turned my ankle last night. I’ve got ice against it right now, and it’s starting to feel better. The irony, of course, was that I turned it while walking down steps, thinking how cool it was that humans were able to attain the engineering knowledge to be able to make things like elevators, wheel-chairs, etc. I’m not even close to needing any of those, mind: just hobbling a little, and that should go away by tomorrow. But it’s a funny story, non-the-less.

It’s 8:28, and the first session at Calvin starts in two minutes. I was planning on going to a poetry reading by Thom Satterlee and Paul WIllis. We’re featuring them in the next issue of Stonework, and I’d like to meat them in person. But I’m still in Panera, and I think I might sit for a while longer yet. The ice on my ankle feels good, and the drain of being at a conference, constantly getting academic input, is draining.

I have an idea for an essay. Perhaps I’ll start on that, now.

Kindle the Flames of Revolution

I won a writing award at my school. It’s the Nancy Barcus Memorial Award, named after an ex-faculty member of Houghton. It’s not really an award just for writing, but also is a sign of general competency, a good attitude, and involvement with the Houghton College Writing Department. I feel very good about receiving it, perhaps as a sign that I actually do know what I’m doing after all.

That and it comes with three hundred dollars attached.

As honored as I am about the award, the three hundred dollars are what this post is about. I feel like I need to spend them on something writer-ish, like books and such. Or perhaps put it towards some journal subscriptions, making literary connections, etc.

I doubt I’m going to be putting towards any of those things.

Rather, I think very seriously about putting it towards Amazon’s new Kindle. What, you say, what is a Kindle? Kindle is Amazon’s new e-book reader. A convenient little hand-held gadget with wireless access which lets you download books and read them directly from the built in screen.

Now, e-readers aren’t very popular at the moment, especially amongst the writer crowd, for a number of reasons. The biggest practical reason I’ve heard is that people don’t like reading off of screens: it hurts their eyes. Well, that’s taken care of here. The Kindle doesn’t have a monitor. It has what they’re calling an Electronic Ink Display. Basically, when you load up a book, the data gets written to the display in a very literal fashion. It isn’t little glowing lights that shows you the text, the actual display itself changes colors. It’s like reading off of paper, only the paper can change it’s content. All the versatility of a monitor, all the clarity and smoothness of a page. So you have an entire book on a single sheet. More than just one book, really: Amazon.com has released over 10,000 titles for kindle download so far, all for $9.99 or less. More are coming out every day. Seems like a good deal to me, even though the piece of hardware itself is $399.99.

Despite it all, though, most of my writer-friends make small hissing sounds whenever I talk about it. Something about the concept still bothers them. I know exactly what it is to.

Written print is dying, slowly and surely. The internet in general (us bloggers, really) delivered the first blow. Kindle (or, perhaps a similar piece of hardware that will come after) is the box they’re going to bury it in. They don’t like it, they don’t want books to go away, because there’s something incredibly nice about having something in you hands as you read it: the rasp of paper, the creaking of a spine when you bend it a little to far, the little wrinkles that the paper gets when your hands are sweaty and you stay on one page too long. E-readers can’t replace books any more than blogs can replace manuscripts—which doesn’t mean they won’t try. Print as we know it is dying, not much to be done about it.

Personally, I can’t wait.

Now, now, before you all go throwing tomatoes at me, let me explain myself. The fact is that I love books, probably more so than the next guy. But I don’t look at them, like most do, as vehicles for information. I look at them as an art form, the book itself being a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, publishing companies nowadays are very much business oriented, not art-oriented. They care about profit, and distribution, and numbers. I don’t really blame them: they’re running a business, and there’s nothing to be done about it. But the end result is that books—the actual physical books, the paper, the binding, the ink and the like—are made as cheap as possible in order to maximize profit. Your standard commercial paperback is a tiny thing, not even half the size of an 8×11 sheet of paper. The words are crammed so full at every page that they’re an eyesore to read: I’d rather stare at a monitor all day. The pages are almost never acid free anymore, though, so any books you might have will crumble in twenty to thirty year’s time, anyway.

Trade paperbacks, the large ones, are only a little better. The text isn’t so smashed, and the books aren’t quite as fragile, but the acid’s still there, and even if they last long enough to crumble, you won’t be able to hand them to you grandchildren by any means. Hardcovers—did you know?—are trade paperbacks connected to cardboard siding via two pieces of paper. Look at the very front and back of a hardcover near you, where the ‘cover’ meets the actual ‘book.’ Those two sheets of paper that seem to hold everything together? Those really do hold everything together. Hardcovers are no more durable than anything else, and not really any nicer. It’s all done with glue and cheap paper nowadays, not a hint of stitching in a book to be seen.

But only, I say, for nowadays. Until print dies. Until all the Chicken Soup for the Tortured Soul readers, the Oprah fans, the people looking for Hillary Clinton’s latest biography have left the market, have gotten they’re kindles and won’t have anything to do with clunky, outdated books anymore. Then the ones that will be left will be the bibliophiles. The book lovers. Us.

Basic free-market principle: if there’s a market, someone will satisfy it. And the market that will be left over after print dies will be the market that is no longer satisfied with glue and acidic paper. The publishing houses that still make old fashioned books will do it right, they’ll stitch the pages together, give the books proper headbands again. Acid free paper will abound.

When Print dies, it won’t really die. It’ll just become what it should be—beautiful. Admittedly, prices will rise, because good books take money to make. But if you’re just looking for a cheap read, that’s what you’ve got a Kindle for.

So that’s why I’m considering buying a kindle—to add a bit of funding to the cause.

If I do end up getting one, I’ll let you know how it turns out. The product looks good in the demonstrations I’ve seen, but I’ll need to actually use one to get a feel for it. I’ll keep you posted.

~DK

Edit: Behold the Kindle here.

Character Design and Discovery (CHAR 101)

Artifice.EXE – Current word count: 2,403

Talking a bit about how I come up with characters today.

I’ve got an agenda here; namely, I want to be able to talk about the characters I’m working with, but in order to do that I’ve got to talk about the process first, so any readership I have isn’t left in the dark.

I’ve heard writers talk before about how they don’t like to think of themselves as creating characters, but rather discovering characters that were already there, and using them. I normally hate this kind of stuff, it reeks of pretentious artsy-types and squishy thinking. But, in this case, there’s definitely something to that way of thinking.

When I create a character, there are definitely elements of discovery to it. Normally, I’ll end up creating a vague outline of what there character is: a very general personality. You can always tell the mediocre fiction writers because normally stop here. Their characters aren’t completely flat, but they don’t have any depth either. They tend to have only one emotional state, and one frame of speaking, and repeat the same things over and over in dialog. They feel like bit characters—they’ve been drawn using only one crayon, with the only degrees of changing being whether the author was pressing down normal-hard of really hard. Another telltale sign is that you’ll see characters pop up that just appear to be there for no reason whatsoever. They’ll typically have their moment in the sun for two pages in one chapter, and then vanish into the background, doomed to float spectrally behind the rest of the cast and pop in for one unimportant line of dialog here and there again. This is because when the author came up with the character, it was just the character—the personality—and not a role for that character to play.

When I come up with the beginnings of a character, I only come up with the vague outline of a personality that I came up with before, and I also come up with a role for that character to play. If I can’t come up with one on the spot, I normally put the character on hold until I have a clear purpose for them. Never include a character that has no purpose in the final product of the book, because the reader will be able to tell. (This is not to say that you shouldn’t create characters spontaneously. A writer’s instinct is a powerful thing, and some of my favorite characters have been throwaway cast that I added into a story on whimsy. Some of them were weeded out as unnecessary. Others turned out to be some of the finest characters I’ve ever made. But be flippant about it in the drafting process; if a flippantly made character is still flippant by the time you’re submitting to publishing houses, nix the poor sucker.)

At this point, I’ve got the two of the three most important parts of the character down—purpose and overarching personality. After this comes the discovery. There are any numbers of ways to do this: you could play the what-if game, or write little short stories involving the character, or write an imaginary interview with the character. I’ve heard it all, tried them all, and find all of them useful to varying degrees. But honestly, I don’t necessarily find any of them to be the final answer.  To put what I do in the most succinct way possible, I do on instinct.

An aside: The writer’s instinct is an important part of the process which can’t be ignored but also, sadly, can’t be taught. Having a good sense of aesthetic and character are indispensable to a writer, both in character development and other things. If you don’t have them, don’t despair, they can’t be developed. You’ll find some say ‘read, read, read’ and others say ‘write, write, write.’ I say ‘read, listen, observe, write, sing, speak, do things as well as you possibly can do them.’ Explore other art forms, look at Rembrandt, listen to Mozart, read a Calvin & Hobbes comic. Form and beauty are all around you—if you stop and pay attention to it, you can learn how to emulate it. And don’t be a genre snob, or a form snob. Go outside your comfort zone to see things you don’t necessarily appreciate as much. If you like Bach, listen to some Barenaked Ladies. If you are all into Ghost in the Shell, go read some classic lit. If you like to watch American Idol, go rent an old, black-and-white silent movie. But remember that nothing gets done if you don’t practice either, pay attention, then write while you do it.

Aside over: when I go with instinct, it mostly takes the form of finding out what kind of character is most appropriate to the story I’m trying to tell. The plot will shape the character—if you know what you need the character to do, make sure you’ve created a character that would do it. If your character doesn’t fit your story, you’ll have to fight the entire way through to get the character to behave. But keep in mind that the character will also shape the plot—if you’re having to force your creation to do something directly out of character, perhaps your plot needs to change. There’s a balance here. Eventually, if you’re doing it right, your characters will develop personalities of their own and start guiding you in this process. If they have too much freedom, you’ll never have a story because they don’t cooperate, but if you don’t let them muck about and play, you’ll kill them, and lifeless characters destroy a book faster than a disgruntled review columnist.

It’s much like pruning a tree: you have an image of what you want the tree to look like, but you can’t just force the tree to look like that image. You’ll cut off too many branches and leaves, and kill the poor thing. But if you just let it grow unchecked, you’ll have some monstrosity that doesn’t look good, feel good, or fit anywhere in your story.

Again with the instinct: if you do it right, you’ll know. You’ll be able to work with the character to tell the story, instead of just forcing pieces about on a chess board. Things will start to work, narrative connections will start to flow, and you’ll write better without even having to try. The character will, in as much as a technically non-existent person is able, get to know you, and the vice versa will happen as well. And sometime down the road, probably years after the novel is published and you’ve moved on to other projects, you’ll feel like you finally know the character well.

And, as a final note, sometime in this whole process the character gets a name. Names are important—I’m going to swear by that till the day I die. They help define a character. Not in the artsy way, like, someone named Brian (which means ‘defender’) will be stalwart and strong, but in a much more subtle way. Sometimes the names will just happen, and be built into the character from ground zero. Other times they’ll take forever to nail down, and you’ll have the entire groundwork for a character worked out prior to naming. I always find that I have a name before I the character starts revealing details to me. I’m not sure why, but it always seems to me that it’s when a character first gets a name that they start feeling more alive to me. The name is what lets them talk back.

The name of a character is a character’s life.

Paper or Binary?

I’ve been thinking about manuscripts lately. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how computers have destroyed them.

I went to the Pierpont Morgan Library over Thanksgiving break several months ago. It’s basically the library and mansion of an old wallstreet baron (for those who don’t know who Pierpont Morgan was), converted into a museum showcasing all the stuff he has. There’s a lot of it: beautiful old hard-bound books of a quality that just doesn’t happen any more, and priceless pieces of art, and orthodox iconography. But more than anything else, it was the original manuscripts that fascinated me.

They had them in glass cases, old manuscripts of books that everyone knows at the time. They cycled what was on display, and so I found myself on the day that I went looking at the yellowing pages of The Picture of Dorian Grey, the original ink-marking made by Oscar Wild himself, on the actual pages. The script was elegant and cursive, obviously written with a fine-nib pen. There were some of the original essays written by Mark Twain, and some of Beethoven’s handwritten scores, the writing of the later fierce and jagged with angry little notes stabbed onto the pages.

There was something powerful about being in the manuscript room, as if there was some sort of physical presence to the paper that was much more powerful than just the mass of the pages on their own. It was like being able to share in genius.

My problem is, of course, that I don’t write on paper. My hand writing isn’t elegant. It isn’t even illegible, because at least with illegible writing you can claim a creative style. Mine is simply unsteady and awkward, like a third grader just learning the shapes of the letters. Not the writing suited to manuscripts. And I can’t even write very well on paper, either: my mind has synced with the feel of a keyboard, and I’ve never managed to reprogram it to work with anything else. When I try to shift to paper, the quality of my writing goes perceptibly down. It’s no fun whatsoever.

I’ve been fully raised on computers, and can’t manage to bring myself to that previous time where people wrote by hand. There aren’t going to be any manuscripts for me. There aren’t going to be manuscripts for hundreds of people in the coming generations. The keyboard has taken over.

Not only that, but even typewriters are outdated. The hard work of millions of people all over the world exits only as streams of binary: ones and zeros. There will be no physical record of the process of writing, only the final product.

Now, I should say: I’m a technical boy. I believe in computers, and in technology in general with a fierce intensity. They do make life better. But there is a cost, and the presence of manuscripts is one of them. I know not all authors are capitulating to this as easily as I am: Neil Gaiman, for instance, writes his manuscripts with quill and ink, by hand. Lots of poets I know go to great lengths to write things out longhand, just because it feels weird to them to write poetry on a computer. But for lots of us authors, especially the fiction writers, manuscripts are things of the past.

Every once in a while, I’ll buy a comp-book, or open my nice journal, and start writing something from the beginning out of admiration for those manuscripts I saw at the Morgan Peirpont Library. Truthfully, I would love to see one with my name on it in someone else’s famed collection one day. But it doesn’t work: not only because I’m lazy, but because I just don’t write well with a pen. I’m disorganized, and lose my comp-books, and things just don’t work.

Mostly, though, I wonder what’s going to replace the comp-book. Perhaps it’s what I’m doing right now—the blog is the journal and manuscript of tomorrow. It fulfills many of the same things form a literary standpoint: shows the process that a work went through before publication. But it’s not the same, there’s no physical product to it. People aren’t going to file into a museum just to see the IBM R50 that David King wrote Artifice.EXE on. And this blog is data: easily copied and distributed.

No, I think that the internet has ended a generation completely. We’ve lost something.

But then again, we’ve gained a world of technology. We’ve gotten word processing, and connectivity, and Wikipedia. We’ve gained things we won’t even know about until after they’re established as part of our lives. Some people don’t think it was worth it, but personally, I have a lot of faith in the new things to come.

Posting from Myrtle Beach

Spring break started yesterday at Houghton. The second classes left out, my parents and I piled in a car and headed for South Carolina. Myrtle Beach.

My brother has a time share, but couldn’t use it. He let us take a vacation. Very kind of him.

It’s wonderful down here. I walked out on the beach in shorts—I haven’t been able to wear shorts since sometime in September. That’s about six months. Entirely too long, in my opinion. It is warm here, and vaguely tropic. There’s pine trees, at least. It feels enough like vacation that writing more than simple sentences seems a chore.

I’ve brought Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson with me, and have been enjoying it throughly so far. Since my current project is cyberpunk, I feel I have a need to read as much in the genre as I can. I hope to be able to secure a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson as well. Neuromancer, for those of you who don’t know, isn’t necessarily the first cyberpunk novel, but is quintessential to the genre in much the same way as Lord of the Rings is to high fantasy. I need to read it before I can properly write.

(Speaking of which, no word count this post, because it hasn’t gone up in any significant portion. Been busy packing, and I can’t really use my computer in the car—to many jitters on the road to type proper.)

I’ve been thinking about cyberpunk for a while, and the difficulties this particular genre presents to the writer and reader, but I need to ruminate a bit more before I’m ready to share them. I think I might write an essay.

Speaking of essays, I hope my last post didn’t surprise anyone. It was the essay I used to head up the charter issue of The Woven Thread (more about that soon to come). Just some thoughts on the way writers interact with one another.

In any case, I hope to be able to take this week easy enough to have time to think thoroughly about this and that and the other, and then also have time to write about it. I find that if I don’t have time to do both, I end up just thinking a lot, which don’t actually help me at all as writer, now does it. That, I think, is how Philosophers are born, and heaven help me from that fate.

I hope to have some seafood tomorrow. Seafood is always good for the soul, but not always for the stomach. And, I also hope, there will be lots of time for sleep.

Looking forward to a relaxed week,

~DK

P.S. Found another writer dealing with this whole writing-of-the-novel bit. Working on a work of high fantasy, and seems to have a good head for a rather tricky genre. Added him to my blogroll, but figured I’d give a little plug to his blog, Five Circles.

A Community of Poets

There was a time, oh, when I was somewhere between seventeen and eighteen, when I was an insufferable know-it-all. Now, this isn’t particularly unusual in a kid approaching the end of his teenage years, but I was probably marginally worse, because I was intelligent—or, at least, I got good grades and I was the son of a college professor, and it’s the same thing until you look closely.

Somehow, despite the fact that I already knew everything (a symptom of a condition I came to realize later was stupidity), I managed to figure out that I wanted to be a writer. It started slow, and mostly stemmed from the fact that I really liked telling stories (read: lies) and I always ended up getting A’s on my English papers, which wasn’t saying much. So I shoved the two haphazardly together, and started writing fiction. Everything I did, for most of that time, revolved around fiction. I wouldn’t go anywhere near anything else, especially poetry, which I disdained.

If I had to blame anyone besides myself, I suppose I’d blame the environment. I didn’t like poetry because I didn’t know what poetry was—there was no community there to show me the way. There no poets, or, if there were, they had no public community.  My total introduction to poetry was being forced to scan Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and if scansion has given birth to a poet even once in all of time, I’ll be impressed.

I recently discovered the community I had missed before. I wrote a poem—not quite on a whim, because I was taking a poetry class in the coming semester, and wanted to at least have tried my hand at it once before I walked in.

I enjoyed it. I wasn’t expecting to.

The class was nice—good fun was had by all. I didn’t realize what it had done to me, though, until the semester drew towards a close. When it had, I looked back and saw that I knew names. I had contacts. I would get e-mails saying, “Hullo, I just wrote this, do you like it?” and I would write back, “Yes indeed, but stanza 3 drags a bit. Perhaps make your language a little more nimble?”

Community got me, without me noticing until it was too late. I didn’t mind though; it was nice.

I had been dragged into appreciation. I listened to my fellow poets, and they listened to me. We respected one another, and our writing flourished. We had our place within one another—an encouraging word, a bit of advice. Poets need to bump heads with people sometimes, and fight for ideas. We provided the heads for each other to bump.

And we found our place among the greater community—the Poetry Universal. We were doing things. We weren’t just smearing words on a page, we were doing something that, if you squinted, looked like art.

Then the semester ended, and the e-mails stopped. No mode heads to bump. No more ego boosts when someone mentioned that they like what I had written. No more community.

And the words stopped coming.

Community is necessary for a poet, but it’s fragile. The challenge is to have one that’s not based around something other than what it ought to be. Community based on GPA will dry up once the 4.0’s roll around. Community based on location can get disturbed by anything from an earthquake to a noisy group of kids moving to the table next to yours.

Community—a lasting community—has to be based on something more permanent: the poetry itself, and the poets. Community must be rooted in community, a self-sustaining web of connection.

T.S. Elliot once wrote that this thing we call ‘art’ is not just a lump of all the individual works, but something larger. Each piece of poetry is woven in to fit into a great framework of the stuff. There isn’t a piece of art—of poetry—that doesn’t affect the whole.

The community is the same way. The poets—the integral parts of the community—we’re already here. In a very real sense, the community of poets is already in place, as permanent and strong as the whole of poetry itself.

We just need to reach out and find those connections. If we could…