I started writing this at the beginning of March, then I stopped and put it aside because I was overwhelmed by work. Then it turned into a long rant and I thought it didn’t have the right tone. So, after basically rewriting it from scratch, I’m finally publishing it. It’s still a bit of a rant, but I had to get some things out of my system, so to speak.
March 5, 2011, was a personal anniversary: ten years of online writing. The overall feeling is that of having experienced a bittersweet ride so far, with the percentages of bitter and sweet being roughly 65 and 35 respectively. So yes, after ten years the taste in my mouth is definitely more bitter than anything, although that 35% of sweet has been really, really sweet and I’m not belittling it at all.
2001: A little personal Odyssey
The year 2001 was somewhat important for me. It was a year of many changes, starting from the first big move: my parents went to live somewhere else, in a little house they bought in Tuscany, while I remained alone in what had been my grandparents’ flat for 20 years, from 1981 to 2001. It was a time of personal growth, which meant a mixture of excitement (for finally having a flat all for myself) and fear, worry and stress (I did not have a proper job, I was starting to freelance for real, my parents went away in July and paid my rent until September).
The previous ten years, from 1991 to 2001, are what I still consider my literary formative years — they are, by far, the period in my life in which I read and wrote most. I wanted to be a Writer, and since I was studying the liberal arts at the university, I had plenty of inspiration — and, more importantly, time — to write. So I wrote: plenty of short stories, a short novel and a long one, and plenty, plenty of poems. Poetry was extremely important for me: it was both of a confessional nature and of a more experimental one. Certain poems were my true, naked voice that only talked to me; others were descriptions, musings, explorations using the language of poetry, which I still think it’s the most powerful of all. Those who frequented me at the time know I was truly madly deeply serious about it, and I loved to talk about it, to read my poetry aloud (there were also live performances, accompanied by some friends of mine who are professional musicians). I like to remember those years as my personal ‘Beatnik’ era.
I’ve always been quite proficient in English, having studied it since I was 4. So, after some personal projects involving literary translations in 1994–1996, in late 2000/early 2001 I began doing translations professionally (mostly technical stuff). Soon enough I realised the main downside of my job: it messed up my daily schedule and ‘personal rhythm’ pretty badly. But most of all, it made me suffer a long, painful, creativity drought.
The big change in writing, at the beginning of 2001, wasn’t that I stopped writing. On the contrary, I began writing more. However, 90% of it was not creating, but translating. The other 10% was a mix of reporting and creating. Yes, reporting: my first example of online writing was, in fact, a journal. A journal that I kept updating on a fairly regular basis until 2006, though it began overlapping with a proper blog I had started in 2005 (Autoritratto con mele, in Italian), and so updates to the old journal became more and more intermittent, and now I post there very rarely.
So, to summarise, my writing timeline looks something like this:
- • 1984–1989 — The Early Years: first attempts at poetry after writing some lyrics for a band when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote in this 5-year period was in English.
- • 1990–1992 — Discovering prose; first short stories in Italian, then more serious poetry, both in English and Italian. First project for a novel, Richard Martyn started in 1992. Most of the work produced at this time was designed, printed and distributed by myself, and that led to the idea of starting a microscopic ‘publishing project’ called Laboratorio Quillink which, in more recent years, has become Quillink Press.
- • 1992–2000 — My most writing-intense years, and I really mean intense: dozens of short stories, mainly in Italian but also in English, lots of projects and attempts at finding different ways to make my work known, including jazz readings and theatre (I began writing a play, but the project was abandoned).
- • 2001–2009 — Years of crisis, creative drought, writer’s block, general impasse. Most notable work was a small collection of poems in English written between 2003 and 2005, called Collapsars. At the same time, these are the years in which another kind of writing started growing and maturing, mainly thanks to all the translation work I’ve been doing since 2001: technical writing. From 2005–2006 I’ve been more and more active online, mostly writing tech- and Mac-related blogs: the aforementioned Autoritratto con mele (Italian), started in 2005; then The Rizland Observer (English), started in 2007 — both blogs were then merged in 2010 to form The Quillink Observer [officially closed in July 2011 after starting this website]. In 2008 came System Folder, a blog about vintage Macs and the classic Mac OS. While more creative efforts were made first in 2007, when I started Crosslines, an idea for a sort of ‘interactive webfiction’ (the project is currently in the freezer, waiting to be re-engineered and properly relaunched). Then, in 2010 I started a couple of small tumblelogs, Neoglossary (just a fun thing about neologisms and invented words) and Type Happens (a photoblog on found type).
- • 2009-present — Creative writing and inspiration slowly returning; abandoned novels and projects are being dealt with, either by revivification or by leaving the past behind and starting afresh. My latest production is in English for the most part.
Side 1: The Good
So, what have these ten years of online writing brought to me? That 35% of sweet I mentioned at the beginning is really an invaluable human element: these past years I have met smart, like-minded, extraordinary people on my path. People from all around the world, from Canada to the United States, from the United Kingdom to Australia. People who have read my journals, people who have supported me in the darkest hours when I was baring my soul and exposing my fears and insecurity. And more recently, all the few but faithful readers of my more tech-oriented blogs, people who have proven to be intelligent interlocutors, either here or via email or on Twitter. I want to thank each one of you, if you’re still reading this. I am glad and honoured to know you and I am thankful for each minute you have dedicated to reading anything I’ve ever written here and otherwhere.
Side 2: The Bad
And what about that bitter taste I was mentioning before? Simply put – my biggest frustration is that despite my experience as a writer, despite my expertise in the various matters I usually write about here and in other places, most of what I do remains obscure, not acknowledged, ignored. What’s particularly hurting is witnessing other tech pundits/writers achieving success in a relatively short timespan. Then I go and look at what they do, and discover that some of them write very little original content in their blogs. Most of the time they either link to other people’s stuff with a one-line comment, or just ‘reblog’ and rehash. It’s disheartening. I still haven’t grasped what’s the ingredient of certain successful blogs. On the surface, these people don’t seem to do anything special, nor they seem particularly insightful – they just seem to ‘organise things prettily’.
I know, I know this might sound as nothing more than a whining rant. I know you might think Aw, you’re just jealous, aren’t you? – but really, hold your judgment for a moment and put yourself in my shoes: after all this time and experience, sometimes it’s hard not to sit and wonder aloud: what the fuck am I doing wrong? It’s hard not to ask yourself: Is it the audience? Is it the culture? Is it the quality of what I write? I know it’s not the quality of my writing, because I have indeed received praise for it, both by Italian and English-speaking readers. Is it the fact that I don’t throw every article in other people’s face every time, all the time, as other tech writers seem to do? Is it the fact that I don’t nag my Twitter audience with tweets like “Look at what I’ve done, written, etc.”? In other words, is it because I’m not quite good at ‘selling’ my qualities? I so wish I knew. Meanwhile I’m left with the feeling that no matter what I do, it’s never enough. The feeling of never climbing the ladder, of never rising through the ranks. I know it takes time, dedication and patience. I don’t lack dedication or patience, but time seem to be passing away and nothing really happens.
I’ve been entertaining the idea of ‘going indie’ — that is, making a living with what I write, with my blogs. When other people did that (like Jason Kottke, John Gruber and recently Shawn Blanc), they seemed to have achieved that mainly because their websites got enough constant traffic as to be able to monetise it by adding selected ads on their sites, and also by offering ‘memberships’, which is basically asking people to pay a premium to support their writing. Of course, they reached a wide enough audience first of all by offering excellent, interesting content. (Although I also suspect that knowing first-hand some people in the right places and communities surely helped a bit). I know my skills and I know I can offer quality content. If you care to explore my blogs’ archives, you’ll notice that I have very rarely ‘reblogged and rehashed’ or just pointed to external links; most of what I write are articles I elaborate from scratch, stuff to which I devote a considerable amount of time, stuff I believe in. So I don’t think I’m not dedicated enough.
But realistically, what can I do with roughly 200 visits per day? What can I do when, the very few times I ventured to ask support by small donations to be made through PayPal, only two people were gracious enough to respond to my humble pleas? Combine this with the usual shit I receive in what should be my ‘daily job’ as a translator, which is probably one of the least respected professions out there, judging by the behaviour of many clients I’ve met so far. Now I’m sure you’ll get a glimpse of the picture.
It’s easy to give advice such as take some time off, reconsider, start anew or change your line of work. The fact is: my best skills lie in writing and translating — I just want to be able to make a living with that. Is that so wrong?