I'm sitting in the lovely little room where the Victorian Writers' Centre collection is housed, reading Wired Style:Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age. (Edited by Constance Hale and published by Hardwired:San Francisco, 1996.) Coffee and bix for nix, specialised writing and fiction collection thoughtfully displayed, large distressed table to spread out on, not a computer in sight, and what do I choose to read about? Online style.
I'm going over to RMIT later to hunt down a copy I can borrow - this is from the VWC's reference collection, and cannot be borrowed - not an entirely novel experience as I'm heading up to the State Library of Victoria later as well, to copy some chunks out of an account of the Yorick Club that is held there.
My son's interrupted this comparatively wireless interlude with a call about his upcoming encounter with a dental surgeon. This young man is a wicked guitarist who gave a fine account of 'Fade to Black' and 'Sweet Home Alabama' with the mates at the school concert two nights ago - now, bitchety bitch, we must have a tooth removed and put braces on his bite. Cruelty, thy name is orthomaximillius...
So, here I am in a pretty, grimy Art Deco building , facing a wall of Australian literary journals whose publishers are slowly nudging their way online, and revisiting the Internet in 1996.
The chapter titles are the usual snappy bites, leaving me unprepared for the occasionally sober, sometimes passionate analysis they contain within incisive definitions and anecdotes. The reference style is breezy, but the intention is serious nonetheless:
What's the language of the global village? How can we keep pace with technology without getting bogged down in empty acronyms? How can we write about machines without losing a sense of humanity and poetry? Wired Style is anarchic, fluid and rule-averse, so beware: the digital dictions in this book may someday ache for updates and clarifications.(Consider this Version 1.0.Fortunately, Version 2.0 is already being created for the World Wide Web at www.hardwired.com/.)
The compilation strategy used to create the guide back in 1996 was collaborative. Readers are included and named in the credits. Chicago, AP and Strunk &White are mentioned briefly. Dean Swift's influence is invoked on page nine:
'As a lover of the plain simple straight ahead commonsensical [sic] and above all human style of the master Jonathan Swift,' says John Seabrook...'I am so pleased to see citizens of the Net quietly keeping the fires of great prose alive."
I ended up skating through the first two chapters and leaving the definitions in the past, as I couldn't borrow this treasure from RMIT after all. So I'll probably sample the first edition again sometime, in between visiting version X in its freshest incarnation.
There's an excitement in earlier writing about the online environment that's well worth savouring, though. As i'm midway through transcribing Seabrook by hand at the distressed dining table, I'm suddenly visited by a sense that technology has been my master for too long. I'm writing this and thinking, "ewwwh, if they had a machine I could photocopy this and be on my way...why don't I get a laptop, when am I going to start that Wordpress blog..."
Perhaps it's a leftover from being a music student all those years ago - your work is structured around the availability of tools, you come home from school and throw your younger sibs off the piano and hunker down...Then there's written exams, all of which promotes an insidious garbage in, garbage out frame of mind. I suffer from the ridiculous conceit that if it hasn't been researched or isn't the occasion of a special excursion of some sort, then any piece I produce is somehow frivolous or illegitimate.
Thanks to this tendency to over-research, it's likely I'll disappear into someone else's writing once more without producing the pieces I want to write on blogging for a print source. I could easily spend the time between now and Christmas building a little blog to put it all in. Like a pretty box. Bloody hell.
The writer's centre has a ghost librarian who has been busily devising a series of card indexes - it appears the centre is reluctant to invest in an online catalogue of any sort. But there is a freedom in that minimalism that I may be just ready to embrace. Get the tools - then forget them. Is that how to write an online essay? Maybe.
Constraints on this piece (after Derik Badman, another librarian I know of):
A Mitsubishi pencil (Uni-ball Eye Micro) and red notebook, some scratchings out, arrows and asterisks, minimal paraphrasing whilst typing, not having read the whole book I'm using as a peg for my thoughts, a mobile phone with a wonderful young person on the other end, and (last but not least) tiny, cruddy toilets down the corridor.
Tech-free surroundings come at a price.
Update: another constraint - Hardwired disappeared pretty quickly, after some lukewarm reviews. Even Google has it listed as a Style Guide - but the bird has flown.