damn pens - the eulogy

or Damn Pens! and the journey of a writer

A few years ago - too many years ago - my best friend and I wanted to create a tight-knit writing community of people with varied talents who would post, give constructive criticism, and, above all, be interested in others' work.

After many years of flourishing as a community with almost seventy members from a dozen states and almost ten countries we are now a mammoth's carcass.

I've had to password protect the boards from spammers. For awhile I didn't even notice that the wash of new members even after the site was dead and buried were spammers, even if they filled their profile information in unreadable Chinese characters while spamming the boards with Viagra ads. Every now and then advertisements for penis enlargements came between syntax and style debates.

Going into the archives every now and then makes my chest tighten. There are so many winnable, grabbing first lines among these pieces. They hook me in and the incomplete ones are the worst because there is no way I can find these writers again.

I locked down the boards and tried to forget the passwords, only to come back crawling to the Admin account, change them again, and look into the frozen memories of these people who spent two years of their life sharing their work on Damn Pens! . Most of these pieces are incomplete or are obvious first drafts, but the authors' virtuosic muscle comes out in startling phrases every now and then and I doubt myself. I second-guess myself. How could I have kept things going?

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Every now and then I get the urge to start it up again. These urges are strong and take over whatever I've planned before. I've had papers with deadlines hours away that have been hijacked by a need to revive the community.

I can't point the month when DP! died. I graduated from high school, entered college, and the community still existed, though people were not as frequent about updates. There was a collective writers' block, thirty-six people thick. A hand grabbed them by the neck and pulled them away from the craft of writing or the need to update.

I've left college and still I check the carcass. I clean it out for interesting pieces of fiction or poetry. I usually set on this one by a brilliant Canadian poet who was one of our most zealous contributors.

the Cremation of Nadezhda Ivanovna

"Fire over fire, as flame licks at red hair, and stained porcelain skin

Is consumed.

A shame, women whisper, dark scarves over dark hair, shy of a pandemic

That looms.

Somber men stand together, in a splatter of black, and they mourn for

An innocent lost.

The flies on your skin that escaped hellish fire, fell to earth

And then died in the frost."

(Copyright S. Khriashi, 2003)

That itself is a fitting eulogy in my mind. So much eloquence for something that could have lived longer and should have lived forever.

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When DP! was up, I used to go around other boards, stick around on other sites, looking for what they did and what we could do better. We were better. We had an outfit of regular columnists, a raging debate forum about syntax, grammar, genre, plot, characterization, and other writing essentials.

When people talk about tragic events they talk about the before and after. People who are observers of history also observe the before and after of great epochs and what I feel for the community is present in both dichotomies.

My writing is pre-DP and post-DP. There is pre-community and post-community and the alchemy of feedback, conversation and shared personal experience. To do this, I had to overcome a basic reluctance to share. We all have this reluctance as writers and exercising the work within a community makes it much easier to bear.

It's a lonely experience, and I write out of a sadness that's four years old and won't go away. An epoch has ended and I'm its only historian.

The details are these: my friend and I needed a group. The madness that was Fictionpress just a few years ago was too much for Shen and I, and despite the heroic efforts of communities set up to guarantee reviews, there was little room for the interaction that either of us craved.

The "why don't we set up our own?" idea was simple. We set up a board online. We tweaked the background, stretching the limits of features. Technology birthed awesome platforms to share work. A thread could continue to oblivion as a list of responses, replies, and lively interaction about others' work, which was something that was missing in these industrial strength communities where I, as a member, could go on forever without knowing anyone else.

At first we were excited but didn't know how to recruit others.

What we were offering must have been new or revolutionary because people joined by word of mouth. There was a friend of my brother's classmate who wanted to join after I asked him for help. He agreed, becoming one of our hardest, brightest but most erratic workers.

Then we scoured boards and picked off their best and brightest like flies. It was easy to persuade people to come and share their work with the promise of instantaneous thoughtful critique.

It was only after everything fell apart that I realized that I had formed relationships with people whose names I never knew, whose names I still don't know.

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We decided that there would be various levels of critique required: one for basic syntax, grammar, and punctuation issues, while other levels of critique were content-based with concentration on overall narrative styles and tones. There were no rules mandating thoroughness but there was a real spirit of generosity, to do unto one writer as the author would like for themselves.

This was a point in my life when I began to need the feedback. The need for it has never ended but this was when it began, when I was fit enough to present complete pieces of work, or works in progress, and have the maturity enough to handle criticism. I acknowledge that handling criticism - however constructive - is difficult.

Others had difficulty handling the intensity of criticism. After all, accepting one's mistakes is great advice, but easy only in theory.

(The Hindu goddess, Parvati, created her son by wiping off the sandalwood sitting on her skin pre-bath and using it to sculpt a human boy with the following strict instructions: do not let anyone, including her husband, prevent her from having her bath.

The creation - or in, this case, the formidable Lord Ganesha - held steadfast to his mother's wishes and prevented his father (whom he had not previously met) from walking in on his mother while she was talking a bath. The story doesn't end well for the vigilant son - his father, not knowing the identity of his wife's fastidious guard, cut off the boy's head and a distraught Parvati came out of her bath to find a beheaded son and a confused husband.

Even though it is said that Shiva is the one that brings the elephant's head to Parvati and revives her son, I'd like to think that Parvati was the one responsible for all of this, that it is this attachment to her creation that made her strangle an elephant and reattach it to her son's head.)

This is the tangible devotion between creator and creation.

So for this visceral affection that we, as writers, feel for our creations became multiplied, at first, nine different ways for nine different people, and then to eighteen and then to thirty-six at the height of our operation.

Many people get very contentious about their work but among us this contention - this give and take - gave us enough oomph and fortified our desire to think of our work as complex organisms capable and deserving of revision.

I made some somewhat unpopular decisions to start, but I am happy I made them. There was no fanfiction allowed on the board. A significant number of writers were familiar with the intense, borrowed imagination of others and there was no way I could expect other writers to comment, successfully, on an unknown universe.

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Fanfiction is also an enactment of a desire to see a particular scenario play itself out, regardless of content, it will be appreciated within a certain context. It couldn't be subject to the level of scrutiny that I wanted from Damn Pens!

(My reasoning alone for this was not satisfactory. I was the radical writer who hated a community staple.)

I was fortunate that Shen agreed with me on this issue. In one of our community discussions about fanfiction, she wrote a very well-thought out essay in response a question from our regular contributor, Alana, from which I've excerpted the following:

"Fanfiction is enjoyable for both the reader and the writer ... some of the best fanfiction is written by people who don't have aspirations to be writers, in fact have other careers and lives beyond the work, and are writing fanfiction purely as a hobby... I have to share it with people I know will understand it- other fans."

but then, she said,

"A well-crafted work is not typically sought after. Most readers just want something that, essentially, panders to their desire of the moment ... Quality isn't really prevalent or demanded in fanfiction ... I used fanfiction as a learning tool. It gave me perspective, and now I come to DP, and original fiction, to help myself grow. That is why we don't allow fanfiction on this board (aside from Sreya's visceral hatred of it) and that is why I come here- to find those budding writers and coax them into expanding their talent beyond those limits. "

(R. Gould, 2003)

As an avid writer of fanfiction, Shen said the DP was instrumental in moving her forward into the the realm of originality. It was more about finding a voice than anything else. The rest would follow.

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Less unpopular was the decision to have an online magazine every two months, coded by my incredible friend and me. Shen - my co-administrator - was an excellent organizer and was able to cull the best pieces from each participating member into a magazine which showcased revised pieces.

Shen's capacity for organizing people was what kept this board together. I was concerned with structure, and she was concerned with execution. I enjoyed being the own spectator to my mini-success.

There were two Canadian writers who went up to have significant positions in the board. One of them wrote a column on grammar/syntax. The other one wrote breathtaking poetry and prose, a mini-prodigy. I was seventeen at the inception of this board and many of these writers grew with me, so the crowd was impressive but not intimidating.

Instead, knowing that I had a long way to go was the most refreshing feeling in the world. As writers we either look back on a period of past glory or to a possible brilliant future and we focus little on the present. In the present, there is our now, our idea, our work.

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For that year and a half, I forced myself to live in the present and it made a real difference.

DP! extracted a two to three page story per week and a longer story once a month to two months.

I developed a real high when I wrote. At first, I didn't realize the volume until I came up with the clever idea of pasting all the work I wrote into a single document. The document climbed to two hundred pages of pure, raw work. It was work that was read and examined and cherished - and sometimes loathed.

Other writers were also similarly prolific. One of our poets, WonkyDonkey, wrote an average of two to three poems a week. Another one of our authors - Jabberwock - wrote six prose pieces in a month - and those six pieces were subsequently worked on for the next year. Luna wrote an edgy piece about a lesbian couple living in India whose mission was to help create a grassroots group embodying female activism.

Being prolific was not the point, but sometimes the side effect of constantly exercising. The eye tension was the lactic acid after an intense workout and a day without work meant that the fatigue was keenly felt.

There were pockets of issues. Members did not always get along. We had a few malicious users who lurked and left bizarre comments. To us, the worst kind of comments were the irrelevant ones, ones that harped on typos and gave little understanding or truth about content, style, characterization or other important factors of a piece.

Though we started out with a group of strong writers, we encountered some writers at different stages of the writing process. We had to expand to accommodate them. Our separate boards for poetry and prose also included sections for very heavy critique. There were intense discussion about how to encourage new talent, to take the fear of the writing process.

Process is a term that applies, in this sense, to the preliminary choices that are made. The choice to write is the significant choice. Everything afterwards is secondary.

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The year I went to college was the year it collapsed.

Shen went on to college in 2005 and her schedule was too exhausting to consider helping me any more.

She was the technological wizard, and therefore the backbone. She troubleshot the magazine when I was stuck, pouring over miles of coding to uncover the nasty table errors. She created our forms. Minced backgrounds. Spent hours coordinating writer's biographies.

When she went it was worse than paralysis. By the time I looked at the site days after the first semester of my sophomore year was complete it was petrified. The place was empty, still left untouched by the robots.

For awhile I remained optimistic that there were other communities like ours. I went to four or five writing boards, made engaging friends, kept acquaintances. I saw writing that I loved and got to reading again, but there was no interaction between what I was writing and who was reading it.

I felt scared having to start over again and building my confidence in connections once more. In a way, I never managed to start over, caught in the ideal of the perfect community. I am living in the past again.

I am living in the shadow of an idea.

I tried starting again with someone else, starting from scratch, but it did not work out. Others have time constraints. They have lives to lead. Pressures beyond the screen are intense.

The only way I knew to write was from experience and my experience lead me seven thousand miles away to India to sit frustratedly in front of a computer to wait for the site to load so that I could put up my latest sketch written on a sheet of toilet paper while squatting on the rank shithole The legs of bugs counted the seconds I had to sit, thrust and push, and then the seconds in between to compose the extra line. Experience led me to East Harlem at three in the morning, beating the old Cadillacs and the brothers on the street corner having a beer.

Who has time for writing anymore - and who doesn't have time for writing anymore?

Where would I be without my desire to write?

So to those who have no time for this, I have to ask, who does?

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One of the most tragic moments of my recent past was when I talked to a Damn Pens! aged cousin - because this is how I think of them now, as people who can be helped by a defunct writing society - who said, "Books? Writing? I don't have time. I'm never going to have time." There was, of course, biology this, college preparation that, will I get a master's degree and still have enough time to take over the free world?

Others have to make money, to study, to live lives. Their lives are cut up into identifiable pieces, easy for storing in tupperware bins, slapped with a label, put aside on the garage shelf between the mulch and the the Sams Club sized toilet paper.

I don't think I have the strength to argue.

We live our lives but we have the time to do what we want. We always have time. If we really wanted something, we work for it, and suffer for the time when what we want is not with us.

I really want something, and I suffer for the time when it is not with me.