How are these common childhood memories reflected in today’s proliferation of social media? Read on for the perspective of Myfanwy Collins, a Massachusetts-based novelist whose Echolocation hit the shelves a few weeks ago.
Echolocation is a work of literary fiction that “lays bare the hearts of three lost women called together by their own homing instincts in a season that will change their lives – and the place they call home – forever.” I’ll have a teaser from it here, tomorrow.
And now, Myfanwy’s essay about pen pals, updated for the digital age:
Once I had a pen pal–a girl from Wales who was my same age. When I think back on her letters what I remember is not how different we were, but how alike. At the same time, my best friend had a pen pal from Japan. For her birthday, she received a letter that included a cassette tape with the Japanese girl singing Happy Birthday in English. We listened numerous times, fascinated that this tape and her voice had traveled so far to make it to where we sat in my friend’s bedroom in our small town.
Back then, I had moved from Montreal where I was born and had lived for the first eleven years of my life to a rural community in New York state. As such, I missed people and I wrote many letters. I wrote to a teacher I had loved. I wrote to my best friend for 2nd-4th grade who had moved to Vancouver before I moved. I wrote to my eldest sister who stilled lived in Montreal. Letters were a connection outside of my four walls and new life.
As I got older, my friends and I would communicate with each other throughout the school day by writing and passing notes to each other. These notes were typically written on lined, loose-leaf paper and folded up in crafty ways so that they could easily be passed on without a teacher noticing. The information within was inane, in retrospect, but seemed intensely important to us at the time. It was exciting to receive a note from someone, especially if that someone was a boy.
I loved to send letters and notes almost as much as I loved to receive them. The idea with letters was that you were not simply pushing information out to the recipient. Instead, the expectation was that you would receive some meaningful response back. Of course, email and texting has taken their place, but even more so than that, social media now takes the place of letters for us.
My first experience with blogging was in 2001 when my husband and I took at 19,000 mile journey via car, visiting National Parks in the United States and Canada. Whenever we stopped somewhere with dial up, we would post our impressions and photos from the road for our family and friends. It was a wonderful way to stay in contact with everyone and we hoped they enjoyed reading what we wrote as much as we enjoyed sharing our experiences with them.
Before leaving on our 2001 trip, I had worked in hi-tech. One of my jobs had been as a content producer for a web portal, which also meant monitoring several message boards and chat rooms. I could not believe that people actually interacted with each other on these boards and in these chat rooms. I wondered what they were missing in their own lives that made them so eager to connect with each other online? Little did I know that within a few years I would find myself completely entrenched in a writing-related online forum.
A few months after we got home from our trip, I joined the online writing workshop, Zoetrope, where I am still a member today. There I began workshopping my stories and interacting with other writers on the message boards. In my early days on Zoetrope, I often found myself seething over something someone had posted that felt like it was intended to bait people (usually because it was). After a few years, though, I learned to ignore those posts and focus on my writing and the positive things about the workshop–like how I learned to query an agent, and how I gained the confidence to send my work out to a broader audience.
In 2003, I began a blog with the intention of focusing on reviewing what I was reading. I routinely posted book reviews and links to the writing of writers whose work I admired. I’ve continued to blog since then, though not with quite the frequency I did in my early days of blogging. From there I tried out every social media that developed: Tribe (is that what it was called? It’s been so long now I can’t remember), Friendster, Gather, Myspace, Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter, tumblr, Google+… and now, Pinterest.
My interest in social media is not merely about selling me or my work, though I certainly do take the opportunity to talk about my work when I have something to share. My interest in social media is, honestly, an interest in connecting with others. I want to learn from and about others. I also enjoy being connected to friends from childhood and far-flung family. I no longer engage in flame wars (especially those that are political or religious in nature) and I tend to be most attracted to people who are interested in meaningfully sharing information.
Social media has made my world smaller and larger at the same time. It’s not as exciting as those letters from Wales were when I was eleven, but it can be as enriching when I find out that someone across the world from me shares my same interests or that someone I’ve never met is generous enough to teach me something new. In those moments, it can almost feel like I’m tearing open the envelope and pulling out the folded sheets of a letter meant just for me.
Myfanwy Collins lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, and Potomac Review. Echolocation is her debut novel. A collection of her short fiction, I Am Holding Your Hand, is forthcoming from PANK Little Books in August 2012. Learn more about Myfanwy Collins at her author site.