Cultural Petri Dishes And You

I am an old man. Going into the back nine of my life, barring any breakthroughs in phylactery design. I’ve got about as much salt as pepper in my beard, and I’m occasionally tempted to grow my hair and see what the gray situation is like up top.

I open with this not to curry sympathy (though God knows it wouldn’t hurt) but to illustrate the fact that at one point in my life there was no Internet. I wasn’t an early adopter by any stretch–not Usenet, no BBS, nothing until I got AOL in…shit, 1998 or ’99.

I was also a very timid kid. I didn’t make friends easily. Or rather, I didn’t seek out friendships. My late teens and post-adolescence were marked with anxiety, depression, and, despite those, a wild need to tell my stories.

The stories weren’t very good. Nobody’s stories at that stage are.

But here’s the thing–I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that, to quote the malleable cartoon dog, “sucking is the first step to sorta becoming good at something.” Were I born ten years later, I’d have been able to go and read the stories of established writers, and maybe even ask them about it.

Here’s the thing. Creativity without people just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t work. You can’t have beer without little microorganisms eating sugar and pissing alcohol. You can no more write without social networks (in the pre-Zuckerburg sense) than you can without reading lots. You need feedback, you need to hear how people got their start. Without a tribe, it’s like trying to do the moonshot with balsa wood and papier-mache. A lot of work, but you ain’t going nowhere, pal.

The DSL Revolution would bring me my first such network. It was like discovering metallurgy.


In 2002, I joined the forum attached to the webcomic PVP. It was my first big step into Internet Community, and I’ve made some of the great friends of my life there.

Those of us that wrote would do so. I was fast as shit back then, too. Five hundred word short story? BrrrrrrrrrrDONE. There weren’t many of us, but we’d cheer each other on, challenge each other. Do stuff. It was as organic as the inside of a petri dish.

One such Doer, a feller by the name of Eric Heisserer, was a regular in the Writing Challenges we’d do on the forum, and he would crush them, every damn time. He taught me a lot about the craft of writing–not in the artsy-fartsy sense, but in a very Norm Abram-esque “this is how you construct a story so it doesn’t fall apart and kill you” way. About the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet, too.

So one day, he posts this weird-ass little story he’d done called The Dionaea House. It’s set up in a epistolary-via-text message format, which dialed the suspense factor to 11. I’d never seen the like of it.

And neither had Hollywood. They took notice. He’s written several movies, and directed the late Paul Walker in Hours.  An adaptation of The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang is ahead on the horizon, too.

Twelve years later. A week from now, as a matter of fact. Eric has a new movie out called Lights Out. Go see it.


I wound up, for whatever reason, joining The Engine, a forum put up by writer/cunning man of the Internet grove Warren Ellis. I don’t know why. This was a place where giants strode. A lot of heavy hitters in the comics industry. It was 2006, but it was also 1993, for me. I dummied up. I didn’t contribute. Intimidation had locked me in.

So when he announced he’d be shutting down The Engine and opening a forum attached to his online comic FreakAngels, I was more enthused. No pressure, I could start over.

Little did I know that Whitechapel was going to be the incubator that it was.

It wasn’t a who’s-who, necessarily. It was just the precise mix of factors that led to an absolute fucking explosion of creativity. You had writers. You had artists. You had musicians. Magicians. Poets. Everybody worked. It was a challenge. Not that anybody was busting your balls, but you saw the output people were cranking on, and it made you want to step up. Everybody got better. I saw my first pieces in virtual print. The virus mutated.


My point–and I do have one!–is that you absolutely cannot create in a vacuum. Beer is the goal. Your wirtschatz is the grain, your reading, that’s the hops.

But other people are the yeast. Bring those together and mmmmmmmmm-MM. That’s a tasty fucking brew.

That metaphor fell apart on me.

EDIT: I fucked up. “Lights Out” opens next week, July 22, not today.


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