Sunday, February 10, 2019

editing, publishing, and technological witchery

It occurred to me this morning that the dgp chapbook series turns 15 this fall. Occasionally, I find myself thinking about my tenure as an editor/publisher.  What I know and how I learned it, and so much of it seems to have been picked up, scattershot along the way.   I guess it began digitally with starting wicked alice in 2001, my first shot at web design and curating content.  Or maybe it began in 2004 when I mastered the tricky figure 8 layout that was necessary for manual duplex printing. So much of it was, and probably still is, fake it til you make it.   I could say it started in high school--where I worked on the newspaper as an editor.   I could say it started in a desktop publishing class I randomly enrolled in my last year of undergrad.  Or the Small Press Publishing class I took at Columbia that made it seem possible that I could even start a press. All of these would be true, but not the whole story exactly.

But much of it is wrapped up on technology, in what was possible or not possible at any given time. In a pre-internet world, you could have started a press or litzine, but your audience & distro would have been limited.  Layout would have been old-school and more time consuming. Printing would have been left to the professionals unless you were going the photocopied zine route. So much of my own life in publishing depended on the exact set of technological circumstances that existed when I started doing it.  Otherwise, it might not even have happened.

As a kid, my relationship with computers all along had been pretty sketchy, the first pc I'd encountered having been my cousin' s Commodore 64, upon which we pretty much just played that olympic gymnastics game over and over where you chose your country and then had to stick landings using the joystick. Video games, of course,  were not entirely new, it being a great age of arcades in malls and Atari.  I even had a desktop Donkey Kong game I routinely ran out the batteries on.  But the home computer part was entirely new.   At school, there was one very clunky beige computer that they rolled from classroom to classroom in the upper grades and offered students time on it, but I never sought it out because, really, besides the gymnastics game, I wouldn't have even begun to know what to do with it.  In junior high, we learned typing in 7th grade (well, were supposed to learn typing) and something called "Computer Applications" in 8th.  All I remember of this class was somehow making a tiny cursor move around on the screen for no real reason.  Also that everything was excessively complicated--the codes you typed in to make things work, the order in which the machine had to be powered up lest it crash or explode or some other horrible technological catastrophe.  It pretty much quelled any interest I might have had and sent me back to completely analog world for a couple more years. At home we had a Nintendo, and I spent hours perfecting my Super Mario Bros game, but computers were still way too expensive.

I did wind up working on my high school newspaper as a junior and senior. So of course, there was typing up stories in the office on black screened monitors  (mostly rants against environmental and animal rights threats)  to print out and arrange with sticky wax on blue lined layout pages.  Things were just beginning to shift publishing wise, and by the final year, when I was one of the editorial staff, there was a shiny new machine running something called MS Word with a giant monitor and layout capabilities.  My co-editors would fiddle with it, but mostly we were still using the blue-lined mockups. I imagine by the next year, they would have fully gone over to laying things out entirely digital.  Because there were some conflicts in my schedule and I had to swap out some electives, I wound up in a another introductory computer class that met first thing in the morning, where we learned to type up letters and resumes and spreadsheets on that same black DOS screen. At the time, computers in general seemed like a clever, speedier,  alternative to a typewriter, but that was about it.

As a freshman in college, it was the first time I had heard the phrase "e-mail."  We were granted one should we choose to use it, but I didn't really. Definitely not that semester in North Carolina, where my communications were limited to notes on dorm room doors, long distance calls to my mother, and long snail mail letters to friends.  There was a computer lab of course, I even went there with a roommate once, but I mostly typed up my papers and writing exploits on the new typewriter I'd bought with my graduation money the spring before, and would continue to do so for the next three years.    My final semester as an undergrad, I took a desktop publishing class to fill a final sci/math/tech credit I was missing.  As a senior, I'd probably been in the RC computer lab two or three times previously.  There was huge demand for the two computers at the end of a long row, and there were whispers of the word "internet," but I wouldn't have been able to really tell you what that was.  I was starting to use e-mail, mostly to write a friend who had transferred to another college, but little else. All along, there were  rumblings of zines, talked about in places like Sassy magazine and in my sister's group of high school friends, one of whom must have had a computer and some layout knowledge.  But I was spending most of my time writing poems and doing theater seemed cool when she bought it home along with comics and other things she'd made  (I remember there was an artist book bound in glittery vinyl she did that was really intriguing) but it wasn't my world.

The Desktop Publishing class was teaching us the ins-and-outs of something called "Word Perfect" and I got really good at making things happen--designing attractive newsletters and resumes and brochures, which I kept in a tidy plastic-sheeted portfolio.   It turned out to be one of my favorite and most useful classes, and even for a one credit class, I spent a lot of time in that lab out of class perfecting my designs for fake businesses and literary newsletters. I was into it.  Obsessively so. Perhaps this, moreso than my high school newspaper experience was the real beginning of my editing/publishing life, where I caught the bug for it.    Word Perfect, of course,  was about to be swept under the rug by MSWord...those internet computers at the end  were already running Office.

A year later, I landed in my grad program at DePaul, and one of my first classes was a Bibliography and Literary Research class.  Because it was a bigger and a more technologically advanced school, they were quick to show us the ins and outs of database research and the internet the second week of class.  My undergrad paper-writing up til that point had been mired in a clunky humanties article database that crashed every 10 minutes and the huge print MLA indexes in the basement of the library.   The DP computer lab was huge, filled with brand new Gateways. speedy and slick, and I would soon learn that once you sat down, you could easily lose an afternoon, not always to classroom research, but also to list servs and literary discussion boards (I spent a lot of time in the Poets & Writers one.)  I still typed up my papers and then poems, so many poems, on a Brother word processor in my apartment, and still spent more time not in front of a screen than in front of one. But it was 1997, the world was changeing--anyone who could afford home computers were getting one.  E-mail was a common thing and AOL was in its hey-day.

After I finished grad school, I briefly landed back in Rockford without computer access for a bit.  It was hard, esp. becuause I was on the job hunt that summer and could have used it.  I worked briefly that summer as a production ass't for a local paper that still used the blue lined layout even then. When I started working at the elementary school library, when there was free time, which there barely was,  I would spend  some of it online at my desk.  There were two other networked computers and there was one teacher who would come down during her classroom breaks and after school, but most of the teachers were suspicious of technology. My subsequent job at Columbia, however, placed me in front of a computer constantly, and for long hours in the evening at a low-traffic circ desk.  It was here I slowly taught myself, via modifying Angelfire templates, rudimentary html for my personal webpage, which, as I was starting to publish regularly in online journals, seemed necessary to have.  wicked alice, of course, spun out of that.  And dancing girl press spun out of that.  I got pretty good at designing simple webpages, even without any fancy software or programs.  I got really good at laying out books in Word and still do.  Even the covers. For one, I know Word very well at this point and know the ins and outs and how to make things happen.  Two, I can work on things anywhere, on whatever computer--home. the library, the studio--without having to have design programs on all of them. This still works til this day.

Of course, over the past two decades, much has changed in the web design world, and now it's possible to get a really nice site going with no coding knowledge whatsoever.  I still have landing pages I laid out myself, but most of them link to blogger or other ready-made sites (or e-commerce platforms)  I've tailored to do what I need them to do. As someone who works with a younger generation, and younger every year, I feel like a grumpy old get-off-my-lawn man when they complain about technology's failings and have no idea how easy things really are now compared 10 years ago-even printers are so much better than they were--able to do double sided without tricky, weird layouts. Even Word allows you do more with it and much more quickly.  I get a certain vertigo thinking about how quickly things change--how easy things are that used to be so difficult. I spend about 80-90 percent of my day in front of a screen now and it's harder to remember a time when I didn't .

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