My 29 Years with the Source | Our Longest-Running Contributor Looks Back

The first article I  wrote for the Source, back in 1985, was rejected. Editor Claudia Mueller was nice about it, of course. She said, “It’s nice writing and all, but there’s just not much there.”

She was right. The woman I wrote about was mainly notable for her high opinion of herself. It was a learning experience.

The second article I wrote for the Source was about a planned water park for Fairfield. I was to be paid $100. I wrote it and gave it to my client. He wasn’t happy with it and wanted to make changes.

I was offended. Here I was, with newly minted Ph.D. in hand, having studied writing and literature. My client wasn’t a writer. I said, not in these words: “Keep your $100, take my name off it, and do whatever you want with it.”

The article was published, and it was better. He was right. It was a learning experience. (Scroll down to see the article from December 1985).

The Late Great Professional Writing Program

And it was a learning experience I wanted my students to have. I was in Fairfield to direct a graduate program in professional writing, which began in 1985. Although I had been successfully publishing in academic journals, I quickly found out that writing for a popular audience was very different. And my experience taught me that the best way to learn to write for a popular audience was to do it. So I required my students to write for publication, and the Source was a primary outlet for them.

My third article for the Source, I’m happy to say, was published. It was a brief profile of artist Sue Berkey, who had just installed on the Fairfield square some sculptures of people made of branches.

Over the years my students probably wrote hundreds of articles for the Source, on just about any topic you can imagine, from fiber optics to the local spinning wheel club. The graduate program ended in 2003, and Claudia has said that the contributions of my students really helped establish the publication on a solid professional footing early on.
In the early years of the Source its name was the Fairfield
Source. Many of the articles were about Fairfield enterprises. Hundreds of meditators were moving to town, and the city was a hotbed of entre­preneurial activity. As with any new start­ups, quite a number of those businesses folded. And often it seemed to happen not long after they’d been featured in the Source. It was just a coincidence, of course, but the joke among business owners was: if you want your business to fail, have an article about it in the Source.

Technologically Adverse

As I and my students grew as writers, so did Claudia grow as an editor. She was always sweet and wonderful to work with, and my students really enjoyed submitting articles to her.

But Claudia was always just a bit behind my students and me when it came to technology. I remember going into her office and seeing the walls covered with narrow typeset strips. She was manually laying out the pages in the old-fashioned way. I was surprised, because we were using desktop publishing—doing all layout on Macintosh computers.

I suggested to Claudia that she use desktop publishing, but she had a system and was comfortable with it. She said she eventually would. And she eventually did. She quickly became an expert in desktop publishing and was more adept than I was.

Probably my most exasperating experience with her in this regard was email. I began writing my regular column for her in 1994, and our practice back then was to send our articles to her on a floppy disk via regular mail. She would copy the file onto her computer, and then mail the disk back. (That was before floppies were cheap and expendable.)

I began suggesting to her that it would be so much more convenient for everyone if we used email. Each time I sent a floppy, I’d attach a note suggesting email. But in the early days, before the Internet was widely available, she had tried receiving files via modem, and it hadn’t worked well. Eventually, though, she got email and began accepting submissions that way.

The Advent of  Computer Frontiers

Meanwhile, I was enjoying writing my column, called Computer Frontiers, which continues to this day—nearly 20 years. It was actually begun by my colleague Gurdy Leete. I was fascinated by the Internet, and had anticipated it in my 1984 Ph.D. dissertation, which was about the revolutionary consequences of what I called the “digitized word.”

It was only natural that I write about technology and online services and the Internet, and I mentioned to Gurdy I’d like to be involved. He suggested we coauthor it, rotating the writing of the column between us but sharing a byline. This worked okay for a few months, but in the end I was more adept at meeting deadlines than he was. And it became my baby.

When I wrote my first column in December of 1994, the major online services were companies such as Compuserve. The web barely existed back then, and the only web browser was a rudimentary one called Mosaic. I wrote about the online services and about Mosaic. There were just a few thousand websites back then, and they were quite primitive.

But the Internet exploded. In 1995 I wrote about a new online company called Amazon, which only sold books early on. I was excited by the convenience of browsing and buying books this way. But then I got an email from Arnie of 21st Century Bookstore, saying something like: “I enjoyed your column, and I understand your excitement. But think of what it means for local booksellers like the one I work for here in Fairfield.”

My heart sank. I could see where things were going, and I believed it was revolutionary. But he was right: it would disrupt business as usual. Not only did his bookstore close, but so have most other independent bookstores and chains, too.

I remember writing about Google in 1998, an upstart search engine that took a very different approach to delivering search results, organizing the results according to those pages that seemed to be the most popular. Back then the hot search engine was AltaVista. Google quickly took over.

And so it went, for nearly 20 years now. It’s been great fun writing my column. Back in 1985 when I was first learning about professional writing, I was lucky to have a mentor: Bob Oates. I always keep in mind what he said about the power of beginning with a one-sentence hook and angle. I try to begin fast, to begin with something that makes the reader want to read the next sentence. Like the first sentence of this article, about getting rejected. And then I try to keep the momentum going.

I appreciate all the wonderful comments I’ve gotten from readers. People even sometimes stop me on the street, tell me that they’re regular readers, and thank me for my work.

And I especially appreciate Claudia, who’s been so supportive and easy to work with since my first submission back in 1985 and who created a wonderful opportunity for my students.

Congratulations, Claudia, on the 30th anniversary of your fine publication.   

Here’s a section of the article from the December 1985 issue. In case you’re wondering, Merlin’s Wonderland never got built!