The Internet has changed a lot of things about the way we read, think, and do politics, and it's also changed the creative writing of teens. Spoiler, this is a positive story about kids and the Internet.
We open in medias res.
"My book is centered around two people's points of view after a tragedy occurs," said 16-year-old Kathleen Veltkamp. She's just self-published a book through Amazon's Kindle Direct program. It's called 12-Sided Dice. "And after that happens we follow their perspectives and how they deal with that."
I asked her how long it took her to write. "About a year and a half," said Veltkamp. "I think the rough draft took me the longest to make, and the revision was a lot quicker."
Veltkamp's discipline is commendable, and she's not alone. Tiffany Rehbein is the English Language Arts Coordinator for the Laramie County School District, and a former English teacher. Lately, she's seen a lot more kids like Kathleen Veltkamp.
"I actually have a gal who came in with a book that she was working on publishing. Now she's in college, and has self-published individual ones," said Rehbein. "I have a little gal going into seventh grade. She took part in our writing camp. Her mom emailed me after camp and was like, yep, she has a short story that she's working on self-publishing."
Rehbein said that the opportunity to self-publish online has completely changed how kids write. "What I've seen is kids not being as shy about sharing their writing, kids being more independent."
She said more than ever before, teens are writing outside of school, on their own, and trying stuff out for an online audience.
It's a vulnerable thing, though, to put your writing out into the world. "I was a bit nervous publishing it because in ten years, I might hate the book that I wrote, and be embarrassed by it," said Veltkamp. "But I like that I at least tried to do it, and I did do it."
Personally, I would love to find the novel I wrote at fourteen about rival vampire gangs in Los Angeles. It was a heartbreaking, but ultimately redemptive, Romeo-and-Juliet tale.
Fifteen years ago, when I was teenager obsessed with writing, my friends and I would post stories and poems online. Those websites still exist. I reached out to my friends from that era, but none of us could remember our old usernames. My friend Liz said, to be honest, she hoped that stuff stays buried.
Still, I perused the archives. As an adult, clicking through thousands of pages of poems about friendship betrayals or mental illness or falling in love, modern-day retellings of obscure Greek myths or stories about bananas taking over the world, I was amazed at the outpouring of emotion and creativity. It's clear that on these sites, kids feel safe to be honest. Rehbein said for the most part, these young writers keep the website community accountable, so it is a nurturing space. "Because the kids who do this are really serious about it, and so they're going to want a quality outlet."
For me, it was like instant community, and an incubator for ideas. You write something you think is decent, you post it. You leave comments on other people's work, and they leave comments on yours. It was key to me becoming a real writer. To this day, I abide the good advice from the girl who commented, "Nice poem. Just remember 'and' is a weak line opening."
Rehbein said that extra feedback is helping the quality of kids' writing. "Kids would come in, and say, 'Hey, you know, I spent some time writing this, will you read it, and I have some online friends also reading it.'"
It's hard to say when the first self-published book came out. But by no means is it a new concept, or one relegated to amateurs: Marcel Proust self-published Swann's Way. The Joy of Cooking, The Tales of Peter Rabbit-both DIY affairs. But back then, those writers had to pay big expenses for their book to be printed. Now, with the Internet, you need way less capital. Sometimes none at all.
And writers have always shared their work with each other. Consider the Brontë siblings, writing stories and plays to entertain each other over long lonely nights on the English moors. Those stories gave birth to Heathcliffe and Jane Eyre. But now, people can share their work and get feedback and talk craft even if they didn't grow up in a writerly household. Even if they live in a small town. Even if they've never met anyone else who carries a notebook everywhere they go. And eventually, their creative incubation online can pay off in real life.
"I think it was really cool to see my family and friends and even fellow students and teachers read something that I've written," said Veltkamp. "And they've all liked it so far."
What if she were a teenager in 1985, who couldn't self-publish on the Internet, or at all? "I don't know," said Veltkamp. "I've never lived in 1985. I might never have published a book."