Thursday, February 27, 2014

The End of an Era

Tuesday seemed like a fairly normal day for me. It was filled with ordinary blessings, busyness, and stress of various kinds, and not much writing time, as evidenced by the fact that when evening came, I hadn’t checked in at Epinions, one of the websites I write for regularly.

That’s not terribly unusual. I have days when I have to prioritize other things – teaching, ministry, or long-term writing projects – and don’t get to what I call my short-term writing projects at all or until late at night. What I didn’t know was that I had already written the last review I would ever write for Epinions. I got word in the evening that the site’s reviewing platform, fifteen years strong, was being shut down permanently.

To understand the shock of this for me, you have to realize a few things. I started writing for Epinions in May 2003, almost eleven years ago. When I started writing there, I was a recently turned 35 year old with a baby less than a year old. I have 1303 – yes, that’s one thousand three hundred and three – reviews and essays (mostly reviews) published at the site. That averages out to almost exactly 10 reviews a month for almost eleven years (yes, I did the math).

More importantly than the numbers, which show what a beloved habit writing for this site was, were the friendships I made there and the incredible amount I learned. What started as a mildly fun hobby – in my first several months on the site, I only wrote a handful of reviews and poked around on occasion, getting to know people and trying to figure out how things worked – picked up steam quickly. I had been looking for two things when I stumbled upon the site originally: a place where I could read good reviews of children’s books, and (once I realized I could contribute content) a place where I could keep my writing muscles exercised on a regular basis. That last felt hugely important to me when the sweet girl was a baby. My energy and time were both so limited (they still are, but in different ways) and I wanted to find a writing outlet where I could engage in real writing but have it be short-term writing, short pieces that had starts and finishes that felt manageable in the small spaces of a busy mom’s life. (I knew the novel and the longer non-fiction projects I wanted to work on would need to wait.)

The fact that the work was all self-directed and self-paced was a blessing. I could write and post as quickly or as slowly as I wanted and no one would mind. I could set my own deadlines and writing goals and try different ways of approaching reviews. The fact that I could write about what I felt most passionate about was beautiful. I liked that the posts were peer-reviewed, and quickly came to respect so many of the peers who were also writing and rating on the site. I liked knowing that my work had an actual audience. While the writing process brings me joy, a lot of it is lonely, and when you write never knowing if you what you write will see the light of day or communicate clearly to anyone, it can make the work feel that much harder. I knew I didn’t have a vast readership, but nonetheless, I had a readership.

I had taken journalism and feature article classes in college, neither of which, frankly, taught me a whole lot about how to write features. I remember struggling through a film review assignment for one of my classes (this was back in the 80s, pre-internet) and thinking how hard it was to craft a good review. I was right. A good film review is hard to write. I would have been astounded to know that one day I would write dozens (if not hundreds) of film reviews. Next to books, movies was my favorite category to write in at Eps; I was a top reviewer in the movies category for several years and was working to regain my momentum in that category when the site closed. Some of my early film reviews there weren’t very good – I labored long re-telling plot and often didn’t figure out what I wanted to say until I’d spent several hundred words – but my colleagues on the site, some of whom were dynamite writers, were encouraging with me anyway, and egged my enthusiasm on. So I wrote more of them, and I got better. When you labor at anything for a decade, you learn skills. I will always be grateful to my time at Epinions for helping me learn to craft strong leads and to hone my natural bent toward what I call “full-circle” pieces. One of my favorite methods for review writing is to bring the reader back around to an initial thought, impression, or assertion. I loved clarifying that skill over the past ten plus years.

There was also the richness of engaging in an incredibly diverse community of people who wrote about all kinds of things I’d likely have not read so much about otherwise. I learned about foreign films, musical instruments, gardening methods, adoptive families, classical music, best-selling thrillers, cozy mysteries, preschool picture books, cooking utensils, pet care, board games, business travel, and comic books. And that’s just off the top of my head!

And I made friends, at least one of whom, Erin, will be a life-long friend. We’ve emailed for years, blogged together, worked on stories together, gotten together in real life numerous times, prayed for each other, gotten to know each others' families and stories. In May, she’s getting married – to a man I’ve known for over a quarter century and had the privilege of introducing her to.

So forgive me if I wax a little nostalgic about the end of an era. In the grand scheme of the world, the sudden demise of a website looms small (and despite the struggles the site has had in recent years, the announcement was shockingly sudden as parent company eBay decided to retire the review platform effectively immediately). But this particular website has meant a lot to me. It’s been a long-term almost daily habit, a place to share passions and enthusiasms, a valued community of friends and colleagues, a place to keep my skills sharp, and if I shed a few tears when I heard the news, well…I think that’s pretty understandable. Although we weren’t given much chance to say proper farewells and do our grieving and celebrating onsite, a few hundred of us have found our way to a facebook page where those things are happening. I’m very glad they are. Epinions and the work and community it generated are worth celebrating.


Erin said...

A heartfelt tribute to a site that has also meant so much to me. It kept me writing so many times when I just didn't have much motivation, and I definitely honed my skills a lot through the site. I'm not sure I would have been up to the task of writing for the newspaper without all that experience of reviewing - and Tom's Lean 'n' Mean emphasis has been a big help as word counts have steadily waned.

I've discovered so many great books, movies and the like through Epinions, and it's really encouraged me to think about the media I digest. What I always found especially fun was trying to turn my reviews into a bit of creative non-fiction as well. I know I have hit upon a lot of life events both major and minor through my reflections on Epinions, and I wrote things I would not have written if I hadn't known that someone out there would read it. You specifically spurred me on to a whole lot of my writing, and other members did too, especially during write-offs. Epinions also helped me get back into fan poetry, which I'd avoided for a number of years, but it's such a joy to explore books, movies and TV in that way, especially when you know other folks just as passionate about it. Harry Potter and LOST in particular became much more intense experiences because of both Epinions and our friendship that began there.

Things have been so busy these last couple years and I fell out of my Epinions routines, so I did not contribute nearly as much as I would have liked. I kept thinking I would come roaring back, but I guess not now. I hope that both of us will find the time and inspiration to continue reviewing in some form though, even if it's just occasionally. It really has been a joy.

Beth said...

It sure has! And I know what you mean about engaging things more intensely because of the experience of reviewing. One of the other benefits of reviewing, which I forgot to mention here (it just felt like there were so many gifts from the entire time) is that my interest in reviewing sometimes made me set projects or goals for myself. I would try to read a whole series, wanting to review it as I went along, or I would set other goals. For instance, my plan to try to see and review as many Gene Kelly movies as I possibly could (I never succeeded in doing them all, but I made a great start!) and my attempt to read and review my way through Agatha Christie's work chronologically, charting the changes in her style in various decades...that one didn't get nearly as far as I'd hoped, but I certainly had fun getting it started.

Epinions had its frustrations...sometimes lots of them...but it was a unique place. As I look for other places to review, and there are plenty of them, I'm realizing that none has the unique combination of things that made me love reviewing there so much. I know time moves on and things change, and review platforms have certainly changed as technology changes. So much of the writing we see on the internet these days is what I would call "rapid and vapid." While I can appreciate brevity (I too am a graduate of Tom's lean-n-mean school!) sometimes short is just short, especially when not much is actually getting said. I like top ten lists as much as the next person, but I sometimes wonder if the pressures to conform to standards of web writing (since folks understandably want to be read, and in some cases, even paid!) hasn't smothered experimentation with more creative forms of writing. I *loved* that your reviews, for example, often delved into creative non-fiction, which you write so well.

So in the midst of everything else, I find myself trying to think through what I can do with all the content I wrote over the years, how it might be edited and reused in different ways...and yes, how to keep at least a little bit of the review writing flame alive? I hope we can keep talking about that and kick around some ideas together!