On the nature of instruction: Remembering Manual
Here's a major throwback:. In 2002, I was invited to join sixteen other bloggers and authors in an anthology project called MANUAL, as in RTFM, as in Read the Fucking Manual. The book was a collection of stories built around the simplest theme: 'how to' lessons. There was a story called "How to Keep Your Distance," another called "How to Show Your Work," another called "How to Unsuccessfully Woo Your Roommate's Future Husband". These were short stories, or nonfiction pieces, or poems. My favorite was a short little piece called "How to Take the Train." Even then, I preferred melancholy to almost anything else.
My contribution is an embarrassing little humor piece that, I think, bears little resemblance to any of my current work. It's called "How to Start a Dialogue with a Complete Stranger." I was running a little blog experiment called The Dialogue Project at the time, which was a series of blog posts written entirely as conversations between unidentified strangers. These were hilarious to me, and probably completely unintelligible to readers. "How to Start a Dialogue" is not much different from those strange pieces, and its crude humor reflects some of my reading and movie consumption habits of the time. If you read it, try not to imagine that I was already one year into the writing of Eleanor. You will not be able to resolve the two versions of myself that these two writings will present to you.
In any case, MANUAL has been kept online for the last twelve years by Josh Allen, who runs the web curiosity Fireland. The anthology was downloaded some 40,000 times in its first week of availability, which I think very few of us expected, and none of us had any idea how to monetize, so we gave it away for free. There was a brief mention of the project in Wired, but that was about it.
In the years since, plenty of things have changed for the authors involved in this project. Many still write. Kevin Guilfoile has published a few very good novels. Rosecrans Baldwin reviews books on NPR, and writes his own novels and memoirs, and edits The Morning News as well. Heather Armstrong's Dooce blew up and became a very high-profile blog. Paul Ford also writes books, and does too many other things to name. Josh, he of the generous twelve years of web archival, wrote a fascinating novel himself, every chapter written, in a sense, in public, and catalogued online. I've lost track of most of these people; most I knew only lightly, as connections of other connections of mine. I read most of their web sites for years, and now I still read one or two, though many of them have long since vanished. Sadly, one terrific writer in the collection passed away a few years after MANUAL was published. I'm still connected to, I think, two of them, via social media tools that didn't exist for us back then.
Once, a few years ago, I got in touch with as many of my fellow contributors as possible and raised the possibility of a second volume of stories. Only a couple, as I recall, were interested in the prospect; the rest were busy, or no longer interested, or hadn't had as idyllic an experience as my own. A second volume never materialized, and these days, I wouldn't propose it again. I am, however, enormously pleased to see that this little artifact of the past is still there, still as prettily designed as ever, still as moving and funny and sharply-written as I remember.