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Digital age transforming writing, authors say at festival

| Friday, April 8, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Sonja Sweterlitsch
Tom Sweterlitsch, author of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”
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Lori Jakiela
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Ben Gwin, a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer from Pittsburgh
Teake Zuidema
Sarah Shotland, the author of the novel “Junkette” (White Gorilla Press)

Storytelling is at least as old as the cave paintings of Lascoux in France. But the way stories are told has evolved, from the oral tradition to the invention of the printing press through the digital delivery of e-books.

What stays the same is an innate need to tell, and hear, stories.

“I think people are hard-wired to process our existence narratively,” says Thomas Sweterlitsch, a Greenfield resident and the author of the novel “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (Putnam). “I think that people telling stories — now and in the future and the past — I think it's very, very similar.”

Sweterlitsch will participate in the panel discussion “The Stories We Tell Ourselves in Order to Live” at noon April 14 in the Mary Lou Campana Chapel and Lecture Center as part of the 16th annual Pitt-Greensburg Writers Festival. The festival, at various sites on the campus, takes place from April 11 to 15 and features discussions, readings and other literary events.

“Building a sense of community is, I think, central to our students' successes as writers now and forever,” says Lori Jakiela, a professor of English and creative writing at Pitt-Greensburg. “Writing is, of course, a lonely business, and anything that makes it less lonely is incredibly valuable. The festival brings nationally and internationally known writers to campus to work with our students, and it brings alumni back home. Both of those things foster that important sense of community that lets Pitt-Greensburg writers know that they are part of something bigger, that writing is a life and not just a major, that it is something that goes on and on.”

Like most occupations, writers have seen the nature of work change in the digital age. While the Internet provides easy access to information, it also is a gateway to distractions.

Panelist Sarah Shotland, the author of the novel “Junkette” (White Gorilla Press), confesses she is a “terrible procrastinator” and that the Internet can be a diversion.

“The digital age is full of ways to pull me away from the work of writing,” Shotland says. “I imagine in any age, I could have found ways to distract myself from writing, though. ‘Look, another antelope!' or ‘Did you hear about the Titanic? Let's talk about that iceberg for hours.' But I see the wealth of information as a good thing, generally speaking.”

Shotland adds that because she is 33, “I haven't had to do any serious creative research without the use of the Internet. It's hard to say if that enhances or diminishes the creative process.”

Sweterlitsch thinks being able to do research at a coffee shop or any other public place with Internet access mitigates any possible drawbacks.

“I can't even imagine what someone would have done 40 years ago writing the same story, what kind of research they'd do,” Sweterlitsch says, referring to his futuristic cyber novel that is set in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. “I think it's a huge help. It makes the storytelling act easier to do in a lot of ways.”

The digital age also has transformed the way information is delivered via Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites. Truncated forms of information and entertainment are often preferred. Storytelling isn't exempt from these new forms, as seen in the increased popularity of flash fiction, in which stories can range from 75 to 1,500 words.

But brevity does not inhibit value. Ben Gwin, a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer from Pittsburgh who will be on the panel, doesn't think quality is predicated on the length of a story.

“Some of my favorite short stories deal with complex ideas in a small space,” Gwin says. “As a reader, I will keep reading as long as it's interesting.”

“Length doesn't always equal complexity,” Shotland says. “In almost every discipline or business, people are required to do more with less. Writing is no different. Shorter lengths mean writers have to work harder at clarity, precision, illuminating detail and piercing truths. Those qualities create complex and elaborate stories.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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