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Inspired Choice
For many would-be artists, the Web is their Muse

From the Wall Street Journal Online
February 11, 2002

When William Kretz, a software engineer from Arlington, Texas, decided to begin writing fiction as a hobby, he headed for that old favorite haven of would-be artists: the coffeehouse. But his destination wasn't some smoky beat refuge or even a glossy Starbucks. Instead, it was a Web site called Coffeehouse for Writers.

The site is one of several online rallying points for budding authors, offering homespun free advice as well as some how-to courses that charge fees. For the 29-year-old Mr. Kretz -- who was struggling to write a first-person fictional account of the inner life of a problem-ridden superhero -- the big draw was that other denizens of the site kept prodding him to improve his writing while pushing him not to give up.

"I would never have thought I could do it without their encouragement," says Mr. Kretz. When he posted his first chapter on a message board sponsored by the site, www.coffeehouseforwriters.com, he expected rave reviews but didn't get them. "I was stunned -- I really thought my work was nearly perfect," he says. But the reaction of the writers convinced him that his first draft was "a literary piece of garbage" with far too many unnecessary words.

To help him along, one writer took on the task of nitpicking his entire work, one chapter at a time. "By chapter nine, I learned how to reword sentences on my own," says Mr. Kretz, who is currently submitting his first short story to a magazine.

So it goes as more aspiring artists, writers and musicians turn to the Internet to spark their creativity, to nurture their imagination, to
goad themselves to greatness. In the tangible world, finding one's muse is often a matter of rare luck. But the Web can be a muse itself, allowing far-flung people to share ideas conveniently and instantly -- and at the very moment they feel most stumped or discouraged.

Balm for the Blocked

Got writer's block? So do a lot of other Hemingway hopefuls. Need a rhyme for a song lyric? You are not alone. Whether you are looking for a list of grammatical misdeeds to avoid, or just need a pat on the back to fend off loneliness and help you keep going, there are sites out there promising to help. And people from all walks of life are using these online resources to revive a dormant talent or try something new.

Some of the sites make money by evaluating submissions, offering workshops or selling ads. Others are run by people who do it as a labor of love; they are looking for inspiration themselves or just want to inspire others.

The Coffeehouse falls somewhere in between. It charges fees for some of its online offerings, from a $25 weekend workshop to a $225 three-month course called "Writing Fiction 101." These workshops are conducted solely by e-mail, usually with at most nine students, who get writing tips and at least two assignments a week from a "facilitator." Karen Hertzberg of Oconomowoc, Wis., who started the Coffeehouse in 1999, says that the site "may not be raking in all kinds of money, but it is financially sound and not in debt -- a rather amazing feat in this unstable dot-com economy." She says that her real motivation in launching the Web site was to share what she has learned about the craft "and allow others to do the same."

Whatever the motives, the sites are a godsend for many. Take Scott R. Taylor, the 52-year-old owner of a small thermoplastics-manufacturing business in Bartlesville, Okla. He was looking for more fulfillment than he could get from his doctorate in organic chemistry. So he resumed his passion for songwriting, which was born in his youth when he sang in church and school choirs.

Mr. Taylor began writing songs again seven years ago, and the Internet has been invaluable. For starters, he says, the Net is an "incredible source of information." He also uses message boards to get critiques and encouragement from other musicians. "It's a whole new medium for letting people hear complete songs*lyrics and music," Mr. Taylor says. He even wrote one song in collaboration with a person he met on a music site, Just Plain Folks.

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