This is an interview with Mark Dahlby, the founder of Writers.com. Mark started Writers.com in 1995 as the first website for online writing education—and one of the first websites, period. He operated the site through all the changes that led to the modern internet, until retiring to an emeritus role in 2019.
In this interview, Mark talks about starting an online writing school in the age of dial-up, sharing the gift of creative writing with the world, and his vision for Writers.com moving forward.
What inspired you to start Writers.com?
In 1995, I was in private practice as a psychotherapist in San Francisco. I was also an ever-aspiring writer, as I had been since I was fifteen. In my past were drawers full of abandoned half-novels, a collection of mostly bad poetry from my teens and early twenties, short stories, essays, and both paper and digital journals that I’ve lost track of but like to think I’ll come across someday.
I’d had a computer since sometime in the eighties and was, like much of the world, increasingly interested in the Internet and what it might become. I was particularly curious about what it would mean for writers and other artists; about how it was going to affect the publication and distribution of their work. I wasn’t alone in those interests. Even before the web was available, writers were congregating online. There were dial-in Bulletin Board Systems that became centers for various interests, including writing. The Well, which would become a hangout for many writers, started in 1985. Later, writers connected in AOL’s chat rooms, and other sites began to appear.
At the time, my writing ambitions were stalled: a regular part of my cycle. I started to think about education in writing: what I would have wanted when I was younger and what I would want now. I was romantic about the idea of writing mentors, like Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, or Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It occurred to me email might be the way to allow connection between writing mentors and mentees, however distant they were from each other. I wanted to offer both one-to-one work and classes.
It occurred to me email might be the way to allow connection between writing mentors and mentees, however distant they were from each other. I wanted to offer both one-to-one work and classes.
I didn’t plan on a business initially. It was still more of a creative project when I started to reach out to people who had domain names of interest. Eventually I connected with a nice guy in Montana who ran a phone-based Bulletin Board under the domain Writers.com. He sold the domain to me for fifty dollars as he’d just been elected to the state legislature. (If you ever see this, Matt – thank you.) I registered the domain and named the site Writers On The Net. As the importance of domains increased, it came to be known simply as Writers.com.
Then I reached out to published writers, either directly, through friends, or in the AOL chat rooms. Some were interested in teaching online. Others weren’t but connected me to writer friends who might be. While recruiting teachers, I’d learned how to build a website and designed formats for online classes. The day arrived when the site was built, not perfect but serviceable. Teachers had written their class content. I launched the site and worked to get the word out. It was the first creative writing school on the Internet.
The web was made public in 1991. When Writers.com came online in 1995, there were 23,500 websites in the world.
It was an exciting time to be working online. The web was just getting going. It was made public in 1991. Two years later, there were 50 websites in the world. When Writers.com came online in 1995, the number had grown to 23,500 websites and almost 40 million users. We were on our way to the more than five billion Internet users, two-thirds of the world’s population, and hundreds of millions of active websites we have now, in early 2022.
Our subscriber list grew. Writing teachers started to contact me and some joined us. The classes diversified. The technology steadily improved and expanded. Things became more efficient, if not simpler. I was terrible at marketing and never had a marketing plan, but we didn’t need one at first as we had no competition for a couple of years. And when Google search arrived in 1997, one of the ranking criteria applied to search results was the age of the domain, how long it had been active on the web. Because we were the first, for a long time we appeared near the top of search results without much effort. Of course, that got way more complicated later, when attaining good search engine rankings often required help from experts skilled in the esoteric practice of interpreting Google’s inscrutable, frequent changes to their algorithms.
If you’d like to see what our cutting-edge website – so I thought at the time – looked like in November 1996, follow this link to the Way Back Machine. It had only started to archive the web a few months before. The links on the site still work: WRITERS ON THE NET (archive.org)
In 1999, I was somewhat surprised to realize I had an actual business.
In 1999, I was somewhat surprised to realize I had an actual business. One that, with the world going online, I could manage from any place that offered an internet connection. I very much liked being a therapist but I’d never meant to stay in San Francisco. It was where I went to graduate school, and where I was one of a small group of friends who started a nonprofit counseling center. My life there was good but after ten years, it was time to move. So I closed my practice and my wife and I went to Asia.
What was most challenging about founding and managing Writers.com?
Tech issues. I wasn’t a techie by nature or history but had to learn how to write the code for the site, set up mail lists, keep the books and come up with a secure system for accepting payment (I charged credit cards by hand, the only option, at the time, and paid teachers by mailing checks). Updates of all kinds arrived regularly and regularly broke this or that. Email programs crashed, hard disks failed, and I was helping students with their tech issues so they could reach the classes. There were a few people problems along the way, because… humans. But they were very few.
In terms of daily life, there was the urgency that went along with tech failures when students were in every time zone on the planet. As a sole proprietor, there was never a day off. Every day involved a computer, even if it only to take care of email. During meditation retreats, I would daily slip out to find a dial-up phone I could use to connect to the business, to make sure there were no fires to put out. Sometimes there were. The net doesn’t close. Ever.
As a sole proprietor, there was never a day off. The net doesn’t close. Ever.
What was the best part of founding and managing Writers.com?
There was, particularly in the early years, the pleasure of being part of something enormous that we knew was going to change everything. All for the better, we naively thought then.
And, as hackneyed as it may sound, the people. We had wonderful teachers. A couple over the years were writers who just needed the money. But the great majority were dedicated teachers and dedicated writers: not writers who also taught. They cared about teaching, about their students, about writing, and they gave. They made a difference in the lives of so many people.
And the students. It was a deep pleasure to receive emails from students, sometimes long after their involvement with Writers.com, who let me know they’d published, done well in a contest, or earned an MFA. It was just as rewarding when someone wrote to say how much a teacher had meant to them, how they still wrote in the mornings or continued to write poetry, essays or journals. That they were still trading work with writing friends they’d made in our classes. Or they were still working on a novel or memoir. That was a very good part.
And the freedom. I’m nomadic by nature and history. Working online was demanding but I could work from almost anywhere. I worked from Nepal and India, from a number of countries in Europe, from Mexico, and from several states in the U.S. That was another good part.
Finally, there was the satisfaction of seeing Writers.com become what I hoped it would be.
Writers carry a burden that practitioners of most other arts don’t. I’ve played guitar for well over fifty years. When people find out, no one asks if I’ve cut an album or if I perform professionally. They’re more likely to be curious about the kind of music I play. The number of humans making music, with instruments and voice, must be in the many billions. Yet no one thinks it’s a failure if you play only as a private pleasure.
But if you tell people you write, a percentage of them will ask if you’ve published. And if you call yourself a writer, you’re almost sure to get that or a similar question.
Wanting to make a living as a creative writer is a grand ambition, but it doesn’t define the vocation. I imagine 99.9% of writers—like musicians and photographers, painters and ceramicists, dancers and sculptors—won’t ever be paid for their work, or will be paid very little. Writing is gratifying in itself, as is true for most creative work. Thus all the journals and diaries. The thoughtfully written letters. The poems, memoirs, short stories and novels that won’t be read by others, or only by friends. Storytelling doesn’t go back as far as music, but it was there as soon as language developed enough to carry it. It’s built into us. It’s how we think and make sense of the world. In a real way, we only know the world as stories.
If you have a passion to write, it’s best to give in.
If you have a passion to write, it’s best to give in. The etymological roots of “passion” go back five thousand years to a seed that meant “to hurt.” As happens with words, it was adapted to carry other meanings over the centuries. It came to mean “suffering,” as in “The Passion of Christ.” Later it was sexualized, then turned into a quality of any strong emotion or desire, and eventually applied to enthusiasms – a passion for wine or gardening or football.
If you have a passion to write, something more than just a passing thought, you’re likely to experience the word’s original meaning in one form or another. If you don’t write, the ambition floats around in the back of your head and attacks in weak or inspired moments. You suffer an abandoned passion, a sense of regret. And if you do write, the hurt comes from frustrations, failures, and dry periods.
Sounds terrible and I’m exaggerating.… Right? There are lots and lots of writers who are happy writing and happy with their work. The blessed. But even for those of us who labor over what we write, who are never fully satisfied with our work, who suffer all the attendant unhappy periods, it’s worthwhile. It’s important to us. If it wasn’t, or if it wasn’t that important, if it didn’t call to us, we’d be able to give it up without regret, just like all those other things we’ve let go.
writers.com was meant to be, and became, a place where creative writers of every sort could come for instruction, encouragement, and community. Where your work would be read critically but kindly and with respect. Many students wanted to publish and many did, but I think the majority were most guided by a more fundamental desire having to do with creativity. They wanted to develop their skill, to be more expressive. To find, in themselves, what they had to say. To earn the satisfaction in the work that comes after the practice and frustration. They were answering the call.
Creative writing is turning yourself inside out. It’s the voices in your head flowing out of your hands and into the world.
Creative writing is turning yourself inside out. It’s the voices in your head flowing out of your hands and into the world. Anyone can write, just like anyone can pick up a guitar and strum it. But if you want to grow as a writer, you take many of the same steps you would if you wanted to learn to dance or draw. You learn skills. You practice by writing. You read writers you admire critically, to see how they do it. You write. You fail. You keep writing. It’s one thing to fantasize about writing and what you’ll write, but something entirely different when you reread the pages you’ve just written with a critical eye. If you’re not satisfied with the first draft – almost no one is – you rewrite. You practice. You write. You fail. You continue. The writing improves. And you start to enjoy days when you reread your work and find it’s good. You mature your creative imagination. And that is a deep thing.
What are your hopes for Writers.com’s future?
Right around 2016, I first thought the time was coming for me to let go of the business. It had been over twenty years with maybe ten computerless days, days when I couldn’t get online. I was suffering an advanced case of emailitis. I wasn’t in a hurry. I didn’t know how to sell a business and I felt responsible for the teachers, some of whom had been with Writers since the beginning.
It had been over twenty years with maybe ten computerless days, days when I couldn’t get online. I was suffering an advanced case of emailitis.
In early 2019, I needed work done on the site. I got in touch with a company that had stellar reviews and told them I wanted everything on the site perfect as I was going to sell the business.
Sometime later I received an email from Fred Meyer, one of the owners of the business, saying he might be interested in buying Writers. Then he did. It was a relief because I knew Writers would be in competent hands, that the teachers would be protected, that students would continue to find what they needed in the classes. Fred is doing the things to improve Writers.com that I thought I should do over the years but couldn’t get to. He understands business and will keep enrollment high so the teachers will benefit. He will make sure students get what they are looking for. And he is a good man, an honorable man.
So much about the creation of Writers.com was serendipitous.
So much about the creation of Writers.com was serendipitous. The timing, so early in the web’s history; looking for a domain before most of us realized they were going to be hard to get later; connecting with such good teachers, such good people. It was good fortune, an adventure spread over a quarter of a century, one I’m very glad to have had.
I’m grateful to the teachers and students who made Writers.com what it is.
Mark Dahlby 2022