My Lost Year: A Brief Memoir of Disconnection and Return

In the mid-’90s, Michael Stutz abandoned his computer for an entire year to write his first novel. Coming back wasn’t so easy.


Exactly in the middle of the 1990s, overnight and with no warning, I unplugged completely from the net. The action was as desperate as it was precisely literal — there was no wireless, no wi-fi, nothing portable; just a modem line plugged into the back of the machine. I pulled it out. I was writing my first real novel, which took months of concentrated effort — effort made far away from that miniature world that was always blinking quick in motion on my screen, asking me to come on in. In that time I’d avoided it completely, only going there on brief occasions to log in and save my incoming mail (it never stopped) so that I could catch up with it all when I was ready.

The seasons rolled away and after many months — it felt like practically a year — somewhere in the summer of ’95 I was ready to go back. The first thing I tried to do was piece together the life I could have lived, from the early days of the net, when I’d spent all my time online — that lost and buried past that had once been mine to make and mold — I finally tried to catch up with all my old saved email, those humongous files that had piled up on me and which I had avoided looking at for practically a year. All those mailing lists I had been on, all those messages, the text streamings of all those many days had ballooned to over ten thousand mails, saved inside a cache of files that now were fifteen megabytes in total size. This was still the day of floppy disks, the middle of the 1990s, so those files were enormous, unworkable, engorged. I had to get on with things, I was back online again, and yet I could not let them go — I had to read through it all to learn what I had missed, to know and experience all the many things that had commenced online while I had been away.

So I finally set aside a weekend to do that very thing, and on the Friday evening when I began to scan through the thick morass of posts I quickly saw that it would take much longer than I thought — I spent the entire weekend on it and it still took another week of obsessive late-night reading to get through it all, working diligently in feverish, intense sessions which lasted hours long and left me drained, left me laying there in darkness with the many-hundred voices of the net dreamily calling out and ricocheting far inside, as my own awareness faded and expired into a weary, deadened sleep.

Every evening after work that week I spent my waking hours concentrating on the screen; when I was finally done I made a post about the experience to the subpop-l. I said that I’d been an early subscriber, but had to turn away from the list, but still had archived it, for this one lost year, and now had read through the whole huge hulking mass of it at once.

“Isn’t your memory shot?” asked one young guy, a kid — he was in college now, he was younger than I and now a regular online, a known and noted name there on the list. Most of the old regulars I knew had vanished; this was now a whole new group. Time was moving fast, it would stop for none of us, it took us all — in this small circumstance I saw the eventuality of a whole entire generation coming forth beyond me, and I also saw that whole entire generation gone.

They called me “the most old-school guy on the list” for having been around since the beginning and for holding fast to it so long, and my post made a flutter of awe rise out among them as I explained how I would read an interesting post and wanted to reply to it, and with my finger on the R key I would stop and realize, “Wait a minute — that mail’s from last January!”

I returned again to all the music lists I’d been on, and almost immediately I saw a familiar face — a girl named Rose Jahanna, who had been a music-list mainstay just a year or so before, back when I was active on the lists and posting every day. Now in the hot new shuffling of the scene that came here with another autumn season she seemed a little faded, her star less bright, as if she too had been cast aside and lost. She hadn’t been away as I’d been, but in this time she’d somehow lost the spotlight she once had; she was just a minor voice in the big and moving crowd now, the forgotten cynosure of some long-done season, worn, flustered, aged; her little postings were trampled now by the swelling mainstay of the popular currents that were raging on and running quickly high above her. I wrote her privately.

“Rose!” I exclaimed jubilantly in the mail. “Great to see you’re still around — I was wondering what had happened to you!”

“I was wondering the same of you,” she replied in turn, in a voice that I thought was insulted and sarcastic — and that was all. Gone was the vigor, the fire and the promise — gone was last summer, gone was yesterday and youth.

Her mail stunned me as I wondered what effect my communications here, online, had ever made — if any. The incident played hard on my fear of being a total unknown, of someone who had tried so strongly in his time to reach out, to make a giant dent and permanent inflection upon the culture of the world, but in the end lacked all the requisites and reach — my terrible, paralyzing fear of being nothing but the one who’d feebly tried, who’d meekly stood in fame’s long lineup yet never once had made the cut, not even second string; of being the one who’d never bridged the gap, who never could — who somehow couldn’t find his way to start, let alone endure the race, the fight, the final mile. Had it all been a genuine waste of time? Was the best of my life now over? Would no one ever know or remember any of the many things I’d done, the words I’d spoken, all my earnest reaching-out? I did — I remembered all of it. I’d been there, and I remembered, and I did not know what else to do.

But the ordeal of the catching-up was over, and I was relieved to know that now I’d seen all the passings of the lists and could carry on with nothing weighing on my conscious heart. I couldn’t reply to any of the old and archived messages I’d seen, of course, but its long history — lost to me for all these many months, separated and far apart from where I was, and utterly unmarked by the faintest inkling of my presence — was now lodged inside my memory and was a part of everything I knew.

During my long absence from the net I’d used the mail tool, on the UNIX shell where my email was collected, to save all of the incoming mail I had gotten into single huge files, named for the month and year — so I’d put everything from July of 1995 into a file named mail0795, and all the next month’s mail went into mail0895, and now I ‘d finally gone through months of these gigantic archived files.

The experience did not proceed without problems. I discovered that at times I’d used the improper command in the mail tool to write the messages to the file — it was easy to do — so for a period of two long months I’d saved not the complete messages of each email but just their body texts, without their headers; as a result all these hundreds of messages blended together into one long cacophony of dialogue and word. At first I was going to pass these up, delete them, but I couldn’t — I had to read them, I couldn’t bear to miss a word, and so I did: I went through the whole long lot of it and tried to assimilate all the chatter of these enormous files, reading words and sentences without knowing the time or date they had been written, not even knowing who said them or where they were directed to — I only thought that maybe someday I’d repair the heartbreak of my broken archive by printing it all out, the whole incarnate lot of it, this long scroll of body text without any times or dates or author names, without any destinations or even subject lines, just the anonymous words all tacked together into one, and hang it on a wall to live and be displayed forever as a giant room-sized piece of installation art, grounded in the flavor and the feeling of the age, all this word and chatter as some kind of testament to my passion and my ways. I thought that maybe if I could somehow enthrone it as a work of art, seal it somehow inside a brick of amber, I could finally step away. I couldn’t rid myself of this information, of all these words. it was a part of me, it was in my heavy heart, I knew it was a crucial fragment of this great world.

Yet now, having caught up with these old messages by reading at a lightning pace, I saw that I also couldn’t keep it up, nor could I continue to partake. I just couldn’t live like this, on the net, and still function as a man; there wasn’t time to do it, to take in the great and constant stream of these untold million words and moments and at the same time operate successfully in the world. I would have to quit and let it go.

It was hard, for in the years just out of school the mailing lists had been my lifeline to the world. I had set up all kinds of correspondences through them, and on occasion these even bled into my postal mailbox — there had been, for instance, the cassette tape that someone had sent me from the droneon list; we’d traded mix tapes many months ago and he’d sent me a tape of his favorite tracks of ambient and space music. He was a famous poster on the list, a well-known record collector whose reputation for excellence in new music was unparalleled and wide, and I’d set the tape aside with pride and gusto. I placed it near my stereo, atop an enormous stack of records and CDs, the last batch that I’d been assigned to review for a rock newspaper that I’d been working at that year, before it had suddenly gone defunct in a chaotic week of rumors and disconnected phone lines.

The tape had sat there on that pile and I saw it every day, in time I even dusted it, but I never played it; this was after the great breakdown with my writing, when I’d made the snap decision to go entirely offline, to get rid of the net, to stop corresponding and freelancing and end just all of that until I got my life in order and completed the novel I was writing at the time. The tape could wait.

So I hadn’t even looked at it through all that time, and now I did: I was settled in my new apartment, and was caught up happily with my writing, and I finally played the tape as I read through all that old and archived mail. I thought it would be a nice, apposite soundtrack to my laborious reading-through of all those massive files, a pat reward for finally getting to it. But — to my heart-sunken surprise — when I began reading through that bulk of old lost mail I heard nothing but tape hiss coming low from the speakers. I turned it up in a cloud of mirthful disbelief and the hiss was thundering through the room, but otherwise there was absolutely nothing there — first one 45-minute side and then the other played out in their shrill and hissy silence as I discovered that this magic, exquisite tape I’d kept this whole entire time, the one that a famous collector had made special for me with a long, carefully-written label of the many rare, important tracks that he had dubbed, that this tape was actually as blank and empty as the email headers I had saved. I couldn’t believe it. I had to fast-forward through it at a loud volume again just to totally confirm, and then I took it out of the deck and plopped it back upon the stack there in my room, the place where my life and future would presently emerge from, I was sure.

Photo by Daniel Hedrick

Michael Stutz is the author of the Circuits of the Wind trilogy and is a former music journalist and Wired correspondent.