I spend too much time on Twitter. Sometimes I try to justify this by talking up, to myself if no one else, the creative possibilities of the website. In 2013 I wrote a story on it, one tweet per day on a dedicated account, over the course of the whole year. That story was called ‘J’, and was an experiment in ambient storytelling. I felt that I had identified the inherent obstacles the format threw up: that my one-a-day tweet would be drowned out in most people’s timelines by the wealth of competing information; that it would be difficult to sustain a narrative with 24 hours between each entry; that people wouldn’t necessarily see every tweet, and so would lost track of the storyline. My response to these was to give my story a simple overarching narrative that would allow individual tweets or runs of tweets to work within it, on a micro level, while the macro story would take care of itself. This was that ‘J’ would tell the story of one woman’s life, from cradle to grave, in that she was born on 1 January, and would die, aged 80-something, on 31 December. Some runs of tweets followed critical moments in her life in detail. Some jumped hopscotch through her experience. Sometimes things moved fast, sometimes things moved slow. On average J aged a year every four or five days.
Since then I have dabbled in a few other short-lived attempts at using Twitter creatively, but recently I had a new idea that uses Twitter threads to construct a single narrative story with different temporal and thematic strands. (Since then Twitter has changed the way it uses threads. I’m not entirely sure that this won’t spoil what I had planned, but the only to find out is to go ahead and see.) Since ‘J’, obviously, Twitter has also doubled its character count. The 140 character limit was integral to the style of that story, resulting in a story of 9,000 words. I’m not sure yet how I will deal with the new 280 limit.
Again, I’ve created a dedicated Twitter account to host the story, @deathofacat. That’s the title of the story: ‘Death of a Cat’. (Spoiler: a cat dies in it.) I will start it on 1 January 2018. Like ‘J’, it will be largely improvised, day by day. It won’t necessarily last a whole year. I’d love it if you followed the account.
This year, I have a different experiment I’d like to try on Twitter. What I’ve noticed is that some of the most interesting attempts to write creatively on the medium have come not ambiently (as ‘J’ was intended to do), but in sudden bursts – I’m thinking of Teju Cole‘s older and more recent excursions, and George Szirtes’ various entries in the form and Paraic O’Donnell, who occasionally goes into a riff on a Friday evening.
So I wanted to pick a time every week when I would tweet a story, or a something, and I settled on Wednesday afternoons, from 3-5pm, when – starting next week and for 10 weeks after – I will be always in the same place: sitting on a train from Norwich to London. It’s a train journey I love, for various reasons that may or may not become apparent during the course of the exercise, which will be over by April.
So, if you want to be in on the experiment, please follow @Wednesday3til5 – it is a new Twitter account I have set up, on which I will tweet only during those hours. What it will be exactly is still brewing, and will almost certainly be semi-improvised, at any rate.
Follow it, and something will unfold – I’m not going to guarantee how many tweets during those two hours each week, but clearly I don’t want it to be so many that you’ll want to unfollow.
I was inspired by a tweet from Niven Govinden (who’s reading his The Gate) to put down The Magic Mountain (it will wait for me) and pick up Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, as recommended to me by David Hayden, when I mentioned how much I loved Kusamakura, probably the best known of this Meiji-era Japanese novelist’s books.
I am enjoying Kokoro, which is the story of the friendship between a young and an old man, but one thing is confusing, or annoying, me. The novel (234pp in its elegant Penguin Classics edition, not counting introduction etc) is divided up into 110 chapters, the vast majority of which – do the maths – are two pages long.
Despite their brevity, the chapters are often not self-contained, but some four or five of them may cover the same scene, and run directly on from one to the next. As an extreme example, here is the end of Chapter 26 and the beginning of Chapter 27, during which the narrator and ‘Sensei’, as he calls his friend, are sitting in a garden, talking. Continue reading
There have been a couple of high profile attempts to make use of Twitter for fiction purposes – I’m thinking of Rick Moody’s Some Contemporary Characters, and Jennifer Egan’s more recent Black Box – but neither of them seem fully to embrace the medium.
If Moody’s story, sent out via Electric Literature in 153 tweets over three days in 2009, taught us one thing, it was that you mustn’t get other people to systematically retweet every single entry of the story, as anybody following all those feeds is going to get pretty annoyed at having the thing clogging up their timeline like pondweed. Also, as a short story essentially chopped up into tweet-sized pieces, it didn’t really explore the formal possibilities offered by the social media site.
In this, Egan’s story was a step forward. Black Box, sent out via the New Yorker fiction account (@NYerFiction) for an hour a day over ten days last May, seemed to grasp the poetic potential of the form: that each tweet had to work on its own, rather than as part of a linear narrative. Accordingly Black Box was written in the second person, as a series of (internalised, self-directed) instructions or comments for the protagonist, a female spy sent to infiltrate the baddy’s tropical island HQ.
Determine whether your Designated mate seeks physical intimacy; if not, feign the wish for a nap.
Your pretense of sleep will allow him to feel that he is alone.
Curling up under bedclothes, even those belonging to any enemy subject, may be soothing.
This detached, knowing narrative style works well on Twitter, I think. The form calls for authority. It tends towards the aphoristic: think of George Szirtes’ wonderful New Proverbs of Hell. It doesn’t like holding multiple characters in mind, but it does like exchanges between a pair of established characters: eg, again, Szirtes’ occasional odd couple Doctor and Langoustine, or Lars Iyers’ Lars and W.
The worst kind of Twitter fiction, for me, is the single-tweet standalone narrative, which is really only an extension of that other low-value form, the six word story, made famous by Hemingway’s awful “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. Continue reading
Going out to sit in a doctor’s waiting room I picked up Lars Iyer’s Dogma to keep me company and, in the few minutes the sadly super-efficient NHS kept me waiting, I was reminded quite how enjoyable it is. Just pitched in to the middle and came up with stuff like this:
What is it that keeps him from cutting his own throat?, W. wonders. What is it that keeps me from cutting mine?
We want to see how it all ends, he says. We want to see how it will all turn out. But this is how it ends. This is how it will all turn out.
Wonderful, beautiful stuff, that sticks its neck out, then pans back to see what the rest of the body is doing – it’s twitching convulsively, of course – and to show how much further out the rest of the body is than the poor old neck and head.
When I covered Dogma briefly in my January reading round-up, I said I thought it worked better as tweets or blog posts than a novel. Now I’m not sure. I think it benefits from being on paper – the veneer of respectability it gives – but I still don’t rate it as a novel particularly (though I doubt Iyer is aiming for it to be that kind of novel). It works best as a book picked up and “dipped into” (in that godawful phrase) and put down again. The tantalising thought that all these bits and pieces might coalesce into some kind of fulfilling, developing narrative is present on every page, and is rewarding as such even when you know that no such thing occurs. Continue reading