In Search of Lost Tweets: On Being a Writer on Twitter
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essays as longform tweets.
At the time of this writing, I have 1760 followers on Twitter. The other day, as I sat in a grayscale cube on the sixth floor of an office building somewhere in Manhattan, it occurred to me that I keep a close eye on my follower count, closer than the number of people who’ve shared my latest essay. iPhone notifications are usually reliable, but sometimes they fail and I don’t know when a new Twitter user has decided to follow me, so I check the count. Often. A few times a day. And, in this same cube where I’m forced to use a PC, and not the elegant, beloved Apple computers I adore, I also realized that I’ve used this follower count, this lone metric, as a key performance indicator of my readership.
Numbers matter to the gatekeepers of the literary world. You don’t get book deals and exciting writing opportunities without a following of readers behind you. Or at least that’s what I’m told. I don’t know if this is true. Despite my paltry follower count — not even at 2000 yet — I’ve done well for myself. Achieved a modicum of micro-following and minuscule readership commensurate with an Internet writer. It makes sense that I keep a close eye on my follower count since Twitter has provided me the platform required to share my work, build the aforementioned readership, and meet other writers and creatives.
I once tweeted to a fellow writer that Twitter was far more invaluable to my writing career than relocating to Brooklyn. After writing this, I held my phone and stared at the tweet in my app, and I felt a little ridiculous. Twitter was a useful tool, yes — a necessary platform, maybe — but “invaluable” seemed a stretch. It implied, to me, that I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time on Twitter, and was perhaps invested in the lives and words of people who, for the most part, I haven’t met in real life and may never get to meet offline. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed.
I’ve been online since 1998, which is not to say I grew up with the Internet. I am a member of the last generation who will remember life pre-cyberspace, and with this comes that nagging, lingering guilt born out of the zeitgeist’s perception of Internet users, once upon a time. Sweaty, pale, obese men hunched over keyboards in their dank basements, looking for a connection through the wires, so to speak. Hanging out in chatrooms and message boards all night long. Connecting with people in ways that belied their seemingly anti-social lives offline. Though we’ve moved on from chatrooms and message boards, that desire to communicate, to connect, remain. Now, these same people who mocked the early adopters have dating website profiles, and blogs, and social media accounts. Connection is a human need, and the Internet helps temper another element of the human condition: loneliness.
Twitter, and the Internet in general, wasn’t created with writers in mind — interesting, since if anyone is sweaty and pale in a dank basement, pecking away at a keyboard in the middle of the night it is writers. But the medium was made for us accidentally. Its brevity forces us to choose our words carefully, a skill we should acquire online or off. Twitter gives voice to writers who would otherwise wilt and slink away to a corner if faced with a large social setting, like myself. Never mind the geographical distance between users — Twitter’s very design lends itself to small messages. Condensed snark and sarcasm and wit. Those who struggle with the idea of mingling at a party can become interesting with 140 characters. I’m speaking about myself here. My social anxiety stems from a lack of self-esteem and self-worth, from a place where I view myself as someone who might not be worth your time.
It’s not that I can’t get along with people. I can muster up small talk, painful as it might be, or, alternatively, ask questions so the other person can speak while I fall into the comfortable “listener” role. I can glad-hand, pat backs, smile for smiling’s sake. I can be a social zombie acting upon cues; television and my family raised me well. Connection, however, has always been my problem. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that I’m a writer. Which means, I need to do the work.
I often think about my favorite writers, my literary heroes, and what their feelings would be on Twitter, and social media at large, if they were alive today. Octavia Butler was a known hermit, mostly by choice, but I wonder if the physical distance the Internet affords — miles and countries and oceans between her and other users — would’ve allowed her to engage people via social media in ways she could not, or simply would not, do in real life.
In reading Conversations with Octavia Butler, I realized that yes, she was a gifted writer and yes, she sometimes gave canned responses to interviewers, but her ideas on literature, specifically science fiction and its intersection with race and gender, inspired so many writers, myself included, to consider the connection of art and politics, of art and the environment, of art and the future of our society, our very humanity. Indeed, writers take to social media, to Twitter, and give rise to these ideas and connections, finding other people with whom to converse and debate in the process, still — I long to hear Octavia Butler’s voice in 140 characters. Literary Twitter could use her voice.
Butler was, if nothing else, a pragmatist, a grounded dreamer, and a free thinker with the mind of a researcher. “First forget inspiration,” she wrote in “Furor Scribendi,” included in her only collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. “Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” To Butler, the work mattered above all us: the act of sitting down and writing, or sitting down and failing to write; it didn’t matter, so long as the attempt was made. These are reminders Literary Twitter needs to hear from time to time.
Although the common belief of social media is that these various mediums give voice to the voiceless, the more accurate belief, specific to Literary Twitter, is that these sites give voice to the internal monologue, to our deeper insecurities. Reading Literary Twitter is to witness brief, terse glimpses into the writerly psyche, and how insecure and unsure and thin-skinned we tend to be. As writers, we want to be validated. We want to matter. The published stories and poems and essays, the books we sell, the magazines we edit: all this output, this paper expelled out to the world, the screens we invade with our narratives, it all matters to us. But does it matter to everyone else?
Writers are supposed to reach, to extend, out to the world. We earn readers; they do not cater to us, and they need not care about our insecurities. They do not care about our MFAs, or our lack of MFAs, or whether MFAs are aiding or crippling modern literature. They do not care about degrees. Readers do not care about the elements of craft. What is often discussed within Literary Twitter are the wants and machinations of writers, and not the desires of the readers who, presumably, do not wish to write, and haven’t written much outside of emails since college, and are happy with their non-writer lives, but are avid readers hungry for new books, new voices, for connection.
Creative writing, for lack of a better phrase, is not glamorous. It is not partially defined by technology, such as photography, no matter how many times we tout writing apps like Scrivener, or the usefulness of Google Drive to the revision process. You sit your ass down and you write. Writing, in other words, isn’t sexy work to conduct in the middle of a selfie (no matter how hard we try via Photo Booth on our MacBooks). But it is work nonetheless, so we often tweet about it: how many words we’ve written today, how many chapters left to revise, how many rejections pile up in our inboxes. Understand: knowing that you’re not crazy, that there are thousands of other people who also obsess with words, and their placement on the page, and their expression of one’s imagination and ideas, is priceless.
As is the exchange of books. Twitter is a literary marketplace; less a storefront — no matter how many direct messages I receive from writers with links to their Amazon pages — and more of an intangible library. You can’t give me a physical book through Twitter, but you can tell me about a book you’re reading, written by an author dead for almost a decade now, and you can take a picture of the book, and I can see the photo, and look up the author and, by coincidence, listen to a report about the author on NPR, a report unrelated to the book you’re reading, and I can feel, as I often do when it comes to books, that the stars are aligned. I buy the book. I read it. I tweet about it as I’m reading it. You and I have conversations about the book, about the writer. I am now a fan of the author, of the book, and with this one connection, I find that I have other common interests with you: music, movies, maybe even career goals. Over time, we become friends. Actual, offline friends. We meet each other’s significant others. We start literary projects together. We launch a reading series in Brooklyn. We inspire each other to do the work.
While readers may not care that two writers meet on Twitter, and become friends offline, this connection — that it occurred at all — is for the greater good of literature. Disregard the aforementioned bickering over MFAs, and you’ll find writers, networked and mobilized, attempting to advance change in an industry that has, for far too long, pushed particular writers out to the margins.
Black writers, relegated to the “African American” section of bookstores, somewhere in the back, sans a handful of us who do not threaten the status quo, find each other on Twitter; fantasy, sci-fi, and other so-called “genre” writers, long ignored by (but often pilfered from) more “literary” authors, find each other on Twitter; women writers find each on Twitter, and demand that reviewers critique books without mentioning the woman writer’s beauty or motherhood, that editors be accountable for the overwhelming amount of men published in magazines, to say nothing of the mastheads full of men who read men and write about men, with the occasional woman character used as plot devices and sexual props.
If Literary Twitter has done nothing else, if there is no other value to the medium to writers and editors and publishers, it has fostered difficult conversations publicly, across the different, once segmented, even segregated, literary landscape. Literary Twitter still devolves into pettiness about who follows who, and who publishes who, and which writers have verified Twitter accounts, and which ones get to be the beautiful ones huddled together within perceived cliques and inner circles, but this is expected, and not at all shocking.
Writers are petty. The many artifices we use to hide that pettiness falters when we need validation, and feel as if we aren’t receiving it. For my part, I try to remain above the fray. I log onto Twitter most days to tweet about books, my work, iPhones, the latest album I discovered on Spotify, and random inanity complete with ridiculous images found online. Unfortunately, I get caught up and even that’s okay. I’ll entertain the discussion about the worth of an MFA, and I’ll even get into a multi-tweet rant about the competitive nature of writers, about how I’ve gotten jealous of the opportunities my writer friends have earned. That’s okay because at some point, I have to log off, leave it all behind, and resume the work. I have 1,812 followers, and pages to write before I sleep.