For all the writer’s groups, the critique partners and beta readers, the professional agents and editors and publishing minions, writing remains, at heart, a solitary endeavor. It is, in the simplest terms, butt in chair, fingers striking the keyboard, gripping the pen. It is an accumulation of silent hours, of voices in our heads, of hard-wrangled language occasionally split by whiplash inspiration.
Committed writers understand the moment when Stephen King threw his manuscript in the trash. We sometimes look with longing at the paper shredder, debate the advisability of pushing the hard drive from a balcony edge. Every word has its cost. We pay from our own funds, with aching backs and hazy preoccupations. We hoard time, its slippery tick tock, to pinion tales with sharpened words.
Social media fills some of the gaps, providing the camaraderie of blog rolls, the rush of instantaneous connections. Facebook can deliver fans. YouTube hosts book trailers. We sift through the virtual world to forge a roving writer’s community. We fashion a scatter-shot salon, sly descendent to the old Parisian gatherings where artists and scientists, philosophers and dilatants threshed out revolutions.
As a writer, a voyeur into other times, other lives, I am drawn to the caprices of history. What better fodder for narration than the knowledge that Attila the Hun died of a nosebleed, or that the first bomb dropped on Berlin in WW II killed the city’s only elephant? I am seduced by Machiavellian intrigues, quiet absurdities, the twists that occur on the head of a pin. History is a writer’s Ali Baba cave, brimming with riches from the backs of kings and the palms of beggars – Open Sesame. We find ourselves, our stories, in time’s soft dissolution, in history’s prescient margins.
Imagine, for a minute, the salons of Paris during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Candlelight reflects a scene in gilded mirrors: Diderot with bits of his Encyclopédie, Voltaire’s quill set to Candide, Rousseau weaving his Social Contract with Emile, all under the orchestration of a savvy female salonnière. I would love to travel back and eavesdrop, a Bluestocking in a wingback. Men and women, aristocrats and bourgeois mingle together across fine carpets and heirloom tables, discussing the limits of government, philosophy, literature, science, and religion. Gossip fills the gaps.
But leapfrog several centuries and you’ll find yourself in Twitter. It may be difficult to imagine a space less suited for expansion, less hospitable to a writer’s rambling processes. Twitter plays harbor to info-bites and text-talk abbreviations. Far from the decadent effusion of the French salons, Twitter is a cyber-lair for the likes of The Riddler, Batman’s clever nemesis, a language miser, juggler of pithy word games, encapsulated conundrums. “Riddle Me This,” he might exclaim, and question how Twitter could ever be more than a hummingbird diversion.
Twitter is the consummate writer’s salon. Like the salons of old, it is a forum for the exchange of ideas.
The answer is unexpected. In spite of its overt limitations, Twitter is the consummate writer’s salon. Like the salons of old, it is a forum for the exchange of ideas. That alone is a boon to writers – the ebb and flow of “why” and “how.” Politics, philosophy, science, religion and gossip intersect in the slipstream, the crisscrossing currents. Between the spoken and implied, we discover characters to hatch, plots to ripen, settings to evolve. The daily unfolding of millions of lives is a trove awaiting plunder. With such treasure at hand, Twitter redefines the markers of a writer’s isolation. We wander alone, observant, inside a chattering crowd.
Within that crowd, there is a wealth of readers, the lucre that writers value most. In the great salons, the salonnières determined the guest list and regulated the flow, but everything else – the middle – unfolded on its own. The luminaries who attended these gatherings never spoke to a muted crowd. Conversation mattered. Twitter has its ready-made audience, its platforms, brands, markets, and niches, but they work best within an even exchange, a fostering of community.
Those communities evolve inside Twitter’s streaming moment, the constant flow of now. Unlike the old salons, they do not depend on overstuffed chairs, on Persian carpets and inlaid tables. The communities of Twitter bridge neighborhoods and nations. They scale walls, or knock them down. They are, in their immediacy and in their effects, revolutionary. In the eighteenth century, the salons of Paris spurred on the discourse that led to the French Revolution. In the twenty-first, Twitter has fueled protest and revolt in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The instantaneous discourse of Twitter sparks events within their own analysis. Microblogging can both report an action and, in the same instant, change it. A “tweet” is a noun and a verb at once, an object and an action, a picture of a flame and the flame itself. The wish and the deed, fairytale and history, collide. Stories tumble from those fractures.
As we gather up such tales, we rove between a stitchery of characters. Far from what they seem, Twitter characters are never flat. In fact, the most subversive effect of Twitter occurs on the level of the individual. Parisian salons loosened social boundaries for the length of an evening, a conversation. Twitter dismantles those boundaries completely, subsuming them within a weave of avatars. On Twitter, identity is invention, the whim of fingertips on a keyboard. We are what we make ourselves, in layered strands of 140 characters or less, in staccato bursts of text and hyperlinks. If character is the driving force of narrative, then Twitter is forge and forgery, its populace both ground and groundless, endless interventions.
That mutable population also never quite goes home. While Parisian salons lasted for an evening, Twitter is home to itself, an endless discursive field. It’s a conversation always in process, a perpetual middle, a chance to eavesdrop everywhere. We writers love to listen in, to cast ourselves in other skins. Twitter is our dressing room. Conversation is both its form and function, its purpose and its shape. There is nothing else but language there, and so language takes us over.
A century ago, Virginia Woolf wished for a room of her own, a solitary space for deliberate invention. Twitter is that dream’s inversion, a virtual sala with a twenty-first century twist. Compared to that of Diderot, of Woolf, our isolations are both wider and more brittle. We can slough off the solitary in endless virtual exchanges, even as “eye-to-eye” becomes little more than metaphor. Twitter is a writer’s playground, a chance to pry at words, stitch shards of once-upon-a-maybe. Within its gaps, its obvious elisions, we imagine ourselves, our stories, otherwise. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure for the digital writer’s age. The Riddler would glory in such divergent chances. The writer should as well. Twitter, like a palimpsest of history unfolding, is Ali Baba’s cave. Open Sesame. Come on in.