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You Twit?

twitter_bird_follow_meRecently, someone of substantial literary clout asked me a question I have been dreading for some time: ‘Can we expect to hear more from you on Twitter? It can be very useful for writers.’

Oh dear. I’d been sprung. I had to admit that I don’t really get what Twitter is for if one is not overthrowing a dictatorship or having a steamy affair with Liz Hurley. I’m just not into it. And before anyone starts banging on about a generation gap, wait for it ‘peeps’, I’m a member of Gen Y. (Just. Hand me my knitting needles and show me to a Smokey Dawson Easy Lift Recliner.) The more I think about it and the more I attempt to harness the useful forces of Twitter, the more I feel it is to the detriment of that delicate stage for my writing that lies between the first seeds of inspiration and the actual setting of words on a page – the thinking bit.

Don’t get me wrong I am abreast with the current publishing upheaval: the demise of traditional booksellers, the precarious position of print journals. (Then there are those who stand waiting for the novel to die so they can take their pickings of the estate like your second cousins at the deathbed of Great Aunt Nell – the ones who had already popped stickers with their name on all the good furniture.) I have read the articles that assert that if emerging writers are to ‘make it’ in this shiny new cyber age they must create and maintain a strong online profile. But it is my opinion that the process of tweeting steals from the process of writing, and writers can easily spend so much time building their online profile that they can’t get anything written.

Much of this ground has already been covered by Cate Kennedy on this very site (and more recently Jacinda at Meanjin). I agreed with much of what Kennedy in particular wrote on the subject – but it also now occurs to me that she has an advantage which I do not: she already has the attention of publishers. And it is no secret that the portion of those who bask in the warm glow of the attention of print publishers is shrinking. Add to this the fact that I found myself on a shortlist for a certain Fellowship, and have discovered that few of my ‘fellow’ shortlistees have Twitter accounts. Ah ha, my opportunity to strike! To gain a little advantage, perhaps, since publishers are so very concerned about this online profile bizzo.

So, after this recent prompting I attempted to revive the lifeless carcass of my Twitter account. The initial stages of this were quite enjoyable: I re-designed my profile page, a process which reminded me of that bit in Tony Hawk’s ProSkater II where one could design one’s own skater dude. (Take that, whipper snappers!) Then I filled in a few bits about myself in the bio. Then, I humbly attempted to formulate a tweet. Immediately I was met with the question, ‘Is it possible to Tweet humbly?’ The very premise of Twitter relies solely on one factor: that the 140 characters in one’s head are worthy of proclamation to the whole world. Or, in this case, my nine followers. (Hi guys!)

‘Ah, yes,’ you may say. ‘But you call yourself a writer. This itself depends on the fact that you believe you have precious thoughts in your head that deserve to be read by others.’

Well, yes. But the process of getting these thoughts onto a page is a long and tortured one. I am not Stephen Fry. I find it difficult to instantaneously think of pithy statements of 140 characters or less. I also don’t spend enough time on the netasphere to come across lots of interesting links. (This could be because I spend so much time thinking of new names for the internet.) And there are already people who do this so very well. (Hi Jeff!) But, just like those lucky few who find themselves in the background of a Channel Ten weather update, I felt I must make the most of this opportunity and at least attempt a few handstands.

So, what first? ‘Think, woman! Think!’ Nothing. No pithy statements leapt from my skull. Instead I spent half an hour looking for an article I could pop a link up to. (Thank you, New Yorker.) Half an hour I could have spent writing, or thinking about writing. For inspiration I thought I might see what other writer-folk were tweeting about. Maybe I could mix up the syntax and steal a few. (Already reduced to plagiarism after half an hour.) So I had a look for my favorite writers: Craig Silvey? Nothing. Sonya Hartnett? Nothing. Jonathan Safran Foer? David Sedaris? Reif Larsen? Nothing. Zadie Smith? Three tweets, six months ago. Annie Proulx? Nothing. (Maybe I spelt her name wrong.) What does this mean?!

And guess what happened while I was searching for these people? I got distracted by people who are on Twitter, following all sorts of fascinating links, yet only filling my head with more noise. Substantial noise, nonetheless, but still noise.

Perhaps it really does come down to a time thing. As the mother of a toddler, minutes of time to myself are very few. I have to maximise their productivity. I must wring out whatever time is left after eating and sleeping if I am to get any actual writing done. This isn’t to say that I don’t spend any time nosing about webblytown, of course I do. I just don’t feel compelled to broadcast my findings yet. Usually because someone with more clout than I already has done so. (Unless the said finding is a design for Robbie the Robot with built-in espresso machine. That was awesome.)

Nor is this post intended to take aim at those who enjoy a regular tweet and find it to be a productive use of their time. Rather, perhaps what I am saying is this: Twitter is another tool out there for writers. It doesn’t mean we all should use it. Just as some writers strap themselves to their chairs for eight hours a day and others only write sporadically between the hours of 11pm and 2am, some will surely find Twitter useful and some will not. Some may find that it keeps them engaged and thinking and reflecting and thus writing. Some, like myself, may find it makes them self-conscious and renders them mute, second-guessing every word they write.

Thus, for the moment I think I will stop trying to fake it. Unless I come across any more interesting robot designs.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

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  1. Twitter is fiendish and like all interesting things, has shining light and pits of darkness. A time-enveloper? Oh yes.

    I’m one for the quick tweet – it isn’t agony & I like the very short form.

    Narcissistic? Definitely. But maybe that’s just me. Useful for building a profile? I am reading lots of good ‘literary’ folk I might not otherwise have ‘met’ & maybe they’re reading me too. Compulsory for writers? No, I’d like to think not.

    Ah, Twitter #thatisall

  2. Tweeting in 140 spaces, I have found, has improved my general writing, reinforcing habits of careful word selection and sentence structure. [139]

  3. Well, I’ll confess to really, really liking Twitter.
    I first joined for work — the account was the Overland one, and it was basically just a way of promoting the mag. The whole thing seemed demented to me. Who wanted to hear about folks eating breakfast? Etc, etc, etc.
    Now, though, it’s probably my primary source for news. If you follow interesting people, you’re constantly sent links of stuff that you’re likely to find relevant. In an odd way, it acts as a personalised newspaper, giving you information days before it turns up in the press.
    It’s also a place where the first inklings of political and cultural debates happen. You can’t argue on Twitter (though some people try) but you still get a sense of reactions to events, books and so on. I’ve commissioned articles on Twitter, I’ve also been commissioned on it.
    More than that, it’s fun. Yes, a lot of the tweets are trivial but you do actually get to know quite a lot about people you’d normally have very little contact with.
    Is it a distraction from writing? Only in the sense that anything other than writing is a distraction from writing. Dunno. I mean, I distract myself with Twitter. But back in the day, I used to distract myself with a sudden urge to clean the house. And I know which I prefer. 🙂

    • Yes – the news feed is exemplary in the best way. All honour & gratitude to the corner of the Twitterverse I’m so lucky to hang out in (thanks to @lesslinear. And I agree, procrastination is a curse and Twitter just an innocent vehicle for a widespread malaise (or gift).

      • Actually in the last couple of weeks I have been tuning into Twitter rather than news sites to get up to date with the happenings in the universe. I have found it useful for that kind of thing. But composing actual tweets…I can take it or leave it. In most cases: leave it. But I may change…

  4. I’ve found Twitter amazing with meeting other writers, both emerging ones at my level as well as more established writers. I haven’t emulated the networking anywhere else except perhaps on a smaller scale at physical events which happen less, I’m less confident at, and are usually inspired by Twitter anyway.

    But yeah, I do find myself using it probably too much, and using time better spent writing but like Jeff, I do something else to procrastinate.

  5. It does take some time to create an interesting Twitter experience. At first I didn’t see what the big deal was about, but over time I found myself following and followed by a whole bunch of creative, witty and spirited people who had figured out how to manipulate the form to their advantage. (Not everyone can do it.)
    I don’t see myself as a ‘natural’ Twitter user, necessarily, because I’m a fan of long, winding sentences which don’t always know where they’re going. But there’s also something very liberating about representing your thought process through a few well-chosen phrases or sentences – there’s no room for the irrelevant.
    By the way, I’ve never read a better description of my writing behaviour than writing ‘sporadically between the hours of 11pm and 2am’! 😉

  6. Having heard over and over again that social media is necessary to any form of promotion, I recently bit the bullet, started a blog and joined Facebook (after not being able to work out what Twitter is.) I HATE FACEBOOK. I hate it so much I’m tempted to comment on Mark Zuckerberg’s page saying that the world has not been made a better place for this ever decreasing attention span. I’d do that but the only problem is, at least as far as I can work out, in order to leave a comment I’d have to ‘like’ his page first so I figure that’s sort of self-defeating. The blog is a different matter. I’ve surprised myself with that. It has helped to focus in a way, because I’m finding a lot of things I blog about were never really suited to any serious writing at all. They were informal bits and pieces best suited to blogging and it’s a good way of getting them out of my system. Now, to go and do some work. You think Twitter’s bad? Try writing press releases. They’ll make you wish for a synopsis to write.

  7. Here here, I share your sentiments… As someone who is finally acknowledging their desire to write (a little late, though I think I just sneak into gen Y too) and has recently started a blog, I have developed a social media inferiority complex. The fact is I don’t particularly like twitter (though it’s definitely better than Facebook) but I am fumbling through anyway, in an attempt to learn something. And I am, a little. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one balking, and perhaps a bit confused as to where Stephen Fry gets all his spare time from.

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