Throughout January, we're looking to the future, and talking about what it means for writers. Today's post comes from Dan Hogan, a poet who uses Twitter as part of his writing practice.
For the love of The Land Before Time and none of the sequels: the ‘write tweet’ button is an image of a marine dinosaur. It has taken me a few years and a couple thousand tweets to notice but there it is. The ‘write tweet’ button is framed by two ‘L’ shapes, offering the interpretation that it is more an image of a graceful plesiosaurus viewed through a hunter’s sight (perhaps Robert Muldoon’s) than it is a feathered quill bisecting an oblong. There have been numerous accounts of sightings of the ‘write tweet’ button cruising waterways and stopping cars on land. Some reports even detail a monster with a taste for livestock.
Silly buggers aside, when you type ‘the quill’ into Google the first result is a Swedish stoner/rock/heavy metal band whose CDs are “reportedly out of print.” Not exactly the history of the pen I was searching for. Enter ‘quill history’ and the results are tantalising. About.com’s Inventors Expert, Mary Bellis offers some insight saying that “the history of writing instruments by which humans have conveyed thoughts, feelings and grocery lists is the history of civilisation itself.” Checks out. I like to think of Twitter as a ‘writing instrument’ not unlike a pen and notebook or quill and inkpot or sharpened stone-club and cave wall. It’s a means of writing and recording or, as a friend once described my Twitter account to me, a way of logging ‘brain farts’. Two things: 1. Science has proven why people like the smell of their own farts thus proving why/how the history of writing instruments is the history of History itself; 2. What is each line of a poem if not a brain fart?
Image source: Flickr / biodivlibrary
I guess I use Twitter like a refined notebook. All the editing and playing around happens in the tweet draft before being broadcast to ‘the world’. Five things that suck about notebooks: 1. Putting your phone away to whip out a pen and Moleskine (eeewwww mole skin); 2. In a notebook, all the scribbling out and rewriting is recorded in a stressy mess; 3. One day there will be the quokka emoji of our dreams and you won’t be able to use it in your notebook; 4. I chew my pen while I write and this has led to many ink catastrophes. Fortunately I don’t chew my phone or computer when I write; 5. You can’t mine your notebook later by running it through sadtweets.com
sadtweets.com is a good time, for it takes your “saddest and most lonely” tweets and displays them randomly in a languidly paced slideshow punctuated by emotional PowerPoint-style fades and a despondent piano number. I’ve mucked around writing poems by recording tweets in the order Sadtweets throws them up. The editing has been really fun. Sometimes more recent ideas will appear and bump against old images/ideas I’d forgotten about. In editing, some of these ideas are more fully explored or rearranged when the tone or “point” of the poem becomes clear after lots of reading and rewriting.
Twitter’s 140-character limit means I don’t feel bad if I don’t fully fledge out an idea or image straight away. Sometimes I’ll mine my Twitter ‘manually’ for inspiration or for a brain fart to extrapolate. This might mean finding the first line for a poem or a story. The restriction and immediacy of Twitter has been, for me, a nice motivation to write everyday. Stress kills the fun of writing for me and sometimes that stress comes from a self-imposed expectation that I need to do it every day. I think it’s important to practice everyday, especially if you want to get good at it. When I found Twitter I thought “cool cool now all these silly little things I’ve been filling up notebooks with can count as ‘writing every day’.” It felt good. These snippets of ideas seemed, to me, more valid or “real” because people could read them. Inadvertently, this both revealed and wrecked another silly self-imposed thing I was practicing in my notebook: tailoring my writing in a way that suits publications. Heaps of what I filled notebooks with wasn’t really my writing. It was writing I thought a journal or magazine might want to publish. I was trying to learn to write by pandering to someone else’s tastes and it wasn’t working. When I started using Twitter, the strange self-imposed stress of pandering to a publication’s taste evaporated. Twitter counts as a form of publication because people are reading it. This meant I was no longer writing in the hope of being published(/’validated’) but learning to write what I thought would be fun to read. I’m not there yet (and hopefully never will be), but this has helped me explore “voices” and styles I probably wouldn’t have previously. It also meant I didn’t feel bad because I wasn’t good at writing nostalgic pieces (imo a little too many Australian publications and Award$ looooooove nostalgia). For me, the combination of using Twitter to learn how to write and then submitting to publications and working with editors has been the best way to work out what works and what doesn’t.
Sometimes when mining my Twitter I’ll find ideas repeated or reworded with a fair amount of time in between the tweets. For me, mulling over ideas is equal in importance to writing them down. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that editing is the worst thing you can do before finishing a poem or story. Turns out that works for me [quokka emoji]. I approach ideas that way, too, but place Twitter in the middle because scarcely will I find the time to sit down and pump out a poem from start to finish. I find this repetition helps focus ideas and clarity. Here’s an example of a poem I wrote, which was born from both the combination of mining my Twitter and extrapolating those ideas. Here’s some of the Tweets. Since Monster House published the poem I’ve tweaked and changed it a bunch of times as a result of performing it at readings. Reading things out loud and reflecting on an audience’s reception is another way of editing outside of submitting to publications (and tastes), I think (or even before submitting).
When I was a kid I thought The Sixth Sense was a fantastic movie and my parents gifted it to me on VHS on a birthday or Christmas that year. The cool thing about the VHS was that if you fast-forwarded past the end credits there was a “making of” segment. I was big into making-ofs and remember thinking “this might be the most boring Making Of ever because Bruce Willis didn’t turn out to be an animatronic velociraptor; he’s a non-transparent/non-spooky ghost, isn’t he.” That’s when I received the ol’ “kill your darlings” advice from director M Night Shyamalan. He explained how there was a scene he really wanted to keep because it was his “favourite” but it really didn’t help the story and he said something like “sometimes you have to delete your favourite scene.” I approach reflecting on readings that way, whether it means deleting or working out what’s unclear. Second to M Night Shyamalan’s advice, I always make sure endings are closer to “oh hey turns out I’m an animatronic dinosaur” than “hello, surprise, it’s me, ghost.” I’m working on this kind of process currently with a poem, titled ‘How To Walk Through Moderate Rainfall With A Soy Milk Moustache When You Get The Chance.’ I haven’t submitted it anywhere yet and I’ve changed it a few times after readings. I like the idea of a poem that never reaches its ‘full potential’ or ‘best state’. It feels important to me to have poems that are always changing a little or are always almost at their best without being their “best”. Kind of like CGI dinosaurs.
HOW TO WALK THROUGH MODERATE RAINFALL WITH A SOY MILK MOUSTACHE WHEN YOU GET THE CHANCE
an emotionally stable diplodocus orbits the earth for all of time
a burrito made out of the same stuff as a black hole
i need to start lifting my feet higher when i walk
i keep tripping and spilling boiling-hot hotdog water on beautiful goat tracks
fruit bats can smell the peanut butter in your tears so immediately take shelter
sooner or later all food pictured on instagram becomes poop
somebody invent a printer/scanner/washroom
eofy is the sound of the acronym for “end of the financial year” and peeling the lid off a pie
world’s new youngest fossil contains desk leg and petrified compact disc
powerlines doing nothing but straight lines
electricity traveling to places we’ll never go
an orange plastic bag flying/partying 200m above the city, hundreds of emotional people falling apart and coming back together down below
The future of writing practice is the future of the pen, I think. The tools we have available to us for writing are different to those used by our Neanderthal ancestors and (fast forward) different again to those used by our grandparents and parents. At this point I feel it would be easy to waltz into ‘is internet writing valid’ territory but ‘validation’ is as thin as the tastes of the gatekeepers who keep it. Who cares. The best writerly advice I could give is this: if you’re gonna write a poem, don’t whip out a sharpened stone club on the bus and start smashing away at a stone tablet. Instead, use one of those fancy computer tablets we have today. That is why we have these writing instruments. We don’t have to lug heavy stone around or waste money on incroyable inkpots or farm echidnas for their quills. At around 600AD the Europeans discovered how writing on parchment with a quill altered their style of writing. Fossilise ideas in the notes app on an iPhone. Fill a Twitter with brain farts at the speed of 140-characters. Experiment by writing captions on Instagram that are silly or sad or laden with emojis and things mined from Twitter. And vice versa. Find a ‘pen and paper’ and build a museum of brain farts then steal from it later.
Dan Hogan is an Australian writer who tweets @e_________craig
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.