January 31, 2011

On Keeping A Twitter

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I recently had the pleasure of rereading one of my favorite personal essays, “On Keeping A Notebook” by Joan Didion and experienced a revelation of sorts when I finished it: Twitter is, in many ways, the new writer’s notebook. Actually, that’s not so much a revelation as it is a “no shit” conclusion, but it’s interesting to think about nonetheless. Didion herself has already vocalized her disdain for blogging so I’m sure the comparison would be enough to make her clutch an avocado and run for the 101 freeway, but for people who have grown up with the Internet, Twitter feels more like the natural progression of things than an abomination.

Didion’s essay relies heavily on the idea that keeping a notebook is only meant for private consumption. She writes:

We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

Today, keeping something for yourself when you could be getting the adoration of strangers on the Internet seems novel and even a tad pretentious. I mean, why wouldn’t someone use Twitter if they had the option? What’s wrong with you, dammit?!

For many writers, using the website is about narcissism, but it can also be about participating in a daily creative exercise. Composing something interesting and/or funny in 140 characters or less is often more difficult than we’d like to admit and it forces you to cut the fat and focus on sentence structure and necessary language. It’s also a fascinating way to see what the public responds to and what they ultimately reject. You might wonder why your tweet about cheese got 60 retweets while your really funny observation about post-modernism received two. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to any of it. Trying to parse what resonates and what doesn’t is usually a frustrating crapshoot, but at least it forces you to stay on your toes.

Comparing Didion’s idea of a writer’s notebook to a Twitter account might seem blasphemous. The notes she lists in her essay especially reveal the disparity between the two mediums:

Dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper, hotel bar, Wilmington RR, 9:45 a.m. August Monday morning

Can you imagine your favorite writer Tweeting this? You’d be like, “Bye. I’m unfollowing your ass” in a second, but that’s the difference between public and private writing. With a notebook, you can write down nonsensical details without worrying about how the public will respond. Writing is (wait for it!) just for yourself and the preservation of ephemeral memories.

The gap between Twitter and a writer’s notebook closes, however, when Didion comes to the conclusion that keeping a notebook is for remembering “what it was to be me: that is always the point.” Isn’t that the point of recording any personal thought or anecdote anywhere? With Twitter or a private notebook, we have the power to shape our own histories by writing down only the things we’d like to remember; in effect, banishing the things we’d like to forget.

The first tweet I ever wrote exemplifies my point. Dated August 19th, 2010 at 2:58 a.m., it reads: “Went to a weird party in SF full of rich hippies in seven jeans and capes. This city is a giant freak on a leash.” When I reread it, I’m immediately brought back to the memory of a record release party I attended in San Francisco for Sean Hayes. I had never heard of the singer, but my friend’s boyfriend was running the event and I figured there’d be free drinks so I went. It was held at one of those chic hotels on the wharf and an assortment of yuppie/hippies were lounging on the patio, many looking like they had come straight from Burning Man with their shaved heads, dreadlocks, and piercings—not surprising for San Francisco. What was interesting, however, was that they also appeared to be extremely wealthy. They had pressed designer jeans on, wore expensive jewelry and drank fancy cocktails. Seeing this unique mix of hippie freak and bourgie nightmare seemed symbolic of the city’s schizophrenic personality. San Francisco may be full of New Age spirituality and D.I.Y. ethics, but it’s also one of the wealthiest cities in the country, and seeing the two contradictions converge in a single person was, quite frankly, hilarious. I knew I needed to write this down, so I started a Twitter that night and never looked back. As a result, my memory of that night is selective and can now only be expanded upon by reading that single tweet.

It’s hard to say which has more value—keeping a notebook a la Joan Didion or having a Twitter—but it doesn’t really matter. As Didion (sort of) said, we’re using both to remember certain aspects of our lives, and in that respect, they both have value and purpose. Joan, you can start chucking the avocados now. TC mark

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Image – Amir K.
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