On Keeping A Twitter

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

You should follow Thought Catalog on Twitter here.

Image – Amir K.

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.


More From Thought Catalog

  • statusandapager


  • http://www.facebook.com/mdkmdk Michael Kramer

    your articles become much more enjoyable when read out loud in an obnoxiously lispy voice.

  • http://hannahscribbles.wordpress.com HannahScribbles

    This was genius and exactly the way I use Twitter! On another note, I also keep a pocket notebook tucked away next to my future phone… just in case I write something too bizarre to tell the world about.

  • http://twitter.com/rislynsey christopher lynsey


  • http://twitter.com/uunnu ⍍␥␥␥␥␥␥⍍

    wait… but I thought joan didion had a twitter account? I'm almost 100% sure of it…

    • LS

      I don't think she does… I've actually tried looking for it because I adore her and wanted to follow her. But no dice.

      • http://twitter.com/uunnu ⍍␥␥␥␥␥␥⍍

        her profile says that other people write her tweets, but you and i both know that she's just saying that to maintain plausible deniability.

  • CelineHead

    I want to see what Celine's twitter would have been like.

  • http://brontosaurus.deviantart.com/ Brendan

    One of the better articles I've read here in the past weeks. Thank you.

  • saramcgrath

    tried to defend san francisco in a single sentence but i think you're right about everything

  • EmiliaBedelia

    I don't know about this one… but then again, I am a 22 y.o. without a twitter or a facebook.

  • http://twitter.com/blingless Dave P

    The best cheese is wrapped in post-modernism.

  • HB

    hey remember the good old days when people just saved pictures that they liked to their hard drives in some folder they were probably never going to look through again, instead of creating a tumblr account and going through other people's tumblrs and reblogging pictures that they liked to tumblrs of their own that they were probably never going to look through again?

  • CE

    ryan o'connell, you are my favorite tought catalog contributer.

  • http://twitter.com/billwolff Bill Wolff

    I'm not so sure there is such a great disparity between the notebook entry you include and a tweet. Here is the notebook entry:

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

    The time and date are included with all tweets and though we don't usually consider it the case, they are an essential part of the tweet itself. The location (Wilmington RR) can also now be included with a tweet when the GPS location option is turned on. Or if a person uses Foursquare or other location-based app the location is included. The main difference, then, is “Dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper, hotel bar”–content that often appears in a tweet but more often in the form of a sentence: “There's dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper in the hotel bar,” for example.

    I suspect the difference might be audience: a notebook fragment is meant for the author, a full sentence description is mean for the reader.

    Overall, very interesting, though, to consider how different genres apply the use of a few amount of characters.

  • http://www.michaelulrichwrites.com Michael Ulrich

    It's good to know I'm not the only one who finds such value in Twitter. Looking back over my past few years of tweeting, I can see a great improvement in my writing abilities. I blogged about this just a few days ago.

blog comments powered by Disqus