A Little History of Whatever: emily dickinson retweeted you
These past months we’ve spent time with Lightsey Darst’s Thousands, Hervé Guibert’s Mausoleum of Dead Lovers, and Joanne Kyger’s There You Are. As examples of journals, these books have given us a diverse picture of what a writer’s journal or diary can look like or become: stream-of-consciousness vignettes, quotidian notations, travelogues, marginalia, poems. We have looked at the ways in which each of these authors handled the transformation of private into public, grappling with gaps, curation, authenticity, and even genre. As interesting as it is (or at least as I think it is) one gets to this point and says, “Okay, but so what? What does this have to do with me? I don’t even keep a journal.”
Now, fair warning, I’m about to start talking about social media. I want to make it clear from the beginning that I’m not here to catalog the evils of social media. Nor am I here to unquestioningly praise social media as some utopia for poets and writing communities. Whatever you think about social media, the fact is that we all, one way or another, have to deal with, so we should probably talk about how, as writers we can use it to our advantage while also understanding the ways in which it takes advantage of our human impulse to document, which, put another way is our impulse to journal.
But first, have you ever thought about how your favorite authors might have used social media? Emily Dickinson would have killed it on Twitter. Marcel Proust and Herman Melville would have adored Reddit. Oscar Wilde would obviously have been the queen of Instagram. And you know James Baldwin would have owned on every platform. But you have to wonder: if they had been able to jot down a quick Facebook status, to shoot out a tweet, how would that have changed the works they are most famous for? Would they, possibly, have never written them at all?
It's something I think about more and more as I mature as a writer. What happens to the creative spark if I release it into the the great shouting void of contemporary social media instead of keeping it for myself to develop later? There have been times when I shared the seed of a project too early, perhaps, and because it received no real feedback (not even negative feedback, just silence), I abandoned it. Perhaps this says more about me than about social media, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. There are so many poets I talk to that find the social media grind draining. They find that it distracts from the work of writing, that it encourages (requires?) constant comparison with other writers which is the cornerstone of envy and the wrecking ball of confidence and camaraderie.
But in many ways, social media is impossible to escape, especially for young writers or geographically isolated writers or minority writers. The ability to build community (and I use that word very carefully as I think it’s often bandied about a little too liberally), the ability to gather those with like mind and those with differing views together cannot be ignored or undervalued. I certainly love seeing work from other writers on my feed, especially queer writers. I love sharing my work and the work of others with people I think will enjoy it.
In some practical sense, too, social media is an essential tool for contemporary writers. One can keep tabs on deadlines for journals and contests on Facebook. Some editors will make semi-official calls for specific kinds of submissions on Twitter. You can get a real sense of what is being published and talked about and what kinds of organizations you want to become part of. It’s not all Drag Race GIFs and kitten videos (though we can be eternally grateful it is also those things). Social media can be a powerful tool for a writer, but I sometimes wonder at what cost.
So often I see these stunning statuses or threads on Facebook or Twitter and in the comments or in a subtweet someone will say, “You should really write an essay about this.” Or “That’s a poem right there!” And I often agree. With a little trimming here, some expansion of this point, a honing of this image, so much good writing is happening on social media. Unfortunately, most of it just stays there. These only rarely develop into published essays or poems. They sort of explode onto the scene, take the reader by storm and then fade as quickly as they appeared. This seems a shame for readers outside of the writer’s social media circle who don’t get to read it and a shame for the writer who could, potentially, have gotten some money for their work.
But what does this have to do with journals? Well I mean what is a Facebook status but a journal entry? What is a Tweet but a note on an envelope (to steal from Dickinson’s wildly recognizable note-taking habit)? The sole difference, as I see it, is on social media there’s no transition from private to public. There is simply the performance of the private in the public sphere.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of performance. We are all always performing for each other, on social media and off. But I have to wonder what would happen if I shared less on social media and instead kept notes in a journal. What would those scraps and thoughts become? Are there ways that this private language would require a different relationship than say a long, thoughtful Facebook status? I’d say, for me, it does. Writing that sits on a page in a journal to be revisited later has a special quality, a transcendent quality—the words become mine-and-not-mine, they are both within and without.
I often take notes on my phone and sometimes will rediscover lines, even entire poems, I wrote on the train maybe, or as I was getting ready one morning. I’ll read them and be surprised at not only how much I enjoy them, but also how little I remember them. My main mode of writing when I feel stuck has become to comb through my phone. I almost always find something I’m excited to work with that I’ve completely forgotten. There’s a spark in the language that feels familiar but whose origin is untraceable. The work then has all the potential to take its most interesting shape because, instead of imposing the shape I had in mind at first, a shape now utterly unrecognizable, I have to respond to what’s on the page on its own terms, which is what I should have been doing in the first place.
Unlike these notes or private writing more generally, a status or tweet instantly belongs to others and is, like private writing, alive, but beyond my control or even my realm of caretaking once I post it. I mean that is the purpose isn’t it? A catalyst for conversation, a request for commiseration. Whereas private writing can be nurtured and cared for, social media writing is immediately shunted out of the nest whether it has feathers or not.
We can also think about it like this: a writer writing in a journal is not unlike a scientist. A scientist experiments over and over until they find new information which they then synthesize into a presentable form. A writer writing in a journal is also not unlike a choreographer. A choreographer experiments with motion—in the studio, at home (I have a dancer friend who posts these experiments in motion on Instagram)—and synthesizes that motion into their body of work.
Maybe that’s what’s missing then from social media writing: synthesis. It seems more difficult maybe to understand how writing can be synthesized in the same way. How is writing on Facebook all that different from writing in a journal or on your phone or in a Word doc? The actions seem much more similar than that of the scientist in their lab or even the choreographer in their studio.
And here I think is the crux: it’s not that the action is different, it’s that the writer is different. When you write something in private and revisit it, you will almost always be coming at it from different place than the one in which you wrote it. If you write something happy and return to it melancholy you may see ways in which the joy of the writing is unbelievable. If you write something at the outset of research you may find that your characterizations are not entirely accurate when you’ve completed your research. You will have read more and written more and come to a better understanding of this or that tic or habit you have in your writing. The synthesis of the writing in a journal is less about a change in your writing and more about the change in how you read your own writing.
This valuable distance (what lots of people refer to as putting a manuscript “in the drawer” or “letting it age”) is completely absent in social media writing. A status or tweet doesn’t invite revisitation or revision. In fact, screenshots make this sort of revision (even toward the better) something of a faux pas. A thought on social media instantly crystallizes in the presence of the thoughts of others. A thought on a page in a drawer is, like Schrodinger’s cat, both alive and dead, in a fluid state of possibility.
When we write on social media, we essentially install a window into Schrodinger’s box (or to follow the my metaphor, Schrodinger's drawer). We watch the cat live and see it die. We empty the box out and put another cat in. Over and over. Day after day.
And while it’s true that, even when you write privately, sometimes you open the drawer and there’s a dead cat, sometimes (and here’s the magic) another cat will leap out and bite you on the finger, alive and livid. That’s the kind of writing that goes out into the world and lives separate from you, the kind of writing that gets out the window whether you want it to or not.*
I’ve come, like many writers I know, to a place where my relationship with social media feels like it has to change. It sets off my social anxiety. It makes me deeply self-conscious. And that’s not even acknowledging concerns about data security. I don’t think I can completely stop using social media; there is so much good that happens there. But I’ve used it too long and too often in place of a journal. I’ve used it in an attempt to be told my writing and my thoughts are good. Instead of gathering my thoughts into a quiet place, I exhibit them, even when they aren’t really very interesting or important. I’ve fallen, as many of us have I think, into the trap of trying to establish an artistic brand on social media—constantly updating that brand, trying to be the magical balance of topical, trendy, and timeless. I mean it’s what social media is for, the commodification of identity—it’s main objective is to outline exactly how best to sell things to you based on certain traits and characteristics.
And what has social media done for my writing? I don’t mean the connections and the networking and the heads up on submission opportunities (which have been valuable; there is no denying). I mean the writing. How has it improved it? I’m tempted to say not at all-- in most instances even distracting me from actually writing at all.
But there’s a fix I’m going to try: I’ll write as if no one will ever read it. I know someday someone will, or I hope they will, but I won’t write work to be read. I’ll keep it. I’ll put it in a drawer. Then someday I’ll open the drawer. Something still wildly living will jump out at me. It will scare me and run away, but I’ll run after it.
May you, too, find what lives wildly for you, again and again. May you run after it and never grow tired.
*I realize that by opening the box the paradox is dissolved and traditionally the cat, having been poisoned before going into the box, would be dead. But, since we are talking about poetry and writing, grant me some poetic license and go with me on this.
Trevor Ketner holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. They have been or will be published in Best New Poets, Day One, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, The Offing, Lambda Literary, Devil’s Lake, Boxcar Poetry Review, Memorious, and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, The Rumpus, and The Bind. Their chapbook Major Arcana: Minneapolis won the 2017 Burnside Review Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Seuss and will be published in 2018. They live in Manhattan with their husband Cormac.