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How Writers Interact With the World

Thursday 11 July 2013

By MATTHEW BATTLES

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

The image has been handed down throughout the long iconography of the West, most effectively transmitted in the image of Saint Jerome: the writer as a recluse, weaving spirited collocations of words in hushed seclusion. Jerome may have a lion at his feet, but he lacks other company — and, of course, he has no Wi-Fi. His condition is distinctly different from that of the modern writer; her room is not only well-lighted and likely lion-free, but also furnishes an Internet connection, through which the world’s tumult pours.

It has been argued that a chronic fever of distraction and fascination arrives on waves of Wi-Fi to stunt our attention spans, encouraging writers to paddle about, tweeting and liking, instead of striking out for deeper waters. As a writer who writes about writers, I struggle with this surfeit of ideas and impressions myself, but I also can see this so-called malady from a different point of view, through the prism of history. Authors, after all, have always sought the means to build bridges between the world and the page. Wi-Fi, Google Docs, social networks and even smartphones and other gadgets are just the most recent means of doing so. While they can distract us with their bells and whistles, they also provide powerful tools for gathering information, tracking renegade thoughts and inspirations and disciplining the flow of words and ideas.

The impulse to connect to the outside world is an ancient one. Martial, the wry and ribald Roman poet, relished bringing the prosaic textures of daily experience into his poems — and to bring the moment of their making into the world. Martial, in his epigrams, often caught himself composing in medias res — as in Epigram 4.10, in which he sends a slave to deliver a gift of poems so newly composed, their ink is still wet. My translation is below:

While my chapbook is new, its face yet unerased,
while the undried page still fears to be touched,
go, boy: take it as a gift to the dear friend
who merits my trifles foremost.
Run now — but wait: let’s pair the book with a sponge;
these gifts of mine go together.
It’s impossible, Faustinus, for many blottings
to salve our japes — but one blotting can.

This verse is a trifling thing on the surface, little more than the joke or jape Martial references in its final line. But the poem, offered at the very moment of its composition, is also a kind of sacrifice, sent as a surrogate for the poet, meant to suffer whatever erasures his japes might have earned. In its frankness and ephemerality, the poem is a permeable membrane — a frame that is also a picture — a kind of autobiography of its own performance, already evanescent, made to dissolve into the world. Since Martial’s medium was papyrus and not Twitter, we don’t know how his poem was received by its dedicatee. But Martial’s poems were avowedly off-the-cuff and informal, written in immediate response to impulse and distraction.

Writers have always welcomed this intervention and inspiration of the world in the work of composition. Early-modern European authors had their commonplace books: journals they filled with excerpts from classical and modern works, snippets of journalism and reflections gleaned from daily life. More than a mere journal, the commonplace book can be thought of as a paper-based interface for the social world of letters, in which Enlightenment-era writers continuously added, combined and swapped out snippets of found text gleaned from such new media as newspapers, broadsides and learned journals.

Later writers embraced such practices. Ralph Waldo Emerson kept journals assiduously; throughout his life they piled up, volume upon volume, constituting eventually a kind of search engine through which he could retrieve his vagrant thoughts and half-recollected ideas. Emerson’s practice of keeping journals combined the early-modern commonplace book with fragments of his own nascent essays, verse and drafts of letters. Emerson and his correspondents comprised a social network to be sure — and the degree of interoperability between letters, journals and finished, printed works was very high. The young Emerson sometimes saddled his diary book with the title “The Wide World” — a glimpse of his sententiousness, but also a premonition of the sage who would exhort the American scholar to “run eagerly into [the] resounding tumult” of the world, which furnishes “the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products.… The manufacture goes forward at all hours.”

The literary promise of this mundane manufactory was evident to Virginia Woolf as well. Throughout her fiction she attacked the problem of the world’s persistent demand upon our attention, which overcomes even the security and seclusion of a room of one’s own. Woolf asks us to imagine that room: one “like many thousands, with a window looking across people’s hats and vans and motor-cars to other windows” — only to plunge us immediately into the streetscape below, into the city of clattering coal-holes and careening cabs, whose citizens are “shot backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern.” The room of one’s own Woolf calls for is no citadel but a kind of research vessel — not an abbey but an instrument, not a fortress, but a connection.

Of course, Woolf hardly remained in seclusion. The Bloomsbury scene was famously hectic and vital, generating dense clouds of correspondence, terrible feuds and heady collaborations. With her husband, Leonard, Virginia started a press to publish not only their work but that of literary friends and colleagues — a premonition of Kickstarters to come.

Not unlike those earlier literary networks, the Internet now furnishes vivid and shifting interfaces for writerly composition, collection and competition.

The latest salad of world and word, Twitter, is perhaps also the most controversial, especially when it comes to literary work; the best succeed by making full use of Twitter’s mundane ways. The Brooklyn-based novelist John Wray’s Twitter account follows the Odyssean rambles of “Citizen,” a character discarded from an early draft of one of Wray’s previously published books. Developing at a leisurely pace over the last couple of years, Citizen’s tale consists of wry tweets from the protagonist’s stream of consciousness interposed with Twitter’s soft rain of re-tweets, arch comments and shared links. While Wray’s story unfolds by slow degrees, the tweets of the novelist Teju Cole’s “Small Fates” project blaze in fierce individuation, capturing tragicomic biographies in tweet-size bites. Both are richly at home amid Twitter’s chatter and hum, bumping into, responding to and learning from the conversational input of others.

These are unfolding works whose composition happened in the world, tossing on the clothing of the book with fashionable belatedness. My own short story collection “The Sovereignties of Invention” was released through the publishing impresario Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade, a press-cum-platform that exposes works in progress to the scrutiny of curious readers. As a Red Lemonade author, I offered up early drafts of stories, which members could read and comment upon. The process not only gathered useful ideas for further revision, but helped to build a community of support and interest around the stories. And most recently, David Hirmes’s “Infinite Wonder/Infinite Pity” offers a sublime example of generative literature: a Web application that sucks sentences beginning with the words “I saw” from Twitter and online public-domain literary works and combines them into a seamless feed.

The poet Martial may have had a slave run a poem out into the world for reaction and contemplation. We now have Twitter and Facebook. But, overall, the exchange takes place where it always has: amid the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world.


Matthew Battles, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, is the author of “Library: An Unquiet History.”

See online: How Writers Interact With the World