Roundtable: Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline
Posting, commenting, tweeting, texting — how have the protocols of social media and online communication affected the form and content of what we read and how we write? As the next installment in our ongoing, occasional series of roundtable conversations, we present this colloquy between Shawn Syms, editor of Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline, a new anthology focused squarely on this theme, and a range of contributors to the book: Steven Heighton, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang, Angelique Stevens, Alex Leslie, Trevor Corkum, and Megan Stielstra.
Let’s start by talking about form. Many of the pieces in Friend Follow Text are formally innovative, using or building upon online modes of communication — email, chat, forum messages, video and photo posting, status updates — to build an unconventional narrative or prose poem. Can you speak to your own specific experience of working with these forms compared to your other work — easier, harder, just different? Any particular challenges — or opportunities — that you can tell me a bit more about?
Trevor Corkum: Many of my stories move around structurally in time and place, and social media can often be the perfect form/vehicle for capturing the narrative flow of a pretty typical (Western) Gen X or Gen Y mind. That is — roving, somewhat disjointed or distracted, always multitasking, hungry for information or stimulus. Many of us spend a lot of time online and it definitely has an effect on how our brains create and retain memory. I’ve found stories that use a more unconventional narrative often easier to write, because the form tends to rise more organically from the content — in effect becoming part of the story itself and mediating the experience for the reader. More traditional narrative forms sometimes feel awkward or stifling.
Alex Leslie: I wrote my story “People Who Are Michael” as a conscious exercise in using the vignette form and applying it to YouTube videos, because so much of the info we now get is through short videos — music videos, videos of protests overseas, memes, etc. I had to consciously include more sound and sight than I otherwise would have and treat myself as a kind of “camera,” reporting recorded material rather than a more conventional way of writing fiction, which is to interpret within the telling. I wanted the pieces to stand for themselves and for the result to be a mosaic. There is ambiguity and there are disconnects and that’s part of what I was trying to present, in terms of how we now experience culture.
Steven Heighton: The form of my story — it’s a point-by-point reply to an email — didn’t strike me as especially hard, if only because I deal with email all the time. What I expected to be harder was trying to write a cri-de-coeur missive from the perspective of a lesbian academic. Then I reflected that the feeling of being jilted — that inconsolable hurt, rage, and also, at the level of primate wiring, terror — must be as close to a universal feeling as anything is.
Ever since reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire at 25, I’d wanted to write a story in the form of an annotation or glossa of an original text. Except that Nabokov had already done it so well. Then, when I first got email in 2006 (predictably, I was the last of my cohort to go online — I blame inertia, not ideological aversion), I started to receive occasional replies from friends where they’d sequentially paste in lines from my original email — questions or comments — and then respond, one by one. It was in fact a kind of annotation or glosa. I’m always looking for fresh, relevant and radically apt forms for my stories, and soon it occurred to me that — given the way a lover will agonize over every syllable and nuancing comma in a love letter, especially one that suggests imminent rejection — a passionately annotated email could be a compelling story form. And the story itself could be both moving and funny, and one that any reader could enter with ease. After all, who hasn’t mentally annotated/mentally replied to a letter or email of that kind, at some point?
Angelique Stevens: We’ve moved into a world where even our most intimate conversations via text have the potential to be public. We’ve become a voyeuristic society. We crave those little snippets of information from others because we have gotten used to getting them through Facebook and Twitter and sideways glances at text conversations. Secretly, we are trying to piece together some universal story about humanity from those abbreviated scraps of text. I thought it might interesting to explore this in story form.
My story “Spiral” began unexpectedly. I looked at my phone after a series of emergency calls about my sister, and realized that interwoven between the voicemails were my own texts and emails to other people. My life was going on as normal while hers was falling apart. It seemed to me that the form of this piece — texts, emails, voicemail — was a perfect mirror for this symbolic idea of detachment between the main character and her sister and even herself to some degree. She and her sister are like a strand of DNA, a double helix touching at places and separating at others.
Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang: Facebook is funny because even though it purports to be a social tool it is inherently narcissistic. It’s a dialogue of the self. In a lot of ways, it’s like poetry (though most status updates have a far larger audience than most poems). When we write poetry it’s ostensibly a dialogue, but when I think of the readership it sometimes feels more like a running monologue to no one. So, as a poet, this project seemed to fit with what I already knew.
However, there is a particular challenge in the strangeness of reading this scrolling wall of posts and thinking of stitching together an idea of a life or a personality from a few random sentences or banal posts about their day. Or else you’re reading of an acquaintance who has just undergone a major tragedy. How do you respond? Do you “like” their post about how their mother suddenly died from cardiac arrest? Are you silent? How do you not sound trite in your public response? I think all of us yearn for a deeper connection with the people around us and that’s part of what I’m writing about. Both poetry and Facebook promise to provide us with a sense of connection, but that connection is elusive in both instances, although for different reasons.
Megan Stielstra: I’m interested in telling a good story. Who are my characters, what are they going through, why is this moment important to them, how does it connect with a wider audience? That’s the guts of it, so far as I’m concerned, and I make decisions about structure based on what best serves that story.
Sometimes that means a more linear narrative movement, other times it’s telling the story, like this one, in the form of an Instagram feed. Sometimes it’s telling the story backwards, or as a Missed Connection ad, or following the same bullet on hunting trips across three decades. I have a piece where I have a conversation with Indiana Jones, and I pulled his dialogue right out of the films and tried to make a new scene out of the lines everyone knows. More recently, I was working on a piece about abortion, which is such a personal subject matter for so many people, as well as myself, and I’m not of sure the right way to say this but it didn’t feel like the writing in the story was equal to the subject matter. Do you know what I mean? What the hell do you do in that situation? How do you tackle the great, abstract challenge of making your writing better?
I recently chatted with a writer about a short piece he wrote, and how I was struck by its punchy immediacy — and he revealed that he’d written it on his BlackBerry while riding on the subway. Have mobile or digital technologies had much of an impact on how you capture, or work on, your ideas for stories or poetry?
Steven: Not so much. Email is the only digital technology I use. I don’t have a cellphone of even the simplest kind. Incidentally, I’m not offering this fact as either a boast or an apology — it’s just how I’m choosing to live right now.
Megan: I’m pretty low-fi during the actual writing: longhand in a journal, usually on the [Chicago] El to and from work, and then typed into the laptop to make sense of the mess. But from there, technology definitely plays a part: All of my drafts live in Dropbox, so I can pull them up anywhere, whenever I get my hands on those precious extra minutes to work. I keep Wunderlists of story and essay ideas right next to my to-do lists. I record myself telling stories in Voice Memo and transcribe them, and I’ve just started using Editorially, which is really clean and organized and helpful for collaboration and feedback. What I’ve found most interesting is crowd-sourcing ideas and research. For example, I’m working on a piece right now about the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, and I asked people on Facebook if they’d share their Aragon stories. I got a ton of comments about the crazy rock shows people had attended and the fights, hook-ups, break-ups and broken bones that ensured, many of which inspired the piece in some way.
More than anything, these technologies have influenced where and how — and occasionally if — I share the work. I’ll write anything and everything, but afterward I have these little conversations with myself about what I want to release into this world, in print or performance.
Trevor: I’m always interested in identity, particularly by the false anonymity created by being online or in curating an online persona. In chat rooms or comment boards or on Twitter we have the freedom to create and re-shape identities that doesn’t exist in the physical world. On the other hand, much of how we engage online or digitally is fragmentary or fleeting, and this mimics how we do exist in the real world, in stops and starts and intense snatches of insight. These intense little snatches, that little byte of insight, can often be the seed or zygote for a story.
Alex: I acquired an smartphone (an iPhone) for the first time this spring — because I had to; my flip phone broke in an accident and smartphones are just better/cheaper now. It has started to have a creeping effect, yes. I use the Notes function to jot things down, where I used to use a notebook more. I still use my notebook, but more in situations where I want to be more thoughtful, or make sure something will be permanently preserved (all machines can break; all info eventually becomes an overload/has to be transferred/becomes unsearchable). I make notes on my iPhone for my ongoing series of prose poems. I have not written significant parts of stories on my iPhone but have jotted down lines that come to my mind during conversations or class that would be good paragraph starters.
Sarah: It’s funny because most writers I know can only ever write longhand. I learned to write on a computer and so I have to type out my stories and poems. It’s gotten to the point where if I have an idea in the shower I have to rush out of the bathroom, hair dripping, and wait for the computer to boot up. Silly, I know.
Do you think pieces that work with the conventions of online communication are less accessible — for the ways they toy with, or even abandon, the traditional narrative form — or perhaps more accessible — given how they work with modes of communication in which more and more people find themselves immersed? Or does this even matter?
Sarah: This is an interesting question to me, and something I’ve wondered ever since I heard that verse novels were taking off in the young adult market. How was it, I wondered, that narrative, lyric poetry has suddenly resurged in a generation that is purported to be unable to focus on one thing at time? I wonder if it could be that poetry, with its line breaks and sparseness on the page, now brings to mind Twitter rather than Shakespeare? If so, it could be that online communication has reopened the door to poetry. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.
Trevor: I think form is form, and that any writer must find a form that is best suited to the story being told. Experimenting with form merely for the sake of being playful can be gimmicky or fall flat, just as using formal narrative conventions can be either stifling or inventive. It depends on a confluence of factors: the author’s intention, the story being told, the voice, tone, point of view, etc. Younger readers may be more familiar with a story told through tweets or texts, but the story being told still has to be good — has to resonate in some meaningful way — in order for it to be accessible and hit its mark. In many cases it’s a case of personal preference and of course what the reader brings to the story, what he or she has read, etc.
Alex: This is a question about generational divides more than anything. For my generation (people in their 20s and younger) — yes, [online conventions are] totally more accessible. People enjoy reading things that echo back what they experience. I had a few older readers of my YouTube video story tell me it made no sense, did not speak to them, was essentially a crappy story, but I knew it was because they didn’t care about the cultural context, were not invested in it. I’m wary of reinforcing ageist stereotypes here — just saying that the ways we receive info are being transformed, and the intensity of that transformation is most intensely experienced by people who have to change with it or lose the ability to communicate with their generation.
Angelique: A friend in my writer’s circle recently wrote a poem about how when someone dies, he or she still has this sort of virtual existence on Facebook. It’s fascinating to see how friends and family post on the wall of someone recently deceased as if the person were still alive, “I remember that time when we stayed up all night on the beach, bud. I’ll miss you.” The Facebook wall then becomes this sort of virtual shrine.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” Back then, it was about mass marketing, television and the technological explosion McLuhan saw happening in the world. His words ring true even more so today with the information explosion and the advent of personal devices that keep us connected to each other textually but not necessarily philosophically or emotionally. It’s fascinating to explore what those forms say about the sender rather than what is actually being said in the message. I think as we move forward, there will be more writers navigating the possibilities of symbolic and metaphorical representations that online forms pose. Social networking sites and dating sites are interesting examples because we have begun forming these online identities that don’t really say anything about us, and at the same time they say everything.
Regardless of any formal innovation in your work in Friend. Follow. Text., to what extent does your piece in the book depart from or stay aligned with the broader thematic concerns of your personal oeuvre?
Steven: Thematically speaking, my story “Noughts & Crosses” is very much a tale out of my atelier. I see that clearly, now that you’ve pushed me to give the matter some thought. A reviewer of the collection it comes out of, The Dead Are More Visible, pointed out that the question it asks — ”How does the end enter?”, i.e., Where is that poignant threshold where thriving things, like love affairs, start to die — is a preoccupation that comes up a lot in my writing. And I think it does — and now I think I need to forget I ever heard the comment. Too much thematic self-awareness is creatively lethal.
Megan: For me, there’s a really obvious thematic connection between deciding what to post about my life (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) and what I chose to write about (the personal-narrative work I do with 2nd Story mostly, but I think this also applies to fiction). You’re picking and choosing from the vastness of your experience and observations — sometimes following your gut, sometimes making calculated choices — but no matter how fast you write, no matter how much ground you cover, you’ll never be able to write about everything. Anais Nin called it a problem of arithmetic. There aren’t enough hours in the day to cover the whole of your life — not to mention who would want to? — so you make choices. Look how pretty! Look how interesting! Look at how I got my proverbial ass kicked here, but lived to fucking tell about it! What a great fucking story!
Sarah: Much of my writing in the past has centered around children (both my poetry and more obviously, my children’s books). Using Facebook status updates as a starting point for my writing allowed me to look outside of myself more often. I enjoyed that a lot. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and keep writing the same things over and over again.
Trevor: My work is all over the place, both in terms of form and subject matter. The narrator in “5’9, 135, 6c, br bl” is similar to several other wayward young men in other stories, but the telling, in reverse chronological order, is new. Thematically — a focus on darker material, alienated, working class young men, and sometimes graphic sexuality — the story is aligned with other work I’ve published.
Alex: My collection of stories People Who Disappear (Freehand Books) contains stories in very different modes and forms. This story is told through YouTube videos; another story is told through subheadings that list everyday acts that a woman has to do for her wife when her wife breaks her wrist; a few stories are more traditional and linear. I’m very much interested in how form dictates content. My story in the anthology is part of that interest. The themes — identity, fragmentation, disappearance, collective vs. individual identity — are things I’m basically always writing about in some way.
Angelique: My writing in general is personal narrative essays and travel writing. “Spiral” is quite removed from anything I’ve done before in terms of form. I’ve never written anything this experimental before. I wasn’t even sure how to “write” it. I questioned how I could show conversations between people without making it a logistical nightmare to read. There’s no standard for this kind of thing and I played with a variety of ways to present the information with as little signposts as possible. I feel comfortable with the framework I created. It reads a bit like a play with no actors on the stage.
Are pieces that experiment with digital-communication forms exceptions — or something we may expect to see more of over time? Do you think online communication modes may inspire more formal experimentation or even more hybrid literary forms? Or is this sort of experimentation even really radical at all when seen in broader historical context?
Megan: Oh, absolutely! Fiction is about people, and people are online, on social media. I’m interested in how these technologies appear within the stories as parts of the movement or character development, as opposed to form or concept. I just finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful new novel Americanah, and the main character is a blogger. It’s this fantastic structural device that allows Adichie to move fluidly between scene and exposition, showing us what the character experiences and then allowing her to contextualize and comment on that experience via the blog. I also teach Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad, which incorporates all sorts of aspects of technology and social media.
Alex: I can only speak for myself, but I find that I am a magpie and a ventriloquist in my work. If a language is heavily infiltrating my social world or my computer, I will start to incorporate it and absorb it, at first unconsciously, and then deliberately. Languages are not steady, external things — they shape us and are shaped by us. Our art exists in the bridge between ourselves and the worlds and languages we need to reach outward to others. Yes, there will be more digital communication in written work, but just in the same way that there will be more of everything else.
Trevor: We’ll definitely see more stories experimenting with digital forms, and as we read more and more electronically, we’ll see more media rich stories and hybrids with graphic work, video, even gaming. I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future where reading an anthology like this one on a mobile device will allow a reader to become a character in the story, with his or her own avatar — more like a gaming experience. Another spin-off may be characters with their own social-media accounts, interacting with readers/fans in character. Stories will also become more and more crowdsourced, with fans/readers influencing plot, character traits, sequels and the like. This is part of the broader convergence of high and low art, public and private space, art and entertainment and real and virtual life.
Sarah: Honestly, I don’t think that this sort of experimentation is radical at all. As trite as it sounds, the world is ever changing and literature reflects that. I do think that we’ll see more and more of the language and look of the online world in traditional literature. I also think we’ll see more and more genre bending, books that have a significant online aspect. I can’t even begin to anticipate how mediums will be merged: choose your own adventure, synchronous storylines between multiple authors, just in time writing? Who knows? But I’m excited to find out.
Shawn Syms has written a short-fiction collection in search of a publisher and is toggling between working on a new novel and a second book of short stories.
Trevor Corkum’s fiction and non-fiction have been published widely, most recently in The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Little Fiction and The Journey Prize Stories 24.
Steven Heighton is the author of 13 books that include novels, poetry, short fiction and a collection of memos, aphorisms, rants, provocations and fragmentary essays.
Alex Leslie has published People Who Disappear, a book of short stories, and a chapbook of microfictions, 20 Objects for the New World.
Angelique Stevens is an award-winning travel writer and activist who teaches Writing and Literature of the Holocaust and Genocide at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.
Megan Stielstra is the author of the story collection Everyone Remain Calm and Once I Was Cool, a book of personal essays forthcoming from Curbside Splendor.
Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is the author of four children’s books, a YA novel and two books of poetry, and the editor of Desperately Seeking Susans.