Writing in Digital Time


Since I embraced the digital era in the last year – yes, I’m a slow learner – I’ve started to fear my writing has suffered for it.

Time I used to spend redrafting stories has gone into writing blog posts. Editing time is shared with Twitter and Facebook.

This morning I wandered along the esplanade not thinking about, as I’d planned, what my antagonist really wanted to achieve by stalking her ex-husband, but churning over instead what to put up next on my weekly blog post.

And I was also drawing connections between a review from the Los Angeles Review of Books I’d found through Twitter and my fragmented mind. It was written by Ann Gelder on Yury Olesha’s No Day without a Line.

In 1929 Olesha achieved critical acclaim for his novel Envy. That is until the Communist literary critics realised that instead of lauding the new soviet industrial collective it could be read as supporting “useless unproductive creative individuals.”

Yuri Olesha

Yuri Olesha

By the next decade, and not surprisingly, Olesha also “came to believe” that individualism was vulgar and worthless.

For the next 20 years Olesha wrote infrequently, badly and with little success.

Then in the post-Stalin 50s he wrote:

“Let me write fragments without finishing them – at least I’m writing! Even so, this is literature of a kind, in a sense perhaps the only kind. Perhaps it’s impossible for a psychological type like myself in a historical period like the present to write otherwise.”

Sixty years later these words could have been written by me. Not so gracefully, perhaps, and not with the real fear and consequences of speaking against the party line. But in the sense that being who I am, living in the present, the way I write is a reflection of my world.

We live in sound-bites. It’s easy to flip a thought straight onto Twitter or Facebook and think, ‘Right, I’ve said that now’, and forget about it. My comments on the blogs I follow are short grabs. I communicate through sms and mss more than by talking on a phone. News stories read like summaries, because they are.

I write my stories in fragments and piece them together only when they tell me they’re ready. Many have never morphed into longer pieces.

Flash fiction started as my challenge at about the same time I went digital, and has taken over my writing without any sign of easing. In my mind flash fiction distils a moment of life, and the best ones make that moment stand for the whole historic period we call the present. Can’t the same be said for our best interaction with digital media? flash

The writing of small pieces slots into the short spans of time available in my segmented life. The resonance here between short pieces and the fragmented life is not lost on me.

So does this make me a product of my time? Probably.

Not for a moment am I condemning these changes. I think digitalisation offers valuable chances to enrich our lives. Without twitter I would never have learned about Yury Olesha, or through him stopped to consider how my writing style is a product of the historical times I live in.

More times than I can count these short grabs have pointed me in the direction of larger, well-considered, in-depth thesis I would never have found otherwise. And the succinct self-contained ones will show me a new way of thinking that can have lasting repercussions on my life.

Maybe, as Olesha suggests, it is impossible for a psychological type like myself in a historical period like the present to write otherwise.

Unlike Olesha I have the luxury and the privilege of writing what I want and need to write.

And as importantly, my era gives me new possibilities to explore HOW I might write. A novel written in tweets, for example. A chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation like Jennifer Egan did in “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Fiction for mobile phones that lasts as long as a commute to work.

The problem isn’t digitalisation. The problem for me is how I can use it effectively and in a way that incorporates, without losing, what was valuable from the way I used to work.
That’s the job I’ve set myself.

Discipline and organisation will be the key.

Two things my psychological type does not do well, unfortunately.

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9 Responses to Writing in Digital Time

  1. Lydia Devadason says:

    I can really empathise with this. When I blog, I struggle not to. Aside from the compulsion to read as many other blog posts as possible, to involve myself fully in the blogging community, my mind constantly ticks over with thoughts about my next post. It takes over my writing life very, very quickly. I LOVE blogging but I cannot manage it to the extent I would like, while writing other things. In fact I came back to blogging yesterday after a break of almost two months because I needed a stretch to write (a novel I have been working on), to absorb myself in my book and knew I couldn’t do both. My personality doesn’t allow it – yet! It’s something I need to work on 😉

    • I’m very impressed by your two month abstinence. As a fellow struggler I realise how hard that must have been. I think it will come down to me allotting time for each activity, and if that doesn’t work then following you into periods of no blogging at all.

      But what a great achievement for your writing. Best of luck with the agents.

  2. anne says:

    Oh, dear Karen, you don’t have to convince me. I LOVE the digital age. I can be in the middle of reading something online, then keep following its links until I’ve exhausted what it is I want to know or follow what new person or thing I’m learning about.
    We certainly are living in an explosion of easy access to information.
    I say thank you to google every day for its efficient expressways, and, no e-tags.
    It’s wonderful!
    Keep on writing as your inner life tells you.

    • Thanks, Anne. No e-tags? I laughed when I read that and have my fingers crossed they don’t bring them in. My world has really opened up since Google made it possible to look things up online. Twitter just sorts things into abstracts so I can more easily find the things that interest me. I love this digital age too.

  3. dianathrelfo says:

    Even I, as a newcomer to creative writing, can relate to your insightful reflections on Writing in Digital Time, Karen. Since I began to write less than three years ago, I have also started blogging, face booking, occasionally tweeting, etc etc. Sometimes I feel I’m a juggler – and a very bad one at that – waiting to find out which project I’m going to drop.

    • The juggler trying to keep his writing demands in the air, waiting for one to drop is a perfect image to describe the experience, Diana. It’s exactly like that. It will take a while for us newcomers to find the best way to work it all together. Unsettling but such a fun challenge.

  4. I can resonate with this, Karen. When we wrote our first novel, we completed the first draft in 5 months. “Oh,” I thought, “this is easier than I thought!”

    Then we officially started our business partnership, built a platform, a blog, a website, etc. And published the first book. The result? Our second novel has taken three years to get to publication (less than three weeks away!), because with everything else we’re trying to keep ‘ticking over’, there’s much less energy and time left to actually write / edit (I have M.E. so energy comes in small parcels, some of which are empty!)

    So yes, sometimes *all* I write in a week is a story for Writers’ Circle or Fictioneers (at least until this book is finally released) but, like you, I’m thankful that those opportunities are there, for the reminder that fragments can be just as important as longer works.

    Oops, written too much again – sorry. But such a good post!!!

    • Please don’t apologise for writing here, Joanna. One of the things I love about blogging is it gives me the chance to have a conversation about writing with other writers. As you say, it is time consuming but also one of the pleasurable things about a digital platform.
      I’ve just finished The Circle by Dave Eggers. Have you read it? It’s a disturbing novel about a world where the internet and social media direct the way we live. I can see some scary parallels between it and the way I live now.
      What a great achievement to have your book coming out so soon! I wish you all the best with it.
      Thanks so much for coming by, Joanna.

      • Thank you for your reply, Karen! You’re very tolerant. 😉

        I haven’t read The Circle but I can imagine that it hits home.

        Thank you; it’s been a while coming but in two weeks’ time it’ll all be over, which seems a weird thought! 😮

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