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.”
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?
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.