BY ROMY ASH
A photo tweeted April 18, 2013: plume of smoke, stylized as a ’50s nuclear test bomb blast, billowing above the red and yellow lights of a service station. Fuck, this is happening now, near Waco Texas in the USA. It’s a beautiful shot. When I see it later, on the front of the newspaper, it looks anemic, in print it’s bleached of colour, like that quick, it’s faded from prominence. In the paper it’s yesterday’s news. It’s obviously taken on a phone, in the early evening, with an Instagram filter. The yellow lights of the service station are blurred into soft warm moons. The following tweets hit like a punch to the belly, ‘Death toll in Texas fertiliser explosion is at 14, mayor says’. It’s a highlight, a headline, and there’s a link to the full story. But when I read Twitter, I rarely click any of the links, I just look at the pictures and clock the headlines, one after another, like that’s all I need to know.
‘Four rhino heads stolen from the National Museum of Ireland by gang who overpower security guard’.
‘At least 27 people are dead and dozens more wounded after suicide bomber targets Baghdad café’.
If I had a real job, it’d be all I’d need for a water cooler convo. It’s an incredibly superficial way of reading the news, and my Twitter feed is definitely skewed towards news. It’s news, peppered with writer friends’ jokes/selfagrandisingpromotionaltweets, of which my tweets mostly fall under, #urgh. I’m ashamed of my superficiality, my inability to just click one-step further and actually read the news.
It is not about not having time to read the news, because I have time to check my Instagram/email/Twitter fifty times a day. It’s not that; I have time. I am not blaming the all pervading culture of ‘TL;DR’ (TL;DR stands for “Too long; didn’t read”). I read so many books, all of which are long. I’m in the business of writing books, they are nothing if not a #longread. So what is it about this extreme version of the inverted pyramid – all we get is that pointy triangle tip – that appeals to me?
My appreciation of the headlines is not in its summation, I have no interest in downloading the Summly app, which neatly summarizes a news story into three sentences using a mathematical algorithm (which has reportedly been sold to Yahoo for $US30 million).
It’s the language that appeals to me. There is such a wonderful economy of language. Working within the confines of a 140 character tweet there is no space for musings, for distractions, for convoluted language, even for punctuation. It is economical, but by its nature, which is to grab attention, it suggests the story behind the tweet.
Here is the story:
‘Merchant ship carrying giraffe tried to join search for Russian sailor missing off eastern Victoria’.
I don’t want to read any further than that. I just want to keep that perfect vision of a giraffe on a ship in the middle of the ocean. I can see the pitching of the ship on the rising waves. The lonely image of the missing sailor, awaiting rescue, desperate even and what is coming to save him is a giraffe. It’s absurd, and it has this melancholy to it. It is a melancholy that is accentuated because this isn’t a made up story, at this very moment (April 18) there is actually a sailor awaiting rescue by giraffe.
When I began thinking about tweeting a story, and this is something that has been done before – most famously here by Jennifer Egan – my good friend who teaches high school English, said, ‘Yeah, we make our students do that for assessment.’ Once something is being used in the high school curriculum, it must be over. Things change so quickly, there’s no time to ponder what the hell any of it means. What we really need as readers of the news on Twitter is analysis: what does it mean that a merchant ship carrying a giraffe tried to come to the aid of a missing sailor? What does it mean for the residents of Waco that a fertilizer plant exploded in their small town?
But as a fiction writer, instead of a reader, I love imagining the rest of those news stories the headlines suggest. There’s a whole world behind that tweet, that one economical sentence. A world with characters, a plot, and that ultimate moment of tension or conflict that is summed up so neatly in a tweet. A world that has its anchor in non-fiction, but once I start imagining that world it turns quickly into fiction, like two sides of the same coin. So instead of tweeting a story that because of the interrupted nature of Twitter would be read 140-character-tweet by 140-character-tweet anyway – I wanted to tweet the plots of stories. I wanted to create those suggestions of whole other worlds. The stories themselves are to be created in the reader’s mind. It isn’t so different to how I think about writing a 3000 word short story – even a story of that size is a only a small framed section of an imagined world. The art of short story writing is really about that suggested world, about what is left out of the short story as much as what finds itself on the page. The tweets, they will just be the shortest of short stories.
I began by thinking about summing up short stories I had already written and had published:
‘an engineer is so haunted by his role in damming a pristine lake that he is driven mad and walks into the sea’
‘young mother uncovers conspiracy: town’s water source is making everyone fat’
‘woman almost drowned by rouge Japanese priest as he baptizes her in the Bay of Osaka’
And even my novel Floundering:
‘a mother kidnaps her own children and they flee across country’
What strikes me as I write these sentences is how much must be left out. Yet the sentences are so economical, stripped to the bones of the story – maybe further than the bone – stripped until it’s just the marrow. All we are left with is the very essence of the story.
I think about the essence of stories I’ve been wanting to write but haven’t yet:
‘two bush walkers found murdered, a woman still insists on swimming at the remote, and beautiful site of the murder’
‘mother and daughter drive the death strip in far north Qld, the road is bad juju’
‘a drowned boy is trapped in the pull of a violent river, under the surface of the water he finds peace’
It proves harder. These plots are slippery, much harder to pin down, having not yet found their essence. I don’t yet know what they’re about. I can’t write them with the same ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ truism of the news stories I like to read. They are fiction.
I try a different tack, thinking more about the beauty of the words themselves, thinking more about the construction of the sentence, the prettiness of the language rather than the plot and they come out a little better. They read better, but do they suggest a better story?
I love the idea of these tweet-sized stories finding their way between news stories, appearing in all their economy, suggesting their wider, fictional worlds. Of a reader wondering where the link is to explain the story. Of the reader being unsettled, of the tweet not really fitting into the frame of Twitter. Of the reader then coming to terms with that strangeness and taking a brief moment to ponder the sentence. Or more likely the tweets won’t be remarked over at all, they’ll be skim read and pass unnoticed, like so much background noise. But my hope for these tiny stories is for them to stick like a grass tick in a reader’s mind. So small as to be unnoticeable, but once read, once stuck, the tick gets bigger. It’ll itch and swell. Like the photo of the Waco fertilizer blast, it’ll stay, contemplated, and wondered over, just one image, just one moment shining out of all that information.
(All of these tweets taken from 18th and 19th of April from @abcnews.)
(A flurry of tweets followed the release of Andrew Bartee’s Instagram photo of a huge blast near Waco in Texas, which he saw when he stopped at a fuel station between Austin to Dallas. April 18, 2013.)
Romy will begin her story tweeting project on the 4th of June 2013; you can follow her project on Twitter at @romyash. if:book Australia will be Storifying the tweets and any Twitter conversation surround Romy's project, so please, feel free to contribute to the Twitter conversation!
Romy Ash’s first novel Floundering was long listed for The Stella Prize and is published by Text Publishing. She has been anthologised in Best Australian Stories and Best Australian Essays, Voracious: The Best New Australian Food Writing. She has written for The Griffith Review, The Big Issue and Kinfolk amongst others. She writes the blog Trotski & Ash. On Twitter, she’s @romyash and her website is at romyash.com.