BY JENNIFER MILLS
Bonus n00b, Jennifer Mills adds a final adventure just in time for tonight's Sydney launch of The N00bz: New Adventures in Literature, at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown. The brand new second edition of the book containing both Jennifer's chapter and our crowd-sourced twitter-submitted blog post chapter is now available from Editia.
When Sarah Tooth from the South Australian Writers’ Centre approached me about being a “digital writer in residence”, I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. Over coffee, she explained her plan to have one writer from each of the six writers’ centres (those loosely connected by Writing Australia, for funding reasons) become a writer in residence online. The role was going to be three pronged: educational, experimental and community-building. I’d share tips on my writing process, try new things and build connections with regional writers in SA and beyond. There’d be a blog and maybe some social media presence and perhaps we could try to do something live. Although I had no idea what any of this was going to look like, I said yes. Correction: I said yes because I had no idea what any of this was going to look like.
Sarah caught me at a good time, because I’d just finished a novel. Writing books wrings out the imagination, and between them I need to do something that isn’t so draining but still releases excess creative energy. After my first book I built a dining table and a biscuit tin banjo. My second sent me on a complicated cross-platform residency. I am often seized with an urgent need to uproot myself, as if everything I’ve previously done and known has become suddenly irrelevant. It’s not the most convenient part of my character.
I’ve learned to mitigate the upheaval by incorporating a degree of experimentation in the work itself. I love short stories for the opportunity they provide to try new forms, structures and voices. In some ways, social media has many of those same attractions.
Our first move was to start a new twitter handle, @digitalwir. Although I’d been blogging since 2004, my social media uptake was relatively slow. I’ve never been on Facebook; I joined Twitter in late 2010 after a stint in Beijing convinced me of the political usefulness of microblogging platforms for sabotaging spin and “message”. I was quickly addicted to the neat, collaborative literary form and the community of writers that came with it – the people I’ve come to think of as water-cooler comrades.
Although I’ve started other accounts in the past (some have snagged and gone under in the rushing tweetstream; others, like @paythewriters, have found longevity in collectivisation), beginning again as @digitalwir felt like finding a whole new voice. The project demanded I pay fresh attention to the process of living online, and I wanted to tread carefully and find my way. Not to repeat what I do at @millsjenjen, but to really see it from the outset as a new perspective.
When I start a new story I usually don’t know how it’s going to end, or even what it’s about. I have vague ideas, images, shadows of feelings and characters. It always feels like walking into the dark. On the other hand, my non-fiction writing tends to be planned over time, collecting bits and pieces of data which are chewed over, given a shape through long attention. Twitter requires the shortest attention span of all the literary forms I use, and for that reason I find it already has an experimental quality. Twitter writers tend to be pro-trying new things. I thought it would be the best place to focus my energy in a daily sense. For everything else, we had a blog: writersinresidence.wordpress.com.
As the first of the six residents, I was charged with figuring out what shape the project would take for myself. In terms of content, I ended up releasing four formal fiction experiments, and accidentally finding a fifth, non-fiction form. Briefly, I’ll describe the four formal fiction pieces that I made, and why I chose those forms.
A Lying Story
In 2010 I took part in a collaborative residency with the choreographer Noha Ramadan and two dancers. We were trying to work out if text and dance could communicate. In the process we worked out a whole lot of games that represented our failures to communicate. We did quite a bit of research into lying that formed the basis of further games, but translating text into lies became a stand-alone game that I use for workshops as a sort of warm-up challenge. At this stage I was still thinking about the blog as an extension of the workshop process.
It is Time
In 2013 I was part of The Subjects, locked in a sleep deprivation laboratory with three other artists. I wrote a story which I wanted to be circular: impossible on the page (unless you sticky-tape the ends together), but possible with a little code. I came across Twine last year, but I didn’t put the two together until this residency gave me the opportunity to do so. It is Time strategically undermines narrative time to create a dystopia of vague entrapment scenarios. Working with Twine was a lot of fun, and I hope I’ll find an excuse to do it again.
The third experiment was unique to this residency, and occurred to me as an independent idea: is it possible to write a short story in the form of an online quiz? The content was charged by a conversation I was having on Twitter about the alleged death of the novel, which is usually attributed to social media. Part of the purpose of the residency for me was to work with technology. I’m not much of a coder, so I played with easily available forms, mutating them to my own purposes. I wanted to reclaim the internet quiz from its lowbrow associations with pointless time-wasting, and turn it to the ends of metafictional inquiry. Mountain, Animal is both ridiculous and serious. As with It is Time, I was interested in breaking down the reader/writer distinction, moving beyond standard click-through interactivity.
The final piece of experimental fiction I posted was Overheard, a story told entirely in curated retweets using the #overheard hashtag. This story plays with crowdsourcing and authorship – every line in it is stolen, first by the person who tweeted it, and then by me – and collaboration, since none of the participants were actively involved (though one or two saw what I was doing and said hello). Twitter can be a hubbub of voices, and making narrative sense from that was a process of trial and error. I faved about 50 tweets and then used Storify to make the playlist. I then retweeted the whole thing “live” from @digitalwir, and later posted the Storify at the blog.
Storify brings me to my fifth experiment, and the most accidental writing outcome. I found that as @digitalwir I was using Twitter in a different way, as a sort of lyric essay. With 2000+ followers, @millsjenjen usually feels like a conversation. Starting again from scratch restored Twitter’s potential for broadcast monologue. I don’t have a name for this kind of lyric essay. It began quite naturally as me thinking out loud about writing online, and cumulated in a 100-minute discursive monologue on the nature of narrative time. I found these essays benefited from being drafted as one or two-page documents before posting, but that I edited each tweet and often changed the order as I went. It took on the quality of a live performance. Storify became an essential record keeping tool.
The lyric essay seems like a strange companion for Twitter, given the former is supposed to be ponderous and the latter flippant. But I think that confuses spontaneity with a lack of depth. The real-time nature of Twitter can offer a strong insight into another’s thoughts as they happen – it’s more intimate and exposed than traditional narrative non-fiction. The possibility for audience participation demonstrates the way thoughts shift discursively. Knowledge and ideas are represented in an exploratory, collective way: closer to how they are in the mind. Which brings me to what I’ve started to call the writing cycle. For me, the writing cycle looks like this:
Practise, risk, fail, critique; repeat.
The writing cycle is a learning cycle, and it’s the engine at the core of the work. You need to be able to fail to take a risk. If you don’t feel safe to fail, then you can’t take the kind of risks you need to be taking to write. It took me a long time to learn to enjoy learning, because I was afraid of failure. Now I think I’ve come around to it. I still don’t enjoy it, of course, and I am not immune to feelings of shame and despair; but experiments teach me to recognise the importance of failure as part of the cycle.
I’m not known as an experimental writer; I tend to do my experimenting in private. As @digitalwir, the stakes were high, both in terms of that opportunity for public failure, and in terms of wanting to make sense of a new role and a new project in a way that served others. But that was also part of the experiment for me. What would it be like to write in public? Not just to perform the role of being a writer, but to actually share what I’m writing as I go?
I’ve worked collaboratively with choreographers and theatre makers, musicians and visual artists, and I am consistently astonished at how much space they all make for play and fuckups. Literature really misses out. Don’t get me wrong, I admire technical skill and work hard to improve my own. But there is a difference between making a perfect copy of something, and making something imperfect but strange; something new. At some point you have to decide whether it’s worth taking risks, and often, practically speaking, it isn’t.
Unless you’re branded an experimental writer from the beginning, encouragement to experiment as part of your writing practice is rare. Workshops are planned around how to write, as if storytelling is a complicated set of recipes. Polish is valued over degree of difficulty. As a certain kind of technical satisfactoriness has become fundamental to a book’s success, the room for play and experiment seems to be shrinking. The writing cycle looks like this:
Practise, critique, practise, critique.
It looks boring.
Publishing is deeply risk-averse, which is fine in a business sense, but perverse in the long term. There’s a subtle pressure on writers to keep producing the same kind of work – it’s sold in the past, so it should keep selling. The trouble is that sameness deadens the mind. Readers know this; it’s why we read in the first place. But authors are still expected to emerge from a tidy room with a fully-formed story, a neat justification for writing it, and an untarnished brand.
Sure, writing is hard enough as it is without making it any weirder. But what really happens in that room is the making of messes. It’s never been tidy in there. Words and meanings must be taken apart, torn to pieces. Writers must try to see the atoms of their subject spinning, even dare to split them. If the work in hand doesn’t feel impossible, you’re not aiming high enough.
The trouble with the writing cycle is that you do fail, and often. But building a resilience to failure – not fighting it, but integrating it into your practice – is what will keep you turning. “Failure is what writers do,” wrote Anne Enright. And of course, that’s always been the deal with words in the first place. The reason we’re doing this, trying to make meaning from language, is that it’s never satisfied us. Words will always fail to mean what we want them to. It’s that impossibility that keeps us interested.
My fails during this residency were legion. The biggest was not reaching a very wide audience (with the notable exception of the quiz, which was featured on Wordpress and continues to generate Likes). I think that was partly a result of being the first to try this role out; people weren’t quite sure what to make of it.
The two live hangouts we ended up using Google+ to conduct were a learning experience for all of us and opened up the potential for SA Writers Centre to conduct online workshops or author talks with regional writers, but I’m not keen on going back to relive my YouTube performance any time soon. Another failure is that I felt the role was not particularly successful at generating educational material.
On reflection, perhaps it was better that @digitalwir didn’t just repeat what writers’ centres already do well. Often the best thing you can do in a workshop environment is not teach participants how to polish their work, but expand their imaginative possibilities; show them they can risk. That is certainly something @digitalwir did for me. I can’t wait to see where other writers take it.