The new primer is Twitter. I say this because the “infant” primers, as investigated in the Sexson’s “My Book and Heart Shall Never Part,” are presented as being for children, which some people feel is true of Twitter posts. But in truth they are also “five-finger-exercises” for type-setting, a low quality threshold, cheaply sold to an increasing market (as the rising middle class in the new nation began to value literacy and teach their children to read and write), and a carrier of advice for those wishing to be genteel in a Victorian sort of way. Now Twitter calls upon us to focus, stay in the moment, compress, and other modern values. On the fly. Of course, primer printing was quickly converted to mercantile enterprise, the same as the “children’s books” that added a bland line to advertising cuts for corsets and liniment and called the result a book. Twitter is a great marketing tool.
People attached to the past have grieved over the loss of elegance, properness and good spelling -- none of which justify having no content, which is a point not often raised. In fact, the assumption seems to be that Twitter equals illiterate, which it does not. A generation raised on grade school haiku-writing knows this. The recent online wave of nano-fiction proved it. And even the mercantilists got into it with their 25-words-or-less contests for why one loves a particular dishwashing liquid. Still no one has spent much time reflecting on what “good” tweet writing might be.
Often the news about a need comes through parody as was noted by NPR in an interview with Gary Trudeau, who draws cartoons and writes into the thought balloons what amounts to tweets. “The brash and buffoonish Roland Hedley, a fictional Fox News correspondent created by cartoonist Garry Trudeau, has attracted more than 14,000 followers since he began "tweeting."
“Trudeau's Doonesbury is still a daily cartoon strip, but he tweets as Hedley in real time.
"Pattern emerging: Woods only dates women who sleep during the day. Trendy vampire angle?" Hedley tweeted recently about the Tiger Woods scandal.”
Bada-boom. Stand-up comic one-liners about adult subjects. (Bluebeard evidently featured big in the original primers.)
"Writing this stuff is a new kind of challenge. ... I'm used to writing in a kind of economical form, but this is like comedy haiku," says Trudeau. "You drop some words into that little box, and you edit and re-edit and re-edit, and the idea, of course, is to create the impression that it is completely unedited."
As some of us know, writing that makes writing look spontaneous can be the hardest of all. The idea of editing a Tweet will be new to some, but this is an irony-based enterprise. A successful funny tweet is usually based on an ironic juxtaposition that is unexpected enough to make you laugh, just as a poetic haiku is supposed to set up a sensory awareness that takes a swerve into an insight.
When I was trying to attract the attention and support of Richard Stern at the U of Chicago by taking his elegant courses in narrativity and modernity (sneered at as antique by young men who saw themselves as deep thinking writers, more than a little bit Marxist though their daddies were rich), I left notes in his box. He pointed out that I seemed incapable of writing a proper U of Chicago research paper with footnotes, but then unexpectedly assured me that my notes were dynamite. What he didn’t know (but probably suspected) was that I ripped out research papers with no dedication or even a very clear idea of what I was writing about, but that my notes on half- and quarter-sheets of tablet paper were passionate and meant to be as seductive as possible -- in a dignified way. (I was forty and he was sixty and married.)
Awareness and passion are the keys to good tweets. I mean tweets that approach good writing, not the “wish you were here”-type postcard greetings. But I’m thinking of the gay men who dispersed across the planet, fleeing AIDS, and sent each other postcards that said, “NDY.” Not Dead Yet. So much of our eloquence these days is concentrated into such word icebergs: a tiny tip of caps indicating a whole realm of meaning below the waterline, not all of which can even be put into words. Of course, that was only the early edge and as the stigma has dissolved, a flood of writing from and about Gays with AIDS has washed through the system.
Robert McCrum in the UK’s Guardian claims that readers like the risk factor, authors who are out there doing extreme things like climbing mountains. (Everyone takes drugs so that’s not extreme anymore.) But maybe authors like risking in a different way: saying things quickly as though they were telling secrets or admitting something unexpected. “Showing a bit of leg,” is how McCrum puts it. In a world where people have to struggle to keep their asses covered, it’s more dangerous to tell how you really feel than it is to write a misery novel about your childhood.
In another Guardian article, this one by Tim Adams (Why is it that all the really good thought on print is happening in England? It’s not new. Education?), Adams went to Jorn Barger who invented the idea of “weblogs” or blogs and asked him whether he thought the virtual worlds created by Internet writing were happy places. Burger said he thought the constant posting of thoughts was currently “coping with griefers.”
That brought me up short but then I saw the truth of it. Lately we’re all griefers, yearning for the past, ecological integrity, family solidarity, virtuous unambiguous war, religion unchallenged by science, science unchallenged by politics, and politics that was actually effective. Once I knew a rancher in a remote place where the neighbors (separated by miles) called each other every morning to see if they all had made it through the night. Maybe that’s what we’re doing with our tweets.
I don’t tweet. If I did, I’d report how cold it is. The porch light bulb exploded. This morning the washcloth was frozen to the shower stall floor. The shortest tweet of all comes via the old-fashioned media of the telephone. Someone mysterious calls me a while after supper and hangs up as soon as I answer. I think it means RYDY? Ambiguous. But I’m NDY. Just risky.