Flash Friday: On Twitter

Friday posts are part of an ongoing series of short nonfiction essays inspired by ordinary events. Each piece is an original, stand-alone essay of less than 500 words. (I’m posting this week’s entry on Sunday, having spent the last few days catching my breath from Tuesday’s election results. I’ll be back on schedule this week.)

I have what you might call a Twitter problem. Every day I find myself tethered to the open tab on my laptop or glancing at the phone screen after hearing the ding of a notification. It’s a welcome distraction from writing, but my Twitter affection is more than that it, it’s a need to scratch an itch and take a digital hit of news, snark, and just maybe a status update from my college sophomore.

I’m not totally proud of this. I read somewhere that social media is as addictive as sugar and cocaine in that the reward of likes, views and retweets stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, the part that releases dopamine to reward and reinforce the stimulus. In other words, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be as addictive as chocolate, booze and drugs, which is why more than a few of us seek it out during every spare minute, like waiting on the sidewalk for a walk sign, standing in a coffee line, even driving an empty stretch of road. (I don’t do that, by the way.)

There are different types of Twitter. Political Twitter is the worst, yet it’s the one I spend the most time with. What crazy thing did Trump do today and how did Clinton respond? What’s the latest from The New York Times and Washington Post? Answers are at the fingertips. Then there’s entertainment Twitter. Say, for example, you watch “Scandal” like I do. Watching “Scandal” is fun – but watching “Scandal” and following #Scandal on Twitter? Hilarious. It’s like being at a party with the actors and thousands of people who are also tuned in, or being at a concert where the TV show is the main act instead of a band. It’s silly, but it’s fun. Is that a bad thing?

I often worry that I can’t step away from the keyboard, and sometimes I try. A couple of months ago, my 17-year-old son and I went to the Cubs game on what (unknown to us) turned out to be social media night. Fans were encouraged to post pictures to Instagram and tweet updates during the game, all under the handle #Cubs. We found our seats and sat down, and we both reached to pull out our phones. I realized quickly that I’d forgotten my glasses at home, which meant no Twitter for me because I can’t read my phone without them. I put my phone away; my son did too, in solidarity.  We watched the game – the entire game – and it was great. We talked, the Cubs won, we took the train home. When we got there, I found my glasses and caught up with the world. My first stop? Cubs twitter. 

Notebook vs journal: What’s in a name?

Crickets (the iPhone kind) wake me up at 5:30 every weekday morning. When they chirp I reach over and shut the alarm off for 15 minutes, then drag myself out of bed and head downstairs to make coffee. I wait, pour myself a cup, then walk into my office and sit at my desk. I take a sip, open the 99-cent composition notebook (black and white cover, college-ruled) and uncap a Pilot Precise V5 fine point marker. Finding my place in the notebook, I skip one line from the previous entry, note the date and time, set the alarm on my phone for 30 minutes (crickets again), and start writing.

As I write I try not to think about what I’m scribbling down, or anything really. I don’t check my messages first, nor my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I may throw a load of laundry in the dryer while the coffee brews, if my kids need something before they leave for school, but in the almost-two years since I decided to start my days with a writing session, I’ve become quite good at thinking about nothing until I sit down to write.

It’s a relief, actually. I like starting my day with nothing.

For the most part, I adhere to Natalie Goldberg’s advice from Writing Down the Bones: Don’t think, just write. Don’t stop, just let it flow. Try not to cross anything out, don’t correct misspellings, and for heaven’s sake, do not edit. The goal is stream-of-consciousness writing as a path to deeper truth.

It’s Goldberg’s assertion, among so many other writers and writing teachers, that a daily writing practice yields benefits when you come to the page seriously and with intention. It’s the same idea as Julie Cameron, who promotes morning pages in her book, The Artist’s Way, and it’s profoundly simple: When you clear out the cobwebs, you reach a deeper creative level.

But what if your writing isn’t all that deep, or even all that interesting? When I first started writing morning pages I was resolute and oh, so profound – pages of descriptions of sunrises, what chirping birds sound like, the thump of the newspaper as it hits the concrete driveway, a beam of light illuminating my handwritten page. I experimented with imagery and metaphor, worked from prompts, described my neighbors’ houses, imagined where the man across the street went at 5:45 in the morning as he backed out of his driveway wearing his pajamas. Really.

Then I got bored and started what I’ll call my feelings phase. Our oldest child will start college in the fall, a fact which spawned dozens of pages about applications, acceptance and rejection, chick-out-of-the-nest emotions, did we do a good job as parents.

There’s also a lot in there about resolutions: a new year, the start of a new month, Sundays and Mondays. I wrote down goals, created schedules, and plotted my days by the hour. The more schedules I wrote, the more bored I was. I questioned whether I was writing with intention or just keeping a diary; whether what I wrote was worth anything, or if it was a trivial hobby.

When I first found myself floundering I decided to take a break from morning writing, but after a couple of days I read through an old notebook and to my surprise found that some of the writing wasn’t half-bad. A word or sentence jarred something in my mind and I picked up the Precise V5, flipped to the next blank page, and started writing again. Almost two years later I still do the same thing when I get stuck, and without fail I feel better, like my day has righted itself.

Whether you share your writing notebooks or keep them private is up to you. But for this practice, I’ve found that the best audience is yourself.

The Notebook(s)

This isn’t the notebook I’m talking about but look, it’s Ryan Gosling.

I keep a writing notebook, thanks in part to a lifetime of journaling but mostly as a new habit I started after reading Natalie Goldberg’s fantastic book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. (If you haven’t read it, please stop now and order it from your local bookstore or download it to your Kindle. It’s a little new-agey but one of the very best books on writing and creativity I’ve ever read.)

Goldberg recommends writers commit to daily writing practice – a timed session of free writing every day. So I bought a few composition notebooks from Office Depot and found a good writing pen (the Pilot Precise V5, which writes like butter and doesn’t have the shorter ink supply I find in Sharpies), and now most days between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning I sit at my desk and write for 30 minutes about whatever is in my head. This is not profound writing, nor is it particularly good. In fact, a lot of it is whiny, self-indulgent and laughable. No one will see it, I think, other than me.

These writing notebooks came to mind recently as I listened to David Finkel speak at the Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University. Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and National Enterprise Editor of The Washington Post, wrote The Good Soldiers, a book about one of the first Army infantry units to be deployed to Iraq in 2007 as part of George W. Bush’s surge strategy. Finkel embedded with the soldiers in Baghdad for several months during their tour, and his award-winning book is an honest, painful and accurate portrayal of modern war.

During his tour, Finkel recorded everything in reporter’s notebooks, transcribing interviews, recording dialogue, and writing descriptions of rooms, places, clothing, colors, smells – any detail he could remember that might be useful to the story later. He filled dozens of them, but when he returned home and began to write his book, he knew how to handle the volume of information he’d collected.

“I’m a methodical reporter, so I indexed every notebook before I even started writing,” he said.

In the index, Finkel carefully listed every scene, character and detail so that he could find and refer to the information more easily as he wrote the book. The indexes helped him to link the narrative and expand a story that covered 15 months; without them, Finkel said, he wouldn’t have been able to write the book the way he wanted.

I don’t dare to compare my writing notebooks to Finkel’s reporting volumes, but the idea of indexing these journals was an a-ha moment. So I started with my first month’s writing, and grabbing a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, read and recorded topics, characters and ideas. I found that in September, for example, I’d spent a lot of time describing what was outside my window, so I wrote the heading “OTW” and listed page numbers. I did the same thing in October, so it too has an OTW listing. Reading through the notebooks I rediscovered character sketches, remembered ideas from a seminar I’d attended, recalled the name of a photographer whose work reminded me of my novel, and found a lot of prompts that I either finished or didn’t. I even wrote about dreams I’d had that I hope no one reads, for several reasons. (Ha!)

The process of indexing this free writing serves two purposes: It helps to corral information and herd stray thoughts; and it offers easier access to ideas that on days when the writing’s going slowly, or the next project isn’t forthcoming, might hopefully inspire the muse. Indexing is worth doing for those reasons alone, which is something I’m sure Natalie Goldberg would appreciate.