How to Use Twitter to Tell a Story

By the time I read “How to Use Twitter to Publicly Humiliate an Attempted Adulterer” yesterday afternoon, the essay was already on its way to becoming the latest internet meme. Of course, I’m using the term “essay” loosely. More than anything, it’s a series of tweets strung together to tell the story of one woman’s encounter with a would-be adulterer. Yet over the course of 20 tweets, the woman in question, Melissa Stetten, gives us a complete (if somewhat tragic and embarrassing) narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

What’s more, this brief narrative makes good use of Twitter’s unique format and takes full advantage of the application’s peculiarities. In short, it’s a piece written with both a particular medium and audience in mind: by playing to Twitter’s strengths, Stetten has written what is arguably the perfect Twitter narrative. By way of contrast, Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” which appears in the current issue of The New Yorker and which was tweeted with some degree of fanfare last week, is not.

This isn’t to say that Egan’s story is bad — not by any stretch of the imagination. “Black Box” is a highly engaging page-turner that does everything a good story should do. It gives us well-developed characters, creates a believable world, sets up tension, and resolves that tension in a satisfying way. Even on my best days, I wish I could write half as well Egan. My concern, however, is with the story’s form. Specifically, why was it tweeted? And why was the print version of the story made to look like a series of tweets — or cookie fortunes, depending on your point of reference?

With respect to the first question, I’m guessing it had something to do with the fact that this was the magazine’s special science-fiction edition, and what could be more sci-fi, more forward-looking and futuristic than telling a story via a medium that’s been around since 2006? Additionally, Egan is well-known for experimenting with different media to tell stories. One of the most memorable and moving chapters in A Visit from the Goon Squad, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” is written as a PowerPoint presentation, so conveying “Black Box” as a series of tweets probably seemed like a natural fit.

The problem, however, is that when Egan gave us a story in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, she took full advantage of PowerPoint’s unique qualities. Not only did she give us very few words per page, but she also gave us flow charts, graphs, blank pages, Venn diagrams, and other graphic representations of the narrator’s thoughts. That is, she pushed the PowerPoint format to its limits and created something new. She gave us art. “Black Box,” on the other hand, does none of these things, nor does it play with our understanding of how Twitter works or what it can do. In effect, it’s a PowerPoint presentation consisting only of text, a series of declarative sentences meant to be read in a particular order.

That is, it’s a traditional story.

That happens to be broken up.

Into short bursts.

To no apparent purpose.

Stetten’s tweeted narrative, however, offers more than a series of sentences, each of which is under 140 characters in length. Instead, it plays the same kinds of games that Egan’s “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” played. It gives us pictures and allows them to do some of the storytelling (as opposed to simply illustrating points). It offers links. It provides an IMDB bio and a revealing interview with the would-be adulterer. It also implies a degree of interaction between Stetten and her followers, as one tweet includes a response: “Yes, this is BRIAN!”

As readers — specifically as an audience steeped in the habit of reading tweets — we know how to fill in the blanks and figure out what’s going on in this short, sad narrative. In fact, we revel in it. Just as “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” was a joy to read because it forced us to gain our bearings and piece the narrative together little by little, Stetten’s narrative also engages by making us think not just about what we’re reading but, at some level, how we’re reading.

And this is where “Black Box” fails.

Of Possible Interest

First, big thanks to Lavinia Ludlow for a lovely review of The Grievers in The Nervous BreakdownLudlow writes, among other things, “Schuster has an amazing sophomore novel on his hands. His writing has matured; he’s fine-tuned his approach and can effectively drive a story from start to finish with subtle tactics and engaging characterizations.”

Also, the latest edition of Shelf Unbound magazine is out. It’s their summer reading issue, so if you’re looking for a good beach book, check it out! As always, the publication is free. My reviews of Max Barry’s Machine Man, Derek Owens’ Memory’s Wake and Tom Williams’ The Mimic’s Own Voice appear in this issue.

And a couple of things I’m looking forward to: I have an essay on writing and friendship appearing in Writing from the Inside Out, the journal of the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking. I also have a short piece appearing in the October issue of The Writer. Links to follow if and when they become available!

Putting One Word After Another: An Interview with Joseph M. Schuster

Not too long ago, I mentioned that I stumbled upon a book by another SchusterThe Might Have Been by Joseph M. Schuster. Given the coincidence of our last names, idle curiosity drove me to read it. Once I picked it up, however, Schuster’s writing wouldn’t let me put the book down. Touching on baseball, life, dreams, disappointment, hope, tenacity, and the passage of time, The Might Have Been is the perfect summer read.

Almost immediately after I finished reading his novel, I had to drop the author a line to ask a few questions about the writing process — and he got back to me almost immediately. So he’s not just a great writer, but he’s also a hell of a guy. Must be something about the name!

Can you tell us a little bit about your novel and what inspired it?

The Might Have Been is about a character named Edward Everett Yates who, as the novel opens, is just getting the word that he’s been promoted to the major leagues, specifically to the St. Louis Cardinals, after ten years of bouncing around in the minors. Three weeks later, however, he suffers a devastating knee injury in a game, ending his season and the Cardinals release him. For a while he tries to live outside baseball but can’t let the game go and so he ends up back in it, in the minors again – and then, suddenly, it’s thirty years later and he’s still stuck in the low minors, managing a broken down team.

The novel started one day when I sat down to write after a sentence occurred to me that went something like, “The best summer of his life, he was twenty-four.” I don’t know where the sentence came from, but I thought that seemed a little sad – to have the best year of your life when you’re twenty-four would suggest your life didn’t go as you might have liked. (In revision, my character became 27.) I wondered, what kind of person might have such a life and I thought, well, an athlete. And since baseball is the sport I know best, he became a ballplayer in the second sentence.

For a long time, I’ve been fascinated with so-called cup-of-coffee players – ballplayers who get to the major leagues but stick it out for only a few games or a couple of weeks and then are gone – long enough for a metaphorical cup of coffee. To even reach the major leagues means that a player is amazing. I once read that only one out of every ten men who play minor league ball ever get to the major leagues, even for an inning. And the idea that someone would be that good but not be able to stick, just seems sad to me.

I have interviewed and written about quite a few ballplayers who are like that and so my main character is not so much based on any one of them but is an expression of my ideas of the lives that some of those players have had.

One player who struck me in particular was a guy named Glenn Gardner, who pitched in 17 games for the Cardinals in 1945, when he was 29, and then was back in the minor leagues the next season. He stuck it out in the minors for some years after that, ending up as a player-manager in a class-C team in the 1950s before he gave up baseball. He later became a bartender and he died in his 40s of cirrhosis. A few years ago, I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown and spent a couple of days in their library, researching players like Gardner, and came across a letter his widow had written to a researcher back in the 1960s, after Gardner died. The researcher had contacted her to check on some facts about Gardner and in her reply, she asked if the Hall of Fame had any money for widows of former baseball players. She added, “which I could certainly use.” That letter opened up a world to me, a world of the consequences of the decisions we make when we’re younger and that affect our lives and the lives of others for years and decades later.

The Might Have Been begins in 1976 and takes readers to the present day. With such a sweeping timeline, was it difficult to decide what to leave in the narrative and what to take out? How did you decide? Did you leave anything on the cutting room floor, as it were?

I am a terribly sloppy writer when I am working on my first draft. I generally have no idea where I am going and so end up writing a lot that gets cut. To produce the 500-page finished first draft of the novel, something with a narrative that at least passes for coherent, I wrote probably 1,000 pages. For example, at one point, I wrote a fifty- sixty-page section that was about Edward Everett’s mother going to New York City to try to be a singer after she graduates from high school during the early 1940s. Before I decided that it would be about a character who could never get out of baseball, Edward Everett  was a sports editor for a weekly “throwaway.” I wrote I don’t know how many pages about a relationship that his mother had with the man who used to be their parish pastor but who left the priesthood after he fell in love with Edward Everett’s mother after she was widowed.

Getting from that very messy first draft to the finished novel took nine years and nine drafts – and I was making some pretty significant changes even in that ninth draft.

Baseball breaks the heart of your protagonist, Edward Everett Yates, on many occasions, yet he sticks with it. As I read the novel, I kept thinking about all of the writers I know, and how our dogged pursuit writing involves similar instances of heartbreak. Do you see a parallel between writing and baseball?

I see a parallel between baseball and pretty much everything we do in life but, yes, I see a parallel between writing and baseball. For a while, I tried to keep a blog (I stopped because I didn’t have the time to post regularly). I called it “Writing is Damn Hard” and it consists of entries about writing and many of them use some sort of analogy from sport; one specifically looks at baseball: The Eric Bruntlet School of Writing.

More than any other major sport, baseball mirrors life, since there are games every day in season, instead of only on Sunday or only a couple of days a week. Baseball, therefore, is a sport in which just showing up seems all the more important. Every time I go to a ballgame, I buy a scorecard and keep score, batter by batter, inning by inning, and one of the things that strikes me about those scorecards are all of the 4-3 or 6-3 ground outs – ground ball to second or shortstop. That’s how teams win ballgames – not so much by the plays that end up on the MLB Network or ESPN highlight shows – those are great and those are dramatic and they do influence a game – but more often, it’s just a shortstop or a second baseman just doing what he’s done a thousand times before – fielding the ground ball and throwing to first – that wins ballgames. And, as writers, that’s how we get our work done: showing up, putting one word after another after another, day after day after day.

Along similar lines, I was wondering if there´s any extent to which your own experiences as a writer—hopes, fears, heartbreaks, successes—informed your sense of Edward Everett´s emotional compass.

Honestly, yes, very much so. I’m older than the large majority of people who publish their first novel – I am a bit younger than Edward Everett, but not by too many years. That means that I am very much aware of choices I’ve made in my life and that my life is whatever it is because of those choices and because of chance and accident. I happen to like my life, even though it’s different than I imagined it would be when I was 18, but I have seen far too many people who are my age or a bit older who are unhappy, full of regret, and even bitter about how their lives have turned out. I remember a few years ago I was in the locker room for the gym at the school where I teach, changing to do a workout. I ran into a colleague who was in his late 60s or maybe he was even 70 and he was retiring that year after thirty-something years on the faculty. I didn’t know him well – we were friendly but certainly not friends; we’d probably never had a conversation that was more than a few sentences and most of our encounters were the polite, “Hi, how are you” variety. So it surprised me when he looked up to see me coming into the locker room, where he was changing after doing his own workout, sat down on the bench, shook his head, and said, “I never meant to stay here this long. I thought I’d be here for two years and then move on somewhere else.” His Ph.D. was from an Ivy League school and Webster University is a good school but it’s not an Ivy League institution.

The fact that we didn’t have the sort of relationship in which he’d ordinarily admit something like that to me suggested even more the depth of his regret. And, while my novel is about a baseball player, it’s just as much about that moment that many people have when they reach a certain point in life and think about where they were when they were young, what they wanted, and how things have turned out.

At one point, my novel makes a 30-year leap, between the end of one section and the beginning of the next, and I did that for a reason – the fact that on one page it’s 1977 and on the next it’s 2009 – to capture that feeling that many people have of shock when they realize that suddenly thirty years have passed and this is where they are, whether it was how they intended to be on the front side of those thirty years.

Edward Everett´s vast body of experience—at one point he calculates that he´s logged over 10,000 hours of game time-allows him to serve as an effective mentor for many young ball players. Do you have any advice for writers who are just venturing into the writing game?

At one point in my novel, I talk a little bit about cliches that baseball players use when sportswriters interview them – you play them one game at a time; if you have a bad game, you have to leave it behind and not let it affect your next game, etc. – and Edward

Everett thinks about how his players have to learn that the reason the cliches are the cliches is that there is truth in them – that there’s a reason cliches become cliches.

I believe that, though I don’t want to suggest we should write in cliches, and so what I am going to say may sound as if I am only spouting what other people have said but I really do believe these things:

1. Show up every day, sit down to write and keep your butt in the chair. Set a quota for yourself and work until you meet it. For most of the time I was writing my novel, I had a quota of 1,500 words a day and I wasn’t allowed to stop writing until I reached 1,500 words. On some days, that was a couple of hours and on others, it was seven or eight or ten hours. But you can’t finish anything if you don’t sit down and if you don’t keep working.

2. Write what moves you, write stories that you think are important or that you think are interesting. It’s hard enough to write and you have no guarantee that anyone will publish what you write and so if you’re not enjoying it or if you’re not finding it worthwhile, what’s the point?

3. Write not knowing where you’re going. I find that if I know exactly where I want to end up when I write my first sentence, what I write will be dead dead dead. If I am not discovering something as I go, it won’t go very far and it won’t be interesting to the reader.

4. Write more and submit less and revise revise revise. I know it’s wonderful to publish something but I think too many writers send out their work before it’s as good as they can make it. This is particularly true if you’re working on a book. It’s hard to write a novel and so it doesn’t make sense not to make it as good as you possibly can. It’s also harder to sell a novel and so even for commercial reasons it doesn’t make sense not to make a novel as good as you can make it before you try to send it out. If you send out a manuscript before it’s polished, you end up closing doors, rather than opening them. If you send a manuscript to an agent or an editor before it’s ready, and they say “no,” you can’t contact them six months later and say, “Do you remember that novel you rejected back in May? Well, it’s better now.” They’re not going to be willing to read it.