I’ve been trying to think of something – anything – in recent years that has had a bigger effect on the working day of the average writer than Twitter. And I can’t.
Writing, for just about everyone who does it professionally, is the act of minimising your number of excuses for not writing. Nigel Farndale’s recent piece in the magazine addressed the problem of views; Julian Barnes, for instance, can only work if he’s facing the blank wall of his study. It reminded me of David Niven, who saw a plane flying over as ‘a bonanza – I’ll watch that for hours’. Eventually he had to retreat to a chair facing into the right-angle of a hedge in his garden: ‘I can’t even see the sky.’
You’ll notice, though, that I put ‘minimising’. Not many writers I know want to eliminate distractions entirely. You need a short break every so often, somewhere you can hop off to in order to recharge the brain’s battery. But not something that will keep you away from the coal-face for too long. This is where Twitter scores so heavily. You can click over from the Word document to your web-browser, scroll through the last few tweets that have appeared in your timeline, enjoy the mental stimulation they offer, then return to work refreshed. It’s absolutely what Twitter is there for. As Stephen Fry points out, the name was chosen for a reason: the site isn’t called ‘Earnest Debate’.
Not even the arrival of the internet itself brought such a change to writers’ working environments. In the early days dial-up was too slow to give a speedy diversionary hit. (Did you read that it was finally switched off this week? I experienced the same sadness you get at the death of an ancient Hollywood star who you assumed had kicked the bucket years ago.) Then along came Facebook, but I’ve never trusted that – too many friends (writers among them) have warned of its power to drag you in, eat up entire mornings. There are blogs and news sites to read, but you have to keep refreshing them on the off-chance they’ve been updated. No, it’s only Twitter that provides a guaranteed and constant source of newness to freshen your neural pathways. It’s the cerebral equivalent of those hot towels you get at the end of meals in Indian restaurants.
The historian Lucy Inglis, whose book Georgian London: Into the Streets was published last week, is another fan. ‘I can’t imagine life without Twitter now,’ she tells me. ‘You hear people like Jonathan Franzen saying he has to write in longhand, away from the computer so he doesn’t get distracted, but I’m the complete opposite. We’re so used to input in the internet age – I really need it when I’m working. Input really helps.’
She tells me this in person, by the way. I’ve followed Lucy since I jumped aboard Twitter a couple of years ago. I’d recently published a book about London, so started following capital-connected tweeters. Curious to see how someone’s online persona compares to their personality in real life (what net-heads call ‘meat space’), I asked Lucy if she’d like to meet up to discuss the subject of this blog post. Reassuringly the 30-something Lincolnshire-born London-dweller is much more nuanced, down-to-earth, unsure of herself and generally normal than her witty, waspish tweets would have you believe. But then I was sure she would be. That’s part of the deal with Twitter; you know that real conversations and real people aren’t like this. Life would be hell if they were. It would be like every person you ever met being Truman Capote.
‘Twitter is a great way of feeling connected with the world,’ says Lucy. ‘I joined it because my husband and I had just moved to a new flat, I didn’t know any of our neighbours, and working on my own at home I wanted the water-cooler experience. Now I get all my news from Twitter, all my tips on which books to read … everything.’ Like just about every writer she’s a reader, a voracious one, always in search of new fodder. ‘I get that from my dad. My mum always said she could never let him light the fire, because instead of twisting the newspaper up and burning it he’d sit there reading it. I did actually once see him reading the phone book.’
Lucy and I, then, have a similar ‘consumer’ experience of Twitter. Where we differ is in our role as purveyors. At the time of writing, I have posted 2,104 tweets. Lucy has posted 57,801. I tend to stick to work mode (trivia facts from my books, largely), while Lucy is Queen of the Everyday, the glimpses into domestic life you hear about before you join Twitter and wonder ‘why would anyone want to read that?’ Then you do join it and realise that, yes, a lot of dull people list what they had for breakfast and which Daft Punk songs they like/dislike – so you just don’t follow them. You stick to people like Lucy who are very funny. For instance: ‘If anyone knows how to set up a satellite box I'll be under the bed crying.’ Or: ‘Lady on the bus on page twelve of the Da Vinci Code. Do I stage an intervention?’ As for what Lucy would like to do given some quality time with Stuart Broad, I’ll let you investigate that for yourselves.
But it’s not just the ‘letting off steam’ aspect that Lucy values. As with text messages before them, tweets, with their 140-character limit, are a constant reminder that the best writing is usually the simplest. ‘If ever I’m stuck on something I’ll think “how would I tweet it?” Of course you don’t limit yourself to that number of characters in a book – that’s not what books are about. But as an initial way of focussing on what you’re really trying to say, it’s great. Conciseness can help you develop your voice.’
Let me leave you with what Twitter has taught me in the time it took to write this. Deborah Ross’s father misheard her saying she’d bought ‘a pair of shoes’ and thought she’d bought a parachute … Middlesex’s Ollie Rayner took eight Surrey wickets and caught the other two … and Jack Nicholson has retired from acting because his memory’s going. You don’t get that sort of information staring at a garden hedge.
Mark Mason tweets @walkthelinesldn and Lucy Inglis tweets @lucyinglis