When I started college in the early 2000s, late at night, as my will to finish another paragraph of Foucault evaporated, I signed onto LiveJournal, the blog host beloved by teenage girls. I trolled strangers’ “journals.” These weren’t blogs like this paper’s Company Town or Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish. They were, especially in the site’s early days, simply a glimpse into somebody’s real life, raw and vulnerable: fights with mothers, angst and awe at changing bodies, fantasies of R&B stardom, fears of moving through life unseen.
I could read those posts for hours, until the sun came up, the way some kids play video games. The writers just spoke — to friends, to strangers, and to the nebulous and thrilling sense of an audience somewhere out there. They were more transfixing than the Faulkner, T.S. Eliot and David Foster Wallace I had to read in my English courses.
But my habit embarrassed me. I worried that my freshman-year roommate, who used my computer occasionally, would find my favorite LiveJournals stored in my search history and wonder about my fetish. More than that, I was sure I was wasting time.
In journalism class, we did “real” writing: pieces that followed a set of instructions on how to build an argument and were composed on the formal blank white Word document page. On LiveJournal, the writers typed into a small blank box, a format that telegraphed speed and immediacy. Those “journalists” composed their stories like girls confess their dreams at a sleepover. I thought it was wrong — bad writing whose dirty charms I would, in time, outgrow.
But now I make a living writing, and I’ve learned the opposite is true. The longer I do this work, the more I do it like those teens did their LiveJournaling. I write first on Facebook. I’m writing this column in a Facebook status-update window.
It started a couple of years ago. I’d followed a boyfriend to Kenya. It was wondrous: the immense birds that clattered on our apartment roof, the drenching rains, the lulling tones of Swahili, the colors of women’s dresses, the not-quite-popcorn-like smell that wafted up from roasted-corn vendors. I wanted to tell people about it, but as a total greenhorn, I had no business trying to write authoritative journalism about East Africa. I just wanted to marvel, to bear witness. So I took to Facebook.
Soon I began to realize that my posts were more interesting than my “official” journalism. They were more direct, asked deeper questions. Out poured visceral, accessible scenes and snippets of overheard speech laced with speculation and curiosity, and addressed, in my imagination, to people I knew. The audience was exactly the right muse.
Before Gutenberg made us a people of print, literature was developed in public performance just as much as it was in private, by a solitary writer slaving over a page. “Hearing rather than sight ... dominated the older poetic world in significant ways,” Walter Ong, the scholar of literacy, has written. Homer and the classical Chinese poets refined their works in front of audiences. Even as we fell in love with print, much great writing was done at first as a kind of conversation between people, like the work fleshed out in Anais Nin’s letters to Henry Miller or the poet Rilke’s to the young Franz Kappus.
We’ve come to think that most of what happens on the Internet is tossed off, inchoate, pleasurable maybe but ultimately insignificant. We rarely imagine emails can be works of art, as we know handwritten letters can be. And Facebook? Just engagement announcements and pictures of desserts.
We’re missing a huge opportunity. These days, I adapt many of my short articles off of bits I’ve posted on Facebook after I get up in the night seized by the desire to discuss something with the discrete set of people I know will jump onto the comments board. These stories grow from the public intimacy of Facebook, and their wide-ranging and personal topic matter often surprises even me. I also write the first drafts of 7,000-word, heavily reported pieces in the cramped status-update window, though I don’t click “Post.” Writing in the status-update window loosens my writing and gives it an easy informality.
A mid-20th century poet once confessed he wrote all of his best poems on the back of scrap paper from his wife’s job as a typist, because anything he wrote on fresh paper suffered from the pressure to be good. The Facebook status-update window functions as a cross between the amphitheater and the piece of scrap paper. It returns writing to its essential purpose: not formally composed literary pyrotechnics but straight ahead, earthy communication.
Even if you’re not a professional writer, try it. You’ll be interested in the voice that emerges: The passions, the questions, are different from the ones you’d confess to a formal blank page.
Eve Fairbanks lives in Johannesburg and is at work on a book about South Africa.