The problem of #amwriting

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on October 11, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

How social media ensures an author does everything but write

In sports, one set of people plays the game and another set commentates. The only exception to this rule is children. A 13-year-old batsman — let’s call him Monty — playing in his veranda, might say after hitting a boundary: “...and a glorious cover drive by Monty seals the win for India.”

Of late, it’s been bothering me that writers have started behaving like Monty. Check out the Twitter hashtag #amwriting. The literary world is now divided into two camps: Writers on social media and writers who are not. The former suffers from the Monty habit of providing a detailed account of their writing day.

The writing process means entering a bubble. At times, it means entering a swimming pool and remaining there for as long as you can. But #amwriting means that you jump out of the pool every four laps, take a selfie and post it. Then you jump back into the pool. After three laps, you emerge again and take another selfie. Can anyone swim like this?

Writers are meant to take us beyond the cliché. Twitter is full of writers who only perpetuate cliché; #amwriting is just one of them. There are similar hashtags: #writerslife, #writingcommunity, #amreading, #readingcommunity; more authors spewing Hallmark greeting card-type wisdom 24X7: ‘Stay strong’, ‘never give up’, ‘procrastination is natural’, ‘I was rejected a million times but now I sell a million copies’.

Authors on Twitter — while they are #amwriting in the course of the #amwriting day — find time to launch full-scale quizzes for fellow writers who are #amwriting. “Can writers only write well in one genre? Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why?” Board examination-type English composition questions enjoy great currency: “In six words or fewer, write a story about this photo”. The photo is usually of a pet. This means that you will be checking your phone for responses and responding to them with emoticons every few minutes. The same person will then duly announce that they’ve had the most productive writing day in the longest time. The productive #amwriting types are always transmitting their fecundity: “2000 words before lunch and 2000 after, wish every day was like this”. Drafts of poems appear on social media seconds after their birth, and final versions within 24 hours. Relax, it’s writing, not a hospital. What’s the hurry to get discharged so quickly?

Then there are those who, already swamped by advice from the virtual loudspeaker, seek more advice from the loudspeaker. “I’ve read so many different opinions on how long a synopsis should be and what should be included. What do you think?” And those with an altruistic heart: “Let’s help out #writers below 3000 followers! If that’s you, leave a comment and we’ll follow you! #amwriting #writinglife.”

A writer wakes up in the middle of the night to fix a sentence and immediately telecasts it to the world: #amupwriting. While doing so he checks the newsfeed, gets involved in a couple of debates, sends out some late-night ‘likes’, by which time he’s forgotten what he had woken up to write in the first place.

The late-night authors on American Twitter sip on Diet Mountain Dew and wonder: “If my best writing happens in the last 15 minutes, why am I getting up at 3 am? #5amwritersclub #amwriting.” Well, that’s because you are spending your waking hours on social media peering, shouting into a bottomless well and hearing your voice echo back.

Authors spend so much time broadcasting their process, I wonder how they focus. A writer is not an actor; one isn’t Alia Bhatt, who’ll have an interesting picture from her film shoot to share every day. Writers are shortlisted for a prize once in five years, they win a prize once in 10, they get an acceptance letter once in three, their novels are made into a Netflix series once in eight. On most days, you will be at your table writing. The excitement is in your head. It’s not a muhurat shot that can be shared. A screenshot of your work-in-progress is embarrassing. So is that photo of your writing desk.

At most, a writer only has about a thousand quality words inside her per day. When you get to your writing, your destination, having stopped at all the public houses along the way — Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp — and having spent all your words there, you are giving your own writing your exhausted vocabulary, your frittered, fraying focus.

Contrast this with Irwin Allan Sealy who, for years, only ever picked up his landline on the half hour: 5.30, 6.30 and so on. Few knew this secret. Often he didn’t follow his own rule and didn’t take calls at all. BSNL did the rest, the phone line being naturally dead for two weeks a month. Look what Sealy ended up with: The Trotternama (running into 600 pages), which will soon be out in a 30th anniversary edition from Penguin. Arun Kolatkar didn’t ever own a phone when he died in 2004.

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Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on October 11, 2019
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