When writers aren't despairing at the state of publishing, they focus on the diminishing numbers of readers actually willing to pick up a book.
While technology makes it easier than ever to get a book into print, getting it in people's hands and getting them to sit still to read is harder than ever. One solution is to follow readers into their burrows, which are increasingly places like Facebook and other social media.
We may not see them as sites for serious reading, but they are beehives of activity. If you tried to write on Facebook, you'd have to write in short bits, not too demanding, and keep them pretty lively. It's less constricting than the 140 characters you're limited to on Twitter, but not much.
But when I started 2500 Random Things About Me Too (Les Figues, $15), I wasn't thinking of any of this.
I'd been sent a sort of chain letter that was going around on Facebook three years ago. In fact, I got it several times. The senders listed 25 random things about themselves, and then tagged 25 friends, including me.
After we read it, we were supposed to write our own list and tag 25 more people, etc. -- sort of a Ponzi scheme. I got at least nine lists, each one quirky, unique, and ultimately kind of predictable. They made me grumpy. It felt like false chumminess, a spiral of staged intimacy. Everyone is desperate to be unique, everyone wants to be clever, and everyone longs to be understood.
After I ignored the ninth random list, I decided to write my own. It took a while, but it was kind of fun. So I wrote another one, and then another, and I started to like it. The format suited my own increasingly short attention span, and my fear that no one would bother to read what I wrote unless I kept it short and snappy. I also felt like I could say anything. Who would remember? Facebook itself is pretty random, after all.
I gave myself a couple of constraints right away: The list had to be composed that day, on the spot, usually as I was online on Facebook. My goal was to be random and never repeat myself, but I also decided that I'd never re-read an old list. At first I sat by my laptop and waited for things to pop up, but after two days I started keeping a piece of paper with me and making "random" notes. What if I came up with more than 25 things that day -- did I have to dump the extras? That seemed pointless, so I started a little savings account of randomness.
The first thing anyone who's tried to be random can tell you is that it's not easy. As soon as you're focused on it, you're deliberate, not random. John Cage moved from rolling dice to getting programmers to generate random sequences for him. But since these were all things about me, I had no one to turn to. I liked jumping around and being brief, but I also like being thorough. Some random things take a little time to explain. Without reading back, I could never be sure what I said before, so all I could do is move on.
Friends started commenting on my lists right away. They picked favorite items, or tossed back their own memories connected to things like their sick pets or the Golden Gate Bridge. Mostly when you write something you never hear a word about it until long after, but I started getting feedback immediately. First from people who were tagged, and then those who weren't. Sometimes a regular conversation, and sometimes their comments got incorporated into the following day's list. The thing about being random is that anything goes, right?
It's exciting to get daily feedback, but the truly revolutionary thing was that the lists slowly became an extended conversation. While all writing could be said to be in conversation with the writer, this was also in conversation with the reader. And just like each writer is different, so is each reader.
Writers always know this in a general way, but this case was specific. Not all the conversations were easy. My dog had cancer and people flooded me with advice. A college friend with breast cancer started tracking my dog's progress as it came out on my lists. She took everything I said about cancer more and more personally; her emails became sermons on illness, death and hope.
Coming up with 25 things about me every day got harder, so other people's things came into play. My mother's things, and things about my mother seemed never to go away. All my memories, my dog, my friends, my job, and what I was reading, of course. But other people increasingly came into play. Even without my interlocutors, the people around me are never far from my thoughts. My follow-up project could be to write 2500 Random Things About You.
While I was writing these daily lists, I did not think I was writing a book. This was liberating, because I didn't have to think beyond that day's list. I didn't want to sit at a computer all day, so I scribbled notes during the day when things occurred to me. I loved carrying these scraps of paper. Once I was so engrossed I carried it into the sauna at my gym, and only stopped writing when the pen overheated and exploded.
In that sense, writing it was no different than it would have been in the days of papyrus. Other things happened as well: patterns started appearing, and even plots. Overall the lists became more narrative. Stories slowly emerged.
Halfway through it became clear that my dog Peggy was dying, and I began to wonder if her death would dovetail with the end of the project. By the ten year anniversary of my mother's death I was about two-thirds though it. Like lives, all stories have beginnings and ends.
My dog did die at the end, and what first appeared to be random all came to a close on the final list.
Excerpt from 2500 Random Things About You.
1. The most beautiful man I ever saw was Adriano Pedrosa. I mean the most beautiful man I talked to, who was actually talking to me.
2. Or David Burns. His beauty was not just in how he looked, but how he looked at you.
3. Every most beautiful person you see is the most beautiful person you see.
4. In the same manner I still love all the people I loved once, and all in the same way as I did then.
5. The first time I saw Kathy Acker after she had her mastectomy, she lifted up her shirt to show me her scars.
6. I have nothing to say now.
7. When I feel this, I think of being in psychoanalysis for two years. There's no such thing as nothing there. Nothing means something.
8. There's always something behind nothing. Resistance, or flows.
9. If I tell you things about me, you will be able to control me.
10. I saw Christo's umbrellas the day before one blew over and killed a woman, and they shut them down permanently.
11. I thought I'd hate the umbrellas, but I ended up liking them.
12. What kept me from getting onto Freud's couch in his museum in London was not knowing if I wanted to face out on it or dive in head first.
13. In other words, should the good doctor solve the problems in my heart or in my head?
14. It's a truism that the world rewards writers who work in a consistent style and with consistent content over a long period.
15. I am constitutionally incapable of doing this.
16. For most of my life, I've had trouble just completing an internally consistent long project.
17. Sometimes I see people I know on gay cruising sites online.
18. I like the word content, how it means two things, at least. Happy or full of substance.
19. Maybe there's a link: to be happy you need to be filled with something. Not empty.
20. One of the first places I was published was in an anthology called Discontents, edited by Dennis Cooper. That's not really a word but you get it: dissent, dissident, malcontents.
21. I would torture my brother by spreading out all the blankets on top of each other and then making him lie down on them. I'd roll him back and forth until he was wrapped thick inside them. Then I'd take two belts and tie him around the arms and the feet and leave him lying there.
22. I think the piece I wrote for Discontents was actually some kind of list.
23. Writing random things for so many days every day is similar to being in analysis. All your life in fragments, parts relating to wholes.
24. I am so sick of talking about myself.
25. You start to see how writing is an empty exercise in pushing around pieces to look like a whole thing.