Yesterday I posted my fourth work of fiction for this residency, a short story called Overheard. I posted it over the course of about 20 minutes on my Twitter feed, and I didn’t write a word of it – it’s entirely composed of retweets of lines other people have eavesdropped and shared using the #overheard hashtag.
Making this story was a lot of fun. My initial idea, which came out of planning for this residency, was to write a story using only lines of overheard dialogue which I collected myself in the streets of Adelaide. I’m still working on that one, but I haven’t found its bone structure yet. During the process I started to think about the impulse to tweet these lines, and the way that people report on each other – sometimes snidely, often affectionately. Human beings are always watchful, wondering about each other.
Collecting snippets of dialogue on the #overheard hashtag was a matter of a lot of scrolling, favouriting those that interested me – a sort of scrapbook approach to storytelling. My initial list was about 50 tweets long. The narrative found its way to me through these, and I started to cut and paste, looking for connections between them. I ended up with 34. Storify was the perfect tool for this process – it was easy to drag and drop, like making a playlist. In fact, after a while the connections seemed to make themselves:
The process was quite similar to divination. Linking individual elements and ordering them into the shape I thought fitted was a mixture of instinct and pattern-seeking. It was just like finding the story in a Tarot spread. I’m particularly pleased with the ending, which returns the reader to the beginning in the way a short story often does, as well as referring neatly back to the medium in which it is told.
Putting “Overheard” together made me feel even more like a thief than writing usually does. I thought of Eliot’s much-paraphrased lines:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
All social media feels a little invasive, a little voyeuristic to me. It’s the flipside of the pleasure of being able to invent yourself, I guess: that sense of peering into other people’s lives without them necessarily knowing you’re watching. I like Twitter for the way it keeps that distance from the world, but also offers raw, real-time, intimate memoir: glimpses of the inner lives of others. By curating this story (it feels strange to say I’ve “written” it), I’ve converted that memoir into fiction – semi-biographical fiction about strangers I will never meet, twice removed from me, connected only by the scruffy thread of #overheard, and by the common pleasure human beings take in spying on each other.
I’m not sure what to make of the ethics of what I’ve done. Is it cruel? Is it cheating? Probably both. These are questions I ask myself when I base a story on something I’ve heard, or someone I’ve watched. All writers are spies and bowerbirds; it’s in our nature to pay attention. We’re here to cherry-pick the universe. Perhaps there’s something sinister in that. At the very least, I hope this twice-stolen story bends its salvaged parts into something different.