Black Box — format shaping creative structure

Jennifer Egan Black Box manuscript

Jennifer Egan’s manuscript format provided structure for the story, Black Box. She used a Japanese notebook with 8 boxes per page, with a box for each 140-character tweet.

Jennifer Eagan’s Black Box story in the New Yorker, published as a “serial” on Twitter a couple of years ago, was fascinating and clever. The story structure and how it unfolded somewhat mysteriously in the tweets has stuck with me.

See this interview with her in New Yorker. Interesting to hear about her process, especially how the restrictions of form were a forcing factor for the quality of the creative work, an inseparable part of the inspiration and uniqueness of the story.

The idea of tweeting it predated the story, in the sense that although I have not been active on Twitter at all, as either a reader or a tweeter, I have been interested in it for quite a while. I love the thought of trying to use it as a delivery system for fiction, and I’m interested in the way that some nineteenth-century fiction was constructed around its serialization. So, the question was: what kind of story would need to be told in these very short bursts? … I wanted to try to write a spy story set in the future, and I was interested in telling a story in the form of a list. And, out of all that, I began to have a sense of a woman’s voice speaking in these short dispatches about her spying experience. As soon as I began hearing that voice, it was clear that this would be the piece that would be, in some way, disseminated over Twitter.

In the New Yorker blog:

This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters. I found myself imagining a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea. I wrote these bulletins by hand in a Japanese notebook that had eight rectangles on each page. The story was originally nearly twice its present length; it took me a year, on and off, to control and calibrate the material into what is now “Black Box.”

The form, delivering the story in bits, forced that year-long editing and culling that made the published story so intriguing. And the notebook she used to write reinforced the discrete bits, different than writing a story and then breaking up the text over a long series of tweets, which is done sometimes. Each box has to stand on it’s own, tightly and meaningfully develop the story, yet flow with a whole visible across the pages of boxes.

And it took a year to write the story in this tight format. There’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain—“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” This was actually said by Pascal, but true nonetheless. Getting creative work down to it’s simplest and best essence, whether it’s writing, media or design, is often the toughest part.

Beginning another blog

stairs-2756I’ve had a few WordPress blogs, a number of Tumblrs and a Blogger or two. I could never keep up the cadence of writing, or maybe the subject matter or original focus didn’t move along with me. This is a new beginning, felt like more fun than resurrecting an old site and picking up threads there.

Now: The ideas behind the practice of “working out loud” (from John Stepper) appeals to me—I’d like to try it on for size. Recently our group at work has started using 15five to pass on our thoughts on the week to managers. My reports have tended to be quite wordy, almost like working out loud, or perhaps thinking out loud about work. Lots of those notes could be shared more openly.

The image above: the stairs entering the David Bowie show at the Chicago Contemporary Art Museum in October, 2014. A fabulous immersive exhibit, lots of inspirations, one was a practice of taking snippets of text from many sources and making poetry or lyrics out of the combinations that arose.