At the risk of alienating my readers on Twitter—something I’m likely to be doing anyway—I’ve been playing an old Oulipo game with my tweets today: N+7. It’s quite simple: replace every noun in a text with the noun that follows it seven nouns later in the dictionary. The results are often nonsensical, occasionally revelatory, and always evocative.
I began by N+7ifying yesterday’s tweets in reverse chronological order (avoiding tweets with @ replies for some reason). A few tweets in, I switched over to N+7ifying my most popular tweets of the past few months, as measured by the number of retweets or replies the status update had. I’ve been doing this all day, and I’ve now got two dozen or so bizarre revisions of earlier tweets.
Why do this?
Isn’t the answer obvious?
I had nothing else to say.
You could call it boredom. Or more generously, writer’s block. Whatever you call it, this fact remains: when you have nothing left to say, artificial constraints and deterministic algorithms will give you something new to say. Boredom leads to constraints, which leads to creativity. This is the nature of play. This is the nature of language. This is the nature of meaning.
Magnetic Poetry image courtesy of Flickr user surrealmuse / Creative Commons License]
Over a period of a few days last week I posted a series of updates onto Twitter that, taken together, added up to less than twenty words. I dragged out across fourteen tweets what could easily fit within one. And instead of text alone, I relied on a combination words and images. I’m calling this elongated, distributed form of social media artisanal tweeting. Maybe you could call it slow tweeting. I think some of my readers simply called it frustrating or even worthless.
If you missed the original sequence of updates as they unfolded online, you can approximate the experience in this thinly annotated chronological trail.
I’m not yet ready to discuss the layers of meaning I was attempting to evoke, but I am ready to piece the whole thing together—which, as befits my theme, actually destroys much of the original meaning. Nonetheless, here it is:
We hereby declare that the 20th century was the century of speed, of swiftness, of get your booty on and move. We likewise hereby declare that the first decade of the 21st century was also 1/10 a century of speed, of swiftness, of get your booty on and move. We furthermore hereby likewise declare, having will had written this in the year 2013, that the first year of the second decade of the 21st century was 1/100 of a century of speed, of swiftness, of get your booty on and move.
Therefore, we declare, in manifesto form, a movement against speed and swiftness. Let the adjectival form of this movement be known as SLOW. In observance of the fact that other movements have already rushed to claim this adjective SLOW—to wit, slow food, slow reading, slow information, slow media—and in observance of the fact that in their haste to claim this adjective these supposed movements have proven themselves to be anything but slow, let this manifesto henceforth be The One True Manifesto of the Slow.
Moreover, given what will turn out in 2097 to be the long history of these failed movements, let us declare that up to and including now, these various slow movements have missed the point of slowness. The value of slowness, of deliberation, of reflection, of listless contemplation and purposeless reverie, lies not in preparing meals more slowly, not in reading more slowly, not in consuming more slowly media designed to be consumed more slowly. The one true aim of slowness is to write more slowly. This nearly unachievable goal, the pursuit of which is made all the more worthwhile for its elusiveness, is the goal of Slow Writing.
SLOW IS THE OPPOSITE OF LESS SLOW
We, the manifestoers, have studied this issue for years and have conclusively proven, though not without some pause, that slow writing is the opposite of less slow writing. As the world is full of less slow writing, produced at a frenzied pace by writers who write less slowly, we take it as a challenge to write slow and to write slowly. Slow writing is writing that is savored for every letter written, every word produced. Slow writing requires sustained moments of stillness, of nothingness, of blank stares out the window. To do anything more would be to taint the trickling stream of text that defines slow writing.
SLOW IS AN ANAGRAM FOR SLOW SPELLED BACKWARDS
The ineffable quintessential fifth essence of slow writing occurs at the level of the letter. Slow writing is the alphabet in ecstasy. To write an entire word at a time is a crime. To write an entire paragraph at once is textual genocide, an annihilation of the single, of the one, of the unique letter. When one writes slowly, one nurtures. When one writes less slowly, one brings death and despair.
Now is the time to decide whether you are a creator or a destroyer.
SLOW IS INFINITELY DIVISIBLE
A speed such as slow is always divisible by half, and every half is divisible again by half. Those who write slowly must now write twice as slowly and half as fast. If you halve your writing speed you need only to halve it once again to be halfway to writing an eighth less fast. The divide between the halves and halves not is the divide between the acutely slow and the chronically prolific. It is the divide between slow writing savored for every word yet unpenned and fast writing spewed on a screen in the face of a deadline. Let it be said, what everyone knows is true, that the world despises the prolific, while the slow will inherit the keys to the kingdom of the Alpha and the Omega and all the letters in between.
SLOW IS THE ENGINE OF LESS (WHICH IS MORE)
The great Byzantine historian Sokrates Scholastikos tells the story of the Greek monk Demosthenes the Silent, who spent seven epic decades toiling on the island of Leros, researching the greatest treatise never written on the element of æther. For years Demosthenes the Silent observed and tested the essential attributes of æther, identifying in the end 1024 qualities, which he arranged and categorized on an elaborate 32×32 table. The Greek monk was absolutely correct about 1023 of these attributes, only being mistaken about the final characteristic, which was his proposition that words themselves could be written in æther. Steadfast in his faith in science, Demosthenes put the 1024th attribute to test by composing his elaborate table about æther, of which there is no surviving copy, on æther itself.
In the 21st century this tale races ahead of us, a herald announcing the folly of racing ahead. Seven epic decades Demosthenes spent but seven more would have served him well. Beware the 1024th attribute of anything. Beware of finishing anything to completion. Celebrate the beginning and the middle but never the end. Compose quickly and you may find like Demosthenes you have composed nothing at all. Compose slowly in order to compose less than this nothing.
SLOW IS THE FUTURE
This One True Manifesto of the Slow, written in the century of speed and swiftness and get your booty on and move, is itself a product of a slowness that has neared to stillness. Years it has taken to write. Only in the year 2013 will it have had been finished. And only in the year 2097 will traversal across past and present have been perfected, allowing Time Couriers to deliver this message to you, now, just shy of the first year of the second decade of the 21st century. Read it and heed it well. We who must write must write slowly in order to write at all. The present is littered with the brittle letters of those who have finished their writing, those who have had their say, those who have written less slowly. The future meanwhile belongs to those of us who have not finished what we have started. Our time has not yet come, because our words have not yet come.
I must be desperate for content. I spent some time last week fulfilling my “25 Random Things” Facebook viral meme obligations. I am reposting that list here, for the benefit of those three readers of mine who are not yet on Facebook. And to make it look like I’ve written twice as much as I really have.
25 Random Things about Me (Breakfast Edition)
1. I once covered an entire wall of my apartment with hundreds of empty cereal boxes. This was before my town had recycling and I was sick of throwing away all those cardboard boxes (roughly four a week). So I built a wall. I like to think it was strong enough to keep out even the Kool-Aid Man (who, I should remind readers, was not a man at all).
2. I used to live near a General Mills Cheerios factory. Cheerios taste better than the factory smell would lead you to believe.
3. I’ve always felt that I had a special connection with Bob Evans, the man. The origins of this connection are hazy, but it must have something to do with my grandmother and scrapple.
4. Studying abroad in Russia, I had cold pickled fish for breakfast every day for four weeks. It was the USSR back then and I felt that I was somehow doing my part to maintain Soviet austerity. Many of my fellow Americans skipped out on breakfast, instead waiting hours in line at the single McDonald’s in Moscow to stock up on bagfuls of Big Macs, which they would then parcel out, cold and soggy, over the space of several days.
5. My brothers and I rarely had any kind of sweetened cereal. But every once in a while, Lucky Charms would magically be there in the pantry. I wonder now what were those special occasions that prompted my parents to buy them.
6. I find it strangely comforting that the bits of fruit in any flavor of Quaker Instant Oatmeal are apple. Apples & Cinnamon, of course. But also Peaches & Cream, Strawberries & Cream — they’re all pieces of apple. It reminds me of the 11″ GI Joes, all made from the same mold with simply different configurations of facial hair and scars.
7. I will burn my passport the day that there are more Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in Spain than churrerías. Why bother traveling at all anymore?
8. I can’t eat quiche lorraine without thinking of Uriah Heep’s 1972 classic “Sweet Lorraine.” And then I think of their ode to Arthurian legend, “The Wizard.” Then I think of Gandalf. Which makes me think of Sir Ian McKellan. After that, the links in the chain grow fuzzy, but somehow I end up thinking about Chuck E. Cheese’s hound dog friend, Jasper T. Jowls.
9. Bagels did not exist in northeastern Ohio when I was growing up. I had never even heard the word until college. And lox? Forget about it. As far as I knew, that was some strange Dr. Suess beast.
10. I often wonder what Bigfoot eats for breakfast. Does the Missing Link understand the concept of brunch?
11. The latest (or depending where you stand, earliest) that I’ve ever been at an IHOP is 3:37am.
12. My in-depth qualitative research has proven that the best diners in America are to be found in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. They serve breakfast 24/7 and they usually have “Star” in their name.
13. I have a can of Spam from 1987. While technically this should go in the Meat Edition of 25 Random Things about Me, I must point out that I often ate fried Spam for breakfast in the eighties.
14. I once broke into a friend’s dorm room and removed all the marshmallows from his Lucky Charms, one marshmallow at a time. He had his revenge by clipping my car’s brake cable. Ironically I crashed into a Perkins.
15. You will never convince me that there is not a food in this world that cannot be made better with a generous sprinkling of Betty Crocker Baco’s brand bacon bits.
16. Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a Russian bear and have their heads crushed like rotten apples! You may as well say, that’s a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.
17. 17, for the number of times in my life I have poured orange juice into my cereal bowl.
18. When I was nine I once at a dozen donuts in one setting. I’m not talking tiny donuts or donut holes. I’m talking big mothereffing donuts, with frosting and filling and glaze and sprinkles.
19. In grade school, when the Mikey-from-Life-commercials-died-of-exploding-Pop-Rocks rumor raced around the school, I punched my neighbor in the stomach just because.
20. My favourite Pink Floyd song is “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” from the album Atom Heart Mother. It should be your favourite Pink Floyd song too. Interestingly enough, this song was the first of Pink Floyd’s famous breakfast trilogy cycle, the second and third parts being “Have a Cigar” and “Young Lust.”
21. An old roommate, Matt Federer, taught me to use blueberry muffin mix as pancake batter. Because of this, Matt later went on to win $30 million in the Ohio Lottery.
22. I feel sad that my cats eat the same food in the morning that they eat every other hour of the day. Yet I would happily eat breakfast myself for every meal. This is called Cultural Relativism. Or American Exceptionalism. I forget which.
23. After my first communion, I was deathly afraid for several years that I would accidentally break the no-food-one-hour-before-Eucharist decree. Jesus, I was told, likes to have my belly all to himself.
24. In the summer of 2000 I drove from Philadelphia to the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina, hot on the trail of the fugitive bomber Eric Rudolph. For three days I camped in the same forest as Rudolph and ate baked beans cold from a can for breakfast.
25. No other meal comes close to the sheer variety of two-dimensional foods that breakfast affords: pancakes, Pop Tarts, sausage patties, French toast. All food that can be mailed in a flat envelope, should the need arise.
The train. Unapologetically steel. Irresistible momentum. And the joy of discovering the red brake handle, knowing I can pull, and the train becomes my limb, my extension, which I control.
Overriding engineers, coffee splashed on laptops throughout, the sudden stop.
A hundred people stalled on tracks, the train a bullet bludgeoned to a blunt standstill, all because of me.
What if it’s a trick, the red brake handle. Disconnected, only an ornament, simulated safety to comfort me. Or worse, the engineer doesn’t care if it’s pulled and will not stop, overriding me overriding him. Or what if he stops this time, a ruse, lulling me into believing I can indeed stop the unstoppable, when it’s arbitrary, and he may not stop next time. What to do. I pause. I freeze. The train thunders on.