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July 29 2011

A story takes shape amidst tweets and pauses

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers' project "Breaking the Page, Saving the Reader: A Buyer & Builder's Guide to Digital Books." We'll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It's republished with permission.)

"In music, in poetry, and in life, the rest, the pause, the slow movements are essential to comprehending the whole." — Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid (Harper Perennial, 2008; p. 213)

I've been thinking a lot lately about silence, about contemplation, about the meaning we derive from the blank spaces artists leave unoccupied.

The novelist Reif Larsen did something on Twitter last week that showed how, in an age of Information Overload, sometimes the best stories are those that arrive in small morsels, spaced generously.

So, here's what Reif wrote on July 19th:

Package from Serbia just arrived. I did not request such a package. I wonder the % of unrequested packages that end up being life-changing.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

That's odd, I thought. A little quirky, a little spooky in our post-Unabomber world. Next, came … well, what came next is I went away. I didn't check Twitter for a day or so, determined to keep my vacation free of digital bits. I cheated, alas, and what I saw from Reif was a report that:

Package is actually a series of packages nestled inside of each other, like a matryoshka doll. I'm on package #13. No sign of the center.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Hmm. Interesting. Now he had me thinking. Partly it was journalist-type questions: What's he up to with all this? Should I ping him and say “Not to be all Mom-ish, but, careful, man, ok? His next post arrived the following day:

I am at box #54, with still no sign of the center. At least the boxes are getting smaller. #54 was the size of old woman's fist.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

By now I found myself enchanted with this, the Tale of the Russian Doll Package. The following day he tweeted:

Box #79. Using tweezers now. Wondering how this ends.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Even away from Twitter and my various gadgets I found myself thinking about this box, the sender, what was coming next. I was, of course, drawn in by that age old question: What happens next?

The next day, a tiny hint arrived, a tapas-sized bit of plot, suggesting the end was near:

It's done. I opened the smallest box imaginable and inside was... I couldn't really tell. It's too small. Need to borrow a magnifying glass.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Now here's what's interesting, I think. Reif is someone with a demonstrated talent for creating long-form, immersive stories that last several hundred pages. His work as a novelist has cast its spell on me using all the usual tricks: great writing, compelling characters, plot twists.

And yet in this new, serialized Twitter tale, Reif wove for me, and others, another kind of story. One that didn't immerse us as deeply as a novel. But it showcased the quirky, elegant writing that seems to be Reif's style. And part of the charm here stems from the spaces that Reif inserted. The way he let his story linger and unfurl. He didn't, it's worth noting, try to take an already-told tale and sprinkle it out via Twitter. He composed, for this new medium, a new kind of story.

Reif ended things on a gentle, ethereal, mysterious (who's Elmore? I have no idea) note:

Borrowed Elmore's magnifier. Amazing. The thing at the center of all those boxes: a minuscule puppet. A woman. The size of a grain of salt.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

Is there a business model here? Is this a helpful way to build Reif's online following? Who cares. For me the takeaway is this: the art of storytelling is alive and well … it just sometimes arrives in new packages.

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