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Some thoughts deserve more than a tweet

by Ben Kling / Columnist • February 6, 2013

Brevity is the soul of wit. This nugget of wisdom — which comfortably fits five times into the 140-character form that houses most aphorisms lately—is a common defense of the limitations imposed by the tweet. Like all platforms it has boundaries which supply its users with a blueprint, guiding them and inhibiting them into creative acrobatics. It’s important to recognize the potential of constraints to nurture ideas, like the trellises and stakes to that grape vines are bound. Without a backbone, these plants wouldn’t leave the ground, but occasionally they outgrow them. Such is the case with the tweet.

The sevenscore letter limit demands parsimony, brevity, and (it would seem to follow) wit. For many ideas, a tweet is space enough, roomy even. For others, though, such an inflexible requirement can push tiny ideas out beyond their potential and lop off the limbs of bigger ones. My beef  for this piece, however, concerns the amputation. 

Critics of the tweet complain that statements simply not worth saying, even in a transient little puff of two sentences, were granted a forum and a sort of legitimacy with the advent of the tweet — that oversharing is sanctioned by the medium. The already useless (but at least sincere) “Had a sandwich” becomes “Um, pretty sure my life is complete thanks to the Salem Panini at @BostonCommon coffee company,” which, incredibly, still leaves 45 characters for further expounding. See what I meant by roomy?

Let the uninspired yawp about their meals; it is the inspired about whom I am worried. How many ideas have lost meat, not fat, to the guillotine at the end of the tweet? How much potential has been wasted in the feverish pursuit of retweets?

Most witticisms, jokes, and meal reports will benefit from a trim. But how many writers have felt an uncomfortable clot of inspiration lodge itself in their heads only to eject it immediately in exchange for instant feedback? There was a time when you had to write a book to coin an adage. You had to make something to say something. Brevity is the soul of wit, yes, but that quote comes from a 199,749-character work called Hamlet. Shakespeare didn’t just scrawl it down, mail it to Bartlett’s Quotations, and go back to playing battledore and shuttlecock.

The relationship between an aphorism and its parent work is bipartite. As much as the work benefits from the line, the line benefits from being couched in the work.

Oscar Wilde penned some of the most brilliant aphorisms the world has ever seen, but would embed them, like confetti sprinkles, in a great thick cake of a piece. If Twitter had been available to Wilde, considering his propensity for broadcasting his own wit, we might have been given only the line “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up” instead of The Importance of Being Earnest. Melville might have tweeted “Ugh my obsession is like that of a mad sea captain bent on killing a whale” and been done with it. Fitzgerald could have gone back to partying after dashing off “anyone ever notice how nothing is good as how you remember it?”

Foodies, go ahead — keep on framing bisque as a religious experience. You’ve got Wilde on your side. (“I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.”) Aspiring writers, though, would do well to sit on their ideas for a while. Let them accumulate; let them mutate. Put them in a notebook and someday sprinkle them into a work. The temptation to eat these seeds may be great, simply because they are available, but they have the potential to bear fruit if you are patient. Before you click the button, dear tweeter, ask yourself this: Do you want to write stories, essays, standup material, plays, poems—or do you want to write fortune cookies?