Monday, January 25, 2021

Anandi Mishra: The Case for Twitter as an MFA Community

Historically writers have gone on a lot about how writing can get extremely lonely. So, when I started writing creative non-fiction early on during the pandemic, as a side to my day job as a communicator, I thought I knew what I was in for. A few weeks in a dreariness set in, I had no one to talk to about an essay on watching Satyajit Ray movies during the lockdown I was struggling with, no one to exchange information on submission calls, pitching notes, etc. During this time, I stewarded my meandering ship back to the docks from where it all started: Twitter. 

I have been on the social media app since 2011 and mostly for my own amusement. It was only in 2017 that I started noticing a pattern to the accounts I followed, the kind of tweets I dug and the conversations I yearned to scroll through. They were all people or organizations with a creative, if not precisely literary, bent of mind. I have wanted to be a writer since I have known what writing and reading were. As of 2021, I do not hold an MFA or any such creative writing degree and have actively been writing and publishing creative non-fiction for the last nine or ten months. Through this time, I have come around to finding a literary community among a gaggle of like-minded people and their tweets on my timeline. I follow writers, poets, memoirists, essayists, magazines and art journals along with their editors and section heads. And their tweets that follow the European Standard Time keep my Indian Standard Time’s Twitter timeline peppered with weird, beautiful and inquisitive insights from and about the world of creative nonfiction. I don’t have a real-world literary community per se and so it is through my Twitter account that I find my inspirations, adorations, reading lists, and submission prospects. Amid the loneliness of writing from Delhi, with a day job, I have come to call this entire echo chamber a kind of an MFA community for myself.

In 2017, on an unusually rainy October afternoon as I waited for my cab, I found myself reading Helena Fitzgerald’s Hazlitt essay "Green To Me." I still don’t exactly recall if I found my way to her timeline first or the essay first. The essay took me to places where I did not know writing could take me. It did things and showed me meanings that earlier were incomprehensible for me. It stayed in my mind for months. Every time I was alone in the loo or stuck in the metro, I would wrestle it out on my phone’s browser. Reading, copying, pasting and rereading snatches from it. Before reading it, I did not know an essay could make so much happen. It was not merely an essay about the color green but a treatise on the how the writer feels about the color in all its length, breadth and width. I would then go on and read almost everything written by Helena that was not behind a paywall. I scoured her timeline for other articles she shared, what she had to say about them and their writers. I read the other pieces, thereby creating a hyper-personal library of sorts, with curated essays that appealed specifically to my tastes.

This was the kind of writing that I was yet to read in the few Indian literary websites, forget about writing it. It opened my senses to not just the writing but also to the magazine that published it, to the writer who wrote it, and to the nature of replies people were typing below it. Soon, I would spend long hours on Twitter looking for similar essays, branching out from one essayist to another. Briefly, I was also obsessed with the work of the New Yorker music writer Amanda Petrusich. It was through this profile of Maggie Rogers written by Petrusich that I discovered the work of Rogers who would go on to become a season’s favorite musician for me. I specifically remember how through her profile I was led to Pharrell Williams’ interviewing Rogers and calling her work “singular”. This word, which was like a revelation to me then, is now something that I very carefully put to use. Around the same time, I remember finding the then New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Her Tweets came in waves. Some mornings I would wake to see a thread of tweets by Nussbaum which were more like she is having a conversation with herself on Twitter. Her writing was another space from where I would scout out not just other reading recommendations but also a lot of TV show suggestions. 

This was a place that I had longed to find in the work of writers’ closer home in India. I worked as a fact-checker and copyeditor in one of the country’s leading newspaper magazines. Based out Delhi, five days a week for almost three years I sat among reporters who wrote exclusively on music, culture, books, films, sports, etc. But there was a kind of a deficit, a lack of community and sharing. I wanted to know so much from them, but they seemed indifferent, a tad too busy in their own work and lives. I found that I was on my own, and Twitter was steadily growing to become my own literary community.

On desperately lonely days I would scroll past the tweets, and into the replies of these writers. I wanted to find other people like me. People who were reading what I was reading, which is how I’m told reading circles at MFAs work. I would search for people, and going by their bios and recently shared links, arrive at a ripe prospect every now and then. It was probably through one such vicarious joyrides on Twitter that I arrived at English writer Rebecca Smith’s timeline. She shared essays and articles about nature, posting whenever she wrote something. I read her widely and through her in the last leg of 2020 I found out that the Scottish writer Cal Flyn was looking for mentees to supervise for a brief duration. I reached out to her and sought the much-needed mentorship. My interaction with Cal over the last couple of months, all via email, has been the closest I can come to a formal community experience. She reads me patiently, answering every query in as much detail as I assume, she would in person, sharing with me openings for submissions, and commenting on the work I share with her. This experience has been one of the most progressive and cherished ones so far.

Similarly, by some stroke of odd luck, when I chanced upon writer Sejal Shah’s Twitter timeline in the beginning of 2020, I did not know what worlds it would open for me. I started by reading all of her writing in a week’s time, waking up to her essays, going to sleep after reading her interview, and so on. The timing of my discovery of her account was also when she was about to release her first book. That happy coincidence meant that I would get to see and read everything that she read before the book’s release and see how readers in the US were reacting to what she was writing. Her essay "Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib" again altered the way I thought one could write about their lives. The poignance that runs through her writing is something that felt unnaturally real. I had read American or British writers talk about their lives like that, but perhaps because of Shah’s ethnicity, and my investment in her story, I was quiet deeply moved by this piece of writing. 


Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have worked on developing a strong literary community and create (even if it’s only fleeting and false) sense of belonging on Twitter. During the summer months, I read Sheila Heti’s essay about art and her grandfather in Yale Review. I remember reading the piece in a still, dank, May summer room. It was early in the morning, an hour or two before I was to start work. I read it in what now seemed like a reverie. Later, I unearthed every possible piece of writing by Heti and watched all her interviews on YouTube. Hers was a masterclass in simplicity and spareness in writing. I was in awe, of course, and wanted to gather more. Little did I know then that later in the year, I would run into her twitter account and go on to establish an email acquaintance with her. We are certainly not friends, but yes there is a familiarity, for sure. 

The magazines I follow now are the ones I read regularly, but also the ones I aspire to get published in. The Paris Review, Guernica, Granta, and The Offing rank higher up in the echelons, but there are the important ones like Orion, Barren, The Common, and Catapult that have my heart. I read them and a hoard of others religiously, following them through and through for all the writing they publish, stalking profiles of writers and editors and then following them. On the off chance that someone follows me back, I understand that it means nothing. Berfrois was one of the magazines that I used to read voraciously during my post-graduation days in 2013-14 but came to follow only a couple of years back on Twitter. Through it I discovered an essay that I loved, read immensely and shared widely with people. Pia Ghosh-Roy's "Separated by the Wingspan of a Moth" was published on Berfrois, and again gave me one of those writers whose entire body of work I would end up reading in a month’s time. In April 2020, Berfrois would also go on to be the magazine where I would publish my first personal essay. So, it remains forever entrenched in my heart and mind as a special one.

I did not know what I was doing through these years was technically creating a reading/writing community for myself. After I saw the recording of a Q&A session by Korean American writer Alexander Chee, I understood that’s what it’s called. Twitter does get overwhelming on some days, what with the extreme political upheaval going on globally. Above all, for me Twitter in this decade has been about discovering what exactly I wanted to read and pursue it. I found almost all of the literary world that I now know, through a web of interconnected writers, magazines, articles, journals and so on. While researching for this essay, once again I chanced upon this golden thread on the magic of Maggie Nelson, which will sustain my curiosity for a week or so. At the end of it all, things make a difference in the way we choose to make use of them, had I kept looking at Twitter for entertaining vines and quick laughs, I might still have been writing, but without this community, it would have not meant the same.

Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. Her writing has also been published by or is forthcoming in Mint, Popula, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3AM Magazine, Transformations, RejectionLit, Berfrois, Multiplicity Mag, and elsewhere. Her essay, “A Satyajit Ray Lockdown,” appears in the anthology Garden Among Fires (Dodo Ink, July 2020). She tweets at @anandi010. You can read more of her writing here.

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