The following is an excerpt from Choose Your Own Disaster, a new memoir by Dana Schwartz, just released today from Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2018 by Dana Schwartz. Reprinted with permission, courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.
There isn’t enough to do on the Internet. It’s 11 p.m. and you’ve already seen all of the Aziz Ansari stand-up specials that are freely available on YouTube. You’ve refreshed BuzzFeed and refreshed BuzzFeed again and scrolled so far down their site the quizzes have become nonsensical (“Which 90210 Character Are You Based on Your Favorite Kinds of Sandwich?“)
Twitter would be a welcome distraction if you had more followers. You generally hover around 400, which is impressive enough for your friends, all wannabe comedians who write for the Brown Noser and send you endless Facebook invitations to improv shows. But at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, there just aren’t enough people online for you to interact with. Your tweets get five favorites, maybe six, before they stall and drift farther down the feed and into obscurity, casualties in the Internet’s endless advance for immediacy. You could write something but you have no good ideas. So, out of options and nearly comatose with boredom, it appears as though you’ll just have to do your homework.
There are five stories that you’re supposed to read before workshop tomorrow. You’ll go over them with a blue pen you dig from the bottom of your backpack with comments like “great line here!” and “maybe add more detail?”
The first story is about a man who thinks his wife might be having an affair but isn’t sure. The man is considering boarding a plane but can’t remember if his ticket is refundable. “Maybe add more detail?” you write in the empty space after the final paragraph. “Like, so the main character feels like a human being?”
The second story is about a man who sleeps with the girl who works at the local coffee shop and then decides he doesn’t want to sleep with her anymore.
The third is about a man leaving his wife and then sleeping with the girl who works at the local record store.
You realize all three stories are by boys in your class, the type who come in black T-shirts with holes at the collar and take notes in Moleskine notebooks and roll their eyes if a girl compares something to Jane Austen. They’re that boy you’ve seen smoking outside the Rock—the main library at Brown. (There’s a story they tell about it on tours for prospective students and their eager parents, how John D. Rockefeller was upset that students were calling his namesake library “the Rock”—until they started calling it “the John” instead.) Those boys are always on the stairs of the Rock, reclining back with one foot kicked up behind him so his body is straight and at as a board, forming the hypotenuse of a right triangle between the ground and the building.
The stories were pretentious, but their worst crime, you realized, was that they were boring. You don’t care about the lonely white man who rides a train and wonders what more the country owes him. You don’t care about these men who have sex with women and feel sorry for themselves because the girls (the women become girls after they’ve been fucked) don’t understand how complicated they are. Terrible writing so often bejewels itself in the trappings of J. D. Salinger and Hemingway and Updike and Cheever and shouts, “Me, too!” as it glides into any room. There is nothing profound about not deciding to name a main character. “It’s meant to represent every man,” you can imagine one of the boys explaining tomorrow, rolling his eyes behind his Warby Parkers and massaging the bridge of his nose as if he’s so much better than all of this because he’s convinced himself he understood Ulysses. No, you think, you just wrote a bad story and hid it behind a cardboard cutout of what you think a good story would look like.
You shove the stack of stapled packets off your bed and pull your laptop open again. Creating a new Twitter account is easy—all you need is a username and a new email address to register it with. You give the system your Brown.edu email this time, and where it asks you for your name, you type ThatGuyInYourWritingWorkshop. Too many characters. You get rid of the “That.” GuyInYourWritingWorkshop. Still too long. GuyInYourWorkshop? But a workshop could be anything. If this is going to work, it needs to be specific. GuyInYourMFA. The next logical step to the self-aggrandizing literary genius in his own mind in an undergraduate writing workshop: graduate school. This Twitter account would be the voice of That Guy in every MFA program, the one who nitpicks and wheedles and willfully misunderstands, who believes himself to be smarter than the professor and uncompromised in his artistic principles because no one has ever asked him to sell out. He would be the type to write novels halfway between poetry and prose, published by tiny presses and praised by the three people who read them. He would be That Guy in Your MFA. And he would be you.
The first tweet erupts from your fingertips. “You should really use quotation marks, my professor said. Clearly, I replied, you aren’t familiar with the work of Cormac McCarthy.” You hit TWEET and begin writing another. “Perhaps add a dream sequence?” and then a third. (“When my protagonist suffocates the prostitute, he’s really suffocating the American Dream”) and a fourth and a fith, and before midnight you’ve tweeted forty-four times.
You’ve gained a few dozen followers, more from luck than anything, but somehow even that number is enough to keep your phone dinging nearly continuously. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding, ding, di—di—di—ding. One ding won’t end before it’s superseded by another. You decide to accelerate the follower count. First you post the account on Facebook, all faux-modesty (“Hey, this is a thing I made. Please follow it so I don’t feel like a complete loser lol!”) and then by retweeting @GuyInYourMFA on your primary account. You screenshot your forty-four tweets and upload the pictures to Tumblr, and then to reddit. You go to sleep and wake up to so many notifications on your phone that it takes five full minutes to scroll through them.
People tweet at you, calling you a genius. Your Tumblr post has 10,000 notes (you had no idea a Tumblr post could even get that many notes), and your post on reddit has 500, plus about a hundred more comments, mostly from more people also calling you a genius. You turn the dinging notifications off on your phone. By your afternoon history class, @GuyInYourMFA has more followers than your primary account. By the end of the week, it has 3,000. Two weeks and 10,000 followers later, you’ll see an angry tweet from someone who looks vaguely familiar. “Hey! You’re using my picture for this account, WTF!”
You are definitely, and almost assuredly illegally, using his picture (you had done a Google image search for “guy in hat” and gone with the best candidate). You apologize, profusely, and that afternoon you bring a slouchy hat you own to meet your friend Simon in the library, the same library where you took your Introduction to Fiction class, and you ask him to stand there, against the shelves, and you take a hundred pictures of him with your cell phone and replace the picture of the stranger by that afternoon.
You tweet as many times a day as your brain allows. You gorge yourself on praise and the constant, steady companion of the “new notification” marker. You become the pop phenomenon of the week, a digestible trendy token of Internet culture for the in-the-know to consume and share.
“Maybe this girl with the tattoos can save me,” reads one tweet.
“Every Friday is Black Friday when you’re a nihilist like me.” (Of course he would be a nihilist—of course he would love calling himself a nihilist, using the word as often as possible.)
“I wrote this poem for you on a cocktail napkin. Did you read it already? So fast? No no, really READ it.”
You type the tweets as fast as you can think of them. Like an actor using a certain anchor phrase to practice a foreign accent, once you had certain anchor concepts about this character—a love of black coffee and cigarettes, an obsession with David Foster Wallace, general misogyny—you can find a way to riff on any topic. It is effortless. And if the attention you had been getting from your normal Twitter account is akin to a buzz like caffeine, this account is heroin. You can’t look away from the way the notifications endlessly compile at the top of your screen.
But the best day comes two months later, before your acting class (you’re a senior; seniors get to take acting classes), while you’re sitting in the hallway balancing your laptop on your knees, staring at your account and rereading the tweets you’ve already done, trying to mine them for new inspiration. “Oh shit,” comes a voice above your shoulder. “Are you reading Guy In Your MFA?”
“Hah,” you say, “yeah.” Technically, the account is anonymous, but your identity is an open secret. All of your friends, anyone you’ve talked to at a party, and anyone who read your profile in the Brown Daily Herald knows it’s you. And now this boy, with shaggy hair that comes down to the top of his ears and a knit cardigan, knows you, too. You know him—you’ve seen him at parties and in plays. You know him and now he knows you.
“I love that account. It’s so dead on.” He lets his backpack droop onto one shoulder and you smile. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know it’s you. This must be why celebrities wear baseball caps and sunglasses in public—not to avoid paparazzi or attention, but to control attention. For this feeling, the power to reveal.
“Hah, yeah,” you say.
“But I feel like you kind of have to be a guy to understand all of the humor,” the acquaintance continues. “Like, it’s mocking this super-masculine experience, this thing that we’re supposed to embody.”
Whatever words you’d planned on saying, the metaphorical cape you had been about to sweep back, revealing your genius self, all disappear in a poof. Your eyes widen and you grin. “Yeah,” you say. “Guess I will never get it.”
And you close your laptop and walk as quick as you can down the hallway and into your classroom even though you’re fifteen minutes early, because if you’d stayed there even a second longer you would have succumbed to temptation and ruined the whole, perfect, delicious thing.