Speak to Strangers: the move from online to page

Gemma Seltzer, Speak to Strangers

2009 was the year I decided to organise my life. Not in a conventional way, with a desk tidy and a colour-coded list (although they helped) but online, through a data-collecting, note-taking, chart-making, story-writing, self-imposed project that aimed to document my daily life and routines.

Speak to Strangers was a blog consisting of 100 hundred-word short stories, one story for each day, based on random encounters with Londoners. I wanted to experiment with a digital platform to see how I could use an online space as a creative one, as well as find a way to record my numerous social interactions. I had a tendency to converse with strangers – I’m the person holding up the queue, talking to the cashier about holidays or saving carrier bags or the weather – and they talk to me, so I wanted to do something with these fleeting moments, to catch them before the drifted away. So, in November of that year, I built a WordPress site and started to record, track and categorise each encounter over a hundred-day period.

In Sophie Calle’s artwork, she utilises the paraphernalia from everyday life – a bed, a phonebox, a letter – as setting, stimulus and provocation for strangers to respond. Her pieces incorporate these reactions and are charted in physical form, often as books, film or photographs. I wanted to try something similar, but to use the dimensions of the average computer screen and the length of the average online reader’s attention span as a constraint for my writing. One hundred words felt about right.

And it seemed appropriate to be thinking about how the work would look visually on the screen: these moments with strangers were brief, transitory and entirely random. How could I represent that online? Ellie Harrison’s Teablog was a marvelous stimulus for me. Each time she had a hot drink, she shared what was on her mind in that instant.  The concept is simple yet is completely absorbing. Sentence by sentence, you build a picture of Harrison’s life, with each phrase becoming profound in its isolation. Using such short forms provided me with an exercise in concision and being online gave me the opportunity to share my work quickly, writing every day. It became an interactive digital diary, occupying the space between the private and collective experience. Whose were these encounters? Mine, the strangers or the readers? And who owned these words, since some of them I took from the mouths of Londoners and gave them to the internet?

I started off with great intentions. Every person in London had something to offer; everybody had a story to tell. I was going to share my happy condensed stories of the city with the world, and spread a bit of good energy around. But then life caught up with me: some people were a pleasure to talk to, some were not. Some people wanted to talk to me, sometimes I didn’t want to talk at all. A little moment could be heart-breaking, another anger-inducing. Still, I documented and logged and attempted to capture the moments in the most authentic way I could.

Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. I still believe the WordPress website served its purpose and provided the ideal platform for me to share my work, play around with online narrative structures as well as have complete control on how it functioned. But I feel the presentation is too imprecise, with the tagging and charting distracting. Happily, the blog was recently re-crafted into a book by independent publisher Penned in the Margins, which offered an opportunity to strip the idea to its essential parts, keeping only the 100 blogs and removing all the mapping devices. Each blog is presented singularly and surrounded by plenty of white space for the reader to contemplate without diversion.

Earlier this month, on 1 July 2011, I launched Speak to Strangers through a series of book drops, leaving copies and 100 handmade scrolls (each containing one of the stories), in the exact locations mentioned in the blog including Spitalfields Market, the Wellcome Collection and at the Southbank Centre. I wanted to revisit the original idea on the streets of London and set in motion a series of unexpected encounters, as I’d had myself for 100 days, for strangers across the city.

Several of the books and scrolls have been found, with some still waiting to be discovered. The published book captures the stories as a full, conclusive set and the website is still frequently visited by readers. In this way, Speak to Strangers continues to exist in and journey between the live and the recorded, or the virtual and the actual.

Gemma Seltzer is a London-based writer and literary blogger. Speak to Strangers has just been published by Penned in the Margins. More information at www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk.

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