Three talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online.
Now, we are delighted to showcase their reflections on the Program here on the Editor’s Desk. Alongside, if you want more, you can read the feature showcasing their writing published in our first issue from 2022, Westerly 67.1. You can also read Clare’s work from the Program, ‘Graveyard Account’, on the Editor’s Desk.
Every day I look through a small screen in my hand to a world I can click and scroll, in order to peep into other people’s lives. The narrative of my public life in this world, and probably yours too, will be able to be stitched together through the digital footprint I leave behind. It began with an archived Myspace profile—an extension of my high school scrapbook—with The Killers’ song ‘Midnight Show’ blasting out over my top eight friends. It continued with the confessional Facebook of the late noughties, when every costume party I attended was documented on a Sony point-and-shoot and uploaded without editing for content or blemishes. I had an abortive attempt at Twitter and there is a continually-evolving journey with Instagram, where I am no longer posting cute selfies, but only because my current home has bad lighting and the tone of ‘the gram’ has really lifted. Let us never speak of my introspective times on Tumblr (circa 2013). My current absence on the most recent social media, TikTok, is due to my age and lack of dance ability, as well as my firm belief that retreating from sharing is the new cool (#cottagecore). All these websites are archeological sites of past Clares and their various friends, tastes and fashion choices.
When I began writing ‘Graveyard Account’, I was reminded of the Virginia Woolf novel Jacob’s Room, which tells of a young man who dies in World War I. The story is told through his absence, whether his empty shoes or his friends and family’s discussion about him. His death is a constant void the reader seeks to fill; a mystery solved gradually. Jake in ‘Graveyard Account’ was consciously named for Jacob, as presence and absence in a digital context was what I wanted to explore in my writing.
We have always left a haunting collection of ephemera behind when we die. But that collection is different in our digital age, where the ghostly images of our activity persist alongside a physical void: scroll back through your profile and you can see it come to life through an electronically captured past. We leave voice memos and videos stored on active sites, run by AIs that can’t tell the difference between the dead and the living. There are email addresses which continue collecting junk, and phones that hold memory in the ‘cloud’. These online residues are sometimes difficult to amalgamate into our day-to-day lives.
Sadly, like most people, I have lost friends to suicide. After their deaths, I found their stagnant social media presence uncanny: there was something so macabre in being able to scroll timelines and review footage like it was a public crime scene, or to get alerts for their birthdays or be prompted to tag them in photos taken after their death. Particularly with suicide, we are so often looking for answers or clues as to why; now, there is so much content to scroll through, both as armchair detective and as mourner. But going back through someone’s timeline tells a story of how they have represented themselves online, not what they truly felt or were going through. Like an oil portrait from yester-year, our online selves are highly coloured by the trends of the time.
Recently I have been haunted by notifications reminding me to look at photos, not only of dead friends, but also of ghostly apparitions of my past self; a self who was often posing—aware that I was being watched and shared. So much of social media is about the desire to be seen, and, as I use it less and less, it creates an anxiety that I am becoming invisible—that the internet has become an eerie place filled with doubles and ghosts.
Technology has changed the way we experience the world and remember the past. In working on ‘Graveyard Account’, my mentor Donna Mazza and I discussed the parallels between digital deaths and Victorian mourning. Donna pointed out the way that profile pictures are circular like locks of hair most often worn by Victorians as finger rings, or around the wrist like a smartwatch is now. I thought about how the photograph fundamentally changed how people remembered the dead. How the Victorians posed their loved ones as if they were alive, in order to remember them, and how they channeled them through seances and created complex rituals of mourning, turning death into performance.
Recently I saw a person on Instagram having a ‘2014 Tumblr girl’-themed party. People ten years younger than I am are already nostalgic for their recent youth. Perhaps this is partly because how we evolve and change is now so well documented, and the cycle of trends has become tighter? In my lifetime I have seen the rise of fast fashion and micro-trends, influencers and trolling. Nothing dies on the Internet; instead, it disappears into the archive to live forever young and beautiful, like Dorian Gray.
The person I was in 2006 is gone but she remains forever online, reminding me of the past and those who have passed. Recently it was the anniversary of a friend’s death, and every year I spend that day hiding my phone in another room so I don’t see the many photos of them, seemingly alive and vibrant, just a phone call away. In those Victorian mourning photographs, you cannot at a glance tell the living from the dead. Dead mothers are sometimes posed with living babies and vice versa, brothers sit and stand next to dead brothers. Online, the dead are posted beside the living, the only sign that they belong to the past being the out-of-date rise of their denim.
The original title for ‘Graveyard Account’ was ‘The Internet is a Haunted House’, a broader concept I have been exploring in short fiction since the beginning of lockdown in 2020. I instinctively knew that second person was the right way to tell the story. After all, this is happening to you as much as it is happening to me. Digital media is all about you and your data, its fast clicks, its staccato; it’s selling you something you didn’t know you needed: it is selling absence back to you (#lightacademia #minimalism). I wanted to evoke the unsettled feeling I have online, the ways in which technology interrupts my human life and makes it strange. The way the digital world is increasingly rapid and soulless and yet full of connection, and how that might echo with the Gothic and horror genres. I wanted to play with an absence like Jacob’s Room, but as I’m less Virginia Woolf and more Shirley Jackson, I really wanted to focus on the affect of haunting in language.
To ghost someone these days is to disappear from their lives without saying goodbye or giving an explanation. When someone dies unexpectantly we are left with their ghost, and their absence is made more present by the uncanny digital image they leave behind, as if they have just logged off and will brb at any moment.
Clare Testoni is a playwright, fiction writer, and puppeteer. Recent performed works include Tale of Tales, The Double, The Beast and The Bride, as well as the children’s radio play SunRunners. Clare won the AAWP/ASSF Emerging Writers’ Short Story Prize in 2021 and her adaptation of The Secret Garden will premiere at Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in 2022.