Words Form Connections Without Touch: A Conversation with Rachael Smart
By Kat Yacovone
With additional reporting by Annie Agathopoulou and Lois Payne
‘I struck a deal with myself to write one social media post every day no matter what life deals me about a decade ago. The only condition: to be drafted within fifteen minutes’.
This is how Rachael Smart, an MA graduate from the University of Nottingham’s Creative Writing programme, and former intern at The Letters Page, went on to write short-form digital pieces and book reviews alongside her day job. Recently, a tweet of hers that circles touchingly and wittingly around the death of her grandfather went viral with nearly two hundred thousand likes and ten thousand retweets.
Smart explained through a correspondence over email, ‘I was in the bath thinking about how laughter had underpinned my relationship with my grandfather and I got that fire in my belly which makes you scan for the right words and I drafted it quickly.’
Most writers will likely be familiar with this feeling, this sudden rush of an idea, this need to get it written down before it disappears. But despite her experience writing for social media platforms, when Smart felt the attention coming in quickly, she turned off her phone. This is interesting considering social media is often something used to reach the widest possible audience. But that’s not how Smart sees it. Instead, she seems to steer away from drafting pieces that seem likely to receive a lot of attention, ‘because it feels my words have less legitimacy with more exposure, that they lose potency with each retweet’.
This intentional avoidance of sought attention is exactly what makes her writing so potent for these platforms. Instead of falling for the addictive energy of wider audiences and the potential for popularity, she uses ‘social media very deliberately for exploring multiple voices, identities if you like, in different genres.’ With that said, she has found that many people assume her stories are nonfictional, that her characters are her. ‘Readers,’ she writes, ‘assume they are all versions of my personal life which is profoundly irritating.’
This seems to differ from writing published in other, more openly fictional contexts. Still, she sees the platforms as a way to create microfiction, writing these pieces in the same way as she writes anything else, the only difference being that she tries not to revise herself too much, as it would detract from the rawness. She believes, ‘There’s vulnerability in the posting. I try not to let that collapse the work but inevitably, alteration is always there.’
Her writing practice has included packaging microfiction texts along with the vintage clothes she sells on Instagram. ‘I was compelled by the tiny stories that second-hand clothes tell,’ she explains. Within these stories, she has created a working-class character, ‘a very prickly woman who has beefs with a patriarchal society’, that is part-her and part-fiction.
Despite the drawbacks of the platform, the way that publicity makes one alter writing, and the fact that ‘territories between the private and the public are already blurred in this pixelated world,’ Smart explains, ‘Twitter is where I am the most honest version of myself, comedic, japing about. Tweets are a real art form to get right.’
Regarding her viral tweet, Smart argues that, ‘My memory of that day in the hospital will always be vivid in Technicolor in my mind but perhaps writing about it locates it in a frame that is less painful for me and yet also marks it as a passage to hold out for.’
Smart’s tweet reminds us of her letter, ‘We are already finding new ways to touch’, which was published in The Letters Page this past summer. In this letter, the mundane yet quirky life of the pandemic is juxtaposed against the overwhelming death toll. Both the letter and her viral tweet uniquely explore the incomprehensibility of death next to a witty life, as Smart argues that ‘death and loss underpin most stories’, and that they are central to all life. Smart believes that ‘there is room for laughter within loss, both in real life and fiction.’
Smart has a closer connection to The Letters Page than most, having undertaken an internship, during which Smart wrote interviews and book reviews for the journal, skills that she continues to use today. She writes, ‘to be immersed in literature of such high quality when you’re starting out is a very fine place for a writer to be.’ She has fond memories of her time working with the then-Production Manager, Leah Wilkins, with whom she, ‘connected instantly over mutual literary intolerances.’ She then reminisces about a time she and Wilkins carried a display letter box and banners across the city centre for the launch of Volume 2, and ultimately had to put the load down and ‘surrender to laughter.’
These memories seem to be things to hold on to now, as we look forward to a time when people will be able to come together again, form connections lost and mourned in the COVID-19 world. This sentiment is deeply felt in Smart’s writing, whose ‘recent work has interrogated fragments of connection.’ She writes, ‘I am compelled by those transient moments, particularly with strangers, where you don’t expect to be touched but are and deeply so.’
Smart’s day job involves working with alcohol misuse in socially excluded groups, and she writes, ‘I had to talk down a distressed, inebriated man recently and I couldn’t hold his hand but we got there word by word.’ In a world with less human touch, moments like these show the ever-growing importance of words. ‘Writing and words are how we forge connections in the absence of touch,’ Smart says, and we understand.