By Muni Suleiman
Olivia Treynor, BC ’24, plays a version of Scrabble that transcends the dictionary. “I just think it makes it so much more interesting,” Treynor eagerly justified. “If you can give a definition and a root etymologically? Yeah, that’s a word!” I initially found these rules quite puzzling, but Treynor’s enthusiasm makes it hard not to be compelled.
Words, for Treynor, are inextricably tied to the concept of a game, to play. “One of my obligatory undergraduate laptop stickers says ‘Why Google? Let’s speculate,’” she joked. “I just love to play and wonder and not know. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s also a philosophy.” Despite this air of levity, Treynor’s catalog of achievements is quite serious. Her poetry, prose, and essays have appeared in publications like Vogue, Southeast Review, phoebe, and Document Journal. Most recently, she was named winner of The Columbia Review’s Spring 2023 prose award for her short story “I Love You Snakeface.”
Treynor’s interest in writing originates from her extensive experience in another medium: film. For seven hours every Sunday, she attended a San Francisco-based film workshop for three years during high school. She wrote and directed shorts such as The Goldfish (2019) and Tell Me Something (2018), and her work has been screened at festivals such as the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, the New Jersey International Film Festival, and the International Independent Film Awards.
Despite the success, and though Treynor enjoyed the social collaboration required of directors, she realized that she loved writing film treatments more. Treatments—though ultimately outlines for a script—are not too far from short stories, and they gave Treynor the space to work more directly with crafting the interiority that defines much of her writing.
Treynor’s shift from film to literature does not mean that she no longer cherishes the social aspect of art. Academically, she’s merged the social and artistic into a double major in anthropology and English with a concentration in creative writing. Moreover, her thesis is analyzing the “participatory theatre” behind producing publicly consumed stories about who is dangerous and who is safe within a larger analysis of white woman victimhood in the United States. It’s a project inspired by a lifelong enthusiasm for the horror genre, a serendipitous summer trip to Salem, and an epiphany during the city’s infamous Ghost Tours—her site of analysis.
“Tourism is really interesting to me: how to be a good visitor and how to show up in a place that you are not from and interact with local cultures,” Treynor noted. “How can you be an outsider, gather stories, and consume culture without it being extractive?”
Her enthusiasm for travel speaks to how Treynor looks to expand the worldview from which she is writing. She doesn’t believe that storytelling must be a solo act: “It’s always an act of trying to reach across,” she said. This is key for Treynor, because—even in writing—it is easy to be misread. Even though language’s inability to entirely encapsulate feeling is “really painful,” she finds it “enticing” to try to get as close as possible. “To speak is to misspeak … I’m still learning how to speak and how to speak with precision and self-awareness,” she explained. “I’m just gonna fail a lot. That’s part of choosing to produce work that is critical and public.”
Moreover, Treynor dislikes the distance that can develop between author and audience in published writing, socially and temporally. Published writing can often give the impression that the thoughts of the writer or the questions that they provoke are final. Amongst other things, Treynor craves her work to be the start of a conversation.
A conversation of particular interest to her is the relationship of internet culture to writing. Raised in Silicon Valley by a parent who works in tech, Treynor felt the imposed sense of mutual exclusivity between tech and the arts in terms of industries, practices, and people. Driving past the former campus of Theranos daily, for example, granted her “a profound ambivalence” about the “manic promise of Silicon Valley” and the internet as a digital utopia. “I think that there is this idea that the internet is a perfect archive,” Treynor said. “There are gaps, fractures, collisions, and corruptions, and it is not a clean, perfect index of everything that’s ever been posted on it.”
Still, Treynor sees all the internet has to offer in today’s cultural landscape. A self-acclaimed aspiring cultural critic, she hopes to consider how the internet acts “as a medium, a mode of memory, and an artistic strategy” while not invisibilizing “the very political, infrastructural practices that make the internet possible.”
A personal essay that Treynor is currently working on exemplifies this aim. Inspired by Honor Levy’s Internet Girl, it experiments with hyperlinks to think about “the logic of memory on the internet” compared to her own memories as a child of the digital era. The project is also, in part, inspired by a family website Treynor once had that held numerous family memories. Understanding the false promise of stability that most people our age associate with the internet, Treynor wants to key into that strange feeling of entitlement and confusion we feel when there are known gaps of knowledge in the internet. She jokes about the disorienting experience of finding a previously viewed TikTok replaced with the dreaded “Sorry, this video is unavailable” message.
Perhaps then, it is this awareness regarding what is actually known—whether on the internet or on a college campus—that sets Treynor apart from the crowd. Treynor dislikes the emphasis she feels is placed on who you know over what you know (and what you can actually do) within the Barnumbia literary scene. This attitude, to Treynor, gives way to a false definiteness in terms of who or what constitutes a writer. Refreshingly, despite her drive to be one and belief in the need for them, she admitted that she still is not exactly sure what makes a writer a writer. “We’re all doing language all the time and making statements all the time,” she reflected. “Is it the writer’s job to not misspeak, or is it the writer’s job to misspeak and continue to iterate?”
One might find the never-ending questions about the role of writers from writers themselves to be fruitless, but within it Treynor finds hope; in fact, writing to her is “a discipline of hope.” Throughout our conversation, she proposed answers, each definitively delivered, at least for that moment: Perhaps, the writer is someone “obsessed with the precision of language” as a means to create stories of identity, nation, and society. Maybe, like the works of Saidiya Hartman or Adam Thirlwell, the writer is someone who salvages destroyed stories by generating new ones.
Inevitably, this speculation gave way to contradiction. This is no new frontier for Treynor, who identifies as “anti-answers and very pro-contradictions.” Art, to her, is similarly anti-answers: “It’s about asking questions that you know will not get answered but that you want to ask anyways,” she stated. “Writing is not about knowing. It’s about asking … what we don’t know, we can probe towards.”
As we continued to probe into what being a writer means, I found one answer that Treynor threw into the wind particularly charming: Watching dogs and people interact on a busy Brooklyn street corner (as social scientists valorize doing), she explained, “In my anthro thesis, [E. E.] Evans-Pritchard says, ‘New situations [demand] new magic’ … That is what writing does, it gives us new magic, new explanations, for new moments.”