Last week I mentioned the research of Miles Richardson and the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby. Specifically, I was intrigued by their recent study, which suggests that it’s ‘moments, not minutes’ that influence how we feel after our encounters with nature. It’s quality, not quantity.
Richardson et al. suggest that ‘simple everyday activities’ that help us notice nature, like birdwatching or smelling flowers, are what drive down our scores of stress, anxiety and depression. So, this week, I decided to take them seriously.
On Tuesday afternoon, I dug out a blank notebook, grabbed an HB pencil and stomped up to Branksome Gardens (one of my recent nearby nature discoveries). I wandered around a bit, scoping out a quiet place where I could do my dirty work in peace.
I sat down on a bench. But it only offered an open vista: churned mud, a chain link fence, a stand of denuded birch around a foetid pond. I needed something I could get lost in. So I stood up again, stomped over the mud and squelched down to the pond.
I rested my notebook on the rotting timber of the fence and scrutinised the bark of a silver birch. After a few seconds, my eyes adjusted around the curves of ivy against the peeling ash of the shadowy scrolls of bark. And I began to draw. Badly.
It’s worth confessing right away: yes, I can see that these are pretty crap. But that’s not the point. For the thirty minutes they each took to draw, I could forget everything that’s happened in the past year and suspend judgement over everything that is yet to come.
But how did I feel as I tramped back down along the prom, wind in my hair, notebook in my pocket? I’m not sure. It’s hard to separate out the effects of nature, the effects of a half hour break and the effects of the so-called artwork. But I definitely felt lighter—elevated, somehow.
I’ve been out drawing every day this week and I already look forward to the creative hiatus in the merciless pings of the workday. Drawing is a convenient excuse for a freelancer always looking for productive value. I’m not aimlessly gawping up into a tree (although that is always worthwhile), I’m creating something real and I’m learning something new.
And, boy, have I got a lot to learn. I have deliberately started with nothing more complicated than a very small notebook and an HB pencil. With these two tools, I hope to grasp the fundamental skills of drawing before I ever contemplate anything more ambitious.
Inspired by Bob Ross, a friend of mine has really got into painting over lockdown. For him, it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour or two away from laptops and smartphones. I got excited about the idea, watched a couple of wonderful little episodes, but was ultimately put off by all the kit I’d have to buy—easels, acrylics, brushes, canvasses, oils. I wanted art supplies that I could pick up, put in my pocket and take out into the wild.
(Side note: Bob Ross seems to exclusively paint bucolic landscapes of rivers, forests and mountains. Art and nature make a hell of a pair.)
Oil painting might be a step too far, but the crap landscape I drew on Wednesday, looking between a mess of pines out to the wave-washed sea, might have benefitted from a few coloured crayons. Once I’ve graduated through the shades of pencil, I might look into what I can learn about colour. And I’m lucky that I won’t have to search far for inspiration.
Earlier this week, a talented friend of mine kindly shared her ‘study of tree mentors’. Here is Naomi Pratt’s drawing of a pair of copper beeches that stand in the cemetery at the end of her garden:
Now there’s something to aspire to! I feel like I could stare at this drawing all day—it’s almost as good as resting there among the quiet gravestones. Here’s what Naomi says about her friendly neighbourhood copper beeches:
Their height makes you feel very small in a comforting way and they have a tremendous foliage. I tried to capture this in a drawing last summer, but it is a challenge to draw a tree—there is so much going on!
Perhaps one day I’ll be able to create drawings half as beautiful as hers. And, even if I can’t, I mean to persist with my scrawlings because, as Naomi wrote in the email that accompanied these images, drawing ‘is an activity which allows me to look more deeply at the world’.
And that’s exactly what Miles Richardson et al. were hoping for.
According to research from the University of Haifa, the discovery of creative solutions is a collaboration between two very different parts of the brain. One brain region is responsible for original ideas; the other for assessing whether the idea is realistic.
The ability of the brain to operate these two regions in parallel is what results in creativity. It is possible that the most sublime creations of humanity were produced by people who had an especially strong connection between the two regions.
It struck me that the sociopolitical breakdown between supposed ‘idealists’ and ‘realists’ is a tension embedded in our own individual brains.
When there isn’t what the researchers call a ‘strong connection’ between the associative and the conservative regions of our minds, our ideas aren’t as creative as they could be.
Likewise, when the idealist and realist sides of a society aren’t strongly connected, then that society’s political ideas aren’t as creative as they could be. And we all suffer.
Politics will always divide people; indeed, division is necessary in a functioning democracy.
Barnes argues that mature democracies divide in ‘mostly civil ways’ because citizens on either side of the chasm have a ‘basic emotional and empathetic grasp of how the other side thinks and feels’.
If that’s the basic requirement for a ‘mature’ democracy, then the UK is definitely a screaming, sulking, stomping adolescent.
But Barnes is optimistic that we can find a way back to creative collaboration. He works for Our Scottish Future, a think tank founded by Gordon Brown that was (until Covid-19 intervened) trialling ‘community assemblies’ of citizens with very different political world views.
These assemblies were designed to help people understand each other and move past their differences to find solutions acceptable to everyone.
One element of each assembly involved having to listen to another person for 90 seconds without interrupting. … It was intriguing to see people’s surprise that they shared common priorities and values with each other. We also witnessed groups reaching fresh conclusions about how to navigate some of our thorniest problems.
This, of course, all sounds very familiar: the community assembly is a basic unit of anarchist decision-making.
Actor, comedian, dear friend and work colleague Beth Granville woke up on Sunday morning with a start: her alarm wasn’t ringing.
She had a sitcom recording to get to.
She grappled with her phone, eyes swimming in an abyss of darkness. An unresponsive power button; rising panic.
Luckily, it appeared that Beth’s phone was the sole victim of a vicious electromagnetic pulse attack, localised in the Wanstead area.
The rest of the capital’s telecommunications network and transport infrastructure was, thankfully, still working and Beth got to the recording studio just in time.
The only embarrassment, apart from losing the phone numbers of every comedy producer she’d met since 2018, came when Beth had to ask someone on the tube what the time was. Lucky not to be arrested, frankly.
But the black screen of death was the harbinger of an unexpected light.
Phoneless Beth picked up a book and finished it in two days.
If you enforce reading, you are likely to enforce time for reflection because it’s hard to read without reflecting … Busyness does not make our lives meaningful; it is the interior life that makes the greatest difference to us in the end.
Reading is restorative and relaxing in a way that computers or phones will never be.
At the end of my 45 minutes’ reading, I feel enriched in the equal and opposite way that I am exhausted by 45 minutes of browsing the same amount of material on the internet.
A couple of times this week I’ve even taken my book out to the pine woods near where I’m staying in Bournemouth, set up my hammock and gently swung through the pages for an hour or so. (Tuesday was interesting: sunshine and hail.)
This isn’t a lone response from someone who grew up reading.
Note: Fiction seems to offer more to our brains here than non-fiction.
Side note: Science fiction in particular might offer our brains something particularly valuable at the moment — the sense that the future is malleable and open to change.
Books also offer a counterpoint to the pell and mell of news, which I’ve written about and insulted before. As Marcel Proust said, long ago:
The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.
One of my reading mentors, Ryan Holiday, deliberately weights his reading choices towards ‘timeless’ books.
‘I don’t want to read things that are very quickly proven irrelevant or incorrect,’ he says in an interview with Tim Ferriss (~1h51). He continues:
You’d be better off sitting down and reading Shakespeare’s plays because they have not only had 500 years of cultural impact, but will probably have 500 more years of cultural impact.
Think of what Ryan Holiday calls ‘the halflife of information’. The news that fires itself, cannon-like, out of your radio has a halflife of perhaps a day or two: tomorrow the triviality will be forgotten.
But a book has already proven itself durable: even a book published this year has probably been a couple of years in the making. If a reputable publisher was involved, the ideas and concepts are, if not timeless, then at least enduring.
Too many people write reading off as unproductive and it’s true that sitting down with your head in a book can look an awful lot like doing nothing.
Inside your skull, however, your brain is doing imaginative weight-lifting.
Reading strengthens language processing areas of the brain, as you might expect, but it is also a tremendously embodied experience: we truly live the novels we read.
Explaining the results of a study that showed long-term changes in brain connectivity among 21 people forced to read a Robert Harris novel, a team of neuroscientists from Emory University wrote:
It is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity. … Reading stories … affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions.
Humans are wonderful fabulists: reading is the next best thing to being there.
Reading itself is a creative act. Of course, good books are full of good ideas and I can’t count the number of passages that have changed the way I write, permanently.
I am currently documenting Elevate, a festival of arts and political discourse that takes place every year in Graz, Austria. This workshop brought together a roomful of creative activists to share ideas on how to give our ideas a colourful and powerful impact on society. (Follow these guys through their Twitter feeds.)
First, Mike Bonanno from The Yes Men took us on a magical mystery tour of creative protest, from the suffragettes dressing up as Ancient Greeks and Gandhi’s salt march, to bread helmets in revolutionary Egypt and the KGB’s flying penises.
“Big campaigns are won by small numbers of people,” Mike says, pointing to the US Civil Rights movement. “It wasn’t even the majority of the minority that was involved.” This is why being creative and making a big noise in the media is important: you can have a disproportionate influence on the political process. “The tendency of the media is to re-tell the same story the whole time,” Mike says. “Keep reminding them what the real story is.”
You can find a lot of Mike’s inspiration through these three resources for creative action:
Ksenia Ermoshina brings a creative perspective from a very different part of the activist world: Russia. Ksenia describes the Russian activist environment, where the police have a tendency to over-react, arresting people who protest by dancing in cathedrals, for example. This has the pleasing effect of amplifying the activists’ message.
Equally, however, Russian civil society has no repertoire of action, as you find in Europe or the States. In France, where Ksenia currently works, the activists can immediately draw on a palette of actions, from die-ins to occupations, that everyone is familiar with. They don’t have to reinvent protest every time.
Ksenia describes her adventures in adbusting, creating speech bubbles for inanimate objects like bricks: “Only for throwing at cops.” Ksenia’s inspiration is Hakim Bey, who declared that, even if only one or two people are awoken, the action is still a success. She also always insists on filming the whole process of preparing the action, whether it’s printing and posting photos of Syrian children or making a Vladimir Putin puppet, so that other people can see exactly how it was done and how they too can protest.
Ksenia’s action has a very immediate and personal element, however. Her mother, a journalist, recently lost her job at one of the few remaining independent publications in Russia. Her question for the workshop: How can we talk to more people, reach more people, in countries where regimes are becoming more authoritarian?
Bruno Tozzini comes from the very different background of advertising, a $137bn industry in the US. And yet he shows us a series of creative responses to social problems, some created by advertising agencies and all using corporate platforms, including an intercultural language exchange over Skype, an online street art exhibition using Google Maps, and the sharing through Facebook of the “invisible” stories of homeless Brazilians.
Bruno then takes us through his “four steps of making” and, in the afternoon, we launch into a workshop focussed on generating creative responses to the refugee crisis in Graz. We brainstorm together and formulate half a dozen actions that could be implemented today, from wifi sharing, a refugee hackathon and SMS skillsharing, to the simplest imaginable creative response: “Just go and say hi”.
Christian Payne is a networked storyteller. It wasn’t always thus, as he shows us through his journey from Alpine pastoralist to newspaper photographer and finally encrypted multimedia archivist. “All media is social,” he says. Christian himself promiscuously shares, not only text, but audio, video, geographic data and photos to tell the stories he encounters from Sudan to Iraq, from Twitter to Storify – from a man holding a smartphone to our ears, eyes and hearts.
Christian is a particularly big proponent of unobtrusive, lightweight, multitasking audio storytelling. He is usually to be found in some quiet corner of the Elevate festival, deep in conversation with some bright philosopher, hacker or DJ, seamlessly sharing their words and thoughts with an audience far away in time and space. He describes audio as an intelligent and intimate storytelling form, akin to reading a book, rather than watching a film.
Christian finishes with a warning about posting online. “You don’t own your image, your image belongs to popular opinion,” he says. “You can attempt control your content, but not the way people react to it.” When it comes to protecting yourself online, his advice is simple: “Connect with kindness.”
The final input of the workshop came from Charles Kriel, founder of Lightful and former game designer and circus performer. Lightful is an app that attempts to solve a problem Charles has encountered when advising NGOs on how to share their stories and get access to funding.
Charles opens, however, by discussing the tragic death at a Turkish airport of journalist Jacky Sutton, a former colleague working in the Middle East. The Turkish authorities claim that she’d missed a connecting flight, been unable to afford a new ticket and had, as a consequence, gone into the ladies’ toilet and hung herself. Charles points out that such a course of action would be ridiculous for a seasoned journalist like Jacky, who’d been working in the region for a decade.
Besides the fact that Jacky had €2400 in cash on her person when she died, enough for a dozen new plane tickets, Charles himself has experience of that same fateful flight. “I’ve missed that connecting flight,” he says. “Everybody misses that connecting flight. It’s a guarantee.”
That starting point shows how dangerous is the work of promoting a free press, particularly in the Middle East. “The region is in even more turmoil than is being reported at the moment,” Charles says. His dream is to create an app that will do some of the dangerous work that puts journalists, NGO workers and activists in such mortal danger. Lightful is that app.
Charles and his small team hope to launch Lightful in stages, starting with registered NGOs in a limited geographical space in the next three weeks. The start may be small, but his aim is quietly ambitious: “I’d like people to get into the habit of doing good work.”
Creative Response is the theme of this year’s Elevate festival. Fittingly, this was a vast, sprawling session that spread over two hours, with six guests and more than a dozen contributions from the audience. Unfortunately, that means this blog post can only be a short introduction to a small part of the stimulating discussion.
Creative response is the brain-child of film-maker and writer Antonino D’Ambrosio. He starts the session by trying to capture some of the main ideas behind the concept.
“It’s how we’ve survived as human beings since the beginning of time,” Antonino says. “It’s a rejection of the things that hold us back and advancing systems that bring people together. And you do that through creativity, not just film, music, art, photography, but economics, science, in every way we can break down these barriers socially, politically, culturally.”
For many on the panel, Antonino’s definition of “creative response” was not one they had come across, but the ideas were, of course, already embedded in their personal creative philosophies.
DJ Ripley finds the idea “very appealing”, but makes the point that not everyone is struggling for survival – under the current system, some people are doing very well, often through exploiting others. For her, therefore, “creative response is particularly rooted in people whose survival is and has been challenged right now.” As a DJ from New York, Ripley is aware of her great privilege and must herself consciously resist the temptation to exploit the musical resources of other cultures, which she describes as a “delightful buffet” – a short step from the cruel domination of colonialism.
Cultural researcher Elisabeth Mayerhofer picks up on Antonino’s comments about creative response being a tool that brings people together. Tracing the history of the artist in the western world, she makes the point that eighteenth century emergence of The Artist was “very intertwined with the concept of capitalism”. It was only when capitalism emancipated the artist from feudalism, through the financial independence afforded by the market and intellectual property rights, that they were able to rise out of the community and into the position of cultural Genius.
Today, however, Elisabeth sees the slow erosion of the role and self-perception of the artist as genius. New forms of intellectual property, including the Creative Commons, are acknowledging that everything is created out of what has gone before. “The artist is moving back into society,” Elisabeth says. “In the end, the production and the consumption of art both have a very strong aspect of collectivity. You can’t think of arts without community.”
Mike Bonanno from activist collective The Yes Men tells a story that illustrates what’s possible when a little creativity is stirred into the pot. He was in Australia at a conference for accountants – “These are people who are not usually associated with creativity,” Mike notes – and announced the shutting down of the World Trade Organisation, to be replaced by the Trade Regulation Organisation. He wasn’t expecting what came next, however.
“They were so thrilled with the idea that the framework had changed and they’d be able to do something good with all of their expertise that, without us asking them, they formed working groups at the luncheon that followed the speech and started to rebuild the World Trade Organisation themselves – and they started by redesigning the logo.”
When the laughter falls away, Mike tells how these high-powered accountants, who’d spent their lives off-shoring money for the super rich, discussed where they could site the headquarters of this new organisation so that the least developed nations could have full representation.
“The point is that lifting that weight gave them this moment where they suddenly felt incredibly creative and spontaneously became these incredibly creative accountants.”
For Elevate moderator Daniel Erlacher, this perfectly encapsulates creative response at its most powerful: activism combined with creativity to create a new world.
“My speech was going to be very simple,” Antonino D’Ambrosio says with leather jacket Italian-American charm. “The Elevate festival is creative response, thank you.” He takes a step back off stage and smiles.
Antonino steps back, more serious. “I’d like to acknowledge the refugees who were on stage,” he adds. “Please give them a round of applause.” The applause rises again for migrants who are fighting for compassionate and humane treatment in Austria and around the EU.
The Elevate organisers used their opening show to give a louder voice to migrant protesters who have set up a permanent camp near the police station in Graz. That voice is broadcast live on Austrian television and videostream online around the world. They’d been welcomed to the stage with the biggest round of applause of the Elevate opening night.
The refugees gave a simple speech also: “We are not from Iraq or Syria, we are just humans like you,” a young man called Hussain says. “Many of us want to serve this country as a thank you for putting us in a safe place. We can do something for this country, but we are unable under the current conditions. Please help us. We are humans, just like you.”
Back to Antonino: “This is a point that makes me fucking very angry, being an immigrant kid from the United States and seeing what’s happening.” He echoes Hussain’s words. “There are only one people. When you’re creating situations through wars of aggression in pursuit of expanding a dying economic system and watching countries like Greece collapse, you’re affecting your own people.”
For Antonino, this idea is deeply embedded in the concept of creative response, and the Elevate Festival embodies the concept perfectly: “Ideas that turn into action, actions that bring people together, [helping] people to think differently about the world around them, to remember that we are indeed one people.”
“Creative response is about reminding people that we share the human condition,” Antonino says. “And that requires storytelling.”
Antonino developed his concept of creative response as a counter to the Reagan and Thatcher ideology that was dominant when he was growing up – and that has been successful to a great degree in fostering today’s political and social cynicism, the idea that “society” does not exist, that compassion is a form of weakness and that self-centred consumerism is selfless.
But Reagan and Thatcher were wrong. Compassion is not weakness; compassion is central to the human condition, central to the cooperation, coexistence and communication of families, which are the founding blocks of a society that does exist.
“Don’t fight back, fight forward,” Antonino urges us. Creative response stakes out what we are for, not what are we against. Antonino uses storytelling to look back at the past, understand the present and, in the words of punk demigods The Clash, “grab the future by the face”. This leads us to the overwhelming question: “What kind of a world do you want to live in?”
That question raises a discussion over “the possible”. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher, notes that, in the United States, flying to or even colonising the moon is talked about as being “possible”, but decent healthcare for all or eliminating poverty is not “possible”. Here, creative response has the power to change our definitions or ideas of what is possible.
“Before I step off the stage, I want to ask you a question that Ai Weiwei had asked me: Imagine one day that the hateful world around you collapses and it is your attitude, your words and your actions that put an end to it – would you be excited?”
“This is our challenge, our creative response, our big vision of the world. Not I, not you, not them, but we. A dream that we dream together is reality. We are creative response. We own the future.”
We stand, raise our hands above our heads, join them with our neighbours. We are creative response. We own the future.
Positive constraints are found everywhere in art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is unimaginable without its frame. Bach’s Toccata would dissolve into meaningless without its reliability of time signature or key. And, from literature, Joyce’s labyrinthine Ulysses bamboozles us with words and sentences we still recognise as English, and even Tolstoy’s house brick epic War and Peace has an ending, eventually.
Obviously, these are all positive constraints: boundaries that the artists has chosen and used to contextualise their creation.
Sentence structure, picture frames and time signatures are all so common to their respective art forms that they almost fall into the category of unconscious constraints. I didn’t consciously choose to divide my thoughts up into sentences when I started writing this blog post, I just followed the customs of the art form so that you can easily understand what I’m trying to communicate. To a great degree, the constraint of good spelling and grammar is actually necessary to the art form of writing.
Introducing other totally unnecessary constraints can, however, make our writing more compelling, more interesting and, as writer Milan Kundera says, more ludic or game-like.
The writers Elmore Leonard and Stephen King are among many who advocate the positive literary constraint of No Adverbs.
In his article 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard saves his adverbial admonition primarily for dialogue, frowning upon constructions like: “Damn!” he said, angrily. Elmore says that such use “distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” and I’d completely agree with him. Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, is even more critical, saying that adverbs, any adverbs, are the preserve of “timid writers”, driven to clumsy writing by fear or affectation.
Verily, this is not the mere moanings of two crusty literary snobs. No Adverbs forces you to be more precise and active with your language. Quite often the attribution of dialogue is a refuge for laziness. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” Elmore growled viciously.
Elmore growling viciously is supposed to communicate an air of menace, but it’s far more effective to do that with action, not attribution. Elmore ran his finger along the keen edge of his pocket knife. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” he said.
Counting words is a classic positive constraint for writing that every journalist or student will recognise, usually with something approaching dread. But a word count is such a simple device to make your writing, not only more concise, but also exist in the first place.
One simple thought experiment might help elucidate the theory. If I were to ask you right now to write something on the subject of women in literature, what would you do? Where would you begin and how would you know when to stop? Do I mean women writers, women characters or even women readers? It’s likely that, faced with such an overwhelmingly vague task, you would never even begin.
Now, on the other hand, if I were to ask you to write 100 words about women in literature, you would probably have a very precise idea of what to write. 100 words isn’t much (the same number of words as this paragraph), but you have some opinion on women in literature and you would want to get that opinion into those 100 words. There is no space for faffing around, so you’d go with your strongest idea, perhaps supported by a couple of examples. The imposition of a positive constraint somehow crystalises your thinking and helps you to write.
Similarly, if I were to ask you to write 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 words on women in literature. Each different word count suggests a different approach to the writing.
Target 1,000 words, and you can afford to introduce more supporting examples and perhaps a couple of different critical angles. With 10,000 words to play with, you must dig deeper and research your subject thoroughly. At 100,000 words, you can hunt down every last footnote and take a broad view of women in literature that encompasses the full sweep of history.
Right at the other end of the scale, Twitter is perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of modern literary concision, permitting only 140 characters. A well written tweet can nevertheless capture a thousand pictures.
And the utility of a word count goes far beyond inspiration and concision. You can use word counts to make sure your minor characters don’t take over the protagonist’s story, to beef up your B-plot, or to tune down your C-plot. I even use word frequency analyses to make sure I’m not using the same words over and over (I once used the word “just” 213 times in a book of only 50,000 words).
If you’ve ever actually listened to a conversation between two human beings, you’ll be amazed to hear how dull the language used by most people is. We default to clichés, crank out tired metaphors and serve up idioms that have long since lost their freshness. As a writer, it’s easy to let these slip into your writing and end up sounding like a sack of drunks at the end of a long night.
Now, I’m currently reading The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, a writer described on the cover as “Ireland’s funniest genius”. But what has captivated me is not so much the humour, but the freshness of the language.
Three samples of his language from one paragraph taken at random from the chapter I finished last night will serve to demonstrate my point:
“When I awoke again two thoughts came into my head so closely together that they seemed to be stuck to one another; I could not be sure which came first and it was hard to separate them and examine them singly.”
“The sun was in the neighbourhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, colouring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things.”
“A bird sang a solo from nearby, a cunning blackbird in a dark hedge giving thanks in his native language. I listened and agreed with him completely.”
Some of you might have skipped over my little introduction, so I’ll repeat: those are from just one paragraph. The richness, the depth, the clarity! A lesser writer could have covered all three images in one sentence: “I woke up to bright sunshine and birdsong.” Dull, dull, dull.
And if you’re ever doubtful about how far No Cliché writing can take you, think on Shakespeare. In the course of his writing career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 new words to the English language. He also coined dozens of new phrases that became so popular as to turn into clichés themselves: all that glitters isn’t gold, be all and end all, break the ice, green eyed monster, heart of gold, neither a borrower nor a lender be and to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.
Right. So far, we’ve looked at three positive constraints that can make our writing objectively better: more captivating, more concise and more interesting for the reader. I’ll end by looking at the more gameful ways we can use positive constraints.
Eunoia is a book by Christian Bok with only five chapters. The ludic twist is that each chapter contains only one vowel: A, E, I, O or U. Christian believes that each vowel has its own personality and his positive constraint allows that personality to flourish. Chapter A, for example, begins: “Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla.”
Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, dispenses with the letter “e” for its entire 50,000 word plot. These kind of omissions in literature are called lipograms and have been used to rewrite Mary Had a Little Lamb (“Polly owned one little sheep”, without the letter “a”), Hamlet without the “i” (“To be or not to be, that’s the query”) and to imitate the song of a nightingale in Russian.
Right after writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words, Dr Seuss took on a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using a smaller vocabulary. Green Eggs and Ham clocked in with a vocabulary of only 50 different words. Dr Seuss won the bet and Green Eggs and Ham became the fourth best-selling children’s book of all time. Not bad for a stupid positive constraint.
Easily the most quixotic of ludic positive constraints in literature that I’ve come across is Pilish, in which the number of characters in each word matches exactly, and in order, the digits found in the mathematical constant Pi. Wikipedia tells me the following sentence is Pilish for the first fifteen digits of pi, 3.14159265358979: “How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”
And so we come to my all-time favourite example of literary positive constraints, from an article concerning Bob Dylan and plagiarism. I thought the article (which I can tragically no longer find online) was very well-written and made its point with artistry and intelligence: that plagiarism must be distinguished from the patina of collage that all artists must create when they create. The punchline was that the “writer” of this piece had “written” not a single word: every last phrase was “plagarised”. I was gob-smacked and re-read the article again and again, with utter delight.
The punchline to this blog post is that it is acrostic, the first letter of each paragraph spells out… Answers on a postcard to the usual address and thanks to C for the idea.
This is part of a series of blog posts on positive constraints. You can read much more here.
Today’s post will be short, but show you three positive constraints that I guarantee will make you more productive at work.
No Desk for Creativity
This positive constraint works for anyone who spends far too much time in front of their computer. I constantly have to remind myself that spending hours on the computer does NOT equal productivity.
The environment we live in is constantly giving us emotional cues. Whether we listen to Bach or Megadeath, whether we can smell lavender or gasoline, whether we stand or sit at a desk will have an influence on our mood and thence the work we do.
I associate desks and computers with Work. That’s Work with a capital “W” because it’s stressful Work, Work that feels like Work: chasing emails, answering queries and junking spam. I needed somewhere I could escape.
But how? My default “relaxing” hobby was to flop down in my nice swivel chair and drag the mouse around the computer screen for an hour or so. I had to disrupt this mindless habit. So I built a No Desk desk, a desk that folds flat against the wall.
With a permanent unfolding desk, my computer was always out and the opportunity to work was always there. A folding desk gives me an alternative. Now, whenever I fancy a change of scenery or a break (and always at the end of the day), I clear the desk and fold it down.
The critical point is that I can’t work on a desk that isn’t there. The computer goes on a shelf and I can sit on my sofa and relax. That relaxed state is where we find day-dreaming, imagination and creativity.
It’s like an off-switch for my work-related stress and an on-switch for creative thinking. It has transformed my working day and I love it.
What you need: Two strong hinges from a hardware shop or online (mine were £26 for two), a flat piece of wood for the desk (mine’s varnished), a couple of wall batons and some screws (all recycled). The build took me about two hours. If you have a bigger house than me, then separate your working space from your relaxing space – and make sure you spend time in both!
No Phone against Distraction
When I’m working, I put my phone away into a drawer, with the ringers off. This is surprisingly simple, but devastatingly effective. The old adage “out of sight, out of mind” is no less true for being ancient.
After my experiment with No Phone, I am now acutely conscious every time I check my phone. I know that, when I leave my phone on my desk, I will check the thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s gone off or not, I still check it, several times an hour.
These are called microchecks and they are toxic to our focus. Every time you look at your phone, you are distracting yourself from the task you were engaged in. Every time you distract yourself, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus. By which time, you’re checking your phone again…
Putting my phone into a drawer when I’m working is a really simple way to safeguard my focus.
What you need: A drawer, a bag or a different room.
No Computer for Writing
I often write using my Neo Alphasmart instead of my laptop. The Neo is a full size keyboard with a four line screen and a memory for hundreds of thousands of words. That’s all.
There’s no internet connection to distract me. There’s no hunching over an eye-straining glowing screen. There’s no clunky weight to carry around or rest on my knees. There’s no power cable because there’s hardly any technology to power so the batteries (3xAA) last for years.
This is a great example of what I mean by minimum viable technology. I could use a pen and paper to write; that would certainly be less tech than even a glorified typewriter like the Neo. But I type much faster than I handwrite, so this glorified typewriter is a more viable technology for the task of writing than pen and paper. (For me.)
The Neo does the job of writing better than anything else. Even so, I still habitually turn to my laptop, with all its distractions and discomforts. I have to remind myself to leave the desk or the house, with the Neo in tow and rediscover writing purity, just me and the typing machine.
A computer can do a million things, but when combined with human distractability that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Neo does only one thing and that means more writing, less Tetris.
What you need: A Neo Alphasmart (~£50 second hand from the US), or any other more basic technology. Hats off to you if you can manage with just pen and paper.
So there you have it. Three dead simple positive constraints that you could get working with today.
No, these are not the lyrics to the latest chart-topping teenybopper execration. They are instead the chimp-like sounds of me showering, at least since I started my most recent experiment in positive constraints: No Hot Showers.
A positive constraint is a restriction on your behaviour that you’ve freely chosen. They’re really common in art and music (a picture frame or time signature is a positive constraint), any sports and games (the ban on using your hands in football is a positive constraint) and religion (the Sabbath, Lent or Ramadan are all dedicated to exercising positive constraint).
What I’m trying to do is bring the art of positive constraints into our everyday lifestyles, through experiments in everything from No Aeroplanes and No English, to No Supermarkets and No Walking.
Too often we flounder around in the rut of our unexamined habits, without asking why we travel by plane or shop at supermarkets. Positive constraints is the method through which we can find, almost always, a better way of doing things.
For the next three months, I’ll be publishing regular experiments in positive constraints right here. Among many others, I’ll be exploring life without swearing, handshakes, meat – and pants.
I’m also writing a book that goes into much more detail on a wide range of positive constraints, examining the psychology of experiential and behavioural change. If you want to be first to hear news of the book, then please sign up to my mailing list.
Designing the No Hot Showers Experiment
Designing a new experiment in positive constraints is easy. You just think of something that you do, and then don’t.
Every morning, for example, I have a nice hot shower. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why humans wake up in the morning feeling unclean – my hair looks like I’ve been sleeping under a hedge and somehow my skin feels simultaneously dry and oily – but there it is. The morning is unthinkable until I’ve had my ablutions: a five minute hot shower.
So that’s what I do. Applying the methodology of positive constraints, then, I should now explore what I don’t. I could have gone the whole hog and experimented with No Showers At All, but I think my housemates would have reported me to Environmental Health.
Instead, last week, I started taking No Hot Showers.
Why No Hot Showers?
When you’re experimenting, it’s important not to assume too much about your results. Before I started No Hot Showers, though, I knew two things. No Hot Showers would:
Wake me up. Like a punch to the face.
Save on heating bills.
I’m definitely right about #1, but #2 will probably be too small to measure, particularly as I live with 7 other people, all of whom take hot showers, some luxuriantly so.
Once I’d started the experiment, though, I learnt a whole lot more about the benefits of No Hot Showers, from the mildly useful to the genuinely life-enhancing.
Because it’s so freaking cold, you’ll tend not to spend so long in the shower, saving water and, in some small way, the entire planetary biosphere. Maybe.
It’ll stimulate and improve blood circulation and your cardiovascular system. Your heart will explode, in other words, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Washing your hair in cold water will make it all glossy and shiny. Hot water dries and frazzles.
Cold water is kinder to your skin, too. I have occasional eczema and I’ve noticed an improvement since switching to cold water.
Cold water doesn’t create steam, so you’ll still be able to see yourself shivering in the bathroom mirror afterwards.
This is more anecdotal, but cold water seems to make my eyes a more intense blue. I speculate that this is down to pupil constriction after the adrenalin rush of the cold.
Cold showers will increase testosterone production in men, leading to increased energy and strength, as well as sex-drive.
Hot water is deadly to men’s sperm; for men, a hot bath is a contraceptive. Cold water will help keep your sperm plentiful and healthy.
You don’t have to worry about fiddling with the taps to get the water temperature just right.
It doesn’t matter if your early-rising housemates have used up all the hot water. Similarly, you can feel good about not using it up for them.
Cold water immersion becomes a habit, something that you get used to. By practising for ten minutes every day, my body has no problem jumping into the chilly British sea water. I can play in the waves without shivering or wishing I was anywhere else. And that’s FUN.
Cold water stimulates your immune system, particularly if you take a cold shower after exercise. That transition from hot to cold does wonders.
Cold showers are an effective treatment for depression.
Really cold showers that make you shiver can help you lose fat and build lean muscle.
Cold showers are miserable! Of course they are. Who would be foolish enough to choose a cold shower when hot is on offer? Well, the answer to that question is the same people who choose the difficult path in life, the people who embrace challenges and, through those difficulties and challenges, accomplish great things. There is no scientific evidence for this, but cold showers do make me feel more resilient and determined to overcome life’s vicissitudes.
Cold showers are great! Yes they are. I enjoy the adrenalin rush of icy water on my face. Hot showers are comforting, good for when you want to fall asleep on the sofa, but cold showers are like a charge of lightning down your spine. I feel electrified.
Are there any down sides to No Hot Showers? As far as I can tell, the only down side is the absence of long hot showers.
Quite apart from the fact that hot showers are enjoyable, the steam opens up your pores and relaxes your muscles. Dilly-dallying in the shower can also be a moment of meditation and the unfocussed attention that leads to good ideas.
However, a shower is not the only way of accessing these states – and I never said hot baths were off the agenda!
How to Take a Cold Shower
Turn on the cold tap. Full.
Don’t turn on any other taps.
You’ll also need to take off all your clothes (wet suits not allowed) and position yourself under the shower head. If you’ve got the water temperature right (see #1 and #2 above), then there’s no comfortable way of doing this.
You could start by dousing your long-suffering feet and legs, before gingerly moving the shower head the rest of your body. At some point, though, you’re going to have to duck your head under and your head is not going to like this. Personally, I love the gasping shock of walking straight into the cold stream, but do it your way.
How long you stay in depends on what you want to get out of your morning shower. If you just want to wash and wake up, then a couple of minutes is ample. If you want all the possible health benefits listed above, then you’ll need a minimum of 5 minutes, 10 to be on the safe side.
I would add: do not attempt to judge this time yourself. In a cold shower, 5 seconds feels like 5 years. I take a countdown timer into the bathroom with me and don’t leave until the beeps go off.
If you want extreme cold exposure, then you’ll need more like half an hour, but do more research before diving into Andy Murray’s ice bath.
Medical Time Out: Cold water can be a shock to the system. A cold shower probably won’t kill you, but the shock of jumping into a glacial lake might do. Don’t be an idiot. Consult your physician if you have any concerns. If you’re worried about hypothermia, then pinch your thumb and little finger tips together. If you can’t do this, then your extremities have gone numb. Get out now before you die.
But, wait – there’s more!
One of the great things about positive constraints is that there’s always more. The “positive” in positive constraints refers to your agency in your decision to restrict your behaviour.
I’m not being forced to take a cold shower and I’m not merely submitting to the necessary evil of cold showers for such and such a health reason; I’m actively choosing cold showers for their own sake.
And this feeling of having control over your life is well-correlated with happiness. By choosing and living a positive constraint, I am training for happiness.
I have had a mobile phone since 2001, over thirteen years, but for thirty days, from Tuesday the 10th of February until the 12th of March, I shall live without.
The big question is:
This project is part of a long term experiment with positive constraints, which are ways of opening up the imaginative space behind ingrained habits and unquestioned social customs. Having had a mobile phone for over thirteen years, I’ve fallen into lazy habits and lost both the benefits of a life without and my appreciation of the phone itself.
One of the best things about using positive constraints is that you don’t know what you’ll discover during your experiment. One of my friends recently gave up her smartphone for what she called “a shit phone” (it still made calls and thus would be considered a miracle in any other age but ours). She was expecting to experience a vast reduction in her communication; what she wasn’t expecting was that she would write more music, improve her relationship with her mother and become a graffiti artist.
Having said that, here are a couple of reasons why anyone might want to give up their phone (at least for a while):
Words beget worlds. From “consumer” to “citizen”, the words we use and the stories we tell do create the world we live in today and the not yet worlds we can imagine for our future.
For all our technological advances since the invention of writing in ancient Sumer, we cannot yet experience life exactly as another experiences it; we must use words to share our stories. In order to receive each other’s stories clearly, we must practice empathy. From empathy comes solidarity and from solidarity comes community, resistance and change.
Politics is a story. When politicians tell us stories about immigration, immigration wins elections. When politicians tell us stories about hope, hope wins elections. Economics is a story. When economists tell us stories about consumerism, we become consumers. When economists tell us stories about cooperation, we become citizens.
Surveillance is also a story, extracted from us without our permission, and told back to us in ways that change our behaviour. The corporate media tell us stories of fear and tragedy; advertisers tell us stories of luxury and anxiety. We hear thousands of stories every day and it’s hard to know which to believe when those with the most money get to shout their stories loudest.
The Elevate Festival is a festival of storytelling that gives voice to the quiet stories. This book is amplification. I hope you have, within these pages, heard fascinating, shocking and inspirational stories. I hope that, like me, you feel stronger for having heard them and are ready now to act by sharing your story with the rest of us.
We must hold onto our right to share our stories directly with each other; we should not have our stories mediated through third parties who try to control and profit from them. Our stories are not the sum of our data and our stories are not theirs to sell, they are ours to tell.
Whatever your message, whatever your medium, have a creative-response. Share your story because, ultimately, life isn’t about survival; it’s about sharing.
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. If you did, let me know!
“Let fury have the hour
Anger can be power
Do you know that you can use it?”
– The Clampdown by The Clash
Let Fury Have the Hour by Antonino D’Ambrosio is a documentary that follows a whole generation of artists and activists, from rappers and punks to comedians and lawyers, who use their creativity to respond to reactionary politics. That’s the bare synopsis, anyway. In visceral experience, it’s a ballistic assault on the mind, shot through with adrenaline, that will dynamite any resistance to participation and creativity. You will be split between running out of the cinema screaming and melting yourself down into your seat for the next screening.
The documentary took seven years to make and Antonino filmed seventy-five conversations with artists, fifty of which made it into the final cut. “The original idea was to have a hundred voices,” he says, “to really push the boundaries of film-making.” Some of his intended interlocutors disappeared or went into exile, like Chinese artivist Ai Weiwei. “This inspired me more to make the movie, as a testament to them,” he says. “I’d like to dedicate the film to Ai Weiwei and to the city of Graz.”
The lights dim and we hold onto our seats.
An hour and a blood-pumping half later, we emerge, sweating. “The movie is not finished,” Antonino says, “with each screening it continues to be made with the audience.” So here are some of our questions and comments, along with my attempts to capture Antonino’s responses.
Was it difficult to get these artists involved?
No one said no to me. The artists never usually get a chance to speak like this, but these were just discussions that I would have with anyone. It was a discussion about how they see the world, how the essence of what they do is based on connecting. I wasn’t from that generation; I only discovered The Clash in 1983, when I was twelve. I think they really appreciated that I wasn’t quite of their time period.
What about the music?
There are forty-five pieces of music in the film, including fifteen original tracks. There were originally sixty pieces, including an entire album by Thievery Corporation. When I make a film, I switch off the visuals and, if I can follow the story just in the soundtrack, then I know I’m onto something.
How can we distinguish creative-response from a potentially harmful ideology?
Ideologies are reactionary, they want to hold onto power. Creative-response is anti-ideological because creative-response is openness to ideas. Be flexible and fluid. Your idea might be a good starting point, but always keep bringing in new ideas.
Once, Nazi officers came into Picasso’s apartment in Paris and saw a photograph of Guernica, Picasso’s depiction of the Nazi strategic bombing of civilians in Spain. The officer remarked, “This painting, did you do this?” “No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”
The film ends before electronic music starts. Can electronic music be creative-response, or is it too abstract to be political?
When I’m creating, I don’t distinguish between genres. And, quite frankly, when you make overtly political music, it’s often not very good. I love the remix, the re-imagination of electronic music. You can find inspiration anywhere if you keep your heart and your mind open.
Creative-response can go in the opposite direction. Punk is used by the far right, for example.
In some ways, I wanted to reclaim punk, because it did fall into the hands of the far right a little bit. When you come from a position of hate, you’re doing terrorism. That’s not creative-response. What’s interesting about the interviews is that, not only did these punk people stand up to fascism then, but they still stand by their politics now.
Are you only preaching to the choir?
We, the choir, still need new songs to sing. Our time is here, it’s now. We have the ideas and they don’t. The way I look at it is, if I feel this way, then there must be someone else who feels that way.
How do we get the creativity to change the world?
Well, what do you think? We all have the talent to creatively respond. Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but always as a citizen of the world. Citizenship is repressed in the US; there is very low voter turnout. At the end of the day, that’s what citizens are doing; their creative-response is participation.
What else do you do for a living?
I’m an author and a visual artist as well as a film-maker. I’m able to cobble the three things together and make a living. I’ve created a non-profit network called La Lutta, so it doesn’t cost me much to make these films. The budget of Let Fury Have the Hour should have been around a million dollars, but it didn’t cost that.
Artists support my work. I have some patrons. And every time I do something like this, it leads to something else that will help me grow as a person and as an artist.
What was the point when you realised you had to do something now?
I take my responsibilities seriously as a human being on this planet. So when I realised I had a talent for this storytelling, I kept doing it.
Creative-response for me is also looking after my daughter. My daughter is my greatest inspiration. She inspires me to be greater than myself – and that’s one idea of creative-response. There is an incredible demand to never give up. She was six years old when I was editing and people like Chuck D would come in and sing to her.
I think the impact of political bands is very small.
For me, art and culture doesn’t change anything. We have to change. These are just tools. I love The Clash and their songs about working class people – but it was still up to me to do something about it. Picasso painting Guernica didn’t stop war, but it stopped a fourteen year old boy growing up in Philadelphia from thinking that war was a viable solution. Twitter doesn’t change things, Rage Against the Machine doesn’t change things, we change things. Like Joe Strummer said: “Without people, we’re nothing”.
And what’s the measure of impact? I don’t think about quantity, but quality. We have to push each other, inspire each other, give each other strength. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s done something has done it because they’re afraid; they’re afraid that things aren’t going to change.
Do you have a favourite medium of expression?
Human expression. All artists are writers in some way. But, in terms of medium, for me it’s writing. I can really engage intimately with what words mean. Everything I do is writing, including the visual.
What’s that great Van Jones quote in the film?
When he went to Yale, Van Jones’s father said to him: “The next time I see you, you’re going to be smarter than me. But I want you to know something. There are only two kinds of smart people in the world: there are smart people who take very simple things and make them very sound complicated to enrich themselves; and there are smart people who take very complicated things and make them sound simple to empower other people. Now: the next time I see you, I want you to be that kind of smart guy.”
Did you face a lot of criticism?
The right wing don’t give a shit. They have the power, this doesn’t threaten them.
Any final words?
The film is a starting point. Where can we go from here with creative-response? What kind of a world do you want to live in?
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.
At the 2008 Elevate Festival, Ronaldo Lemos, Project Lead of the Creative Commons Brazil, talked about the “commons of the mind”. He said that the internet had created a plurality of business models for media distribution – iTunes, BandCamp, Gumroad, Amazon, eBay and YouTube to name half a dozen. The question is whether this is a good thing for creative responders or not. Daniel Erlacher proposes that, compared to the corporate publishing model of the last century, today’s plurality makes distribution much more complicated for artists.
Those complications can also bring with them a certain freedom. Ursula Rucker has experience of both worlds: she released three albums on a traditional record label, but has released her last two albums herself as digital only downloads. “It may be harder because you don’t have someone taking care of you,” she says of the record industry, “but they were never taking care of you in the first place.” Antonino laughs a knowing laugh. “Now there’s a freedom,” Ursula adds. “You do it yourself; you’re not on a leash.” She smiles a wry smile. “At the same time, though, you do have to figure out how you’re going to do it.”
Another possible benefit of the collapse of old models of media distribution since the rise of the internet is that artists are allowed to fail a lot more now, without editors or publishers or producers peering over their shoulder. “I’m independent,” Deanna Rodger says. “I write my stuff, I put it out, I perform where I can.” She argues that, in this new media world of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the artist has more control. “You don’t have to tick any boxes, you don’t have to jump through hoops,” she says. “You’re also generating your own network and you’re getting instant feedback, which is only going to make you a better artist because you’re listening to the people who are listening to you.”
“New media is not a utopia of independence or creativity,” Antonino says. “You have to have a vision,” he adds. “That’s been there since Picasso painted Guernica. Work that’s timeless and timely has vision.” For him, social media are just the tools that we happen to have for creative-response today, but tools are the means, not the ends. “The ends is this.” He breaks the fourth wall of the stage and seems to connect with each one of us in the audience. “What we’re doing here is social media.”
Everything for Antonino is about connecting with people, that’s his creative-response. The main purpose of his film, Let Fury Have the Hour, which took seven years to produce, was and is to connect with artists, collaborators and human beings. “These are just tools so I can be here with you today,” he says. “I would never have thought, as a fourteen year old kid in Philadelphia, I’d be sitting in Graz talking about this work – it’s an amazing privilege and honour.” We should remember, Antonino says, that clicking Like on Facebook is no substitute for being in the room, connecting with each other. “Real participation demands that we’re here, present, together.” Antonino reaches out to Ksenia and Daniel either side of him: “Like this.”
Deanna agrees, but takes a more global view. “Not everyone can afford to go to a show, or afford to come to Austria,” she says. She is keen not to downplay the significance of minute social media interactions either. “It might only be a re-tweet,” she says, “but that can be the start of something.” For Deanna, creative-response is built up slowly. A little burst of creativity, a tweet, might take only a few seconds, but the satisfaction of getting that tweet favourited by friends or re-tweeted by strangers might lead the nascent artist to ask the question: That only took me five seconds; what if I spent a day on it? From these modest beginnings, the artist slowly develops a vision and a voice. The virtue of this start-small method is that, as Deanna says, “There’s no excuse for not doing it because it is so simple and then you build on it.”
And that is exactly how I got started as a writer. Since I was about eighteen, I’d said I was going to be a writer – sometimes I even boasted that I was going to be a writer who turned the world upside-down with my words. But that’s all it was: words. Until, one day, I realised that, if I wanted to become any kind of a writer, I would need to stop talking and start writing. So I started with the smallest possible story: fifty words long. It’s so short that I might as well reprint it here:
The car pulled a parabola into position in front of endless low roofed warehouses. The steam from the looming cooling towers drifted across the Sun. The violins on the stereo screeched to a close and the chill of the air froze. In ten minutes he would be in the interview.
I think the world just about managed to keep itself on its axis, but that’s not the point. My plan was to write a new story every day, each day adding five words to the word count. Over the course of the next six weeks, I wrote another forty-one stories, ending up with one that was two hundred and sixty words long. It might not sound like a lot, but it was a start. Within a month of finishing that two hundred and sixty word story, I began writing my first full length novel. Within two years, I had finished that novel and published my first book of travel writing. I was a writer.
Daniel Erlacher suggests that the music industry has changed as a result of the growth of the internet, citing the fact that artists now make more money from their gigs than from their records. “It’s always been that way for me,” Ursula replies without hesitation. Chris Hessle, the electronic musician IZC, counters the popular denigration of what he calls “the old vinyl economy”. One accusation is that the music business simply doesn’t have the money any more. “There’s not less money,” he says, “but the money’s going somewhere.”
For Chris, it’s quite obvious where that money is going: Apple, Spotify, Amazon and the other major online distributors. Apple is the most valuable company in the world; they don’t seem to be too bothered that there’s “less money” in the music business. “There’s less money, but it’s only in our perception,” Chris argues. He runs a small traditional record label himself and, on his visits to the pressing factories, sees that “the money stays within the scene and creates jobs for people who are within the scene”. Apple’s profits from iTunes, in contrast, fund a technology company.
On this analysis, it’s hard to argue that today’s system of the financial control of artists is any more free than last century’s. Nafeez Ahmed makes this exact point. “We haven’t got away from centralised control,” he says. “We’re still beholden to these opaque systems of rights and ownership. You upload to Facebook, but how much do you actually own and how many rights are you giving away?”
You’ll be glad to hear, dear reader, that I’ve taken the trouble to answer this rhetorical question. You’ll be further glad when I tell you that you retain the intellectual property rights to any videos, music, poetry or photographs that you upload to Facebook. However, the second you post something on Facebook, you grant them a licence to do whatever they like with it, including using it for commercial purposes if they so desire. No wonder Nafeez is asking, “How can we move beyond being shackled by technologies still very much controlled by big corporations which have their own interests?”
Antonino reminds us that the construction of the internet was publicly funded, by the military and educational institutions. He laments the fact that the internet could have seen the democratisation of technology, as well as art. But, according to Antonino, Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 was “one of the great con tricks we pulled in the United States” and helped concentrate ownership of the media into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. “After the economic collapse in 2008,” Antonino adds, “I thought there was a great opportunity for us to think about how society in general was organised, but then everything started getting funnelled back into this hegemony.” For Antonino, at the moment, the primary use of the internet seems to be “to promote more consumption and not more participation”.
Deanna takes us back to the fundamental question of distribution. “As an artist,” she says, “I want to make [my work] available to as many people as possible. As those are the tools I have at the moment, I think those are the tools I should use.” For her, it’s irrelevant whether or not she hates Facebook (she thinks she does), because she can use these tools to come together with others. “It’s not about how much money I can get from it,” she says. “It’s about how much change I can try to inspire. If that’s using Facebook because that’s where I know a hundred people will look at it, then that’s what I’m going to use.” She even challenges Facebook to use her work: “If they take it, then I’m going to write a new poem. Have that one, because I’m going to write a better one.”
Daniel Erlacher has more fundamental problem with social media. “I don’t have a Facebook account,” he says to Deanna. “I can’t follow you and I don’t want to; you exclude me.” When we laugh at his bluntness, he quickly adds, “Sorry, not literally – it’s a big dilemma.” Daniel doesn’t want to participate in this exclusionary social media at all, but when artists use Facebook or Google to promote their work, they become adverts for Facebook or Google. “Every click is an active invitation for other people to find you there,” he says.
Deanna concedes that it is important for artists to become more aware about social media and their channels of distribution, but she’s frustrated with how difficult that is becoming. All she wants is to write and perform, without worrying about whether or not Google owns a licence to all her YouTube videos. “What am I going to do? How am I going to be more aware?” she asks, getting more and more agitated. “How am I going to learn programming?” She hesitates. “I’m going to google it – jokes!” She laughs, we laugh, Ursula touches Deanna’s sleeve in solidarity.
There is, of course, a mid-way between most people’s total acceptance and Daniel’s total rejection of corporate social media. “We should use these mainstream channels and we should show our face if we are not afraid,” Ksenia Ermoshina says, but she also urges us to create “Temporary Autonomous Zones”, outside the internet, where we can come together in physical space.
“It’s up to you,” Ursula says. “Are you able to balance using this vehicle but not becoming it?” Chris agrees, saying, “I think that it’s perfectly fine to use all these corporate structures, but I’m a bit scared to be depending on them.” He sympathises with artists like Deanna who just want to create. “These days, when you sell your music via iTunes, for instance, it’s not so easy to change your channels of distribution,” he says. “We’ve become already quite dependent on these channels, in my opinion.” As more and more people join social networks, the pull of those social networks becomes stronger and stronger.
So how much creative-response is there to these corporations? Daniel doesn’t see any. Antonino quotes John Sayles, the US film-maker, who says that “we all work for corporations in some form”. For Antonino, as for John Holloway, there is no such thing as purity. “Part of creative-response is finding the free space and not thinking about things as black and white,” he says. “Public Enemy, of course, Fight the Power – major label. It’s important that we have sophistication and nuance about how to use that.”
Antonino ends with a story of how his friend and artist Ai Weiwei found the free space on Twitter to subvert an attempted Chinese cover-up of the shoddy construction of schools in Sichuan. Seven thousand schoolrooms collapsed in the province during the earthquake of 2008, leading to the death of up to five thousand children. Every day since, Ai Weiwei tweets the birthday of one of the kids killed.
“That’s a sophisticated way to work with the system to do something that’s an amazing creative-response, so those children are never forgotten,” Antonino says with pride. In this way, creative-response is able to stretch out its fingers and touch people beyond its time and place. “Fighting them at their level is a difficult proposition because they have the wealth,” Antonino adds. “But we have the numbers, we have the better ideas. We have to remember that, we have to get to the free space.”
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
– Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit (originally published as Bitter Fruit in 1937) was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in protest at the lynching of African Americans. Over the course of seventy years, from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, 4,733 people were recorded as killed by lynch mob. The mob’s preferred method of execution was by hanging from the branches of a tree: strange fruit indeed.
Why am I telling you this? Because, as Antonino D’Ambrosio explains, the song is a great example of creative-response, this afternoon’s topic for discussion. Billie sings of the poplar trees, beautiful and vital in nature, now transformed into an instrument of death. “To use that as a metaphor, the strange fruit of people that are hanging and then rotting on the branch,” Antonino says, “is a creative-response.”
Antonino is a passionate advocate of the concept of creative-response, a term he coined to capture the impulse that makes an artist create art. Abel Meeropol read about the lynchings and was moved to write Bitter Fruit. In 1939, Billie Holiday heard Bitter Fruit and was moved to share those lyrics on a recording that, sixties years later, Time magazine named the song of the century.
For Antonino, the song is so successful as creative-response because Billie sings the song from her the bottom of her soul. “Creative-response is an embracing of our emotions and our passions and linking them with thoughts and ideas,” he says. “This resistance that we feel from the dominant culture is that you cannot express your emotions and that is somehow considered weakness – and, being Italian, I’m emotional first.”
Antonino sees all creative work as an integral part of the politics of society, whether the artist realises it or not. Creative-response is the conceptual framework that enables this realisation and allows artists “to think about what they’re doing, to frame their work in the context of a greater good and the community of solidarity”. Some art is more obviously a part of this community of solidarity than others, a protest song like Strange Fruit for example, but all art is, at root, a response to something and can therefore be placed in a wider political context.
Indeed, creative-response sits at the very core of Elevate. “The festival is a combination of music and critical political discourse and art,” Elevate co-founder Daniel Erlacher says. “Not necessarily having the artists being politically outspoken on stage,” he explains, “but rather bringing topics and content together in a certain framework.”
Swivelling gently in his chair, Antonino agrees. “The Elevate Festival truly is a creative-response,” he says. That creative-response is even embodied in the history of Dom Im Berg, the mountain-heart of the festival. “A cave that was built by slaves to protect an occupying powerful military force, transformed into a place that brought all of us together from all around the world to engage in art, culture and connection is itself a creative-response,” Antonino says. “So that’s a very tangible example that many of you have already participated in.” I look around at the audience; we’re all doing creative-response without even knowing it.
Antonino D’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. “It was a great time of despair,” he says. “For people like my family, there just seemed to be no future, no place for us.” He pauses, drifting back to memories. “Then I discovered, all at the same time, punk rock, rap, graffiti and skateboarding.” As he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his side walks into skate parks, he realised that another world was indeed possible, where obstacles were opportunities.
These art forms, which operate in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, embody what Antonino calls creative-response. “We transform our world by asking the questions that we’re told not to ask: What if? Why not?” Antonino says. “Creative-response is about not asking permission; it’s about embracing our imagination to see us connected as one people, that allows us to make everything possible.”
In times that are overtly political, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the turmoil of 1970s and 1980s Reaganomics and Thatcherism, art seems to become more overtly political, with We Shall Overcome protest songs, Fight the Power rap and London Calling punk. Yet creative-response is nothing new, it has been “alive in us throughout history” according to Antonino. “Creative-response,” he says, “is embedded with compassion, our greatest human talent.” Public Enemy couldn’t have written Fight the Power without compassion for the suffering of others.
For Antonino, creative-response, embedded with compassion, is the opposite force to cynicism. “Over the last thirty years, cynicism has become a dominant force in our lives,” he says. “The United States has been a great proponent of cynicism, it has exported that as one of its cultural products.” For a country traditionally more famous for the wild optimism of “The American Dream”, this is a strange export indeed. So what changed in that thirty years?
According to Antonino, Reagan and Thatcher “transformed compassion into cynicism”, telling us that society doesn’t exist and that the individual is paramount. Their rhetoric of cynicism bled into our minds and changed the way we think about our roles in society; from “citizen” to “consumer”. “If you’re cynical, then you don’t participate,” Antonino says, “and, without participation, you don’t have society or democracy.” In this way, the rhetoric of cynicism becomes self-fulfilling.
What does Creative-Response mean to You?
Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, is the daughter of an Italian mother and a black father from the south. This “revolutionary union” made her political from birth. “Creative-response is really everything I do,” she says. “It’s why I’m sitting here, it’s why I don’t give up, it’s why I started in the first place.”
In her poetry, her music and her life, raising four black boys in America, she fights back against the apathetic belief that one person can’t do anything. “What can one person do?” she queries incredulously. “One person can do a lot!” For Ursula, we must always speak out, we must always give a creative-response. “If you never say anything,” she says, “then you’ll certainly never find out what one person can do, and you also won’t find out what one person in cooperation with other individuals can do.”
By making a creative-response, we break open a crack in the conversation and give others the opportunity to speak out for themselves. Fight the Power, a mere song, gave African Americans (and others) a voice and a coherent way of resisting the discrimination they face in the US (and beyond).
Ursula’s chosen track, Sound of da Police by KRS One, although twenty-one years old, reminds us of the very current events in Ferguson, Missouri, where African American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. Despite the tragedy, Ursula sees hope in the mass demonstrations since. “I am so excited about the response, the human response, from people about Ferguson,” she says. “I hope everybody is paying attention for how far we can take this if you’re brave and courageous and compassionate enough.”
For Deanna Rodger, a British spoken word artist, creative-response is “saying aloud the things that are on my mind, the things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, that make me feel small, that quite frankly just piss me off”. She figures those things out on a piece of paper, constantly asking herself, Why am I feeling like this? How have I been conditioned? How can I challenge myself to recondition myself? For Deanna, creative-response is an exploration of the self and of society. “Laws, norms and values should constantly be scrutinised to see whether they still fit,” she says.
For Austrian electronic musician Chris Hessle, the response part of creative-response is not so obvious. “For me,” he explains, “it’s not always such a conscious response to an issue or something I read in the newspaper – but I guess it’s somehow in there. It takes some detours or takes some time until it becomes visible in maybe a completely different place.” Daniel Erlacher speculates that electronic and noise music is “working on a different level”: it’s not as explicit as other art forms, like hip hop or writing, where you can speak directly to your audience.
Ksenia Ermoshina, a musician and activist from Russia, sees her homeland distancing itself from the international community of creative-responders. “What I’m seeing now is the Iron Curtain is closing again,” she says. “It’s closing Russia from other cultures, from respecting and seeing others as others, with their right to be other.” This brings back memories of the Soviet Russia that her parents knew. “My dad was engaged with the radio amateur community,” she remembers, “building radios, so he could get to Radio America and record Pink Floyd, Doors, Deep Purple and all this sixties music that was important for the generation of my parents.” This kind of cultural resistance was almost criminal in Soviet Russia, but it opened up the wider world of music to Ksenia and to her father’s friends.
But Ksenia became disappointed with the commodification of that world. “Even rock and jazz harmony became mainstream, incorporated into capitalism,” she says. “Jazz was a form of resistance, but now it is a product.” So she asks: “How can we create something that will not be an object of desire?” The answer is noise music.
By definition, “noise” is something that we don’t want to hear. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for all these marginal people,” Ksenia says with a smile. “We, here, who are not very pleasant guests in this society, we are kind of noise for global corporations.” She gesticulates at us with her pencil. “Let’s be noise, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture – SZSH!” She’s replied with the static SZSH of applause.
At this point, Daniel Erlacher reminds Ksenia that, in Russia, the SZSH is being repressed, citing the infamous imprisonment of Pussy Riot. “It depends when, where and how you make the SZSH,” Ksenia admits. “Pussy Riot made SZSH like a BOOM!” Laughter. “They are not only about creating sound, but about creating sense. When you do this, you become enemy.”
Art as Activism?
This brings us to the concept of art as activism and to the repression or censorship of artists. For Ksenia, whether art is activism depends on the form and how it is shared. She was an adbuster in Russia for three years, rewriting messages and adverts put up by corporations and Putin’s political party. Her group used to stick speech bubbles on billboards selling cosmetics, making the models quote philosophy and criticise Russian politics. “We had a creative-response to every law that we judged unjust,” Ksenia says.
“I take my responsibilities as a citizen of the world very seriously,” Antonino says. “I don’t know if I’d call it activism, but art, by creating, in its very nature is an action.” Creativity is a response to a particular set of circumstances; sometimes that response will be more overtly political than at other times, but it is always in the background. “Have I experienced censorship?” he asks. “Yes, of course, all the time.”
Antonino’s current project is working with Frank Serpico on a film about police corruption called Only Actions Count. After the recent publication of an article on politico.com, Frank, who still carries a bullet in his brain for exposing police corruption in the sixties, received a slew of death threats for being “anti-American”.
For Daniel, these death threats raise the question of how far you should go, as an artist. “That’s what these threats are there for: they want you to withdraw,” Chris says. “I think it’s really important to stand together and speak up together in a way that you and they and everyone else knows that you are not alone.”
Ksenia tells the story of Voina, an activist group in Russia. They started out quite tamely, throwing cats over the counters of McDonalds and holding a wake for an absurdist poet in a metro carriage. They ended up by filming a tutorial on how to flip a police car with four people and throwing Molotov cocktails. They spent three months in prison, with Banksy putting up the bail money
. “Everybody doesn’t have to go that far,” Ursula says, softly. “That’s awesome, but what I always try to tell people is you don’t have to do that. Everyone has different levels and different ways of speaking up and standing up.”
Molotov cocktail-throwing artists are creative-response; a comedy boyband writing about “Pies of Peace” are creative-response. It’s a question of what level of response you’re interested in. “Everybody can do something,” Ursula adds.
Despite the environmental and social crises facing our generation, Daniel does not see the same mass artistic response that we had in the seventies and eighties with hip hop and punk. “Where are the artists speaking out on climate change?” he asks to a roomful of silence. Chris makes the point that climate change is really hard for people, including artists, to grasp. “As a phenomena, it’s just so huge,” he says. Chris suggests that perhaps you might be able to see a creative-response to the more immediate secondary consequences of climate change, such as the refugee crisis in Europe. Even then, from the Austrian music scene, Chris can only offer us one reggae and one hip hop track about refugees who were killed in police custody. “But I don’t know any more than these two songs in the last fifteen years,” he adds.
Deanna has done some small events on climate change, but nothing on the scale required. “We need to be doing a lot more,” she says, “in terms of making more noise and more visible noise.” Ksenia suggests that creative-response has evolved to take in new media, citing viral YouTube videos of the ice bucket challenge, which raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Okay, so it’s not high art or anything, but it’s a popular response to a real problem. More interestingly, Ksenia describes one such video that went viral in Russia, in which a message floating on an ice cold river changed from “Putin forever” to “Putin is defective”, a difference of only one letter in Russian.
“Creative-response is not just the terrain of musicians and writers and painters and film-makers,” Antonino points out. “Scientists and economists have to mine creative-response.” Chris and Ksenia nod in agreement; you can feel understanding spread through the room. “We all have the talent to creatively respond,” he explains. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world,” he adds. “That’s very important. We have a chance to make history by our actions or our indifference.”
Ursula puts it even more succinctly: “Say something, do something, let’s continue this work,” she says. “That’s the lesson from tonight. We need more of this, we need more Strange Fruit, we need more Who you callin’ a bitch?, we need more response – I mean positive, palpable, effective response that leads to positive, palpable, effective change.” Applause cracks and breaks out.
This idea brings us back to the purpose of the Elevate festival itself. “We hope to inspire artists also in the next ten years,” Daniel promises. “When you try to inspire someone,” he says, “you can be sure inspiration comes back to you.” He smiles. “That’s the most beautiful thing.”
So we turn the speakers up loud and listen together to Public Enemy, Shut ’em Down.
“I like Nike, but wait a minute
The neighbourhood supports
So put some money in it
They gotta give up the dough
To the town
Or else we gotta shut ’em down.”
– Chuck D on Shut ’em Down
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.
Mimu is late, bounding on stage, puffing, out of breath from running up the mountain into the Dom Im Berg cave. “There are many musicians,” she says, once she’s caught her breath, “that are actually preparing their instruments so they can work with every sound quality that that device is able to give. And I was thinking: but no one plays the audience.” She smiles. “This is such an unused resource and I really want to see what is possible.”
So she gets us to take out our mobile phones and exchange phone numbers with the person next to us. There’s a buzz of chatter and a clattering of bottles as feet shuffle. “Please exchange phone numbers really quickly,” Mimu says, “so we can proceed to the actual happening.”
The actual happening involves calling the person next to us, switching our phones to loudspeaker and experimenting with what Mimu calls “something like a really, really easy ping-pong delay with your phones”. The closer the two calling phones are to each other, the more apparent feedback loop. “And also,” she adds, “if that is working, you can add some sound like bah, oh, ah and you will see that it is going to be looped.”
“So please call each other now, switch on loud and enjoy the silence.” Something remarkable begins to happen. The cave is filled with digital crickets, or perhaps bats, chirping and kurking. Mimu holds the microphone to the front row phones. Monkeys join the crickets and wooahs loop around the walls of the cave.
“This is just a small example of an everyday hack,” Mimu shouts over the monkeys. “Just an example of how you can misuse, playfully, technology that surrounds you.” She laughs as the crickets continue their chirping unabated. “I used to call it the instant choir: human resources as an instrument.”
Patrick Wurzwallner, hair scraped into the blonde ponytail that appears to be the distinctive tribal mark of an Austrian artist, settles himself at the drums. After the intensity of John Holloway’s opening speech, Patrick promises us a “head cleaner”, a short solo percussion piece. “At the end,” he says, “I would like to invite you to sigh, as relief.”
Silence settles as he adjusts his seat, his sticks. Then, with a slight intake of breath, he raps a singular totemic beat, managing the reverberations with his left hand.
Head slightly shaking from side to side, the bass kick steadily joins. Louder. His left hand doubles the rhythm, pulsing. Then the hands split off in two directions, spiralling frequencies faster and faster.
Rapid blurring climax, both hands in concert again. Now on the one drum, slight, coming close together. Slower. Until just a pulse on the kick drum, like letters on an old typewriter.
One foot keeps up the beat while Patrick prepares pans on the drums skins. Thin tinny clang-tings. A quick one-two on the snare, right arm in the air – and a collective sigh of release.
My friend Simon Moore is doing something crazy, stupid and arduous.
With Maria Gallastegui, he is sailing in a sixteen-foot dinghy over three thousand miles, from London to Lebanon.
It’s hard to capture quite how crazy, stupid and arduous this is unless you’ve done something similar, which I haven’t. And that’s kind of the point of this article.
Within about five minutes of us waving Simon and Maria off back last July, they discovered that their boat had holes in.
Then they discovered that, actually, waves could get pretty big in the North Sea and, if they capsized now, they’d be dead.
It took them four days, beaten back each time by gales and high seas, to get around just one point in Kent. Then they faced the Channel crossing.
Limping into Calais port, more coastal storms “encouraged” them to change their plans, from sailing around the Atlantic coast, to navigating through France along the canals.
That change of plan meant, rather than filling their sails, they faced instead months of back-breaking rowing.
Some days, Simon told me, he didn’t want to eat or drink anything because he didn’t have the strength to build a fire.
When he left, Simon thought the whole journey might be over in six months. Six months later, like Odysseus returning from Troy, Maria and Simon face an Odyssey that might take years.
Simon has now returned to the UK for the winter, to recover and take stock, waiting for the better Mediterranean sailing conditions of spring.
He is also thinking of giving up.
When he told me this, I was shocked. Shocked, a little panicky and then confused.
I could understand why he would give up; as if the journey wasn’t dangerous enough, the spread of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon makes even the destination deadly.
Any sensible, rational algorithm would calculate risk, profit and loss and conclude abandonment of the project.
I could understand his doubts and his concerns and could not blame him for such a decision.
So why did I feel shock, panic and confusion? Why should I take his retirement personally?
Because, I realise, I was relying on Simon’s journey.
Facing down my personal daily struggles – publishing a book, fixing my bike, taking clothes to Calais – relied in some small way on knowing that he was out there doing something far more crazy, stupid and arduous.
And I realised that, as a society, we need people like Simon and Maria, sacrificing themselves to do crazy, stupid and arduous things.
Why? The Philosophy of Inspiration
The process of doing anything starts in your imagination, with the conception that it is possible.
Without the imagination, there can be no action.
That’s why the most reliable indicator of whether you’ll end up as a doctor is if someone in your family is… a doctor.
This is also one reason why rich or privileged folks are more likely to embark on ambitious projects: thanks to their elite education and lineage, they have witnessed that anything is possible.
They have an arrogance of potentialities; they do not doubt what they are capable of.
Camila grew up with that as a model: You dream something up and then make it happen.
Camila had written the business plan for Kids Company by the time she was fourteen.
The charity now helps 36,000 of the most vulnerable children in the UK with practical, emotional and educational support.
It wouldn’t have been possible – it wouldn’t have been even imaginable – if she hadn’t had her family’s lineage of imagination and action behind her.
You can’t do anything of which you can’t conceive; nor can you do anything you believe is impossible.
Camila Batmanghelidjh believed she could set up Kids Company because she’d experienced as a child that such things were possible.
I never considered a career in medicine because I had no conception that such a career was possible for me. I had no role models so it just wasn’t on my radar.
It might be illustrative to demonstrate how imagination turns into action with an example from my own life.
The Genealogy of an Adventure
Until 2009, I had no lineage of grand cycling adventures in my life. Bicycles were annoying machines that rusted in the garage and occasionally used to cycle two miles into town.
I had no conception that anyone could use them for adventures. My imagination for cycling extended as far as Wallingford and that was about it.
My parents did travel widely before I was born, hitch-hiking to Australia in the 1970s.
On Sunday evenings at home, to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes, they’d often show slides of their adventures in South America, my sister and I gazing in awe from the sofa.
But I didn’t connect cycling with such adventures until I stumbled across Alastair Humphreys at the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore Conference in 2008.
Alastair had recently finished cycling around the world, which is about as extreme a demonstration of the adventuring possibilities of the bicycle that you could hope for.
That conference marked the beginning of my imaginative lineage for cycling adventures.
The next year, I cycled to Bordeaux, followed by trips around Britain and then around Tunisia.
Each time, I stretched my imaginative conception of what was possible on a bicycle. As my imagination grew, I burst with new ideas and, gradually, I became able to turn those ideas into realities.
But none of my journeys would have been possible without the imaginative lineage I inherited from my parents and from Alastair Humphreys.
The Ripples of Transformative Stories
As a society, we need people like Alastair, Simon and Maria to do these crazy, stupid, arduous things because they are the ones who stretch our imagination and our conception of what is possible.
Everyone who comes into contact with Simon’s story now understands that such an audacious adventure is within their grasp.
Hearing Simon’s story forces us to confront an alternative reality, an alternative way of doing things.
We can’t ignore Simon’s journey precisely because it is crazy, stupid and arduous. It is a challenge to ourselves to overcome whatever struggles we are facing.
You cannot listen to Simon and go back to your life unchanged. He has given me the gift of an expanded imagination, an expanded reality, in the same way that my parents and Alastair Humphreys did.
Their stories are transformative; they force you to reconsider your conception of what you are capable of in life, in an instant.
That’s why journeys such as Simon’s are important to our society and that’s why I believe he should persevere.
Not for himself (although he will learn much from the journey), not for his charity Syrian Eyes (although they will benefit much from messages of solidarity and fundraising), but for the immeasurable millions of ripples his story will riffle through society.
Unbeknownst to him, Simon is transforming lives, opening minds, broadening imaginations. His arduous journey, his risking death, is not in vain; he offers us the gift of expanded imagination and a new perspective from which to examine our lives.
In this way, these kinds of journeys are a precious social service and it is a shame that they seem to be undervalued in our society.
Because their impact cannot be easily measured or monetised, these journeys are dismissed in value and left to people like Simon.
And people like Simon, if left without appropriate recognition of their positive impression on society, can get disheartened about their worth and think about giving up.
We must treasure these people; not worship, but treasure them. They do productive and inspirational work that is no less great for the fact that its impression is immeasurable.
Support them, share their experiences, spread their ripples. We need them.
I’m not saying that I’m going to rush off and sail to Lebanon, by the way, and I’m not saying that you should either. But I can never go back to believing that such a thing is impossible.
And, if sailing 3,500 miles in a dinghy is not impossible, then what else in my life is not impossible? What other potentials must I reassess? What else is my imagination capable of conceiving and making manifest?
We must not ignore or run from the audacity of our imagination. We must embrace it and surprise, delight and inspire the world.
UPDATE: Kids Company was dissolved in 2015 after the withdrawal of government funding and the support of major donors due to concerns over the charity’s financial management and a police investigation into allegations of child abuse.
A shocking denouement, but the story of the foundation of Kids Company is still illustrative of my point in this post. The police investigation found insufficient evidence of child abuse to meet the threshold for prosecution.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to be publishing a series of articles taken from my latest book, Elevate #10. This is the first such post, from the Elevate Festival’s opening ceremony, Deanna Rodger’s poem Read My Lips. Enjoy.
Deanna Rodger’s steel-capped poem, Read My Lips, kicks down the door to the tenth edition of the Elevate Festival. The poem embodies the elemental forces of Elevate, its gravity and its magnetism; the creative-response to not being heard.
Sometimes – by which I mean often times – it can feel like we are not just being overlooked or ignored, we aren’t even being heard over the sound of seven billion people upgrading phones, paying treadmill rent or pawning for a payday loan. Not being heard is about the most frustrating emotion a human can feel. It’s the emotion that spawns violence, anger and hate.
“As a teenager, I was really pent up,” Deanna Rodger tells us. “I had a lot of anger living inside of me and I didn’t have the means to let it through.” But we don’t have to respond to not being heard with unfocussed anger; we can use that anger to respond creatively.
Luckily, teenage Deanna Rodger ended up at a creative writing workshop, a reluctant tag-along for her best mate. “I didn’t really want to do it,” she says, “but then they said, Write about fire, and I thought, Ooh, I can definitely write about fire! I know what it feels like in my belly, I know what it feels like in my heart, I know what it feels like in my brain.” She has been writing and performing, burning anger into poetic fire, ever since.
The solitude, space and silence of, not school, not work, but creative writing is what gave Deanna Rodger her voice. “Not having to worry about my spelling or my punctuation or even it rhyming,” she says, gave her “that freedom to write whatever was in my head and then mould it into exactly what I wanted to say.” Writing allowed Deanna Rodger to respond creatively to the anger she was feeling, reclaiming it as something useful and empowering. And we hear her in a way that we wouldn’t if she’d stayed stuck at the angry stage, with empathy, love and solidarity.
The Elevate Festival gives voice to people, projects and ideas that are not being heard, or not being heard loudly enough. For four days in October, people from all over the world come together in Graz to hear each other and to relay, amplify and broadcast each other.
Elevate is, like Deanna Rodger’s writing, a creative-response to not being heard. But it is also a demand that we shall be heard.
Antonino d’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. Then, all at once, Antonino discovered the mysteries of punk, rap, graffiti and the skateboard. And, as he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his sidewalks into skateparks, he realised that another world was possible.
These art forms, which grew up in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, Antonino calls “creative response”.
The rest of this evening’s panel contributed their ideas of what creative response means to them as artists. For Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, “creative response is everything I do. It’s why I’m sitting here, why I don’t give up.”
Ksenia Ermoshina’s creative musical response is with experimental noise. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for everyone who is marginal – for us, here,” she says with gathering excitement. “We are kind of noise for global corporations. Let’s be noisy, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture.” On cue, the crowd breaks into applause, laughter, whooping.
“Creative response is saying aloud the things that are on your mind,” says Deanne Rodger, a British spoken word artist. “The things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, make me feel small, marginalised. Creative response is an exploration of the self.”
For Austrian electronic musician IZC, creative response is not so simple. “For me, my music is not always a conscious direct response to something I read or saw – but it’s in there. It takes some detours and it takes some time, but it’s in there.”
And, of course, as Antonino says, the Elevate Fesitval itself is a creative response: electronic music and visual arts side by side with intense political discussions. Dom Im Berg, the heart of the festival, is a cave that was hollowed out by slaves and is now transformed into a place for all to come and celebrate our common struggles.
“We all have the talent to creatively respond,” Antonino says, in conclusion. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world. That’s very important.”
For a fuller exploration of creative response and Antonino’s ear-popping soul-dropping film, “Let Fury Have the Hour”, you’ll just have to wait for the book of Elevate 2014!
I know some of you are writers or would like to become writers, whatever that means. One of the problems with writing is that it’s almost entirely subjective. I say almost because there comes a point when the mass of subjectivity is so overwhelming as to become objective. Subjectively, I wasn’t entertained by the first dozen pages of the Harry Potter fiasco. 450 million book sales tells me I’m wrong. Objectively, Harry Potter and his minions are the very definition of excellent writing, writing that captures and holds an audience.
The only problem with this form of objectivity is that it requires a mass, a horde, of subjects. And this horde is precisely what the becoming writer does not, by definition, have. So we have to seek out other subjectivities, expert subjectivities, in the hope that they add up to something like a stab at objectivity.
(I should note that publishers have this exact same problem. Their decision on the worth of a new submission is taken on the basis of a dozen subjective opinions. That’s nowhere near good enough to match the objective opinion of the mass audience out there. Hence why many, many books fail, despite getting the seal of approval from an expert publisher.)
But to get back to the becoming writer. After friends and family, one of the places we can turn for a stab at objectivity is a manuscript assessment service, like The Literary Consultancy. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I handed over my 257 page manuscript, along with a cheque for £449.75. And I held my breath.
Now, bearing in mind that I’ve scarcely earned £449.75 from my writing ever, that’s an awful lot of money to spend. Why did I do it? Because I had to know. The testimonials from writers who had used the service were glowing. I had to know if The Literary Consultancy could sprinkle the same gold dust on my manuscript as they had on Bruno Cassidy’s. “I can honestly say,” Bruce gushes, “that I received more engaged and positive criticism from him on this story than at any time during a two year part time Creative Writing MA.” I suppose £449.75 is a small price to pay in comparison to funding a two year part time Creative Writing MA.
I waited six weeks for the report. It arrived precisely on time, straight into my email inbox.
It was a touch over ten pages long, as promised – but some of those pages were not filled. It was double spaced. The whole thing totalled 3643 words, each one costing twelve pence. My first thought, on reading, was Have I wasted half a grand on this? I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I closed the email and forgot about it for a week.
After I got back from Calais, I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, with a pen in my hand. There must be some treasure to be found between these pricey pages. It was written by a man who had published books. He had won Wales Book of the Year. The Independent on Sunday had even called his most recent travel book “thorough”. So I dug deep down into his report, determined to uncover the treasure.
NB: From this point onwards, non-serious writers may get bored. Sorry. This isn’t really written for you. For the serious writer, wondering if it’s time to shell out for professional objectivity, I hope you find this report summary useful.
Approach (0.25 pages)
This was a short précis of my story, useful to ensure that he got the gist of what I was trying to do. He did. Phew.
Where am I coming from as a critic? (0.25 pages)
A short biography of the critic, establishing his bone fides as both a writer and a traveller. This made me feel more comfortable that he was a suitable critic for my book. I should say that The Literary Consultancy had given me a choice of two critics, so I had already done some research on the man. This put me at ease.
Opening Remarks (1 page)
This section addressed my cover letter and synopsis, as well as the title and the fact that I look young in my photograph. On the plus side, the manuscript was well laid out and “very professional”. Neither of us liked the title and he suggested a couple of alternatives.
Concept (0.5 pages)
This section placed the manuscript within the wider world of publishing. This is where the central problem with the manuscript was first addressed: “you have to offer something distinctive in delivering the story, to make it a commercially marketable book”. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
Technique (1 page)
General comments on style and structure. I have a “breezy no-nonsense prose style”, combined with a very good ear for speech. I’m particularly proud that he says: “There were no significant passages where my interest flagged.” Now there’s a review for the front cover! However, he is right when he says that there is precious little description of landscape and culture in the book. That is a weakness.
The Narrative (3 pages)
This is the meat of the report. Here he gets into more detail about the manuscript, its achievements and its failings. He addresses story-telling style, dialogue, characterisation, use of detail and description. He gives advice on how I could increase the reader’s emotional involvement and interest, through use of more encounters and personal reflection. He even raised the possibility of importing characters from elsewhere, à la Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin… By my honour!
Details (0.5 pages)
This addressed half a dozen typos, factual inaccuracies and general puzzlements. He missed several that I’ve later caught, but this wasn’t supposed to be a proof-reading.
Conclusions (2.5 pages)
Here he tackles the root problem of the manuscript and offers ideas for its development. The question is: “Will your book force its way to the front of the queue?” His answer is no, despite enjoying the story and seeing that I have the skills to write a publishable book. The manuscript as it stands is “a little short of rounded interest”. He urges me to “be more ambitious”, believing that I have “the potential to write at a higher level”. He finishes with a reading list of published books that could hand me the key to this higher plane.
Overall, I would say that the Literary Consultancy report told me nothing of the manuscript that I hadn’t already suspected myself. But I think that is a good sign: it would have been terrible if he’d hated all the parts that I thought were brilliant and vice versa. It shows, at least, that I have an honest eye for my own work.
Where the report hides its genius is in how it has inspired me to go back to the manuscript and improve it. That is what I have paid for, not the words of the report, but the encouragement. That encouragement, from an independent, experienced writer is invaluable.
I have since read and re-read the critic’s words many times and they have been an invaluable guide in my most recent edit of the book. I feel now that I have the thematic structure of a richer dish. The light shone by the report has improved my writing.
Was The Literary Consultancy worth £449.75?
In short: Yes.
Of course, I couldn’t afford to pay this every time I write a book, but perhaps I won’t have to. The report confirmed my suspicions of my literary weaknesses and affirmed the skills I do have as a writer, so perhaps all I will need next time is more confidence in myself.
Danger 400 volts! One glance at the auditorium tells me this isn’t your usual cinema. One solitary wooden school chair, sharing space with the electrical consumer unit, in a cupboard under the stairs of what used to be Deptford JobCentrePlus, now an art venue called Utrophia.
I’m here to see three short films by sound artist Libero Colimberti. Libero’s films are projected onto the slanting underside of the staircase, for an audience of one. As you would expect, sound is the star of Libero’s films. The unusual projection angle only emphasises this, forcing me to lean back in the creaking chair.
The first of the films (‘Microlanding Strip’) visually consists of one continuous fixed shot of a quiet residential street at night. The scene is empty: the pavement, a row of houses on one side and a grassy verge on the other. But the sound is full of traffic, of buses and cars, of dislocated shouts, a man whistling, a police siren – and a mysterious mechanical cranking noise. Sight and sound do not match.
The eye of the camera stares at the scene, but our ears are somewhere else. At the bottom of the picture a clock counts down – but to what? Then a bicycle bursts into frame, racing towards us from the far end of the street. The cyclist is Libero, holding an enormous microphone. Sight and sound dramatically converge; the bike crashes into the camera, the clock hits zero and everything goes black.
The second film (‘Salami!’) I heard as an exercise in focusing our auditory attention. We follow Libero around his world. We see him trying to cross the road, walking past a construction site and through a park. In each location, though, our attention is on the sounds; we hear things Libero’s way. The traffic noise, the birdsong, the noise of the diggers, each is turned up, crisply distinct, filling the cupboard-cinema, burrowing into our brains.
The richness of our auditory world is often overlooked for the flashiness of the visual. Libero tries to address this injustice. When we concentrate on sound, it fills our brains and we hear things that we’d swear weren’t there a moment ago. Try it for yourself for a moment. Turn off the radio and listen. Can you hear the birds? The traffic of the road outside? Your neighbours? As you concentrate, the sounds swell and you begin to realise that there’s a symphony happening out there (not always melodious symphony in London, but still).
If Libero’s ear is sensitive, his eye is playful. When he reaches his house we hear the persistent orgiastic cries of a woman in coitus and the banging of her bedroom door against its frame: she’s fucking against the door. Libero listens: half-horrified, half-fascinated. Then he sees the salami. Just inside the ecstatic woman’s door is a plate with a salami sausage on it (not a euphemism). The banging of the door stops, orgasmically spent. Libero greedily seizes his chance to slip his hand through the gap for the salami – but before he can seize his sausage (not a euphemism) the banging begins again, battering his hand and Libero has to beat a retreat.
The first two films play with the interplay between sound and visuals: the first by dislocating the sound from the visuals, the second by exaggerating the sound over the visuals. The third (‘Frame’) does away with visuals altogether. A red frame appears, bathing the cupboard-cinema in its glow. A clock counts down in the top right corner of the picture. The sounds alone suggest the story. We hear traffic, then a girl shouting in the distance. Slowly, we realise that we’re eaves-dropping on a domestic argument, as a neighbour might – we can’t see the drama, hidden behind a fence or some trees, perhaps. “Don’t you f****** dare!” Subtitles highlight essential phrases. “Oh f****** hell!” A woman is screaming at a man – her boyfriend. “Because I f****** love you!”
We piece together the scene from the dialogue: “What does it matter if I jump off here?” the man shouts. The woman, we can hear now, is trying to calm him down, trying to talk him down from his suicide. He must be standing on a window sill or on a rooftop. “I f****** love you,” the man shouts, in despair – “But I f****** hit you! What does it matter if I jump off here?”
But Libero doesn’t let us hear the conclusion to the story. The sound of sobbing shake the cupboard-cinema and a drunk walks by, singing “I love you…” The countdown stops. We’re left to fill the silence with our thoughts.
The triumph of the films of Libero Colimberti is that he directs our attention to the hidden sounds of life, those sounds we take for granted, or hear only as irritants, not as music. As I duck out of the dingy cupboard, out into the bright sunshine of Spring, I listen for a moment to the symphony of Deptford Market and sing.
‘Salami’ by Libero Colimberti
‘Microlanding Strip’ is playing at Window 135 in New Cross until this Saturday 9 March.
It’s not a great opening line, but it is accurate. At least, I’ve not met a funnier qualified Egyptologist. Tony Robinson doesn’t count; he’s an actor. Did he get a First in Ancient History and Egyptology from UCL? No. So screw him.
This is an auto-review of my stand up show at The Camden Head on the 4th of November 2012. You can listen to the whole show by clicking on the play button below. Let’s do this!
This is only my third gig on the London stand-up scene and there is an audience of about fifty people waiting to be entertained. Only three of them are my friends, so that leaves forty-seven people to win over. Forty-seven people. That’s two football matches’ worth (including a referee and two linesmen). Two football matches playing out in front of me and only three supporters. Sounds like Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning. But it’s not; it’s the Camden Head on a Sunday night and these football teams are missing Downton Abbey and Homelands to be here. Sacrifices have been made. I’d better be funny.
I stay sober and don’t eat for hours beforehand. This, combined with the fact that backstage is a exterior fire escape, means that I’m shaking like a leaf, when that leaf has drunk too much caffeine. But I am also on stage and that means I am under threat. To my caveman mind, the audience are lions in the Serengeti. Instead of fight or flight, though, my only defence is having faster neurons than them. This is why I don’t drink beforehand, whereas they are drunk. Hopefully. I also have the advantage that I have written six hundred and fifty-six words of funny material and if I can only remember those six hundred and fifty-six words, then I will have made them laugh and the lions won’t eat me.
But stand-up is more than just paper writing; stand-up is the scent of blood. Stand-up happens live, in the Colosseum, a gladiatorial battle of wits between the comedian myrmidon and the lion audience. I’m lucky, these particular lions want to roll over and have me tickle their tummy. But, as in all human-feline flirtations, the cat holds at least as much power as I do. And there are forty-seven of them. Merely repeating written words into the arena might get a laugh, but it is the liveness of stand-up that has the lions rolling around on the floor like you’ve just sprayed the room with catnip. Every reaction from the lions, every laugh, every cough, every ooo, urhh, eww and whahey, is registered in my brain and my neurons must react with funny. That’s liveness.
I can feel a punch-line coming up and the lions aren’t ready, I back off and set them up again, this time they roll over and I tickle their tummies, before dancing back to go again. They howl and mewl at one joke, so I rub it harder; they roar again, I rub still harder; they roar a third time. These are the moments, off script, where the lions have forgotten they’re lions and the myrmidon is in complete mastery of the Colosseum. These are the moments where feline and human fall in love.
Five minutes later, I’m off stage and the game resumes with another gladiator*.
*This is a classical metaphor, rather than an Egyptological one, because the Ancient Egyptians weren’t barbarous animal torturers, unlike Boris Johnson.
I have created, from scratch, a fully edited novel of 80,000 words, in 114.75 hours, over the course of 31 (44) days.
An Admission Some of you might be thinking: he’s been going longer than 30 days! And you would be right. I started writing this novel on the 27th of May. Today is the 9th of July, so that makes 44 days.
However: I only worked on the novel for 31 out of those 44 days.
[The reasons for this are varied. I took a few days off to hitch-hike up to the Lake District, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I took a few more days off to be ill. Another couple of days here and there for various reasons that I won’t bother mentioning. Suffice to say, excuses should never be a part of a writer’s conversation.]
So, by my reckoning, I’m only 1 day over budget. Not bad for a first attempt.
Anyway, in 31 or 44 days, it all happened in two phases.
Phase One: Write like crazy
I wrote in a straight line, from 0 to 65,000words in 71.75hours of writing time, over the course of 21 (25) days.
At the end of each day’s writing, I transferred everything from my electronic typewriter to my computer. Sometimes I broke these chunks into scenes, sometimes I didn’t bother. But, thanks to the concentrated writing each day, I spent even my hours of leisure thinking about the problems of the novel. Quite often I’d think of some way out that I’d write the next day. Occasionally, and increasingly towards the end of the novel, I’d think of something that I wanted to have in the final chapter, some loose end that would need tying up, and I’d note this down for later.
By the end of Phase One, I had broken down the massive chunks of writing (about 3,000 words a day) into scenes. I had also decided that I wanted the novel to fall into five parts, plus an epilogue. Some of these parts arrived better formed than others. For example: most of the parts had about 13 scenes in them. Part II, however, had 27. This was ridiculous, especially as it was the shortest part in terms of words!
It would need a lot of editing in Phase Two.
Phase Two: Edit like crazy
I went back to the beginning and re-wrote, edited and generally tidied up the rough stuff of Phase One. This took me 43 hours, over the course of 10 (19) days.
There were quite a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense. So I had to write new scenes and completely redevelop some existing scenes. This made the novel grow quite substantially.
As an indication, by the end of Phase One, my novel looked like this:
Part I: 14,000 words
Part II: 10,000 words
Part III: 14,000 words
Part IV: 10,000 words
Part V: 17,000 words
By the end of Phase Two, it was looking like this:
Part I: 14,000 words
Part II: 17,000 words
Part III: 14,500 words
Part IV: 16,500 words
Part V: 19,000 words
As you can see, Parts II and IV expanded by two thirds between the first draft and the first edit. The other sections also increased in size, but more modestly.
The reason why Part I didn’t grow was because I actually started editing this Part during Phase One. The first draft of Part I was only 10,000 words in length, so it too grew significantly during the editing process.
Reflections on the 30-day process
The process, I believe, is devastatingly effective, but only if you can dedicate the hours to it. I spent between 3 and 5 hours every day that I worked.
Essentially, I worked for 21 days straight on Phase One, then took a week-long break, then spent 10 days straight on Phase Two. I would not necessarily recommend this week-long break, but it didn’t seem to hold me back too much. Perhaps it helped, perhaps it didn’t. I won’t know until I try and do this again.
One thing I probably would not recommend is starting to edit before you’ve finished the first draft. I did this with Part I. Although I felt at the time that it was helping me, in retrospect, I’m not sure it did. But again: who knows?
I do know for certain that some parts of the novel came very easily and some parts were difficult. Parts II and IV, notably, took longer to edit and required more smoothing out of the plot. Parts I, III and V were much more coherent from the first draft.
I think this is no coincidence. These parts contained much more of the action of the novel, rather than reaction and set-up. Action is no doubt easier to write: with action, you can write with the flow, whereas reaction is more circumspect and much harder to keep interesting.
So why bother with reaction at all? Because the reader needs a break! Also because I like to write novels that are a little more thoughtful than most smash-bang thrillers. So, while this novel is a thriller, it is perhaps a little more considered than Dan Brown.
Personally, I think this is a good thing; financially, it’s a disaster!
I’m still not entirely happy with the novel, after only one full edit. So I am going to spend the next 5 days doing a second edit to the whole novel, making sure that the plot is logically consistent. Then I am going to hand the whole thing over to my editors and first readers. So I fully expect to have finished this project after just 36 (or, if you like, 49) days.
Then I’m going to cycle around Britain…
And now? Over to you! I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to have a thrash at this crazy, wild, magical 30-day real-novel-writing technique!
I’m 22 days into my ambitious plan to write a real novel, fully drafted and edited, in 30 days. Part 1 is here.
So how am I doing?
Well, this was always going to be a method-in-progress so here are some updates to how I’ve been doing it, and then I’ll come onto how I’m doing, if you see what I mean.
The method: a novel in crisis
1. Don’t get ill.
I managed to contract a cold at the beginning of last week, which knocked me out for four days or so. I only managed to squeeze out about 5,000 words over that time, about 5,000 words down on where I should have been.
More importantly for the project, however, was the ensuing loss of focus. Without focus or the feeling that I knew what I was doing and where I was going, the novel would be dead. This was a serious problem.
2. The mid-novel collapse.
It could have been a coincidence that I felt this death of the novel at the same time as I had a cold. The feeling came on at around 45,000 words, which should have been at a pivotal point in the story. It should have been just as the middle is developing and boiling up nicely for the denouement. But I just didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know what my fifth chapter needed to set up the ending.
3. How to resurrect a novel in crisis.
So on Thursday last week I changed focus. I did two things. Firstly, I decided that I would skip chapter five. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I’d write something that was going somewhere and then go back to chapter five later, when I’d discovered what it needed to set up. In other words: I’d write the ending.
The second thing I did was to set a new deadline and a new target and focus on that. I decided that I’d finish the sixth and final chapter in 10,000 words, on Sunday. This re-energised my writing and my focus. Suddenly I knew what I was doing again. The novel was back.
So what happened?
Well, two things happened. Firstly, I finished the sixth chapter today, on Monday. That’s one day after my deadline, but instead of writing 10,000 words, I have written nearly 17,000. So I think one day slippage is allowed. The total word count now stands at 65,000.
Secondly, by writing the last chapter (there will be a short epilogue, but this is the end of the story proper), I did find out what needed to be in chapter five.
This highlights one of the problems with the NaNoWriMo style of plotting. How can your setup work smoothly if you haven’t written the ending yet? That might sound perverse, but, by reversing the writing order, my ending will be far more believable because I know exactly what my ending (i.e. chapter six) requires in its setup (i.e. chapter five). This should save me a lot of time in the editing process.
So what now?
Tomorrow I am going to write the epilogue and then I am going to spend the last week of my 30 days editing the beast down. This will include the writing of chapter five. Again, I am going to edit the ending before the setup, so that the passage of the novel is seamless.
The final word count is going to be about 80,000 words. I am finding, as I edit the earlier chapters, that the pre-edit word count grows about 20%. This is because I have to write in extra scenes to keep the novel flowing logically. Plus there’s chapter five to be written, almost in its entirety.
Stay tuned for Part 3. Will I really have a fully drafted and edited novel after only 30 days?
This isn’t just a pie in the sky blog post. This is something that is actually happening, right now. I’ve been holding off writing this first part for a couple of weeks, just to make sure that writing a real novel in thirty days is possible.
What do I mean by a ‘real novel’?
What I’m not talking about is a NaNoWriMo novel, where you blast out 1,667 words a day to end up, at the end of the month, with 50,000 words of complete and utter nonsense. That’s not, in my opinion, a real novel. NaNoWriMo is good for people who find it hard to get words out onto paper. For people who aspire to create something ready for publication, it’s not a path I’d recommend.
NaNoWriMo digression, or: why my novel will be different
I have done NaNoWriMo. I did it last year and, sure enough, I ended up with 50,000 words of garbage. There were some good ideas in there, but it was all over the place and would have taken me months to figure out what was good and what was not. Then I would have had to have re-written it all and added another 30,000 words before it was in a position to be anywhere near getting published.
How do I know that it would have taken me months to sort that jumble out? Well, in 2009, I started writing a novel in a NaNoWriMo-ish way. I decided to write 1,000 words a day for 50 days. This was how I started my first novel and it was a very good way to get me writing. However, the end product was a bit of a mess and it took me almost a year and a half to batter it into some kind of shape.
This is too long for me. I have a life. I can’t afford to spend a year and a half slaving over one novel. I am young and impulsive. I want to write my books in a month.
A manuscript of at least 70,000 words.
Of internally consistent and complete plot.
Ready for external editors, if not quite publication.
Won’t this just produce internally consistent garbage?
Not necessarily. I think there are actually some good reasons for writing a novel in a month. Here are some of them:
It keeps an energy and a unity to the piece. Compressing the work into just one month means that I live every minute of every day with my characters. The ideas keep coming, even when I’m away from my bed (which is where I write, if you must know). If I only wrote ten minutes a day on the bus, then I’d be likely to lose the feel of my book. I believe that 30 days of intense work will actually create a better book.
Spending any longer on a novel (I know) and I start to fantasise about executing all my characters in a variety of masochistic ways, before turning the electric cattle prod on myself. I believe that a 30-day novel will retain my enthusiasm and enrich my writing.
30 days is a deadline. When things have deadlines, they get done.
I’m sure you can think of more.
How am I doing it?
This is the really interesting part. This is the first time I’ve attempted something like this (NaNoWriMo not withstanding), so I’m finding out as I go along. But here’s how it’s gone so far.
1. Get things moving.
The first thing that needs to happen is inspiration, something to get the book rolling. This always comes to me in the form of a particularly strong, tension-filled scene. I give that particular metaphorical stone a good push and then chase it down to the bottom of the hill. Hopefully, by the time it’s got there, I’ve found another cliff-edge and it just keeps on rolling. [See #3, below, for the cliff-edges.]
2. Set targets.
I’m aiming to write about 80,000 words for my novel, so I write 3,000 words a day – without fail. I’ve divided my book up into 7 chapters and each chapter I am finishing in 3 days (I know the maths doesn’t add up, see #4, below).
This gives the work a unity and a natural rhythm. Using the rhetorical rule of three, I’m able to construct my chapters very tightly, writing a great beginning on day one, a tense middle on day two and a cliff-hanger ending on day three, which propels me into the next chapter.
3. Make stuff happen.
This is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do, I find.
It is the easiest because, once things start happening, the writing flows out and I can easily do my 3,000 words in about 90 minutes. It is the hardest because, as a fairly timid soul, I’m scared of things happening.
To make sure I stay on track, I try to make something happen every 500-1,500 words. This isn’t a hard and fast rule because every novel has its own rhythm and moments of calm are essential to heighten tension in other parts of the plot. But things do need to keep moving.
I have a habit of having my characters sit around and chat, so, when I see that happening, I introduce a man with a knife, or a police siren, or a lie.
4. Edit, edit, edit.
The writing, though, is not the thing. If the writing was the thing, then this would be nothing more than NaNoWriMo on steroids. No, the difference with this 30-day novel is that, after having written my 3,000 daily words, I knuckle down with editing.
This is what really takes the time. As I edit, I write all the missing scenes that are needed to transform the text from a NaNoWriMo-esque hodge-podge into a well-balanced novel.
It is my intention to have edited each of my chapters twice before the end of the month. This will get the text into a readable state for my friendly editors.
So far, on day ten, I have written just over 30,000 words, comprising the first three chapters.
I have edited by hand, in red pen, the first two chapters and I have started the painful process of tapping these edits onto the computer.
I have a good, solid idea of where the plot is going and I’m still excited about it. Thank god.
For the next few weeks I’m going to have to spend even more time on editing. The writing is going really well at the moment, but, as I mentioned above: the editing is the thing.
Georges Simenon was the Belgian writer who created the detective Maigret. He was ridiculously successful: 550 million of his books have been printed. That’s just stupid numbers. It’s more than JK Rowling and Harry Potter. 150 million more. That’s one extra book for the entire population of Russia*.
What is interesting is that, while JK Rowling has written a decent 10 books in 11 years, Georges Simenon wrote 197 novels in his 59 year career. That’s an average of over 3 per year for over half a century.
Even more interestingly, he published another 15 in the 15 years after his death. That’s still a better strike rate than JK Rowling. Not bad for a dead man.
What’s plain ridiculous is that 148 of these books came in the 29 years from the age of 49 to 77. That’s an average of over 5 books a year.
Here’s a fancy little graph (or ‘worm’ as they’d call it in cricket), showing you Simenon’s strike rate from the publication of his first novel aged 28, to his last aged 86. Click on the thumbnail below for a bigger version (unless you have microscope eyes).
Admittedly, Simenon’s Maigret novels were quite short, but they make up less than half his output – and it is still a remarkable achievement. To be honest, I’m not sure I can match it – but it does inspire me to try.
Apparently, Simenon used to write a chapter a day for eleven days and then spend three days editing. A novel in a fortnight – forget NaNoWriMo, Simenon was hard-core!
*In fact, you could give the entire population of the USA, Brazil and the UK a copy of one of Simenon’s books. If you wanted to.
Things worth doing are remembered. Ergo, to do something worth doing, we’ve got to impress the future. We were the Age of Enlightenment’s future – and we’re impressed. Grudgingly.
Hate the Enlightenment #1
The most annoying thing about the ‘marvellous achievements’ of the Enlightenment is that everything they did was so obvious!
Wait – what are you saying? Apples fall from trees? Well, no shit, Sherlock! Call it what you like, Sir Isaac – I say gravity-schmavity.
Freedom, democracy, reason, capitalism, scientific method, religious tolerance – yawn! It’s all a bit, well, obvious, isn’t it? I could have come up with trigonometry. It doesn’t take a genius, does it?
But, I suppose, if you look at it from the point of view of an English peasant living on a bog, the Age of Enlightenment must have looked like one spell-bindingly incredible feat after another.
Hate the Enlightenment #2
The other reason to hate the Enlightenment is that they’ve done everything already!
Shakespeare has already written all the plays worth watching (particularly annoying for me).
Mozart has already come up with all the decent tunes.
Gallileo has done astronomy and Newton’s gotphysics sewn up.
It’s not that I’m jealous, but they had it so easy! (see Hate the Enlightenment #1)
The only things left for us to do are bloody impossible – like describing a complete theory of the universe or coming up with a rhyme for orange*.
Impress the Future
But that’s the way it works – remember?
If I keep thinking like an English peasant living on a bog, everything new is always going to feel impossible.
Why is it that, if we look back in time, the achievements of the Enlightenment look inevitable; but when we peer into the future, everything new suddenly looks impossible?
If only we could look into our future from the perspective of a still more distant future, so that it looks easy, obvious – and amazing.
What of our generation’s achievements will our ancestors look back at in two hundred years and be jealous of?
We can never know for sure, but we’ll never impress them if we stay stuck in our own mental bogs.
Disclosure: I’m no expert. I’ve never written a play. But, boy, have I just analysed the ass out of one.
This analysis covers the 1954 play by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men.
The story is about a jury who are deliberating over the case of a young black man charged with the murder of his father. The verdict must be unanimous – and it almost is at the start of the play: eleven to one vote guilty. But that single dissenting voice gradually uncovers flaws in the prosecution evidence and, in turn, each of the other jurors overcomes their own prejudices to return a unanimous vote of “not guilty”.
Observations on How to Write a Play
Having just spent about ten hours typing out this play, I feel I’m qualified to make a few observations about the way Reginald has written Twelve Angry Men – and how this might offer pointers to other would-be playwrights.
Keep the action focussed
There is only one (and a half) locations in the play: the jury-room and the wash-room just off to the side. This keeps the action very tight and focussed. It makes the play claustrophobic, an atmosphere that is accentuated by the humidity of the weather – broken by a thunderstorm.
Define the characters
Twelve Angry Men has quite a lot of characters for a play, really: twelve jurors, a guard and a judge. There’s not much Reginald could have done about that: a jury has twelve people. But he does two things to deal with this potentially difficult large cast:
He doesn’t add any extraneous characters. The guard is largely silent (39 words), simply providing the jurors with props. The judge is a voice off-stage and is used to set the scene at the beginning of the play, saving Reginald the trouble of a lot of clunky exposition.
He divides the jurors into “primary“, “secondary” and “tertiary” characters. Four of the jurors take up 61% of the words in the play. The next four take up 25%. The final four jurors have just 13% of the words of the play. Just for a bit of crazy fun – here’s a chart showing the speech patterns of the twelve jurors, as the play progresses. Click on the picture to see a full-size version.
Keep the tension high
Reginald does this superbly by having the jurors take regular votes. At the beginning only one man votes “not guilty” – this is the single vote that sets the play off. There are five general votes in total, spaced throughout the play, and the audience is on tenterhooks every time, as the votes are called out.
You can see exactly how Reginald has paced the play by looking at the way the jurors voted in my little list below. “Vote” means there was a general ballot of some sort, where every juror voted. “Change to” means that only one or more of the jurors announced their change, without calling a general vote.
Page 06: Vote 11-1 (“Guilty” – “Not Guilty”)
Page 18: Vote 10-2
Page 24: Change to 9-3
Page 26: Vote 8-4
Page 31: Interval
Page 33: Vote 6-6
Page 41: Change to 5-7
Page 42: Vote 3-9
Page 45: Change to 4-8
Page 47: Change to 1-11
Page 49: Change to 0-12
Note here that, although the interval comes over halfway through the play – 63% of the way through, to be precise – at that point, the vote is 8-4 in favour of finding the young man guilty. The scene that the interval curtain falls on is a turning point, highly dramatic. Immediately after the interval, the vote swings to 6-6 – even stevens.
Note also that Reginald adds a little twist towards the end, making one of the jurors change their mind from “not guilty” to “guilty”. At this point, the audience might fear there is the chance of a hung jury.
I hope you’ve learnt something interesting from this. I might do it again.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s article on How to Sleep, Thomas Edison used Stage 1 of the natural sleep cycle – AKA hypnagogia – to come up with insanely creative ideas for new inventions.
He would take a cat-nap in a chair with steel balls in his hands and, as he drifted off and relaxed, the balls would drop (as it were), waking him and more often than not he’d have a new idea for research.
Edison had attained what is known as the hypnagogic state. Hypnagogia is just a fancy Greek word for the transition from wakefulness to sleep: Stage 1 of the sleep cycle. Please note that hypnagogia is NOT sleep: it is precisely the point between sleep and wakefulness. This is important.
The hypnagogic state is characterised by alpha-theta brainwaves and can lead to lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Normally we would not recall any of these experiences because normally our body continues in the sleep cycle and we pass into Stage 2 and so on through the cycle.
If we recall dreams, they are usually from the REM stage of sleep. If, however, we are woken, like Edison, during this first phase then we are very likely to recall our dreams or hallucinations.
With practice we can learn to balance on the edge of sleep and wakefulness and even to control our hallucinations to a certain degree. We can use the hypnagogic state to boost our creativity, to reduce stress and to energise our mind and body.
How to Induce a Hypnagogic State
You’ve probably already experienced a hypnagogic state. Think of times when you’ve been drifting off and had some vivid dreams or hallucinations – but not fallen asleep.
Try to remember the details of where you were, what you were doing and what time of day it was when you had the experience.
Then simply set up those conditions again and this time try to induce the state deliberately. Perhaps it was after a meal at lunchtime, perhaps it was in the library, leaning back on a chair in the sunshine, perhaps it was listening to the radio in the early morning.
I find public transport is good: you can’t fall asleep totally and there is plenty of background noise to provide stimulus.
Here are some more tips:
Hypnagogia is about observing the mind as it descends into Stage 1 sleep. Therefore, the two prerequisites are drowsiness AND an effort to think. Just drowsiness and you risk falling asleep; just an effort to think and your mind will stay awake. It is the effort to think that makes it possible to ‘observe’ the consciousness of your subconscious mind.
Therefore, don’t try it when you are tired. Late night hypnagogia will probably just lead to full-on sleep.
If you think that sleep is a risk, don’t use your bed. If you do use your bed, perhaps prop yourself up with a pillow to avoid sleep.
Follow Thomas Edison’s guide. Get yourself some steel balls and an armchair. Another one I’ve heard is a teaspoon and a plate. Hold the teaspoon in your hand and put the plate on the floor underneath. You’ll wake when you muscles relax and the teaspoon drops onto the plate.
Try setting your alarm for 30 minutes earlier in the morning and then try to ‘doze’, try to balance between sleep and wakefulness until it is time for you to get up.
You can use the snooze alarm on your clock to make sure you don’t go into sleep.
The afternoon nap is another classic opportunity for hypnagogia.
The brain works in roughly 90 minute high activity cycles, each followed by a 20 minute low activity cycle. If you can, work for 90 minutes and then try a burst of hypnagogia.
Stage 1 of sleep only lasts about five minutes. If you wake up after twenty, you’ve probably been asleep.
Relax, close your eyes, but stay watchful, observe yourself drifting off.
Try concentrating on the changing patterns of your mind as you drop off. Don’t think about what you are thinking about (i.e. work, the kids, etc.), but just observe the way in which your thinking is changing, a change in consciousness perhaps.
For me, there’s a point where I feel the body go numb (sleep paralysis) and then I know that in a few seconds my mind will dip into subconscious activity. If I don’t fall asleep, I know that I will be able to observe this state.
Be patient. At first this will seem like an odd thing to be doing and you will probably struggle to enter a hypnagogic state. Keep trying, but don’t force it.
Many artists, writers, mystics, philosophers and scientists have used hypnagogia to break through creative brick walls. These have included Aristotle, the Greek philosopher; Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet; Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer; Isaac Newton, the English scientist; and Beethoven, the German composer.
Observed hypnagogia can inspire not just images and sounds, but also present flashes of insight and, occasionally, genius. I’ll never forget the time my hypnagogic state constructed an entirely new way of presenting data, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Shame I don’t work with data, really!
Hypnagogic states are highly creative. They are extremely productive, packing a high density of ideas into a short period of time. They are extremely novel, throwing together ideas and thoughts that might never have occured to you otherwise. They express the incredible flexibility of the mind. They are more complex than you can grasp in a wakeful state. They transform existing objects into something totally new.
But the best part is that we all have access to this state. We can do it as much as we like without doing harm to ourselves and it will become more productive the more we use it.
Think again of Thomas Edison. Was he a particularly innovative inventor? Or was he just some guy who napped a lot? The two go hand in hand. Walk hand in hand with your unconscious, work together.
Control Your Experience
As you develop your ability to enter a hypnagogic state, you can start to try and do more with these experiences. You can’t directly control the hallucinations, but you can try to suggest things to the mind.
It is important that you remain relaxed. Just let it happen, whatever it is. Anxiety will provoke your alarm systems and you will wake up. The hallucination is in control just as much as you.
Of course, the hypnagogic experience is just an entertainment unless you make an attempt to record it. If you want to make something creative out of the hallucination then you must rehearse and write it down immediately afterwards, while you are still in the afterglow of the experience, otherwise it will fade quickly and vanish.
Another way to record the experience is to learn to verbally report the images as they are happening using a dictaphone. This is not easy to do in the beginning because it uses the analytical side of the brain, which is inherently wakeful, but it can be done.
Verbal reporting can take place as long as you don’t search for words, grammar or intellectual concern for the expression of abstract ideas. This means that you can record more directly the images and ideas, rather than scrabbling for a pen immediately afterwards.
Ease the Pressure to be ‘Creative’
Inspiration gained from hypnagogic states can also be used to ease creative pressure on an artist and to deflate ego and arrogance. Because they are ideas that have arrived from an unconscious state, it is hard to take full credit for them. The creative process becomes more of a partnership between you and your ‘muse’.
Tom Waits is among the many artists who have found this a useful way of reducing the stress of public acclamation of his ‘talent’. He puts in his shift and his muse puts in hers. When the ideas arrive, he is ready to receive and works them up into songs or words. If the ideas don’t arrive, then it’s not his fault; he did his job and his muse simply failed to show up, maybe she will tomorrow.
Other Uses for Hypnagogia and Alternatives
Hypnagogia is not just good for unlocking the creative power of the brain, it is also beneficial in other ways. The relaxation of a hypnagogic state refreshes your mind and body and diminishes the apparent unpleasantness of painful stimuli.
The practice of hypnagogic observation doesn’t just conserve energy, it produces it. It also lowers blood pressure and oxygen consumption and leads to a decrease in heart rate and respiration. All of which is good for beating stress and stress-related illness.
Inducing a hypnagogic state is not the only way to get the benefits of theta brain-waves. The following are other alternatives (my experiments in brackets):
I encourage experimentation – but hypnagogia is a great option that’s relatively easy, fun and safe.
Hypnagogia has a partner: hypnopompia, the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Hypnopompia is probably the more common experience.
Most people quite often have this sort of hallucination in the mornings, especially if your alarm goes off early and you use the snooze button. It seems to be identical in brain-activity to hypnagogia, but of course happens at the end of the sleep cycle, when you are half-awake.
The downside: you can only do it once a day! Nevertheless, you might as well indulge when you can.
Bonus: A Theory of Dreaming
We have two brains, not one. We have an ‘old’ brain and a, relatively-speaking, ‘new’ brain and they’ve evolved one on top of the other in us humans. The old brain is for use in survival mode: there is no ‘ego’, it is totally animal. The new brain is what makes us uniquely human, this is where the ‘ego’ sits, our self-conscious mind.
Dreaming is a product of the old brain; it subsumes the ego totally. Babies almost exclusively use the old brain; they have no self-consciousness and have no concept of inner and outer worlds. As the new brain starts to take over we develop our self-conscious mind.
What is Wakefulness?
Dreaming is an activity independent of sleep. Brain activity observed during the dreams of REM sleep is identical to that observed during our (so-called) waking hours. Therefore you could characterise our waking state as REM dreaming plus direct sensory stimulus.
It is only with the development of the new brain that we have also developed the distinction between sleeping and wakeful states. The new brain grabs that sensory stimulus and takes over. The old brain is still doing its thing, but at the subconscious level, which we don’t often notice or pay attention to except in meditative states, day-dreaming or hypnagogia.
What is Sleep?
If the waking state is simply the REM dreaming of sleep plus an exterior sensory stimulus, then what is sleep? People deprived of REM sleep dream more in the NREM phases, people deprived of sleep altogether hallucinate.
Hallucination in the real world is dangerous; believing you can fly off that cliff, believing you are invincible and so on. Therefore, we need to secure a safe place to give ourselves over to dreaming, to give ourselves over to the old brain. That safe place is sleep.
We can only sleep when our surroundings are secure; we can’t sleep if we don’t feel safe, our panic buttons are pushed and we stay awake. Therefore sleep is simply a safe place where we can dream.
This idea has remarkable conclusions. If the wakeful state is simply REM dreaming plus sensory stimulus and sleep is simply a safe place for us to dream, then what are we? Dreamers I suppose.
Creativity as Dreaming
This makes sense. Humans need less sleep than other mammals. This could be because we are able to ‘let go’ in a wakeful state as well – through creative arts or daydreaming, for example. This explains why we can survive REM deprivation, whereas animals, cats for example, go crazy and die.
Our ability to relax and engage in dreaming activities means that we need less sleep and less sleepdreams. This also explains why napping during the day can reduce your need for nocturnal sleep.
This is all fascinating and highly theoretical. Sleep and dreaming, especially hypnagogia, is not well-understood by anyone – and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers! All I hope is that I have given you something to think about, to investigate further and to experiment with in your own life.
The primary source for this article, particularly the section, A Theory of Dreaming, is a book by Andreas Mavromatis, Hypnagogia, published in 1987 by Routledge. This is still the standard work on hypnagogia (as far as I know).
The word ‘sacrifice’ has very negative connotations. It is my aim in this essay (2000 words) to break those negative connotations and turn the word into a powerful tool to get you motivated and achieving the things you want in your life.
Everybody in their life makes sacrifices. Every time you choose one thing over another, you are making a sacrifice. Most of the time we don’t even think about it, certainly not in terms of sacrifice. My decision to have a beer is very rarely taken in the light that the next morning I will sacrifice some mental acuity.
But if you start making deliberate sacrifices then you will create a coherent life, where everything you do is targeted towards your goals. Drinking heavily is not coherent with my chosen goal of writing – so I will sacrifice drinking.
The basic idea is that most people need to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals. Most people have to earn a living to look after themselves, their families, their homes. This means that if they want to achieve something over and above these basic demands on their time and resources, then they must make sacrifices, deliberate decisions to forego things that damage their chances of success. But this need not be negative. I argue that deliberate sacrifice is a great thing, giving you purpose, motivation, drive and achievement.
5 Reasons why deliberate sacrifice works
1. Deliberate sacrifice commits you to your goal
If I decide to wake up every day at dawn, then every morning I’m going to think: ‘What the **** am I doing up this early? I could be in bed!’ But if the decision was a deliberate sacrifice, then I will have a convincing answer to this question. I am up at this absurd hour because I want to write. I want to be a published writer. I want to entertain readers. Without this sacrifice I realise that I won’t make it. So I had better make good use of the time, or it will be a wasted sacrifice and I really might as well have spent the time in bed. The more you sacrifice, the more you had better succeed.
2. The act of sacrifice gives you a strong motivation for your goal
From the commitment, comes motivation, almost without asking for it. Doing something a lot forces you to ascribe value to it. This increases your motivation for doing this valued task.
3. The act of deliberate sacrifice gives you purpose and drive
Because you have chosen the sacrifice to direct yourself towards your goal, your life becomes a conduit for that goal. It makes you appear driven and feel driven, which becomes a virtuous circle. The more you do it, the better you feel about it and the better you become.
4. Deliberate sacrifice makes your life choices easier
You now have a convincing answer – convincing both to yourself and to others – to queries and temptations. What are you doing to achieve your goal? Do you want to come out and get smashed tonight?
5. Sacrifice is noble and will give you respect and self-respect
Saints make sacrifices. People will respect you for making the sacrifice. It shows that you are serious about achieving your goal. Of course, a lot of writers have found success from writing 10 minutes a day for 25 years, but making large sacrifices to find 2 hours a day will vastly increase your chances of success. Sacrifice is a noble pursuit, it gives structure to your life where before there was just a hotchpotch of unstructured haphazard ideas. I had the goal of becoming a writer for about ten years, but until I started making big sacrifices, it never felt like a realistic prospect. It was always just a loose collection of dreamy ideas: some day I would make it. I would write one day and not again for a week. I would jot down a bunch of story ideas. I would read a couple of books about writing. But after making significant, deliberate, sacrifices, people can see that I take myself seriously. I have their respect (until they read my book – ha!) and I have my own self-respect.
Sacrifice and Priorities
Sacrifice is not the same as prioritising.
Sacrifice is the action that backs up your priorities. A priority (or a goal) is meaningless if it doesn’t require a sacrifice to achieve it. It would have no value. It would be farcical to ‘prioritise’ eating lunch. It does mean something to prioritise writing a novel. This is a huge commitment and demands huge sacrifices.
Prioritising is the decision to do something, sacrifice is the doing.
For example, I have prioritised writing. But what does that mean? The only thing that means is that I need to find time to write. It is the sacrifice that tells me what I should do. It tells me that I should get up early, which means that I must sacrifice my evenings, which means that I must sacrifice a large part of my social life and that I should sacrifice drinking alcohol. OK, now we have some actions.
Because the sacrifice is deliberate (directed towards my goal) I now know why I am getting up early, why I am not going out late, why I am not drinking.
How to sacrifice deliberately
Know your goal
Make it one goal. There is enough going on in your life already. Focussing on one goal at a time will greatly increase your chances of success. If you have many goals (like me), just start with one.
Work out what it is you need to achieve the goal
Usually just time. Sometimes space, sometimes resources.
Work out the sacrifices
Work out if you think the goal is worth each sacrifice. Usually, any sacrifice is worth it if you want your goal enough. If you don’t want the goal enough to make the sacrifice, then you probably want to find another goal – or you are happy with your life as it is!
Work out the secondary sacrifices
These are sacrifices that flow from your initial sacrifices. My initial sacrifice was simply to get up early. But that means no evenings, no social life, no drinking. Make sure you are OK with these secondary sacrifices, otherwise your primary sacrifice will collapse and your goal will fail.
Choose the sacrifices
Now choose to make the sacrifices. Think about your justifications for the sacrifice, be ready for your own doubts and the doubts of others. Get that glint in your eye, the determination for your sacrifice and for your goal.
A Sacrifice Audit
There are four varieties of sacrifice. Examine the sacrifices you are making in your own life and decide what type they are and (ideally) make sure that they are voluntary and worthwhile.
1. Voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you have decided to make
You know why you are making them and you are happy with them. It is important that these sacrifices are also worthwhile. If they are not actually helping you towards your goal, then you are just playing a martyr for no good reason – relax and stop making things harder for yourself. Also keep reviewing your sacrifices. I might find in a few months that I become more disciplined and that I am able to write 2 hours a day without making the evening sacrifice. Who knows.
2. Sacrifice by extension: Sacrifices that flow from other sacrifices
These are the secondary sacrifices that flow from your primary, voluntary sacrifices. Make sure you are aware of these AND are happy with them. If you are not, then your primary sacrifices won’t last either. For example, for the sake of my writing, I have sacrificed my late evenings for early mornings. That is fine. But it also means that I am sacrificing a large part of my social life. I really need to be in bed by 10.00 or 10.30 at the latest. Any later than that and I suffer the next day. You can see the conflict with this sacrifice and my social life. Especially living a good 30 minute cycle from most of my friends.
3. Non-voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices that you have not consciously decided to make, but that you are making anyway
Make sure you realise what these are and that you are happy with them. If you are happy, then they are after-the-fact voluntary sacrifices. If you are not then they are after-the-fact involuntary sacrifices. Turn these non-voluntary sacrifices into deliberate sacrifices. If you can pin these phantom sacrifices down, then you will become much more self-aware and even more focussed. For example, because I’m not going out in the evenings a lot, I’m not socialising a lot and because I’m using my time for writing, I’m not putting time and effort into my romantic life. So I am single. I have only recently become aware of this sacrifice, yet it is a sacrifice that I am inadvertently making anyway. Am I happy with it? It is impossible to say. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. But I know one thing: it gives me more time for writing!
4. Involuntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you are making that you really don’t want to have to make
You have deliberately decided not to sacrifice this, but you are anyway, against your will. The more of these that you have in your life, the unhappier you will be. Don’t expect to eliminate all of them, but try to come to terms with them. You may find that some of them are sacrifices by extension without which you will blow your goals. I regret having to spend less time with friends, but have come to terms with it, transforming it (sometimes) into a voluntary sacrifice. If these sacrifices become overwhelming, take a sacrifice holiday. Break your involuntary sacrifices for a day and come back tomorrow, refreshed and more focussed. I have toyed with the idea of taking Sundays off, but I haven’t yet because I have been enjoying the focus and determination that comes with the sacrifices. Just make sure that you are sacrificing the right day – for example, if you want to take Sunday off, make sure you drink on Saturday night – not Sunday!
A road map of sacrifice (thanks to Dan)
Our time on earth is scarce.
We can’t do everything.
We must make a choice.
To enable this choice we must make a trade-off with other potential choices: a sacrifice.
By consciously sacrificing the things we haven’t chosen, we give value to our choice.
The more it hurts to make the sacrifice, the more we value our choice and the more determined we are to achieve our goals.
Sacrifice gives value to our goals. It gives meaning, drive, motivation and, perhaps, happiness.
Where this idea came from
This theory of sacrifice grew out of my own experience and my readings of how other people have achieved the things that they have wanted to achieve in life. Because of my interest in writing, my examples come from writers. Murakami wrote in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ of the sacrifices that he made in his life when he decided to work on his writing full-time. He wrote of the decimation of his social life. He wasn’t upset by this sacrifice, but it really brought it home to me: for this to work, you must make sacrifices. Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hours theory of success. Whilst I realise this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I am nowhere near that figure. This isn’t going to work without hard, hard work: so where am I going to fit those 10,000 hours in? Sacrifices must be made.
You don’t have to look far for writers who made sacrifices – and they are generally not the clichéd ‘starving artists’: Jack Kerouac lived with his mum, Vladimir Nabokov lived in hotels most of his writing life, Henry David Thoreau built himself a house in the woods and lived there for more than two years. By simplifying theirs lives and making those sacrifices, they carved out the time and resources they needed for their writing. Sometimes the sacrifice isn’t voluntary and this inadvertently becomes the making of the writer. Oscar Wilde famously spent two years in gaol, Anne Frank’s horrific sacrifice was the writing world’s gain, likewise Primo Levi. Erwin James was just a brutal murderer until he was imprisoned and became a famous diarist.
I am lucky enough to be in a situation where my sacrifices can be deliberate choices and that I have the opportunity that sacrifice brings to make my life the life I wished for.
A review of: What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is a writer (and runner). That, according to the final pages of this book, is how he would like to be remembered on his tombstone. And, according to the vague thesis of this book, writing and long-distance running are not dissimilar. In fact, Murakami says that everything he knows about writing, he learnt from running.
As you appear to be reading this website, I will assume that you already have a computer. If not, then skip the next two items: they are for people with computers. I should say now that computers are not essential for most of the phases of writing, but they sure as hell save a lot of time later on (unless you have a secretary.)
1. Download this program: http://www.spacejock.com/yWriter5.html yWriter is an incredible (free) tool for creating whole novels out of thin air. You create Chapters and then Scenes in Chapters and then fill them up with words. You can also use all kinds of complicated extra things like Characters, Locations and Items – but I don’t bother. I just focus on the actual writing bit. You can even set a writing targets and the program will chilly-chally you until you’ve finished.
2. Use this website: http://750words.com/ Very very (stupid) simple website that practically forces you to write 750 words a day. You can use this to make sure you write a bit on your novel every day (you get points for hitting 750 words on a day, which then doubles up to make bowling-esque streaks) – or you can just use it like I do for a morning brain dump. Morning brain dumps will make you happier and healthier (apparently), encourage you to get writing and hopefully get all your rubbish words out in one fell swoop, leaving your gold-encrusted mots for the main event.
3. Buy books with blank pages. This is not a facetious comment. You wouldn’t write in a book that had words in it, so why write in a book that has parallel lines all over the page? How on earth do you hope to write creatively cramped between ruled lines? It just makes no sense to me. Moleskine do nice ones with blank pages. They’re not too big either so will get filled up fast, leaving you with a great sense of achievement. Once you have notebooks, carry them around with you. Note how I use the plural for notebooks. Different notebooks for different occasions. I have little Moleskine ones for portability and big open-up-flat ones for my desk and – important – for my bedside. Always have a notebook by your bed. This is where your best ideas will come. There and on a long walk somewhere. Make sure you have notebooks in these two places.
4. Buy pens. A lot of pens. Have pens everywhere, in every coat pocket, on your desk, in your hat band – you do have a hat, don’t you? Pens are more important than paper. Paper you can improvise, pens you can’t (without getting blood everywhere.)
So those are your tools. Not too hard, not too expensive. To be honest, the tools aren’t the thing, the thing’s the writing.
Nah, this isn’t some kind of stupid ass fan love-in. I’m not going to go on about the deep philosophical meaning of ‘Blowin in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan’s written some real rubbish you know? ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ is kinda funny, but it ain’t no deep and meaningful classic that’s for sure. But that’s the point. He recorded a lot of pretty dreadful songs – his muse completely deserted him for long periods of his career – but he still wrote songs, he still recorded them, he still turned up for work, waiting patiently, putting in the hours until lightening struck again. And it did.
And when it did, he was still there, ready to put it down.
There are three elements to this philosophy of his (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t call it that, but hey):
Just turning up is heroic. The Never-Ending Tour is symbolic of this. He does 100+ shows a year and of course not all of them are mind-blowing – but he still turns up, in case it is.
There is no such thing as personal creative genius, just hard work. Bob has shown us that it’s OK to have creativity problems (jesus, if Bob has problems then I reckon we can), but we’ve got to make sure we keep working at it.
The art work is a life commitment, don’t rush in, take your time, relax and it will come. When he didn’t include ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Infidels, one of his diabolical mid 80s albums, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:
Relax. It’s just an album – I’ve done thirty of ’em.
Sure enough, it turned up on the excellent Bootleg Sessions collection – a much grander setting for one of greatest blues songs ever written.
What is it to write stories? How do you come up with them? Is there any secret? No. You just have to wait and listen. Every minute of the day there’s a million things passing through your brain and if you’re ready and listening it’s not hard to catch hold of the tail of a story and just reel it in.
I don’t sit and plan, I don’t think hard with sweat and blood of something I want to say and then hack out a scenario to fit; no. I just feel around for a few words to start and then push the ball off the top of the hill. The story does the rest.
For example, Chemistry was just a couple of words that came to me as I walked up Wittenham Clumps: ‘The second time he came…’. I knew this wasn’t enough so I added ‘…I was ready.’ to finish off the first sentence. That was plenty to get me started when I sat down on a bench overlooking the woods of the Clumps. That suggested the forest location and the rest was just one word following another.
Last night a story passed through my brain as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t sleep too well and so I thought I’d just have a little play with some words, the beginnings. The beginning is always the best bit of composing. It’s just getting a feeling and a flow. If you get the beginning right then the rest tends to follow.
In terms of inspirational habits – I don’t think it is a case of inspiration. It’s a case of relaxing and opening your mind. Never go hunting for a story: you might catch one, but you’ll probably have to kill it first. Walking is very good, as is any exercise. Going somewhere else is very refreshing. I wrote a lot in Egypt, for example. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a story just sitting at my computer. That’s where having a little typewriter like the AlphaSmart Neo comes in very handy. Last night Snowcat came to me in a state of relaxation; after lying in the darkness, after reading a little fiction, after eating a little dark chocolate. Did these things help? Probably, but they’re not necessary.