Saturday, 31 December 2011

On books, the digital landscape and bigger stuff

Before Xmas, I watched the BBC documentary called Books - The Last chapter? in which Alan Yentob spoke to writers, agents, publishers and thinkers about the future of the printed word.  Or books to be precise.  I found it thought-provoking, disturbing and strangely moving.  I cried.  Then I watched it again and made notes because in June 2012 I will be organising a conference in Folkestone to explore and discuss the way that digital technology is impacting on writers and readers.

Some choice snippets from the BBC programme:
  • Digital makes the private public. 
  • Technology expands the mind but shrinks the world
  • Technology offers a choice to broaden horizons
  • Are we addicted to technology? 
  • We are trading 24 hour global connectivity for privacy, individuality and ultimately humanity
  • "The challenge today is to disconnect.  It takes religious conviction to say no to it, because everyone’s at the party, everyone wants your attention, everyone’s screaming for it.  The party’s everywhere.”   (writer Gary Shteyngart)
  • We made the books, then the books made us
  • “First we shape our tools, then our tools shape us.”  (Marshall McLuhan)*
  • The internet is brain changing.  The way the brain experiences a book (printed) is different to a digital book. 
The last point interested me and a reference was made to Hebb’s Law.  If I understood it correctly, the assertion was that if you use a specific technology often enough (or undertake any highly repetitive action) neurons in your brain fire in a certain way and make strong connections so that the action we undertake becomes second nature.  This “rewires” the brain.  The conclusion being that as human beings, use of digital technology that encourages a short attention span could mean we are effectively rewriting or re-programming our brains and that this will affect our evolution.  Mind blowing (literally).
“Electronic media creates an oral culture - emotional, subjective, collective, irrational.”  Marshall McLuhan again.  

* Marshall McLuhan was a prophet in his own time. As early as the 1960s, he saw the powerful impact of technological change on the world and showed us a new way to explain our world and society. Today, such McLuhan phrases as "sensory impact," "the global village," and "the medium is the message" have become part of the language. 

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Friday, 30 December 2011

Journeys and shapes

I was once asked about my need to document everything.  I had never thought about it directly.  Maybe it was a way of not forgetting.  That’s why I always make lists.  But it is more about remembering emotional states, situations.  Having proof.  In nearly 50 years of life I have experienced so much yet how much do I remember?  A tiny fraction.  That makes me sad.  I want to remember everything, to be able to access my hard drive whenever I choose.  It can be a struggle remembering a long way back, yet we might hear a piece of music or smell a scent and in an instant, it can open a door to access a long forgotten memory.  How amazing.

Everything we have done or felt shapes us.  The people we meet and how they impact on our lives.  Love and loss, pleasure and pain.  It makes us who we are and we are evolving constantly, incrementally.  As writers, who and what we are, all the baggage we have acquired or offloaded on the journey, finds a way consciously or unconsciously into our work. 

When I re-read work written years before, tiny details – a name, a turn of phrase – can once more evoke a situation, a person – and I retrieve a once forgotten memory. 
Writers are told in manuals and on courses to write from experience.  But we can’t help it.  That doesn’t mean it has to be literal but it often is.  Writing can illuminate, help us understand ourselves and the world. 

On people

Life is about the people we encounter.  People are interesting.  Their stories fascinate and engage us.  That’s why people love to watch soaps.  The novelists and scriptwriters that I admire most create convincing characters that make me care about them. 
I’m lucky enough to know some amazing, inspiring people.  I’ve put links to their sites on the right.  People with passion and determination to make things happen.  They walk the talk.

On ways to read a book

As a child I was taught that when you read a book, you start at the beginning and read right through to the end.  Even if it was boring and not engaging you.  Once you start a book, you don’t give up.  You do NOT peek at the last few ages to spoil the surprise.  That would be sacrilege.  I’m not sure how old I was when I started to cheat.  Late teens I think.  I was reading a book that I was finding hard work,  So I took a quick look at the last page to see if it was worth my persevering with the journey.  It was.  I realise that I am not usually a linear, sequential  reader.  I like to jump about when I read, dipping in and out of different sections.  I might start towards the end and then go back.  When I browse in a bookshop, I pick up the book that attracts me, and read the last few lines.  Then back a bit further.  Then the opening page.  Possibly a few pages from the middle.  Before I buy it.  I may take it home and read it straight through.  Or I may continue to dip.  Some of my friends and writing students are quite horrified at this way of reading.  Am I being disrespectful?
As a writer, how would I feel if my stories were read like this?  If my carefully constructed narrative and pacing leading up to the thrilling climax was sidestepped?  Interesting question. 

Books I have enjoyed over the past year include:
The Crimson Petal and the White - Michel Faber
Stephen King on Writing
Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ichiguro
Status Anxiety by Alain De Botton
Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
Feel the fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers  (first read many moons ago - revisiting!)

On the go at present are Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Rumblestrip by Woodrow Phoenix.
All of these books have taught me something new and that's why I love them......

Related post:

On books and reading. And pony books.

Over the past year I have rediscovered the joy of reading.  When I was child and teenager, I avidly devoured novels, getting 6 books at a time from the local library and the following week taking out another 6 until I had quickly exhausted their stocks.  On a Saturday I would walk the 3 miles into town and use my 50p pocket money to buy 2 paperbacks from Boots (who in those days sold books).  My subject of choice was horses and ponies.  I was a pony mad girl.  The 1970s – a golden age of pony books for a child.  The Pullein-Thompson sisters, Monicas Edwards and Dickens, the Jill books, the Jackie books.  Anything that had a picture of a horse on the cover, I bought. By the way, if you are a pony book fan, young or old, go to the fabulous website

I would read under the bedclothes with a torch when I should have been sleeping.  I took a book everywhere with me, so I could snatch any free moments to read.  I remember my parents taking me to a football match with my brother and while they enjoyed the match I read a book.  As well as a source of pleasure and education, books were a wonderful escape.  I was a loner to some extent and they became a  cocoon.  I would have been lost without them.

Fast forward 15 years.  When I commuted regularly on the train to London, I would read a book.  Or write 1000 words.  Each way. 

Fast forward another 15 years, during which reading had been sporadic, mostly work related or for research purposes.  Very few novels had been encountered.  But I read some children’s books, which made me feel good.  I love the way that books for children are usually so positive.

Another 5 years.  Where does the time go?  Then I was handed a copy of Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, not a book I would have bought.  It was the chosen title for Folkestone Reads, the idea being that everyone in the town read the same book, which is made freely available in the library and local cafes and schools.  Then people can discuss the book with each other and the whole experience encourages intergenerational reading.   What a wonderful idea.  I loved that book.  Positive, warm, funny, clever, engaging, for adults and children alike.  And when the author came to Folkestone to do a Q and A session I was there.  How did I lose the habit of reading?  Something that had once meant so much to me?  I’m so glad I found my long lost friend again.  I don’t read anywhere near as much as I did when I was a child.  But losing yourself in a book is the most wonderful feeling.  Everyone needs to escape.  And every book you read teaches you something.  Learning new things gives you such a buzz. 

Related post:

First steps

It’s been a long time coming. 
I’m a writer.  Blogging is all about writing.  Expressing ideas on a very public platform.  I tell my writing students they should be blogging.  So why don’t I practise what I preach?  Why have I resisted for so long?
One reason I give myself is that I am not very good with technology. 
Another that I worry I might get addicted to blogging.    Or that I won’t be able to keep it up.
Or that no-one will read it anyway.  Oh well...... 
I’ve been a writer for more than 40 years but I still struggle to write.  When I teach and advise other writers I tell them how important it is to write every day.  Yet I don’t.  The older I get, the harder it gets.  A daily, or at least regular, writing habit has eluded me for a long time.  Maybe blogging will get me into that habit.  An ugly word, blogging.  Inelegant.  Diary or journal has a nicer ring to it.   Or maybe wordstream......