Notes From The Wasteland No. 48 ‘Do You Like Commas and Colons?’

I spent three years writing a doctoral dissertation and used to love the hours I spent fussing over commas and colons. I could while away a whole afternoon formatting a single footnote and then be satisfied that this was all I had done for the day.

I worked in an enormous university library somewhere in the south east of England – it was the size of a decent shopping centre  – and had a small perch/nest (room) overlooking a large reading room. With the exception of the occasional undergraduate who was happier talking than actually reading, the sense of silence was awe-inspiring.

I treated my doctorate like a job and wrote between 9 and 12 everyday Monday to Friday. Then I would stop for lunch.

After lunch I would return to my perch and not write.

I would do anything else I felt was necessary dissertation-wise, but I avoided writing anything new.

Once I left the library for the day it was as if my doctorate didn’t exist. I was lucky to be able to forget all about it and not lay awake at night worrying whether I would finish it or not.

The next morning I would be on the bus at 8am and spend the hour it took to get to my perch reading two newspapers.

I didn’t always feel like writing but I did always feel like sitting in my perch.

I’m no longer sitting in that library but I do still eat my lunch at 12 Monday to Friday.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 47 ‘How To Write Without Words’

In class the other day we were talking about composition and framing in contemporary filmmaking. The conversation was animated and interesting and we were thinking of examples from films when the position that someone stands in front of the camera can be read as something much more than the actor simply hitting their mark.

For example, an actor standing alone in the frame can suggest isolation. A high camera angle combined with the subject being a long way from the camera can heighten this feeling by also emphasising smallness. We have all seen moments in films when characters are overwhelmed by the enormity of the events that they find themselves experiencing and this enormity is doubly emphasised by their actual smallness within the frame. Dwarfed by their circumstances.

No words are needed.

Single figures in a single frame can also be used to signal dominance. Actors fill the frame with their body and this filling of the frame can be read in a variety of ways that all place emphasis on the character’s importance to the film.

Again, no words are needed.

Inspired by the recent release of David Fincher’s Mank (2020), here are three examples from the magnificent Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). In this first image, the adult world is conspiring to send the young Charles Foster Kane away from the family home for what is hoped will be a better life. As the mother, lawyer and father all jockey for position within the negotiations, within the frame, the young boy is seen playing outside. Though small at this moment, the boy’s centrality to the unfolding events is made clear by Welles ensuring that he is always visible in the frame.

In this second image, Kane is now married and things are not going well for the couple. Welles chooses to use a series of framings and edits to tell the story of a marriage dissolving. Here, the simple image of the breakfast table is actually the measure of the now-yawning distance between man and wife. Dialogue is not needed at this moment.

The image tells the story.

Finally, here, when the dust settles and everything falls apart, relationships are expressed by the elaborate vastness of the architecture. It is impossible to conduct any business of any kind when the distance between anyone is this vast.

When writing I aim to see my story cinematically. I imagine what the story would look like as a film. I see the frames and angles in my head and look to find the best ways to not use the words I don’t need. Not because I expect this to actually happen – films made out of my books – even though it would be marvellous if it ever did. I see my writing this way because I find it helps me strip away the language. It helps me find the least number of words needed for a sentence. The least number of sentences needed for a paragraph. You get the idea.

No words are needed.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 46 ‘I Haven’t Written a Word for Five Days’

I haven’t written a word for five days now. Well, technically, that’s not quite accurate. I have been writing these words, and others, for the blog. I have been writing work words and even they don’t count, they do count, if you see what I mean. But I haven’t written any novel words, or words for my novels for five days now. Nor any script words. Not that I’m counting. Much.

200 Words a Day

I normally write 200 words per day. Or at least try to. That’s my goal. Those of you who have been following my journey will remember that I first developed this habit whilst completing my doctorate. 200 words a day. Of course, this comes with a safety net. I sometimes write more. I sometimes write less. I am able enough to manage with the times when I don’t achieve this ideal, that’s the point of the ideal, after all. This morning I’m fine with not writing. Luckily, I learned a long time ago not to be too hard on myself when I wasn’t writing. But I do prefer to writing all the same.

That Lovely Place Between Words

When this happens to me I imagine that I am in that lovely place between words. That quiet gentle space where things form and other things fade as their need to form is not needed. We are all in this place. Or have been. Or will be. Sometimes we are here for a while. Other times, not so long. The time it takes to finish a sentence. Or weld three sentences to form a paragraph. For eight paragraphs to become that final chapter. Other times the time it takes for the words to begin again.

I have been in this lovely place for five days now. I am fine with this. I am simply waiting for that next …

Are you there too?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 45 ‘A Message From Outer Space’

Years ago, in a separate but still parallel life, I published an academic book on a short cycle of British films from the 1950s and 1960s. The book was a re-calibration of my doctoral thesis.

bft

The British New Wave has floated through space ever since like some kind of unmanned craft.

It occasionally makes contact with sentient lifeforms, crash-landing now and again on a university reading list.

Or orbiting on the every edges of some form of intellectual discourse.

But it spends most of its time merrily moving closer and closer towards the extreme outer edges of space.

On its way somewhere but never getting anywhere significant.

It never quite resulted in that dream book tour of the US that I imagined.

Nonetheless it is out there in deep space and will always be.

A permanent reminder of something.

Or nothing. Until very recently.

A strange transmission was beamed back from the furthest reaches of the darkness.

My bank wrote to tell me that a royalty payment had been received from the book’s publishers. Naturally, after years of radio silence, I was thrilled to hear such a message. However, I was more thrilled by the happenstantial nature of the payment itself. The amount I received was very much almost exactly identical to the amount I needed to purchase a swathe of unique numeric commercial book identifiers.

Within ten pounds sterling. It seemed too good a thing not to use the monies received from one book as seed money for my next set of books.

I like to think that even as I type, The British New Wave has gone back into deep space exploration again. On a new course bound for anywhere. Set to make contact once again at some random point in the future intersection of space and time.

But not before I have gotten used to the radio silence.

Again.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 44 ‘What Are YOU Working On Today?’

Hi Everyone

We are inundated on a daily basis with lists of tips in their fives and tens and twenties about how to be better at things and how not to do things so badly. Inspired by this avalanche of tips I thought I would offer some top tips of my own. Here is my top tip for today.

Despite All Appearances to the Contrary, The World is Still Full of Strangers

We are an optimistic bunch and for the most part we have come to believe that the proliferation of digital technology has made the world a smaller place. Not only that, this same technology has also brought people together in ways that we have never seen before. This is of course true but this does not mean that our lives are enriched in new ways by the enormous number of friends we now have, despite the various ways in which social media platforms encourage us to connect with each other.

The simple fact of the matter is that we are all now in some form of new relationship with a wider range of strangers than ever before. Once you chip away the real friends and relationships we have on something like Twitter, it is a simple fact that most people we follow or follow us are complete and utter strangers.

And here is the thing.

Once upon a time we might have understood our average potential social reach – pre- social media – as something like the number of people sitting on both decks of an average double-decker bus. We might not know everyone as well as each other but if we were to sit next to someone else on the bus it would probably be possible to strike up some kind of kindred conversation with them.

That was then.

Nowadays, especially given the constant exhortations that each and every social media platform bombards us with in terms of making new ‘friends,’ establishing connections, or adding new followers (and there is something very archaic about this very notion), it is simply the case that our new potential social reach is very often something less like a double-decker bus and now something more like a sports stadium.

A sports stadium?

I don’t know about you but the last time I went to a sporting event I was struck by the sheer logistical difficulties in gathering so many people together in one particular space at one particular time.

And by people I mean strangers. 

Yes, we might go with some friends or family and we might see other people who have gone with their family and friends but for the most part we are alone in a stadium full of strangers.

Of course, we can further understand that this stadium full of strangers all have something in common; a love of the sport, for example or the affiliation with a particular team. Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, we would enter the stadium as strangers and leave the same way.

But how do sports stadiums relate to independent publishing?

If I was sitting on the top deck of a bus and and I started telling people about a project I was working on, or had completed, it is possible that very quickly I might be able to get some people interested in what I was doing. Of those people interested, it is also possible that some of them (a few of them) (one or two of them) might want to learn a bit more about my project. That would be great but very quickly I would run out of people to tell.

Now, imagine trying to do the same thing in a sports stadium. How long would it take before you ran out of either steam or people who were interested enough?

You could start by telling the people you had gone to stadium with – but they probably already knew (I’m sure you had told them about your new project the last time you saw them).

Then what?

How do you tell a stadium full of strangers about your new project? More importantly, how do you get a stadium full of strangers to care about your project? Most of them probably already have projects of their own that take up all their time and mean more to them so why should they even care about yours?

And this is the heart of the matter.

For example, every time I am on Twitter – and I am on Twitter for an awful lot of my time – it is like being in a sports stadium and everyone in the crowd is trying to get each other to care about their projects by hoping that their voice will be louder than the other voices in the same stadium but they are not and so eventually we fall silent.

And despondent.

And concerned that our social media techniques are not as developed as they should be and then we start scouring the internet for lists of tips of how we might do things better and then we realise that everyone is offering the same and different advice and that essentially everyone is in the same stadium shouting at each other. Shouting at strangers.

Personally, I prefer to try ignore the sound of the crowd.

I have lost my voice too many times trying to shout out loud enough for strangers to hear what I’m saying. And even if they heard me they probably wouldn’t be able to listen for long enough for me to tell my story properly before another stranger caught their attention. Or before they needed to shout about their own project to the same strangers.

So what’s the answer?

I don’t think there is one. Other than the understanding that you wouldn’t walk down the street telling everyone you passed about your new project so why would you spend your time online shouting at strangers about the same thing?

Currently I’m working on simply talking to people. As many people as possible. More importantly, I’m asking people about their projects rather than shouting about mine. So, you glorious stadium full of wonderful strangers, tell me about your projects.

What are you working on?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 42 ‘How To Be Creative About Being Creative Part One’

Do you do something creative every day? I’m sure you do. Have you ever felt that some things you do are creative and some things you do aren’t? How can you tell? I am asking lots of questions because I’m fascinated by the answers they might generate.

Is Watching Netflix Creative?

Did you ever think that watching Netflix was an act of creativity? You know, that thing we all flick through and pick at, all those tv shows we start and stop and pause and start again, or add to our list and yet never watch. Picture this, the myth is that we are passive viewers of content. Apparently we sit back and relax and chill as we watch. We let the images wash over us like so much pixellated water. We fall asleep – the ultimate in being passive. But what if we saw our relationship with Netflix as an active one? After all, we choose when to watch and watch to watch. And each time we play and pause and stop and start and switch genres and watch one thing for a little while and then stop to watch two more things for a bit longer, do you not think that we are actually creating our version of Netflix, and by doing so, demonstrating the active and creative relationship we have with it? Try it next time you are watching Netflix and doing all the things we do when we aren’t actually watching something.

How Long Do You Spend Scrolling on Your Phone?

For many of us, our thumbs are the most active parts of our bodies. They get the most exercise, don’t they? What do we use our thumbs for? Holding things? Driving? Gripping? Kneading? Controlling incredibly complex miniaturised digital technology? This. Almost exclusively. How many different things can you do on your phone? How many different things can your phone do for you? The list is almost too long to type. In fact, if we were to type out this list it is highly likely that we would use our thumbs to type it out. And were we to do so, surely we would have to be proving our own point, wouldn’t we? But none of this is to say that this time is a waste of time, certainly not to my mind.

I take a more creative view of the many minutes and hours per day I spend on my phone. I marvel at the technology, convinced, somehow, that this is the closest I will ever get to experience real magic. I am certain that this thing I hold in mind, the rectangle I cradle, protect, feed, has mystical properties and rather than stunting my intellectual growth, causing me to look down instead of up, has opened the digital doors of my perception, using only my two thumbs as the key. In fact, the only thing I can’t really do with my phone is lose it. That would be a disaster.

How Many Photos Have You Deleted in the Last 24 Hours?

Taking photos is like writing sentences, isn’t it? Finding the subject, setting up the frame, making sure that you image you choose is the image you want to use, adjusting your focus, making your angle is right, asking yourself if you are too near or too far to best capture the image. Then, once the image is the one you want, you might choose to further develop the original concept; adding a filter, perhaps, to change the tone, layering other elements on top to further develop your theme. You might add more text as other comment or counterpoint. With all this done, you might then share what you’ve created, sharing your thought with other people. All of this seems right and sure and without a doubt, creative. But what about all those images that you choose not to use, the ones you choose to delete? For every one image we might decided to keep we might end up deleting ten, that’s some ratio. We remove nine images from our library so that we can keep one. As attrition rates go, that’s quite extreme. Then, bearing in mind the way things work, removing these nine images can seem like an awfully negative thing to do; we are actually negating them, making sure that they no longer actually exist – that is quite some feat of finality. But should we see this deleting nine images as a negative thing to do? I don’t think so.

Do You Mourn The Words You Delete?

In writing this post, I have probably deleted one hundred words or more, and doing this has helped me shape my thoughts and, hopefully, develop a coherence in relation to them. This can only be a positive thing and unless there was a situation where my deleting words had brought the actual loss of important words that I needed, I’m not going to start lamenting all the deleted words; they have helped me make positive active choices about my sentences. And this has to be same way to look, or not look, at deleted photographs – my deletion has always been a positive creative thing to do rather than a negative, destructive act. But sometimes, I guess, we feel differently about deleting things. I don’t imagine we would be quite as extreme as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who one day decided to burn all his poems but there is something about the movement between the temporary and the permanent when we delete things. Nowadays we have Ctrl Z to stop us if we really want to bring our words back to life. It would be much harder if we were on our knees sifting through the soot, looking to piece together the pages of our work.

How To Be Creative About Being Creative

My sense in all of this, in all of these ordinary moments in our currently extraordinary lives, is that there is always creativity in (almost) everything we do. Some of this is blatant and obvious, like writing, some of this less obvious and far more latent, like shaping our own version of Netflix. But in both of these instances, and the many many others we could think of if we were to think of them, it is not that we don’t think of them as the same, we don’t always realise that we think of them as the same. This is not meant to be a tongue twister or play on words, it is simply meant to be an observation; a gentle thing, not earth-shattering or empire-building, just quiet and small but well-intended.

What do you think?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 41 ‘How Can We Stay Connected When We Are All So Separate Now?’

I spend a lot of time online at the moment, it’s what I get paid to do. And each time I enter a classroom and see all the separate frames of everyone who has also enter the classroom, the biggest fear I have is not whether we will cover the right topics, not that we will develop the right arguments, not that we will really get anywhere with the syllabus (because we will and we do), the biggest fear I have with each class a simple one, a primeval one, fundamental, existential; how can we stay connected when we are all so separate now?

How can we be together when we are apart?

I suppose the first way to answer this is by making sure that we have something in common to talk about, a topic, a film, book, statement, article, story etc etc. That’s fine and I always make sure that we do have, but here’s the problem; the one real thing we all have in common in class is that we are separate, not together, and all the topics, films, books, statements, articles, and stories, currently cannot change that. And that’s hard to overcome.

Can we overcome it? I think so. We can overcome this by being quieter, and kinder, gentler with each other, not expecting too much all the time, understanding that sitting where we are sitting and doing what we are doing is not where we want to be sitting but is where we are actually sitting so we have to make sure that the fact of our sitting where we’re sitting is something to celebrate not denigrate. It is where we are, after all, and so we should be pleased to see each other, to hear each other, to talk and laugh and joke, yes, joke, and share the time together.

The world will take care of itself, but only if we take care of each other.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 40 ‘Here Are Four Things I Do When I’m Teaching Online’

  1. Super-size My Enthusiasm

I have a busy day today. I have lots of teaching to do, all of it online. I reckon that for every one minute of online teaching I have to do I need about five minutes more enthusiasm and this is some calculation, not quite dog years but maybe Zoom minutes. I have to do this otherwise the experience for everyone who enters your classroom is such a bad one and with things being the way they are at the moment, bad online experiences amplify themselves so loudly that they cast a sonic shadow over everything else. There is just no need for anyone to experience this type of class because these type of classes are wholly avoidable.

2. Transform the Ordinary

That’s not to say that my classes are always interesting; I could never make a claim of that magnitude. Some of my classes, most of my classes, are just ordinary at the level of insight and discovery – a suggestion, here, a thought there, a reason for further thinking outlined, somehow – but ordinary can be transformed if we take the time to make the context of the ordinary more compelling. Take the time to make the ordinary more compelling by caring how you describe it. How you let other people experience the ordinary.

3. Care. Really Care. No, Really.

No matter what we do in life we really need to care about it, otherwise what we do in life doesn’t really seem to matter. Now take this concept and expand it to the point where caring takes on a new meaning, becomes something like super-caring, and then apply it to the people you are online with. This is the only duty we have to those we meet in virtual classrooms – we simply have to care so much that our caring becomes something that matters to those we are online with.

4. Don’t Waste People’s Time

I am continually hearing horror stories of people, I can’t call them academics because clearly that’s something they’re not interested in, who fill the entire time they are online with a class by showing them films. Films. And if the class is only fifty minutes, say, then that’s how long they show the film for. And then because most films are more than fifty minutes long, they show the rest of the film in the next class. In this way, all they need to do is to get people to log on and then press Play. One story I heard, the film in question was over three hours long and so, without so much of a blink of the eye, let alone a nod to the poor people in the class, the film began at the beginning and spooled out over three online sessions.

What. A. Complete. Waste.

Of. Someone. Else’s. Time.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 39 ‘How Many Words Have You Written Today?’

I’ve written twenty four words today. Twenty four. 24. They’re fine words and I will probably keep them but twenty four words isn’t much. At least, it doesn’t feel like much. The most words I have ever written for a single project was ninety-six thousand words. Ninety-six thousand. 96,000. That was for my doctoral dissertation. While I was working on that project I set myself a goal of writing two hundred words a day. This was a modest target and one that really helped me manage to complete the dissertation. Some days I wrote far more than two hundred words, far far more. Other days I wrote less than two hundred words but having a modest daily target allowed me to develop some kind of resilience when it came to writing. I needed this because the whole experience was so challenging that without some form of safety rail I would have crashed over the edge.

There were days when I wished I had never started, when everything around me was falling apart and all I had was these words. It was hard but the daily challenge at least gave me a way to think about something else, even if only for a little while. And so over time the small totals became bigger totals and then one day there was no need for any more of those particular words, I had written enough of them. And that was a strange feeling, very strange. For a while I missed the project hanging over my head like a malignant planet, I was used to always seeing it on my horizon but finally it disappeared from view.

Why am I telling you all this?

I suppose I learned many things through the whole doctoral process and there are many key words that I might reduce the whole process down to – resilience, determination, versatility, etc – but I think, ultimately, the key thing I learned from the whole thing is simply that writing twenty four words is actually pretty good going and if I wait patiently and stay kind to myself there might be some more words to follow.

I’ll let you all know when they arrive.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 37 ‘Do You Do This One Thing When You Write?’

I worry about the words I use. I constantly worry. I think too much sometimes about each word and find myself adding words when actually I should be taking them away. I’m doing it now as I write this. Look at my first two sentences. Really that should read, ‘I constantly worry about the words I use.’

I worry because, like everyone, I set myself targets – daily targets, like a regular number of words, that sort of thing. I’m sure we all do this but the fear of not reaching a target is very real, to me, at least. I feel this fear on a daily basis and when I do I tend to extend my sentences, stretching them beyond where they might likely rest if they were given a choice. This means that each word strains against the next, sometimes not making a clear enough progression through the sentence. Instead of being simply enough, my sentences contain an inherent uncertainty and this can cause them to lose their impact. This then causes my paragraphs to be longer than I would like, with a succession of extended sentences unclarifying the point of the paragraph, muddying the flow down the page.

Of course, once I’m editing I can prune back the words, hacking and cutting as if I were trimming an unruly plant. This allows me to retain, or regain, control of my words and ensures that my paragraphs don’t collapse under their own weight. You would think that I had learned my lesson by now and was disciplined enough to make sure that I controlled my words in the first place. But I’m not and I can’t so I keep extending and stretching followed by hacking and cutting. There’s something natural about this cycle, after all, something comforting, so perhaps I should simply stop complaining and keep pruning?

What do you think?