Posts in Digital Technologies

Move away from the computer: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr The ShallowsWhenever I move into a new house (and there have been many: 23 houses, give or take), for the first week I revel in the surroundings. The space. The views. I sit in various places. I observe what’s outside the windows. I lounge in the backyard. I notice where the sun falls, and lie in it.

By the end of the first month, I no longer notice. That space I created has already become cluttered. I look through the window but I don’t see what’s out there. I know what’s out there. I start living inside my head again.

In Tony Eprile’s article ‘Open Your Eyes: Seeing like a writer’ (March/April 2013 edition of Poets & Writers Magazine), he talks of the importance of sitting still and observing:

Simply paying attention is something anyone can do, but it requires training and patience, a Buddhist quietness of mind that allows one to look steadily and assiduously, to see and not just recognise. It requires an emptying of thought and an opening to vision … Look closely, and slowly, at the world, and it will reveal itself to be quite different from what you once imagined it to be.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak MemoryHe goes on to talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory that describes in gloriously delicate detail ‘the slow glide of a raindrop off a leaf’.

When I travel, things are different. The newly minted world has colour, texture, life. I carry a journal, write every night trying to recreate the day, and looking back, my words are always vivid and evocative. But I can’t seem to do this in my backyard. I don’t notice what’s happening to plants. I want to learn how to write about my everyday life in the same way.

Many writers are talking these days about the impact of the internet and social media on their daily practice. The constant feeling of being interrupted. The distractions. As I read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, I became increasingly aware (read: alarmed) of how using my laptop (iPad, iPhone) was affecting not only my work but the way I interact with my family. I find it increasingly hard to switch off. In our kitchen, once the domain of toasters and kettles and slow cookers, the benchspace is lined with modems, various sized cables and different items charging all the time. As I do the dishes, the iPhone podcasts from the Wheeler Centre (only 98 more podcasts to go!).

While I apparently work three days a week, on the off days my laptop sits on the bench, dinging every time someone posts on Facebook or Twitter or enters something in iCal or even sends me an email (how old-fashioned). As I read to my kids, or bash on musical instruments, I have one ear out for an update.

Of course, I know I can change all this, I can adjust all the settings, but what bothers me is that I find it very hard to commit. Each time I hear that ding I get a rush of adrenaline; like it’s a news update. I feel compelled. Even though it’s very rarely a message that requires urgent attention — or any attention at all, really. I also feel queasy, as if I’m gambling into the early hours, while I’m pushing buttons.

There’s no doubt. When I have whole days away from the computer, I start to feel calmer. I start to notice. My writing takes on unusual shapes and forms. I feel completely peaceful when I have uninterrupted time for reflection.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt_NwowMTcg&w=560&h=315]

Nicholas Carr argues that the way we use the internet is changing how we process information, and even the way our brains work:

The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’  brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought — the ones we use in traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument…’

And what about memory? I feel like I don’t use mine much. I haven’t even bothered to remember my home phone number (after about 15 houses, I gave up) because I can store it on my mobile phone. I don’t need to look at a map, remember the address of where I’m heading, because I’ll just punch it into the GPS. But Carr argues that this kind of laziness means we are losing the capacity to create and store long-term memories:

The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement.

I don’t want to abandon social media, blogging, ebooks and internet research altogether. But after reading Carr’s book, I’m reluctant to continue using my computer the way I do. It’s a process of seduction. I let myself get distracted. But I feel used and abused later. I want to be focused.

While being able to research while not leaving your bedroom is pretty exciting (for an introvert like me), I’m now debating whether internet research really helps my writing process. Perhaps it’s better to head out to a library, to focus in on one thing at a time, to just sit and talk with people, to let ideas percolate. When I start researching on the internet, I always feel overwhelmed. Because I am interested in everything. I want to make connections everywhere. Traditional research seems to involve discovering the root of an idea and then branching out. Internet research seems to involve getting the whole tree and desperately pruning down. I need to set boundaries, as with all other aspects of my life.

When I’m older and grey, I won’t be reciting reams of poetry like my grandfather did. I wonder, as my short-term memory starts to fade, what will start to pour out?

The lure of introversion: QUIET by Susan Cain

Quiet_Power_of_introverts_Susan_CainI’m having a pyjama day today. I’ve had a couple lately. Every now and then the world gets too busy, I get run-down and I jump into bed (I try not to take my laptop – too often). The kids are at child care so I can luxuriate in nothingness. Sleep. Read. Try not to think too much. Recuperate. When I was a teenager I used to need pyjama days a lot. Each year in high school, I’d take one day, and it would turn into a week. I would lie on the couch and watch morning TV, then the soap operas, then vegetate. I’ve always loved my mum for understanding that I needed to do this. As a kid I put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn’t need parental expectations, I had enough of my own. I was a hard worker, a passionate student and wanted to excel. This downtime kept me going. There’s a reason people call them ‘mental health days’. But I wonder, does everyone need them?

I’ve recently read a book that has changed my perspective on the world, and given me real insight into the way I approach things. Susan Cain’s QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (she also does a great session on TED). It’s become my Bible that I want to carry around and refer to all the time. It’s certainly explained a lot of my behaviour for the past 41 years. Cain focuses on introversion not as a form of shyness, but how we respond to external stimulation. Most introverts prefer, and get off on, quiet environments. They prefer one-on-one conversations over group activities, usually D&Ms (deep & meaningfuls), not social chitchat. They enjoy time alone. They like working in spaces where they have their own office (and can shut the door), where they can focus right in, without distractions. All of this is so familiar to me.

But problems can arise because these days there is great pressure to be an extrovert (especially when you’re a writer, an often introverted profession), to be a great public speaker, to work the room at events. While I don’t think Australia is quite at the level of the US (where it’s almost seen as a stigma to be introverted), many grow up thinking that to be successful they need to be a ‘people person’. It makes me laugh thinking back to my first job interviews as a teenager, as I always said this about myself knowing it to be key, but even then I felt like it was a deceit.

Susan Cain talks about the power of introspection at TED
Susan Cain talks at TED

As I grew older, I put more pressure on myself to take on roles that involved a public life (information officer, marketing) but in the end it was exhausting. What I really wanted was to be an editor or writer, to work on projects, to be thorough and demanding and immersed. And as a freelancer working from home, I’ve created that space. The digital world has opened that up to me.

When I worked in the public service, offices were being removed, everyone was going open plan, all staff were being trained to be trainers, brainstorming was the ‘in’ thing, the constant noise was deafening, and no-one ever got any work done. Cain systematically goes through many of these ideas (open plan, brainstorming, group activities at school) and argues that often the end result is not the best outcome (either for introverts or extroverts).

There is also a great deal of pressure on parents to have social children who fit in easily and make lots of friends. Even at kinder level, my son is doing talks to the group. Many parents enrol their kids in whirlwinds of extra activities after school like dancing, soccer and music. But what about the child who would rather stay at home and lie on the couch, reading? In the school holidays I used to take a stack of books, wherever I was, and find a comfy corner. We’re going to the beach! Swimming! The sun’s shining outside! It was very hard to drag me out…But I was passionate about words. And I was completely, blissfully, happy exploring those worlds. And still am.

Now, somehow my introverted husband and I have managed to raise two extroverted kids (there’s another story in itself – it really helps at parties when your son know all the kids’ and parent’s names) but the important main point of QUIET is that introverts should be left alone (in many senses), not forced to change, and can even teach others in their own ways. Without introverts, we’d be missing out on many writers, artists, researchers and scientists who step back and look at the world from a different angle.

Social media is an interesting space because it is an easy way for introverts to become extroverts. It’s much easier to approach others, to comment, to be part of the conversation, to self-promote. But it can be too easy too. When I opened my Twitter yesterday I saw a tweet that I don’t remember sending. I thought I had been hacked! Kirsten Krauth read a book by Kirsten Krauth. It had gone out to everyone! It really brings solipsism to a whole new level, doesn’t it? But what had happened was that I had marked my own novel  in Goodreads (ie I had ‘read’ it) and Goodreads sent that tweet off via Twitter without me realising. The ludicrous nature of that tweet really brought it home. As Cain points out, there is a point when I need to stop talking. And I’ll be ironic and use my blog to say that.

It’s time to get back down under the doona and start on the pile of novels I’ve got beside the bed.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU AN EXTROVERT OR INTROVERT? DO YOU NEED DOWNTIME? HOW DO YOU MANAGE IT ALL?

Talking Writing: an ebook featuring great Australian writers

Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers' Centre
Talking Writing ebook, NSW Writers’ Centre

I love having the flexibility to swing between freelance writing and editing. I’ve been commissioning editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite, for a number of years now. I enjoy commissioning articles almost as much as writing them. There’s something about the ideas process, talking through possible articles with an editorial team, and then seeing writers respond to a theme and bring it to the page fully formed. More often than not, writers completely surprise me with what they bring back.

For an editor, working on a magazine composed by writers is a dream job. The writing that comes in is taut and well-shaped, with virtually no typos. I can just sit back end enjoy. For a writer, I’ve always got a lot to learn. Writing short stories. Or sci-fi. Or the love poem. I’m always keen to try new things. This ebook covers the gamut.

Newswrite has always been a members-only magazine, for those based in NSW. One of the frustrating things about editing each edition has been that I haven’t been able to use social media to share the articles that I find exciting and helpful for writers (and there are many).

So the Centre came up with an idea: we’ve produced our first ebook, Talking Writing, a collection of the best articles from the past couple of years. It was launched last week. Yes, it does cost money. But $9.95 is a pretty reasonable outlay for some of the finest writers in the country, both established and emerging.

My favourites from the book include:

  • John Safran on writing TV comedy. I went to uni with John. I was involved with making an early music video at RMIT of his song ‘Melbourne Tram’. His work has always fascinated me. Here, he berates writers for being so precious. To come up with ideas. Lots of them. 
  • Kate Holden on writing good sex. I’m intrigued by Kate’s evocation of the erotic in her nonfiction. She has lived it. Writing sex (that’s not cringe-worthy) is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Kate has some great tips.
  • Arnold Zable on writing as therapy. In the aftermath of the bushfire tragedy in Victoria, Arnold did workshops with some of the survivors. They wrote about what they had lost, shared, and remembered. It’s an article full of spirit and rejuvenation amidst the devastation.
  • Writer on WriterThe magazine has a regular column (that I get very excited about) where writers are asked to talk about the author who has had the greatest influence on them (writing practice and reading). It’s a wonderfully intimate space for reflection and featured writers include Emily Maguire (on Graham Greene), Benjamin Law (Zadie Smith), Jon Bauer (Ray Bradbury), Sam Cooney (David Foster Wallace) and Mandy Sayer (Ernest Hemingway).
  • And then there’s Rebecca Giggs on writing and the environment; Sam Twyford-Moore on writing and depression, James Bradley on blogging, Kirsten Tranter on the second novel and Geordie Williamson + Angela Meyer on criticism in the digital age.

If you’re an emerging writer looking for hands-on nuts and bolts help, this ebook will be useful to dip into. It covers a range of genres so teachers of writing can add it to their syllabus.

You can read it on your computer screen, iPad, Kindle or other e-reading devices.

This release is a bit of an experiment. If we get lots of digi-readers, the plan is to keep publishing Newswrite articles in a variety of formats. I hope you enjoy reading the articles as much as I have over the years.

Grieving for the book: stage one=denial

A beautiful bookshelfMy (somewhat lazy) goal of writing a blog post once a week has fallen into disarray this past month as the reality of doing paid work (along with a structural edit of my novel, and my toddler starting to talk and climb up on tables) has started to hit home. One of the reasons I started the Writing Mothers series was because I wanted to see how other writers coped.

There have been ups and downs.

When the structural edit came back from the editor, I had a good bawl. A friend says that you are entitled to have one tantrum with your publishers and it’s best to save it. For when you see the book cover. So I bit my tongue. I had a good sleep and looked again at the suggestions. A week went by and some of the comments started to sound quite good. As I began a rewrite, the work started to reshape and it felt wonderful.

I’ve never been good with criticism. Even when it’s delivered with finesse (as this was). Writers often say they are missing that outer layer of skin. I feel exposed to everything and everyone. Any negative comments hit deep while positivity and praise washes off. I thought this might change as I hit my 30s. But now I’m 40 and nup. I want to know how to get over that before the book comes out. But perhaps it’s best not to think that way. To embrace the vulnerability, once and for all.

The thing is, though, I am good at bouncing back. Perhaps that’s the key. It might hit me hard but after a week I’ll be ready. To look at things clearly. To start again with passion. If there’s a chance the writing will be better, in the end I’ll give it a go.

Edwina Preston, The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer
My review of Edwina Preston’s book appeared recently in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age.

And then there’s the high points. My first critique was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age (a review of Edwina Preston’s The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer). I didn’t know exactly when the review was coming out so hadn’t bought the paper. I found out by receiving a strange and abstract text from my mum reading it over coffee. I looked at the review online but didn’t get too excited, until I’d flicked to the page on hard copy. What is it about this attachment to the printed form? Why do I get so puffed up when I see myself in print?

It might be to do with layout and design. I’ve always loved working with designers on projects. When I look at an article of mine in digital form (an online newspaper app, at any rate), it doesn’t look so different from when I emailed it off. But when it’s in a newspaper, laid out and conversing with other articles on a page, I enjoy looking at it, as if it’s been shaped by someone else.

I went to a panel at the recent NonFictioNow conference (and what a buzz it was) on longform nonfiction and digital distribution. One of the panellists, the wonderful writer Elmo Keep, mentioned she never reads on paper any more. Everything she needs can be read on an iPad. I wonder at my continued attachment to see things on a page. The writer, Arnold Zable, said to me that we are in the first stage of grieving for the book: denial. There’s something to that. But I have always been excited by the possibilities of the digital for text. Hypertext? Anyone remember that? My own novel started off as a hypertext project but I got too distracted by the technical possibilities so squirmed free to concentrate on content.

But I never have liked binary oppositions. I don’t see why I can’t enjoy reading on the Kindle and buying books at the same time. And I hate being told by the media that I have the attention span of a gnat. I enjoyed Elmo’s introduction to the panel because she quickly dismissed the idea that people don’t read longer works on the net. Websites like Longform and Longreads select a range of longer journalist pieces and essays for readers to browse or read later when they have time (but who does?).

So, I’m in the curious position of being super-excited about my first novel being published (as a book) next year — developing ideas for the book cover, the back cover blurb, the marketing and distribution — while recognising that my future publishing world will be geared in a different direction. Sam Twyford-Moore, in the same conference panel, said that publishing in book form, you may as well print it out and ‘put it in a box’ (compared with the audience you get online).

The books of Haruki Murakami
The books of Haruki Murakami

Elmo also said she had got rid of all her books, seeing bookcases as a waste of space, a way to show off how smart you perceive yourself to be. I guess there is that element of ego to books on display (and every collection: I have hundreds of DVDS, mostly of TV series), but they mean so much more to me (it’s not often other people peruse them). I can spend hours running my hands and eyes over a bookshelf, remembering the worlds within. I used to sort my books (by author, sometimes by publisher, by Australian or not) but now they are random and I like encountering the new, the ‘to read this year’, along with the favourites, the sleek black and white Haruki Murakamis, the violent Bret Easton Ellises, the evasive Lorrie Moores (there’s that ego again).

I love looking at other people’s bookshelves too and it’s more a chance to see if we have similar threads of interest, to get a feel for their personal space and tastes, and occasionally to ask to borrow something; one of the most intimate things you can do is take a book off a shelf and take it home.

If in the future there are no books (in printed form), I will grieve. But for the moment it’s too soon, and I don’t believe it. I think they will always be there, even if’s an expensive and very niche market. But, then again, perhaps I am just in denial.

Vulnerability in the digital age

Don Draper, Mad Men
Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men

One of the talks I like to watch again and again on the net is Brené Brown’s lively and moving dissection of vulnerability at the wonderful TED site. She speaks of the importance of embracing vulnerability, how difficult this can be in a world where happiness is often equated with success, and how admitting you’re vulnerable is often a first step to making a real connection with someone.

There are many situations where vulnerability is required, or even demanded: labour pains at birth; attending a funeral; giving a speech in front of strangers; going for a job interview for a position you really want; moving to a new place and trying to make friends (as we will be, soon).

And I think, for writers, it’s a constant theme in our work. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your words (and your persona) are being examined closely: what do they reveal about you as a person, your past relationships, your current state of mind? When new fiction writers face audiences at festivals, or talk to people about their book at parties, they are invariably asked, ‘Is the book autobiographical?’ or ‘Is that character based on you?’

It can be a difficult question to answer. I see it as like making a jug of cordial. You add a bit of the sweet syrupy stuff (the essence, from your life) but then you mix in water and it dilutes, becomes a different substance, more tart, a new texture to swallow.

Nurse Jackie
Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

Vulnerability is on my mind as I was offered a book deal this week, to publish my first novel. My first reaction (obviously) was to sing the most irritating song on earth, ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’, for the entire week and open the bubbles. But then I started to get nervous. Would I feel exposed? What if my grandmother read it? Would readers start to think the central character was based on me? Would my friends and family feel betrayed?

Many of the most exciting narratives of our time are based around the central issue of vulnerability. What would The Sopranos be without Tony Soprano’s regular visit to his therapist and unexpected panic attacks (when he’s cooking sausages) — his central core fear of his weaknesses being revealed. And then there’s Mad Men, where all characters hide various shameful acts (or at least labelled shameful at the time) under a veneer of glamour and rigorous work ethic (helped by generous alcohol consumption during work hours). Don Draper is particularly vulnerable because it is his true identity he tries so desperately to hide, the shame of being a deserter; by creating a new character to hide behind, his links with reality are tenuous, and his decision-making is flawed. In Nurse Jackie, Jackie copes by having a double life: prescription drug addiction and an affair with the man who doles them out. In Breaking Bad, a man is so frightened of revealing his life-threatening cancer to his wife, he starts cooking amphetamines and becomes embroiled in murdering mayhem.

You’d think in today’s age, where revelation is all (Oprah style), that admitting you’re vulnerable may be easier. But I think the technologies that surround us — the way we can now text, FB, msg or email when something is too difficult to say face to face, or even on the phone — means we are protected (wrapped up in our techno-turtle-shells) from disappointing others, from revealing ourselves.

When my grandfather died, I got a text message. In six words a beautiful, humble, loving man was reduced (for me). The person on the other end of the phone was too vulnerable to speak, to tell others, in grief. But those moments can be the most important ones in day to day life, the ones we always remember, for what they reveal (and don’t) about the person on the other end of the line.