Writing in clusters

I have written before about having small ideas rather than big ones - unable to take them beyond a certain point - but it goes deeper than just being impatient to get my thoughts out.

I seem to share my comments in clusters.

I tend not to put out a single post on something but a number; a series of connected, progressive thoughts with the ideas (often contradictory) morphing as they go.

The process is visible.

Sometimes that can be seen within a single post, its trajectory changing as I work through a topic. Very much a case of thinking out loud or, rather, on the page.

Then, after reaching what amounts to a conclusion, the subject is put to one side, exhausted, leaving the appearance of a brief obsession.

It's just the way I work.

Writing in clusters

Forgetting

Over time I forget a lot of what I've already written. Although each post will be tempered and coloured by new experiences I don't like to repeat myself without adding extra value or insight.

It frustrates me that I have had thoughts and ideas which haven't sunk in, haven't become part of my conscious reasoning.

Perhaps this is the result of writing when tired, when the subconscious comes to the fore and spews out whatever is held within.

That in itself is no bad thing, the unconscious act of creation is perhaps the most honest, the most insightful, but a lasting conscious memory of it would make it more real.

It's almost like trying to adopt the product of my subconscious as though it was an external influence.

It seems strange to think that I am seeking to internalise something that has already come from inside me.

It is the transition from subconscious to conscious that makes it more valid, to take those crazy thoughts and rationalise them under the scrutiny of my externally projected psyche.

It feels weird when these minipiphanies arise from nowhere, thoughts emerging fully formed as though created by another then handed to you.

They don't feel part of you but are actually part of you in the realest sense; a translation from thought to word to truth.

Aligning the internal mechanisms with the external message.

Based on Write365 - 16th June 2014

Forgetting

On being creative

What is missing? ... The work is quite feasible, and is the only thing in our power. ... Let go of the past. We must only begin. - Epictetus (taken from The Daily Stoic)

How many times have we heard the same sentiment expressed in different ways:

"You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great" - Zig Ziglar

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" - Lao Tzu

"The beginning is the most important part of the work" - Plato

We may have the grandest of ideas but they are all but worthless if we never put them into action.

Pressure

We get hung up on the idea of being creative. We convince ourselves that being creative means that we must produce amazing art or poetry or literature. We put ourselves under undue pressure by only focusing on the result and cannot see how we can achieve it.

Creative is simply defined as:

relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something

Imagination - check, ideas - of course, create - obviously. But look at that last word: something.

It doesn't say that being creative means we have to produce a masterpiece, it just says we have to create.

Something. Anything.

The artist starts with a rough sketch. The poet begins with a thought, feeling or emotion. The author first conceives a character, event or outcome.

Even masterpieces have very humble beginnings, but they must all start somewhere.

It is the very act of creation that is important, the willingness to start even if there is no end in sight. Nine times out of ten this may be a false start - second bang, the gun goes off again and we are pulled back to the beginning.

Fortunately for us we will not be disqualified and can have as many false starts as we need, as many as it takes to get it right and get over the finish line.

We just have to start.

Write365 - 6th August 2014 (updated)

On being creative

On Reflection. Or, what is art?

I happened to glance up on the tube and noticed an ad for Brian Eno, Reflection. All I saw was those three words, unaware of the actual reason for the ad. Later, I discovered it was for his new ambient album.

As an Eno fan, and not having been aware it was being released, I did some reading and was instantly struck by the question "what is art?"

Although Eno is referred to as the godfather of ambient music it's not a term that he feels strictly describes what he does in the genre:

Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves. My job as a composer is to set in place a group of sounds and phrases, and then some rules which decide what happens to them.

In effect he sets the foundations but algorithms are responsible for how the music grows and evolves. Some suggest this calls in to question whether Eno can really be called the piece's author.

Questions

Search Google for "what is art?" and you will likely receive a definition similar to this:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination ... producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

If a work creates itself and, therefore, has no composer in the traditional sense are we removing the human element from the process?

Is the work alone enough?

To be considered art does something require a connection between artist and audience? Does that relationship enhance the piece or potentially detract from our appreciation of it?

Is the true beauty of art its ability to trigger a response regardless of the original intent of the artist? Is the intent of the artist actually a limiting factor in appreciating the art on its own merits?

In his 1967 essay "The Death of the Author" Roland Barthes, a French literary critic, argued that a work must be separated from its author (the notion of the author as the source and embodiment of the work must die) in order to open it to interpretation and, thus, "restore the status of the reader."

Rather than hearing something in the author's voice Barthes stated:

all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin

The language, the story, the emotion should all exist beyond the author and the reader should consume it as its own entity. In fact, he suggested that the author should write in such a way as to remove themselves from their work entirely.

Again we remove part of the human element.

Some avenues of modern art blatantly require no skill or talent (unless you count the ability to get others to pay large sums for it) but they still illicit an emotional response from the audience, even if negative.

By this token, if skill is not a specific requirement, we are further shrinking the definition of art.

Responsibility

Facebook has been criticised for creating filter bubbles in the news feed but then hiding behind its algorithms. Facebook argues that these systems merely reflect the actions of its users.

The algorithm will naturally inherit the human assumptions and biases of those that created it. It is also Facebook's choice to employ these algorithms so is it possible to deny responsibility?

No!

If we apply the same logic to generative music, the algorithms will only operate in the manner of their creation and it is the creator's choice to use them in such a way. It would, therefore, seem only right to call their creator the work's author.

Intent and interpretation

The same work will appeal to us in different ways based on our mood and our changing life experience. Opinions and tastes vary throughout our lives.

Eno expresses his dissatisfaction with the way music has been traditionally experienced:

My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time - ‘like sitting by a river’: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing. But recordings - whether vinyl, cassette or CD - are limited in length, and replay identically each time you listen to them.

The same piece of music may be relaxing, uplifting or even reduce the listener to tears as they hear and take different things from each hearing but nothing has changed, it is still exactly the same recording.

The human condition, to a degree, negates these complaints about static recordings. We ascribe our own emotional values to them away from the intent of their creator.

On its merits

So, do we need to know the author and their intent? Can their specific state of mind and rationale for creation enhance our experience?

Perhaps the author can be seen as a guide to put us on the path then it is up to us to choose which way to travel.

There are inherent dangers in generalisation - we cannot treat all creations the same way and must judge them individually.

We will often forge our own meaning from something based on our wants and needs but, sometimes, something can only be truly understood in the way the author intended by learning their circumstances and motivations.

The human condition exists for the author as well as the audience and to deny the former is as insulting as Barthes' anger at the "author-god."

So, what is art?

Art is the perfect illustration of the Observer effect.

Something isn't art until it is captured, observed, interpreted. By observing something we change it, impose our own ideas and emotions on to it.

A scene isn't art until someone frames it and takes a photo. Plato argued that art was imitation of reality but the photo is art even though just a representation of what is already there. The act of isolating that very moment in time and space gives it meaning, makes it special.

It is an act of creation.

Our interpretation and appreciation of the world around us is defined, and limited, by our knowledge, emotions and vocabulary; it is as individual as we are. Even if we are guided by the artist's intent we still experience it in our own way.

Art is that which makes us feel.

On Reflection. Or, what is art?

Ideas, creativity and scale

This is always a difficult time of year for someone who likes to call themselves a writer.

Why?

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month - an annual event in which authors sign up to write a novel of at least 50,000 words during the month of November.

I have always wanted to write a book of some description but my only effort, a sci-fi novel begun in my late teens, fizzled out - the scope was too grand while I was too young and inexperienced to match the vision.

At least I'm honest about that.

Ideas without execution

For years my social profiles have included the words "thinker, writer, ideas man" but what does that really mean?

It sounds grand, creative, perhaps self aggrandising but it is also self deprecating.

The problem is since that failed attempt I have only had small ideas, bits and pieces often building on someone else's work. Extensions, wishes, improvements.

When original ideas do emerge they suffer from my inability to expand them, to turn them from small ideas into big ones or combine a number of smaller thoughts into a worthy project.

Ideas without execution.

Ideas are our lifeblood, yet alone they are nothing but shadows of what might have been or reflections of possible futures.

With only ideas I am just the thinker and not the doer. With only ideas I am just the ideas man and not the author or the entrepreneur. With only ideas I am but a single step down a very long road and can only dream of reaching the end.

And small ideas only get you so far.

Worth something

It may be a little conceited but we want our ideas to be worth something - not necessarily financially, but mentally, emotionally.

We want our creation to be something someone else will care about, that will make an impact or make a difference rather than get buried in a social stream with just a couple of likes from friends who feel obligated to tap that little heart icon.

Perhaps it is a fear of our own mortality that we want to make a mark on the world and not be lost to time once our number is up.

We tie self worth to external validation when we should be looking within; when we should be relishing our ideas no matter how small.

Ideas, creativity and scale

Same thing, different platform

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Not entirely sure what to expect, I listened to the first episode of the Hardbound podcast (with Nathan Bashaw and Will Hoekenga) and was really struck by the notion that, despite the technological advances we have seen and new form factors available, we are still largely repackaging the same old types of content to make it fit a different sized screen.

We may have to think about layouts and font sizing in order to maximise the benefits of any given platform - responsive CSS is the tool du jour here - or work on how quickly things load by reducing their complexity - the AMP Project is a case in point - but this is just tinkering round the edges and not revolutionising the content.

Hardbound interests me because it is a new platform specifically designed to redefine how we tell stories on mobile devices and has amazing educational potential. In fact, all the stories published so far are educational in nature rather than what we would think of as literary ones.

The link between storytelling and education, of course, goes back millennia. Culture, history and legend were all passed orally from generation to generation by way of stories long before writing was ever invented and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that such platforms are a modern extension of this tradition.

But, as I've said before, all writing is storytelling, it's just a different kind of story, and stories require a certain flow, direction.

The visual web

There has been a genuine fear that visual consumption is taking over the web with engagement heading towards the lowest common denominator.

With the likes of Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, Periscope, and now the suggestion that within just five years Facebook could be all video the tide has been turning and some believe it may never come back in.

Yet, when faced with the written word, we cling to the same old formats that could just as well be column inches in a newspaper.

Why don't we do something different with blogs and articles? Why do we persist in creating stories in the exact same way regardless of delivery mechanism?

It's almost as though, when it comes to text, we are afraid to give up the old paradigm.

Maybe it's because it just works

We are used to linear progression, stories wouldn't work without it. Beginning, middle and end - just as our English teachers used to drum in to us every day.

Text in its traditional form works because we are telling a story, we are taking the reader from A to B, maybe stopping off to see some sights on the journey, but still leading them to a destination so that they might reach the same conclusions or better understand our point of view.

We could play around with more visual representations and, as Hardbound demonstrates, could still achieve a coherent narrative. So why don't we?

One reason has to be information density: more words often equals more information, more scope to tell our tale or make our point; just like the difference between a song and a rap.

But you get people like Seth Godin who can say so much with so few words or song writers who are able to convey such meaning and emotion in a few short verses. True brevity is a rare talent - the rest of us are stuck in loquacity.

I think there are two other factors at play: speed and talent.

It is obviously far quicker to just write something than to also illustrate and animate it. The news is obviously new and current, time sensitive, so any benefits gained by clever presentation are normally outweighed by the delay in publishing.

There is also the consideration that alternative means of presentation will be multi-disciplinary affairs requiring writers, illustrators, animators, and perhaps even coders.

Large news organisations will have the resources to try something different and we see them tread new paths on occasion, but this is the exception rather than the rule due to sheer pressures and timescales involved.

For casual bloggers it is all but impossible.

Generations

Perhaps long form text is just what we're used to, it has been our mainstay and some habits are hard to break. However, this could be a generational thing with older generations the last gatekeepers of traditional long form text - the picture may change over time.

We are in the midst of a communications revolution where emoji and gifs are used to convey more information and emotion than a few words ever could over our size constrained, mobile-centric delivery systems.

Yes, even with our large screen devices.

Update: changed “solo bloggers” to “casual bloggers” to better illustrate the skill sets at play.

Same thing, different platform