Let’s have a golden age

(This is my favourite of the pieces that I wrote for the Literary Network. The question is asks is one I think is very important: with the numbers of people studying creative writing, why has there not been a boom in small presses? Where are all the novels and short stories and poems that these people have been writing? It's like a mass of cultural dark matter that should be there but isn't.)

There are 1,300 creative writers emerging from British universities every year.  This ought to be the start of a literary golden age.

In a recent email to this site’s bloggers, the editor said he was pleased with the posts so far but concluded: “As a brief aside, if anyone would like to write an unashamedly happy and positive post (ie not the death of publishers / libraries / books etc) please do.” So with this post I will be optimistic, avoiding words like ‘death’ and ‘decline’. I’m going to look at something I touched on in my previous post, the dramatic increase in creative writing courses, but this time I want to focus on the opportunities this provides.

Just after I submitted that previous post an article appeared on the Guardian website by Ian Jack on a similar theme. This piece, The Age of the Gifted Amateur has Returned, made the claim that “Figures are hard to come by, but Britain is probably turning out about 1,300 ‘creative writers’ every year.”

1,300 creative writers. Every year. Think how much raw talent that represents. Thousands upon thousands of people capable of crafting their experiences, hopes and fantasies into decent prose and poetry. So where are they? Where are all the little magazines, spoken word nights, pamphlets and small presses? There are some out there, but not enough to reflect the work of 1,300 additional writers a year. It’s an artistic version of the Fermi paradox: if they’re out there how come we don’t see them?

I suspect most of these writers are working on their first novel. If so, the main outlet for their writing will be workshops, exchanging chapters of masterworks-in-progress with other writers. Which is lovely – but I’ve had all the workshop wine and hummus I’m prepared to take. Workshops are a closed system, focussing on unfinished work, pieces that need tinkering. I’ve often seen writers produce exciting early versions but rarely see the polished gems these pieces are supposed to turn into. Furthermore, with 1,300 additional people every year competing for the shrinking space in bookshops and bookshelves, many of these people will spend years on their novel then have their heart broken when agent after agent sends it back. There must be thousands of pages of great prose not reaching readers, all that hard work and talent wasted.

Think how exciting it would be if the country’s thousands of creative writers narrowed their focus and worked on something other than novels. One of my favourite pieces of recent writing was Swindon Orbital, a friend’s obsessive psycho-geographical exploration of Swindon. There should be essays like this for every town in the country. Maybe the rest of the country isn’t interested in your local legends and characters, but the people who share them are likely to be very interested. Reinterpret your local environment: and if you produce something truly great, word will spread further.

What I want is obscure writing on topics I can’t find in bookshops and magazines. I probably don’t care about your literary novel about marital infidelity, even if it’s offered as a free PDF – I have more than enough of that sort of thing I could read already. What I want are narrowly focussed works: stories tied to tiny geographical areas, books obsessed by subjects I love that most people don’t care about. The world may not be crying out for short stories about typography, plays in disappearing local dialects, or avant-garde poetry about Derbyshire tearooms – but there are some people who’d truly love them.

Too many creative writers do too little with their qualification. Put aside that future Booker-prize winner and set your sights lower. You could be writing broadsides, something that can be read in minutes then kept or discarded. Paste stories onto walls and fences! Make little booklets – here’s how to make 8 page booklets from a A4 sheet. Put on a spoken word night – if even three strangers turn up it still will be more fun than a workshop. Write a great flash piece about school and put it in with a letter to an old friend. Forget about novels – there’s so much more you could do. Put away the hummus and send some writing out into your world.

Why Bother Writing?

(This is the penultimate post from the Literature Network. It was written in 2009 and posted in May 2010 and is one of my favourite pieces from the set. I think it provides a good answer to the question of why people should write in a world where we already have so much text). 

James Burt wonders why, with millions of tons of books already in the world, so many of us want to add to the weight.

(James originally wrote this post some months ago and has now returned from his foreign travels. Apologies from the editor for only just finding a space to run this blog post!)

I’m writing this post while boxing up my library. Everything is going into storage while I take a two month holiday. I’m looking forward to relaxing, travelling, and better weather. I’m also excited about reading some good books, something I haven’t had enough time for lately.

I carry a book everywhere I go but it’s only when lugging whole boxes of them that you become aware of how heavy text is. I’ve slimmed my library down massively and it’s still too heavy. I think back to the rumours that my university library is sinking under the weight of the text inside. The story wasn’t true, but it sounds like it could be.

The huge amount of writing in the world feels oppressive. The UK has the highest per-capita number of new titles, with 206,000 published in 2005, an increase of 28% on the year before. That’s more than a life-time’s reading being pumped out year on year. I’d hate to have to carry those books, let alone have to read them. The Internet contains even more text than the world’s books. Wikipedia takes up the equivalent of 1,000 hard-copy encyclopedia volumes.The blogosphere is much larger. There are millions of people writing things on the web.

When blogs first became popular, many people asked what the point was – who cares about the minutiae of regular peoples’ lives? The same sneering continues today, directed at twitter. Critics claim the chatter about TV shows, meals and and dreary days at work is pointless. Why would anyone add to this noise? Doubters often say the same thing to writers: why bother working on a novel/play/story/poem that the vast majority of people won’t even hear about, let alone not care about.

According to some social scientists language didn’t evolve as a means of exchanging information, but rather as a social tool. Social bonding in primates is based on reciprocal grooming, but this takes a fair amount of time. Talking allows people to have a friendly interaction in less time than it would have taken to eat nits from each other’s hair. This is what scientists refer to as ‘phatic communication’, speech intended “to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information”

Phatic communication is the type of speech where we ask someone how they are, and they tell us they’re fine, a verbal nod from one person to another. It’s why we point out how good the weather is when we meet someone outdoors. With blogging and twitter, the exchange of information is as important as the content of the messages. I think the same is true of creative writing: it performs a social function.

Guardian blogger David Barnett wrote a post asking Is it time to revive the Christmas tradition of the chapbook? Barnett describes giving family and friends copies of Christmas stories he’d written as gifts. He writes “It’s a hugely egotistical exercise, I admit, but no more so than hoping people you know will shell out hard cash for a properly-published piece of fiction. Chapbooks of this kind are homemade, personal and inexpensive – and have an illustrious literary history.

I love seeing work by friends of mine. There’s something wonderful about a pamphlet or a CD that a friend has put together. As much as the work itself it’s the gift of something they’ve worked on. I think people neglect this phatic aspect of writing. If you’ve finished an amazing story, why not bind a few copies and distribute them? Writing is not simply about the text – or, at least, it shouldn’t be. We should pay more attention to the phatic aspects of creative writing. The presentation of the work is as important as the writing itself.

I’ve now finished packing the books and put them into storage. It’s strange to think of my library boxed and locked away in a room. Books don’t do much good when they’re hidden away.

Where do ideas come from?

(This was originally posted on the Literature Network site back in October 2010. It's quite a light post, but the concept of ideas existing independent of writers keeps turning up in the literary theory I'm currently reading. There is far more to this than I realised a couple of years ago)

What if there was an actual place ideas came from? James Burt has a good look around Idea Space.

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. Their answers are sometimes glib – Harlan Ellison once replied “Poughkeepsie” and Neil Gaiman used to suggest ‘from the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ or ‘a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis’. My favourite reply is one I’ve heard attributed to Arthur Miller: “If I knew, I would go there more often.” Wouldn’t it be something to visit the place ideas come from?

The writer Alan Moore has talked at length about the world of ideas, referring to it as ‘ideaspace’ and ‘the Immateria’. Moore suggests it is a place where “philosophies are land masses and religions are probably whole countries … The actual ideas represent the equivalent of solid objects in terms of that space. An idea may be a pebble, a rock, a mountain or a whole continent in terms of its stature” Our minds might be the Ideaspace equivalent of a house, personal to us, with a shared world outside. As Moore says elsewhere, “it’s tempting to think that the idea could … have been a solid thing floating in a mutually accessible space you happened to come across, and so did somebody else,”

(This is the sort of things comic book writers come out with all the time. They seem to have more fun than literary writers, experimenting with magic and bumping into their characters in the real world. It’s fine hearing an author talk about craft and inspiration, but isn’t it more exciting to read someone discussing the time “The demon Asmodeus… appeared to me as a web of spiders that kept turning itself out into a dimension we don’t have”? I can spend hours reading interviews with people like Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore.)

Even if you don’t agree with Alan Moore’s ideas, it’s worth thinking about what it would mean if ideas exist independently of writers. For a start, there’s nothing to stop someone you’ve never met having the same idea minutes after you. In such a world it wouldn’t be the raw ideas that had value but what was done with them. Ideas, on their own, are worthless.

Consider calculus: it was publicised independently by both Leibniz and Newton. It’s almost as if the idea was determined to enter our world. In fact, there’s an ongoing philosophical debate in mathematics as to whether mathematics exists in the universe, or is something invented by humans. Ideaspace is a concept mathematicians take quite seriously: would an intelligent alien species use triangles or did humans invent them?

Ideas often work in strange ways. The author Ben Schott was accused of plaigiarism for an article containing similar anecdotes to one written by the wonderful Anne Fadiman (if you’ve not read her book Ex Libris you really should). One possibility is that Schott, intentionally or unintentionally cribbed the earlier essay. But what if the elements that occur in both essays had come to Schott independently of their appearance in Fadiman’s essay? The sneaky nature of ideas would leave him looking like a plaigiarist. (Personally I love both essays and think the world is a better place for having both of them, regardless of the overlaps).

The thing I like best about the concept of ideaspace is that it implies ideas are everywhere. The trick is making them into something. Warren Ellis has publicly talked about his method for finding ideas, and Charlie Stross has provided a worked example. Ideas should be easy to come up with: what’s the worst thing that’s happened to you? What’s the most shameful thing you’ve ever done? The trick is moulding them into something remarkable. And if you’re only going to have one idea in your life, well, you’re probably not going to make much of a writer.

But if you don’t believe in Ideaspace then where do you get your ideas from? And what happens to all the ideas you never use? Who do they belong to?

Twelve Tips for Spoken Word Performers

(Another post that was originally posted on the Literature Network site, this one from July 2010.) 

One of the most exciting developments in creative writing is the growth in prose spoken word nights. There are events across the country, such as Short Fuse in Leicester and Brighton and nights organised by groups like Hello Hubmarine. My personal interest in spoken word was sparked by Jay Clifton and Sam Collins’ night Tight Lip, which inspired a boom in prose nights in Brighton. I’ve since read at a number of events. The first few times were terrifying, but I’ve come to enjoy reading in public.

Some writers don’t want to read aloud and I think they’re missing a great opportunity. Giving readings can build your confidence while honing and proving the work in question. I still get nervous whenever I read, but I now know I can overcome those nerves and give a good performance.

Here are some tips, both from my own experience and collected from other performers:

  1. The audience are on your side. They’ve given up time to watch and they want to enjoy themselves – you only need to help them do this.
  2. It’s easier to read funny pieces than serious ones. You can tell when people are enjoying a funny story because they laugh; an audience spellbound by a serious story is very quiet, which can be unsettling.
  3. Practise! You should read the piece again and again, until you feel bored with it. Make sure you can read it without stumbling and remove anything that sounds clumsy or is difficult to say – if the piece is easy to read aloud, it will also work well in print. If possible, read the story to a friend and get their feedback.
  4. Many nights ask for a bio to use for introductions. I could do an entire post on writing biographies. Keep it short – nobody needs a long list of plaudits and prizes, since they’re about to listen to you anyway. Make sure to mention any books or other appearances you are promoting. Most of the time, if I’m not promoting anything, I’ll try and work a story into the space available for the biography.
  5. Arrive early at the venue and ask to do a sound-check. It’s useful to stand on the stage and get comfortable with the environment where you’ll be performing. Check that you can be heard clearly and make sure you know how to adjust the microphone if you might need to.
  6. Nervousness is good – it’s a normal part of preparing to perform. The only time I’ve not been nervous my reading was less focussed. Welcome your nerves as your body gearing up to do a good job.
  7. Keep any introduction brief – trust the audience to work out what your piece is about. If there’s any risk of being misunderstood then revisit the writing and improve it. It’s not a bad idea to ask if people can hear when you start – it avoids people asking you to speak up during the reading.
  8. When performing, read the piece as slowly as you can bear (within reason!). Remember that the audience haven’t heard your story before and need a little time to digest each bit.
  9. Make frequent eye-contact with your audience – don’t spend the reading looking down at your text. This makes you seem more confident and engaging, as well as being easier to hear. Looking up is much easier if you know the piece well – see above.
  10. Some people find their hands shaking the first time they read. The best way to stop this is to read from something heavy. A thick folder will weigh your hands down, whereas a couple of sheets of A4 makes any movement obvious. You’ll still be nervous, of course, but only you will know.
  11. Don’t worry too much about audience reaction – responses can differ to the same piece. One story I’ve read a lot, A Bad Place to Stick Your Hand, has had reactions varying from faint amusement through to loud laughter.
  12. Make sure to thank the people who have organised the night. Running an event is very hard work and often unappreciated.

These tips are almost certainly not complete. There are some good guides to spoken word performance on the web, such as Tim Clare’s guide to performance poetry. Do you have any hints of your own? And, if you don’t want to read aloud, what is stopping you?

Big Game Hunting in the Second Hand Bookshop

(This is a post from the literaturenetwork back in July 2009. The piece questions some of the things we have lost in the Internet age, a question that drives my PhD research. If I was to write this article today it would be aggressively political. Second hand bookshops are being driven out of business through the combined assault of Amazon and high-street charity shops. While this can easily be ascribed to the march of 'technological progress', the endangered status of the second hand bookshop touches on some very important political issues – for example, fair taxation, local shopping and the importance and financing of art. I've not written that article and probably won't so here's the original…)

The Internet is wonderful thing. So wonderful that it’s easy to forget how much fun buying books in the real world can be.

I love buying things on-line. No matter how strange or obscure the item I want, there always seems to be someone selling it. The most interesting thing I’ve bought recently is a mid-nineties guide to British second hand book shops. This book, by the mysterious Driffield, is long out of date: most of the shops listed that I remember from 15 years back are no more. The guide would likely be little use in navigating present-day second hand bookshops (although I sometimes day-dream about trying).

Instead it reads like a strange volume of speculative fiction, perhaps something Jeff Vandermeer might have devised – maybe drif’s guides are the first examples of paperpunk. Driffield himself has also appeared as a literary character, notably appearing and disappearing in Iain Sinclair’s books (for example, ‘White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings’ and City of Disappearances respectively). He was described by Iain Sinclair as “the punning diarist to a dying book trade”.

Driffield’s guides are full of acronyms (FARTS – Follows you around recommending the stock; GOB – Grand old bore ; KEENON – Keen on stocking if they could get it) and strange obsessions – the link between vegetarian restaurants and book shops, tales of skulduggery and multi-page rants about ‘British Fail’. One edition even claimed Guilford did not exist. Driffield’s frustrations are written up as epic adventure, with wonderful sketches of shops, such as the one where he “discovered how to cure thrush with carrots.”

Reading Drif’s guides and remembering long-lost bookshops brought back the fun I had trawling bookshops as a teenager. I’d sneak away from school and search through basements and shops for treasures, maybe a Michael Moorcock book I’d not seen before or recent hardbacks I couldn’t afford to buy new. I kept a list of the books I wanted to find and was always thrilled when I could cross one off. Looking for books was almost as much fun as reading them – more so when the book failed to meet my expectations.

Buying books in the 21st century is different. Amazon astutely saw that books could be bought without the buyer handling the product and their empire has grown, sweeping away physical bookshops. Over the years Amazon has added more features, one of the most interesting being Amazon Marketplace, which offers new and second hand books from sellers worldwide. Readers can search hundreds, maybe thousands of bookshops with a single web request and cheap copies of out of print books can arrive within days. This, and similar services, have made buying second hand books incredibly easy.

But something has been lost. When ordering books from Amazon, my only communication with the seller is to leave a comment on the feedback page. In real-world bookshops I came to know some of the sellers, and could spend ages chatting while deciding which paperbacks to buy and which I’d risk leaving for next time. And, of course, in real bookshops I’d occasionally find books I’d never expected, the sort of random associations and serendipity you can’t build into recommendation engines.

I’ve not been out trawling second hand bookshops for a long time now. For a start I have less free time: it’s easy to skip school but harder to play truant from a job. The sheer efficiency of Amazon marketplaces has seduced me from the secondhand bookshop. Sometimes I wish I had less money and more time, because then I’d be trawling second-hand bookshops again.

According to Driffield “Book dealing is a form of big-game hunting.” There is more to books than words and I miss questing for books. Borges said that heaven would be a library. I disagree. For me heaven would be an endless, dusty, second hand book-shop.

The Six Perils of Writing Workshops

(Another post from the Literature Network. This was originally published in November 2009 and it was these ideas that led me to start Not for the Faint Hearted)

Writing workshops help make writers. But are they always constructive?

Imagine if driving was taught by something like writing workshops. Each session, a group of learners would watch a colleague try a manoeuvre. Afterwards they would take turns to say what they felt went right and what went wrong, with occasional input from an instructor. It would be chaos, and not in a good way. As the New Yorker declared, in a review of Mark McGurl’s history of creative writing programmes and American fiction, The Programme Era, “[workshops are based] on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem

The workshop is one of the most popular ways of learning writing. Members of the group take turns submitting work which their peers respond to. Most academic workshops are facilitated by a tutor, but there are many successful workshops without a senior figure.

Workshops are popular, not just because there are so many writers about, but because there are so few readers willing to respond to unpublished work. In a workshop a writer receives critiques in return for responses to the work of their critics. In an academic context, workshops are cost-effective, proving cheaper supervision than regular one-to-one tuition.

Writers can gain much from workshops. All writers have points in their development where the help of a literate audience is invaluable. But workshops need to be approached with care- they have their problems too:

  1. Is your work suitable for workshopping? Workshops can be conservative. Unless members have very similar aims, they may respond negatively to work that makes them uncomfortable. Furthermore, workshops work best with short stories or episodic novels. Complicated structures or demanding works can suffer from being broken into digestible chunks, producing inappropriate feedback. What would a workshop make of Lolita or Naked Lunch?
  2. Is your workshop sustainable? Workshops are prone to personality clashes. Good, hard-working groups do happen, but also I’ve heard horror stories of plaigiarists, toxic personalities and people who are outright crazy. Some groups work well, but the chemistry is fragile – workshop groups seem to be inherently unstable.
  3. Do you have anything to say? In every workshop I’ve encountered, members are expected to comment on each piece, even when they have nothing to say. It’s hard to express indifference in a workshop and be valued as a useful member.
  4. Do you lack motivation? Some people value workshops for the imposing deadlines. But do you really need other people waiting on your writing to provide a reason to do it? Who are you to drag other people into your neuroses? If you need a dozen people to stir you to writing, you could do better things with your time.
  5. Do workshops tell the truth? Few people enjoy conflict in a social situation, which inclines workshops to encouraging and sensitive responses. It is easier to find limp praise than robust criticism in most groups. Think of every time you’ve not expressed your true feelings on some inept piece of writing, then ask how many times people have held back from giving you the truth. Is your workshop giving you the responses you need?
  6. Are workshopped novels ever finished? My main problem with workshops is that they encourage people to produce works-in-progress. There’s no point asking for critical comment on finished pieces; but does your workshop encourage and support its members in going beyond handing in a few thousand words every few weeks? What are the aims of the group’s members?

I’ve had some great experiences with workshops. I’ve been privileged to work with some very talented people, made great friends and enriched my life. But I could also tell tales to make your tummy go cold with terror.

The main thing most writers gain from workshops is a social space. It’s an opportunity to talk about writing and habits with people who share those interests. But often workshops seem to work best as a book club where people are reading different books – a place to hang out and talk. I wouldn’t suggest anyone stops doing workshops – but work out what it is you want from them and whether they provide the best way of doing this. It might be more effective to spent your money and time on one-to-one tuition if you can find someone good enough.

Or maybe I just haven’t found the right workshop yet. Maybe there’s some secret ingredient I’ve not yet spotted. Are there workshops that have lasted for years without tears and tantrums?

How Many Readers Do You Need

(This is another of the Literature Network posts. It was written a few years back and introduced the idea of 1000 True Fans. That idea still seems as distant as ever – the Internet is a good place to access culture but doesn't offer easy ways to discover it. I still like the JK Rowling joke though)

How many true fans does a writer need? There’s a lot to be said for being famous for 15 people.

Every creative writing course hints: it could be you. They promise access to agents and the chance to break into the world of publishing. After years of perseverance, of writing in coffee shops and cold flats, your novel might be published and become huge. You too could be as big as JK Rowling.

The problem with this is that a lot of people put a lot of effort into making JK Rowling as successful as she is. Booksellers, marketers, merchandisers, film-makers, all labour in support of her books, to say nothing of the readers working their way through them. Even the people who don’t read her books put a lot of effort into saying they have no time to read stories about boy wizards.

Imagine what the world would be like if there were dozens of writers as successful as JK Rowling. The economy would have to be structured around them, and people would spend all their leisure time reading. The world only has room for one JK Rowling, and she’s already doing a good job of it.

There are thousands of people studying creative writing and none of them are going to be as big as JK Rowling. Few of them will even be as big as Ann Quin or BS Johnson. So a more interesting question is the smallest number of readers a writer needs.

Kevin Kelly, editor of wired magazine, gave an interesting economic answer. He suggested that artists could build a successful career with “1000 true fans“, willing to buy anything they produced. So, assuming an average UK wage of around £24,000, Kelly would suggest an artist could make a living from 2000 people paying them £12 a year, after costs.

It’s a provocative idea, but there are problems. Kelly wrote a follow-up article where he admitted there were few real-world examples of such artists, and that the demands of maintaining true fans was too onerous for many. Science-fiction author John Scalzi has also responded, outlining a number of other issues. Finding a 1,000 true fans is more difficult than it sounds – how many artists are you that committed to?

There’s something to be said for people with far less than 1,000 true fans. In 1991, the artist Momus wrote a famous essay, Pop Stars? Nein Danke riffing on Andy Warhol’s famous statement, in which Momus claimed that in the future “everyone will be famous for fifteen people“. Momus looked forward to a world where, instead of stars on the scale of Elvis or Madonna, there were tens of thousands of smaller stars, “a state of fabulous confusion, exploding into fragments“.

In Momus’s world, aided by technology, you could find the artist that’s just right for you, someone that moves you and fourteen other people, while leaving most other people cold. Such artists would have a small but dedicated audience. When journalist and activist Danny O’Brien asked ‘how many people do you need to be famous for?’, he suggested that if “One person in every town in Britain likes your dumb online comic, that’s enough to keep you in beers all year.

The Internet allows microcelebrities. Rather than reading one-size-fits-all star writers, we could pick the writer that’s perfect for us, someone who shares the exact same strange obsessions as we do. Whether this works with novels, which require a huge commitment to read, let alone write, is questionable. But I bet it would work with short stories and poetry. Somewhere in the world there are probably dozens of writers who would move me as much as my favourite novelists. The trick is to find them.

And there’s nothing wrong with being famous for fifteen people. JK Rowling was once less famous that that. Finding those 15 true fans is the first step towards millions of true fans, and is far better than none.

7 Tips for being a Great Writer

(This is another literature network post that has been offline since the site disappeared. It's my favourite of the pieces and received some very mixed responses, which I quite liked. Some people thought I was joking, others thought I was serious. I'm still not certain either way)

More non-fiction books are sold about writing than any other subject, except for cooking and relationships. Most of these guides say the same thing – page after page of level-headed advice like ‘show don’t tell’, ‘write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’. They’re all encouraging, suggesting you can’t make yourself a literary genius but anyone can become a decent writer.

No how-to-write book would ever claim that you’ve got it or you haven’t. People are more interested in supportive encouragement. The appetite for guides like The Artist’s Way is massive. You see the same thing on the web, with thousands upon thousands of pages listing numbered tips on how to write. Follow all these guides and anyone can become a competent writer.

But I’m bored. I’m tired of stories with perfect point-of-view, clever use of theme and anorexic pared-down prose. I crave more. I want people to strive for greatness, even if ninety-nine-in-a-hundred fail. I want to read great books, not good ones, and there aren’t enough great books.

Nobody has written the how-to-write guide I want to see (although one friend used Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw as a template, with disastrous but compelling results). Life is too short for me to write my ideal writing guide, but here are the top seven tips I’d like aspiring writers to follow.

  1. Don’t write every day – write when inspired: there’s a macho cult about writing every day, grinding out work whether you want to or not. Instead you should only write when inspired. If you’re not inspired, don’t chain yourself to a keyboard: get into the world and get inspired.
  2. Read narrowly: most how-to books say writers should be voracious readers. It’s far better to read carefully. Get under the skin of great books. Hunter S. Thompson retyped A Farewell to Arms to learn how it worked. You’re better off reading a few books well than piling through thousands of books that have nothing to say to you.
  3. Write what you know: Imagination is a wonderful thing, but admit it – you too get a frisson from someone like Hemingway, Conrad or Burroughs, who lived one step away from what they were writing. However, writing what you know is boring if you work in an office, so make sure you’re living a life worth writing about. Your literary biographers will thank you.
  4. Shun writing workshops. Writing workshops are about consensus, about removing the difficult bits from potential works of genius. Imagine William S. Burroughs submitting to years of workshops and removing the strangeness and obscenity from Naked Lunch. Another reason to avoid workshops is that other writers will be less impressed by your creativity than civilians. It’s more fun to stand out from the crowd rather than hide in the midst of one.
  5. Quit your job: Most writing books warn against quitting your job. Dream all you like, they say, but writing won’t make you rich. Your aspirations for greatness should override such petty caution. You may end up in poverty, but you’re not going to make a work of genius wasting your days in an office.
  6. Drink. Alcohol is a killer and nobody wants to end their days like Hancock in Sydney. But think of all the exciting writers who liked a tipple (Fleming, Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway). There are probably lots of writers who don’t drink, but the fact I can’t name any shows you how unexciting sobriety is. As a bonus, if you’re having trouble with tip 5 then week-night drinking will help you leave your job.
  7. Be extreme. I don’t suggest being precious about your writing (as Chesterton said, “the artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs”) but you must slip loose the chains of modern life. Eccentricity and genius may be two different things, but non-geniuses can fool some people with cultivated eccentricity. Adopt peculiar restrictions on clothes or food; develop obscure phobias or hatreds, whatever it takes to make yourself memorable. People love to retell stories about Burroughs and the Beats – and Chesterton certainly wasn’t above courting attention.

These tips aren’t an easy way out. Following them will likely lead to years of poverty and hangovers. But greatness has its price, and you owe it to the world.

13: The Art of the Unseen


Imagine if the first live gig you saw was the Flaming Lips. You might think that every performance would be as rich and spectacular as that and be sorely disappointed to find out most bands just shuffle about a bit on stage. Or if the first superhero comic you read was Watchmen: you'd imagine that they would all be that good (spoiler: not even close).

Back in 1997 I went to see the Sensation exhibition. It was the first big gallery show I'd seen and it blew my mind. It was a publicity-baiting show, featuring works like Marcus Harvey's Myra (removed after vandalism before our visit), Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, whose A Thousand Years was amazing. The work was playful and fun and left me excited about art. 

The problem is that I've compared every subsequent exhibition to my memories of Sensation and few shows have come close. I wasn't sure if it was a problem with me or with art but I was certainly disappointed.

The Hayward Gallery's Invisible show has finally lived up to my expectations. The theme of the show was Art about the Unseen. I thought it might would be an austere show, appealing to the part of me that is currently ploughing through books of philosophy. Instead it was accessible and entertaining. People were laughing, enjoying the art and the games it played.

Early in the exhibition there is a piece by the Art and Language group that consists of an air-conditioned room. Patrons responded with amusement. What does one do when faced with what is, essentially, a cooled room? For me the piece also raised a lot of questions. How does one transport a work like the air conditioning? Does one have to pay royalites? Customs fees? 

I've already written about my favourite piece, Tom Friedman's incredible 1000 Hour Stare, but there were many other highlights. Another Friedman piece, Curse, consisted of a spherical space above a pillar that was cursed by a witch. Again, the piece raises questions – how was the piece moved to the Hayward and did the curse come with it? Did it have to be cursed again in the new location? What do I think a curse actually is?

Many of the works provoked a direct response. Roman Ondak's work More Silent than Ever, was a space which the label claimed contained a listening device. My friend and I read the sign and immediately stopped talking, the suggestion of this device enough to silence us, even though we couldn't be sure the device was present or if anyone was listening to our gallery-chatter.

The invisible works could also be moving. Later in the exhibition there was another room, similar to the air conditioning one. The machines here were humidifiers. Our first response was amusement until we read the label. Teresa Margolles is an artist who "works with the physical traces of death" and her piece Aire/Air used water that has washed the bodies of unidentified murder victims prior to autopsy. The piece's label stated blankly "The water vapour is harmless" which seemed against the spirit of the piece. It was strange to inhale this water vapour knowing its history.

The exhibition's final piece was a participatory one, Jeppe Hein's Invisible Labyrinth. The work was set in a large empty space. Visitors put on a headset with an infrared receiver and set off to walk through the labyrinth, the headset buzzing when one hit a 'wall'. It was strange to watch people navigate this space, their steps faltering despite there being no visible obstruction. When I tried I finally found myself stuck, unable to remember the way out yet resistant to the idea of simply walking through the 'walls'.

One of the most interesting works was From New York to San Francisco to… by Bethan Huws. The name refers to the manner in which people in exhibitions "tend to pass from one work to the next, as if the artworks were little islands, and the seas – white wall/concrete floors in between – go unnoticed. They pass from New York to San Francisco to…, so to speak, without noticing the surroundings". The work consisted of an actor moving among the gallery patrons "in such a way as to make the visible artworks disappear". Who was the actor? It might be anyone. What if it was my friend? Or could it even be me?

As the show's curator wrote "Whether visible or not, art ultimately comes to life in our memories and in our conversations with others…" I was excited to see a show of conceptual art that was as much fun as this, so that my memories of it are worth recounting. It's good to regain the feeling that contemporary art can be exciting, creative and moving.

12: Graffiti at the Beatles Ashram


This is another post that has been languishing in my drafts folder – back in March, I visited the ‘Beatles ashram‘ in Rishikesh, where the Fab Four had stayed in 1968. The atmosphere of the ruins was strange and creepy. Throughout the complex, people had left messages and paintings, some photos of which are below. Click on the images if you want to see larger versions.

Given the England’s grim, rainy Summer this year, I wish I was back in Rishikesh.