4: Luck

The problem with history is that it only happens once. Explanations about why things happened can never be tested.

When I was younger, the only people on television were famous people. When interviewed, they explained how hard they'd worked and that they'd always known they would be famous. It was only with the arrival of reality TV that I got to see how many people were certain they would be famous and yet never made it. Following the work-hard-and-be-certain method didn't guarantee success, rather a selection effect meant the people who failed were invisible, a sort of celebrity dark matter.

There are other problems with recipes for success. Another is that they are protected from critiscism because people don't follow them perfectly and any deviation can be pointed to as the reason for failure. I often hear this when extreme and agile programming projects fail and it is suggested that they did not follow the methodology perfectly. But successful projects also break some of the rules. What if a large factor is simply luck?

As the writings on power laws by people like Clay Shirky show, there will always be people promoted to celebrity ("Freedom of Choice Makes Stars Inevitable") and this may not be completely based on merit (whether quanitifable or not). Popularity breeds popularity and a superstar is not neccessarily the best at something. During Britpop there were other bands with songs as good or better than Oasis, but only one band had 2.6 million people apply for tickets to see one of their concerts. The very popularity of Oasis became a selling point – it was great to be listening to a band that everyone else was, to hear the songs on radios and in clubs. 

There are, of course, books about how one can work to gain importance in a networked world, such as Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, but that still doesn't guarantee success. One of the funniest books on music ever written, The Manual by the KLF ("HOW TO HAVE A NUMBER ONE – THE EASY WAY"), is not going to work if everyone follows it, since there can only be 52 number ones in a year, although it did work for the band Edelweiss. Not everyone gets to be the best.

History only happens once, and writers can offer explanations without worrying about contradiction. There was a recent article in Wired, The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale?, which looked at this issue of interpretation. Was Jobs' success down to his personality or not? Should one emulate his bad behaviour to be as 'great' as him? What if it comes down to luck?

A recent article by Martha Gill in the New Statesman, First the Worst, Second the Best, discussed research from the Said Business School that concluded "we should be more careful about dismissing the failed and praising the exceptional", suggesting that luck, particularly early in a career, was a major factor in success. Gill suggests we should not aim to copy 'greatness' but instead "we should strive to copy the second- or third-in-command"

(While written as a self-help tome, Richard Wiseman's Luck Factor is an excellent book on the psychology of luck. Wiseman suggests that luck is a skill and can be honed, giving clear examples of this. Of course, even being lucky won't allow everyone to have a number one record)

3: Blogging – blaming my tools

  1. This is a post about blogging, and how the software I use affects what I write. It follows on a little from Saturday's post.
  2. I’ve been blogging since about 2000, when I used Blogger, FTP and a demon.net account. The idea of a weblog, a CMS that almost anyone could use, was powerful and allowed a lot of people to set up websites. Early weblogs were a little bit cobbled together, with comments hosted on separate services, but there was an active community with people communicating back and forth. It was fun.
  3. Nowadays I use a Typepad hosted site. Considering Typepad is a paid service it’s not very good (stats and spam detection are particularly poor). It works just well enough that I haven't got around to setting up a server to host my own blog.
  4. What I like about blogging is that the space here is mine – people choose to visit, some by google but most directly. They know what to expect and don't seem unhappy with what they find. 
  5. I’m still not sure what blogging is for. I enjoy writing the posts and have had some interesting responses. I miss the community aspects of weblogs, which have moved on to twitter and facebook. This means the conversation has become transient and isn't attached to the posts they reference.
  6. I’m not sure I like the blog post as a format since there is something intimidating about it. One has to start with a title and produce a complete, well-formed thought. The resulting writing is given its own webpage and permalink. Each post has a date and a calendar groups the content, exposing periods where a blog-owner hasn't posted. The whole idea of pages is a strange one in itself, a physical limitation translated to the Internet.
  7. Via Russell Davies I found a post called Thinking out loud in paragraphs which starts "Is there lurking somewhere a New Blogging, some set of new or old-made-new formats that might light up our feed readers again?"
  8. The writer goes on to say “And I don’t know about you, but I have a sense for the amount of writing that can be done in a single go—a single flurry of the keys. An idea strikes, or a memory; you bang it out and post it. There’s such pleasure in that.” That sort of writing, capturing an idea and setting it down, is what I aspire to produce online. But writing weblog posts seems so weighty and formal. I can’t rant about a book for a bit, or simply say what is provoking me. The only place where I produce that sort of loose thought it on twitter. 
  9. I’m certainly not the only person frustrated by the weblog format. This is something Tom wrote about recently: "When I first started blogging, I used a quite esoteric product called Radio Userland… I found myself jotting down lots of short-form thoughts. My style of writing was very different to the longer pieces I do nowadays, and in part I put this down to the lurking "Title" field that TypePad includes: it suggests a formality to individual posts. But I quite miss being able to throw out any old idea. The conciseness of Twitter makes it great fun, but it's an awkward place to carry out conversations and sometimes I want a little more than 140 characters…"
  10. The tools I use are certainly problematic. I’m writing this in a word processor because I want to use numbered paragraphs and a word processor feels most natural for that. The Typepad editor is horrible, slow and clunky, with a somewhat whimsical approach to paragraphing. Most times I write my posts as HTML in a plain text editor then copy them to Typepad for a final polish.
  11. I’m also not as fluid a blogger as I would like. It takes me considerable time to edit my posts and remove silly errors. Sometimes I read back my posts and don’t sound as assured and confident as I would like. I have posts languishing in my drafts folder that have been there for months, some half-complete, others never posted. Would I find blogging easier if I didn't have a drafts folder, if I had to commit to an idea once I started it? I don't know yet if this post will be published or if it will end up in the drafts folder before being deleted.
  12. I find Twitter much easier than blogging since everything is potentially throwaway but, if I want, I can develop an idea further.
  13. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr have changed the way in which people read the Internet. From Matt Locke's post  Getting Attention: "Most people using the web, especially in younger age-groups, now experience the web as streams, not sites. It might be the stream of updates in Facebook, or their contact’s Flickr photostream, or a string of results on Google, or in an RSS reader…
  14. One is not supposed to read everything on Twitter and Facebook. You accept the risk of ‘missing’ things. Content is there in-the-moment and can be difficult to find again. It has changed the way we read things online: How do we comment and share? How do we save things for posterity, so we can find them again? There is something disturbing about streams too, the constant flow of information, all somehow reduced to the same level of importance, each message ready to be replaced by something else. 
  15. The lack of memory is a major problem with streams. Twitter currently offers no access to the users' old tweets. As Matt Ogle wrote in his post Archive Fever: A Love Letter to the real-time web: "The problem is ultimately one of attitude. The current philosophy underlying most of the real-time web is that if it’s not recent, it’s not important."
  16. If I had time, I would restart this weblog as a wiki, where a page can be a stub, a single thought. The discussions pages would allow feedback in place of comments. There would be no final version of any content, everything reduced to a work-in-progress that might be finished but doesn't need to be, the full history available to people who want it. Linking between the pages would be more associative. 
  17. This still wouldn't solve the problems of participation, of capturing the comments on Twitter and Facebook, but I think the writing I would produce would be more satisfying for me.

2: Friends and other animals

Kate Shields! Night porter, night painter. For six months she has been working at the Artists Residence hotel, preparing her exhibition, Friends and other Animals. A true underground artist, working night shifts while holding sittings, Kate Shields! has finally emerged from her basement studio with a series of portraits of her friends including poet Chris Parkinson, aerialist Kitty Peels, model Frankie Cluney, and more.


The nocturnal portraits show some of the "curious and wonderful people" Kate has met in Brighton. They are painted onto wood and feature animals that Kate associates with the sitters.


It's been fun visiting Kate over the last few months and seeing the exhibition take shape. I was even there the weekend before the launch, helping Kate by drinking gin and writing while she put the worked on a painting. I'm not sure if I was much help and we drank so much gin that we felt a little poorly the next day.


The Private View on Thursday night was amazing. I met up with lots of old friends as well as meeting some fascinating strangers, including a neuroscientist and a chef who explained to me about the melting point of collagen. It was an exciting and educational night, supported by Hendricks Gin (although I was more careful this time). Here is a picture of me with Chris Parkinson, Brighton's Shadow Poet Laureate.


The exhibition runs until August 27th at the Artists Residence in Regency Square Brighton.


1: You’ve Got No Write

Writing is hard.

No, writing is easy. As I've said before, one of the great things about Not for the Faint-Hearted is turning out interesting and entertaining pieces of writing in three minutes. One of my NFTFH pieces, with very little editing, has been published as part of the Quick Fictions iPhone app, produced by Myriad Editions. Writing is easy (particularly when you compare it to arts like aerial acrobatics and boxing). I enjoy writing and it's certainly no worse a way to spend my spare time than running, reading or watching TV. My problem is what to do with the results. I've accumulated a lot of text, a word horde of interesting odd stories. And it's still growing.

My problem with sharing work comes down to whether I have the right. Everyone has so many demands on their time, particularly when there's a whole Internet to read. The writer Paul Ford gave an amazing speech, 10 timeframes, the start of which has stuck in my head:

There are 200 of you in this auditorium. So every minute I don’t talk saves about three-and-a-third hours of human time. That’s a pretty serious ratio. Every one of my minutes is collectively 200 of yours.

If I give someone something to read, I take up their time. I'm suggesting that this writing is more important than anything else they can do with 5 minutes or 5 hours of their time. It seems almost impolite to create these obligations for other people have when I work so hard to avoid distractions in my own life – do unto others, and all that.

Another question I have is whether sharing writing is just arrogant, attention-seeking behaviour. I've seen too many appalling poets at open mics who act as if they're doing the audience a favour by sharing the results of their creativity. Nobody wants to be the person who won't shut up and let everyone go to the bar.

So my work builds up. Clown Stories Volume 1 has been ready to print for a year. I have a few finished novels, all of which I like a lot, and only a few people have read them. I've never thrown the switch on Postal Press, or launched the Ghost Blog, even though these projects are ready to go. Nobody has seen my illustrated Fairyland booklet.

(At the start of my Creative and Critical Writing MA, I attended an amazing course by Dr. Amber Jacobs called 'On (Not) Being Able to Write' (the title was a reference to a book by Marion Milner). The seminars related the pathologies of writing to theories of British Psychoanalysis. As I remember it, Dr. Jacobs frequently compared writing to toilet training and this memorable imagery seems to fit with this current state of backlog)

One of the big issues most creative writing courses ignore is that of audience. Great Britain is turning out thousands of academically trained creative writers without considering what to do with all the work that is generated. Should I delete this writing? Put it online somewhere? Bury it like radioactive waste? Maybe the advantage of writing groups and creative writing is to provide an audience.

I’m a writer who hates sharing their work. I may not even share this.

Mowing the lawn at the end of the world

At the weekend I saw Seeking a friend for the end of the world. The final rescue attempt has failed and a 71 mile wide asteroid will strike the Earth in three week’s time. The movie follows two characters through the last days.

The film is a quiet apocalypse. The characters don’t have to struggle against other survivors and most utilities stay running (notably excluding airlines and telephones). The film sets aside the usual logistic questions about the apocalypse for the question 'what would you do if you had three weeks left'?

It's something people sometimes ask without thinking too much about it, but the question is ever-present – one day, for every person, the world will end. The oldest verified age is 122 but most people's health fails long before that.

In the film, Steve Carell’s character spends the first few days at his job as an insurance clerk. He tells his cleaner that he has wasted his life and does his best to salvage something from his disappointment. The news of Armageddon forces people to assess what they are doing with their lives, and to treat each moment as something precious. 

‘Live each day of your life as if it’s your last’ is a cliché – but one day it will be. My favourite moment in the film is when the main character drives through New Jersey. The car passes a man mowing his lawn. In the face of the world’s end he is carrying on with his normal routine: taking the same satisfaction from mowing his lawn as he did before the end of the world.

I guess that’s something to aspire to – the sort of life you’d carry on with just the same if an asteroid was on its way. Gardeninng and going to work, just as you did before.

Creative Writing is a pyramid scheme

(In 2009 I wrote some posts for literaturenetwork.org. The site in question is no longer available so I'm posting the pieces I have copies of to my weblog)

Creative Writing is a big business. A few years ago the BBC claimed there were more than 600 full time creative writing degree courses at British universities. These included options such as Accountancy with Creative Writing (currently available at the University of Derby).  Hundreds of less-formal courses are available, as well as shorter seminars and residential breaks. Requiring little more than desk space and a tutor, such courses are easy to put on and profitable.

These courses need to distinguish themselves in a crowded market and one way they do this is to offer access to agents. The courses are underwritten with the promise, not that you will be trained to be a better writer, but that you will gain access to the literary world, and through that achieve the dream: giving up the day job to become a writer. Inevitably, as Hanif Kureshi pointed out at a recent appearance, false expectations are created. Few courses mention how far the reality of writing is from the dream:

  • In 2001 the Society of Authors claimed that three-quarters of writers made less than £20,000 a year.
  • A 2006 Independent article asserts that “the average author earns less than £7,000 a year.Anthony Beevor describes one writer whose books were so heavily discounted that he sold 40,000 copies yet, financially, “he would be better off working the till in Sainsbury’s”.
  • In 2007 the Independent reported statistics from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society that “£907.5m is earned by the 55,000 authors in Britain every year but 50 per cent of the cash goes to 10 per cent of the authors, meaning that the 5,500 bestselling writers share at least £453.75m of it, giving them an average annual income of £82,500 while the other 49,500 authors share the rest, typically earning £4,000
  • The same article includes a heartbreaking case study of a writer with a significant audience who is suffering financially. She concludes: “the best advice if you want to eat is: ‘Do something else.’"
  • Even those stories of huge advances can’t be trusted. The rumoured £1,000,000 advance given to Magnus Mills was, in reality, closer to £10,000.

Making a living from creative writing is difficult. As Lydia Towsey pointed out in a recent Literature Network post, a working poet’ now means to diversify… workshops, producing, directing, mentoring and other types of writing are all vital for the buying of bread.

So what about those creative writing courses that promise a route to literary success? Participants expecting to make a living from creative writing are most likely to achieve this by teaching. From this angle the creative writing industry looks like a pyramid scheme. At its worst I’ve seen people whose only credit was an MA from a good course going on to teach their own informal courses. Considering the economics involved, one wonders whether courses would be better off spending less time teaching structure and form and more on teaching how to promote and facilitate a creative writing course.

Of course I’m teasing – mostly. I’ve attended some courses myself and had a great time, making some wonderful (and some lousy) friendships. The creative writing courses have led me to performing my work in public and have undoubtedly enriched my life.

There’s a serious point here though, and that is that creative writing courses need to focus on the benefits they can guarantee to give students – ‘life skills’, for want of a better term. Through creative writing courses I’ve come to read my work in public, making me more confident in my day job and social life. An awareness of writing allows me to produce all sort of copy, and edit other people’s work. Furthermore, studying any subject in a serious manner hones a range of useful skills.

Like a lot of people who’ve taken creative writing courses I’ve written my own novel and I certainly want to see that published. But if it isn’t, and I’m still doing my day job in ten years time, I won’t feel like I’ve wasted my time with ‘creative writing’. What concerns me is that too many people start courses with the expectation of certain results, and leave with those notions intact, always disappointed with their lot.

Supported by Writing East Midlands

(It's interesting to look back on this article. Since this was published, I set up the Brighton Creative Writing Sessions with Ellen de Vries, experimenting with creative writing workshops that were self-contained and entertaining, focussing on writing rather than publication. I was always uneasy that we charged for these (although we intentionally made no profit after expenses). My main involvement with 'creative writing' nowadays is through Not for the Faint-Hearted, which is a good example of the sort of thing I was arguing for here).

Not for the Faint-Hearted 2012

After a long break, Not for the Faint-Hearted recently resumed its regular monthly slot. Last week was the second 2012 session and about 18 people came along.

The Not for the Faint-Hearted (NFTFH) sessions are based around a series of visual 'creative writing' prompts projected on a screen. Everyone writes for three minutes in response - a story, poem, dialogue, limerick, or simply a description of what they see. Then everyone takes a turn to read something or all of what they've written. There is only one rule: you are not allowed to apologise for what you read. While some people recoil in horror at the idea of NFTFH, everyone who comes seems to enjoy it.

I started the group in October 2009 with Ellen de Vries. NFTFH was originally intended as an experiment in creativity. We wanted to see what happened when people took risks and presented unfinished work. We were surprised by how good the work we heard was.

For some reason, the stories people wrote in three minutes were better than many of the pieces I've heard at open mike nights. Three minutes gives people just enough time to come up with an idea and produce something simple around it. We don't do rounds longer than three minutes because the work that results is less interesting.  

The attendees all seem to enjoy themselves and have a variety of reasons for coming. The thing that keeps me running the sessions is that I love the stories produced. In last week's session I heard almost 150 pieces. Some of them made everyone laugh out loud; all contained some interesting element. And when a story doesn't work, there's another one along moments later.

I don't know what to do with all the stories I've written at the sessions – possibly a couple of hundred.  Some are too closely tied to the image to be interesting, but one has found a home on Myriad's Quick Fictions app. I might post some here, or bundle the best ones into a Kindle file, but that isn't likely to happen any time soon.

One of the most important things about Not for the Faint-Hearted is the Skiff. Without their support, it wouldn't be possible to run the night and I'm very grateful to them for that.