Reflections

It’s nearly three weeks since I submitted my dissertation and effectively finished my Masters. This is the seventh attempt I’ve made to write about what that means. I suspect it won’t be the last, though this one is actually going to make it past the draft stage; I realise I’m hesitating, and I want to step on that habit.

So, there’s a hook: what have I learned about hesitation in the last year? I’ve learned the extent of my fears and insecurities, certainly (and it wasn’t much fun at the time), but I’ve also learned something that it feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to learn: that the fear can be beaten.

This is a lesson more general than just writing, though. This isn’t the time or place to rake through my past like the entrails of a sacrificial goat, in search of kinked loops or lesions that might auger how I became what I am become, so suffice to say that self-confidence and I are only recently acquainted. (Hardly unique among writers, or artists in general, of course.) To have been pushed to the edge of what I thought I was capable of, and then some way beyond that, and to have come through and delivered in the face of my own fears… “revelatory” is probably a shade too strong a word, but it’s close enough if you can stomach the cliché.

I find myself wishing I’d been pushed like that before, but realising at the same time that I wasn’t ready for it before now. The push is important (and in my case almost certainly vital), but the choice to allow myself to be pushed, to bend to the yoke willingly (if reluctantly and fearfully at times) – that was the most important thing, perhaps, and it had to come from inside of me.

I’m not used to valuable things coming from there. But damn, it’s fucking sweet when they do, isn’t it?

But enough with the wide-eyed self-discovery moments of an emotionally-underdeveloped introvert: what did I learn in terms of writing?

That’s a trickier question than it initially appears, which is why this is the seventh attempt at answering it. The obvious solution would be to list the module topics: I learned of voice and narrative, of character and of place; I learned of the short form, and of the long! But those topics are inherently fuzzy, more like a closely packed Venn diagram, crosshatched and overlapping like the petals of an orchid… and to be honest, they all revolve around teaching you how to read properly, how to read with an eye for certain types of effect (or affect) in the text, and how to see where and how such techniques might be reused in works of your own. A long, long way from “when [x], a good writer should [y]!”, then.

This is a good thing. (Or it was for me, at least.)

If anything, then, we might say that the most important lesson I took away from the course is that technique – or what I think Nick Mamatas means when he snipes at “craft” as a writerly shibboleth – is important only inasmuch as it supports the greater edifice of creation; that there’s sod all point in crafting lovely precise sentences if you’ve not got a story to tell with them, in other words.

But I also misunderstood story itself, I think, albeit in a way that’s remarkably hard for me to put into words. I guess the closest I can get would be to say that I used to think story was almost entirely what I now think of as plot, but now realise that plot is actually subservient to story, which is also inextricably bound up in narrative and character; that story is, in a way, everything but the words you see on the page. With hindsight, I’ve come to suspect that all those writerly advice books and blog posts that talk about how fiction is “driven by conflict” contributed to this problem; I was thinking of story as sequences of unfortunate events, rather than as characters experiencing the turbulent flow of their own lives.

Obvious in hindsight, sure. But internalising that old saw about characters “needing to be just as real as the people you know outside your head”, realising that it’s a description not of some sort of winsomely artsy manifestation of multiple personality disorder, not of hearing voices, but of a process of imagination infinitely more thorough than “oh, let’s say blonde, early thirties, works in a bank in West London, that’ll do”… it’s harder than you might think. Perhaps it’s even a subset of cognitive dissonance: learning to imagine the subjective experience of an imaginary intelligence while simultaneously taking into account your own subjectivity in observing them and the world in which you’ve created around them.

To be clear, I suspect this is a crystallisation of stuff that I’ve been absorbing for some time; doing the Masters has been like adding a catalyst in the final stages of a reaction. I also realise it reads a little like “ZOMFG narcissist discovers empathy!”, which wouldn’t be an utterly unfair way of looking at it; put it this way, I think it no coincidence that the last few years have also seen me becoming more politicised. (Opinions on whether that’s a change for the better are, I believe, somewhat divided. Selah.)

So, yeah: I learned a whole bunch of profound-seeming metastuff about fiction and subjective experience that I can’t yet explain very clearly, but which make me feel a) much more engaged with my art, and b) more confident in my ability to do worthwhile art (for values of worthwhile as defined exclusively, at least at the moment, by yours truly.)

I learned that I am capable of completing big and challenging projects, which makes me feel like I can do it again, and do it better.

These are valuable things. I feel like I got what I needed from the course, even though what I needed wasn’t quite what I thought I needed. I signed up for the course with the attitude that I wasn’t really bothered about grades, and at this level, I’m still not; I am a better writer, which is why I came. That said, I’d like to take home a top score, too, not just a mid-list pass. But if I don’t, well, what the hell. With my dissertation, especially, I had to take the decision that rather than worrying about what the assessors would want to read, I had to focus on doing something I felt was worthwhile, something I could be proud of on its own terms, no matter how it got marked.

And I did – but that’s probably another post (or three) for another time. For now, I have vague ideas for two novels fighting for position in my backbrain, an imminent moving-of-house to Sheffield to arrange, and an academic paper on sf prototyping to finish… so I’d best be getting on with it, hadn’t I?

**

Oh, yeah: I also learned just how far I can take procrastination and displacement activity in the face of intimidating deadlines: while in the middle of doing my dissertation, I somehow managed to research and write a ~10k piece on Nordic LARP, the first part of which is now up at Rhizome.org

Alibi

Back at the beginning of the summer, I went to Hoxton to meet a couple of friends for afternoon beers and a chinwag. On the way, I saw the Google Streetview car passing up and down the street; much as I suspected at the time, it has temporarily immortalised me, trapped me in a freeze-frame of congealed sunshine and the magical digital time-amber of the intermatubez.

I’m actually quite chuffed, though I couldn’t tell you why. Let’s put it down to shallowness and move on, eh?



View Larger Map

Amphetamine Fugue #3

His history be the hallowe’en of her. “T is down, pumpkin.” Pumpkin scene flickers, checked to his wobbly cardboard killing-jar Oxfam? Every Oxfam?

T spins, unfocused, shitty again. Pavement. It’s a heard object, really arch, dears — sucking a brickwork road, we’re the end of pavement. And air in the world harrassed his public clinic, mad with that library hunger, her light, and shrill pistols end Benji fitfully, loud bitten in the awful window. Heard of the specimen; says nymphoid’s best is back in straight pockets, but together: speed.

Too straight, everything is clear: impatience shopfront, clinic maybe. But still the woman is clear, or just unfocused, too loud a photoshopped corner in the scene. Happens she takes people, wobbly. But you, cardboard, she told you: “guy, say sucking pockets,” heard behind him, nestling in her freezeframe. Manages the newspaper, palm coming to a stalled nothing. Leap.

Go big, solution: shoplifting really sucking now, sucking air, worrying, strangled — that type reminds her, something that stretches Benji to clear, pistol cardboard, world, speed, dears, bag, scene, in, tied out. Told to leap back, moving down Palmeston, air supposed where things of air might think: public speed.

Her Matrix straight unfocused, benches grinding, shrill imagining haunted the back expression: keep windows clear of clinic-think. Down pistols, unfocused, then be clear, expression back to pavement — just pavement? Dears, the shoplifting flickered, they’d say “maybe” to type; go the clinic.

All of history cartoonish, why and away? Crowbar. She happens. Not today, pumpkin; sci-fi clear, but no black-out. Leap the strangled history you call photoshopped, crusty expression for his dear object: speed.

They know, shoved onto a moving pavement. Down, away, pumpkin-seeing-the-pavement! Newspapers still spin her away, we leap anyway: it’s the throb of my pinning her here, supposed solution, spins, grinding awful impatience. All afraid, looking the best — why noticing? Speed.

Nothing spins repeated, used sci-fi hide; Saj trodden down, probably worrying. Think. Typed the library — speed, her hands like Oxfam? She stalled, takes out time. End mad, maybe — and why type, awful clear, like Oxfam? That’s once herself, guy, before T stalled, coping high to the end, her pistols, guy: she, she the awful speed.

Like wordless toenails, only anyway: coming back by, she’s made of something again. Go T, unfocused; buy back, be loud.


From the dissertation-in-progress; an experiment with using automated cut-up engines to recreate the narrative disorientation of severe CNS-stimulant withdrawal. Methodology: write scene, leaving gap for fugue; paste entire scene into cut-up engine; retrieve results, cull, kill and splice, repunctuate; paste results back into cut-up engine, repeat process (as many iterations as you want, or until you get a batch that seems to sing without being prompted; chop into paragraphs, tease out emergent themes and riffs; condense down; display to a baffled public who’ve already heard of Burroughs, thankyouverymuch.

Notes from Babylondon

Everyone was so pleased when I announced completion of my first draft that their responses have totally crashed Twitter, apparently. Ahem.

Twitterbork

I’m no expert, but that’s looking like pretty bad news. It didn’t take long for spectacular un-graceful failure states like this to disappear behind web2.0’s equivalent of the hold music, our old friend Fail-whale. Where’s he today, huh?

(Just occurred to me that half the problem is probably down to millions of people hitting refresh or their devices hammering the APIs. I’ll bet there’s some wailing and hair-tearing in that datacenter right now. Or has it gone down under the weight of some 9-11 grade Bad News Item?)

Of course, the really scary thing is how much I feel its absence, leering at me out of my second monitor. The cyborg’s augmentations fail; what does he do next? Life as cliché cyberpunk101 vignette.

PLOT NOTES:

protag. rolls cigarette, thinks nihilistic thoughts, hates on traffic hovercars armed kid gangs on scooters the gov’t.

Maybe he edits a magazine – yeah, a zine, but it’s IN CYBERSPACE! [need good neologism for this, something really cool-sounding] So he broods, writes his zine thing; he’s not found much time for it since he got his new implant. What next?

** Get milk, bacon. CAT FOOD Email [redacted] about that bloody invoice they got a month ago

So, yeah. Sure is warm today.

Thought occurs: make periodic catastrophic failure a feature of Twitter. Every three months, complete reset, all old tweets killed off, all connections erased; only your handle remains the same (though you can change it, if you like). Be interesting to see which were the people of your follows and followers would find themselves following again the soonest, wouldn’t it?

Update, 17:51GMT – Twitter appears to have reappeared, though it’s still struggling under the wave of returning users. No cataclysm tweets… but then I guess you can’t livetweet a cataclysm for long, right?

So, anyway, first draft – complete! Not the first draft of my dissertation, though. Oh no. Totally different project. Pitched an article on Nordic larp to Rhizome back in May and got it accepted, foolishly overlooking the fact that I had a rather big project to be going on with already (in the form of said dissertation) plus my day job (which has kinda taken a backseat for the last fortnight, so to speak). Worse still I had to ask for two extensions on the deadline, partly because it rapidly became a huge fascinating monster of a thing, and partly because my time-management skillset has been tested to destruction. I’ve not touched my dissertation in the last week.

But now it’s [edit for clarity: the Nordic larp piece, not my dissertation] in first draft form, all 11.5kilowords of it, sat in the editor’s inbox… and the editor is going on holiday for a fortnight starting tomorrow, so I get to let it simmer until then, while I get back to, erm, all the stuff I’m meant to be doing right now.

First draft of a non-fiction piece is always a sweet moment, because that’s the hard pushing done, the baby delivered into the waiting arms of the doctor/editor, who takes it off to be examined… and then returns, solicitous above a steely core, to discuss which organs and appendages need to be surgically removed before it can be seen in public.

What would we do without them? Hug your editor today! Or buy them a coffee, maybe. Not everyone is digging on random hugs. Or coffee, for that matter.

*

Postscript – it’s none other than Bruce Sterling, ladies and gents, reproducing a string of sullen tweets I sent from the bowels of Tuesday’s London heatwave as… prophecy? Poetry? I dunno. I’m just amazed he noticed; to my shame, I totally failed to mention drones. But then again, I doubt they’re deployed around here; Chelsea comes with its own brands of privacies and surveillances, and it’d take a long time to get the locals hungry enough to riot. Selah.

In a fit of total vanity, I’m gonna embed those tweets below. Wouldn’t put it past CondeNast to just disappear Chairman Bruce’s blog one day, and I am passing proud of these. I do all my best poetry when surly, y’know. *flounces off*

Supermassive

Two things happen in the middle of big projects, I’ve noticed.

One of them is the mid-project motivational slump: that period where you hate the project, can’t see any point in completing the project other than to demostrate your incompetence and hubris to the world at large, and can’t imagine why you chose to start the project when you could have written, oh, I don’t know, a nice conventional linear narrative about competent Anglophone spacemen bringing civilisation to someone in sore need of it, goshdamn. The project taunts you. Touching it blackens your fingers, like an old fireplace in a foreclosed cottage.

(There’s a dissertation update, for them as was lookin’.)

The second is what I’m starting to think of as conceptual accretion. In the early phases of any project, you’re getting your sources and inspirations in order, keeping them together in a big tank somewhere, sloshing around near the front of your brain, to see what happens when you smoosh ’em and smash ’em together. Some of those ideas and facts and twistings might merge or mix, and you start getting a nice solid bolus of… shit, I don’t even know what this precursor material is called, but I can tell you mine comes in boluses, and you keep building them up and compacting them down with more layers of material, like one of those ice-cored snowballs they warned you about at primary school after that boy lost his sight in one eye, until suddenly some certain mass or density is achieved, and criticality occurs.

At this point, any new idea you encounter may well be sucked into the project by the increasingly powerful gravity well focussed on your original idea-bolus. The first few days of this phenomenon are deceptively heartening, as they offer what seem to be new angles on the original target, but after a little while you end up with an accretion disk of rubble the size of a solar system orbiting around an idea so dense and obsessed upon that it is obscured by its own singularity, which not even the light of your own thoughts able to escape unscathed.

 

Come to think of it, Thing Two may well explain Thing One.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …