Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination

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Reaching a “Singularity”

It’s been a while since I wrote one of my “eBooks are transforming the world” rants. Maybe because I’m as confused as the next publishing professional. Maybe because the media world is changing so rapidly that none of us, no matter how diligent, can keep up. Maybe because I’ve given up trying to understand what’s going on.

It used to be that the concept of “reaching the singularity” was far-fetched science fiction. As futurist and author Ray Kurzweil puts it, “The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.” Honestly, his definition is more optimistic than I’d heard. I always understood the term to describe a moment when technology would evolve so quickly that it would literally leave the human race in the dust.

Does anyone feel the velocity of the tech revolution picking up speed? I do. Lately it seems many of us feel we’re hanging onto the roof of an out-of-control train by our fingernails.

And it’s not just writers. Look at anyone who has decided to buy an iPad or a new Smartphone. How do you want your media served? Personally, I pick “over easy”. A very intelligent friend recently spent a week in agony after purchasing the latest must-have device. Is it really worth wasting all that time figuring out how to make the damned thing call your mother while you read thirteen newspapers, buy a gift, answer twenty emails, and order food for dinner?

I use my cellphone only to make phone calls and it works perfectly.

And what about all that time lost for daydreaming?

OK. You all know that I’m a loud advocate for “living simply“. But a couple of recent articles in The New York Times (including the above link) seem to indicate a trend that I’m not the only one. Outdoors and Out of Reach observes a scientific study of the brain on and off “digital speed”. And an Op-Ed, Reclaiming the Imagination, presents a fascinating argument for the evolutionary value of human imagination.

Wait a minute… Imagination is a writer’s stock-in-trade. Is this really something we have to justify?

But these are the times we live in. It’s easy enough to dismiss, easy to hide our heads in the sand, but eventually we will get left behind. The singularity is coming and we’re all running to keep up, however reluctantly.

So, in the spirit of running together, check out The Brian Lehrer Show’s new weekly segment, Book Futures. Topics so far have included The Rise of EBooks and The Fate of Bookstores. (Or perhaps they should just be conflated to read: “The Rise and Fall of the Publishing Empire”.) More predictions will be forthcoming from Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace and the daily industry newsletter, Publishers Lunch. (You probably should subscribe to both, if you don’t already.)

Of course, predictions are just that. No one can see the future. I’m thinking back to my blog-post, The Evolutionary Invention, that linked to “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson, published in 1995. Stephenson argued strongly and philosophically against the effects on onscreen reading. His predictions clung amusingly to the inherent and indelible value of experiencing words in physical print. Today we’re having the same argument, but the result is a fait accompli.

Yet literature is surviving. Or is it? Either way, it’s a startling reminder of just how rigidly embedded in our own experience each of us can be. Who are we to judge this strange monster we’ve made? Whatever it is, like it or not, there’s no putting it back where it came from.



Reading in the Bathroom

I foolishly started reading Anna Karenina this spring – twice, and then again this summer. Each time I was dissuaded by the time-swallowing responsibility of editing other people’s work. Beloved writer-friends and clients, you know I adore you. But every once in a while it is a relief just to hide in the bathroom between ream-length tomes and read something that requires neither a big red pen nor an editorial eye.

The Perfect Bathroom
I usually pick up The Atlantic, The New Yorker, browse the photos in National Geographic, or slog through one of that large stack of articles I’ve printed from the Internet.

But the other day I stopped myself. No! Read a book – a real book with a bound cover and back-matter blurbing its praises. Stop worrying that it might get dripped on by childishly undried (but washed!) hands, or that the cats will jump up on the narrow shelf beside the toilet and send all your precious literature into the – Eew!

I couldn’t quite bring myself to allow Anna Karenina to sit there. (No, I’d prefer her sitting with stoic crossed arms on my nightstand where she’s been neglected – again.) Instead I chose Stephen King’s wonderful memoir of craft, “On Writing”. What makes On Writing perfect bathroom reading? First, much of it is presented in brief snippets. There are also longer sections that focus on the topics we all struggle with, including simple but absolute truths like, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

How succinct! How accurate! And yet here I sit. OK, I’m reading in the bathroom, I’m editing and I’m blogging. But does any of that count? What about the hard stuff – reading classics, analyzing story structure and character development? What about hours of uninterrupted, fingernail-biting writer’s block? Are these the realms of the blessedly unemployed or the very young?

King also mentions the rationale for our hard work – joy. How often have I found myself forgetting about that, in all my anxiety about getting my novel just right and anticipating its fate in the larger world? Why struggle if not for joy? Why bother to write except for the gift that it gives us, first to the writer, then to those who read. But even if the writing stays locked in a drawer, with it goes a fragment of a soul that needed cleansing.

King says in an old Salon interview that his mother “used to say, when we were scared, ‘Whatever you’re afraid of, say it three times fast and it will never happen.’ And that’s what I’ve done in my fiction. Basically, I’ve said out loud the things that really terrify me and I’ve turned them into fictions.” In this, he and I are exactly alike. Just think, why else would a woman who hates the cold ever dream of writing a novel about Viking Age Greenland?

To face fear on paper makes one bolder. It sets you free.

So spit on the page, as I’ve said many times. Just spit. Get it out. Don’t worry. Don’t edit. You can fix it later. Don’t analyze why you write while you’re doing it. That’s the surest route to an endlessly blank page. Feel that freedom, even if for only ten minutes at the beginning of a writing session. Isn’t that a brief moment of heaven?

Did I mention I also keep a notebook and pen beside the toilet?

Read an excerpt from On Writing and hear a great interview with Stephen King on NPR.org

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Another Nice Writers Circle Re-Post on STET!

As they did about a year ago, Backspace‘s blog STET! has graced me by re-posting one of my early summer pieces, We Are What We Read.
Backspace, The Writers Place
Backspace is a great online writers community with plenty of wise advice, both online and to be had at their conferences, often held in New York City.

Thanks, Backspace! I love being a part of what’s going on.

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Guest Blogger Maria Clara Paulino: Growing the Circle

Our community of writers is growing exponentially lately. This summer, besides our lively and vital face to face sessions, I’ve reached beyond the tactile into the virtual world. We’ve had visitors to The Writers Circle blog from as far away as Istanbul and Australia! (You know how I love to experience “other worlds”, both real and imagined.) And I made a new friend, Maria Clara Paulino, who discovered me – and all of us – through the Internet. Here she writes about the value of our community and our fledgling personal connection. Clara, welcome. I am honored to have you join us.

Guest Blogger Maria Clara Paulino
A writer’s work does not blend easily with community building, yet community is vitally important, particularly one of peers who understand the conflicting need for loneliness in which to write, re-write, stare at the tree outside the window and at the blank page. Oh yes, the blank page, the space we fill as quickly as we can with characters connected in multiple configurations of relationship. So, even in the lonely writing process, we fulfill the primal human need to create bonds.

The communities we create on the page are virtual ones; they live only in our psyches and that of our readers. And, as I prepared to write this post, I found myself wondering whether they are fundamentally different from virtual communities like The Writers Circle.

Howard Rheingold asks us to “be careful to not mistake the tool for the task and think that just writing words on a screen is the same thing as real community.” Indeed, if the virtual world excludes the physicality of others, can any virtual community genuinely fulfill the need for relationship? But perhaps the question is misguided. Perhaps The Writers Circle is an environment generating what Todd May calls “relationships of consumption,” primarily dedicated to providing useful information – a worthy goal that I, for one, am very grateful for – but, is that the whole story?

Mitch Parsell writes about the dangers of “narrowly focused virtual communities,” yet I think of how SheWrites gave me a “place” to test my wings as a creative writer in English, a language that was not my own, as well as links to sites such as the one I am writing for at this very moment. On another very personal level, I am grateful for the technology that helped me keep “my” community of friends and family alive as I zigzagged between countries: Portugal and England as a student; then Portugal for a long time; and the US since 2003 (though I am writing this in Portugal, where I will be teaching for the coming academic year).

Every time I moved, even when I went back to my birth place after years away, I felt like a cultural orphan. Everything was “other,” and everything I had left behind was put to the test, relationships most of all. Technology and virtual communication – by phone, e-mail, Skype, and yes, Facebook – helped me in more ways than I usually give them credit for. Before these were available, other technological means of bonding, like pen and paper, came to the rescue, and some of my strongest friendships were forged through letter writing (yes, I am that old). Come to think of it, even soldiers were sometimes comforted by letters from strangers (though I suppose they get e-mails now). The question is, was all of that so different from online virtual communities and the possibilities they open up?

Possibility, I think, is what it is all about … which is why Judy and I tried to meet at Newark Airport while I waited for my connecting flight to Portugal. The now usual airport delays and shoe inspections stood in our way, though, and when I finally made it to the gate I was not a little upset that I was leaving just as I was beginning to make connections with other writers. But, why was I upset? Surely, Skype works fine anywhere in the world. Tucked in my narrow seat waiting for take off, I had plenty (and I mean PLENTY) of time to reflect on this. Here is what I thought: 1) there is generally hope, sometimes conscious, sometimes not, sometimes acted on, sometimes not, that virtual acquaintances will become three-dimensional relationships, more complex and more rewarding too; 2) our brains tend to connect such relationships with physical presence; and 3) an ocean is a rather large obstacle when it comes to meeting the people you’ve been e-mailing, Facebooking, and so on. So, in the meantime, and against distance, I hope virtual communities like The Writers Circle will keep its members going, keep connections strong.

Thank you, Judy.

Maria Clara PaulinoMaria Clara Paulino is a writer and art historian. Her essays, articles and translations have been published frequently in her native Portugal. She teaches art history at Winthrop University, South Carolina and will be a Visiting Professor at the University of Porto in Portugal this coming year. Visit her blog, Writing In The Margins, to sample some of her first creative efforts written in English.