A short history of writing on the move

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A Handspring (2000 AD) and a Palm Tungsten (AD 2003)

This post is a little like Ikea, if you want to skip past the kitchen displays and the bedrooms just get to the marketplace and checkouts then just jump here.

And I can only assume that if you are still reading you are ready for a little meander.

I have been writing for years (I tried to write an encyclopaedia when I was about ten: was this ambition?), but have only been writing on computers thirty years. This has been a good thing as my handwriting is both abominable and abominably slow: since I have using computers people have been able to read my words – for good or ill. The downside was being tethered to a computer keyboard. First a mainframe terminal, linked to a computer running MTS (Michigan Terminal System in case anyone’s interested), then an Amstrad PCW 8256 and a little later a PC (a 386 from a manufacturer which folded a few weeks after I bought the machine).

Any time I wanted to write I had to be at the desk, which was really annoying. I had all manner of attempts at working around, including a dictaphone (for which I made a little foot pedal – screwing a switch to a piece of plywood and doing a spot of soldering). If I was away from the machine I would write – on paper, with a pen – then type it up. I wrote a couple of unpublished (unpublishable) manuscripts (let’s not call them books) using that method. It was so frustrating – particularly (did I mention) given my handwriting was slow and bad: in the worst case I can only read my own writing within five minutes of writing it.

Then, towards the end of the 1990s (so long ago) there were Palm Pilots, the first laptops, the Apple Newton. Hints towards writing on the move. Finally, in 2000, I bought a Handspring: a green plastic block with a blocky screen. No keyboard, but a stylus for making almost writing shapes. Wonderful. I could write where I was then upload the words to my PC and drag them into a Word document. Even better when I got a folding keyboard to go with it and I could touch type to the small green plastic block. The scary thing with the Handspring was changing the batteries: thirty seconds to do it or everything vanished.

The Handspring was a game changer, but the whole Palm/Handspring landscape that seemed so solid, so well developed, has vanished like the missing part of a Norwegian valley – ground away under the weight of a glacier. Three years later I upgraded to a Palm Tungsten, which slid up and down on itself and had a folding keyboard. I wrote some good stuff on that. But, of course, a but, there was still the need to transfer the text to a proper computer and fiddle with it. And editing a document of any length was painful.

The split of little device and tethered computer disappeared when I got my first laptop, a G4 iBook. It wasn’t one of the orange or blue clam cases (I still love that design, even though I never had one). The iBook was a breakthrough, the words in the right format, wherever I was. It was good, and got even better when I tried out Scrivener: astonishing software which just fitted with the way I write. I mean, how often do you start at the beginning and keep hammering on to the end until you’ve finished? Or do you write bits and pieces in different files and on little pieces of paper that have to be connected with letters in big circles and squares to link it together. I am definitely in that second category, so Scrivener was almost a miracle.

I have written so much in Scrivener: plays, brochures, stories, technical books. The only thing I don’t start in Scrivener is poetry: for some reason that still starts on the page with a fountain pen.

But lap tops weren’t that small, still a couple of kilos to carry around. Not exactly stick in the pocket stuff. So when the iPads came out I got one: with a bluetooth keyboard it was a nice writing machine (I still can’t cope with the on-screen keyboard, touch typing doesn’t work on an immobile screen). But I was back in the dark valley of syncing and formatting. Until July 2016, which is when Scrivener for iOS was released.

[And a welcome back to those who have cut through and missed the wardrobes and kitchens.]

Scrivener for iOS is as astonishing as Scrivener on the Mac. The whole paradigm of writing in pieces, not writing in one long stream. The binder, the synopsis, the metadata, the document notes (because a document is not simply a piece of text, but an embedded part of a network of thought and words), all there on the iPad.

And all synchronising back and forward before the iPad and the Mac, happening solidly through Dropbox. The same words, the same formatting, here, there, on the bigger screen, on the smaller screen. Even (thank you aeroplane mode) thirty thousand feet above the ground). Somehow this brings together the mobility, the decent keyboard and the proper formatting.

Scrivener of iOS is not the be all and end all: it still doesn’t make the coffee, and I still have to hammer the words out from my head. But it is a wonderful piece of software. So thank you Keith (not Kevin).

And everybody else, please buy Scrivener.

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Farewell, my web-footed friends

F1000028So. I started writing a poem about waiting. And in one of those curious moments of decision I went for rhyme royal, a seven-line stanza with an ababbcc rhyme scheme (supposedly ‘royal’  because James I of Scotland used it for his poem The Kingis Quair, but possibly more prosaically named for the French chant royal: less exciting and therefore probably right: thank you as ever, Wikipedia).

The first stanza turned out to be about penguins, the way the male emperor penguins look after the eggs through the winter, clustering together to keep off the worst of the weather.

But then the other verse started to arrive. And they didn’t have anything to do with penguins. In fact the penguins were starting to stand out. Four verses in they were standing, staring at me.

I don’t like being stared at. So they had to go. But as I don’t like making penguins homeless I have re-housed them here.

The hundred-miling molecules of wind

hand out, in passing, slaps of air and snow;

their greetings for the penguin backs they find,

black barnacled in drear paternal row.

Their futures, feather-lodged, and set to grow,

Maintain their seasons, won’t be hastened on.

The wind observes, and just as quick, is gone.

So not a therapist

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The Nightmare (Thomas Burke (artist), after Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) – Tate Britain, Public Domain)

So. Recently, I ran a workshop on techniques to start creative projects. I have run it a few times now (and I have written about the techniques elsewhere), but not so often that I am on autopilot. Almost every time I find out something interesting for me. This time was no different.

We started the session doing some free writing starting from the phrase ‘a garden is …’. Everyone got their heads down and wrote, all in handwriting tidier than mine. Then we went round to see what people had found in their writing. As you’d expect, even with that starting point there was a huge variation in the approach, subject and style of the writing. But what I hadn’t expected was that one person became quite emotional as they finished going through their text.

It came as a surprise, but, on reflection, really shouldn’t have. We aren’t doing therapy, but any workshop which involves people accessing the things inside them, has the possibility that some of those things will be disturbing or distressing. We are always hoping for wonders, but there is no rule that the things which emerge will be beautiful and uplifting.

No life is entirely free of pain, and for many people life is grim. If we invite them to an act of self-exposure – which is what writing is – we should expect evidence of those experiences in what they create.

In fact, given that we are dealing with human experience I’m surprised that so little of what comes out is negative. On this occasion, we gave the person a moment, then moved gently on to the next exercise.

And I was reminded, once again, of the power of this writing stuff, which I sometimes treat too glibly.

Manifesto-y

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The left-handed writer

So. I have a couple of poems going up in an exhibition at the Catalyst Festival. Grand. But the organisers also wanted a bit of blurb about ‘why I write’.

That paralysed me. Why do I write? Flippin’ heck. It doesn’t help that I have always found this sort of meta-writing difficult (I don’t like writing press-releases or advertising text either). Some authors write books about why they write (and maybe someone, somewhere has written a book about why they wrote a book about why they write), but, honestly, I can’t be bothered with that.

I don’t want the grim wisecrack, in the style of Doug Stanhope (‘I’m Doug Stanhope and that’s why I drink’). Nor do I want the weirdly worthy: for example David (and Leigh) Eddings:

The field of fantasy has always been of interest to him, however, and he turned to The Belgariad in an effort to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning that genre.

(I have loved that sentence for over thirty years.)

I was stuck. Then, on a train, away from the interwebs, I thought I might as well try one of the techniques I recommend to other people: five minutes’ free writing. I opened a new text document in FoldingText (because there is no possibility of wasting time with formatting) and started typing.

It worked. The first few sentences were gibberish, but quite soon I got something worth developing. What I ended up with is manifesto-y, but I think it is an adequate answer. Here it is.

Why does anyone write? Dr Johnson said no one but a fool wrote except for money. So, I write out of folly. I write out of ignorance, to find out what I think. I write out of excitement: when the big idea wasp buzzes around my head the best way to be rid of it is to pin it to the page. I write because sometimes, very, very rarely, I think I might have something worth saying. I write with an excess of hope, but no expectation of success. I write as peacock and as ostrich. I write out of fear, because if I stop the writing I might disappear. I write because I have something even more difficult to do. I write because the world keeps giving things to write about. I write because I can’t draw, paint, sing or dance.

Can crosswords be art?

IMG_2489So. Someone was asking whether video games can be art. Now, I’m not particularly bothered about video games as such: apart from a brief dabble with Angry Birds a couple of years ago and a few goes at Age of Mythology (machine opponent always set on ‘easy’) I haven’t really played them.

What interests me in the question is that, in order to attempt an answer, we need to have some idea of what art is, or what its key characteristics might be.

Given that other people are bothered about video games I thought I’d shift the discussion ground to something less emotive and see if we can get some light instead of just heat. You’ll find the results here:

Can Crosswords be Art?

Watching Frank

 

IMG_2192So. I was watching Frank. An odd film, but one which addresses the question of inspiration (or may be creeps up on it then runs away).

Early on, the protagonist (I’m going to call him Bob as I can’t remember his name at the minute) is trying to write a song. Bob takes his – well, let’s call it inspiration for the moment – from the people he passes in the street, which leads to lyrical gems like this:

Lady in the red coat what you doing with that bag?
Lady in the blue coat do you know the lady in the red coat?

When he gets home he goes up to his room and attacks the keyboard, working away until a tune comes to fit those words. Then he stops as he recognises he is playing a Madness song.

So much for inspiration. Except that, later on, Frank – in his big paper mâché head – is challenged on the same question. He looks at the carpet for moment and sings a song about an upstanding tuft. Is it a great song? Not quite, but it is a step up from ‘Lady in the blue coat’.

That leaves the Bob, and the viewer, wondering what makes the difference? How does a carpet make for a better song than a person? Is it just that Frank is a better artist than Bob, that his creative juices flow thicker and richer, that he is somehow more in touch with his creative core? Some of that may be true, but it smacks of the romantics’ great artist explanation, which I am not going to buy into. My guess is that it is about observation and engagement: closer observation and deeper engagement result in better songs. Frank has studied the carpet, Bob has only glimpsed the lady in the red coat.

If I am right (and I’m utterly certain that I am) then there is hope for all of us to make better work by digging into the stimuli and sources we draw on. For some people that may mean deep internal journeys, for others it will involve rigorous looking and closer reading (I have written elsewhere about one technique for this). That will take effort, but, given the alternative is shallow or bombastic work, I for one am up for the graft.

The Well at Narnia’s End

IMG_2130So. One of the questions supposedly asked of writers is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ (Although I have to say, in my case no one asks. Either because it’s so obvious, or because they don’t want to catch the same disease which ravaged my imagination.) For popular writers it becomes something of a little business, with readers and academics hacking away at the text and trying to find where the various pieces have come from. It’s rather like the geologists who established the stones of Stonehenge came from South Wales.

For the writings of C S Lewis the mining has gone on for decades and there have been fascinating results: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia came on a rich seam (we are probably going to have a lot of mining images today) when he made a clear identification between each of the planets in the Ptolemaic cosmology and the books of the Narnia series. He also found a very strong link with Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Now, we know that Lewis read a lot (I think someone, somewhere, possibly in A N Wilson’s biography, remarks that Lewis had read everything). I have often wondered about the influence of William Morris on Lewis and Tolkien, given that both went ‘northern’ (possibly Tolkien more than Lewis). Those wonderings cropped up again recently, while I was re-reading Morris’ The Well at the World’s End (a book we know Lewis admired). This time I stumbled on a couple of strata that it seems Lewis had mined (told you) for the Narnia series.

The first was a stone table on which the crone who enthralled (in the ‘making a thrall – slave – of’ sense) the future Lady of Abundance sacrificed the white goat. The sacrifice was not exactly substitutionary, but it did fulfil an undefined need for blood. Who else do we know who was sacrificed on a stone table?

The second was the disguising of Ralph, Ursula, the Sage of Swevenham and their horses against the pursuit of the Lord of Utterbol’s nephew, so the pursuers saw only rocks and skeletons. Now, where in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe are two people disguised as objects? (Clue: one of them is a witch, one a dwarf.)

(I also have a vague recollection of a Tolkien link, but like many night thoughts it was gone with the morning.)

I don’t think either of those are new links: you can bet there will have been plenty of PhDs that discuss them. Neither, for me, do they diminish Lewis’ text. (I am well aware of Tolkien’s rebuke to those studying Beowulf: But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.) Rather, they root it back into something older, show more of its trajectory; perhaps make it appear less the product of the mythological bran-tub than it sometimes does.

Three minutes’ thought

Phrenology diagramSo. One of the offspring is complaining about A-level physics being hard. Which it is. Unsympathetically, I was reminded of A E Housman’s jibe at some nineteenth century classical scholars:

Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out, but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.

But for all Housman was having a go at someone, there is a truth in there: thought is irksome. Elsewhere in the house someone is struggling at an assignment in their MBA. And I have spent two hours writing poetry and have got maybe twelve lines, at least half of which I will change and the other half I may discard. That was irksome.

I wasted ten minutes on the internet researching bee pollination (researching, that makes it sound impressive: I typed bee pollination into google and got a wikipedia page with a table) because thought is irksome and poetry takes thought.

In fact, thought is so irksome I am going to pot up my tomato seedlings rather than do it any longer.

Violins

Violin_bridgeOnce there was a kingdom where music was highly valued. There were concert halls in every town, where orchestras, folk bands, choirs and clog dancers regularly gathered to rehearse, perform and appreciate each other’s performances. (Every type of music was welcomed, except for the ukelele, the playing of which carried the death sentence.)

The monarch revelled in the musicality of all her subjects, but nurtured a particular passion[1] for the violin which was, she claimed, the pinacle of music. When she had ruled for a significant number of years[2] she celebrated with a decree that every one of her beloved subjects would be able to make their own violin, and would be able to join the royal violin ensemble to play annually at the monarch’s birthday celebrations.

The decree went out to every town, as did a series of boxes and packets containing wood, glue, varnish, strings and tools. The kingdom rejoiced. Composers turned to writing violin music. In every town hall a room was set aside as a violin workshop.

For a few weeks the workshops were full of people sawing, planing and sanding. Planks were cut and ruined, glue splodged on, and barely one playable violins was made. Most people gave up. They had too many other things to do: work, shopping, cooking, looking after children, finding a spouse. They would have liked to have made a violin, but they simply didn’t have the time.

But there were a few people who did have time. They had parents who had prospered by thinking mainly of making money, and had never sung in a choir or played in an orchestra (and certainly never joined a folk band). The children of the prosperous had no need to work, so they took over the violin workshops and made violins for themselves. Sometimes, they found a talented violin maker and paid them to make a violin, claiming, quite reasonably, that as their money had released the violin maker’s time it was their money, and thus they who had made the violin.

A year passed and the royal violin ensemble was assembled and rehearsed. It appeared at the celebration of the royal birthday looking very smart in its red coats and gold braid. As the monarch entertained her guests at the birthday dinner the ensemble played one of the new pieces for violin.

The ensemble was adequate. Everybody knew that, but nobody said it.

Every year the ensemble played at the birthday celebration. Monarch replaced monarch, violinists handed on their positions to their children, who had less interest in playing the violin than their parents. Finally, the performance was so bad that the ensemble was excused playing: it was sufficient that they attended with their violins. Very soon, even that burden was removed as each member of the ensemble was given a gold badge, in the shape of the violin, to be worn at the birthday celebration.

In the rest of the kingdom no one played the violin and all the new violin music was eaten by mice or used as pie cases.


  1. Everyone knows the only thing to do with a passion is to nurture it.  ↩
  2. Forty-nine years. Because that is seven times seven.  ↩