Creativity without the wankery

I think I saw this via Russell, if that’s a sentence. It’s absolutely brilliant. If you’re anything like me, you’re addicted to writings on writing, simplicity and creativity. And you’re frustrated that 99% of the writing on those subjects is abject. I think it’s something to do with the way lesser creatives (i.e. almost all of us) try to systematise these sorts of things. It’s much simpler than that. It’s just incredibly difficult. Do what you can to stoke the wildfire, and take it from there. Of course, genius helps, I imagine.

Anyway: The five lessons I learned from Ken Campbell by Bill Drummond

Forgive the long extract:

“You spent the budget on a phone?”

“Yes. Right now in the world, the phone is the most powerful tool you can have. Right now, I can contact anybody in the world of any importance with this phone. Anyone! In fact, you can help me. We need someone to play the role of an oriental woman in the play. Who should we get?”

I could not think of any oriental actresses so I said Yoko Ono. In my head, she was the most famous oriental woman in the world.

“OK, we will ask Yoko Ono.” Then he rings a number. Someone answers. He asks a question and writes down a number. He phones this number. Someone answers. He asks a question and writes down another number. He does this two or three more times – after which he is actually speaking to Yoko in New York. This was not more than 10 minutes after I had half-jokingly suggested her name.

As it happens, Yoko declined his offer to appear in the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool’s 12-hour production of Illuminatus!, as she had to look after her new baby boy.

Fifteen years later, when Jimmy Cauty and I were working on the KLF track Justified & Ancient, Jimmy said what it needed was a vocal by Tammy Wynette. Now Tammy Wynette was a genuine living legend, the First Lady of Country – and the record we were making was a sort of dance-pop record with weird bits. It was the last thing you’d expect the First Lady of Country to be singing on. While Jimmy got on with the track, I went into the office and picked up the phone. Ten minutes later, after three or four calls, I am actually talking to Tammy Wynette, just before she goes on stage in Chicago. We play her the track down the phone and she agrees there and then to record the vocals with us.

Time

Found myself moaning about the new commute yesterday. Already. What looks on paper like an hour-long train journey can become 2 hours door to door once you factor in the 15-minute walk to the station, the inevitable rail delays, and the 15-minute tube hop at the other. (People are rarely honest about the bookends of their journeys to work, even when they do say “door to door”).

This is all time away from family. And, I told myself, will only make it impossible to find time for the things I already don’t find time for:

  • reading
  • exercise (or, at the very least, walking)
  • undisturbed writing

HANG ON.

The walk to the station amounts to half an hour a day. That’s not going to turn me into Hercules but it’s a sight better than nowt – and if I walk at top speed, it’s nearly proper exercise (and, surprise surprise, I get there sooner when I do that).

An hour on the train is an hour’s writing, if I want it. I wrote more than 1,200 words on the way in yesterday, and that was writing for only some of the journey.

And frankly, an hour’s reading on the way home is a luxury I should be grateful for.

Okay, I can’t do much about this being time away from family, but if I make the rule that once I’m home that’s family time and nothing else, that’s probably better than an extra hour at home distracted by email, the internet and guilt about never reading or exercising.

In short, if you hear me moaning about commuting, toe punt me in the shins.

Preempting the long-form backlash

Quotables in Longform overload, a recent piece in the Colombia Journalism Review:

“At worst, the fetishization of story length is ‘a shortcut to respectability,’ wrote James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic.”

“There’s so much to read that’s so good, and that’s essentially free with ads, that we are irrelevant. Why would anyone pay?” – Glenn Fleishman, editor of The Magazine

“Deca, a collective of 10 freelance writers, split revenue; Epic allows film and TV studios options to buy story rights, and The Atavist sells use of its software platform, among other revenue streams.”

“Deep, contextual reporting paired with emotionally resonant writing will continue to be vital, but publications built to satiate the journalist’s desire to write, as opposed to a reader’s desire to learn, risk creating a vanity project without a clear audience. “If it’s not for the readers then it doesn’t matter,” said Shapiro. ‘If you’re not satisfying readers then there’s no point.’”

I blogged a bit about long-form (which, in my book of hyphenated things, is hyphenated) back in March: The cult of long-form.

I’m still not against long-form. I’m against needless length.

Sky blue pink

Purely coincidentally, Mo and I posted back to back pictures of the dawn sky on Twitter this morning. This was mine, snapped on my phone:

2014-12-09 07.43.46

There was also a bit of snippiness about tweets about the sun coming up again, but in jest I imagine. When you’re tired of beautiful weather and/or cloud formations, well you may as well go home.

A bit later Charlie Connelly got in on the act. He was smart, deploying preemptive sarcasm.

A day out

With its menagerie of otters, bears, foxes, lynx, wildcats, wolves and birds of prey, it’s clear how The Scottish Deer Centre got its name. Not that there aren’t deer. Of course there are. They have red deer, white-lipped deer, even Chinese water deer (named after their diet, which is almost exclusively Chinese water).

In fact the website lists 15 species of deer to see, but really, it boils down to two types: those you can feed and those you can’t. Unfortunately for those unfortunate enough to fall foul of the ruthless feed salesperson on the way in (which is everyone), the latter hugely outnumber the former.

These deer are rutting. No feeding. These deer are recovering from bird flu. Please don’t feed them. These deer are a bit alarmist. Best not.

Mostly, though, the deer are simply overfed, and rather far away. Feeding them is only an option if you can throw a cricket ball from the boundary to the wicket without bouncing, and are willing to sacrifice your entire feedbag in one futile if heroic sustenatory gesture.

And actually, there aren’t very many of them. Though you’re handed a map on the way in, this turns out to be surplus to needs, the route around the deer centre being 100 percent linear, and in the shape of the square. The deer are left and right of the first side of that square. That’s one of four sides. So, after a few hundred yards, you’re asked to dump your nine-tenths full feed back into a bin, lest you attempt to feed the wolves with it.

Not that I’m complaining. We quickly twigged that the £8 entry fee is a pound a good thing available to see, minus the deer. You can have the deer. They’re safe.

But what would make the day well and truly fair would be a pound back for each other animal you don’t get to see, which is almost all of them. We only got to see the bears because it was feeding time, and the birds of prey because they were dragged flapping and squawking from their enclosures and bribed to flap about a bit with some cubed steak. Even then one of the owls couldn’t be arsed to fly. I particularly enjoyed the 45-minute talk on otters, which gamely went ahead despite the fact the otters were encamped underground having absolutely none of it. Any questions?

The best thing all day was the treasure trail, innovatively disguised as a series of menus, each with different items of food and drink, hidden in various nooks around the cafe. There are literally hours of fun to be had there, which is just as well because the rest of the place takes about 18 minutes to see.

I’m not saying the Scottish Deer Centre isn’t worth visiting, but for fuck’s sake, don’t go out of your way.

This piece is written in fun. Don’t take it seriously. Especially if you’re from the Scottish Deer Centre. Really, you’re great. I mean it.

Tell it to Shatner

If you’re trying to convince someone to write in plain English, it’s no good wafting a style guide at them. They have to want to read it first. It’s a culture change. You have to unlearn habits. You have to actually think about what you write, rather than simply typing out all those familiar words.

A great starting point is to encourage people to “write it like you’d say it”. Not how you’d say it in a board meeting. But how you’d say it to your Mum and Dad over a cup of tea and a Kit Kat at the kithen table. If that isn’t an evocative enough image for you, summon up someone famous who, er … isn’t likely to know much about what you’re trying to explain.

How would you explain it to this guy?

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Do that.

(Photo by Andy Maia)

Pasting

This is billed as the most one-sided cricket match of all time. True or not, it is gorgeous. Pakistan Railways v Dera Ismail Khan, Railways Moghalpura Institute Ground, Lahore. December the 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 1964.

The fall-of wicket figures tell it best. (Forgive the antipodean wickets-before-score formulation).

Pakistan Railways: 1–44, 2–288, 3–426, 4–499, 5–548, 6–662
Dera Ismail Khan: 1–0, 2–0, 3–1, 4–9, 5–17, 6–17, 7–17, 8–26, 9–30, 10–32

Final score, 662–6 declared, chased by 32 all out.

Two lists of numbers, but the toil, strife, humiliation and joy they evoke is palpable.

Via Lev Parikian.

We moved

We moved to Braintree. And though the move itself, followed swiftly as it was by complicated if minor dental surgery, proved more stressful than hoped, I’m feeling very positive about the move itself. I imagine I’ll be writing rather a lot about Braintree. As there’s no internet here, I think I’ll be among the first to document its charms. Overall, the natives seem friendly.

This is all very patronising, I realise. Of course, I don’t mean it. I’ve already found a favourite writing spot out of home – though now we’ve moved into a house with plenty of room, I’m hopeful that I can hide from little Alice for long enough at a time to meaningfully get things done. Not that I wouldn’t rather spend the time with her.

I hope to reacquire some of the stuff I got rid of due to living in small-to-tiny digs over the last decade. Hi-Fi separates. 8-bit games consoles. A garden gnome collection. That sort of thing.

About that writing spot. It’s in the “tudor bar” of the central pub which draws the old demographic – which is fine by me. I like old people and, spiritually at least, count myself among their number. (Mum always said I was born an old man. I only now realise she was absolutely right.)

I may have given you the impression, with those naughty quotation marks, that I’m talking about some hideous faux-tudor. Nay. This is a properly old pub, and the tudor bar is the bit with the posh furniture, and one of at least two proper fires I’ve found. I’m writing this there now, with a Talisker at my elbow – or at least that’s what I intended. The room’s reserved this evening. Oh well. It’s too hot by the fire anyway.

Stagnant

This was supposed to blossom. Instead, it sits, dormant, in a dusty Dropbox folder. The meagre contents of my haiku.txt file. No I know they’re not 5/7/5. In English, that’s way too many syllables.

The tar burns
In the fire of
Fallen leaves
(Jan 2014)

An obstruction
With glistening velcro:
A little lost shoe
(Jan 2014)

The unified lurch
Of babbling field trippers
Not holding on
(Dec 2013)

More raindrops in
The gossamer nets
Than flies
(Oct 2013)

Shoreditch gutters
Awash with unspooled
Cassette tape
(Sep 2011)

Hard hat. Spade. Hose pipe.
The improvised shishi
Odoshi click-clacks
(May 2008)

Routinely the
Charcoal cat skips
Hackney train tracks
(August 2013)

The last word

This article on how games reviews are changing is quite interesting. But it made me realise that, even when I skim, I’ll always flick down to the bottom of an article to see the writer’s parting shot. Here it’s almost exactly the same as the headline, which is a bit of an anticlimax. The last line is the final chance to surprise, delight and reinforce. Make the most of it. And don’t blame the writer. Often an overzealous sub-editor will mess up a headline.

On Instagram again

Have I talked about Instagram, lately?

I’m having yet another one of my rethinks about my relationship with the internet, and technology, and everything. My filters are broken again. I accept Twitter’s essential, but God, I hate it now. Instagram, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing.

When I’m not home, one of the best bits of my day is the few minutes I spend Instragramming. It feels like a proper creative act. That’s quite rare for me – especially for things other than words. Lately it’s made me feel semi-serious about taking photographs again. And the feedback from people, even if it is just the like-count, has been really useful. Who said photograph what you love? They must have been right.

But I also take a few minutes once a day to have a nose at other people’s photos: my timeline, obviously, but also a spot of tag surfing. If you try really hard you can find people who almost exclusively do not take photos of themselves, cats, food, or their shoes. Fill your timeline with those people and Instagram is a thing of beauty. The signal-noise ratio is low, but the good stuff stands out, and you quickly nav through to interesting photographers – there are loads of them on Instagram.

Part of the genius, I think, is that Instagram, in what must be said is very uninternetty of it, refuses to format pasted URLs as clickable links. You can’t even copy them out. Pasting a URL into an Instagram comment is essentially a waste of time. So the only thing you can really spam are links to other Instagram accounts, and mercifully few people seem to think that that’s a worthwhile use of their time.

Of course it wall turn to shit, because all things on the internet do, eventually. But for now it’s my favourite place on the internet. And it was only a little bit of work to get there.

The search for white ones

For the past three weeks, one of the most meaningful relationships in my life has been with a man I’ve never met. I don’t even know his name. But we are united in common cause: the quest for level 30 in Destiny.

That’s trickier than it sounds. The slow grind of XP-gathering gets you only as far as level 20. After that, you need rare armour, which is itself only a vehicle to the armour rarer still you need to crawl over the line from level 29 to level 30. And you need to upgrade it. And the things you need to upgrade it, namely ascendant shards, are hard work to come by. You need other things too. But they’re the bottleneck.

Many activities in Destiny are geared towards gaining these ascendant shards. The game will hand you a few per day for an hour or so’s play, but after that you grind for hours, snatching at the fickle half-chances of random loot drops.

And woe betide the Destiny player who spends too many shards in intermediate armour, not realising that it won’t see you all the way to level 30. To get there need raid gear, which means taking on the Vault of Glass, for now the game’s only raid: a 6-player epic of complexity and time-investment.

You can’t just shoot stuff. You actually have to coordinate plans. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find 6 people on PlayStation Network or Xbox Live capable of doing that? (The raid itself is nothing in comparison, if you have someone in the team who understands the bizarre hoops you have to jump through, that is).

But my friend understands it all, as well as the finer points of shard-aquisition. Why do a daily challenge once, for example, when you can level up two or three extra characters to level 25 to do it multiple times for extra reward? Sure, it’ll cost you 10 hours per character to level them up to the low 20s, but that’s a small price to pay for shards. No really.

Strictly speaking, I’m not a good match for him. He has more time to play than I do. But some of the tougher daily and weekly challenges, particularly Nightfall, benefit from the patience and strategy that comes with an older head on your shoulders. My theory is he likes playing with me because, frankly, I’m not as annoying to listen to as younger male players.

Don’t get me wrong. The PS4 Destiny crowd are a far nicer bunch than the Xbox and Xbox 360 Halo and Call of Duty contingent. I suspect that this being an expensive game on an expensive system shifts the demographics a little. Though, anecdotal evidence alert, I don’t know that PSN isn’t simply a little less a-holeish than Xbox Live. Certainly the lower ratio of headset users doesn’t hurt.

Anyway. Support characters is one area where I fare less well than my friend. My daughter is 6 months old, and incapable of grinding out a replay of the story missions to boost a character into the early level 20s. My friend, in contrast, has two offspring in their teens. This is the new serfdom. And I’m missing out.

The joke of it all is that ascendant shards are only one of two types of ascendant material. The other, ascendant energy, is used to upgrade weapons: useful, but it won’t directly contribute to levelling up.

Of course we don’t refer to ascendant materials, shards or energy, because we’re British and middle-aged, and that would show we had paid some attention to the game’s nonsensical lore. Instead we call them “red ones” (energy) and “white ones” (shards), after the prevailing colours of their respective icons. “Bloody red ones” is a typical refrain.

I have all the shards I need to upgrade the armour I have: three of the four pieces of raid gear I need. But I don’t know if I have the stomach for another run at the Vault of Glass. I may have lost the stomach for the battle. Not my friend, though. He’s made of sterner stuff.

But I think we both know we’ve already put too much time into the game. And we’ve used each other to distract ourselves from the grind. Destiny’s perfectly fun enough to dip into for a few hours a week. But, fun-aside, it won’t be for the shards, or for level 30. It’ll be to check in on my anonymous friend.

Unconditionality

It’s 4 a.m. – the worst time, and Alice, 6 months old, is crying. Again. The last time was 40 minutes ago. The time before that an hour and a half. I’ve lost track of the times before that. But I’ve had enough. It’s late. Or early. I’ve had no sleep, and I’ve got important things to do in the morning.

Six months. That’s conceivably old enough for her to be trying it on, isn’t it? This is beginning to feel a little bit like a tantrum. I’ll let her work it out. But she’s not stopping. She still isn’t stopping. She’s just working up to more and more distress. So I pick her up. Of course I do. And I hug, and I soothe, but above all I beg, because I don’t know what else to do. She comes into our bed, and with some hugs, and kisses, and songs she gets back off to sleep.

I look at the clock and decide I may as well get up. And I go to work, and I type, almost on autopilot. And I go to Smith’s where I forget to buy what I went in for, and leave my debit card in the machine when I go back in. And then I go home.

“Alice’s first tooth has come through!” And in six words, the confusion of the night before crystallises into sense. And I feel awful, because it wasn’t remotely a tantrum and I was horrible. Those important things I had to do suddenly feel minuscule.

And I feel wonderful because she’s growing up and I’m there to see it.

And I go to her, and she looks at me, and beams that big toothless grin – not so toothless now, and I sit beside her, and she reaches out and rests her hand on me. And whatever she’s capable of thinking or feeling, I feel welcome, forgiven and loved – wholly and unconditionally.

And as wonderful as it feels there’s also the fear that however hard I try, and whatever I do to try to stop it, she’s going to grow up to be just like me.