The dilemma for journalists who want to write creatively

Edinburgh University’s creative writing society PublishED held a thought-provoking talk yesterday, given by the publishing guru Dr Alison Baverstock.

Two key points of the lecture focused on social media and time management. For any writer hoping to get published today, it’s essential to have twitter followers, a Facebook profile, a blog etc, otherwise publishers just won’t want to know. In a twittercentric universe, the author has to be willing to take responsibility for much of the publicity themselves – they must have a visible online profile. Writing your damn novel is only one part of the story.

Baverstock makes the crucial point that managing the amount of time an author spends focusing on social media is absolutely key. But I suspect this is more easily said than done.

The short-term, schizophrenic sort of concentration that’s required in order to absorb – and to write – 140 character messages is utterly antithetical to the in-depth concentration that’s needed in order develop creative ideas at length.

So what’s this got to do with 24-hour news?

It used to be the case that a lot of novelists wanting to write cut their teeth in the journalism industry. The early 70’s, to name but a few, saw the likes of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens all working for the New Statesman. The list of contemporary journalists-turned-novelists goes on and on, from Julie Burchill and Geraldine Bedell, to Will Self and Wendy Holden.

But both the exponentially increasing speed at which the news agenda moves and the advent of social media are creating a real problem for those who want to try and straddle both fields.

The key difficulty is one of expectation. As a journalist today, it’s assumed you’ll have an iPhone, and you’ll be checking it twenty-four hours a day. It’s assumed you will pick up every tweet or Facebook message that comes in, and that when it does, you’ll have that story processed within a couple of hours.

The amount of time that’s spent trying to manage the information flooding into the various screens and mobile devices totally opposes the creative impulse (and that’s really the crux of the matter. It’s an absorption and regurgitation of information as opposed to the outwards creative thrust.)

In many ways, I suppose this isn’t a new problem. Barnes and co. must have had the same problem, trying to find snatches of time to write, away from the telephone and the boozy haze of the Fleet Street newsroom.

But it does seem particularly maddening for writers trying to start out.

On the one hand it’s expected that you’ll push yourself hard online, requiring an omnipresence verging on the obsessive. On the other, you’re expected to find uninterrupted time for the deep reading, thinking, and writing that’s required to produce really quality prose.

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What I’m reading in Berlin

1) The Innocent – Ian McEwan

This is an early, easily overlooked McEwan novel. It may not have the polish of his later books (the beginning’s a bit slow, and there are chunks of unconvincing dialogue), but If you’re into cold war espionage literature then you’ll be hard-pressed to find another author who combines cold war narrative with sepia 1950’s existence so effectively.

Many of McEwan’s novels deal with sclerotic post-war British identity and the accompanying sexual hiatus. This is no exception. Twenty-five year old electrical engineer Leonard Marnham is sent out to Berlin to work on a top secret project tapping Soviet lines, when he has his first sexual liaison with a young German girl. Dysfunction ensues.

2) Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood 

This delicious set of fragments gives a real flavour of 30’s Berlin, depicting the sudden fall from prosperity experienced by everyone in Germany after the Wall Street Crash. The narrator takes up the namesake of the author, and despite protestations in the introduction, the account has a strong autobiographical streak.

The six sections tell the tale of 1930’s Berlin from different standpoints, exploring the lives of characters the fictional Isherwood encounters; from the aristocratic family he works for as an English teacher, to an aspiring British actress treading the boards of the German dance halls.

Originally intended as part of a grand social project charting the rise of Nazism, this book is quite simply delightful to read. Isherwood flirts his way through the pages, never taking himself and his Englishness – or indeed anything at all – too seriously, even when presented with decidedly unusual moral dilemmas.

Lots of the characters are salacious and gossipy in a kind of flawed-but-ultimately-loveable way. This just makes it all the weirder when Isherwood suddenly mentions the political and social context: ‘She was, of course, a member of the Nazi party.’

Lessons from Mr Bisset: interview with Scots literary superstar

Alan Bissett bounds up to the National Library of Scotland, sparkly purple scarf around his neck, bright blue suitcase in hand. His easy-going amicability seems a long way from the character of Moira, the feisty working-class protagonist of his most well known piece for stage The Moira Monologues. “I wish I’d dressed more like a student”, he jokes, as he poses for a photo.

He explains with enthusiasm that he has just come from doing a talk at a school in Leith and is about to head off on tour. This week sees the final performances of his most recent play The Red Hourglass in Glasgow, which premiered this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe to widespread critical acclaim. The hour-long show, a series of erotic arachnid monologues, is performed entirely by the author who takes on the parts of both male and female spiders.

It’s fairly unusual for a writer to have such a hand in acting out his work, and Bissett posits that much of this desire to act as well as write comes from his teaching experience: “Teaching is an elaborate acting job. You have maybe thirty kids in front of you…you have to learn how to play them; you have to make them laugh, discipline them, inspire them, and the only way you can do that is by being a performer. I think that’s how I ended up doing it.” Having studied English and Education at the University of Stirling, Bissett undertook a short spell as a secondary school teacher before returning to university to study for a PhD. “I enjoyed it,” he explains, “but realised I would never be a writer if I stayed a secondary school teacher.”…Read More

Photo Credit: Allan MacDonald/ The Journal

Photo Credit: David Selby

What’s dull, uninteractive and made of paper?

How many browser tabs do you have open? I bet it’s more than three. And you probably clicked through to this article from elsewhere.

The impact of technology and the internet on the future of the novel is something that’s come under intense scrutiny at this year’s book festival. Speaking at an event this afternoon, Booker-winning novelist Howard Jacobson argued that the majority of the reading public no longer have the ability, let alone the inclination, to pick up a novel.

And he’s by no means the only author expressing concern for the future of the book. At this year’s Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, writer China Miéville argued that readers will begin to alter books digitally and produce ‘mash-up’ versions of published books, emulating the way in which the YouTube generation remix songs. Whether or not this is an accurate prediction, it certainly raises questions about the effect of technology on our ability and desire to read.

Writer and broadcaster Will Self, who will be speaking at the book festival on 25 August, talked to The Journal back in May, expressing some of the concerns he has for the future of the book  “There’s something about having a physical analogue; it’s almost as if you are conscious of the other pages because they’re physically there.” Self worries so much about the impact of the internet on the ability of the young to read that he’s setting up a module at Brunel University to focus on this as a subject of empirical research…Read more

Photo Credit: David A. Selby/ The Journal