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.