Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.
I’m journalling my 30 day Attention Recovery program. You can follow my progress here.
This week my Facebook account was hacked. I can’t re-activate it without a code sent to a mobile phone number I haven’t owned for a decade.
Two days ago I de-activated my Twitter account. I’m using this as an opportunity to go social media “cold turkey” for 30 days.
This is day one of my month long effort to recover my shattered attention.
I wrote recently about my struggle to read novels over the past year. Part of that struggle is how my ability to concentrate has been affected by the internet.
2019 is the year we’ve learned the full nasty tale of how social media “hacks” our mind and body – exploiting dopamine responses and other biochemical triggers – to physically and psychologically addict us to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
I’ve been aware that my social media usage had gone from net positive to net problem for at least two years. After my summer travels in Europe, I’m back “home” in Bali planning my business for 2020. And in making those plans I’ve had to admit some things to myself.
I’m not reading fiction.
My meditation practice is dead in the water.
Writing is slower and less creative than a year ago.
My sleep is broken and poor.
I’m wasting vast amounts of time on social media.
Linking all of these issues is one factor – a factor I spent some time studying through Buddhist meditation – and a factor I guess we’re all struggling with.
I need to recover my attention.
Killing my social media usage is just step one.
My name is Damien. And I’m a Twitter addict.
I’m fortunate I have few addictions. I don’t drink, smoke, take narcotics of any kind.
But I have to be honest with myself – social media meets all the criteria for a real addiction that is negatively impacting my life.
And I get the feeling I’m not alone.
For the next 30 days I’m going to be journalling this process of Attention Recovery in this newsletter.
I don’t know exactly what the attention recovery process will be. But I suspect it will include:
killing all social media for the next 30 days.
reading full books, fiction and non-fiction
reviving a sitting meditation practice
PLUS more activities that extend and deepen attention TBC
You’re invited to join the Attention Recovery process. I’m guessing that most of you are struggling with attention as much or even more than I am. Drop a comment on this post with your thoughts on Attention Recovery, let’s work on recovering our attention together.
Love Not Likes is a charity working on social media addiction with young people. They also sell cool t-shirts.
The mental shift that separates young writers from old writers.
“I wish I had more time for my writing.”
“I quit my job to work on my writing.”
“My writing is very important to me.”
What do all these sentences have in common? It’s that little word, MY.
But it’s not your writing.
Are you a young writer or an old writer?
It’s not about age. Some old writers are 24, some young writers are 64.
Young writers are clinging onto the belief that somewhere inside them is a special piece of writing that will express who they are to the world. It’s uniquely theirs. And one day, they’ll write.
Old writers know this ain’t so. Old writers know that what they have is skill and technique, a knowledge of the craft. And the tighter their craft is, the more of all kinds of writing will come through them.
Old writers write. All the time. They can’t stop. The craft is like an engine inside them that needs to produce words every day.
Young writers struggle to get started. They’re looking for that special piece of writing. Once they find it, they’ll write it. Because it’s theirs.
Such neuro-linguistic cues can be useful. Oh sure, you might say “my writing” in total innocence. But 9 times out of 10 it’s a clue that your emotional attachment to that special piece of writing only you could ever write is greater than your clear headed commitment to the craft.
We’ve made up meditation out of thin air and desperate need. But that only makes it more important.
“Meditation is an ancient spiritual practice passed down in unbroken lineages from enlightened beings like the Buddha.”
This is a bad idea.
And this is the first in a new series of critical essays by me, Damien Walter, playing my part as “The Critic”. I’ve been looking for a new way to do high quality critical writing for a while now. Maybe this new place called Substack is it? We shall see.
I think we need to be brutal in taking apart bad ideas, and inspired in opening up good ones. I intend to do just that in these essays. They’re going to range from political theory to spiritual practice, stopping off at sci-fi novels and superhero movies along the way. For now it’s free to subscribe, but at some point I’ll tick the box for paid subscriptions and only those kicking in a few $$$ will be able to answer me back.
I’m ten years into a Buddhist meditation practice, which means I’ve gone through the peaks of belief, out into the dead calm of a crisis of faith, and am now docked in the harbour of this over extended metaphor taking some time to consider the journey behind me.
“meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020”
I can’t even begin to prove that meditation is any good for anything. It might be nothing more than sitting around doing…nothing. And the scientific evidence otherwise is…sketchy at best. I suspect – my intuition and experience both tell me – that meditation is the most important idea you can learn as we head toward the year 2020.
But I can’t prove it.
What I CAN say about meditation with relative certainty…
…is that it isn’t old.
The fake histories of meditation.
Lineage is a great marketing strategy. It gives the student meditator confidence that the practice is worthwhile, and it gives the meditation teacher ownership of what they are teaching. Unless you’ve had the mantle handed on from some dude who got it from other dude going all the way back to Buddha, you ain’t the real deal.
This is bullshit. In the technical sense of the word…IE information that we believe because it appears to be highly salient to our situation.
Here’s a more honest appraisal of what’s really happening between meditation teacher and student. The teacher is just a regular fucked up human being, who has struggled through a lot of life’s suffering, and found some relief in meditation. And the student is much the same, and they’re working together to see how meditation might help.
You can read all about the histories of various meditation lineages. There’s a convenient wiki on the matter. I’m not disputing that meditation goes back some way, maybe to to the historical Buddha (whoever that was). Most of the techniques of meditation taught in Vipassana or Zen were developed in the 19th or 20th century as part of religious revivalist movements, or even as part of the New Age movement.
But none of that matters. Lineage or no lineage, scientifically proven techniques or no, meditation presents every person who studies it with the same challenge.
Only you can teach you to meditate.
What’s happening inside your head right now? Maybe you’re lost in a maelstrom of thoughts? Maybe you have a mind like a crystal labyrinth? Maybe the whole damn cosmos is unfolding inside the nexus of consciousness called You.
I can never know. The essential nature of being You is that only You can have any true insight into You.
“Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.”
“Know thyself.” Through history echo the words of the oracle at Delphi. So apparently simple, so deceptively hard. Who are you? Are you your name? Are you your nationality? Are you the process of evolution that birthed you? Are you the outcome of the Big Bang? Once we start to ask this question, we’re thrown into a depthless ocean.
Meditation is a set of useful tools for learning who you are. Mindfulness. Concentration, Compassion. They’re useful. They’re very, very useful. A good meditation teacher can show them to you, and talk you through part of the journey they might take you on.
But from there, you are on your own. Only you can open up your inner landscape and take the epic quest to explore it.
Meditation is a 21st century survival technology.
Ancient lineages as marketing strategy isn’t just a bad idea. It’s a bad idea that stopes us seeing the really, really good idea about meditation.
The Nine Dot Puzzle is a famous psychological example of “frame breaking”. To solve the puzzle you have to break the frame that your mind projects over reality.
Life in the 21st century is an endless series of frame breaking exercises. Are you frustrated, desperate, overwhelmed and angry with the circumstances of your life? The answer lies entirely in how you frame those circumstances, your ability to break that frame, and to construct new frames as you change and grow.
This is the task that meditation has evolved to help us with.
As 21st century beings we’re uniquely challenged by change. 21st century life means re-inventing ourselves many times over, titanic changes of self and circumstance that our ancestors, who lived and died in one place and as one person, could barely have imagined.
Meditation isn’t a practice passed to us by our ancestors. It’s a technology we’re innovating right here and now in the 21st century. The best meditation teachers are nothing more than your fellow passengers in these times of change and upheaval, who’ve learned a few techniques you might find useful.
Taking apart bad ideas, and opening up good ideas, is essential. Meditation as ancient tradition is a bad idea. Meditation as 21st century survival tech is a good idea. Because the good idea is a much better place to start learning.
The job of criticism and the critic is to ruthlessly take apart bad ideas to make space for good ones. I’ll be publishing high quality critical essays via this Substack newsletter as and when I can. The more subscribers I gather, the more time I’ll channel into the task. Help spread the word. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.
I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?
I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.
My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.
While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.
I was finding less and less I wanted to read.
How the novel lost its magic.
I remember as a kid spending afternoons at the local library, selecting books as though I was selecting magical portals to step through. Then I would rush home and lose myself in the magic for hours, days at a time.
Of course we all grow up. We can’t spend our whole live teleporting to other realms. But, at every new stage of my life, new kinds of book would open up new kinds of magic for me. I found The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami when I was twenty-eight. A whole decade of new reading experiences began there, authors like Michael Chabon and Alice Munro came along and reading stayed electric.
But now in my early forties, I haven’t found equivalent new voices. The last novel that really caught me was Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall. Beautiful storytelling from the show-runner of Fargo, a real talent. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. Maybe it’s out there waiting to be found. The new seam of novelistic beauty just waiting for me, the reader, to mine it.
But I don’t think it’s me. I think, dear novel, that it’s you.
There’s no doubt the novel is facing some stiff competition for our attention. Hands up who doesn’t spend 100% more time on social media than they did 20 years ago when it didn’t exist? The smartphone is engineered to swallow as much of your eyeball time as it can. Which, often, is all of it.
But I don’t believe the novel is as vulnerable to digital distractions as some might say. We’re all HUNGRY for deeper experiences that stop as from paddling in the shallows of social media. When high quality tv drama of film releases come along, we’re there for them. But not, it seems, for novels.
No, I think a more serious ailment is afflicting the novel. And I fear it’s a self inflicted malady, that it’s going to take quite some time and care to care get over. But that healing process can’t even begin until the novel admits it has a problem. Maybe at a kind of metaphysical AA meeting for dying art forms.
“Hi. I’m The Novel. And I’ve been arrogantly over sure of myself as the natural home of high quality storytelling.”
The novel was always where people who valued real high quality storytelling went to find it. Films and tv had their moments, but they were largely packed with junk. But over the last couple of decades the tables have turned. Prestige tv shows are where we go now for the best storytelling. Novels seems more and more junky. Call it the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades effect. However it happened, I just don’t expect to find good storytelling in novels anymore.
Ebooks aren’t helping (but they could)
As a writer, I find NaNoWriMo inspiring. Yes new writers, you go for it!
As a reader, I find the idea of having to read anything written as part of NaNoWriMo truly horrifying. My time is precious, and your 50,000 word novel written in a month ain’t getting a second of it.
Increasingly, this is my feeling about the entire field of digital publishing. It’s hard to find anything polite to say about the Amazon Kindle self-publishing scene, the writerly equivalent of America’s Got Talent, except without the talent.
If anything killed the magic of the novel, it’s seeing the novel utterly degraded and disrespected by the fevered egos who crank out junk and self publish it on the Kindle. I really wish this didn’t effect how I see the novel, but inevitably, it does.
And mainstream publishing isn’t all that much better. They don’t seem to invest anywhere near enough into developing talented new writers. New writers are published too early, then disappear before they have a chance to develop, which rarely happens before half a dozen lesser novels have been published.
All of which is really a great shame. Because ebooks and digital publishing could so easily unleash a renaissance in novel writing, as a space for experimentation and the development of new talent. But instead we just get endless cash in genre novels, all with their cadre of fake reviews.
Can the novel redeem itself?
2019 has been my worst year as a reader. But I’m hopeful, and excited, that 2020 will be better.
Everything has a cycle. The novel has produced incredible richness of storytelling and works of art over the centuries. I’m sure it will again. Right now we’re at the bottom of the cycle for the novel. It’s swamped by really awful work, packed full of imitative genre fiction. But it’s when an art form is at its worst that you might start to see green shoots of renewal popping up.
If the novel’s going to win me back as a reader, it will have to tear down and rebuild how it does the art of storytelling. As the tv show went through a complete revolution to give us Mad Men or Breaking Bad, I can see signs of the novel entering a similarly revolutionary period.
I suspect it won’t be Kindle self publishers OR authors with traditional publishing deals showing us the way. The internet is so rich with unexplored publishing opportunities, I suspect the novels that grab my attention back as a reader will be quite untraditional in how they are published.
Have you spotted authors re-inventing the storytelling of the novel? Give me a lead, I’d love to read them.
Why do readers love some novels, but not others? Often we do hand wavy gestures at this kind of question, while intoning the magic word “subjective subjective subjective”. Yes, different people like different things. But there are a few qualities which many, many popular stories have in common.
There are six core qualities for a strong commercial novel, which I use as signs that a novel might be pretty damn good! I can’t guarantee that every writer, editor or publishing professional knows these, but I can say that if your aim is to create popular stories that reach a wide readership, hitting these markers certainly won’t hurt.
If you find these useful, take a look at The Rhetoric of Story, a short course exploring the 7 foundations of powerful immersive storytelling. Use code STORY10 for 90% off.
High Concept – the whole concept of a high concept has a bad reputation with some writers. But the truth is, if your book doesn’t have a singular focus that is original and engages the reader’s attention, very few people are likely to expend time and effort on reading it. This is clearly true of commercial fiction. Harry Potter is the story of an orphan boy who goes to magic school. Each volume is a new school year. It’s clear, and it frames everything else that happens in the story. But this is also true of literary fiction. Underworld by Don DeLillo is a multilayered tapestry of human life and politics. But stitching it all together is a baseball, hit on a home run on the first day of the Cold War, and the novel follows all the lives the baseball touches, through to the end of the cold war. A high concept and a half!
Larger Than Life Characters – most people, faced with a terrorist takeover of a jet liner, stay in their seat. Your characters are the people who get up and organise to take the plane back. Playwright David Mamet argues (correctly I believe) that the single most fascinating thing in the world is a strong willed human being. Most people aren’t strong willed. They conform to the world, rather than bending the world to their will. Your characters are absolutely not “most people”. When Luke Skywalker hear’s there’s a princess in trouble, he races off to rescue her. Again, this is as true in a small and intimate story as it is in an epic. Most people hang around in crappy, abusive relationships for years. Your character is the person who walks out the door, and your story is what happens next.
Use course code STORY10 and get The Rhetoric of Story for…guess how much?
Inspiring Locations – one of the reasons we pick up a novel is to experience places and experiences unlike our daily life. There’s a reason why James Bond’s adventures don’t take him to Slough or Clacton-on-Sea. Or why Star Wars isn’t set in a galaxy quite close to home. On the immediate level, locations that have natural beauty, or even alienating strangeness, are the ones readers will gravitate towards. A tropical paradise, an urban metropolis, an icy moon orbiting a black hole, or the rolling prairies of Montana. These are places many people might like to experience. In a more granular analysis, inspiring locations tend to attract interesting people. If you want to write a political thriller, it’s not going to work set in a provincial town in Derbyshire. You simply won’t find many political power brokers in Bakewell. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of place you might find a retired crime solving lady like Miss Marple. There are no absolutes with location, but you do need a good one!
At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival.
Close and Intense Relationships – How many stories can you think of that are about families? War and Peace is an epic that spans a continent. But it’s really about two families. Think very hard about your life. How many people are you really, deeply and truly related to? A dozen? At their most fundamental 99.99% of the stories people love are about relationships between siblings, children and parents, best friends, lovers or lifelong rival. And if they aren’t, they are about relationships that gain equal intensity. In Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the lead detective and the serial killer he is pursuing barely meet. But they share elements of the same pathological personality, that manifest in different ways. A profound and intense relationship.
High Stakes – is your story about saving the world? Lord of the Rings is. Every life in Middle Earth turns on Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Epic stories turn either on the fate of the world, or of a city or community of another kind. The heroes actions avert a disaster, or bring a gift, that improves everyone else’s life. And the stakes must be equally high within the context of a smaller story. Jane Austen isn’t talking trivia when she describes Elizabeth Bennet’s quest for a happy marriage in Pride and Prejudice. Every other moment of her heroines life turns on her marriage, at a time when most women were trapped in loveless unions of economic advantage. What would not have worked is if Jane Austen had based the story around Lizzy’s regular sewing circle evenings, which while fun, had little bearing on her fate. You get the point.
Multiple Points-of-View – we all see the world through our own eyes, but the world is crowded with many points of view. It’s a fundamental aspect of human psychology that our view is fundamentally self centred, and therefore inaccurate. To show us the full picture then, stories need to take us through multiple character’s points of view. Many novels do this literally, such as the hyper-succesful Game of Thrones books by George R R Martin, which dedicate one chapter at a time to each of a half dozen POV characters. Other novels stay in a single POV, through which we encounter numerous other characters who see the events of the story very differently. Either choice is fine. The important issue is that, one way or another, we see the world of the book through more than one limited, subjective set of eyes.
Think any of the above is new? Not a chance! Go read the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu myth, and you’ll see it has all six!
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It’s worth noting that these six points can also make a brilliant structure when pitching a story idea. Don’t try describing a convoluted plot in a few sentences. Set-up the concept, introduce the location, pin down the characters and their relationships, then hit your audience with the stakes. You’ll see film trailers do this over and over again, because it works.
It looks like the slickest open world AAA video game ever made, but have CD Projekt Red found new meaning for old cyberpunk metaphors?
Damien Walter writes on culture, politics and sci-fi for The Guardian, WIRED, BBC, Independent, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine.
The girl in the black vinyl minidress, shit-kicker boots and neon hair braids told me she was a cyberpunk. “Wow,” I answered, shouting over the club’s thumping techno-trance beat, “I love William Gibson.” I may as well have name checked Samuel Taylor Coleridge at a Metallica gig. She stared at me for a while, then shouted back “I’m not into the Bee Gees.”
Pop culture rarely recognises its influences, especially when they are literary. But it’s a testament to just how closely attuned William Gibson’s work was to the zeitgeist, that in 1992, less than a decade after it was published, the cyberpunk ethos he imagined in fiction had migrated into reality.
Neuromancer, which celebrated the 35th anniversary of its publication this year, was one of those books I read over and over again as a teenager, tearing through Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and the handful of short stories he had published through the early 80s in Omni magazine.
Hungry for more, I picked up the Mirrorshades anthology edited by Bruce Sterling. Despite strong stories, such as Solstice by James Patrick Kelly and Petra by Greg Bear, the truth was that none of the other writers who became associated with cyberpunk were doing what Gibson was doing.
Does sci-fi help us escape reality…or decode it?
The science fiction and fantasy novels I’d read before Neuromancer all offered shades of escapism. Going back to the SF genre after reading Gibson, I realised with disappointment that, with few exceptions, escapism was all it offered.
Gibson expressed his own discontent with the the genre of SF in his 2011 interview with the Paris Review, describing his early novels as a “dissident influence” against the genre.
I wasn’t reading William Gibson to escape reality, I was reading him because his writing was the best description I could find of the reality I was growing up in.
It wasn’t predicting the future that made Neuromancer important. It was how the novel decoded, through the metaphors of sci-fi, the complex reality of late 20th century society.
As teenagers in the 90s, feeling the early shockwaves of the high speed technological disruptions now tearing our world apart, Gibson was less a science fiction writer than a prophet. An invaluable guide to the chaos being unleashed by technology.
Gibson found the ideas for Neuromancer while watching kids playing arcade games. Not the games themselves, but the disembodied aspect of the kids starring into screens, inspired the concept of “cyberspace”, where humans live outside their bodies in abstract symbols of data.
Only a few decades later, and you’re likely reading this essay while gazing into a smartphone screen, largely unaware of your body or the world it rests in, while your consciousness moves in the abstract world of pure data we now call, not cyberspace, but the internet.
Scifi is made of metaphors.
William Gibson’s achievement was to create a set of metaphors that seemed the only accurate description for the future as seen from the 1980s.
Cyberspace for the abstract data realms of the internet. Cybernetic limbs and inset “mirrorshades” for the contempt for the flesh that abstraction would create. Sim-stim celebrities for our obsession with mediated experience. And the list goes on.
But much as I continue to love Neuromancer as a work of fiction, it’s scifi metaphors haven’t aged all that well. Reading cyberpunk today is like opening an old draw full of VHS movies and music cassette tapes from the 80s. You still remember what they’re for, but in the age of streaming and downloads, they’re long redundant metaphors for media consumption.
Which makes the shiny slick trailers for CD Project Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 more than a little interesting, especially for those of us who where there for cyberpunk the first time around, and have watched it mutate then stagnate over the decades.
Have CD Projekt Red found new use for old metaphors?
Like every other rebellious subculture from hippies to hip-hop, cyberpunk was quickly reabsorbed in to consumerism. By 1999 the imagery of cyberpunk, much of it originating from Japanese anime such as Akira and Ghost In The Shell, was so familiar that it could be recycled wholesale as a Hollywood blockbuster in The Matrix. In literature, cyberpunk was quickly ground down from a “dissident influence” to a worn-out sub-genre, as hundreds of books co-opted Gibson’s style but entirely missed his meaning.
Cyberpunk became one of a number of paint-by-numbers generic settings that a story might be set in. Epic Fantasy – elves, magic swords, dungeons. Lovecraftian Horror – mist locked American towns, mad occultists, lone investigator. Cyberpunk – grim dystopian city, cybernetic implants, mirrorshades.
As Cyberpunk became a cultural go-to for unoriginal storytellers, Gibson’s career went its own way. But in 2003’s Pattern Recognition he riffed on the cultural forces that had mutated his cyberpunk invention, as the novel’s protagonist, fashion hunter Cayce Pollard, encounters a display stand of Tommy Hilfiger.
“My God, don’t they know? This stuff is simulacra of simulacra. A diluted tincture of Ralph Lauren, who had himself diluted the glory days of Brooks Brothers, who themselves had stepped on the product of Jermyn Street and Saville Row, flavoring their ready-to-wear with liberal lashings of polo knit and regimental stripes. But Tommy surely is the null point, the black hole. There must be some Tommy Hilfiger event horizon, beyond which it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.”
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition.
Tommy Hilfiger is a billion dollar brand, and Cyberpunk 2077 is likely to be the entertainment franchise equivalent. But will it be a simulacra of simulacra? A diluted tincture of the Wachowski brothers, who had themselves stepped on Katsuhiro Otomo. Will Cyberpunk 2077 do anything original with these recycled metaphors, or will it be the event horizon of cyberpunk, beyond which it is impossible to be more devoid of soul?
The wildy popular Witcher games suggest that CD Projekt Red is quite happy to throw together a 100% generic Fantasy (capital F) setting and think not a jot about what any of these aging metaphors mean. And the shiny shiny trailers seem to suggest that they’ve done much the same with Cyberpunk 2077.
Can cyberpunk mean something real for gamers in 2020?
But. It’s possible there’s something much more interesting in the game. It’s totally possible to reinvent cyberpunk anew, even if the source material is old.
Being a cyberpunk obsessed teenager in the 90s was like living half your life in a digital mind-control experiment, as new digital media and the nascent internet claimed more and more of our attention.
Here in 2019, where screens occupy every corner of our world, I’m guessing being a teenager is like living 99.9% of your life in a digital mind control that is no longer experimental.
It was this pervasive cultural coercion that cyberpunk kicked against, whether it was through books like Neuromancer, or kids getting dressed up like goths to go to their local nightclub.
Can old cyberpunk symbols be made to mean something new for the millions, maybe even billions of gamers, who will play CD Projekt Red’s long awaited masterpiece?
It would be great if it did. Never have a generation needed subversive art to kick against the mental conditioning pumped through them by online digital media.
But something tells me CD Projekt Red aren’t in the subversion business. At least not when it comes to their bottom line.
We love the idea of productivity, but most productivity systems are killing our creativity
Here’s a familiar event many artists will have encountered. You hit some creative milestone. Your new book is finished maybe, and a well-meaning friend responds, “I wish I had time to write / paint / sing / INSERT CREATIVE DREAM.”
Yes, there’s something more than a little passive aggressive in the statement. It seems to assume a) you somehow have access to time in a way other humans do not and b) you didn’t fight tooth and nail for that time.
The truth is that being productive can come at the cost of being creative.
To succeed at adult life, we learn to manage our time. For most of us that means “productivity” — the development of skills and systems that focus the hour glass sands of time on the most productive activities.
So it’s perhaps logical that we often equate productivity with creativity. The two most popular terms in the realm of “self help” and personal development are often used interchangeably. But the truth is that being productive can come at the cost of being creative.
Productivity is not a waste of time.
The author William Gibson once said that the difference between him and most wannabe writers is that he had spent as much time writing as most people spend watching tv.
If you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.
It’s something of a tragedy that while we all have creative dreams, the modern world has a tendency to wrap our attention up in time wasting activities. Tv, video games, screaming about politics on Twitter. We can easily waste a whole life by wasting time.
The idea of productivity is a useful step-up from wasting time. Set goals, make a list of tasks, and Get Things Done. Maybe read The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Succeeders. Start networking, win friends, become an influencer of people.
Productivity systems of all kinds are a really great way to do essential things, from managing projects to running businesses. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you better be productive.
But if you’ve ever tried to transition from being productive, to being creative, you find that the habits of productivity start to get in the way.
Business is about filling your time, art is about emptying your time.
For most of my 20s I was The World’s Busiest Man. I ran the shit out of projects, fundraised, networked, did meetings, taught classes, hit an endless schedule of project milestones and writing deadlines. My todo lists had their own todo lists.
To make a much longer story short, I lost the creative part of writing. I was getting paid $200 an hour for words, but not my words. If I wanted to tell my own stories, things were going to have to change.
“You clear a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t clear the space for you.”
100% true story. I had a copy of the I-Ching on my bookshelves, that I had never read. One day I sat down, read the instructions, and cast the coins for the very first time, asking that ancient old book a simple question, “how do I get back to being creative?” Honestly, I’m not bullshitting you now, I cast hexagram 1, The Creative.
(Ever since this, I do my own I-Ching and Tarot readings, only at important times. I can and will write a whole essay on why they are so useful.)
This, in a nutshell, is what the I-Ching says about creativity. You must, if you want to create, forcefully evict from your life all non-creative things. And it MUST be in this order. You empty a big space, and creativity comes into it. It doesn’t empty the space for you.
For me, that meant I literally needed to empty out my life. Jobs were quit. Relationships vaporised. Friendships unfriended. I was pretty brutal about the whole thing, not least with myself. But that’s how it is when you’re driven to act.
But the space creativity demands isn’t really physical. You can create in the midst of clutter and busyness. You can create with seven kids and two jobs. When you CAN’T create is when you are fearful. The space and freedom you need to create is simply the freedom from fear.
The difference between productivity and creativity is simply this: fear.
If this is all sounding annoyingly quasi-spiritual to you (there’s a reason that God and creativity are linked, but that’s a whole other essay) then here is the science bit…
Human creativity then – the state of consciousness we need to write, paint, sing, dance and CREATE – is quite dependent on NOT BEING TERRIFIED.
…you and I and every other human alive are evolved from ape like creatures that, for MILLIONS of years, benefited from experiencing very high levels of fear. Our brains and nervous system are wired for Random Leopard Attacks. If we weren’t wired to live in semi-permanent fear states, we wouldn’t have survived.
But we no longer live in brutal environments where death waits at every turn. Assuming you’re reading this on Medium, you probably live in the hipster district of a modern city, with a high chance of a sub-standard, over priced latte and ABSOLUTELY ZERO CHANCE OF BEING EATEN BY LEOPARDS.
Yet the fear persists.
The higher your state of fear, the more your body’s systems drive you back to an animal state. If you WERE being chased by a leopard, you would become something like an ape again. Human creativity then – the state of consciousness we need to write, paint, sing, dance and CREATE – is quite dependent on NOT BEING TERRIFIED.
Productivity is a high-functioning response to fear.
Productivity is better than low-functioning reaponses to fear – like wasting time on video games, or shooting up heroin. These numb you out, so fear goes unfelt, but when they wear off, the fear is still there. That can send you deep into addictive cycles of permanent numbing.
But obsessive productivity is feeding the fear cycle in a different way. Most productivity systems are placatory. The fear of forgetting an important task is placated by a todo list. The fear of failing at a big project is placated with that $70 project planning app.
It’s not that these tools aren’t useful. It’s that their usefulness is secondary to their value as a fear management technique.
Naming no names, but the makers, and especially the marketers, of productivity systems know all about your fear. To sell you anything, marketers like me map your “pain points”, the things you’re scared of that we can use to pressure or persuade you into a purchase.
“Do you know that 1 in 7 American’s will lose their a job after forgeting an important call, meeting or task? Don’t rely on a second rate todo list app, buy INSERT NEW TODO LIST APP.”
Productivity is a fear centric marketing concept. Yes, it’s high functioning. Yes, you might ride that fear cycle into building a business, or even a fortune (you might also ride it to a breakdown or heart attack). But where a high functioning fear response will never take you is to anywhere creative.
When fear centric behavior becomes dysfunctional.
The Noble prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies two systems which humans use to make decisions. System 1 is our intuitive or imaginative mind. System 2 is our logical thinking mind. I teach the need to balance both systems to my creative writing students.
System 2 wants to not be late for meetings. System 1 wants to NOT GO TO MEETINGS AT ALL. System 2 sees a day packed with meetings as productive. System 1 sees a day entirely empty of meetings as creative.
Fear, even in low levels, drives us towards system 2. In response to minor fears, like missing a meeting, disappointing a coworker, or losing a business deal, we’re natural driven to seek logical solutions that appeal to our thinking mind. Exactly the kind of solutions that productivity focusses on.
But those logical solutions are directly interfering with better decisions, driven by the intuitive processes of system 1. Here’s a practical example. System 2 wants to not be late for meetings. System 1 wants to NOT GO TO MEETINGS AT ALL. System 2 sees a day packed with meetings as productive. System 1 sees a day entirely empty of meetings as creative.
I very rarely agree to meetings of any kind, real or online. Because I’ve learned that, for me at least, the intuitive needs of system 1 are far more important than the logical needs of system 2.
Creating is living with your fear, and living in your fear.
If you’re not sold on my pitch yet, let me rephrase the same insight from a different angle.
The one thing I can say with absolute certainty about creativity is this – creating is always a journey into the unknown. No two books, businesses, symphonies or technologies are ever created the same way. Computers are things of rules and systems, but creating the computer was a terrifying walk into blind night for Alan Turing. Which is why we respect him, and other great creators, so highly.
These great accomplishments that we term “creative”, and the huge contribution they make to humanity, lie on the other side of uncharted oceans of fear. Your chimpanzee-like physiology was simply not evolved to make that journey into fear. That capacity comes from some higher place (sometimes, often, called god…sorry again for those who hate the idea).
Three years ago, sitting out fears of my own in the high Himalayan mountains around Dharamshala, I wrote a month long blog series on overcoming creative fear. There’s no answer to the question “how do I escape fear?” but there are answers to the complex ways of being WITH and IN fear.
We’re a planet of some eight billion semi-carnivorous apes, staring into the dark voids of the unknown, terrified. So it’s no surprise that most of what we do, however productive, is driven by fear. Our rare creative leaps come when we can stop being driven by fear, and can tunnel through, to whatever lies on the other side.
A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.
I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!
“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”
Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.
Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!
The gig economy, and freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings on Upwork. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities.
The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.
The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.
“Content writers” churn out dozens of blog posts a day, usually to promote websites via Google search, and often earn little more than minimum wage for their efforts. But the days when Google algorithms could be gamed by high volumes of low quality content are long gone. Businesses are learning quickly that the most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.
I call the second group Full Stack writers. These writers have a wide and deep skillset that allows them to deliver, not generic “content”, but high quality writing that people actually want to read. Writing with the potential to go viral in the short term, and to create a highly engaging online identity in the longterm.
Full Stack writers command hourly rates of $70 to $100 as a baseline, and are in increasingly high demand as the competition for attention online intensifies.
What skills define a Full Stack writer?
When I’m asked how I built a successful freelance writing career, the answer is rarely what people expect. I can’t suggest any special marketing tricks. I don’t know any underhand ways to hack the system, and I have used no gimmick promotions. I won’t tell you to give away your work for “exposure” or to build a portfolio. In the immortal words of Samuel Johnson:
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
Anyone working in startups and software development will be familiar with the idea of the “full stack developer”, a coder with a “stack” of skills that allow them to deliver complex projects single handed. The full stack developer is agile, and essential for small and medium sized enterprises innovating at high speed.
Full stack writers fulfil a very similar role, as a jack-of-all-trades; part journalist, part marketer, with the skills of a copywriter, a screenwriter, and a little dash of the poet, all rolled into one.
It’s my experience that success as a freelance writer rests on a “stack” of three foundational skills. These skills aren’t new, they have been known for thousands of years. But today they seem to have been almost forgotten. They’re rarely taught at schools or colleges, and many struggling professional writers don’t know them at all.
Mastering this trinity unlocks the path to a fourth skill that is, in my experience, the most valuable skill you as a writer can master.
Words and sentences. Whatever you are writing, from an advertising slogan to an epic fantasy novel, it’s made from these two building blocks. The better you know how to use them, the more effective your writing will be.
“The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills.”
It might sound blockheaded to suggest that writers learn to spell! But sadly, many writers offering professional services don’t have a clear grasp of grammar. Instead they rely on their “instinctual” understanding of how language works.
If you’re trying to complete complex writing tasks, on deadline and to a budget IE the work that a professional writer does, day in and day out, instincts alone won’t cut it. You need to consciously understand the rules of grammar.
Consider a typical entry level writing task. You’re asked to rewrite a 500 word blog post to improve its readability. And by the way, the client needs it back in 30 minutes. If you know your grammar you can rewrite sentences so that the subject and predicate are clearly linked, reorder run-on phrases into clear cumulative sentences, eliminate unneeded adjectives, and a host of other solutions. You’ll be enjoying your coffee break while the “instinctual” writer is still struggling their way through the first paragraph.
The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills. Train yourself in word selection and sentence structure with resources like Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, or the most famous short guide to grammar, The Elements of Style.
Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking. While it’s rarely in the job description, the skill that will keep you most in demand with clients is the clear expression of thoughts, in a logical progression, as words on a page. Because, believe it or not, most people find this extremely difficult.
Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking.
A major client in 2014 paid me almost 20% of my income in that year to produce a 3000 word document about their business. The unspoken job was working with the company founder and CEO to clearly define their business vision. I put many hours into logically organising all the concepts being expressed…and less than a day actually writing the finished document.
The simplest way to think about logic is as “information flow”. For a reader to understand any piece of writing, it has to introduce a clear idea, then develop the idea systematically towards a conclusion. If ideas come in an illogical or contradictory order, the reader will quickly become confused, then stop reading.
For instance, if this short essay had begun with a detailed description of logic, but only explained halfway through that logic was a useful skill for writers, this would be a failure of information flow.
Studying logic will allow you to identify and avoid common logical fallacies, produce writing that is consistent IE avoids internal contradictions, and to turn out complete arguments that convince the reader. To see logic used brilliantly, look at the work of science writers like Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
Among my long term clients is a senior executive for a large international corporation. A major part of this client’s work is public speaking, either within the company or at events and conferences.
The client knows what they want to say, but wants to find the best ways to say it. The skills I use to help this client go beyond grammar and logic. As a speechwriter, the main skill I employ is rhetoric.
Put simply, rhetoric is the skill of using words to persuade. Something that humans have been doing for almost as long as we have been speaking.
In the city states of ancient Athens and Rome, over two thousand years ago, giving speeches was an essential part of public life for high born nobles. Speeches were so powerful they could topple kings and even start wars, as Shakespeare well knew:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
Mark Anthony’s speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar is, as written by Shakespeare, a litany of rhetorical devices. It weaves together ethos, pathos and logos – the three pillars of rhetoric – so adeptly that, while claiming to be against Caesar, Mark Anthony actually incites a riot in his memory. Such is the power of rhetoric!
In the modern era we experience profoundly powerful rhetoric in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and twisted but no less powerful rhetoric in the public pronouncements of Donald Trump. But the uses of rhetoric today go far beyond speech making.
Newspaper articles, television advertisements and viral tweets all employ the same techniques of rhetoric. And the Full Stack writer with a commend of rhetoric can turn their hand to all of these and much more.
The fourth skill the Full Stack writer must master.
Together, grammar, logic and rhetoric formed the “trivium” of the classical liberal arts, as they were taught throughout the Western world for thousands of years.
Name any great writer before the twentieth century – Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen – they would certainly have been taught the trivium.
But today these foundational skills are rarely taught, replaced by more “technical” education…which is why so many people struggle to express themselves in writing.
With the skills of grammar, logic and rhetoric at your command, you can complete almost any freelance writing task. Ad copy, blog posts, feature articles, news reporting, brand identities, white papers, landing pages. There is really no end to the number of highly paid writing tasks that mastering the trivium will open up to you. For many writers, this is enough.
In a classical liberal arts education, the trivium were the gateway to even higher level skills – music, arithmetic, and astronomy among them.
Today the trivium unlocks many more advanced skills. Advanced research, technical writing and more all grow from knowing the trivium. And a fourth skill that, in my experience, is the most valuable skill a freelance writer can offer.
Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.
When I began to build courses for writers, I made storytelling my first focus. After years of professional writing, and a three year stint as course director in creative writing at the University of Leicester, I knew that story is the most powerful single skillset any writer can develop.
Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.
How many hours a day do you spend reading novels? Watching HBO box sets? Lost in an epic MARVEL superhero movie? How much time do you spend lost in stories?
Story does something quite amazing. For the time we’re immersed in a story, it can seem almost real to us. We are the protagonist of the story, and we experience the events of the story as they unfold. As research into psychology and neuroscience have shown, our brain thinks in stories.
Story isn’t a mystery. Every story that is loved and that has lasted through time relies on 7 basic elements to create its immersive effect. Understanding this “rhetoric of story” can help you tell stories about any subject, at any length, in any medium.
For the Full Stack writer, storytelling is the skill that clients are hungriest for. My most loyal clients come back time and again because I help them tell great stories; about their business, about their products and brands, about their charitable causes, about their own lives.
Storytelling is, in my experience, the most powerful and valuable skillset today’s Full Stack writer can develop.
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Sci-fi sells us fantasies. Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is all about the danger of fantasy. Why should they be pigeon holed together?
Damien writes on scifi, culture and politics for The Guardian, Independent, Wired, BBC and Aeon magazine, and also right here. Follow on Twitter @damiengwalter
Women understand, I think much better than men, how horrifying it is to be the object of another person’s fantasy. Glen Close going stalker crazy on Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction is so alien and horrifying to men that you can make a box office smash from it. Women experience that behaviour from men daily.
“The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story all about the skincrawling horror of being held captive as an object of fantasy. Its literary lineage is closer to The Collector by John Fowles than anything by Arthur C Clarke. Margaret Atwood has generally resisted all labels for it, including the most commonly applied, that it is a feminist novel, preferring to call it simply a human story. And despite Atwood’s novel being nominated for numerous scifi awards, she has never accepted that label either.
Science fiction fans have proved less than happy with that refusal to be pigeon holed. As The Handmaid’s Tale has grown in fame, SF fandom has frequently asked why the book isn’t sold or marketed in the genre. It’s not an unreasonable question, after all it shares some similarities with science fiction. It’s set in the near future, in what you might think of as a branching alternate timeline from our own history.
Imagine an alternate timeline where The Handmaid’s Tale was published as science fiction. Possibly in the kind of pulp cover that many novels featuring women enslaved to strange obsessive Nazis often featured, with a subtitile like “I was a captive of fundamentalist perverts!”, and shipped out to bookshops, as one of many sci-fi novels released in 1985.
The sci-fi edition of The Handmaid’s Tale would have found itself in strange, and deeply inappropriate company. Among the actual scifi bestsellers of 1985 was Mercenaries of Gor, the 21st novel in John Norman’s Gor saga. For the unaware, the Gor novels are about a fantasy world where men are muscular barbarian warriors and women, many abducted from Earth, are their sex slaves. By the standards of the modern internet the Gor novels aren’t terribly shocking, but they are full on BDSM sex fantasies.
To give John Norman some minimal credit, he wove such a potent sexual fantasy in the Gor novels that they gave rise to the Gorean subculture, and remain quite widely read today. Is there anything wrong with the Gor novels? Only if you think there’s anything wrong with Laurel K Hamilton’s kinky wereleopard sex novels, with erotic fiction in general, or with pornography as a whole. Few people today believe that repressing our sexual fantasies leads anywhere good. We live in a liberal society that believes it’s much healthier to recognise, express and even celebrate our sexual fantasies.
“Had The Handmaid’s Tale been published as science fiction, it would not today be playing such a pivotal role as a symbol of resistance against Trump and the far right.”
But there is a serious problem if we can’t distinguish between indulging fantasy, and critically discussing the dangers of fantasy. Because without that critical discussion, we face the serious risk of fantasy being allowed to slip into reality. The men who founded Gilead probably read and enjoyed John Norman’s Gor novels. And enjoyed their fantasy so much, they used murder and violence to enforce it as America’s new reality.
Look at ISIS today, the Nazis in the 1930s, or any brutal patriarchal society in history. These are men driven to make their personal fantasies of power, dominance and control the reality that others must live under. The newly empowered Trumpist far right is terrifying because it shares so many features with those patriarchal regimes, not least its worrying preference for fantasy over reality and fact.
I fear that, had The Handmaid’s Tale been published as science fiction, it would not today be playing such a pivotal role as a symbol of resistance against Trump and the far right. Because sci-fi floods the world with fantasy. Sometimes high quality entertaining fantasy like those great MARVEL movies. Sometimes rather cheap and exploitative fantasy like John Norman’s Gor novels. But if we’re going to understand, and change for the better, our reality, we need to clearly recognise the work of writers, artists and other creators, who are doing more than selling us escapist fantasies.
“I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at 9am every morning.”
We live in a time when creativity is sold as a cure-all alongside diverse other forms of self help. There are creativity coaches, handbooks of creative recovery, and creativity retreats. Being creative has superstars.
But there’s something they aren’t telling you.
Think about this from the perspective of the creativity guru. They have to appeal to a mass market. If they’re going to make superstar status, a million people have to buy their book.
So what they aren’t going to say, won’t ever reveal, and indeed CAN’T come clean about is this.
You don’t know what you’re doing.
The basic reason why 99% of novels never get written, songs don’t get recorded, films are never made and businesses go unfounded, isn’t a mystery.
It’s not a psychological block.
It’s not a childhood trauma.
It’s a plain old lack of knowledge, skills, technique and learning about the activity at hand. The person doing the creating, does not know what they are doing.
This is a problem the creativity guru cannot solve. Because to do so, they would have to, themselves, know what they are doing. And if they knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be a creativity guru.
The writer for who inspiration strikes at 9am every morning knows what they are doing. Which is the universal answer to all vague creative problems like writer’s block.
Know what you are doing.
(The opening quote is of contested authorship, which either means it’s untrue, or so true no one author alone could have said it.)