“True voice” blogging

So, I recently found a great website. I think that’s a rare event. More than half my time online is spent sifting irrelevant information and wincing at bad copy. I don’t say that to set myself up as a discerning arbiter of good taste – I do as much wincing when reading back over this blog as anywhere else.

HighExistence is on a mission to:

  • Provide a medium for freethinking individuals to connect & discuss
  • Compel you to follow your bliss & make a life, not a career
  • Explore all aspects of the human condition
  • Question anything & everything that is considered ‘normal’
  • Promote the general spread of happiness and love

That sounds like an invitation for every crackpot theorist to dive in and fill our screens with the kind of misspelled and vacuous user-generated content that we spend our lives clicking away from. But, like Reddit, HE has an upvoting system for posted items, and it works. Plus, it looks like a bit of vetting goes on before you become a contributor (known as a HEthen).

The platform seems to have become a good place for reading about folks who are taking an experimental approach to life, with themselves as the lab-rats. That’s the kind of stuff I can’t stay away from because, just like everyone else adventuring on the seas of post post-modernity, I’m always obsessing over the grand question of ‘how to live’.

Anyway, there was an article there titled “The Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fu@!<“. I thought, “I’m going to read this but I’ll not be sharing it with my network because it has swears in it.” In one sense the article is a shameless tid-bit of click-bait, but I found, for once, I didn’t click away with a sense of “there’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back”.

It wasn’t the content (generic self-help chat you’ve probably heard before) that kept me reading , it was the style.

I’ve seen stuff a bit like it before. You might describe it as “true voice”, a little bit “stream of consciousness”. On the surface that’s exactly the type of rubbish I want to sift out. I get hired to straighten out people’s words, and I sometimes feel I’m in a lonely battle to get the world to, you know … use sentences.

However, I have to admit to noticing that the stuff that gets upvoted and read is seldom written in proper sentences and often commits grammar crimes.
Lomogram_2013-12-17_11-19-14-PM
I’ve seen it in countless non-fiction bestsellers on Kindle too. It’s a conversational, ‘true voice’ chat style that could easily have been written in an afternoon by somebody using voice recognition software as they drove in their car, or lounged in the bath.

There are still plenty of inane anecdotes and rambling passages of thought out there. I mean, when will cookery bloggers learn that I’m there for the recipe and I’m skipping the six paragraphs where you gush about when and where you first tasted this dish and how delicious it was, and where your quest for the perfect ingredients took you next?

I’m not talking about that. But there really is a place for the uber-conversational style, when a writer really has something to say. In fact, it’s more engaging.

I’ve been on a bit of a journey in this blog’s five-year lifespan. The way I read and write now has changed, but I still cling to a more ‘literary’ feel on here.

I’ve blogged far less in the last couple of years. I think this is because:

  • having a sense of the blog as a ‘shop window’ has limited what I dare to put in it
  • writing it has started to feel too much like work
  • I’ve been very busy
  • it feels like I’m in a rut with my writing style here and I’m bored with my own voice
  • I’m overwhelmed with ideas for posts because I have too many interests
  • some of my energy is going into writing a book that is becoming a receptacle for a lot of what I’d probably be blogging about

So (and it’s okay to start a sentence with ‘so’) I’m hoping to shift things a bit and make posting more fun for me. Maybe this is a place where I can be a bit freer from the restraints of ‘professional’ writing.

Taking a leaf out of the ‘true-voice blogger’ book feels worth a try.

It’s time to break a few personal rules like this post does. Not only have I abandoned proper sentences but I’ve also posted one of those cringing self-conscious blog posts that ends up talking about the blog and what I’m going to write, instead of actually writing it.

Time to sign off for now.

Going to a writer’s group in Second Life

About a month ago, I logged back into Second Life for the first time since 2007, when I’d signed up an account to see what all the hype was about. Back then, I’d spent a couple of hours staggering around and crashing into things with a ridiculously proportioned (and shirtless) avatar. As I recall, in those hours I did discover the avatar could walk under water and fly, and I did end up in a remote shrine that someone had built to a deceased loved one … then I checked out.

Moments after sunset from the Church of the Dawn Treader

Enjoying a virtual sunset from the Church of the Dawn Treader

Second Life is a virtual world, mediated by a 3D rendering machine like that used for immmersive console games. Everything in it is built by users, so it represents a vast, interactive and habitable canvas of human imagination. Virtual items (from houses to body shapes, furniture, clothing and hair and scripts to make your avatar move in a certain way) can be bought with virtual currency (Linden) that has real-world equivalence.

I’ve very little experience of 3D computer games, finding them quite dull. Every time I’ve been persuaded to pick up a controller and race around a virtual racetrack or shoot things, I’ve wanted to drive to the mountains in the distance to get a closer look. As I found, you can’t do this in most games. However, you can in second life.

The learning curve for someone who is not familiar with virtual reality (VR) environments is very steep and if you’re a noob, it’s obvious. The two big time sinks at the outset are adapting and outfitting your avatar, so it doesn’t look generic, and learning to control the avatar and virtual camera seamlessly, so you can go where you want to and see what you want to. Then there are matters of etiquette to learn before you can interact socially with confidence – just like the real world. I’ve easily racked up over 30hrs ‘in-world’ to get to a point where I’m reasonably comfortable.

Second life (SL) has been the butt of fairly disparaging press. There’s still a perception that it’s all about cybersex and a place for pathetic people who don’t have a real life. The relative anonymity that avatars give ‘players’ is also seen as inviting dangerous and unhealthy behaviour. This is all unfair. All the ‘Adult’ activity is banished to specific parts of the SL world that can’t be accessed by mistake. Sims (sections of virtual estate) have their own rules down to how much ‘flesh’ your avatar can show and even whether it can carry weapons in that area. This leaves the newcomer free to explore and discover all that’s good.

Exploring the beautiful surreality of HuMaNoid on the LEA6 sim

Exploring the beautiful surreality of HuMaNoid on the LEA6 sim

There’s spectacular virtual artwork on display in galleries and fully interactive installations, with whole sims given over to showcasing the fruits of SL designers and builders’ imaginations. There are educational opportunities, music venues, support groups, role-play environments, museums and accurate virtual rebuilds of architecture from antiquity to the present to explore. In my first week back on the grid I went (in avatar) to a summer solstice ceremony (put on by a community of fairies), attended a couple of ‘live’ concerts and hung out at a jazz club. I attended a couple of church services, a meditation group and a storytelling circle (also attended by some imps and fairies). I visited some art galleries and chatted with the artists about their work. I even bit down and went to a writer’s group, which has since become a fairly regular fixture in my weekly calendar.

Here’s an account of how that was for me and my avatar (who is called Klaus, by the way).

The Writer’s Group

A little blue box pops up in the corner telling me that a poetry group is about to start and giving me a teleport link to go there. I check the notecard I picked up in the ‘Written Word’ sim earlier and see that this looks like the kind of thing that I might be able to try – they are going to pick a word and write a poem using it as a starter. I can scribe under pressure, I’ll probably manage.

Teleporting is a little scary, just as it would be in real life.

Once you’ve clicked, you can’t change your mind while it’s happening – and it’s terribly easy to click on a teleport … It doesn’t give you much time to have second thoughts before it dumps you into the destination sim. If it’s busy, you can easily land on one or more avatars in what quite genuinely turns out to be a heap of tangled limbs. You never know what’s waiting for you at the other end – I’ve learned to hover near CTRL+SHIFT+H as Klaus ‘rezzes’ into a new sim, just in case I want to jump out and go home quickly.

Once I’ve landed, I quickly try to move away from the landing area, find a bit of space and get my bearings while the graphics render, which can sometimes take several seconds.

I see Klaus come out of the teleport, a grey shape, falling into a suspended assortment of shattered-glass shards that quickly arrange themselves to resemble modern furniture. There are a few chairs around a table on which there appears to be a tall hourglass shape. People are there already. The other avatars are taking a while to render, so there are wigs of hair and odd textures floating in their places.

I’ve got my ‘avatar impostors’ setting on 3. This helps to speed up the rendering by only fully showing 3 other avatars – the remainder will be shown in outline only, like grey paper statues.

I do my ‘find space after teleporting’ manouvre and get myself wedged behind something that might be a pot plant and something else that turns out to be a wall.

“Hello Klaus” pops up in local chat.
“Welcome Hostarius” pings another greeting.

I realise I must have both my ‘display name’ and my ‘user name’ floating above my avatar’s head so – not for the first time – there’s confusion about how to address me. You either have to switch one of them off, using one of about a gazillion sliders and check boxes embedded in the preferences menu, or quickly let people know what you prefer to be called. I’ve since dropped ‘Hostarius’, not least because he acted like a total noob at a gathering of fairies on day 2.

While I don’t want to be unfriendly, I’m acutely embarassed by my faux pas with the pot plant, and I want to do the whole entry thing again with more dignity.

“Come and join us, we’re going to write a poem,” the host chats.”You’ll need ‘voice chat’ on.”

“I’d love to join you, thank you.” I chat back, discovering that Klaus has managed to find some space again and get out of the corner, but he’s also turned his back on the group and walked away.

I mange to swivel him round, and I see an empty seat at the far end of the table. That’s a relief! The chair could save Klaus from the indignity of making jerky, drunken nooby-avatar moves across the room: if I can just plant a right-click on that chair, it might let me sit on it from a distance.

Success! A right click brings up a wheel menu with the inviting option I’ve come to love: “Sit Here”.

Klaus teleports to the chair. Most of the furniture in SL has built-in scripts that arrange your avatar in a relaxed pose when you sit on it, without you needing to think about it.

Klaus relaxing at home

Klaus relaxing at home thanks to scripted furniture

Next, I do two things quickly. I snap the camera to front view so that it looks down on Klaus from the front. Mainly I want to make sure he looks okay. The furniture has done its job and seen to everything; he’s settled, even looks like he’s a regular. Directly to his left sits the looming figure of a fox in a battered top hat. Again I’m struck by how much ‘larger than life’ the avatars are in SL. Everyone’s huge. I’ve been at pains to keep Klaus under 6ft, so as not to stray too far over my real life (RL) height, but he might as well be a pixie. It doesn’t matter what he sits on, his feet don’t touch the floor. I’ve since found out that there are communities of ‘normal sized’ avatars on the grid. I guess they exchange notes about how difficult it is to find shoes and furniture that fits.

I may write more about pixies and shoe sizes later. In the meantime, I’m frantically opening up a help page to find out how to turn on and use ‘voice chat’ and clicking through menus in the hope that I’ll get lucky and turn it on by chance.

I manage to activate voice and give it all the permissions it needs to use up even more of my cranky CPU, then turn my attention back to text chat.

Things have moved on. The conversation is about someone known to the rest of the group who has come and gone again in the previous minute, possibly because someone else tried to sit on her. I’m pretty sure it’s not me, but I do chat a quick apology in case I’m sitting in someone else’s chair, and the group proceeds.

Most of the time, the host is doing the talking. She has a soothing, affirmative voice: materteral, unhurried and unharried, but slightly wry. I’m going to realise how very important people’s voices are and the way they use them in this alternative reality. She’s talking to another group member; they are choosing a word by picking a random page in a book, followed by a random verse, line and finally a word in the line.

The host explains for the benefit of ‘Klaus’ that once they have a word they are going to start a timer for 20 minutes and everyone is going to write.

I’m not quite following the process, I’m too busy reading the wiki on how to write a new notecard because I’m assuming we’ll have to share our work at the end of the session by pinging a notecard to the group or something. Notecards are the in-world method for sharing chunks of text.

We have a word …

It’s ‘doom’ – oh dear. We now have 20 minutes to produce the goods. I step away from the screen and go to kitchen to make a coffee and think about ‘doom’.

When I get back, Klaus’ head is drooping onto his chest in the classic ‘away’ pose that avatars assume if their puppeteers become inactive in the window.

I type something in Evernote, planning to paste it into a notecard if I need to. This is a new one on me. I always compose poetry longhand: I’ve never typed a draft directly. There are 7 minutes left on the clock … tap, tap, tick, tock:

DOOM

A point

Of no return

Thick with regret

Turning of locks and
Sliding of bolts and
Everything behind but
The last card on
A dark table with
No pips and
Coming up short

Played out
At the mercy of
No mercy and
A maelstrom of
‘If only’
If only
If only

Time’s up!

It turns out we’ll be going round the circle, reading out our work. The host is careful to mention that each can read if they have something, including ‘Klaus’ if he’d like to. This is what voice is for.

I’ve been on conference calls many a time, and it’s important to take turns when speaking and let the chair person control things. You have to be smarter in SL because there’s text chat ticking along in the background all the time. The official stuff’s happening on voice, in an orderly fashion, each person manually toggling their mics on and off when it’s their turn to speak. An unofficial commentary continues in text chat. This is another thing that takes getting used to, seamlessly switching between typed/read and spoken/heard communication.

We go round the circle. I’m very interested to hear what other people have managed to write – and what their voices sound like.

If I’m honest, this is the bit that has kept me away from real-life (RL) writing groups. I’m not good at being enthusiastic and encouraging if I don’t genuinely like what someone has written and shared. It turns out that’s not a problem with this group; the writing is good. In fact, it’s excellent considering people have only had 20 minutes to draft. Klaus joins in with the applause and commenting with relief, and I feel encouraged by the response to my thin offering.

Then it’s time to hear the original poem from which the hand of fate drew the word ‘doom’ at the beginning of the session. It’s a familiar one to me, “The Deer’s Cry” (aka “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”):

… I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgement of Doom …

Well that’s just about it. Ensues the very same awkwardness of saying goodbye and leaving at the end of a meeting in real life when some people seem to be hanging around to chat a bit more. I feel like I’ve done ok, and Klaus will definitely come back here. I chat-type a cheery farewell, hit CTRL+SHIFT+H, and Klaus jumps into the sky, heading home at the speed of pixels.

Where next?

Well, I’d like to go to the ‘Dr Suess Party’ at the leopard lounge … but I’m out of Linden and can’t afford green eggs and ham, let alone a Lorax avatar for the evening!

Modern insomnia

Actually this didn’t happen last night. It could have happened very easily, but then I wouldn’t have been up early and drawing it — so that I could post it on Pinterest. Oh, the circularity!

Modern insomnia

Thinking and Creating at Ground Level: learning from a 9 year old

Watch this:

It’s no surprise, this clip has gone viral on YouTube. I don’t think we should be surprised to hear evidence that a 9 year old thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the universe. I’m prepared to take it at face value and, even if he’s repeating verbatim material from overheard adult conversations. That’s not the point I want to bring out in this post.

What is the important difference between this and a TED talk?

At a TED talk, the speaker doesn’t roll around on the floor scratch the ground, swing a baseball bat, shred twigs and stare at the sky. At some point in our development, an adult tells us,

Stop fidgeting!

Stand still!

Sit up straight!

Look at me when I’m talking to you!

Right there I think we start to lose something.

Last Autumn, I spent a total of about thirty man-hours at floor level with primary school kids. No furniture, just crayons and paper and our imaginations. I was co-authoring a storybook with them. Although I used muscles I’d forgotten I had, and I ached every night, I rediscovered the joy of creating at ground level and fidgeting incessantly, and I began to experience an awakening of creativity and a shift in perspective that I suspect had something to do with going back to a 9 year old’s way of working.

I have begun to incorporate ‘floor time’ into my creative practice. The floor is bigger than a desk and offers so much more potential for spatial interaction with ideas.

When I was about 11, I was so impressed with the idea of the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’ that I sellotaped together a long line of A4 sheets and drew the story of the stuff I was into at the time: frisbee battles, water bombs, balloon helicopters, forts with heavily defended ramparts, and various inventions such as my toothpaste-powered boat and the perpetual motion machine I was certain would make me famous. I never finished the ‘tapestry’, I just kept adding to it until it went a few times around the room.

I have never been able to dismiss my curiosity about how life might be without furniture, ever since I heard that living on the floor (eating, sleeping, learning) was the norm at Gandhi’s ashrams. In fact, for most people outside of the West, it is still a way of life.

The positive implications of floor living and fidgeting, for posture, bone and muscle, economics and energetics, are probably fruit for a few more posts. But, for now, how might some floor time benefit your creative practice?

Creativity and the Edge Effect or “Yo-Yo Ma and Monkeys”

Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.

However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:

“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey (Via Wikipedia)

This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.

Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.

Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.

Back to the Kennedy centre …

Ma brings on a series of artistes to illustrate the edge effect. What does it look like, for instance, when Lil’ Buck performs his own street-forged dance moves to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens?

He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.

“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”

That fascinates me!

I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.

I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?

Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).

Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?

  • Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
  • Go on an artist date (indulge in thrill-seeking).
  • Study a parallel discipline (photographers, pick up a paint brush).
  • Throw away the dummy (burn those notebooks, there are plenty of fresh ideas where those ones came from).
  • Move the furniture around (sit next to someone different at the next meeting).
  • Get into your collaboration zone (thanks to one of my favourite collaborators, noahsapprentice, for this suggestion)

Whatever it takes …

How might you create your own edge effect?

I’m just kidding about the mime, by the way.

Linguistic Peeves: “A Big Thank You”

A female African Bush Elephant raises her trun...

I like well modulated grammar. I appreciate the clarity and accuracy that comes from applying the rules. I also enjoy seeing those rules creatively and consciously broken. Language lives; usage comes and goes and I embrace innovation. But (and, yes, these days it is fine to start a sentence with “but”), there are some things up with which I will not put:

A BIG THANK YOU

A big thank you” what? It hangs there like “a wrinkly elephant”.

Okay so, “A big thank you to all our supporters …” from whom? What are people trying to do with this phrase? It is so passive that the wonderful verb of thanking someone has become a wrinkly elephant of a noun that nobody will claim to own.

Fine, then, “We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters.” Better, but that’s still a bit like saying, “we’d like to say a wrinkly elephant to all our supporters.” And why the conditional? Is there a problem?

“We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters, but it sounds silly.” I agree with that.

Maybe if the big thank you is what you want to say then it should be in quotation marks? “We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters.” That doesn’t make sense either, it just adds a dollop of sarcasm.

I’m reminded of the parson in church, “Lord, we pray for all the people in the world and we especially pray for the widows and orphans.” That’s not praying, that’s just telling God that you are praying – WHAT do you pray for the orphans?

Maybe expressing the wish to issue “a big thank you” is a way of avoiding actually thanking anyone in the same way that the parson who prays for widows and orphans never actually prays for them.

Well, I just want to say “a big wrinkly elephant” to all who read this blog.

Thank you for reading it, thank you for commenting and interacting with me. I’m grateful to you all and I just wanted to express that somehow.

Review: Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari

Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran's Most Notorious Prison Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran’s Most Notorious Prison by Maziar Bahari

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think everyone needs to read this book in order to get a better understanding of what is behind that tiny word, “Iran”, when the newsreader says it.

Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist, was arrested following the Iranian election in 2009. Beatings and solitary confinement ensued as the regime attempted to extract a confession from him that he was a spy.

In spite of the agonising circumstances, he had been expecting to return to the side of his pregnant fiancée in London in a matter of days, Maziar writes with warmth and flashes of humour that betray enormous strength of soul. He comes from a family of dissidents whose love for their nation has forced them to defy three generations of tyranny. His father and his sister and numerous friends were incarcerated and tortured under successive regimes and Maziar uniquely weaves their story into an account of the recent history of Iran since the times of the last Shah.

This is not just a book about his imprisonment and eventual release, it is an insightful and authoritative analysis of the tensions within Iran and a snapshot of a generation that is ready for a change that was quite brutally denied them in the last election.

The author is at pains to bring a journalistic fairness to bear even on his captors and tormentors and the human elements of his relationship with his interrogator are poignantly told with a sense that the man who beats him is, himself, a puppet of the regime. This objectivity gives the author the moral high ground at every turn. The paranoia and ignorance of the authorities is starkly contrasted with his attempts to speak the truth. At one point he is interrogated about his relationship with the dead playwright Anton Checkhov, who they are convinced is another zionist spy.

The Iranians have a beautiful and ancient culture and many of the kindest and most well mannered people I have ever met are from Iran. It is tragic that this is not reflected in all the “bad news” that comes from that part of the globe and it is important that we do not respond with the same blindness that grips the current regime. Please read this book.

“Then They Came for Me” is published by Oneworld.

View all my reviews

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