Lest you be tempted by the dream of freelancing …

I’m not complaining for a minute; this is the life I have chosen for myself and I love it. As in any job, though, there are good days and bad days.

I am often asked for advice by people who are considering going self employed in creative fields and my first line is a reality check. If I had known all this when I started three and a half years ago, I don’t think it would have changed anything, but this is my second attempt to “go it alone” after I learned some hard lessons the first time round, which was about ten years ago.

Dream

Reality

Shuffling to your PC in your pyjamas with a cup of coffee at 11am to start work Getting up at 6am and sometimes working ‘til midnight to meet a deadline.
Lunching with friends Skipping meals because you are “in the zone” and don’t want to lose the flow
Being your own boss and beholden to nobody Working for a string of “bosses” in succession and often simultaneously
Never having to fill in another job application Being on a permanent job hunt to line up the next month of work
Never having to go through another annual performance review Trying to stay on top of your game and develop your skills with virtually no guidance
Holidays when you want them No paid leave and the laptop comes on holiday with you because it’s impossible to “abandon the baby”
Extended amounts of time in your own little world Missing the banter and mutual support of a work environment
Doing what you love every day Tax returns, accounts, marketing, pitching and admin at least 30% of the time
Time to work on your “big idea” Shelving the “big idea” until things calm down a bit
Having control over your working environment Moving to the kitchen because the desk is too cluttered, tripping over the laundry pile and the dog/cat who is doing everything in its power to distract you
“My office is a coffee shop” Spending half an hour trying to get access to their unfeasibly slow WiFi, getting the shakes by lunch time (after your 4th espresso), going outside to take a phone call that you don’t want to be overheard
Practice the guitar in your “lunch break” Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Stumbleupon in your “lunch break”
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Deep Grammar

Grammar was never invented to separate people “in the know” from the rest of us or to keep teachers and proofreaders in a work. In fact it, was never “invented”. It is intrinsic to language and fundamental for communication.

A new piece of research, published in the May 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that bad grammar is not only noticed by the English teacher or the pedant in the office but also at a neurological level by your bog-standard brain – yes, YOUR brain (and mine).

Laura Batterink, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon, recorded event-related brain potentials (ERPs) as study participants were presented with sentences, some containing grammar errors. In the majority of cases, subjects processed the errors without awareness.

Participants in a study were presented with short sentences, one word at a time, and their brain activity was monitored using a non-invasive technique. A mixture of good and bad sentences were used and the participants were asked to mark them correct or incorrect as well as to respond to an auditory tone that was played at some point while they were reading each sentence. Thus their awareness (of errors and tones) could be checked against actual brain activity.

When it was all shuggled out, the results showed brains responding to errors even when the participants did not register their awareness of them. The brain appears to pick up and correct errors of syntax without us noticing. However, this unconscious process demands neurological resources.

English: Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky....
The Jabberwocky – Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914)

Helen J. Neville, one of the paper’s co-authors from the University of Oregon, points out that children often pick up grammar rules implicitly through routine daily interactions with parents or peers, simply hearing and processing new words and their usage before any formal instruction. This has implications for second language acquisition; grammar should be taught implicitly, without semantics. In other words, she suggests that nonsense poems, such as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, are ideal material for this approach – syntactically sound, yet virtually meaningless.

For me, this research underlines the importance of syntax, and word order in particular. The logical flow of a sentence should be such that the reader does not have to re-read it (consciously or unconsciously). I find that about 30% of my editorial tweaking tackles this issue.

I often recommend that people who want to improve their writing read as much good copy as they can, in order to internalise the language; read their own writing out loud, to hear how it works; lead the reader by the hand, making sure that the meaning stands out from the surrounding qualifiers; and assume that if their meaning can possibly be misconstrued, then it will be.

Links:
Audio: Study summary by Laura Batterink: http://bit.ly/13FRBmC
Institute of Neuroscience: http://uoneuro.uoregon.edu/ionmain/htdocs/index.html
Follow UO Science on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/UniversityOfOregonScience
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More UO Science/Research News: http://uoresearch.uoregon.edu

Grammar Patrol

I am ashamed to admit that I found a copy error on the back of the  business cards I have been using for the last three years. When I started freelancing in 2010, I didn’t know how to use a colon. At worst, dodgy copy makes things downright confusing for the reader: at best, it makes you look like a numpty – especially when you are selling your writing and editing skills.

Here is the offending item:

business card

I’m always recommending that people don’t use a colon to introduce a list in this way. It is unnecessary and it often leads to confusing sentences. I think that must be the reasoning behind the fact that it is plain wrong. Nevertheless, this use is extremely common. If you want to go for an “A” grade, make sure that what precedes the colon is a proper sentence. Yes I’ve just re-ordered my cards with a rewritten blurb; that colon cost me £20.

So, having admitted one of my many faults, am I permitted to share a giggle over some other people’s, from my collection?

This invokes visions of staff swinging into the toilet, Tarzan style, on the disabled alarm cord (and possibly landing with a splash of toilet water).

27-WP_000416

Here is some classic apostrophe abuse, compounded by inconsistency. If there are Coffee’s, why aren’t there also Tea’s, Breakfast’s, Cocktail’s, Wine’s, Spirit’s and Beer’s?

IMG_0111a

I was very disappointed that I didn’t see any old vehicles being smashed at the museum in Alston; I wouldn’t mind smashing a few exclamation marks, though!

Grammar Patrol! Grammar Patrol ‘ten’SHUN! Turning to the right in threes disMISS! Carry on!

Improvised Word Salads: a verbal experiment

I’d like some feedback on an experiment that may grow into a project or turn out to be a blind alley.

I call these “Word Salads”. They are improvised lists of words, spoken with minimal expression. I think they should give rise to cascading imagery in the minds of listeners. Because they are improvised, they are unique phenomena, ephemeral, immediate and unpredictable.

The first example here is a “dissociated improvisation”. As with all sorts of improvisation, there must be some rule. We have all played the word association game, but this tries to be a solo word dissociation game. It is very difficult to do as I don’t think it is possible for the mind to work without association. There are probably really three or four rapid associative steps between each word. Sometimes I am aware of this happening as I grasp for the next thing to say.

Without any context, the words become quite strange, I think, but each one has the power to evoke something, like the edge of a fin appearing momentarily above the water before disappearing again.

The second example tries to tell a story of some sort. The rule of this improvisation is that a narrative is allowed to take shape, although it has not been predetermined in any way.

See what you think.

So …

Would these have any potential for performance? I think their improvisatory qualities make them exciting for the speaker if not the hearer. Are they evocative or just monotonous? Could I go anywhere with this or should I stop wasting my time?

Going Public with Two More Audio Poems: some desolation and some adoration

Encouraged in no small way by Xe Sands, the curator of weekly audio gems at Going Public and one of the great cheerleaders among my online fellowship of creatives, I have been experimenting with sharing my poetry out loud. I have always written more for the ear than the eye, so it seems an appropriate medium for putting it out there.

For this week’s offering, I have picked a couple of poems scribbled in my teens and recently re-worked.

The first poem (Empty House) is what comes out when you read a lot of Craig Raine, you feel as if the whole world is against you and one day you come home to an empty house.

The second poem (Silver Story) is what comes out when you read a lot of the Elizabethans, you spend your weekends in your silversmithing workshop and one day you meet a beautiful woman.

More of my poetry postings can be found here.
More audio goodies can be found here.

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.

Love in a Mist and other Spring-related Juvenilia

Love-in-a-mist, devil in the bush Español: Ara...
Love-in-a-mist

It’s a morning in May 1993, I’m 16 years old. I step out into our garden after breakfast. Beyond the garden fence, there is an orchard and then a steep, treed slope down to the river Thames. It is spring; I can hear skylarks and boats chugging lazily up the river. There is still dew on the grass. Somewhere between the flowerbeds of giant poppies, Love in a Mist, and Borage, I am struck by a feeling of  “at-one-ness” that I have never forgotten – everything seems stitched together. There have been several moments like this in my life (another one was in a pool of light under a streetlamp in Reading one rainy night), and I often feel closer to them at this time of year … Spring.

Quite soon after this intimation, I stitched together a naive poem that I still don’t really understand but which seemed to fix that moment in the garden like a photograph for me. I grew Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) in my flowerbed when I was a youngster, and it is probably my favourite cultivated flower.

Here is an audio of the poem, “Love in a Mist” by my 16 year-old self, read by my 20-years-later self. This is followed by “A Daydream”, written the following year while I was travelling in Africa – somehow the two always seem to have come from the same stable in my psyche. Both seem to be haunted by a mermaid of some sort …