An early version of this post first appeared as a guest article for a friend’s blog
It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that writers write because they have to. A few cursory steps in any direction on the web will reveal many who claim to need to write, on an almost alimental level. George Orwell wrote an entire essay on the subject.
Why I wrote
For me, as a recovering literature postgraduate, for four years I wrote – and read – literally because I had to. Just as, tautologically, the paid writer writes to be paid, I spent my undergraduate years chasing deadlines, learning to read, digest and produce essays to the tune of several thousands words on a weekly basis. It was a cycle that often reminded me of the hamster’s wheel – when it didn’t remind me of the cycle painted by Emilia’s damning assessment of men in Othello (III.iv):
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food.
To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us.
Vomiting ideas is perhaps the best way to sum up my first years at university. Uncertain what flavours I was trying to capture in my writing, my reading was a smorgasbord of interests – sometimes complementary, often competing. Like Woolf’s De Quincey, I ‘wrote on many subjects—on political economy, on philosophy, on history; […] essays and biographies and confessions and memoirs’. The ability to pursue so many avenues of thought is the luxury of the English literature undergraduate.
I spent the course of my essays figuring out my response to a work. While my Director of Studies once complained that my concise sentences read like I had had a particular sentence cadence beaten into me, the essays themselves were not quite so measured. But I have always written to make sense of the world; it is still not until I have tested my thoughts under the microscope, teased out my conclusions through my pen (or keyboard) that I am certain of what they are. I very rarely begin writing knowing exactly I want to say. All writing is experiment. All writing is analysis.
(Good writing is edited analysis, however, and the first fruits of my university education were as follows: More does not = better. More just = more. Discuss.)
Why I write
I still write because I “have” to. While I no longer write essays for the approval of supervisors or examination boards or even very often for an audience of more than two or three, writing remains my preferred analytical tool. As a consultant, my livelihood is still in producing text of one form or another – whether that be the narrative of a business case or the language of the code built by the developers I work with. The world around me is built out of text in many shapes and forms. Communication is in text and images – across social media platforms and the web more generally.
Just as I tested my thoughts about literature through writing and revising, I now analyse the build requirements through writing user stories: like many disciplines, functional analysis of what the software should do turns out to be very much about storytelling. It’s a narrative that is written organically, from initial, sketchy Discovery work putting the skeleton of the thing together through to more detailed design and build. Language breaks down into letters, words and sentences; the development methodology that I spend most of my time working with breaks down into User Stories, User Journeys and milestone Epics.
Even the building blocks of the software I work to build are essentially text. Simon St. Laurent wrote several years ago about text being the programmer’s silver bullet, and the tenets hold true now:
Computing shifted from numbers to text early, allowing vastly larger numbers of people to participate. While there is still a place for people who effortlessly manipulate binary and hexadecimal numbers, the vast majority of programmers work in environments whose symbols are more familiar to humans. We use those symbols in complex ways that aren’t especially familiar to people used to more traditional forms of text, but it’s text.
Ultimately, software code is language: the rules can be learned. More than that, information technology is fundamentally about storing, retrieving, communicating and manipulating data, and I fall heavily in the communicating/transmitting camp. As predominantly front end Business Analyst, most of my work focuses on designing a user journey that makes coherent sense, that is streamlined and tells the right story. The copy writer is my staunchest ally in this mission.
The vast majority of users do not have Computer Science degrees; while most of my colleagues come from IT backgrounds there are also a wealth of people like me, who are able to participate more easily because the kind of front end work I do is about communicating information, which is built out of the familiar building blocks of text and images. Participating in social life online is predicated on using text (even when it is horribly misspelled and punctuated – you can’t quite cure the literature student of her aversion to an illiterate Facebook post or a plagiarised Tumblr feed).
Why I’m writing
Some of the most interesting literature that I’ve read responds to and seizes the opportunities posed by new technology. While an undergraduate I spent serious hours looking at how cinematic technologies contributed the way writers constructed narrative in the early twentieth century, how writers used collage to mimic the panning of the camera eye and the closing of the shutter, and how panoramic photography literally broadened the horizons of what could be consumed or absorbed by a viewer in a single shot. New ways of capturing the world can lead to new ways of seeing the world, as much as the other way around. As a brief example, the key that unlocked Humphrey Jennings’ prose poem The Boyhood of Byron (pp.146-7) – a poem made up of apparently unrelated fragments of prose – was the fragment that made explicit the link between reality and cinematic technique:
If we shut ourselves up in a perfectly dark room, if the sea-water be slashed with an oar in the darkest night, through the window-shutter which intercepts the illuminated landscape from the internal dark chamber, an inverted cone of light will enter the apartment, and depict on the white wall opposite a living representation of external objects.
Once we identify this fragment as a (fairly explicit) reference to cinematic projection, the prose poem begins to fall into place. Suddenly, the whole structure of Jennings’ fragmented narrative makes sense: the fragments are in the style of cinema frames that expect the viewer’s eye (and brain) to skip over the gap in meaning caused by the break in frames and supply their own link.
Like every revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will offer new ways of engaging with the world: technology offers opportunities to both the compsci and the creative, since our technology changes us as much as we change our technology. A quick search on #digitalhumanities or #artstech reveals the state of the new digital landscape: it’s brimming with exciting possibilities and avenues to pursue, not least Big Bang Data (which I’m rapidly running out of time to get tickets for).
In the spirit of writing as a tool of analysis and of participation in a network of ideas, this blog is intended to tease out the links between the literature and artistic artefacts I love, and the technology that informs, reforms and is formed by that art. I write to explore the connections between my current world in digital design and build, and my history as a student of art – and to discover for myself how those two worlds overlap and engage.