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Can you think of organisations that have been a flash in the pan?

English: Web 2.0 services

English: Web 2.0 services (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘As soon as a new radical market emerges, hundreds of new entrants rush to colonize it. Before long, consolidation takes place and most of the early entrants disappear. A few survive. But even these early survivors usually are not the ones that end up conquering the new market. The true winners are those that undertake a series of actions that scales up the new market. How do they do that?’ Markides and Geroski (2004)

Can you think of organisations that have been a flash in the pan, that came out of the DOT COM boom and went bust? Who are the winners and losers going to be with Web 2.0?

Reference

Markides.C; Geroski, P. (2004) Strategy and Business, 35: 2-10

Mess as the new paradigm for communications

Plastination of a Ballet Dancer

The skin removed from a human body reveals a mess.

The walls removed from a business does the same. It has happened whether or not we like it, even without Wikileaks we are revealing more of ourselves than ever before.

Glass Skull by Rudat

Our minds are a mess if our sculls are made of glass: mine is, I expose and disclose and share my thoughts.

Posting notes isn’t laziness, it is mess: it is ‘messy stuff’.

It is the beginning of something, or the end, it is both unstarted and unfinished. Notes go down well in our ‘wiki- world’ as it makes space for others to interject, to correct and fix in a way that feels less like criticism and more like collaboration.

Once was a time I’d pick out every misplaced apostrophe, especially concerning ‘its’, now I care less, ditto spelling. Would I have heard the incorrect apostrophe on the possessive of its? Would I have known that I’d hit the ‘w’ key instead of the ‘a’ typing as I am with my left hand only propped up in bed. And what about the missing ‘h’ I’ve left out of ‘thoughts’?

Too late, I’ve said it now and my next idea is coming through.

 

‘Creativity, Innovation and Change’ : Residential School : day two : 14 hours 25 minutes !

In the right context with the right people role play can be used to help see or experience a problem from a different perspective. Here however, Virginia Woolf and friends pull off a hoax and a treated as royal guests on one of His Majesty’s battleships.

So many people describe this OU Business School module (B822 : Creativity, Management & Change) and the residential school I am currently attending as something that changed their lives; I’ve been waiting for that moment, or for a series of insights to congregate and like a celestial choir sing something special.

I was up at 5.00 am and writing (of course), taking a swim at 6.45 am in the pool here at the Heathrow Marriott, into an Elective at 8.00 am and the first Tutor Workshop at 9.00 am.

The second workshop kicked in after lunch at 1.30 pm then from 7.00 pm three more hour long electives in a row.

At no stage was I ever tried or bored, indeed I feel embarrassed even writing this, the very thought!?

Too much new, too important, too interesting, too interested. Like my second week at nursery school: amongst friends, secure, allowed and expected to have fun. Alert.

It was in the very last cessation today, during an hour of guided relaxation, shoes off lying on the conference room floor, lights out, soft music playing that  my unconscious gave me a two word tip and did its best to visualise the love my children have for me and I have for them. I’m still trying to see what love looks like: white, a slightly crumpled unopened rosebud the size and shape of chicory but made of paper, or tissue. I tried (in the semi-conscious dream-like state that I was in) to cup ‘love’ in my hands as if I was scooping up water but it proved illusive, like a cloud.

After we were brought out of our semi-unconscious state (I fell asleep momentarily three times) we were all asked to share what we experienced; I eventually chirped up with the word ‘profound’.

The detail of the day is here too, all typed up with pictures (courtesy of iPad and iPhone) of flip-charts, post-it notes, finger-paintings and slides. This will take a week to prepare as posts.

 

How we read and contribute online

Once you have the definitive response to a fact, something composed as a wiki that has been thoroughly reviewed I’d then like to see this thinking, initially just in words, animated via a slider, the kind of volume control we’re used to seeing, only this, instead of increasing the volume of sound, increases the number of words.

In this way you choose your moment to read a bit, a bit more, or a lot, the whole thing, and or everything (in theory) that went through the author’s mind when they wrote their chapter/boo/report in the first place by having not just the links, but the references open and ready to read in an instance.

Indulgent?

The expert mind does this anyway. By the time you’ve read so extensively on a subject that you hear its authors speaking, you tap into a form of this. You could at any moment offer a summary, or talk for hours on ‘your’ subject.

I would like this opportunity from the start, from the point of ignorance, to nudge back and forth, to ‘rock n roll’ as a soundengineer would put it, finding the point to cut a sound track, the ‘sweet point’ for where I was at, where enough was being said to engage me … or, were I about to alight from a train, a bitsize thought on which I could chew ’til the opportunity arose to indulge and nudge this ‘text volume control’ along the scale.

Now think of this as a slice in a pie.


Just a thought.
 

Open it out and you migrate away from text alone to include stills, video and sound. For example, the image-based expression of this concept, and a particular issue/idea/fact/report, begins with a single image, like a book cover, or TV title sequence … as you run along our ‘volume control’ the number and range of images expands.

I may be a swimming coach (amongst several things), but my head coach told me ‘I think too much.’

English: Jakob Nielsen, web usability consultant.

English: Jakob Nielsen, web usability consultant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Think less and get the athletes to do more. Keep it simple. If there is any context however where thinking is the currency, literally if we are talking professionalism, then the more I think the more professional I become.

 

(Or not).

 

Many would say that a 3,000 word blog entry is ‘unprofessional.’

 

I call it shared reflection, the ‘uncut version.’ It is the outcome of over five hours thinking on the topic. Hours banked. Ideas turned into cash. By definition when I have made two years worth of regular deposits I may call myself and even be defined as an ‘e-learning professional’ with the MA to suggest I have joined that club, and a job that for the remuneration I receive makes me a professional rather than a wishful thinking wannabe.

 

It is unprofessional as a post-graduate student to be flippant and/or verbose.

 

A professional would keep this down to 500 words, yet I am stretching it to 3,000. The uncut version. Reflection in action. My mind at work. Not the athlete sharing a few ‘mots justes’ after a successful race, but the race itself and all the training before hand. The choice words, bullet point form only with an abridged commentary goes into my Tutor Group Forum. Under 250 words there, is my targert. Under 1,000 words per OU blog had been my thinking too. Blown that then.

 

Watching the TV I fall asleep.

 

Listening to the radio (i.e. any audio) I do something else – I’d be distracted anyway, I have to.

 

In an effort to get into my head the points being made by OUr E-learning Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) I first read the transcripts provided and then listened to the podcast while reading the text.

 

What shocked me was how much I had missed.

 

I do less than skim read it appears, all I must do is to look at patterns and shapes. No wonder I learn so little when I do nothing more than read.

 

Lesson learnt?

 

This isn’t an ‘airport thriller’ I can read at break-neck speed chaisng the protagonist as he is in turn chased; this requires a different kind of reading.

 

It requires effort.

 

I must work with the text, make notes. Just highlighting choices words and sentences isn’t enough either. Effort I can do. It is consistent effort unless I am working under exam conditions where I struggle. There is always something more interesting to read.

 

Historically, when successful academically, it has been a huge effort and very time consuming for me. I have to take notes (long hand). Then I have to take notes on the notes. I have to make lists, take quotes and re-order the material. I may still not make sense of it. I need to chase up a few references. I need to find my own patterns. I need to discuss it. Argue about it, agree and disagree. And then, gathering up a wad of papers and scraps of paper the whole lot needs to compost for a few months. Then, and only then, might I start to ‘get it,’ and have something constructive and original to say.

 

Do any of us have this kind of time anymore? Did we ever?

 

(My late father, my daughter and a friend, a partner in one of the world’s leading law firms, all have/had photographic memories. They would have read the transcript and been able to pick out its salient points after the first swift reading. Not so me, not so us?)

 

The process you see playing out here is an attempt to mulch the content, slow cook it and hope that I can achieve something in five hours that would normall require five months.

 

Keep cooking.

 

The second time round with the SME podcast I first worked with the text, highlighting points and generally trying to get my head around it. If you’ve come across Jakob Nielsen’s ‘Writing for the Web,’ this is what I did – isolating sentences and ideas, creating headings, sub-headings and bullet points, in a word ‘chunking. In fact, I begin to get close to doing what Richard Northridge recommends in the ‘OU Guide to Studying’ (1990) note taking, creating concept cards and then even looking for links and patterns in the text itself.

 

Lesson learnt?

 

This takes time and requires effort. I’m not great on effort. My modus operandi is (or has been) to take in volumes of material, but if this is only at a surface level no wonder I am often more frustrated than informed.

 

Lesson learnt?

 

Less is more. Rather than chasing a reference, another report or book, I need, at first, to ensure that the text I have in front of me has been dissected, not consumed, not afforded nothing more than a passing glance, but pulled apart, then reconstructed.

 

Lesson learnt?

 

Effort

 

Not the expected outcome of this simple task – my faltering approach to learning laid bare, but a valuable lesson at the start of the module.

 

At last I’m listening to the podcast.

 

I made myself think, made myself listen, I ‘sat forward’ (the technical term for interacting, for engagement.) I made myself read and take notes, made me list the contrasting ideas, the arguments for and against, the justifications … and to cluster these ideas and adjust my own thoughts accordingly based on my experience.

 

I had something to think about as I listened.

 

Do I have anything in common with these e-learning professionals in relation to assumptions and aims?

 

  • Do I have different understandings of what it means to be an ‘elearning professional’?
  • Is there a distinct elearning profession, or is elearning simply an aspect of other professions?
  • The profession of teacher?
  • The profession of a university lecturer or academic?
  • The profession of a trainer or staff developer or a human resources developer in private corporate bodies?
  • Is there an elearning professional?
  • And should I be describing my job as that of an elearning professional?

 

My short reply, given my background in sports coaching, is simple.

 

  • If you are paid you are a professional.
  • If you are the athlete and not paid you are an amateur.
  • If you’re the coach and not paid you are a volunteer.

 

Therefore, if someone is good enough and experienced enough (or simply good at selling themselves and their ideas) – and they are remunerated for their efforts, then they are a professional.

 

Rebecca Addlington is a professional athlete. Bill Furness, her coach, is a professional too.

 

At my swimming club all the swimmers are amateur, though some through bursaries to pay for County and Regional development training are by definition quasi-professional as they are receiving benefits if not in cash, then in kind. Some of the coaches and I do not define myself as a swimming coach; it’s a hobby that’s got out of hand.

 

I have ‘put in the hours.’

 

(Which I can qualify by saying I have put in the appropriate hours. i.e. time will not make you a professional, the enduring focus of your efforts will)

 

One of the key themes of the podcast made by each of the speakers is that a professional has put in the time.

 

They have put in the effort, gained experience that is directly or indirectly relevant to their e-learning expertise – and by dint of this expertise (and being paid by the OU, for books and reports, lectures and workshops too perhaps) they are all professionals.

 

At the swimming club many of us (its the biggest club in the South of England) have earned our places through years of experience, gaining qualifications and attending regular courses (CPD) to retain a licence to teach or coach aquatics. Many of us, paid or not, can call ourselves ‘professionals.’

 

Just as I’ve reduced my core thought to that of the contract between a professional and an amateur, by picking out the ideas of each speaker and doing something similar a number of interesting points regarding what it means to be an ‘e-learning professional’ emerge.

 

In this see-saw of ideas the protagonists have a habit of changing places.

 

By defining professional we should also think what it means to be unprofessional.

 

I’ve allowed this dance to play out as it leaves me with an image of a professional being circled by the professional wannabe, the unprofessional (as yet), the layperson, the naive, virgin student. A mass of non-professionals clamoring around the few.

 

The points and arguments frequently fall into another diametrically opposed set: the qualitative vs. quantitative, an objective point vs. the subjective, a value judgment vs. the facts. Everything overlaps – a Venn Diagram of the points would show sets within sets.

 

Adrian Kirkup

 

  • Amateur vs. Professional (there are many highly ‘professional’ amateurs)
  • Ineffective vs. effective.

 

Robin Mason

 

  • Hasn’t done it for long vs. been doing it for a long time
  • Undergraduate vs. PhD (A sub-set of the above)
  • Hasn’t put in the hours vs. has put in the hours (more of the same)
  • Immature vs. Mature (a variation of the same. Though professionalism is not a consequence of maturity)
  • Inexperienced vs. Experienced.(Experience that takes time to acquire, and a certain manner to be effective)

 

Gill Kirkup

 

A new field vs. an established field. (Disagree. Though a new field of subset of a professional activity would be definably professional).

 

  • New vs. Established. (as above)
  • No established standards vs. abides by general and specific received standards.
  • Acting alone or part of a professional association.
  • Part of the UK Higher Education Academy or not. (a subset of the above)
  • Part of a legitimate community or not. (as above)
  • Committed vs. Uncommitted.
  • Respectful vs. Disrespectful.
  • Respect for the individual learner, incorporating research and scholarship, the development of learning communities online is a hugely strong component in professional elearning practice. (successfully combines the subjective and unquantifiable with the quantifiable and objective)
  • Juvenile and professional vs. professional only if matured. (as Robin Mason)
  • Unlicensed vs. Licensed.

 

 

 

Robin Goodfellow

 

  • Genuine vs. not genuine.
  • Unrecognised vs. Recognised.
  • Inexperienced vs. Experienced.
  • Independent vs. tied (to government or a business).(disagree)
  • Technical foundation vs. no technical foundation
  • No need for a label, e-learning professional vs. professional enhancer. (strongly agree)

 

 

 

Chris Jones

 

  • Takes time vs. no time.(as Robin Mason and Robin Goodfellow. You have to put in the time to become a professional. Which I guess applies as much to the professional criminal, as the Professional lawyer. Little p, Big P- see below)
  • Part of the mainstream vs. Specialist. (disagree)
  • ‘Lone Ranger’ and early stages of innovation … vs. early majority and established (themes of Rogers)
  • Enthusiasts vs. the not interested. (strongly agree)
  • Society and the professionalisation of modern life (quotable)
  • Sport in the 20th century and professional vs. amateurs in sport
  • Traditional and modern professionals
  • Autonomous vs. dependent
  • Trustworthy vs. (spin/PR/Branding/Agenda)
  • Not part of a trade association or governing body vs. part of such an association
  • Generalist vs. specialist
  • An outside vs. part of something
  • Formalised standards vs. none
  • Unmonitored vs. monitored
  • Is there a distinct elearning profession, or is elearning simply an aspect of other professions?
  • Little ‘p’ pr big ‘P.’

 

Jonathan Vernon (moi)

 

  • Doesn’t look the part vs. looks the part.
  • Lacks form vs. has form.
  • Self-taught vs. ‘done a course.’
  • Qualified (with the piece of paper to prove it) vs. Unqualified (however expert they may be).

 

Some thoughts on the points identified above

 

It is worth reflecting on Robin Mason’s point about ‘putting in the hours.’

 

The suggestion that genius and expertise requires 10,000 hours of effort is no urban myth. A study carried out at the Berlin Music Conservatoire identified three groups of graduates. Asked to estimate how many hours of practice and playing each student had put in since picking up an instrument they were then divided into three distinct categories: up to 4,000 hours, up to 8,000 hours and up to 10,000 hours. The first became teachers, the second category got places in orchestras whilst the tiny number who had put in 10,000 hours (takes around 10 years to do this) were most likely to be the solo artists, the concert pianists, the mavericks, the Vanessa Maes and Mozarts. Whilst all these categories are professionals, they are paid for their skills, the use of the word ‘professional’ to distinguish those who are expert, who have attained a certain standard, would in my view apply to the musicians who have made it into a top orchestra – with the soloists in a category beyond the ‘professional.’

 

Our ‘OU H808 E-learning SME professionals’, given the decades of thought they have put into what we now define as ‘e-learning’, have been part of this ‘orchestra’ of professionals for some time, and who knows, we may have a Mozart amongst them. Personally, I’ve not read enough from any of them yet to know any better. I look forward to hearing what they have to say and how they say it.

 

Interestingly, Robin Mason returns repeatedly to a theme of time passing, of gaining, requiring or acquiring maturity of thought. Though I feel as if I am clutching at ideas in an amorphous cloud here, my sense is that whether it is professional with a big P or a little p, that the word ‘maturity’; might say it all.

 

What does maturity imply?

 

Growing up, lessons learnt, age, growth, adult hood, a way of behaving, able to fit in and contribute to a community and so on.

 

I disagree with Gill Kirkup

 

If I have understood her correctly regarding her suggesting that only in an established field is something professional whilst in a new field this is not possible. We can all think of (or at least imagine) an unprofessional ‘professional.’ The corrupt lawyer, the doctor struck off the medical register, the TV food expert who is not a doctor at all (and so a sham professional).

 

In 2000 I would have defined myself, as some of the panel here would have done, as what is now termed an ‘e-learning’ professional. After fifteen years in corporate communications, training and learning, creating linear, then non-linear and ultimately web-based materials the companies and government department for whom I worked through various production companies had to see me as ‘professional.’ I hadn’t done the post-graduate studying, but I’d learnt through observation and experience (first carrying video kit into the changing rooms of a nuclear power plant age 17 assisting with a training film for BNFL at Sellafield).

 

Interestingly, I don’t currently consider myself to be an e-learning or a learning professional and even with the MA I hope to gain in 2011 I will by my own definition not be a professional until I am being paid for my expertise.

 

To use a horse-racing term I lack ‘form.’

 

I’m literally out of the race (for now).

 

Being studious here and building my confidence is part of the plan to regain the ‘professional’ tag.

 

Does a barrister on retirement cease to be a professional lawyer?

 

Socio-econonmically he/she would still be defined as a ‘professional’ would they not?

 

I agree however, very much, with Gill Kirkup’s views regarding ‘respect’ and her definition of an e-learning professional within the academic community.

 

Respect for the individual learner, incorporating research and scholarship, the development of learning communities online is a hugely strong component in professional elearning practice.’

 

(This, for me, successfully combines the subjective and unquantifiable with the quantifiable and objective. i.e. you can be a professional Professional).

 

I disagree with Robin Goodfellow’s view that a professional must be independent vs. tied (to government or a business). If we look beyond e-learning professionals and academia it would be quite wrong to say that someone is not professional simply because they represent the interests of an organisation or government department, let alone are being paid to take a certain stance or have a strongly held view (left or right wing politically, religious or atheist and so on).

 

If nothing else, I believe I have shown above that there is a natural dichotomy, if not a debate even an implicit conflict, between views on whether a person, or institution, or field of study, can be defined as professional or not, worthy of study or not.

 

It is engagement in such a debate where a professional proves their credentials.

 

A professional is a match for anyone, whilst the unprofessional would not play by the rules, make excuses, bow out…

 

Dare I imply that all the above are differentiating between the educated and uneducated?

 

Is it so black and white? Students at school, scholars as Edwardian’s would have defined them, and undergraduates, graduates too, in terms of education can never be defined as ‘professional.’

 

Or can they?

 

The government pays students to go to college, to stay on in secondary school after the age of 16 – does not this make them pros, like a boy of a similar age getting paid to play football in an academy, they literally ‘turn pro.’

 

I agree with Robin Goodfellow that there is ‘need for a label’, that what is currently the e-learning professional may be the ‘professional enhancer ‘of the future if the UK HE Academy has their way (though I doubt the term will stick). Just as Robin was (we were) once web-based learning professionals, or learning professionals, or professionals in education…

 

Big P, little p (Chris Jones) is the most memorable expression of an idea in relation to the professional Professional that I take from this and a worthy talking point. And 2,500 words in I could sum it up with a Twitter count.

 

Professional is an adjective and a noun.

 

Anyone can be described as ‘professional,’ (adjective) by dint of their behaviour and experience, however to be a ‘professional’, (noun), various criteria should be met. Depending on how your measure up, by Chris Jones’s definition, you are either Big or Little P.

 

(I can think of other categories where a similar way of looking at things could be applied, for example, ‘engineer’. The person who fixes my washing machine may call himself an ‘engineer,’ but Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an ‘Engineer’. A sports psychologist is no longer allowed to call themselves such, they are sports scientists. So Psychologist, if not professional, not has a legally binding form of expression and use).

 

I disagree however with Chris Jone’s view that Professionals (big P you notice) have to be specialists whilst implicitly, if they are professional at all (little p) they are not, or unlikely to be so if they are part of the mainstream.

 

Or do I?

 

(I’m changing my mind as I write this, reflecting on a matter tends to do this. You twist yourself in so many knots and then find you are looking in the opposite direction – and happy to do so)

 

Onwards

 

Is there an implicit elitism here that makes me uncomfortable, an obvious them and us?

 

As a Professional I am not ‘part of the mainstream’ ?

 

Yes, that’s it.

 

You see the ‘mainstream’ is the population, everyone, in the universe that we are discussing. Professionals are of the mainstream, of society, even if they are a subset community within the broader community.

 

The likes of Richard Dawkin and Stephen Hawkings are ‘professional Professionals’ by their engagement with the world, not because of an elitist, hide-themselves away hermit like attitude to knowledge acquisition. Do Simon Schama and Neil Ferguson fall into the same category of professionalism?

 

Be published and damned, broadcast and be damned even more?

 

But you don’t have to be famous to be Professional (though I dare say you’d cease to be professional if you became infamous).

 

Or have I been making a mistake through-out this internal debate … this reflection – that we have always only been discussing Big P professionalism ONLY as part of ‘the whole thing,’ i.e. the specific category of the ‘e-learning Professional’ and just as this time round I haven’t given a moment’s thought to ‘e-learning’ as a term, I have nonetheless unnecessarily dissected the term ‘professional.’

 

I’m yet to click through the OED online.

 

I daren’t. It may be my undoing.

 

Back to my idea of a Venn Diagram.

 

If ‘professionals’ is the universe then we have two subsets, Professionals (Big P) and professionals (little p) (the noun only). Far smaller, and intersecting both these sets, we have ‘e-learning.’ There are in e-learning little P and Big P professionals.

 

Still with me?

 

But there are also non-professionals, and even  the unprofessional to consider. Can they also be defined as Non-professionals (Big N) and Unprofessionals (Big U).

 

Final thoughts

 

Might a professional be defined as someone with ‘qualified confidence in their field?’

 

Not finished yet

 

I’ve got a Venn Diagram to draw, some visualising to do.

 

Can a loner be a professional?

 

I enjoyed Chris Jones’s point about the ‘Lone Ranger’ that in early stages of innovation there are maverick, loners having a go at something new way ahead of anyone else – think Dr Emmett Brown in ‘Back to the Future’ tinkering away at the construction of a time-travelling automobile. Are such people professionals or even professional? Does this ‘odd-ball’ behaviour disenfranchise you from the professional community, even if you have the mind the size of a planet?

 

A consultant escapes the hospital ward for a couple of years to undertake research. Just because they are beavering away on their own, being a ‘Lone Ranger’ doesn’t disqualify them from the category of ‘Professional,’ (Big P), or even ‘professional Professional’ (little p, Big P).

 

Dare I suggest that our panel of e-learning experts are ‘professional e-Professionals’ ?

 

I don’t even begin to delve into the thinking behind innovation diffusion. This is an entire module in its own right. It is called ‘Innovations in E-learning’, or H807 for short.

 

For more read ‘Diffusion of Innovations’ E.M.Rogers. (2005) 5th edition.

 

Nor am I going to teach the definition ‘e-learning.’

 

Is there a professional ‘look.’

 

Forgive me if I make a comparison here between the need for barristers to put on the appropriate garb in court and so look Professional with a big p, compared to those wishing to be called professional and seen as Professional who don’t look the part. Poolside as coaches it is expected that all teachers are appropriately dressed in the club colours and well groomed – this looks professional. There was once a time when teachers wore a jacket and tie, so looked professional like fellow professionals such as lawyers and doctors. Don’t academic look the part, ‘look professional’ in their gowns and mortar-boards?

 

And having addressed ‘looks’ can someone sound ‘professional?

 

Think how a director chooses actors to play a role. Look at Michael Cane in ‘Educating Rita,’ is this the stereotypical professional Professor?

 

Another discussion, but coming from corporate communications we have been through exercises of using authentic presenters (people who work at the place) compared to buying in ‘professional’ presenters. To do justice to the message in the TV medium the professional broadcasters were far better at putting over the points the client wanted to make.

 

As I said, another discussion, a different thread.

 

P.S. It would be unprofessional to post such a long entry into a tutor forum, where a 500 word, even a 250 word version will be posted (the bullet points, or just my thoughts on the key bullet points … or just where I strongly agree or disagree).

 

Lesson Learnt ?

 

Professionals put in the time and effort, and follow rather than ignore guidelines for the community in which they operate.

 

It strikes me that academics, like creatives, are more interested in reputation and recognition than money.

 

Is it not striking that not one of our panel mention it?

 

Can you be a professional without it?

 

And what about spelling and grammar?

 

The ability to communicate. Have I mentioned that. Can the professional spell?

 

 

The Spooky Art – some thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

The Spooky Art

Orginaly posted on 02/07/2003 in my Diaryland blog.

A strange chain of reading took me to Norman Mailer some months ago. I was reading an anthology of book reviews by Martin Amis, 1972 to 2000 I think. Amongst the writers reviewed were Norman Mailer; the review was probably ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, which I have now read. Though not well written, I read an enjoyed a biography on Norman Mailer. About this time one the English Broadsheet newspapers, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ serialised ‘The Spooky Art’ so I bought it.

I’m offering up some quotes here

Here are some early comments on the first 100 pages. Once I’ve got to through the hundred pages I’ll do this again. It’s already served its purpose – I’m preparing to write again, to get a novel finished. Do add your thoughts on what Norman Mailer has to say. I’ve added page references in the expectation that you’ll buy the book too and we can share notes.

STYLE

‘Writing a novel is like learning the piano.’

I like this thought because if said with conviction it might deflect conversations that imply that any of us could, with ease, add the writing of a novel to our hectic lives. Few people are selfish enough, confident enough, patient enough or desperate enough to attempt to write a novel; just as few adults who failed to learn the piano as a child and likely to stick with it as an adult. Strangely we have a piano, bought two weeks ago. I may pick up where I left off, I’m beginning to get some crude right hand sight reading back already.

‘A good skier rarely worries about a route. He just goes, confident that he’ll react to changes in the trail as they come upon him. It’s the same thing in writing; You have to have confidence in your technique. That is the beauty of mustering the right tone at the right time – it enables you to feel like a good skier, nice and relaxed for the next unexpected turn.’ Mailer (2003. p. 78)

I like this because it knocks flat the premise of a year’s effort and some expense writing, illustrating, designing and photographing the ‘routes’ or as my family call them ‘pistes’ (using the French term) of one of the world’s greatest ski resorts, Val d’Isere and Tignes in the French Alps. I have thick files that map and annotate the 77 or more ski runs. Yes! I enjoyed the excuse of spending months on skis up a mountain, it happened to coincide with my pursuit of someone who had taken a year out (quit a city job) to work the ‘Season.’ We’ve been married a few months short of ten years and hope to spend our Tenth Wedding Anniversary, as we spent our Honeymoon, 2000m up a snow-covered mountain. I digress. The writing analogy works for me and ties in with this ‘writing from the hip’ concept that Ghanima has picked up on; just as skiing would be no fun if you stopped every few yards to figure out what to do next, so writing cannot be fluid, consistent or fun if it is done mechanically. The difficulty is having the confidence, or as Mailer would put it, a large enough ego, to pull it off (as well as basic writing skills, something worth saying and a compulsion to write). Talent is nothing more than a product of these. Mailer continues in a similar vain here:

‘Describe what you fell as it impinges on the sum of your passions and your intellectual attainments. Bring to the act of writing all of your craft, care, devotion, lack of humbug, and honesty of sentiment. Then write without looking over your shoulder for the literary police. Write as if your life depended on saying what you felt as clearly as you could, while never losing sight of the phenomenon to be described.’ Mailer (2003. p. 80)

My mistake is to take big breaks between writing; I get lost.

I lose myself, I lose track of what I am doing, I have new ideas. As I have said on these pages many times I need the discipline and exacting conditions of two three hour written exams a day – I perform under that kind of pressure.

Character

‘Unless your literary figures keep growing through the event of the book, your novel can go nowhere that will surprise you.’ Mailer (2003. p. 82)

I put this in as a note to myself. I have a character in ‘JTW’ who bobs along, unchanged, muddle headed and too like me to be convincing or compelling. The other novel, something I started on a decade ago and forget about, let’s call it ‘Form Photo’ may be more sustainable because the protagonist is a debased shit, a contemporary ‘Flashman,’ a sex obsessed Humbert for whom incest, rape, casual sex and necrophilia become part of his crazed purpose in life. On vera. As Mailer puts on the back cover of ‘The Spooky Art’ and all the best books on writing state emphatically, ‘writers write.’ I just have to sit down and do it, consistently, every day ideally.

First Person versus Third Person

(More on this later). The first exercise of this Montparnasse thing has produced some useful thoughts on the qualities of writing in the first or third person.

Real Life versus Plot Life

‘One could make the case that our love of plot – until it becomes very cheap indeed – comes out of our need to find the chain of cause and effect that often is missing in our own existence.’ Mailer (2003. p. 89)

This I find repeated in the books on writing I admire the most, such as Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ and Ben Okri’s book, the title of which alludes me. Offering reasons and meaning is the simplest way to make a reader feel empathy for the predicament that the characters face.

‘I look for my book as I go long. Plot comes last. I want a conception of my characters that’s deep enough so that they will get me to places where I, as the author, have to live by my wits. That means my characters must keep developing. So long as they stay alive, the plot will take care of itself.’ Mailer (2003. p. 90)

I like this for the emphasis on character, the ride you give them and how they develop. Where I have a character that is convincing, the next step is to toss at them ever larger loads of shit and see how they deal with it.

Working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.

My efforts to follow any kind of treatment, for a screen play, TV series or book, have invariably failed. I have used software such as Dramatica Pro ad nauseam, I even bought some ‘New novel’ software on impulse the other day that is pure crap. It, with folders from ‘The Writer’s Bureau’ and ALL the DIY books I Have on writing should be binned. Instead of helping me find a path to the end of a story they toss up cul de sacs and diversions. They force you to create a road map and in doing so, implying that you must stick to this one road, hundred of alternative routes are indicated.

Instinct and Influence

‘If you find some theme that keeps you working, don’t question it. Let that theme be sufficient to fuel you work. If you start using the value judgments of others, you’re never going to get much done. If I find something is stimulating to me and arousing my energy, that’s fine; I’ll trust it. No matter what you find yourself writing about, if it’s giving you enough energy to continue, then the work bears a profound relationship to you at that point and you don’t question it.’ Mailer (2003. p. 98)

This is what I prefer; like a leap off the ski route, into powder, risking a trail no one has taken since the last dump of snow. Sometimes this gets me into trouble, often the experience is personal, intimate and exhilarating.

Stamina

‘It’s as difficult to become a professional writer as a professional athlete.’ Mailer (2003. p. 101)

I’m glad he says this, like learning to play the piano. It explains why so many successful writers never produce novels: they are journalists, non-fiction writers, broadcasters or write screen-plays, but the novel alludes them.

‘The sad truth is that a would-be novelist possibly has to start a few books that do give out, or even crash, before a sense of the difficulties is acquired.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)

All the more reason to get the first few novels done while you’re a student or living alone in digs – not in mid-life, burdened by debt with a family to keep.

‘A large part of writing a novel is to keep your tone.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)

Were I to write a novel in one sitting, day after day, for a number of months, then I could probably deliver a consistent style and tone. The way I currently work, in bits, plays on my worst trait, I am inconsistent and indiscriminate.

‘I love starting a book; I usually like finishing one. It’s the long middle stretches that call on your character – all that in-between! – those months or years when you have to report to work almost every day.’

This is where I fail. Steven Pressfield lists all the reasons why a book might not be written, he calls it ‘Resistance.’ I am guilty of doing anything BUT write. Anything. I invite distraction, create distraction, or enter a cave of drink, TV, DIY, entertaining the kids, taking them on trips, ironing – even ironing! I don’t need a shed at the bottom of the garden (I enjoy gardening too much), I need a shed up a mountain in summer: no phone, no TV, no newspapers, no people.

‘You don’t write novels by putting in two brilliant hours a week. You don’t write novels if you lose too many mornings and afternoons to a hangover.’

This is what stopped me drinking this time round.

I realised that 2003 is not lost; I made a reasonable start, lost it for a few months, but could still make it up by the end of the year. We’ll see. I find denial of any kind tough.

‘Sometimes, when you’re in a bad period, you must in effect contract yourself for weeks running. “I’m going to write tomorrow,” you have to declare, and, indeed, show up at your desk, even though there’s nothing in you, and sit there for hours, whatever number of hours you told yourself you were going to put in. Then, if nothing happens, you still show up the next day and the next and the next, until that recalcitrant presence, the unconscious, comes to decide you can finally be trusted. Such acceptance is crucial. The unconscious expects that what it has prepared for you in your sleep should be expressed, ideally, the next day. We live, you see, in an arm’s-length relationship to our unconscious. It has to be convinced over and over again to believe in you. Sometimes when you’re writing a novel, you have to live as responsibly as a good monk. That does get easier as you grow older.’

Here we go. I need to be re-institutionalised. School worked for me, I was at boarding school for over nine years, it was possibly the best thing for me. I knew when to think, when to practise, when to eat, play and wipe my arse. I didn’t need money, to cook, to supervise children, or take responsibility for anything other than me.

‘Writing is wonderful when you talk about it. It’s fun to contemplate. But writing as a daily physical activity is not agreeable. You put on weight, you strain your gut, you get gout and chilblains. You’re alone, and every day you have to face a blank piece of paper.’ Mailer (2003. p. 102)

I liked this thought because it reminded me of a writing group to which I temporarily belonged; when we stopped loving each other we realised it was shit hard work, no one could take the negativity, and only a few could accept that it would be painful.

‘Professionalism probably comes down to being able to work on a bad day.’

I must.

‘When I’m writing I am rarely in a good mood. A part of me prefers to work at a flat level of emotion. Day after day, I see hardly anyone. I’ll put in eight to ten hours, or which only three or four will consist of words getting down on the page. It’s almost a question of one’s metabolism. You begin, after all, from a standing start and have to accelerate up to a level of cerebration where the best words are coming in good order. Just as a fighter has to feel that he posses the right to do physical damage to another man, so a writer has to be ready to take chances with his readers’ lives. If you’re trying for something at all interesting or difficult, then you cannot predict what the results of your work will be. If it’s close enough to the root, people can be physically injured reading you. Full of heart, he was also heartless – a splendid oxymoron. That can be the epitaph for many a good novelist.’

This will be hard. I’ve tried to fit writing in around housework, around the children, around holidays to no avail. I did best when I sat down for a few hours during school term week days to write in a café; perhaps the best I can expect from now. It will take a publishing deal before I can buy, let alone justify, going at it all day long. I looked at an office the other day; a space away from home where I could write in peace having dropped the children at school. Ten years ago I would have committed myself to the place, but too many financial errors have left me nervous and inclined to listen to my wife’s advice. If I cannot act on impulse then I cease to be me.

Jonathan Franzen on writing

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen (Photo credit: What is in us)

First posted on 29/09/2002 in my Diaryland blog

On Jonathan Franzen

From edited extracts from ‘Why Bother?’ a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen. This essay is, ‘How to be alone’ that appeared in the UK’s Saturday Guardian newspaper.

Jonathan Franzen’s model when he got out of college in 1981 for the kind of novel he wanted to write was Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’.

This was 1992. So what is it now. I presume a bit of TV and radio would have given way to the Net’

‘The ambitious young fiction writer can’t help noting that, in a recent USA Today survey of 24 hours in the life of American culture, there were 21 references to television, eight to film, seven to popular music, four to radio, and one to fiction.’

I like how Jonathan Franzen relates the fall of the Soviet Union to the shift on car purchasing in the USA.

‘In 1993 -the swollen minivans and broad-beamed trucks that had replaced the automobile as the suburban vehicle of choice – these Rangers and Land Cruisers and Voyagers that were the true spoils of a war waged to keep American petrol cheaper than dirt.’

This brings a wry smile from me:

‘I was becoming so depressed that I could do little after dinner but flop in front of the TV. I could always find something delicious: M*A*S*H, Cheers, Homicide. Naturally, the more TV I watched, the worse I felt.’

I zap between E.R., Friends, Coupling and Simon Sharma.

‘If you are a novelist and you don’t feel like reading, how can you expect anybody else to read your books?’

This prompted me to go out and buy Zadie Smith’s, ‘White Teeth’, Tony Parson’s ‘Man and Boy’ and something else … I want Michel Houellebeque’s ‘Platform’.

‘In the 19th century, when Dickens and Darwin and Disraeli all read one another’s work, the novel was the pre-eminent medium of social instruction. A new book by Thackery or William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that a later December film release inspires today. The big, obvious reason for the decline of the social novel is that modern technologies do a much better job of social instruction. Television, radio and photographs are vivid, instantaneous media.’

P.S. What is a ‘social novel’ ? I never studied English beyond school. I.e. Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Pope.

N.B. ‘The essence of fiction is solitary work: the work of writing, the work of reading.’ Jonathan Franzen 1992

This is why writers need a shed. Or a yacht. Or a hermitage

I’d like a hermit’s cage; I’d like to be sent innocent girl’s in search of God so that I could put the Devil inside her. (If she were consenting and over the age of 18 of course, or is 16 in England.)

‘However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious.’ Jonathan Franzen 1992.

There are echoes of Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’ all about ‘resistance’ … though Jonathan Franzen wrote this a decade ago. Ripples, synchronicity. Blah Blah. Writer who writer about writing as they write.

‘Even harder to admit is depression. It’s not just that depression has become fashionable to the point of banality. The invitation to leave your depression behind, whether through medication or therapy or effort or will, seems like an invitation to turn your back on all your dark insights into the corruption and infantilism and self-delusion of the brave new McWorld … Instead of saying I am depressed you want to say I am right !’

And a bit more

‘Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular. But the realism is merely a mask for depression’s actual essence, which is an overwhelming estrangement from humanity. The more persuaded you are of your unique access to the rottenness, the more afraid you become of engaging with the world; and the less you engage with the world, the more perfidiously happy-faced the rest of humanity seems for continuing to engage with it.’

Don’t think about it, just do it.

Don’t even hesitate to look into your soul. Don’t do an Elvis. Narcissism and writing equals stalemate

‘There’s evidence that young writers today feel imprisoned by their ethnic or gender identities – discouraged from speaking across boundaries by a culture in which television has conditioned us t accept only the literal testimony of the Self. And the problem is aggravated when fiction writers take refuge in university creative-writing programmes. Any given issue of the typical small literary magazine reliably contains variations on three general short stories: “My Interesting Childhood,” My Interesting Life in a College Town,” and “My Interesting Year Abroad”. As a reader I mourn the retreat into the Self and the decline of the broad-canvas novel.’

Just do it. Site down and write.

Lock yourself in a shed. Drink, wank, let go. Then write. Get on a yacht. Disappear to sea. Fly a rocket to the moon. Isolate yourself. No radio, no TV, no papers. No reference books. No contact with the outside world. No ‘writers groups’ at all. Sexperts are permitted.

‘I used to distrust creative-writing departments for what seemed to me their artificial safety, just as I distrusted book clubs for treating literature like a cruciferous vegetable that could be choked down only with a spoonful of socialising.’

Ha ! I knew this writer’s group thing was a waste of paste and space.

‘Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence: in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness.’

On writing a diary – January 1st, 1993

François Truffaut

François Truffaut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fig. 1. Francois Truffaut knew himself – what he read, why he read and what he thought in letters and notes.

 

Written on 1/1/1993 in a hardback journal

I’m not writing a journal or a diary

‘It seems to me that I follow only the most accessible thread. Three or four threads may be agitated, like telegraph wires, at the same time, and if I were to tap them all I would reveal such a mixture of innocence and duplicity, generosity and calculation, fear and courage. I cannot tell the whole truth simply because I would have to write four journals at once. I often would have to retrace my steps, because of my vice for embellishment’. Anais Nin

(Henry & June, Journals, July 1932)

This has become many things:

  • a record of what happens to me and around me each day
  • a notebook for whatever I’m reading
  • a record and analysis of dreams
  • a place to try my hand at exposure and expression while avoiding cliché’s like that one
  • a place to describe how it is, or isn’t;
  • a place to practise lies
  • a place to drill, thrill and hone my skill
  • a place to underplay, exaggerate or avoid
  • a place to lose myself in Truth
  • a place to mouth off or to get off
  • a place to play
  • a place where a blank pages means something as a day missed is a day when I’m too ill, too depressed, too drunk or too bored with it

Writers keep diaries to record events – a writer’s journal

I do this; working up events until they have become more real than reality as I obscure what happened with scene setting detail and by bringing narrative order to the muddle of a daily life. At times I write as a drill, to practice, at others because I feel an obligation, it is what I do most days, every day. I use these pages in an attempt to extract a writing style and extricate myself from the bland, for many years without success.

Lately a form has emerged as I tripped and stumbled over a keyboard I’ve been hacking at the undergrowth until I have found my way, happily pursuing forest paths and following streams back to their source. I keep a diary as a record of events: what I did, where, with whom. At times I reduce the diary to bullet points, satisfied that I’ve not lost the day forever to obscurity. As a painter I had to draw what I saw, from reality, not straight out of the mind or by copying. As a writer I hoped at first that I could write candidly about reality and once I had established that I could progress to fiction.

Am I writing postcards to myself?

How for example would I describe this house? How would I describe the room in where I am sleeping? How would I describe the view from the window? The desk at which I am writing ? How we made love this morning? These are the things about which I should write.

It all counts. It all mounts

Words tripping over words, hardback notebooks labelled and stacked, files in boxes and files on discs, on zips and here, online. It’s a matter of finding the words, describing chronologically the actions which make the event and in so doing transporting the reader into my head.

This writing is never supposed to be a draft of anything

I would allow my diary to be read by Suzi. Knowing she would sometimes read it I could write disinformation, instead of writing about me, I could write about her, and as I would in a letter and could express my love for her instead of my doubts; as all authors do for their readers I could write what she wanted to read. Hardest of all was the need to leave out my lust for other women (I was 17 when we met, 18 when we went out with each other and 25 when we broke up)

I liked to indulge that rush of blood you get on seeing someone you could imagine being with !!

I had an affair with Louise without getting a finger near her … because I wrote, and imagined, and connived to seduce her, in my mind I dated her, despite how often she told me she had a boyfriend in London – foolishly I admitted some of this to Suzi. In so doing I smudged our relationship; I became a Janus, committed to looking in different directions, holding onto Suzi whilst hoping the relationship with Louise would take off – it didn’t.

The search for ‘Janus’ set off a string of memories

The search led me to the ‘Oxford Companion of Classical Literature’ and so to considering Hedes, looking up ‘sentinel’ and finally pursuing Juno until I read Janus and it all fell into place – a riddle solved. This in turn sparked off a vivid memory of being told by Mr Byers at Mowden Hall School sometime in the early 1970s.

I read how Francois Truffaut said he felt it was necessary to read everything to give the mind food and things to smart against, ways of gaining new ideas and having old one revived. If this is the case I can justify reading trash: ‘The Sunday Sport’ and ‘Viz’ as well as my favourite current authors: Anais Nin, Henry Miller, not only required reading classics like ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘Ulysses’, but also books I loved and read in the past which need to be reread: ‘Time Enough for Love‘ (Heinlein) ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (Tolkein), ‘The Nania Chronicles’ (C. S. Lewis), even that child’s book on history (Ladybird) which begun with a picture of a caveman and later had pictures of the Golden Hynde, my earliest books and what I thought of them.

‘Mind Stimulation’ digging up the psyche, that’s what I’ll call it!!!

So how many diaries or journals do I need?

  • a dream book
  • a diary for a straight log of what I did during the day
  • a journal as a notebook (as here)
  • a memory jogger
  • something for assessment/analysis of what I am thinking and reading
  • a scrapbook.

How many is that?
Would four do the trick?
Could I try it for a year?

I kept a five year day for eight years in my early teens: the five lines per day are hopeless unrevealing: I washed my hair, cleaned out the rabbit kind of thing. Some rare moments bring back the day or event. I began to record dreams in my mid-teens, tiring off it when I found I could recall four or more dreams each night taking several hours to write them up the following day. I kept a scrapbook and dairy in a ring-bind folder when I went on an exchange with a French boy and repeated this around my 17th birthday, filling a folder in one month and so realising I needed a different approach. This is when I settled for a page of A4 per day every day, not less and rarely more. Being able to write as much as I liked I found myself filling a dozen pages plus and so quickly lost the detail that would have otherwise identified the day, month and year.

Dreams already (usually) go on a pre-formatted template on the Amstrad

I’ve been wanting to buy a scrapbook again for ages but haven’t come up with an easy solution – it needs to be in a bound book form for simplicity’s sake. The ‘Journals’ (this) I have, which leaves the diary. If I take this route it will be strictly a ‘page day job’ – none of these twelve page epic per day entries. It would be a mere (better than nothing though) Logbook. Though never as dry. From this I could write expanded entries (as I am currently trying to do with the 1980s).

Anais would hide her diary

This secretiveness was a product of the treachery it would have revealed, especially to her husband Hugo who would have been unable to handle it. I hid my diaries for another reason – how vulnerable the inner thoughts can make you, and how many impressions, concerns, agitations are fears of the moment which would usually, sensibly, remain hidden.

It’s that probing around in my skull for scrap of anxiety or mystery which most concerns me.

I don’t want to indulge, I don’t want to look for fault. I don’t want to dwell on previous relationships (such as Suzi), unless I know also I will keep them in the past, unfortunately diaries, like minutes in a meeting, eventually prompt you to ‘do something about it’ Actions points, 1,2,3 …

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