What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing

The easiest thing to do is to not write at all and just let your ideas pass through your brain into obscurity, often, to be completely forgotten forever.

This morning, I was thinking about a film I watched yesterday called Westworld, a renowned series of ideas about the future, told through the vision of Michael Crichton, now transformed into an HBO series. It’s well worth the watch. Many of the ideas within the film have inspired writers and filmmakers over the last 5 decades, with remnants of the movie’s creators found in such works as The Truman Show, The Terminator, and a whole variety of films that deal with a world in which artificially intelligent beings become sentient. It’s the sort of movie that makes me wonder how I have never seen it before and why it is that the prospect of autonomous machines fills us with such dread, but that’s the topic for another essay.

As I watched, I used a voice-to-text app on my mobile phone to think through what was going on in the film. I’ve become a huge fan of voice typing, it feels like the best interface for me to get thoughts out into the world, especially as my typing isn’t fast enough (80 wpm) and swiping across a mobile keyboard is painfully full of errors. Writing by hand is even worse; my handwriting has always been illegible, even to me. I remember my teacher at school telling me that my brain was faster than my hand. I remember thinking, that’s true surely for everyone? Anyway, I went through this process with a view to, at some point, trying to publish something about the film. It works too. At times, I’d pause the film and write about what I thought was going to happen, or what I felt was being represented through its imagery and words.

My next step in that process is to investigate what has already been written on the subject. I always start with my own thoughts, before burdening myself with the thoughts of others.

I believe that it’s crucial to have one’s own ideas first, not just because it might stimulate originality, but because it’s the most joyful way to write.

The ideas of others certainly provokes me to try harder and think deeper, but there’s a pleasure in thinking that you’re the first person to have thought about something in a certain way, even if it isn’t true. It’s a fleeting moment of discovery that, while naive, is also genuinely authentic and profound. After all, those people who, in fact, were the first people to think such thoughts, also did so out of a belief that they were the first.

When I get to this second stage I realize that a lot has been said about nearly everything that I’m thinking about. It’s not that I believe there are no original ideas, or that saying something that has yet to be said is impossible, but that it is often very challenging to discover something completely new because there are lots of people out there who are thinking about the same sorts of things. However, the good news is that most of them don’t bother to write them down. So, taking the first step in getting your thoughts down through writing is often the most important barrier to overcome if you want to say anything valuable at all. As well, what we know of writing is that there are incredible degrees of overlap in how we think. Even if there are more than seven story archetypes, stories work when they resonate with feelings to which we can all relate, even if this is often abstract and hard to articulate. A good story is able to express these sentiments well, rather than lead us into completely unknown territory. They are manifestations of the human condition in all of its beguiling chaos.

The third stage of writing is getting over the insecurity that anything that you have to say could, in any way, compare in value to the things that other people have already said.

You just have to ignore that feeling and keep going, because the value of you writing anything is not found in its value to other people. Rather, it’s found in the value that it gives to you, as somebody who is trying to grapple with understanding the world; that is the purpose of writing.

That’s why writers do it — good or bad — and if you approach writing in this way, then it’s never wasteful. It may not be groundbreaking or insightful for others, but there is also joy in making sense of the world irrespective of whether you were the first to do it, and even greater excitement in realising that it was just your own thoughts that got you there.

A good way to think about it is like training for a marathon, where each time you run is one run closer to being able to go the distance. When it comes to the race, you hope that all the training will mean that you’re ready to go for it, but what’s absolutely clear is that, without the training, you almost certainly will not make the distance.

I always tell my students that, if you want to write a good essay, then you need to triple the word count and write at least that number of words on your subject, before you reduce it down to the actual word limit that you’ve been allocated. By doing this, you give yourself enough space to work through your ideas in writing, to get through the bad stuff, before reaching the words that really say something interesting.

On my hard drive, I have a file called ‘The Vault’; it took its name from something I heard about Prince many years ago (I’m a big Prince fan). As a musician, Prince always had a lot more material he never published or recorded, but he kept it in a vault. I don’t know if it was an actual vault, or just a place he stored things privately, but the idea of a vault is appealing as it also feels like it’s locked away, a safe space to work through things, unencumbered by the prying eyes and judgmental thoughts of others. I’ve around 350,000 words in my ‘vault’ and I always thought I’d return to those words-in-progress at some point and develop them into fully polished essays. I rarely have and much of it is embarrassingly bad.

I was never really destined for writing. I did ok at school, but reading and writing were not my focus; I barely read at all really. That changed at university, where I discovered philosophy and, somehow, a desire to write. Thinking back, it absolutely coincided with the personal computer era. Imagine that! Perhaps my barriers to writing were mostly by frustration with handwriting. A computer keyboard allowed my thoughts to flow more clearly onto a page.

Yet, perhaps more than anything I derive from writing is a sense that it deepens my experience of the world.

My memories attached to events are deeper when I write about them. I remember hearing a quote recently that said, essentially, that you’ve not really read a book unless you’ve had a conversation about it afterwards. It stuck with me because I can relate. Talking or writing about books, films, music is a way of remaking them; we attach ourselves to these texts when doing so in ways that allow them to become a bigger part of our history and, if we can just push through the feelings of self-consciousness, we might just say something that interests somebody else too.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman

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