On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger


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I wrote this several years ago at this time of year, and it still feels very relevant.

Happy Diwali, everyone ūüôā

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Today marks the start of the 8-day long diwali (or d?p?vali) festival. It is a festival of light, celebrated in Hinduism and Buddhism, among others.

Traditionally, people light candles, wear new clothes, and celebrate with sweets and snacks. What got me thinking, though, was the many and varied stories of how diwali came about, through legend and history. I won’t go into detail (if you want it, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start), but the stories are all essentially about a homecoming, a return from exile, the release of detainees.

In the past few days, I’ve been bothered by our government’s reaction to the 250 Tamil asylum-seekers, who are now on hunger strike in a boat in Merak, Java. These people are apparently so evil that both sides of politics agree that they shouldn’t be allowed in to our country, to enjoy our freedoms.

We quite happily advertise our wealth to the world. When those who have nothing; those who live daily in fear and poverty; seek to improve theirs and their childrens’ lives by giving everything they have to come here, we turn them away. We turn them away.

What evil do these people encompass? The detractors will cry that we will be over-run. Well, so what if we are? We have boundless plains to share, after all.

Even if you have never heard of diwali before, even if this day would normally have passed for you without a glimmer of recognition of what today means for so many Hindus and Buddhists, please just take a moment to think of those who will not be returning home. Take a moment to consider how many people are currently living in fear of their lives, in complete and abject poverty, and who are willing to give everything they have to try and rise above that. And think about the people who are so close to their dream of the future … yet so far.

Happy diwali. I hope that – for you – it is a time of light and happiness. And I hope that you will spare a thought and light a candle for those who cannot celebrate diwali this year, through no fault of their own.

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The Mechanical Turk and OSDC

OSDC 2011 kicked off today at the ANU. I tripped along to the OSIA (Open Source Industry Australia) miniconf, which Red Hat sponsored, and was mightily pleased to hear Stuart Gutherie reference one of my favourite pieces of historical weirdness: the mechanical turk. I couldn’t help but hold forth, and eventually gave an impromptu lightning talk on the subject.

The mechanical turk existed in the late 1700’s, and was billed as an “automaton chess player”. In reality, it was a wooden box in which an accomplished chess player could sit and manipulate the chess board on top, while a wooden “turk” would appear to move the pieces mechanically. It was invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian, who also invented a “speaking machine”, a speech synthesiser, which was actually quite important to the early development of phonetics as an area of study, but not half as famous as his great hoax, the mechanical turk.

What makes the mechanical turk so interesting is the lengths von Kempelen went to to persuade his audience that the turk was, indeed, an automaton. He would show the audience first one empty cabinet, then another, and then in the third cabinet would be a complicated looking system of levers and pulleys. The cabinet was designed that, throughout this proceeding, the human operator could easily slip from one side to the other on a sliding seat to hide from view.

The trick was not exposed until the mid-1820’s, despite some very public appearances. The mechanical turk won chess games against such prominent figures as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin before being found out, although no one has recorded the names of those chess players working the turk from underneath.

How this becomes relevant to the IT industry is equally as fascinating as the history of the machine. In the days of the turk, playing chess was something that no machine was capable of doing. It required a level of computation that only humans were capable of achieving. We have now invented computers that can play chess (and even appear on game shows) with ease, but there are still tasks that we can’t replace with a small shell script. Many of these tasks are frustratingly simple, but require a human brain to parse the data. Writing tasks often fit into this category: things like writing short captions for images, changing the style used in a document, or changing text from British English to American English spelling.

Within Red Hat, we spend a lot of our time working on errata text. After a program has been released it is fairly normal to find bugs. When the developers go through and fix a bunch of those bugs, they will send out an update termed an “errata release”. For each bug fixed, the technical writers need to document it, which means writing four sentences: one sentence each about the cause of the bug, the consequence of the bug, the fix that was applied, and the result of the fix. This is, naturally, quite tedious and boring. It’s natural for us to want to automate this process, but unfortunately it’s a job that requires a human brain.

So we did the next best thing: we created a mechanical turk. We call it “The Turkinator”, and it’s currently available for Fedora errata releases. Basically, you choose whether you want to write a Cause, a Consequence, a Fix, or a Result; you’re given a bug to read; you submit your sentence and that’s it. In this way, we automate the task of writing errata text by breaking the big task down into little tiny pieces and asking humans to perform the work of a shell script.

This model has an extra added bonus in the open source space, though, and that is what we like to call “micro-contributions”. Anyone who has contributed ‚ÄĒ or thought about contributing ‚ÄĒ to an open source project would understand how daunting that first contribution can be. By creating the possibility of micro-contributions, potential contributors can have their first (and second, and third …) patch completed in under a minute. Instant contributors for the project, and instant contributions for the development team.

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The Language of Change, and the Changing of Language

A conversation on the Australian Tech Writers mailing list prompted me to dig up these old blog posts from 2008 and repost them here. It was a short impromptu series of the changing face of language, and how we as wordsmiths deal with it:


Merriam-Webster – Bringing The Mondegreen To Linguistic Fanboys Everywhere

July 2008

Spotted this one on Slashdot today. Reading the comments, I came along quite a few that expressed what appears to be complete and utter dismay at the introduction of new words into the language. For example, this one:

“Even if you can guess what it means, it’s always good fun to pounce on neologisms and jargon and grill the user why they are using them instead of a more traditional word.”

And then there was this one:

“my old boss used to love these damn things and every time he’d say the word “webinar” a peice of me died a little inside”

It reminds me of a time I was driving around Brisbane with a friend, it was Christmas time, and I noted a sign in front of a church that stated something along the lines of “Christmass Services”. I made an offhand comment about the mispelling, and my friend pointed out that the origin of the word indicates that it should, indeed, be spelled “Christmass” (as it derived from the Mass for Christ). The main point of her comment though was the fact that language is an ever-changing and constantly evolving beast. Wordsmiths – myself included – are often very quick to point out that something is not a word, or is a neologism, or just isn’t right for some other reason.

We all use language in different ways every day – the language we use to speak to our friends is not the same as we use to speak to our children, or to authorities. The language that we use to write emails to our friends is different to the language that we use to write a complaint to the phone company. In my case, the language that I use to write technical documentation is different to the language I use to write fiction, and is different to the language I am using to write this blog post. The most interesting thing about that is the language that I use to do all those things has changed – as I’ve gotten older, as my opinions have changed, as my knowledge has increased, as my tastes have changed, and as I’ve come across new words.

I was working on the latest fiction project last night, writing very short snippets in first person for several different characters, and consciously trying to alter the ‘voice’ of each section to suit that character. Not as easy as it sounds, but I’m reasonably pleased with the results, so far.

Language, in all its forms, shifts and changes with attitude and society. While I’ve never considered Merriam-Webster to be authoritative, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on it for any of my work, at least we ought to give them credit for trying to document the language as it is used, rather than how it ‘ought’ to be. And for that reason alone, it has a place in the world.


New Words, Old Words

August 2008

Not so long ago, I wrote this. To summarise, it was about new words adopted into the English language by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, most of which had their genesis in online culture. So it was with great joy that I came across this article which outlines some of the words that the internet has succesfully killed. It’s a lovely piece of work, I suggest you read it. My very favourite is at the top of the list – “friend”. Once a word meaning ” someone you knew, had a personal relationship with, occasionally spoke to, and frequently drank beers with” it now, according to the article, means “someone who found your email address and typed it into Facebook and/or LinkedIN. You may have met said person at a conference once, and possibly even conversed with for 5 or more minutes”. Of course, my second favourite is in there too – “startup”. Once, it meant “a company with a novel idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company into a successful, profitable entity”. Now, it means “a college graduate and three friends who have an incremental idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company such that it gets acquired by Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo (in that order), preferably within 18 months for at least 9 figures.”

The article is tongue-in-cheek – and readily admits it – but there’s a whole lot of truth in there (albeit disguised nicely behind humour). Language is evolving, and the major vehicle for change is that thing that has become so pervasive in our lives – the internet – and the culture that goes with it. Not only have new words entered – “w00t” and “mondegreen” instantly spring to mind – but ‘old’ words have had their meanings modified to fit the new medium. I maintain that it’s not a bad thing, it’s progress (whatever definition you choose to use for ‘progress’). Sometimes it seems like backwards progress, but it is nevertheless the direction we are heading. Don’t like it? That’s OK – the new generation do. And when they’re all grown up and complaining about the “young ‘ens”, well, that’s OK too. Their kids will be busy picking up the slack by then.


All The World’s A Stage, And All The Men And Women Merely Players

August 2008


In what has become a somewhat impromptu series on the evolution of the English language, I just had to mention something I read whilst on holidays last weekend. I picked up Bill Bryson’s take on the life of Shakespeare whilst away. I’ve been interested in the great mystery of Shakespeare’s life for some time now. I own a copy of Nolan’s “Shakespeare’s Face” and have read numerous other accounts (or, more accurately, guesses) of his life and works. Add to this the fact that I have been wanting to start reading Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, and it was a fairly predictable attraction. Not incidentally, I’m intending to read his “The Mother Tongue” shortly too.

The book is quite short, and I finished it mere days after purchase – helped along by a few days in a warm climate with no pressing demands, I might add. It is written in true Bryson style, very conversational and light hearted, and he gives a lovely (or not so lovely, depending on your take on plague and wanton violence) picture of 16th century England, and Shakespeare’s somewhat unassuming – so far as we can tell – place in it.

However, my favourite part is this discussion of some of the many words that Shakespeare (allegedly) introduced into the English language:

And there was never a better time to delve for pleasure in language than the sixteenth century, when novelty blew through English like a spring breeze. Some twelve thousand words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 and 1650, about half of them still in use today, and old words were employed in ways that had not been tried before. Nouns became verbs and adverbs; adverbs became adjectives. Expressions that could not grammatically have existed before – such as “breathing one’s last” and “backing a horse”, both coined by Shakespeare – were suddenly popping up everywhere. Double superlatives and double negatives – “the most unkindest cut of all” – troubled no one and allowed an additional degree of emphasis that has since been lost.

Bryson goes on to mention the notorious variability of spelling known in early English society, noting this little gem –

Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page.

Of course, it just goes to show that the language has been evolving apace for many hundreds of years. Indeed, despite the naysayers it is happening much slower now than it was back in Shakespeare’s day. I can imagine that back then there were people (perhaps among the upper, educated, classes) who complained that artists such as he were mangling the language, and doing things the wrong way, although the attitude towards English was reasonably fluid then, thanks to Latin and French being considered ‘proper’. Surely, as time went on, and English took hold first in business and legal matters, and later in the sciences, that there have been people unwilling to accept change, even as it occurs around them. Nothing has changed in that respect, I imagine, it’s just that now they have access to the internet – and a world full of people reading their opinions. Hopefully, it won’t impede the progress overly. Much as I still cringe a little at “truthiness”, “coopetition” and “incentivise”, I am completely capable of embracing the words that I like – “blogosphere” is one of my favourites, along with “jumping the shark” and “backronym”. It’s only a matter of time before the language evolves to the point that our grandchildren will be almost incomprehensible, and Shakespeare’s scribblings will have taken another step towards total obscurity.

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Louisa Lawson and The Digitise The Dawn Project

Louisa Albury was born in 1848 in Mudgee, the second of twelve children. Although she was offered a position as ‘pupil teacher’ at school, she was encouraged by her parents to leave school in order to look after her younger siblings. It was a fairly common thing to happen to eldest girls at the time, but judging by Louisa’s later life, it seems that she regretted it most severely. And who can blame her? She married¬†Niels Hertzberg Larsen (who called himself Peter) in 1866 at the tender age of eighteen, and they later¬†Anglicised their surname to Lawson. Peter, for good or bad, spent much of his time away at the goldfields, and left Louisa at home to look after their brood of five children alone. Eventually, his absences became longer and more frequent, and by the time Louisa moved with her children to Sydney in 1883, the marriage was all but over. Left alone with five children to support, and with very little and sporadic financial assistance from Peter, she turned her hand first to sewing and washing to earn money. She also took in boarders from time to time. In 1887, she took the opportunity to purchase The Republican newspaper, a paper about which I’ve been almost completely unable to find information on, sadly. The one thing I have learned, though, is that it (apparently) “called for all Australians to unite under ‘the flag of a Federated Australia, the Great Republic of the Southern Seas'”[0]. By all accounts, it didn’t last long though, and ceased production the following year, in 1888. But Louisa’a political leanings were very much beginning to show.

Apparently bitten by the publishing bug, and probably eager to continue publishing her own essays and works of poetry, she started publishing a magazine called The Dawn in 1888. It was printed as “A Journal for Australian Women” and “publicize women’s wrongs, fight their battles and sue for their suffrage”[1]. It was the first newspaper printed in Australia that dealt with issues of feminism and suffrage, and is considered perhaps the single most important factor in the beginning of the suffragette movement in Australia. Shortly after The Dawn‘s inception, Louisa’s husband Peter died, leaving her with a large inheritance, which was immediately spent on improving the printing press and increasing the circulation of the magazine. She also hired ten staff, all of whom were women. The NSW Typographical Association did not accept female members at the time, and took exception to the fact that a magazine could be edited, printed, and circulated only by women. They took up arms against Louisa and the magazine and encouraged advertisers to boycott The Dawn and¬†reportedly¬†harassed the women on site.

As evidence of Louisa’s strength, she did not let this discourage her, and in¬†1889, she began running meetings at the Dawn offices which became known as The Dawn Club. The Club discussed issues relating to the “evil laws” made by men, and encouraged women to infiltrate male-dominated arenas such as debating clubs, and Louisa herself became the first female member of the board of management of the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts.
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The Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW began in 1891 and, hardly surprisingly, Louisa was elected to its council. She offered the¬†Dawn offices and printing press for the League to use for meetings and pamphlets free of charge, and this remained the case until the League’s demise, despite the fact that Louisa herself withdrew from the council in 1893 after an ill-documented dispute.
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By the time women were given the vote in 1902, Louisa was starting to slow down.¬†In 1900, she had a fall from a tram and was badly injured, although she was politically active again in 1902 itself, when she was introduced to the Australia parliament as “The Mother of Suffrage in New South Wales”[2]. During the early 1900’s she took¬†several extended ‘rest’ periods from her campaigning and the magazine. She was 54, not old by our modern standards, but perfectly elderly by the standards of the day, and she had worked hard both physically and mentally all her life.

With the coming of the women’s vote, Louisa aged and so, sadly, did The Dawn. The columns grew fewer and less fervent, the advertisers gradually departed, and in 1905 the newspaper printed its last edition.

Louisa continued to write for several Sydney-based publications, and she also produced an extensive volume of poetry.

I have been unable to find out what mental ailment troubled her in her final days, but dementia appears to be the most likely. She died in the Gladesville Mental Hospital aged 72, in 1920. The fight gets to even the strongest of us in the end.

Unfortunately, The Dawn has so far not been included in the National Library’s ‘Trove’ Digitisation Project, despite it’s great historical¬†significance¬†in gaining Australian women the vote, and despite Louisa’s passion and fervour in promoting women’s rights of all description. Do you feel it’s an important part of Australian history? If you do, why not contribute to the project? It’s being run by the lovely Donna Benjamin and she needs your help to raise the funds to make the digitisation a reality. You might also like to follow @digitisethedawn on Twitter to keep up with progress, and to help spread the word.
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Oh, and as a postscript: yes, Louisa did have a very famous son, but her story is so much more interesting than that, don’t you agree?

[0] http://www.nla.gov.au/guides/federation/people/lawsonl.html

[1] http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100019b.htm

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisa_Lawson

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Rule 16 of the Internet

In her introduction to the 1994 edition of “Damned Whores and God’s Police”, the wonderful Anne Summers wrote “I believe that to address these questions [of women’s struggle for equality] adequately, a new book is needed and I hope that someone, somewhere, right now is hatching another ‘big book’, a sweeping feminist perspective on contemporary Australia, because we need another interpretation, a new perspective … We need new voices, and new visions.”

 

I read those words for the first time in 2003. I had gotten married that year, and was busy falling pregnant. I gave birth to my daughter early in 2004, and settled neatly into my new found role as wife and mother. I helped in my husband’s business as a secretary and book-keeper and cooked healthy and satisfying meals for my family from the Women’s Weekly. I kept the house clean, my husband’s shirts ironed, and my baby’s bottom dry. Sometimes when the baby was asleep I would write short stories to amuse myself that I never shared with anyone. Occasionally, my feminist best friend would call me on the phone, we’d chat, and at some point she’d laugh and say “you are the typical housewife. You’ve turned into your mother”. Of course I hadn’t, I scoffed back. I had a job, my child went to daycare three days a week. This being the epitome of working motherhood to me. That, and all the associated guilt that came with it that Ita Buttrose (“Motherguilt: Australian Women Reveal Their True Feelings About Motherhood”) and her ilk told me was right and proper that I should be feeling. I had read Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” and Summers’ “Damned Whores and God’s Police”. I thought I understood the issues, and I empathised with the few feminists I had met. What I didn’t understand was why they had to be so angry about it all the time. They were missing the point. We had come so far, already. We didn’t have to worry about getting the vote, or equal pay for equal work, or sexual freedom. We had all that. What more did they want? Really?

 

Four years later, I found myself celebrating the second anniversary of my divorce with a melancholy kindergartner torn between two homes. At the age of 27 I had finally discovered that it was possible to have a job that I enjoyed and that also paid the bills, and it was the only thing keeping me sane. I started watching the world around me with jaded, cynical eyes, and writing down the things I saw. I found myself re-reading Anne Summers book, and her words sang away in the back of my mind. I dug further, craving more information, and gradually became familiar with the online world of hurting, angry, and pained feminist bloggers. I started reading what they wrote – not the vitriolic and accusatory words they used, but what they actually were trying to say. And when I cut through the verbiage, I heard one thing over and over again: Why is this still happening?

 

Feminism is now a dirty word. Efforts to achieve gender equality are encouraged to employ language that is less confronting and not quite so scary. Young women don’t want to be feminists any more, we’re told. Feminist rhetoric everywhere is beset by women commenting that the authors are beating dead horses, and they just wish we’d all stop talking about it already.

 

Where does this disconnect come from? Why was it that while I was fulfilling my role as a wife and mother that I thought we had equality? Why was it that not until I ventured into the online world did I discover this apparent lingering inequality in our society? I think it had to do with a number of different factors.

 

Perhaps the most glaring answer was that I was now viewing the world via the social web, rather than the mainstream media. My news was no longer filtered by what would sell newspapers and magazines, but by what people found interesting. The natural result of this of course is that when you read one feminist blog, it links to another so you read that one as well. That one might link to a few different articles, and another blog. Eventually, you find that your entire morning news consists of feminist ranting and not much else. That, in itself, had a lot to do with my perspective, but it didn’t fully explain whether the deception occurred in the years before I started reading blogs, or after.

 

I also wondered if it was because I now had access to individual and very personal accounts of sexism and inequality. These were stories being shared directly by victims. Prior to reading my first ever feminist blog, I had never been friends with anyone who had experienced anything so brutal, demeaning, and sometimes violent as these stories I was reading now. Was this a matter of statistics? It is entirely believable that the number of people recounting these acts were statistically insignificant, meaning the problem where it existed was truly horrifying, but probably not anything worth actually getting upset over, unless you were the victim of course. After all, there are a small percentage of people in the world that can only be considered sick fucks. We all know they exist, we do what we can to combat it legally and socially, and we all recognise that the whole of human society is not at all like that. This had a ring of truth about it too, but it was still hard to swallow as a complete answer.

 

Eventually, something came up in a conversation with a friend of mine. We were discussing geek culture, and how being a ‘geek’ suddenly had street cred and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Everywhere she turned, she was faced by people who had never done anything more with technology than log into Facebook, but they were suddenly branding themselves as a geek. Icons of geek culture – such as Star Wars, the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series, Battlestar Galactica, and an overt interest in fonts – were being adopted in the most mainstream ways. It was enough to make HG Wells turn in his grave, she said. Suddenly, geek was the new black: everybody was making jokes involving hex codes, everyone had a Twitter account, and every photo of a cat had a poorly spelled caption. And that was when it hit me. It wasn’t that the internet had opened my eyes to sexism that had existed all along. It was that sexism existed on the internet in a way that it no longer existed in the rest of society. Online society reflected real life, but it was socially many significant steps in the past.

 

Internet culture has long been the stronghold of the uber-geek. Before MSN Messenger, Google, and Facebook made the internet accessible for everyone it took quite a lot of technical know-how to be able to get online in the first place, let alone find your way to online social groups and communities. Not everyone knew someone technically literate enough to get them online, and keep them there. Many people weren’t quite sure what they would do if they did get online. The internet was full of strongholds like USENET and IRC, inhabited by mathematicians, engineers, scientists and university students. They all spoke a special language comprised of acronyms, in-jokes, and slang that served to filter out the general public. For the most part, they were quite happy to keep it that way. I was at university in those days, so hanging out in an IRC channel or two was expected, but you didn’t dare speak up too loud, or wander into the wrong BBS, because it wouldn’t take long before you either showed your ignorance, or had some channel operator ask who you were and what you thought you were doing there. By keeping the riff-raff out of the networks, they were able to discuss their projects in detail without being bogged down by silly questions; they were able to monitor and filter what was said, and by whom. Although it was probably unintentional, these enclaves were also able to maintain the notion that they were part of an elite minority. They were the ones who ruled the internet – they would choose who could come, and they would choose who could stay. Overwhelmingly, the people who were making these decisions were male. It was not that they did not allow women in, so much that there were very few women who wanted in, or even knew about it. There weren’t that many women in their offline communities, so there were very few women invited into the newly developed online ones. So it was that with this technological leap forward into the early dotcom years, the skewed gender profile of generations of science and engineering labs filtered into the next great social revolution.

 

Acronyms and industry jargon have always been used to delineate those who are in the group from those who don’t belong. This is true in no place so obviously as the internet, particularly in those early days when internet access was just starting to creep into homes. Just like the offline world, outsiders have increasingly found themselves having to fight for acceptance into this culture. The technology that allowed access to all and sundry has, unfortunately, moved slower than the norms and rituals surrounding it. Which leads us to an interesting situation. Offline, women have achieved a lot in terms of gender equity. Sure, there is still work to be done, but for the most part women enjoy freedoms and equality that Germaine Greer and Anne Summers, when writing their seminal works, didn’t even have the words to describe. Online, however, is a different story.¬†Rule 16 of the internet states: “There are no girls on the internet”.

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Where do you get your ideas?

Every writer has been asked this. Even unpublished, unknown, and unrecognised writers like me. In Stephen King’s brilliant book “On Writing” (which, you might have noticed, was the inspiration for this blog’s title) he gives a simple and succinct answer:

Anything you damn well want.

Honestly, I don’t know where I get my ideas. Sometimes I turn a little tiny nub of an idea around in my head, stretch it and bend it and flip it on its head, until it starts to form a plot. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it’s just sitting there, whole, waiting for me to pick it up in my hand like a glass bauble and make it come to life on the page. Honestly, though, I think that the people who ask this question aren’t really wondering where the writer gets the ideas so much as “Where do you find the words?”. I read an interesting answer to this question by Julie Norris on the 2moroDocs blog. She explained that she

always visualize[s] words up in the sky, like stars, and when writing, I just reach up and gather some. Sometimes they’re easily in reach, and other times not. Depends on the word, I suppose, or the day.

I’m not sure I’m that visual, but I know there are days when the words come like a torrent, and it’s all my fingers can do to keep up with the flow. And then there’s days when they don’t … because sometimes they won’t (to paraphrase Dr Suess).

There is a school of thought that says write every day. While I’m not sure I agree with the preachy tone of that advice, I would definitely recommend that you write a lot. And if there’s a day when you don’t write, at least take the time to read. As part of the NaNoWriMo frivolities, a ‘pep talk’ email gets sent out to participiants every few days. My favourite one this year was from Peter Carey who said, in part:

First, turn off your television. The television is your enemy. It will stop you doing what you wish to do. If you wish to watch TV, you do not want to be a serious writer.

I never watched a lot of television, even as a kid, but I completely unplugged it about three years ago. I will note that when I say “I don’t watch television” I don’t, like a lot of people, mean “I don’t watch television, except for the news and the Saturday night movie” or “I don’t watch television, except for my favourite sitcom on Wednesdays. Oh, and that reality show on Saturday nights. Oh, and the lottery draw of course”. When I say “I don’t watch television” I mean “I don’t actually own one”. I don’t know how I would find the time now to watch even an hour of television a week. There’s washing to do, food to cook, books to read, blogs to comment on … any number of interesting things that are vying for my attention. It’s a concept that Clay Shirky write about in his (lengthy, but well worth reading) article Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. He refers to the time spent in front of television as a “cognitive surplus”, and suggests that when that time is spent doing, well, just about anything other than watching television, we are making a massive change to the very structure of our society. He also argues that children are growing up in a world where that cognitive surplus is being put to much better use. Children do not see value in media that you can’t interact with. While some decry this as shortened attention spans, I see it more as a shift in values. It’s not so much that we require constant entertainment, or constant stimulation, so much as we ask more from our leisure time. We’re not going to sit there and just mindlessly consume what’s on television so much anymore. We want our leisure to be spent creating, interacting, sharing, and collaborating. This is a good thing.

If you’ve always wanted to write, but you never have the time … try turning off the television. If you’ve always wanted to write, but you don’t know where to get your ideas, or you’re not sure how to find the words … turn off the television, and take a look at the world around you. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting, awe-inspiring, and wonderous than what’s on the box.

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