Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community in 1994. The internet then was about email listservs and dial-in message boards. Facebook was a decade away.
The blurb on the back says, “All over the world, people who have never met before are sharing information… and forming electronic communities, based on mutual interest rather than mere geography. In so doing they are redefining the very fabric of society, destroying old hierarchies.”
I remember feeling really inspired by that, back in 1994.
But in the introduction Rheingold offers this warning:
“The technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost. But the technology will not in itself fulfil that potential; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population.”
“More people must learn about that leverage and learn to use it, while we still have the freedom to do so, if it is to live up to its potential.”
“The odds are always good that big power and big money will find a way to control access to virtual communities; big power and big money always found ways to control new communications when they have emerged in the past.”
“What we know and do now is important because it is still possible for people around the world to make sure this new sphere of vital human discourse remains open to the citizens of the planet before the political and economic big boys seize it, censor it, meter it, and sell it back to us.”
In lockdown I’ve been experiencing a technololgy-enabled surge of creativity and connection. It feels like 1994, when I got a Compuserve account and became connected to a global community of writers and creators. Long may it continue.
Note: I’m inspired to write this in response to a request from Portland-based artist @ghirschart He asked me to take a photo of a book. Gary is 4,956 miles away from me. We met this week on Zoom.
I’ve been away and now I’m back. Whenever I go on holiday, the first things I pack are a notebook and pen. This time I also packed a sketch pad, some charcoal pencils, two oil pastels, an ink brush, various other art-making implements, and a camera. They were all left unused in my suitcase. Actually, now I think of it, I did use some of this stuff. I visited a quarry on Dartmoor and made some notes for a writing project. And I took lots of photos. How could I have forgotten?
It’s easy for me to tell myself that I’m doing nothing at all and that I am, therefore, wasting my time. But I’m always doing more than I think. And ‘not doing’ is an important part of the creative process. And everyone deserves a holiday. How easy it is to slip into a narrative of failure!
None of this is what I thought I was going to write about. I’d planned to say something about what happened yesterday, when I looked up attention in an online dictionary of etymology. The word has two roots. There’s the Old French ‘attencion’ – the active direction of the mind upon some object or topic. And there’s the Latin ‘attentionem’ – to stretch toward. The dictionary added some interesting nuance to the definition: attention can be a show of observant care, an act of concentration, an interest that leads you to want to know more, an act of courtesy indicating affection, and an erect, motionless stance.
That led me to this observation. If you wander around looking for astonishing things to write about, you will likely be disappointed. Sometimes subjects do leap out and command your attention, but not very often. I can’t even think of one example. An amazing sunset, maybe? What actually happens is this: you pay attention to something, you concentrate on it, you show it observant care and a little affection, you stand and wait, you allow that interest to lead you somewhere, you let it call to you, and then suddenly – or gradually – it becomes astonishing. So, attention leads to astonishment. And that means everything is or can become astonishing, if you pay attention. Which I suppose is what Mary Oliver meant.
#13 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it
I’m working on a new writing project for 26 and the Bloomsbury Festival. The brief is wonderfully – and worryingly – wide. I’ve been allocated one square mile of London’s Bloomsbury district; I need to write something inspired by it. Max 500 words in any form, plus a haiku. The idea was that I’d wander around, flaneur style, moving from pub to cafe to street corner, looking for inspiration in the hustle and bustle of city life. But then lockdown came along: I couldn’t leave home; the bars and cafes were closed; there was neither hustle nor bustle.
Last week I finally ventured up into the City to do my wandering. It was quieter and emptier than I thought it would be. All a bit grim, to be honest. And it was strange to mooch about purposefully looking for something to pay attention to, to be astonished by, to tell about. From my notebook: “A depressing walk up from Charing Cross to Russel Square. A few shops are open, but nobody in them. Waiters standing in the doorways of empty restaurants, waiting.” And this: “There are 19 concentric circles of stone around the fountain, closed and marked by a cone. If you count them you will discover that you’ve wasted your time.” And this: “In the Caffe Tropea the tea flows, so does the Italian, but business is slow. A man reads a pocket German dictionary.”
So yeah, nothing really working, no inspiration happening. I want to go home. It’s too cold to be wearing shorts. I’ve walked all the streets in my square mile, except one: the Colonnade is an old mews that runs behind the tube station. I turn the corner, and bam! There it is, right in front of me, waiting on the corner. It’s obvious that this is my subject, my inspiration. I don’t know what it is, or what it’s doing there, but from the name alone, I know this is the place I’m going to write about: The Horse Hospital.
#12 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Sitting at my desk at the end of a busy day. I’ve had too much client work to get through lately, but now I feel like I’ve got a bit more space. One thing that’s fallen by the wayside is my daily experiment with Mary Oliver’s instructions for living: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it. I’ve continued with the first two parts, but not the third. When I have made some time to write, to do some ‘telling about it’, I’ve found myself drawing instead, or doing more client work.
One thing that’s astonished me is how quickly the writing becomes difficult, once neglected. Although I shouldn’t be surprised. For years, I’ve noticed a three-day rule: If I stop writing, if, as my poetry hero William Stafford might say, I ‘let go of the thread’, it takes me three days to find it again, three days to get back into the flow. It’s true, for me, that the only thing more difficult than writing is not writing. Sitting here, I can feel the weight on my shoulders of all the things I was going to write about over the last few days, and they would all have been so much better than what I’m writing now, but… well, it didn’t happen. All I have is this.
And all of this makes me think of the Zen writer Gail Sher and her ‘Four Noble Truths’ of writing. Do you know them? 1.Writer’s write. 2. Writing is a process. 3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process. 4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write. Yes indeed, those are more instructions to live by, but inadequately so. Writing, she says, like life, is one long and continuous mistake. You do it, you get it wrong – inevitably. And then you continue.
#11 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
I’ve become a bit obsessive about figure drawing over the last few days. I tried my first life class last week, on Zoom, and I’ve spent hours sketching away since then. When I’m doing it, I forget everything else. I haven’t been thinking about whether my efforts were any ‘good’ or not. That didn’t matter.
Then yesterday, when I wanted to do a bit of sketching, I was distracted and allowed myself to be sucked into a stream of educational YouTube videos about how to draw better. Suddenly, my efforts felt crap, and I felt discouraged. The joy of making was gone.
I would like to get better at drawing. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t want to confuse an optimistic desire to learn with a negative sense of inadequacy or failure. It can be hard to walk on the right side of this line. It takes attention.
Here’s a quote on this subject from Eric Booth, who wrote ‘The Everyday Work of Art’. It’s a brilliant book for anyone who wants to bring the practice of creative making into their lives:
“We must always remember what we tend to forget about the work of art. What is important is the doing of the work: not you, not the reception of the work, not the quality of the resulting products, not how you feel about the work or how the work makes you feel, not what others think of what you are doing, or what you are going to tell them about your doings. The engagement in the process is the whole enchilada: everything else is a fringe benefit.”
#10 of 30. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Today I went to a cafe for the first time in three months. A tentative step back into the life I used to live. Or is it forwards into the new? Something as simple as ordering a flat white felt strangely exotic; paying for something I can make myself at home felt wonderfully indulgent. But sitting outside the cafe drinking my coffee, I was uncomfortably aware of other people walking past my table, moving through my space, not staying two metres away. Viktor Shklovsky wrote that art makes the familiar strange so it can be freshly perceived. It seems that lockdown has the same effect.
Lockdown has also helped me to freshly perceive what it’s like to take a morning walk through the woods and fields around my house. There was a time – before ‘all of this’ – when those walks would have been runs, not walks; and they would not have been every morning, as there was always something else more important to do. Now I have the time, and running – even at my slow pace – feels too fast. So, I walk. And I stop a lot.
What catches my attention? The shape of hay bales, the newly shorn sheep, the wind moving through the grass. I’m also more aware of the edges and boundaries that divide things: gates without fences, fences without gates. Yesterday I noticed the spot on my lane where the driver of a lorry had pulled to one side to make room for a passing car, and sunk his wheels into the verge that is softer than it looks; his axel gouged a strip from the tarmac surface as he pulled away.
There’s no need to look for meaning in any of this. But I’m thinking about another quote, that I think is from Seamus Heaney, but a bit of Googling doesn’t give me a source, or the exact words. The sentiment is this: poetry makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. Sharing words about hay bales and boundaries would have felt very strange; now it feels familiar.
A gate with nothing either side of it. I suppose there would have been a fence here once, possibly a hedge. There’s no sign of it. Whatever was here must have been taken away a long time ago. But why did they leave the gate? Oddly, the gate itself looks reasonably new, and is in much better shape than many of the gates I negotiate on my walks.
There’s something very striking about this lonely, pointless gate in the middle of field – and it is a huge field. It feels like a remnant from another time, a different civilisation, one where there were things called boundaries; fences formed dividing lines, so people knew where they were; nobody strayed; access was only allowed through gates.
I walked around the gate a few times, taking it in. It was tempting to open the gate and walk through it, because it can’t have been used for years, just to see what might happen. It felt like it wanted to be a metaphor for something.
Another working week is over. What have I achieved? What have I not achieved? It helps to write something down, to take stock. Normally, I’d sit here on my sofa and let the words flow. I wouldn’t worry about what came out. I’d write and it would clear my head; this is just me talking to myself. But right now I’m aware – I’m paying attention to – the fact that this might be today’s contribution to the project, to the experiment of living by Mary Oliver’s instructions. And I’ve started to share these daily words on Instagram, where people have been commenting and reacting. I have a little audience now. In which case, I ought to be noticing something interesting.
But I feel empty. This has been a busy day; I’ve spent too much of it on Zoom, in my shed, doing stuff for clients. There hasn’t been much time for astonishment or paying attention. I gave my daughter a lift to the train station and noticed how strange it felt to drive a car at over 40 miles per hour. I walked my dog and, remarkably, we found the same unopened bottle of Italian lager that I’ve mentioned twice already in these posts. That was astonishing, sort of, and I took another photo of it. But if I keep noticing and writing about the same thing, it’s not interesting, is it?
I want to say ‘look, I’m just trying to notice what I’m experiencing and to tell about it. That’s all. It is what it is.’ But I think I’ve said that already too. Ah, and now I can feel my inner critic really waking up; that other voice that says: ‘This? You think anyone would read this? Why on Earth would they?’ Etc, etc.
Earlier in the year, or maybe it was last year (I’ve checked, it was November), I went to an excellent workshop about dealing with your inner critic. I learnt that there’s no point trying to make the voice go away; it won’t. But I can notice what it’s trying to do (to make me stop writing) and when it’s doing it (we talked about how to recognise an ‘attack’; I had one a couple of paragraphs ago. Did you notice?) I named my inner critic Barry. Whatever he says can feel deeply persuasive; he knows me very well; he knows exactly which buttons to push. But look Barry in the eye, and he scurries back into the shadows. I drew a picture of Barry in the workshop. He emerged, grinning from a whirl of squiggles. I told myself he was smiling because, really, he is trying to be my friend. Hey, Barry: I’m watching you.
Yesterday the field contained 58 rolled bales of hay and one bottle of Italian lager, unopened. This morning, nothing. The farmer has taken it all away. It’s a shock, climbing over the style, coming into the field and finding it empty. Standing there, paying attention to its emptiness, and wondering whether this will be what I write about today, I notice that the field is not empty. There’s a fox. A cub, I think. Too far away to tell. A beautiful foxy-story-book red.
Whenever I see a fox, I’m reminded of Birthday Letters, the Ted Hughes collection. It includes the poem, Epiphany, in which the poet, who is a new father ‘slightly light-headed with the lack of sleep and the novelty’, describes a meeting on Chalk Farm Bridge with a ‘young fellow’ who has a fox cub inside his jacket. The fellow’s plan is to sell the cub for a pound to whoever wants it. The poet declines the offer – and who wouldn’t? – and gets on the Tube. Then he regrets it. “If I had paid that pound and turned back/ To you, with that armful of fox – /If I had grasped that whatever comes with a fox/ Is what tests a marriage and proves it a marriage –/ I would not have failed the test.”
I don’t know why this poem in particular comes to mind when I see a fox. I must have read other poems that involve foxes. But taking the collection off the shelf now – a lovely hardback – I remember that it was the first book of poetry anyone had bought me as a gift. It would have been a birthday present – ah, Birthday Letters! – and was from my wife. She’d signed it, and added three kisses. Looking at the date, it must have been my thirtieth birthday. Which means when I first met that fox I too was a light-headed, first time dad, giddy and a little overwhelmed by the novelty; my eldest would have been just six months old. I’ve surprised myself with this discovered connection. All because I paid some attention to an empty field. Astonishing.
Resting against a bale of hay, a bottle of Italian lager, unopened. This caught my attention, while out for a morning walk. It didn’t seem worthy of a mention here, so I walked on, confident that I’d find something ‘better’ to write about later. But then, why not this bottle, unopened, resting against a bale of hay, in a field of 58 – I counted – other bales of hay?
Mary Oliver’s first instruction is simply to pay attention, not pay attention to interesting things, or remarkable things; just be aware of what you are aware of. So, I walked back to the bottle and took a photo of it, had a closer look at it, noticed only then that it was unopened, and counted the number of hay bales in the field.
How quickly I judged my noticing. It’s only day five of this experiment and a voice, that ever-present inner critic, is already appearing in field of bales of hay to tell me I’m not doing it right; other people – more observant, more sensitive people – would be noticing more interesting things; other people would be doing this properly. Well. There we are. It’s astounding.