Playtime

I’m just back from a terrific stag do. We were badly hungover on Saturday morning but just about made it to the weekend’s activity which involved tripping up people in giant costumes, penguin sumo wrestling and climbing a rope on a slippery, soaped up bouncy castle (ending up arse over tit). Computer games and books are a poor substitute for the way we used to play in our youth.

Between the hijinks, pubs and clubs, my friend mentioned that his young son often becomes so engrossed in what he’s doing that when the time comes for him to go to the toilet he’ll carry on playing and ignore the consequences. Apparently this is common in boys. Imagine how fulfilling life would be if we took having fun that seriously. Imagine what we could achieve if we had the dedication necessary to wet ourselves rather than put down our pen, guitar or paintbrush. Perhaps this is taking personal productivity too far.

The faint blue glow of friendship

As we declutter our house prior to the big move, it’s been interesting to question what I need in my life. This doesn’t just apply to material stuff, of course, but other kinds of stuff too. For example: how I spend my time (temporal stuff). Unfortunately, it turns out that much of my temporal stuff is expended on digital stuff. So I began to think about whether I could slim down or prioritise my commitments to the internet.

It’s surprising how many people I’ve agreed to ‘follow’, how many marketing emails I’ve neglected to unsubscribe from, how many services I have an account for and have never found useful. Hey, it’s all free. Then, yesterday, I deleted TweetDeck and a shiver went through me. It was a physical feeling of relief.

I have this vague idea that social media is useful but it’s very hard to say how, and what the cost is. It’s usually an open ended and very poorly defined activity, at least the way I use it. Not SMART.

There’s also the mental bandwidth it hogs: the repetitive cycle of posting and checking; the fear of missing out. The impulse to tweet about something as it happens to you is the mental equivalent of having a ‘share this’ button embedded in your experiences. I do want to share some of my experiences but in a form and manner of my choosing. Does being retweeted help me to understand myself and others? Does the new Facebook design help me to be present in the living of my life? Probably not.

I know several people who love Twitter and would say it has changed their lives. Maybe they’re more purposeful and professional in their use of it than I am. Many writers use Twitter to build an audience and find like-minded fellows. When Joe and Hugh and I launched our poetry pamphlet, The Inner Sea, it reached people on Twitter who never would have read it otherwise. That was a really positive thing but the results didn’t really justify the amount of headspace I’ve given over to it.

I have some deeper problems with social media and reactions that take place on a shallow, literal level. It’s not always an advantage to communicate by reflex and so publicly. Experiences take time to change us and to reveal their importance. Independence, the feeling of being out of touch, the sense of time passing slowly, patience, possibly even peace. All these are things of value to someone who writes; all are things that could be gained by losing social media or toning it down.

It’s easy to be enchanted by the faint blue glow of friendship. At its best, social media is an egalitarian echo chamber; at its worst, a squawk box for brands to banter through. If I had the courage of my convictions I suppose I’d close my accounts, let time pass as slowly as possible and miss out on everything.

The art of finishing

There’s an amusing book review in the TLS about Musorgsky and his fellow composers’ capacity for procrastination. Apparently, chief among Musorgsky’s offences was working on two operas at once, finishing neither.

I generally think our passions are good at telling us when to work on something and when to let something else ferment. However, it no doubt takes a concious effort to actually see final drafts through to completion, especially when it comes to ambitious visions such as these.

one of Walsh’s leitmotifs is the lackadaisical fashion in which most of the kuchkists applied their gifts. He quotes Rimsky-Korsakov, the big exception, recalling a time in the 1860s when the group could congratulate themselves because Nikolai Lodyzhensky “wrote one romance, Borodin got an idea for something, Balakirev is planning to rework something, and so on”.

— Paul Griffiths, Musorgsky and the Mighty Handful

With that in mind, I might make finishing things my new priority (though I’m not entirely sure what the old priority was). I recently browsed a list of ‘100 books you must read before Andromeda and The Milky Way collide‘ and realised that I sometimes have trouble finishing other people’s novels, let alone my own.

But to be clear: things can be too finished, especially if by ‘finished’ we mean spending countless hours retrospectively removing all trace of the process and craft. That kind of perfectionism is demanding and often detracts from the work by ironing out the idiosyncracies and expression that most people find interesting.

Perhaps it’s best to just do what comes naturally and see what happens. If you end up writing ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, it can’t be too bad an approach.

Things as they are

Last night I read a fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on Donald Richie, an expatriate writer in Japan. I was struck in particular by this quote from Richie’s The Inland Sea:

The innocent does not look for reasons behind reasons. He, secure in the animal nature that all of us have and only half of us admit, is able to see that all reality is what the West finds merely ostensible reality. Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.

Whether he’s right or not, that’s a profound thought in our age of explanations. It reminded me of the scene in Zen in the Art of Archery where another expatriate, Eugen Herrigel is struggling to allow his bow to ‘shoot itself’. His vocation, philosophy, seems to be a major hindrance:

He had, so Mr. Komachiya told me later, tried to work through
a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he
could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had
laid the book down with a cross face, remarking that he could
now understand that a person who interested himself in such
things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly
difficult to learn.

Minimal minimalism

I’m clearing out my house in preparation for the big move. As it happens, I’ve also been reading about minimalism. Surprisingly for someone who hoards books and hankers after new gear, I’ve found minimalism appealing. It’s a good counterbalance to consumerism as it invites us to question what we really value and what we can live without.

I can live without a redundant laptop and an old PC I built to study (and play games) on; a huge second hand bass cabinet; a broken bass guitar; a budget mountain bike with dodgy gears;  a fine collection of cables and phone chargers; a year and a half’s worth of New Scientist magazine; a few too big shirts and pairs of jeans that I never wear; a handful of books; a stack of notes on poems. Hmm, not that much as it turns out. There weren’t many difficult choices here. Maybe I’ll be braver on the second pass.

Where I think the minimalist mindset will come into its own is in forcing me to doubt future purchases. Yes, I couldn’t throw away my years old Nintendo GameCube and the games I played with friends until the wee small hours. I’m a bad minimalist… but while I’m still attached to that old machine, why would I need the latest PlayStation?

I have a box full of guitar pedals and analogue gear. Most of these haven’t been used since I was in a smoky rehearsal room or playing gigs in Birmingham. No doubt I could emulate these sounds digitally and save myself some space. Somehow, fiddling with ASIO drivers isn’t quite as cathartic as a stompbox. My attachment to this gear offers some artistic limitations. I could upgrade to the latest tech but would that still be my own aesthetic?

A lot of this stuff was bought at a time when I thought all income was disposable income. Especially the books. A couple of nights ago I was browsing gratuitous pictures of bookshelves, thinking about ideas for a new home when we find one (books are counted as one category of things and this category is allowed to be unreasonably large). I realised that I was lucky enough to neither want much more than I have, nor want much less. There wasn’t a new ideal to strive for, be it consumerist or minimalist. The junk on the shelves was my junk and that meant it was purely up to me what stayed or went.