Writing As Performance Art

They say that ideas come into their own, given time. Here’s an idea that seems to be gaining traction: writing quickly, writing live, writing in front of an online, watching audience.

I’m not just talking about MCM’s 3-Days-1-Novel experiment, which concluded recently (see: Novelr’s The Dispatch), I’m talking also about a few other sites/writing-experiments that’s been done over the past couple of weeks, all of which are structured around a few cool ideas.

A couple of weeks back Paul Graham – the founder of Y-Combinator – did one of his essays on a public EtherPad document. He made it available online, for anyone who was interested to watch him as he worked. (As I’m doing with this post – well, at least just the first bit of it)

Granted, EtherPad, like Google Wave’s writing-as-you-go feature, is a pretty new technology built specifically for web-based collaborative writing. It’s designed around the idea that it is far easier to work on the same document when you can see – live – what your other team-mates are doing to it at the same time. But a secondary feature of EtherPad is also this: you can now record and broadcast the document – any document – as you write it, making writing not so much passive as we’re used to seeing it offline, but as live and as active as all the other forms of web expression available to us: as active as video, say, or webcasts, or music.

Another, less technologically-advanced take on this live-writing gig is that of MCM’s one-chapter-an-hour-for-51-hours writing stunt. To be fair, this kind of marathon-writing extravaganza isn’t new, given that there is a 3-day-1-novel yearly competition held every Labour weekend since 1977 (for the record: I suspect the competition’s for writers who’ve gotten bored with NaNoWriMo – meaning, well – not many of them). And some months back, Penguin’s We Tell Stories did a live writing experiment – this one in Week 4 of their WTS project. The work, entitled Your Place and Mine, was written every day at 6:30 pm for exactly a week, and structured in such a way as for both authors to post responding installments, each of them writing from a different first-person POV. (It’s a love story: one author presumably writes from the male lead’s POV, and vice versa).

Robin Sloan covered this four days ago, over at Snarkmarket, and while he isn’t seriously thinking about putting the concept into practice, he does have a few ideas about the use of such live technology:

Think instead of a short story writ­ten with play­back in mind. Writ­ten for play­back. Typ­ing speed and rhythm are part of the expe­ri­ence. Dra­matic dele­tions are part of the story. The text at 2:20 tells you some­thing about the text at 11:13, and vice versa. What appear at first to be tiny, ten­ta­tive revi­sions turn out to be precisely-engineered sig­nals. At 5:15 and para­graph five, the author switches a character’s gen­der, trig­ger­ing a chain reac­tion of edits in the pre­ced­ing grafs, some of which have inter­est­ing (and pre-planned?) side effects.

I’m struck by another similarity: this sounds an awful lot like a reading, doesn’t it? Difference being that you aren’t actually reading a completed work, in front of a gaggle of listeners, you’re writing and they’re all crowded around you, staring over you shoulder as you work your magic. (Yes, a reading would have more similarities to a webcast). But here’s another element of the writer-reader experience, unthought-of before the Internet, possible today, and a pretty cool idea at that.

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Category: Writing
  • JanOda

    About writing as performance art.
    (A little background information first, in Ductch we call the romance pulp novels Station novels, because they are the paperbacks you can buy at the trainstation and read on the train).

    The train Station of Antwerp (Belgium), recently got renovated and to celebrate they asked 5 writers to be part of the first ‘real’ station novel. Each writer would write one chapter, and sat in the trainstation for 1 day, writing about the station, inspired by the people they saw passing by. Each author started where the previous one ended. Though you can’t read the book yet, they are publishing it the regular way, I think this fits perfectly as writing as a performance.

    Pictures here: Descriptions only in Ducth unfortunately.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/famousbrussels/sets/72157622326719345/

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    That sounds beautiful, Jan. And a really good idea. I won’t mind an excuse for sitting in the train station, watching people walking by as I write. Probably distracting, but still, should be really really fun.

    PS: And what a remarkable marketing idea it is, too!

  • http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/3308 Dan Holloway

    This is intriguing – I wish the tech had been around when I started The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, because it’s exactly what Iw as looking for.

    Jan, I love the station idea – you may or may not be aware that one of the UK’s leading philosopher/writers, Alain de Botton, was recently invited into Heathrow’s Terminal 5 to be a writer in residence there.

    I’ve been advocating writing as a perfomrance for a while to the derision of my writing colleagues. It’s good to find people like MCM who are willing to embrace and try – my philosophy has always been “if you don’t try how do you know?”

    One point, that I was actually discussing at work today with a colleagure who works on orality and from criticism in ancient China, and about whcih I’ve blogged a few times. “unthought-of before the Internet” just isn’t true. It is, in fact, the age of the book, and the printed word that’s aberrant. Thoudads of years ago stories evolved and revised in just this way, and the revision and constant refreshing was part of the experience, creating the story anew each night. It is not the case that our age has discovered performative storytelling; rather that our ancestors lost it.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    It is, in fact, the age of the book, and the printed word that’s aberrant. Thoudads of years ago stories evolved and revised in just this way, and the revision and constant refreshing was part of the experience, creating the story anew each night. It is not the case that our age has discovered performative storytelling; rather that our ancestors lost it.

    Well put, Dan. I’d forgotten book writing/reading evolved from a storytelling culture. Related thought: if I’m writing online, live, with instantaneous reader feedback, I’m not likely to make my story static, am I? How my story ends up depends largely on my audience: if it’s an audience of teenagers, I daresay my story will be angsty, and subtly tailored to just that group.

  • http://www.yearzerowriters.wordpress.com Dan Holloway

    It depends on your audience but also on you – it’s a cmpliicated, iterative process. We were having a real longchinwag about tjis last night over at:
    http://yearzerowriters.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/sitting-comfortably-round-the-virtual-campfire
    Where we were discussing how liberation myths could turn into justifications for oppression when they became frozen, and stopped being refreshed. How to keeop a story alive is a vital question in culture

    My feeling is that we’ve lost (patrly because of nostalgia, and partly because people cannot bear to see waste) the art of the ephemeral (there’s an artistic movement based on the throwaway I’m sure). Kierkegaard once wrote some great musical criticism arguing that the uniqueness of every performance was what helped music transcend time. I think he was right – and to that I’d be tempted to add the banquet. The question is how we as writers learn from other art forms.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Okay, not so related thought, this: I’m not so sure I want the art of the ephemeral returning over the certain, the static … I mean, I can’t imagine Twitterfic overtaking blogs, say, or proper, longer-form fiction. Granted, we’re on the Internet, itself an inherently ephemeral, ever-changing thing. But there is some comfort in the certainty of books and solid things.

    Nostalgia for the ephemeral? Not really, I think. Despite all my work here at Novelr, I occasionally find myself pining for the good ol’ book. ;-)

    My point is that things are quite the opposite (if we ignore the cycle, that is …) – right now the ephemeral is new and likely to takeover, and so nostalgia dictates that we love books. Would you agree?

  • http://www.yearzerowriters.wordpress.com Dan Holloway

    Sorry – the nostalgia remark was meant to refer to why we DON’T embrace the ephemeral – because we’re frightened of throwing away – because we yearn for permanence, because there’s an unbearbaility about losing something. But we must remember thatnostalgia can be a very dangerous thing. The yearning for the past, for permanence, for clinging onto myths and stories gave us Romanticism, but it’s also the sentiment at the heart of Fascism – so we need to tread carefully around it (Mahler yes, Goering no, as it were!). I think the idea that someTHING is absolute indispensible scares the bejesus out of me. People are indispensible, along with their hopes and fears and insecurities – everything else is well, just things (nostalgia goes with pantheism very nicely as well, and that – be it the nature-stuff or just imbuing the everyday with a value it just doesn’t have – is where things get hairy).

    On the other hand, I’m a fan of archives, and of preserving lost culture – to keep it alive and enrich us as people. IT doesn’t actually matter one jot. It’s what it means fro and says about us that matters.

  • JanOda

    On the subject. Neil Gaiman and his twitter followers are going to write a novel…
    http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/with-twitter-you-can-write-a-book-with-neil-gaiman/

    I’m not sure about this one. I think the lack of control will diminish the possibilities of the medium. With MCM it was all very interactive, but the interaction couldn’t ‘destroy’ the story (Except maybe for the Stop of Go one). With this one I fear it might get out of hand.

    Any thoughts?

  • http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/3308 Dan Holloway

    I saw this yesterday and I think two things, Jan;

    1. sadly this is another case of a “star” jumping on a bandwagon that many indie people hav long since set in motion but because he’s a star it’ll get attention and he’ll be called an innovator

    2. It’ll be totally out of control – too mnay people will be involved, and as aresult Gaiman will end up just writnig what he was going to write anyway and paying lipservice to the crowdsourcing element

  • JanOda

    Gaiman has been very active on twitter for a while, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing per se that a popular author uses indie ideas to gain momentum. If anything it might close the gap a bit of people that are wary to writing things happening online.

    I do agree on the innovator part a bit, but that’s a thing of all times. Only the already famous get noticed. At the other hand, maybe an article somewhere about exactly that, could use the momentum to spread awareness that he isn’t the first.

    I’m totally with you on the second point. Too many people is never good for things like this, unless you have a random crawler like MCM’s, to keep the story going in one direction.