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