The Business of Personality; The Personality of Business

I feel I often bore you senseless with NaNoWriMo references, though it is a large part of my writing life. This time, I pinky-promise to use it only as a launchpad for my main point.

Over the past month, I’ve come to know two NaNo members particularly well: one through spending time together at meetings before the rest arrive, and one by corresponding mainly online. I’ve known both parties for some time, but by conversing so frequently, I feel I understand them better as individuals and as writers.

Notice the order of those words: ‘individuals’, then ‘writers’. I believe we can create better professional connections by first knowing a little more about the other person.

We’ve all probably passed sales reps on the street who ask, “Who’s your electricity supplier?” without so much as a preliminary, “How are you?” Three thoughts occur to me when I hear the electricity question:

  1. It’s annoying.
  2. It’s too personal and abrupt when you haven’t built up even a little trust.
  3. It signals that the seller is interested in you only as a customer, not as a person.

    A segment of a social network
    A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve seen the people-first principle succeed before. I have a ‘day job’ in the civil service, and my department began experimenting in around 2010 with an internal social network modelled on Twitter. The rules told us that the site was primarily for business talk, but that some social and recreational chat was permitted. In practice, the social talk was predominant, and it led to a lot of in-jokes and banter. Yet when someone wanted to talk business, the others were more inclined to help because we were already acquainted with one another.

I still speak to some of these people today, though the network has long since closed. Of the replacement websites introduced, none has created the same sense of community. I believe that’s because the social club aspect has been relegated in favour of a business-first approach that doesn’t prompt the same connection.

So where can a writer meet with other writers without feeling as though they’re being sold something? Where I’m from, we’re lucky enough to have a regular monthly meet-up where any writer can drop by and interact with other writers on an informal basis. We meet in a bar aptly called The George Orwell, and there are no readings or speeches. If somebody does have work to promote, it never feels pushy because we all know each other socially.

If you ask your nearest library, they’ll probably be able to direct you to such a nearby group. And if there isn’t one, consider starting your own; it’s not easy, but it can be hugely rewarding.

Reaction … Times

Two of the biggest stories of last month were the Orlando shooting and the UK’s exit from the European Union. In their individual ways, they’ve brought responses from writers and poets trying to process the news. Brian Bilston is a prominent example: he usually has a verse within a day or two that reacts to the issue in hand.

However, there is sometimes a balance to be struck between capturing the immediate mood and waiting to see the aftermath of the event. The former can be excellent for capturing the raw emotion upon hearing the news; yet the latter can become a carefully constructed piece that comments on what happened next and whether or not correct actions were taken.

Let’s take the EU exit as an example. If you penned a piece on 24 June, it might talk about David Cameron’s resignation and the sterling exchange rate hitting such a low, and it would almost certainly have an emotional resonance but only a few details of the bigger picture. Conversely, if you wrote that piece tonight, it’s possible to include something about the legal wrangling and the resignations, but it could potentially lose its immediacy.

There’s also the trap of writing about something is a massive story right now but will potentially be forgotten or overtaken by other developments. We all remember issues like Bill Clinton’s affair, Section 28, and the millennium bug, but none of these cases hold currency now. It’s a personal view, but if the background of a work needs to be explained before it’s read, I don’t consider it successful.

Emergency exit sign used in the European Union...
Emergency exit sign. There’s not much more I can say about this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no easy way to swerve these problems. The best advice I can offer is to write it when you feel ready. With Orlando, the shooting seemed rather abstract and far away at first, but I went to a vigil on the following Tuesday. I intended to stay only five minutes, then leave. I ended up staying a lot longer, and only a day or two later was I able to formulate a poetic response to the events.

The quest for immediacy is aided by the advances in communication over the last few decades to the extent that non-journalists can report on events if they happen to be in the vicinity. But there is a movement that wants to recapture the benefit of hindsight. Delayed Gratification isn’t interested in stories newer than three months. The magazine likes to look back and examine what happened in detail when the breath has gone cold. Considering the quoted praise from other news agencies, it looks like they’re onto a winner with this business model.

And I wonder whether we can use this approach for fiction? Might there be a gap in the market for a magazine that prints creative responses to world events three months on? It seems an ideal length of time to me: enough for the writer to construct and edit a decent-sized piece, but not so long that it’s completely out of the public’s consciousness. If there’s anyone who seriously thinks this is a good idea, let’s talk.

Immediacy.

Sometimes an idea for a piece strikes after hearing about a topical event. Last week, for instance, I posted a poem I wrote on the day of the solar eclipse. Back in November, I was also inspired to write a short story prompted by the BBC’s coverage of the Ferguson riots. Since last week’s entry was posted, the world has been talking about the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps. That also inspired a poem in the same form as the eclipse one.

Neither the Ferguson nor the Germanwings pieces have been posted online as I might send them to a publisher in the future. I’m afraid you’ll have to take my word for their contents, which I discuss later on.

When writing a response to current affairs soon after they happen, the details are fresh in everyone’s minds as they’re analysed in the papers and on TV. However, the danger is that specific incidents from the wider event are sometimes forgotten as soon as a week after they occur; in some cases, the entire event might not survive in people’s memories. It’s hard to tell which events might stick around and which won’t. The piece you’ve written in response might therefore contain details that need to be explained in future readings.

Regarding the three pieces in the first paragraph, my solution to this problem was not to focus on the incident itself, but the thoughts and feelings generated by it. To find the universal truth, if you will. It’s not necessary to know that the eclipse took place in March 2015, nor that anything happened in Ferguson, nor that a certain plane crashed in a certain place.

The alternative is to make the piece self-contained, giving the reader enough of an insight about the event for them to understand why you’ve responded to it in a particular way.

A good example comes from the Billy Joel hit We Didn’t Start the Fire. In the lyrics, he makes reference to around 100 world events that happened between his year of birth (1949) and the song’s release (1989).

Many of the earlier events, such as Bob Dylan’s career and John F. Kennedy’s assassination, had already stayed in the public consciousness. However, a modern listener might wonder the meanings behind Hypodermics on the shore and Rock-and-roller cola wars in the late 1980s, as these haven’t been widely retained in our collective memories. There’s no way Joel could have known this, of course, nor that the Berlin wall – after having its construction noted in the song – would be knocked down just two months after its release.