I am no spring chicken. In my writer’s memoir My Animal Life I told how I lived through the dramatic evolution of printing into a universal capability. Now I am poised on the great wave that’s rushing us from paper to silicon. Will I fall back into the papery past where most of my life has been lived, or dive quickly, briefly into this dazzling future?
When I learned my colleagues Kate Pullinger, Lucy English, Donna Hancox and Katharine Reeve were running the MIX2 Text on Screens conference at Bath Spa University, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was also afraid. I lack the magic skills, I thought. The other delegates, younger than me, will all have them. What will happen on Day 3, the Making Day, run by Sophie Rochester and Joanna Ellis at The Literary Platform? Will I be back in my school Needlework lesson, age 13, the only one who cannot thread my sewing machine?
The first two days were a storm of flying fish. Dave Addey’s ‘The Thick of It’ app that reinvented the expletives on Malcolm Tucker’s missing phone, Andy Campbell’s lyrical Dreaming Methods, Jillian Abbott’s Air Quality – ideas and URLs soared through the air, with me leaping right and left to get hold of the brightest as they passed. I took pages and pages of notes – on paper. Didn’t sleep a wink on night 2 – over-stimulation plus nerves about the Making Day.
It’s here. Naomi Alderman sparks us off on a multiply-authored story, to whose four chapters we all added a single word, written (on paper) on the wall…
Surreal in its tangents and tangles, it showed me we were making through play – and we all know how to play. Sophie Rochester’s talk turned bad news into good: most writers have been ‘impoverished’, from Dostoevsky to me – but since paper has made us poor, why worry if silicon does no better? It’s the profession most Britons would like to belong to, apparently. Art will out regardless when so many of us want to make it.
11.30am. How to choose my workshop? For me, Donna Hancox’s on digital creativity and political activism vied with Stand and Stare’s offer to send us away with a finished digital poem/story magically linked to an object – but I went with David Varela’s on improvised, multiple-authored story-telling. Novelists are control freaks: could I cope?
Turned out I loved that feeling of lightness, of being free from the burden of expectation. We sped up as the afternoon went on, first dividing into pairs and shuttling letters between two of us, then circulating (on paper) a running series of stories to which we each added a sentence or more. It’s liberating: story arrived from person on left, I added my piece and handed it on gratefully to person on right. Because I didn’t choose the premise, I didn’t feel a need to control the end.
Interestingly, the only time I rebelled was when I did, by chance, choose the premise, because we happened to have 4 story-beginnings and 5 people – and that time I wanted the end (which I also wrote) to be better than it was; I felt possessive. Every other time, I played as fast, and as well, as I could – but about the end product I felt only detached curiosity.
Why, I asked David, were we doing all this on paper? He was surprised by the question – and I realised that for him, the essential skills for writing for games or digital fiction were not technological or digital but to do with telling stories: skills you could then simply translate on to screen. That was the most reassuring thing of all. Yes, we need computer skills – but lots of the people who specialise in those were at the conference, and they seemed to like, and need, prelapsarian story-tellers too.
So we too can MIX it up, with a little help from our friends. We can crest the wave, play these games – and even write them. Oh, and paper – that’s still useful stuff, it seems.
Maggie Gee’s My Animal Life is published by Telegram.