Ten years ago I had an idea.
It happened – as these things often do – when one area of my work rubbed up against another. In this case, the question of how to shoehorn the diverse and tangential life of a forgotten eighteenth-century writer (William Hayley 1745-1820) into a book-shaped structure met the PR work I was doing for Tim Wright’s NESTA-funded In Search of Oldton for the trAce Online Writing Centre…
The combination sparked the following thoughts…
a) digital technologies and a non-linear narrative might suit the story I wanted to tell more effectively than a traditional book-biography could
b) most people read biographies to get to know the person they’re about
c) reading a book-form biography is not remotely like getting to know someone in real life
d) it might be possible to create a digital biography that simulated the messy, blobby, incomplete process of getting to know someone IRL
e) that might be interesting. And fun.
I started telling people about it. Most suddenly remembered an urgent appointment they were already late for. Others (including Tim Wright, Sue Thomas and Chris Meade), at home in the digital writing world, were supportive and helped me to sharpen my much-less-than 20/20 vision.
And that was more or less it for five years until, in 2008, Chris Meade posted on Facebook about an if:book UK William Blake project – Songs of Imagination and Digitisation. There was a strong connection between William Hayley and William Blake, so I asked Chris if I could contribute a piece. He said yes, and the resulting combination of money (£800), validation and, importantly, a deadline, allowed me to think my idea into an online, dramatised (and marginally fictionalised) retelling of the relationship between the two Williams: www.rolledbythewind.net.
The following year, I sat down with Chris and we punted a speculative application for funding the 3D Life, as we called it, into Channel 4’s IP fund. They weren’t interested. So we left it at that.
Another two years passed, then, in Spring 2011 I learned, via Twitter, about plans for a book hack day. I contacted the organisers, Paul Squires and Nico McDonald to ask if I could do a short presentation about my biography project. They said yes. After I’d spoken, developer Michael Kowalski, then in the process of founding Contentment – a creative technology startup solving problems to do with digital content production and publishing – expressed interest in the idea, but said he didn’t yet have the technology needed to make it.
Later that year I wrote a feature for the Independent on Sunday about digital literature and – because I felt it needed one – made (unpaid) a short accompanying video for the website. Two weeks work for £300, I thought. Idiot, I thought. But then… that piece led to an invitation (via Twitter) to speak about the future of the book for Tomax Talks (fee: £50).
John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound, was one of the speakers that evening. During my spiel, I mentioned my desire to write the biography of a crap poet no-one had ever heard of, who’d been dead for 200 years but that, for some inexplicable reason, no publisher was interested. Afterwards John said it sounded like a perfect Unbound project and did I want to do it with them?
Of course I did.
HayleyWorld became an Unbound project. After approximately 18 months on the website, it’s 19% funded. At the current rate it’ll take over six years to hit target (please pledge generously). Call me naïve, but I still believe that one way or another, we’ll get there. But I might have to get creative.
Meanwhile, Sophie Rochester invited me to speak about having a project with Unbound at the November 2012 Writing Platform event at Rich Mix. I said yes. Michael Kowalski was again in the audience. Eighteen months on from Book Hackday he told me that he had the technology and would be happy to work with me.
Gemma Seltzer – writer and Arts Council, England Literature Officer – spoke about funding: Grants for the Arts: Time to Write and Nesta’s Digital R&D fund for the Arts. I chatted with her afterwards and, although the Arts Council rarely funds non-fiction writing, she offered to help me pull together an application. That, by the way, isn’t because of anything special about me. It’s her job.
We met, and then, to cut approximately two weeks of limb-chewingly agonising form-filling, flecked with bile-bitter pessimism (WHY AM I WASTING MY TIME? THEY DON’T FUND NON-FICTION) followed by a six-week wait increasingly darkened by my recognition of the sheer hopelessness of my situation short, thanks in a large part to Gemma’s support and guidance, I was awarded a grant of £9,295.
“You really weren’t expecting that, were you?” she said, when she phoned to tell me the news.
Meanwhile, Michael and I decided to try for the Nesta fund. That has to be led by an arts organisation – in this case, Unbound – with a technology partner (Contentment) and also a research partner – a UK higher education institution. I found computer scientist and AI researcher Dr Sandy Louchart of Heriot-Watt University in the British Library. He was speaking at an event with Chris Meade that I attended. One brief natter on the spot and a skype chat later, he was in. We were good to go.
I won’t bore you with the ins-and-outs of what exactly we were good to go for/through. Suffice to say the Grants for the Arts application experience was, in comparison, like skipping through sunshiney meadows with the one you love (unless you suffer from hay fever, in which case it was like that only without pollen) and by the end of it my brain had knitted itself into a ‘70s macramé wall-hanging. It’s probably less painful if you have a budgeting fetish (I don’t), or if someone else does the whole thing for you (they didn’t). Having said that, one of the many upsides of applying for funding together with partner organisations rather than solo was that everyone contributed and critiqued content and – most importantly – checked and corrected my adding up.
While ploughing through the Nesta application, I realised there were several unanswered questions troubling me about my project. Questions like “do people really read biographies to get to know the people they’re about? Shouldn’t I find that out rather than making an assumption?” and “What are the processes through which people get to know each other? Don’t I need to understand what those are in order to be able to simulate the experience in a biography?” I was pondering these and wondering whether I needed to go back into academia when Kate Pullinger mentioned on Facebook that Bath Spa University had a small number of practice-based, digital writing fee waiver PhD studentships on offer. I applied (that form was much easier).
As I write Unbound (including me as one of their authors), Contentment and Heriot-Watt University are through the Nesta initial expression of interest stage and waiting to hear the results of our final application. If (and, naturally, it’s a big if) we get through that, there’s a panel interview to negotiate. Meanwhile, I’ve morphed into a full time PhD student at Bath Spa University (although, to fund my living expenses and support my daughter etc I’m still doing other work).
All of which means it’s now time to make something concrete of this idea I’ve been talking about for a decade.
Wish me luck.
Image © epSos.de