Someone suggests a theme – perhaps the way a person’s tone shifts when talking about a loved one – and Daljit Nagra instantly writes a poem, keystroke by keystroke.
the warmth o-
f a blush
so lightly altered voice
The words appear on two large projector screens in the Royal Festival Hall, linked directly to his laptop, which sits between.
Writer Sarah Butler is tucked behind a desk between the literary gift section and the shop counter. Prompted and encouraged by a family of booklovers eating cake and browsing the shelves of Woolfson & Tay, she writes a tale of four bunnies named Rose, Rabby, Snowflake and Nibbles.
Following an afternoon in the Jewish Museum’s archive and a quick review of his social media feeds, novelist Joe Dunthorne lists possible subjects to use as prompts. His tale of a miserable old man who steals the football from a game played next door is written for a Twitter user who watches online from home. “They have an instinct for weakness, children,” Joe writes. “It’s admirable, really, the accuracy with which they exploit human imperfection.”
Over seven weeks, David Varela and I managed a programme of events, each exploring writing as performance and also how digital technology can impact on the way writers write. For the Live Writing Series, we used technology developed by Alex Heeton and Riccardo Cambiassi to show every tap of the keyboard by seven writers, live online and in public. We put poets, scriptwriters and novelists in busy venues where they came face to face with the people they were writing for and about. Over 4,000 people engaged with the project, either in person or online, and almost 100 musings, poems, lectures, jokes, anecdotes, stories and other new pieces of writing were produced.
We had ambitious creative goals. Our aim was to offer writers taking part in the LWS project a chance to develop their improvisational skills, finding new sources of motivation, reaching new audiences in new contexts, and hopefully achieving a new mindset of openness regarding their writing practice. We were keen to see the range of work produced by writers under pressure and whether literature formed live, for screen rather than page, resulted in a new kind of text. We enjoyed seeing how the stories and poems had a fluid quality, how narrative and structure were looser, and that many of the pieces had a sense of immediacy and urgency.
Our plan was to produce technology for writers with fairly modest digital expertise. The live writing platform we have developed is functional and accessible. We don’t think that writers need to be well-versed in the digital world to develop an exciting online literature project. Rather, it’s a case of switching a writerly mind away from its traditional focus on the printed page towards the possibilities of a screen and real-time performance, and enjoying playing with the way text and stories can be presented and experienced online.
Since its conception in 2011, when Heeton and Cambiassi created the website and technology behind David Varela’s online writing project 100 Hours of Solitude, the live writing platform has been refined with a photo gallery, an area to highlight the most interesting pieces of work, and improved navigation. Our long-term aim is to keep developing it further with writers of all genres.
That includes writers who are keen to perform and those reluctant to; writers in the UK sat in venues with enormous screens; writers in other countries, their words beamed online to readers. We want to provide a tool that can be grabbed by other writers and used easily as part of a live production.
Technology has given us a chance to forge new relationships between readers and writers, turning conversation into inspiration, fans into patrons, and the act of writing into performance. By cultivating this skill in a generation of writers and opening up this possibility to new audiences, we hope the live writing platform could be a major step towards making the possibilities of digital literature available to all.
GS, DV 23.02.14
We interviewed Gemma and David in back in October at the start of the project. Read the interview here.
David Varela is a writer and producer working in a huge range of media, including theatre, radio, film, games and interactive drama. He started writing live online in 2012, when he spent 100 hours taking commissions in Ted Hughes’ old house for a fundraising project called 100 Hours of Solitude. The tech for that project – developed by Riccardo Cambiassi and Alex Heeton – now forms the basis of the Live Writing Series site. www.davidvarela.com
Gemma Seltzer is a writer working online, live and in print. Her digital writing projects include The View from Here , original stories produced live; 5am London , a fictional blog; and. Look up at the Sky, which charted the peaceful parts of the city through walking and writing. Gemma is the author of blog-to-book Speak to Strangers, 100 stories of a hundred words about random conversations with Londoners (Penned in the Margins, 2011). She has presented her work on BBC radio, at Latitude festival and the Venice Biennale. Gemma was writer in residence for the Olympic torch relay in Devon.www.gemmaseltzer.co.uk