There is sand in the motors and in the corners of my eyes. The few notes I’ve made are smudged with rain and when my fingers become too cold, I sacrifice writing for the shelter of my coat pockets. For the last few months I’ve been writing on, into and with the muddy sands of Morecambe bay as a writer-in-residence for Ensemble – an environmental science and digital technologies project at Lancaster University – and it involves spending much more time writing on the beach than at my desk.
As a writer and researcher, I’ve developed an approach to storymaking that involves following the subject I want to tell a story about and seeing where it takes me. This means I set out not knowing what form a finished work will take – I don’t imagine a story housed in a book or on a screen. Instead, I try to follow the subject and let the story develop from there, both imaginatively and physically. This results in a curious interplay between subject, content, form and medium and in the making of what I think of as whole stories. Working in this way I’ve made an altitude-responsive version of the Persephone myth, where the reader has to keep climbing higher to hear more of the story, a flood lantern tale that’s only illuminated when the flood risk is higher at spring tides, and stories about lichens that respond to air quality and light.
I’m currently creating stories for a sand library by following the subjects I encounter on the beach – barnacles, oystercatchers, periwinkles, the tiny zooids of hornwrack, and sand mason worms are current favourites. Alongside time spent observing species and reading about them in books, I’ve found myself pleating and crumpling paper to try to understand shell architecture and hacking toy cars so I can use them to write in the sand. Skipping across disciplinary boundaries and learning new things makes me happy – I originally trained as an actor, later did an MA in creative writing and then a PhD in design and computing, but at the centre of everything I do is story. I want to make good stories and I’m fascinated by the ways that the materials and methods used to write fiction, and the technologies used to make and share the work, all help shape the stories created, often without writers being aware of this at all.
When I first started working with digital technologies several years ago, I was curious about how I could use them to create stories, but I didn’t expect to end up playing in sand and making stories that dissolve in the rain. Once I started asking questions about how technologies shape stories, though, I soon realised all materials are up for grabs. A stick shaped to write in the sand is a technology too. N. Katherine Hayles (2002) has written extensively on the relationship between digital writing and print technologies. She points out that materiality and meaning is entangled in all forms of literature and that working with digital technologies usefully reminds us of this. And print technology doesn’t just shape the medium of the book, it shapes form and content too. Walter Ong (2012) notes that without print technology, the novel – with its emphasis on individual authorship, linear storytelling, interiority and closure – couldn’t have evolved (pp.143-6). Print technologies enabled stories to be shared over vast distances of space and time, but they also brought with them commodification and gatekeeping. For hundreds of years, print technologies have inspired, enabled and limited who has written stories, how they’ve gone about it and what they have chosen to write.
Comparatively, digital technologies are in their infancy, yet as James Bridle (2018) writes, there’s an urgent need for people to become literate in new technologies. It’s not enough even to understand how things work, he says, we need to know ‘how things came to be, and how they continue to function in the world in ways that are often invisible and interwoven’ (Bridle, 2018, p.3). For me, working with awareness of the lineage and impact of many technologies is part of a necessary exploration of how I can best make and share stories in and about the world.
I started the list below on the beach one freezing cold morning when everything I was trying to do was going wrong. I called it ‘rules for sandwriting’ to help remind me what I am focusing on and why. I’m sharing a fleshed out version of the list here in the hope that even a writer who is wedded to their desk, or who is filled with horror at the idea of grappling with code, might still be prompted to think about their own relationship with technologies, and the ways these might be shaping the works they write.
1 Write outside
I could be sat at my desk in the warm and dry and remember all the times I’ve been to the beach. As a writer I am used to bringing scraps of memory, reading and imagination together to construct a story. My fictional beach would be made from words and sentence structure and hazy impressions, and would probably be convincing enough, but when I write outside, the materials I have to hand to construct my beach are immediately expanded. Before starting this project, I didn’t know a curlew’s calls and hadn’t watched periwinkles leave grazing trails on stones. I would never have imagined waves frozen into flakes of ice, or fields of lugworm trails so crowded they darkened the sand. Writing outside brings paths of curiosity to follow, vivid specificity to my writing, and most importantly, serendipity. I never know what will happen and how that will feed into the work. Virginia Woolf wrote of the need for a room of one’s own and Stephen King (2000, pp.121-122) says a writer needs a space with a door, so you can shut out the world, but I don’t want to shut out the world to write – I want to explore it instead.
Writing outside is also a perspective-widening way of working. Rather than being alone in a room with my thoughts, I’m exposed to the overlapping world-making projects (to use Anna Tsing’s term: 2015) from many lives lived on the beach. The sands are a palimpsest of footprints, wave marks and breathing holes. Here, I can ask myself about the sea’s stories, if bird tales are carried on the wind, and if barnacles dream in their shells. If I’m going to make stories about the world, for people to experience in the world, then sitting at a desk to imagine them into being isn’t going to be enough.
Why do we stop playing? Writing is a creative act, but the play is all inside our heads. I’ve sat in rooms of writers who can’t bring themselves to attempt to draw for fear of being rubbish at it. Sadly, I’ve encountered the same thing in primary school classrooms, where already children have become inhibited by the desire to do something ‘right’. Maybe it’s better to think of drawing and writing not as nouns – shiny, finished things – but as mud-spattered verbs like the word making, and to think of all these actions as methods for discovery. For me, anyway, this somehow makes it easier for finished works to eventually emerge.
On the beach, I try writing with stones and wind, shadows and sand. I also play with technologies, not to determine what shape stories will take but to explore how different stories could be shared. I often work with microcontrollers, tiny low cost and robust computers that are easy to code and experiment with. Using Microbits and Arduinos I can play with ways of using sensors so a story can be revealed in response to light levels or a reader’s movements or tide times. Treating this work as play helps me be less intimidated by any new technologies. I can play around with story ideas, materials and tech, moving back and forth between them all as an idea starts to accrete a more solid form.
3 Watch out for the incoming tide
Working in the bay with its quicksands and rapid tides this is a literal reminder to look up regularly, but also to look up from what I’m doing and check I’m not getting swept away by novelty. I know that I am prone to getting excited about whizzy new tech. Scoping out possibilities helps me to understand what I could do but running from one new technology to another without ensuring there’s a reason to use them doesn’t work. Cal Newport’s (2019) take on the philosophy of digital minimalism is helpful here; he says to start with values and then ask ‘Is this the best way to use technology to support this value?’ (p.29). Too many works I’ve seen prioritise a new technology over the creation of meaningful fiction, or they use technology in a way that’s incongruous to the story being told.
I’m trying to make sure any tech I use helps me to:
…reveal something that’s usually hidden
…ask people to pay close attention to something in the world
…encourage shared experiences of story
…invite participation in storymaking
…or emphasises a sense of wonder in the story and in the place
If a technology isn’t helping me to do any of these things, I’ll know I’ve got carried away.
4 Hold your nerve
It takes longer for a story to come together like this. Works-in-progress, fragments and scraps, driftwood and shells are strewn all over my house. Not all my stories are written like this. Some are much more straightforward, and I send them to editors so they can live in books. The other stories though, the ones that escape easy categorisation and library classification, require me to hold my nerve. I have to keep remembering to make outside my imagination, in the world. Writing habits are hard to shake off and as I keep finding out, sand is not paper.
The Sand Library project is still very much a work-in-progress. At the moment, I’m trying to find a way to write bird stories with footprints, making a tidal story dispenser, some tiny tales in shells, and working on a pen that makes the wind visible when you write. Needless to say, all of this is writing as exploration. There’s no opportunity here for creating fictions that can be easily packaged, marketed and distributed in bookshops or online. There are, however, opportunities for sharing thought-provoking narrative experiences and for encouraging engagement with stories and storymaking outside.
Working in this way has encouraged me to trust that whatever else happens, when the end product isn’t fixed in advance, the story will find its own shape and I’ll learn a lot along the way. The process is risky and fraught, and living with the imaginative and physical detritus of storymaking in this way can be more than a little overwhelming, but the sense of possibility keeps me exploring. If you have any questions, I’ll be on the beach.
Bridle, J. (2018) The New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. London: Verso.
Dean, C. (2019) Making wonder tales: an exploration of material writing practice for ecological storymaking http://www.research.lancs.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/making-wonder-tales(ae3caa21-321f-4b4b-9b07-5557033e8170).html
Hayles, N.K. (2002) Writing Machines. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
King, S (2000) On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Newport, C. (2019) Digital Minimlaism: On Living Better with Less Technology. London Penguin.
Tsing, A. (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.