Navigating the ‘digital turn’: on creative writing, resilience and sparking joy

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The ‘digital turn’ brings opportunities and challenges for creative writers.  One of the few things we can be sure of is ongoing change. This article is about how to navigate that change.

New technologies and corresponding new genres emerge apace, social media platforms and conventions morph and mutate. We can get caught out. We can’t anticipate what the next set of transformations will be. Take book publishing.

Previously, the publishing model was stable. From the eighteenth century to the start of the twenty-first century, it remained basically the same: authors submitted manuscripts to literary agents or publishers, then the publisher did pretty much all the work of producing, marketing and distributing the books. Today, authors can by-pass publishers completely. They can self-publish cheaply and quickly and promote their work easily using social media, potentially reaching readers across the globe at the click of a button. Yet, seismic though these changes are, they may not be the most significant changes that writers face now.

The cliché of what it is to be ‘a writer’ generally involves two things: solitude and a favourite writing tool. Works including Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own helped perpetuate the idea of ‘a writer’ as someone who struggles alone, most likely in a garret (in poverty), with a carefully sharpened quill pen or a battered typewriter. The cliché has held strong because periods of quiet focus and attachments to particular writing tools remain important for writers.  

However, today, even if a writer chooses to use only a particular pen or typewriter to produce a manuscript, once that manuscript goes into production, digital processes will be involved. Whether a writer is self-published or signed to a mainstream publisher, there is an expectation that authors will post messages directly to readers via blogs, Twitter, Facebook and so forth, perhaps several times daily. Software updates can feel relentless, so too the need to upgrade phones, tablets, laptops. Thus the chance of a writer being able to work alone using a favourite writing tool over substantial periods of time possibly spanning several years to develop a creative project is fundamentally challenged. 

One year, I wasn’t quick enough with a computer upgrade. I lost all my work. The man in the computer repair shop told me that there was no way of saving it. At the counter, we stared at my boxy, off-white computer. It had looked so space-age when I bought it the previous year.  Perhaps to make me feel better, he said he thought I might be able to sell it for a tenner to a local artisan who was converting that particular line into fishbowls. Ever since the moment I saw a computer with all my work on it become less use to me than a fishbowl, I have been looking at the role of creative flexibility in how we tackle a digital world that can feel exciting and unnerving in equal measure.  

What are the constants? Can a toolkit of skills be identified that will apply across technologies, platforms and genres; is there a single model of creativity that can help writers negotiate our increasingly fast-paced 21st century writing and publishing landscape? That is what my book, The Multimodal Writer, is about.  

With change as a constant, transitions gain particular significance. Any transitions – between technologies, between types of writing – have to happen more quickly and efficiently, because, with social media and regular technological change in the equation, such transitions occur more often. Perhaps the shift is between writing a novel and posting a tweet, or, perhaps it’s between a handwritten poem and a script for a game on an Excel sheet. To research The Multimodal Writer, I looked back at my own experience of writing and publishing novels, creative non-fiction and radio and print journalism. I also interviewed eight writers who each had long-standing experience of moving between different types of writing.  Kate Pullinger shared her experience of shifting between writing traditionally published long form fiction and short stories for smartphones, for example. Rhianna Pratchett talked to me about shifts between writing games and screenplays, Simon Armitage about shifts between writing poetry and libretti. I also worked extensively with my Creative Writing students in order to help identify what skills help writers survive and thrive in our digital age and how to teach those skills.

Perhaps the book’s most important research finding is that we each have a significant proportion of the answers already. We can re-use (or, ‘remediate’) our own experience and apply it in current and future contexts. All technology is new at some point. The pencil was once new; the typewriter was once radically different technology. A writer can, by paying close attention to the details of his or her own creative practice, draw on his or her own resources. How has the problem of approaching something new been tackled in the past? What previous experience can be drawn on for the task of identifying a solution? 

Maybe something as simple as a brisk walk or stiff cup of coffee will help you clear your head so you can think ‘outside the box’, as the saying goes. Maybe an earlier stint writing promotional strap lines means you already have the experience of writing snappy dialogue that you need to write the short lines of background dialogue, or, ‘barks’ for a video game.  

The nature of ‘digital literacy’ is hard to pin down. ‘Digital literacy’ can be viewed as a set of functional skills (the ability to turn on a computer and ‘surf’ the Web, for example).  Alternatively, cognitive skills such as critical thinking can be considered key. Indeed, there is debate regarding whether it is possible to provide a single definition of ‘digital literacy’ at all. Many now consider it more accurate to talk of ‘digital literacies’. The paperclip icon that denotes an email attachment might be baffling to one person, while for another, working out how to use Excel to draw a bar graph might be the issue that’s causing a headache. There are a large number of variables, such as what technological skills we have already and how we want or need to apply our digital skills (to what ends, in what contexts). ‘Digital literacy’ means different things to different people at different times.  

In recent months , at talks about The Multimodal Writer (in London, York and Estonia; via video calls during COVID-19 lockdown), I invited attendees to give their personal definitions of ‘digital literacy’. A wide range of people were at the talks (Creative Writing students who were just starting out and established novelists, administrators and managers, composers and film-makers). The definitions of ‘digital literacy’ were correspondingly diverse. One person defined ‘digital literacy’ as ‘Using technology to read and write and speak and listen’, another as ‘Facility with hypermedia as a mode of cultural and literary consumption’; one said ‘Keeping up, keeping up, but it’s tiring’, and yet another said simply ‘To be frank no idea’. However, there was one word that recurred: ‘navigate’. The digital arenas described were very different from person to person, but through all the events, the ability to ‘navigate’ effectively was considered key.  

We ‘navigate’ stormy waters. We have to have some knowledge, of course, and practical skills too. And we have to be quick off the mark and ready to deal with difficulties. Certainly, dealing with difficulties can be hard. The experience can be tiring and undermining. Navigating stormy waters requires stamina and agility. Adrenalin starts pumping. When a particularly tough patch has been navigated successfully, we can feel satisfaction or even excitement.  Storytelling is not merely about selecting a set of words. Writing has always involved challenges, and sparks of joy. To be fully immersed in the task of telling a story – finding the right metaphor, the right piece of dialogue, the right narrative arc – is to forget everything around us. Storytelling is a complex, exhilarating experience. If we can each identify a set of internal resources that will give us the necessary stamina and agility, we can navigate digital waters in ways that leave space for those invaluable sparks of joy.

Dr. Josie Barnard SFHEA is Associate Professor in Creative Writing at De Montfort University.  An award-winning novelist, author of theory and creative-non fiction and broadcaster, Josie is a member of the DCMS Digital Skills and Inclusion Working Group.  Her books include The Multimodal Writer: Creative Writing Across Genres and Media, which is available here.

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