500th post ~ some introspection, some retrospection but mostly peering into the future

 

I don’t always do a good job of celebrating. It doesn’t come naturally to me, in many ways. You’re talking to someone who is always braced for impact, expecting the worst and not anticipating the best. I mark my birthday as much to please others as myself, but as the years go by I find some pleasure in having survived another year. I also mark my blog-i-versary, though unlike many, I don’t throw a party at reaching certain numbers of hits. How many visitors I get here is not really anything to crow about; however large or small that number, it is no credit or otherwise to me. It’s not something I have myself achieved.

But today, I do wish to mark something that I feel deserves a big pat on the back.

This is my 500th post here at Zen and the Art of Tightrope-walking. That’s 500 posts in just over 2 years, made up of multifarious topics. Short stories, poems, photos, anecdotes, travel writing, articles on dozens of subjects often related to mental health, creativity, philosophy and spirituality and many other issues.

Many blogs never make it past their first year, or fizzle out after a few posts. I have no idea why; this is variable in cause. It may even depend why a person started a blog in the first place. Writers are encouraged now to use social media to build a platform; I had no idea of this when I started. I still don’t; the only platform I’d like to build is one in a nice big tree and then build my tree-house so all my friends can come and play. I guess that’s what this blog has become. I have made a lot of friends along the way, met a few psychos (you know who you are) and have found a side to myself that I’d been concealing.

That’s the side that is just beginning to stand up and challenge the status quo around the creative arts. You see, I am watching the way the world is changing and am astonished that there is so little vision. The digital revolution means that anyone can now publish a book, and make it available online. So what happens but people focus on doing things exactly the same as they have always been done by traditional publishers? Why is no one asking “What is a book? Why does it have to be the same form?” I hear the same stuff about editing and rewriting and polishing. I don’t mean I don’t want writers to work at their stuff, but are we focusing so much on presenting work that conforms to an accepted FORM because no one has woken to the thought that actually, we may be able to discard many of the forms because they came about to fit paper.

We take it for granted that a book conforms to certain preconceived ideas of what a book is, when many of those ideas have come about because of the physical constraints of a paper book. Length, too is something that has reduced because of shorter attentions spans and a desire for a less leisurely pace. Reading some Dickens’ lately I became aware of quite how different the pace of his novels was. The conventions of fiction are just that: conventions. They persist because the readers demand them: happy endings, resolutions of difficulties by the final pages, main characters that the reader relates to.

What if we could sweep away all the conventions and experiment a bit? Write stories where it ends without resolution, like real life? Or where the reader can suggest endings or choose them? What about turning things on their head and having a villain who becomes a hero, or a heroine who turns into a villainess?

I can hear people shaking their heads and saying, yes, but that’s not what readers want. No, it’s what publishers tell you that people don’t want. Do you know people who’d read something that challenged them, or pushed them out of their comfort zone? I do. There’s not vast numbers of them; it’s hardly a mass market, but then I gave up on the idea of being a best seller a long while ago. That’s about as probable as winning the Lottery.

Why do we insist on aspiring to BIG numbers all the time? Why are Indie authors always being told they’ll never sell many books? Is selling books the WHOLE reason why writers write? Is perhaps the pressure to tailor your writing to a market or a genre or even to the ideas of an editor or agent a thing that might be curtailing your personal exploration of YOUR voice, YOUR stories, YOUR art? Where would they go without that pressure? (I am aware that there are plenty of people who write for a living and whose freedom is curtailed by the need to sell and pay the bills; I am not one of them. Once I would have liked to have been; not sure of that any more at all)

Art, whether it is visual or literary or musical or whatever, is a living thing that thrives on experimentation and exploration. The digital age is offering all of us the most mind-blowing scope for experiment and exploring. You could do anything. ANYTHING. The possibilities are beyond anything we have so far encountered.

All you need is imagination and a bit of daring to take that step forward and just try.

When I began this blog, I really had no idea really what a blog was, but as a part of a pact with myself I set out to say YES to more things I’d once have said no to, and 500 posts later, I find myself here, on the edge of a new world where anything might happen.

Would you like to come along for the ride and help make things happen, for you and for me and for everyone who has ever aspired to be a creator? Or would you prefer to stick with what you already know, what others tell you works and stay within your comfort zone?

The combination of internet, digital publishing and the explosion of social media is a combination as revolution every bit as dynamic and frightening as the advent of the printing press, the postal service and the arrival of cinema all rolled into one. The medium of The Book could change utterly, evolve into a new animal.

I simply don’t know where all this may lead. But don’t let the men in grey limit the possibilities by chaining it all down to profit and loss and catering to the masses and to the mediocre and the humdrum.

Let’s be daring and take flight. My wings are itching to explore new skies and new horizons.

Black Holes and the (Meta)physics of Popularity

 

Black Holes and The (Meta)physics of Popularity

Have you ever stopped to question how something becomes and remains popular? Has it ever baffled you beyond words why a singer or a film or a book gain a massive following, and yet has left you cold, and unable to see its appeal? Have you ever finally succumbed to peer pressure and bought the latest must-read book, that must-have music and found yourself wondering why the blazes this has somehow hit the big time when you can see few redeeming features in it?

I bought the novel Twilight about two years, to read while away on a trip, and was seriously disappointed. I got to the end and was unable to see why it has become a global phenomenon. It is poorly written, and unoriginal; someone has described it at Jane Eyre with vampires and werewolves. The characters are flat and unrealistic, the plot thin and predictable and it doesn’t even scare. While I am fully aware I am not a part of the demographic for which it is intended, I am also aware that a hefty section of the fan base comes from women of my age and background. I remain baffled.

The same applies to certain of the big blogs, which will remain nameless and linkless for reasons I hope will become apparent as I go on. These are the blogs that have hundreds of thousands of hits a day, who have subscribers in their tens of thousands, and every post draws hundreds if not thousands of comments. I’ve had a look at such places and come away baffled by why the numbers are so high. They don’t usually offer anything that strikes as wise or clever or helpful or really anything out of the ordinary; the self help ones seem to repeat the same type of information you can find anywhere. There’s nothing there to keep me coming back. And yet people do. They come back and read obsessively and comment and recommend and re-tweet.

These are the blogs I call the Black Hole Blogs. They inhabit the same universe as I do, they occupy a tiny space(virtual places are virtually without geography) and yet they have such immense mass that they draw in everything. Other blogs speak of them with awe and reverence and even a little fear. There’s always a danger they will swallow up all the readers who have an interest in that subject, and once those readers go past that event horizon from which exit is impossible, they are lost to lesser blogs.

It’s the same with best-seller books and authors, and blockbuster movies and chart topping music. Once something reaches a certain size, the size alone is what draws people in. How many of us went to see Avatar, because everyone we knew had been to see it? It’s a very average movie, with recycled themes. I was disappointed (I saw it in 2D so perhaps that is another factor) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

In the end, I do question whether popularity is more about herd mentality than it is about the quality of the product itself. Nobody wants to be the odd one out who doesn’t watch a certain reality TV show (insert whichever is current) or hasn’t seen the in-film or read the in-book. Every time a Harry Potter book was launched, commuter trains were packed with adults reading the latest offering from JK Rowling. Before that The Da Vinci Code was the in-book. It doesn’t matter in the end about the quality of the product, if the marketing gets a certain number of people to buy into the adventure(music, book, film TV whatever) then a strange cascade effect takes place.

There are plenty of times where the popularity is deserved. A great book, a superb film, a fabulous album can just as often reach the heights. And yet, so too does total and utter rubbish. It baffles me. It’s beyond  simple issues of taste and choice.

In blogging terms, there is a possible collateral benefit of being associated with a Black Hole blog, at least in the minds of the smaller bloggers. Commenting on such a blog may bring readers to your blog, may even attract the attention of the Black Hole blogger, though in practice, I suspect that the majority of this kind of blogger may at best skim through their comments and only reply to those who are already a part of their network, if at all. If a post is getting hundreds of comments, or thousands, it would be a full time job reading the comments alone.

If you only equate success with numbers, then allying yourself to the Black Hole blogs and aiming for their level of ‘success’ is a futile and probably deadening exercise.At best you’re going to be a pale shadow, accused of copying them or be swallowed up by them and get no readers of your own. But if you leave aside concepts of numerical success and examine things based on their own intrinsic worth then a very exciting universe emerges, one where you can make discoveries for yourself.

Be a pioneer. Find books that make you go, “Hmmmm!” when you read the cover and turn over the first pages with the excitement of a Dr Livingstone of the literary world. Don’t wait for recommendations from the media for what films to see or music to buy; go out and see what you can find. Don’t mindlessly obey those little prompts you get at Amazon, “If you liked X then you will like Y”. Avoid automatically buying another book by a famous author simply because the words NY Times best-seller is printed in bigger letters than the book title.

Look for blogs that intrigue and excite you because of what the author says or does, not because it is endorsed by a celebrity or because you think you may get traffic as a result, or because you are convinced that something that has gotten 10 million hits somehow MUST have something. It might, but it no longer needs YOU. Go and find the blogs that are out there that are languishing for lack of hits, but whose author has talent and insights, and encourage them with your comments.

Open your mind to the small, the independent, the quirky and unpredictable things of the world, those mindblowingly undiscovered places and things and people and writers and musicians and artists. Open your eyes to see beauty and talent, open your ears to new experiences in music and find out for yourself what you like without being brainwashed that it is whatever product the sellers happen to be selling at the moment.

In other words, don’t be a sheep. Be a wildly alive explorer and see what new worlds within this one you can find and share.

There is no map but the one you create for yourself. So go and explore and steer clear of Black Holes. I’m looking forward to reading your Captain’s log.

The Road of Bones

The Road of Bones

 

There is a zone between here and there,

Where few would choose to tread.

The baking ground shines bright

With the teeth and bones

Of those who lost their way,

Wandered long without a map,

And starved and lonely lay down to die.

The clean white bones, picked bare

Of flesh by wily carrion birds,

Lie as their owners fell.

And if you can but bear to look,

To stare long at the path they make,

The way ahead comes clear.

My path is made of ancient bones,

Holding still their unspoken words,

Waiting for kind and patient hands

To lay their jumbled lives anew

And read the way their bodies made.

I cannot tell which way to go,

Which path to follow, where to roam.

Beneath my feet is only sand

That’s made from bones returned to dust,

Gleaming silver under noonday sun.

No limbs stretch out, no fingers point,

No laughing skull grins at me;

Just pure white sand of powdered bone,

Stretched out till sky meets earth.

The sun is hot, the nights are ice,

But while the sand beneath my feet

Remains this eggshell textured sand,

Then I will know that others long ago

Have trod this road and lie here still,

Guiding my witless feet from harm.

The road of bones leads surely on

To what end I cannot guess;

Its end in sight, then I myself

Will lay my bones along the road,

To mark the way, while I go home,

On silver sand and joyful feet,

And leave the road of bones behind.