On writing

Writing, typing, “The Shining” and the Cargo Cult

I write a thousand words per day at least five days a week. Or, more accurately, I type a thousand words per day, at least five days a week. I started in January 2006 and now, nearly ten years later, I have finally set up this Blog to allow some of these millions of words to be read by others. Welcome to my world.

For those first nine years I regarded the process of writing as the important thing, even if nobody else could read the words. These words exist on computer drives and screens and are never printed. Without electricity they would not exist. Writing is an exercise, useful for its own sake, even if the words are never published, just as physical exercise is beneficial even if you are not going to compete in a race or play for a team.

From the millions of words that I have typed so far you can buy and read 40,000 of them, in my book “1000 Memories” (available here (UK) or here (US). The aim of this Blog is to publish the next 40,000 words and more, covering themes like memory, language and the process of writing, and to record my progress on some self-initiated projects (like reading every Shakespeare play or watching every major Oscar winner). I will also link to some of my favourite articles and writers on the web.

I aim to post around 5 articles per week, 500 words or so in each. (If a post is longer than 800 words I’ll warn you at the beginning of it.)

Most days, as I write my thousand words, I recall the quote attributed to Truman Capote, about Jack Kerouac’s work: “That’s not writing, that’s typing”.

Other days I wonder if I’m engaged in something similar to Jack Torrance in “The Shining”, creating the digital equivalent of page after page of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. At least I’m not using a typewriter, so no paper is being wasted in this activity.

And some days I equate my writing to some kind of Cargo Cult.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of the Cargo Cult you can read about it here or in this Guardian article by Ben Goldacre (which quotes Richard Feynman). I first learnt about it in Goldacre’s excellent book “Bad Science”, which incorporates that Guardian article. A few months later I could recall the concept but not the name of it. I kept thinking “I must flick through the book to find that quote” but didn’t get around to it. This was in 2011, in the days before I had a Kindle, so trying to find a reference in a book that I had read always involved, first, finding the book, and then finding the relevant paragraphs. Soon afterwards I read “The Shipping News” and the phrase occurs there. It jogged my memory straight away but if I hadn’t heard the expression before I would probably have moved on, without looking it up.

As I sit (or stand, like Ernest Hemingway) to type my words, am I any different from the Melanesian islanders building their wooden landing strips in the hope that planes full of cargo will land sometime soon? I hope so, and hope that the pieces that follow will build up into a worthwhile body of work, and that you’ll find them worth a few minutes of your time.

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