In June 2018 Chris finally completed his practice-based PhD at Bath Spa University and is now Doctor of Nearlywriting Nearlyology. The novel was passed without corrections and praised by examiner David Almond, award winning author of Skellig, My Name is Mina, and many other wonderfu books. David wrote: “Chris Meade is an artistic explorer. It’s great to see his work come to such vivid life. The Nearly Project is fascinating, playful, serious, wide-ranging, truly thought-provoking. What Didn’t Quite is beautifully written.” You can read his contextual research and find out more about the Nearly Project Near and What Didn’t Quite at www.nearlyology.net.There you can also find the first NEARLY SHOW PODCAST, more of which soon. This is adapted from the final section of the essay.
Charles Fernyhough states in his book, The Voices Within: “Writers… give us fictional characters speaking out loud, and they play on our ability to reconstruct those voices in our own minds… Writers also eavesdrop on the words their characters do not say out loud. They give us minds in dialogue, imaginary creatures engrossed in internal conversations” (Fernyhough, 2016: 94). We can use multimedia elements to mix text, image and sound in order to approximate the voices we hear in our media-saturated heads as the sights and sounds of everyday life, real and virtual, mingle with internal thoughts and feelings.
Transmedia narrative theory provides a framework for complete works involving collaborative-making and multiple stories in an ‘open source’ story world, but for further inspiration on how to develop the audio, performance and improvisational elements of the Nearly Project, I turned to the world of new music and composers who are also community music-makers. Peter Wiegold, Director of the Institute of Composing at Brunel Universty and band leader of Notes Inegales writes about how, as a workshop leader, his motivation was not simply to facilitate his client and, as a composer, he wanted to do more than produce solo works. What interested him most was the mysterious place in between. Wiegold posits three ways to make music:
“THE FIRST WAY
Closed, final, the authority held ‘outside’.
You will do this. (Leading to issues of transgression).
The image of a box.
THE SECOND WAY
The way of the 60s – an open space – equality, democracy.
What shall we do today, class?
The image of an open space.
THE THIRD WAY
A holding centre, with the possibility of multiple responses to it.
Begin here, ground here, centre here.
The image of a central holding line with spirals spinning off”
(Wiegold, 2015: 262).
To transpose this idea from music into new media writing terms, the first way is akin to the fixed, printed, single-authored text, the second to user-generated texts such as the experimental online wiki novel A Million Penguins (Mason & Thomas, 2008), created over one month by around 4,000 writers. The third way could be a model for transmedia literary novels which have an authored backbone decorated with readers’ own riffs on the theme. Digital tools like Google Docs make it possible for multiple authors to write onto the same page, and for a much more nuanced dialogue to occur between writer and the mediatized creative reader.
André Jansson defines mediatization as “how other social processes in a broad variety of domains and at different levels become inseparable from and dependent on technological processes and resources of mediation” (Jansson, 2013: 281). The article features interviews with people of different ages from Stockholm in Sweden, describing how social media, far from taking people into a global cyberspace, is woven into the personal fabric of their everyday lives. As an illustration, a father talks about the texture of his experience of Facebook, which keeps him loosely in touch with old classmates and allows him to share old photos from his past life with his kids.
In the era of privatized and converged media forms, the spaces between public and private are disappearing, across politics and all social relations (Thompson, 2011). A conventional realist narrative of characters in a landscape is perhaps no longer adequate to convey what it feels to be alive in our converged, networked world, in which we can stand in one place while looking at another, holding hands with one person while in deep conversation with others online.
According to semioticians such as Umberto Eco, every text constructs its reader (Eco, 1976). Eliseo Verón describes how the writer addresses an implicit reader and if the real reader identifies with that imagined one, then a reading contract is established, and a potentially fruitful conversation between the reader and text is initiated (Verón, 1985). Up to now that conversation has occurred only in readers’ thoughts and in scholarly papers, but technology allows the reader to become a creative and visible presence within the book. The contract between transmedia author and a co-creating reader may come to include some kind of ongoing commitment on both sides to revisit and remix the text, as well as an option to meet up at online and at real life events.
Researchers have explored how we experience the acts of thinking and reading, how exactly we hear the voices of authors and characters in fiction, how we translate our interior monologues into utterance (Abramson & Goldringer, 1997). If McLuhan was right to propose that the arrival of print culture fundamentally changed the way individuals make sense of our experience, emphasizing sight over tactile and aural sensation, then what is the texture of the perceptual transformation that has been initiated by digital innovations?
The soundscapes I’ve recorded to include in the app version of the novel attempt to imitate the ways in which mind and text interact. Working with members of Academy Inegales, we have tried to suggest the tone of the internal conversations readers experience, and explore how that tone has been altered by social media and the networked screens through which we view the world now.
MAKING NEARLY MUSIC
One evening in June 2016 at a jazz club in London I was on stage with 12 musicians performing Nearly Music. The piece began with a recording of a reading of the opening of my novel, using a vocal looper machine to create an echoing soundscape of words. The ensemble began to ‘nearly play’ their instruments: rattling and tapping, tuning and parping, the air filled with the hissing of amplifiers, coughs and mutterings. I began to read the Nearly Manifesto and the players attempted to copy the sound of what I was saying as I spoke it, using voice or instruments. I sped up and slowed down the words to fox them. Then a return to Nearly Music. One by one I asked each member for a personal Nearly Story for which the ensemble then improvised a response. Nouria Bah, a young singer from Maryland, explained she nearly went to Opera Camp as a teenager but her parents couldn’t afford it. The band made the dramatic, tumultuous sound of nearly opera. Violinist Jo told us she nearly goes for a run every morning; the musicians played echoes of exercise not quite taken. Martin nearly missed a concert as a boy because he got his head stuck in his tuba. When he re-enacted this, saxophonist George Sleightholme was keen to see how the inverted instrument sounded. At the end of the evening a woman in the audience handed me her nearly story: she once nearly built a new kind of musical instrument.
This event was the culmination of a nine-month project as part of Academy Inegales, an ensemble of players of which I was a member for nine months in 2015-16, selected and led by Peter Wiegold, who was working on ways to compose and improvise across different musical genres and traditions. With Academy Inegales I’ve been looking at how writers can develop a collaborative practice that allows them to ‘play’ together in the way jazz musicians do, practising their different literary ‘instruments’ then improvising live in a structured and dynamic way, riffing on great ‘tunes’ they remix and reimagine, responsive to their fellows and the atmosphere of the audience, to make quality work which is also transient and of the moment. I curated A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Academy Inegales, 2015), an evening of music inspired by words from Rebecca Solnit’s book, performed by Academy Inegales. We selected quotes from the book to inspire pieces by each player. My contribution was a reading of an extract from What Didn’t Quite, which was embellished by other instruments until music drowned out the words. For that event we ordered multiple copies of Solnit’s book to sell on the door, created ‘menus’ for each table containing the quotes that had inspired compositions, and also prepared animated text from the book to project on the wall. This opened up new possibilities for performance and inspired me to include a series of soundscapes in the novel, linked to passages of animated text. These soundscapes, which in another setting might appear overly abstract and alienating to some readers, here seemed to help draw people into the text. The theme of a second evening was Found in Translation and this involved poets, translators and illustrators working as part of an improvising big band. Like a game of Chinese whispers, members of this ensemble ‘translated’ poems into music into poems into pictures into music and back into poems.
To further explore the potential for such collaboration, I’ve run a digital project with participants in the Jerwood/Arvon mentored writers scheme. The 2015 cohort met online for an hour each day for a week in the summer via Google Docs and, inspired by examples of written scores for contemporary music (Lely & Saunders, 2012), I gave them a different ‘score’ to respond to each time. For instance:
“WRITE A PIECE OF STORY WITH A DOOR IN
Now find another one here
Open the door in it
And write some more
Repeat till satisfied
FIND A LINE HERE YOU LIKE
Write another line that’s a bit like it
Then write what you like”
This led me to re-write several of the spoof exercises from The Book of Nearly which appear in What Didn’t Quite as written scores for the reader.
If we think of the book as encompassing the whole time spent under the influence of a story, and digital platforms allowing ongoing communication between readers and author, then the possibility opens up for ongoing improvisations and collaborations around its themes and characters. Since my days as a Community Arts Worker, I’ve collaborated with artists, writers, actors and musicians, with adults, children and young people to make work including a community play about the history of Sheffield, a sitcom about radical pensioners commissioned and nearly made by the BBC, a poem for National Poetry Day using found tweets and donated verses, a poem written in a morning with a class of seven-year-olds, which was then carved in stone in a Hackney playground, as well as collaborative novels such as A Vauxhall Chorus, written with Kate Pullinger and 20 other writers working with the organization Spread The Word (Team 24hr Book, 2009). In 2008 if:book uk and the Institute for the Future of the Book put the entire text of The Golden Notebook online in a format called Commentpress, employed seven women writers to read it over a few weeks, commenting in the margins, and invited their readers to comment on their comments (Lessing, 2008). In 2015 I was one of three writers who created a thriller over a weekend, set in the English seaside village where we’d gone to write. The story was later published in instalments on the mobiles of young South Africans thanks to FunDza Literary Trust, a reading project for mediatized youth (FunDza, 2017).
As an artist and a literature development worker, I love working collaboratively, but since the birth of Community Art there has been much debate between those who see community work as in opposition to ‘real’ artistic creation and other artists who maintain that their creative practice is fundamentally inspired by collaboration with community. In Beyond Britten: The Composer and the Community, musician John Barber defines his position and describes its creative power: “So who am I now? I am not a teacher, not an animateur, not a music therapist; I am a composer and I get strength from feeling that what I am doing is having some kind of positive human impact… I am working collaboratively: I am finding ways to make music with playful rules” (Barber, 2015). Nearlywriting certainly involves these collaborations and playful public improvisation as core elements of creative practice.
With funding from the Clore Duffield Foundation I’ve devised resources for teaching poetry in schools. We created SET POETRY FREE, an anthology of new and classic poems which was introduced to students by The Ifso Poets, a fictitious team of poetry subversives dedicated to the liberation of poetry who called on students to “refresh, re-mix, respond and release [these poems] back into the WILD to create your own poetry happenings” (Ifsopoets, 2013). Pupils sent us their poetry responses and we replied in character, sending personal critiques of children’s work, as members of this underground movement. This experience gave me the confidence to offer visitors to the Nearlyology website the opportunity to receive a personal response from a character in the novel. I intend to offer this to readers of the finished book. The messages could be uniquely composed for each reader, or sent automatically via an email auto-responder along with an invitation to participate in a live or online collaborative workshop. Whereas paper books may sit abandoned on shelves gathering dust, the transmedia literary novel has the potential to remain in play for longer, with readers revisiting the app to check for recent additions or to report on their own latest Nearly. No longer stuck at a desk in front of fixed screens, mediatized readers are also on the move, digital content and social media blending (my spellcheck made that ‘bleeding’) into our face-to-face social encounters. Mediatized life can be stressful and disjointed too. Engagement with a story world can help creative readers to navigate their way through.
FISSURES, RIPS & RUPTURES
The ‘Temperate Zone’ which academic Mari-Laure Ryan describes between the mass-market and the avant-garde is a thrilling space for accessible experimentation aimed at creating approachable, challenging and rewarding literary experiences (Ryan 2005). Here is the place where the reader can carve a coherent pathway through the ever-shifting landscape of the web, can hear their own tune in the frequently overwhelming cacophony of digital noise, and find a new sense of self in the post-Gutenberg world.
Debates concerning the tensions between tradition and the avant-garde take place in music and sonic art just as much as in the literary world. Traditionalists seek the composer’s authentic voice in a work, whereas experimental composers in the tradition of John Cage have asked listeners to hear music as pure sound and create a meaning for it themselves. “In the music of Western notation, the emphasis is on the form, as coaxed into existence by the composer. The listener’s role is that of detective, assembling clues to piece together the story,” writes Seth Kim-Cohen. Of Cage’s silent music, 4′ 33″ he writes:
As with the act of reading – in which we jump back and forth between
our present location in the story and previous events… the act of
listening jumps back and forward in time… Such cutting creates fissures, rips, and ruptures in the time, space and experience of the text. Different sections and different modes of absorption of the text are folded together in the listening/composing mind of the listener (Kim-Cohen, 2009: 141).
Reading has always been like this. Even in analogue times and temperate literary climes, the reading of any story gets broken up by interruptions, conversations, memories and ideas sparked, the need to go to sleep or work. In digital times these fissures and rips are more evident as hotlinks jump readers from text to clip to text again, on devices pinging with notifications and incoming messages. The transmedia literary writer composes a score for the reader to play across platforms and includes space for improvisation. The reader creates voices, imagines how characters look, pastes their own concerns into their version of the book, interleaves the text with cuts into their own lives, putting the book down to make a phone call or remember something… the novel is linear but also a scrapbook to be returned to, the literary equivalent of a written musical score like those created by John Cage, Yoko Oko, Cornelius Cardew and others as documented in Word Events (Lely & Saunders, 2012).
Gutenberg’s mechanical press led to the privileging of the book as object; the arrival of digital platforms reminded us that the book is an experience that happens in our hearts and minds, generated by text which can be delivered to us on a range of platforms. Now literature can be remixed, improvised, extemporized on to make new writing happen in front of readers online or a live audience. As one proponent of spontaneous music-making says: “Free improvisation tears away the comfort blanket and drops the temperature, making each musician’s motifs gleam against a backdrop of black nothing. It’s as exhilarating and cold-to-breathe as the revolutionary idea itself – but if you won’t learn to breathe this ether, a non life of conformity and repetition beckons” (Watson, 2004: 377).
While working with Academy Inegales I decided to intersperse my narrative with the written scores from The Book of Nearly, Freya and Carraday’s self-help guide to Nearlyology, which can be accessed as a sound file alongside my novel. The animated text and accompanying soundscape of words which appear in the beta Nearly app are elements I want to retain and build on in future projects.
Towards the end of my novel, the three Nearlyologists set off in a camper van to ‘do’ Nearlyology. They plan to travel from place to place, gathering stories and singing songs. In fact, nobody is much interested and the trio become absorbed in their shaky relationships, but Freya has a vision of what a travelling Nearly Roadshow might become. In the book, I provide the link to a website hosting live Nearly Workshops and a changing collection of new work, like the Nearly Music described above. This is an integral part of the book, not a bolt-on extra.
THE IFSO ENSEMBLE
Such tempting multimedia possibilities are still dependent on tools and platforms like YouTube, Soundcloud, Google Groups, Drive and Hangouts, all provided via the siren servers of mega-corporations. How can the solitary author hold his or her own against the insidious forces of global capitalism that Lanier identified? In the field of music, Seth Kim-Cohen discusses how a pop band may have a main songwriter, but the whole group create the final sound, and re-create it afresh at live gigs, the same but different. Between classical composition and avant-garde experimentation sits the informal conversation of rock and roll. Pop music was oppositional, challenging authority and power, until an industry and marketplace commodified it. “Since its inception, rock and roll has flip-flopped between partaking of power and resisting it” (Kim-Cohen, 2009: 138). Artists including megastars such as David Bowie, counter-cultural figures like Laurie Anderson, and Amanda Palmer who uses crowd-funding and couch-surfing to run her tours, the many thousands of acts with websites and teeshirts and homemade CDs and Bandcamp accounts, still have some power to resist – if they refuse to flip-flop. In Fair Play Jen Harvie writes how neoliberalism has encouraged the growth of ‘Artrepreneurs’, artists drawn into promoting their brand to the detriment of their creative work (Harvie, 2013: 62). But for writers who have always relied on the publishing industry to make their voices heard, the potential for the author to engage in DIY entrepreneurialism may have benefits over the half-hearted attentions of a lacklustre publicist.
The transmedia literary author certainly needs collaborators – a web designer, publicist and editor at the very least – to help produce and publish multimodal text. In today’s complex publishing and media ecology, the author becomes bandleader, the transmedia novel their creative project involving fixed tracks and live performance, something to rehearse, organize bookings for and sell merchandise from – and take on the road, a micro-brand which may not make money, but perhaps has a chance of doing so. Inspired by the example of Héloïse Letissier, the unconfident singer who transformed into Christine and the Queens (Snapes, 2016), I’ve decided to write under a pen name, not for anonymity so much as the chance to create a kind of collective version of myself, a protective covering, a liberating alter-ego free from baggage and bagginess. And with the Nearly Show I want to develop a form of collective creative reading in which a group grows around the novel, leading into conversations and new creation inspired by its wider themes.
Shedding the self-deprecating, hesitant implications of the term, we who Nearlywrite are always becoming, never quite there; do other things, alongside and instead; follow creative instincts to make work in new ways; use digital and analogue tools on our own terms; see the process of production and promotion as part and parcel of the creative enterprise; stay open to creative criticism but take responsibility for our own self esteem; decide for ourselves when work is cooked enough to show and to whom to show it; view writing as part of the bigger picture of our own lives and what matters in the world; welcome conversations with readers; work with all kinds of collaborators, media, modes, platforms, genres and art forms to try to make a world of imagination and vision.
It seems that both the conventional publishing industry and digital producers remain wary of investing in transmedia literary fiction at present. However, it has never been easier to self-publish or self-produce stories in print and other media and, in the converging spaces of the digital, to bundle up and market hybrid literary products or activities. The financial rewards may be small for now, but the same is true for most books published conventionally. The new contribution to knowledge of the Nearly Project is not a technological innovation but a multi-dimensional, collaborative approach to the writing process which, even if the end result is black print on white pages, can hopefully inspire those who seek to make literature happen afresh, today and tomorrow.