Thursday, February 5, 2009

Actually a much longer post than I meant to write

I haven't been very regular so far with this blog, and probably won't be for a while as I'm spending most of my time trying to get freelance work or feeling down about not getting freelance work. It seems to me that there are two types of blog, generally speaking (and very possibly two kinds of journalism): the 'I feel' and the 'I do'. The 'I feel' sort is potentially great, but there are a whole lot of shortcomings. Many blogs that I read are all about how the writer feels about something, so the drama, the narrative becomes about how that person feels about the things that they are doing or not doing, and rarely the things themselves.

Alternately, the 'I do' blogs are: this happened, then this, then I did that, now I'm doing this and later I'm going to do something else as well. There's not a whole lot of room for 'I did this and here's a thought about how it feels to be me doing this', if you take my meaning. Someone who cleaves very closely to this is Malcolm Gladwell, who writes some books that I love very much, and who has always stressed that he is not in the business of telling you what he feels about the work that he does, or indeed, his life.

Your preference will likely suggest a number of things about what you want from a story. Maybe you like to be educated, to find out something new, to get the inside skinny as it were. So you read news reports, self-help books, academic treatises, textbooks, all that stuff - I know this is a little unfair, but let's help the nice blogger make his point. Whereas if you like 'I feel' more, you read celebrity magazines, gossip columns, columns, novels, autobiographies.

Of course, few people are one or the other. More importantly, the successful story must have both. When I was small, during the early Eighties, my father was an entrepreneur. He ran his own company and he liked computers, spending most of his free time (when not hanging out with us) teaching himself how to program, back in the days of the command line, when Basic and Pascal and C were kings. We had one of the first two IBM PC's in Ireland, apparently, which always makes me think that if only I had been anyway talented at it I would now be making lots of money. I would have gotten that interview at Google, for a start...

So anyway, my dad liked to learn about new things (and still does, I'm not building up to some horrible tragedy) but he always liked a good story. Being as it was the 80's and given that he was an entrepreneur, there were a lot of business strategy books about. The one I always remember was Lee Iacocca's "Iacocca: An Autobiography" (I was fascinated by the name and used to pronounce it in my head endlessly because I was and am strange). Iacocca was very successful in the US car business and his book was the best-selling nonfiction book of 1984 and 1985 (according to Wikipedia). I've never read it, but I think it offers a good example of how you can do both. Iacocca spent the first third of his book talking about where he came from - his early life and family, education, et cetera. Then he proceeds to his time in business and the successes and misfortunes that he experienced, bringing the reader up to the present day.

Iacocca's book was popular first because he was a great success in business: then as now, there are lots of people who want to do likewise and by reading his autobiography, they too could tease out some of the strategies he took to get there and perhaps apply them to their own life. But Iacocca also talked about his life and the context for these great financial achievements, which I suspect made the book more readable and ultimately more profitable than had he written Iacocca's Eight Rules For Financial Success.

Gladwell, that great believer in 'I do' journalism also uses this technique, most recently in Outliers, his book on success. In almost every story he tells, Gladwell relies on how people feel about things to illustrate how they do them and so succeed or not. In one particularly affecting section, he discusses the smartest man in America (according to that ever so reliable measure, IQ) and how his achievements in life seem to fall so far short of what we expect from the gifted. I won't spoil the story as it's worth reading and in any case is better told by Gladwell than the likes of me, but what is interesting is that we come to any realisation and understanding, to Gladwell's larger point about intelligence and success, through the life story and feelings of that smart man. Gladwell could have told the story in a paragraph, but he takes a chapter. The time this takes means that you immerse yourself more fully in the story (and from that, the ideas) than you ever would were you presented with a bullet-point list of the reasons why some gifted people don't achieve their supposed potential.

It works both ways. If you read books even semi-regularly, you are aware that there is a thing called 'literary fiction', and then everything else. If you are reading something from 'everything else' you are not necessarily reading a proper book. You may be enjoying it, you may even love it, but you aren't appreciating real literary art in the same way you might were you to approach the foot of Mount Banville or scale the Cliffs of McEwan. Without starting a rant about the meaninglessness of these divisions and the consequences apparent for publishing and reading in general, the main complaint about literary novels, insofar as there are any, is that 'there is no story'. People feel all the time. There are acres of feelings in these books. There are thoughts deep and shallow, honourable and prurient, affecting and bland, but rarely is there a story to hang them on, to give them resonance.

It's hard to do. I recently read a first novel called 'John The Revelator' by a guy called Peter Murphy, who writes for Hot Press (I should declare an interest here: I'd like to be published, so I automatically hate everyone else who is, especially those who are recently published and who are friends of friends. It's a failing, what can I say. Declaration over). On one level, it's a classic lit novel, filled with symbolism and philosophical ramblings, alienation, loss and as they say in the best reviews, 'not much happens'. On the other hand, it's incredibly gripping and I read it in about 4 hours. The 'not much' that happens is actually all that the author needs to make his story work and help the characters who appear in it both real and interesting. More than that, both work together to help each other. Since the characters are so compelling, the story becomes that way too. The story has a strangeness of atmosphere that works on the characters to make something that on the face of it, you could tell in one page, a novel that sucks you in and rewards you for your time.

As you can imagine, I profoundly dislike the guy...

We've left the point. This is all a way of saying that I'm obsessed with Ira Glass and I think everyone should listen to his show, This American Life, on NPR in the US, but downloadable as a free podcast. He did a speech for something called the Gel Conference in 2007 (I can't be bothered findoing out what that is right now), which I link to here and I think (if you've read this far) you might enjoy. He talks about what he feels makes a story work and why that is the case. So from the perspective of aspirant writers, this may be worth a watch, but I think that it's a good view anyway.


I don't know if that link is going to work, but here is a link to another series he did on storytelling that I enjoyed. There's a YouTube link out there somewhere as well...

Here's part 1.

So that link to Ira Glass, that mini-review of John The Revelator and indeed that digression on Lee Iacocca, my dad and Malcolm Gladwell amount to a declaration of intent for this blog (which hopefully hits the right balance of pretentiousness and humour), that while I will endeavour to write things that I do (posting articles that I have done and so forth) and talk about news that is relevant and interesting, there will always be lots of thoughts about everything, because I think that will make the stories and the blog more interesting. Whether you agree or not is up to you and you have my apologies, as ever.

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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