As you listen, you can hear a wonderful sigh after about 16m 30s of typing. It’s not quite a sigh of relief, because she’s still got a few minutes left. I don’t know what kind of sigh it is. I don’t suppose Pilita knows, either.
But it makes me think about my own typing process, and how I probably do tend to hold my breath while developing a particular line of thought.
Last week I invited well-known writers to record the sound of themselves as they write. “Strange request,” one replied, but agreed to do it anyway.
This week, three of those writers delivered the audio files. And today one of the pieces of writing went online, so you can actually read it while listening to the tappetty-tap of fingertips on keyboard.
The image above shows the patterns of sound, which you can hear on my podcast, here:
If you want, you can find out immediately who the writer is, and read the finished article while you listen.
But I recommend that you listen first, to really “feel” the writing process – the flurries of words, the moments of silence, the bit where a cup is put down on a table.
You have the advantage over me: I’ve no idea what it’s like to listen to this audio without already knowing the writer. Nor do I have any idea what benefit it will have (if any) for you to listen in that salutary ignorance.
I don’t want to give away the identity of this writer, so I’m going to say an impersonal THANKYOU (you know who you are). Everybody else: if you download the writer’s work, here, you’ll see who exactly I’m thanking:
Hi, I have no idea where this is going. Nope, I have got some idea.
Let me tell you why I’m doing this.
Last week, on holiday in Dorset, I sent a book proposal to my agent. I’ve been meaning to send it for ages – and I did. And we talked about it, while I sat in the car, parked under a tree because it was so beastly hot. He was hot somewhere else.
And he said he liked the proposal very much. Sure, there were a few things to change here and there, but nothing too big.
It’s about How To Write, though that title will need a bit of work.
Fairly obvious way to extend what I’ve already done with A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech. Because I’ve been a writer all my adult life, and tried various different kinds of writing.
So: I was talking to my friend Wendy – also a writer – and she said she’d only ever once seen a writer actually writing. Not just looking at them at a distance, in the British Library, but actually watching over their shoulder. It was (I think she said) Ian Rankin, on telly for a few minutes.
And I mentioned this to some other people, in a group of creative wizards I set up to stay sane during lockdown –
(Gosh, what a lot of noise outside.)
- and the people in this group were very encouraging and pleased to hear what I have in mind. I told them I’d quite like to write the book semi-publicly, so that I can learn from the people who want to learn from me, if you see what I mean, and create a better book as a result.
And they gave me a few suggestions. One, which I did yesterday, was to record the sound of myself typing as I wrote a blog post and put it on my podcast.
My initial thought was that this would be tremendously dull, and I’m sure it is, to some people. But I have to tell you that I found the sound of rapid bashing on the keyboard quite mesmerising. It was a bit like listening to the soundtrack of somebody walking (which is where this my friend got the idea).
Anyway, so I recorded myself on the iPhone, and popped it on my podcast, which if you don’t know already is called an ADEQUATE podcast, and I’ll probably put links on this page later but not yet. [Done.]
Then I started thinking what fun it might be to get some writer friends to do the same, and to post the sound of their typing on my podcast, with little pre-amble or explanation.
I sent a few emails and messages on Twitter. Some came back quickly, asking only for details of how to do it, send it to me etc. I’m very pleased.
I’ll wait to hear from more of them before I give any names, but I can tell you that they include journalists, writers of fiction, non-fiction, books for young people – and more. How utterly thrilling for me to know the sound of their typing is coming my way.
One idea I have is to mix the sound together, so that it feels like I’m typing in company with them all. Have it as a kind of backing track when I’m working. “Write along with So-And-So…”
Anyway. Ho hum.
[Stops typing so fast for a moment to think.]
About yesterday’s typing sound. I stopped typing, and stopped the recording, at almost exactly 20 minutes. This morning, I looked at the blog post I wrote and counted the words: 900. That’s pretty fast! I haven’t lost it!
(I’m afraid I have always been rather pleased with myself since a senior editor told me he’d never known anybody produce copy so fast.)
I’m going to stop in a sec, but there’s something very important to add, and I know that only the people reading this and watching along live (ie, you) will ever know about it, because nobody else (quite rightly) gives a t*ss. (I’m typing on Facebook, let’s keep this clean!)
The thing I need to add is that I shall be writing my How To Write book semi-publicly, in August. I want to learn from people who want to learn from me. It’s a bit early to say exactly how long I’ll be doing it, or what exactly will be involved. (It’s only going to be semi-public, so I haven’t quite decided how to include people who want to be included.)
Point is, if you’re interested in hearing more, you should probably look for a way to get in touch so that you don’t miss anything. You could look at my website, where I’m typing this specifically this page:
And you could “like” my Facebook page called something like Creative Adventures With John-Paul Flintoff. Follow me on Twitter. Sign up for the newsletter, all that jazz. Oh, and do subscribe to the podcast if you want to hear the sound of writers, writing.
I won’t mind if you unfollow – it’s a free country, just.
Earlier today I was reading a story by a British journalist – a woman, can’t immediately recall her name – for a big American magazine, The Atlantic.
She was writing a light-hearted polemic about the ways in which journalists are not ideally suited to be politicians. I was both delighted and annoyed to see this, because I’d been thinking of writing something similar – having talked a lot about it over the last few days.
Her central figure was Boris Johnson, though she threw in a certain amount about (I think) a journalist from the New York Times who is running for office somewhere, and about somebody connected to Fox News who (again, I think) got heavily involved in campaigning for Donald Trump.
You might be wondering why I don’t just look up the details, instead of writing that I don’t recall her name, and writing “I think”. Well, there are two reasons.
1. I’m creating an audio recording of my typing, just to hear what it sounds like. I don’t want to stop, and go off to Google, get lost in there, and so on. But right this second I remembered that her name is Helen Lewis, and she used to write for or possibly edit the New Statesman.
2. I’m writing this as a blog post, not an essay, and I’ve sometimes wondered what the difference between those really is. Just now, while typing, the idea popped into my head that an essay is something more worked up, with facts checked, and a blog post is more spontaneous.
So, what was I planning to write about journalism and politics?
I was going to write something about the way that working for years as a journalist can make you very fast, and can help you to type as quickly as (I guess) this audio recording will convey, with moments of rapid bashing as I bring together the command key and the backspace to withdraw a thought and type a new one in its place.
The downside is that journalism gives practitioners an extremely short memory. We learn to think in brief intervals – as long as a month, on some magazines, or a week, or just a day.
I remember that when I was working as a sub-editor on The Guardian, I’d come into the office around lunch, by which time writers and photographers had done much of their work. Words and pics would be sent to me (among other subs) and I’d pour them into the page assigned to me by an editor, and throw things around, including a headline and captions and pull-quotes. Then I’d remove obvious errors (and less obvious ones, I hope), re-write stuff a bit, maybe have another go at the headline, pop to the trolley for a cup of coffee (there was a woman with a trolley, at about 4pm), and so on, until the whole thing was finished at something like 8pm.
Mostly, I worked on a section called G2, which was a tabloid pull-out from the broadsheet main paper. It was like a mini-magazine, with things in it that are less newsy (agony column, food, crosswords) and longish features that tended to be at least a little newsy.
At the end of the day, the desks were all piled high with print-outs of page layouts, spattered with coffee and crumbs after being abandoned and re-done, with new headlines and picture captions and whatnot. (I do like that word: whatnot.)
The next day the desks were completely clear.
I have no idea who removed the papers. All I know is that every day felt like a fresh start. Our past no longer existed. We’d already read today’s paper, yesterday. And we looked ahead no further than tonight’s printing deadline.
So much for subbing. What about writing? Well, as a writer I focused only on my next deadline. I didn’t do anything, very much, unless there was a deadline.
Naturally, I did have some kind of list, somewhere, or stories I might like to do at some point in the future – but the trouble with those stories is that they’re rarely of interest to an editor later, when the news agenda and the public mood have shifted. So I held fairly lightly to them, and my already strong tendency to take up new things enthusiastically was made even stronger: as soon as I was commissioned to write about something, even something I knew little about, I could become utterly absorbed by it.
Now, I’m me. You’re you. He and she are them. I can only speak for myself. But I watch Boris Johnson and I wonder whether the years and years of writing something to please an editor and a wider sympathetic readership has been fatally harmful. He seems to be somebody who is brilliant at putting a gloss on NOW, and urging us to move on.
I don’t see the strategy. I don’t see him sticking to something he passionately believes in. I see a man who – like me – has been moulded by journalism.
I wonder if there’s any academic research into this?
I look at the timer on my iPhone voice recorder. I’ve been typing for 19 mins and 55 secs. I press pause. And breathe out heavily, as if I’ve been holding my breath all this time.
I’m not going to re-read this (for now, anyway). I’m just going to post it. And share it to social media etc. Then I’ll put out the audio as my next podcast.
Earlier this week, I demonstrated to a SP member how I use my paper-based journal, to keep on top of tasks and insights.
I explained how very useful it has been, since I started using it in January – not only in planning forward but also in looking back, to write up a big six-monthly report, for SP members, on what’s been achieved so far in 2021.
The system is fairly straightforward: like using a conventional diary, plus to-do list, but with tiny alterations that make a big difference.
In hope it might be useful to others, I’ve scanned the handwritten notes I made in December. You can download the notes, and watch a video demonstration, on this page:
I couldn’t quite believe I was saying it, but I was. I did.
I was at a Meet The Tutor session, a few weeks after the launch of How To Write, a course at The Idler Academy. There were guests from all over the place, including at least one from the West Coast of the US.
A question arose: what to do about your inner critic?
I explained that I have given quite a lot of attention to the Inner Critic over the past few years, including running workshops on how to deal with it / him, and now wish I had ignored him. Then I said the thing I hadn’t expected to say.
But I’m glad I said it, because a) it is true and b) it might help.
I explained that after leaving psychiatric hospital I spent a lot of time walking the streets, partly for exercise and partly as just something to do, at a time when I was not capable of working. When I got tired, rather than go into a cafe and spend money on a coffee I didn’t want and couldn’t afford, I would walk into churches.
Not having been a church-goer, except in the Scouts and subsequently at social occasions such as weddings and funerals, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do in churches. So I sat down quietly and pretended to be praying, in case somebody decided to chase me out. (Do people get chased out?)
Anyway, there was one particular Catholic church I popped into fairly often. It had loads of reading materials available at the front, on a table near the exit. These included prayers on folded sheets of A4. Some of the prayers were called Novenas, which I’d not heard of before – basically, cycles of prayer.
There were prayers to St Anthony, who was always pictured holding a baby, prayers to Saints Peter and Paul (pictured together, as a pair), and prayers to Saint Joseph (with young Jesus). I kept all of them in my back pocket, and re-read them often as a distraction from the negative thinking that was, at that time, almost unbearable.
The one I liked most was addressed to St Michael. It asked for help in seeing off the devil.
It seemed to me at the time that “the devil” is a silly fiction, ridiculous – a pantomime villain in red tights – but then it dawned on me that whatever I could say about the devil being nonsense could also be said about the modern-sounding Inner Critic.
If St Michael could see off my Inner Critic, that would do just fine.
I leave it up to you to decide whether angels or other supernatural beings had anything to do with the definite improvement this occasioned. One thing I can say for certain is that repeating the prayer over and over again, until I remembered it by heart, allowed no room in my mind to the negative thoughts.
At yesterday’s Meet The Tutor session, I found myself telling the people assembled there about my prayer to St Michael. In fact, I recited the whole thing.
So far as I could tell, nobody lodged an objection, or hurled missiles. And today I received a message in the Idler Academy forum, asking for the text of the prayer. Here it is, along with a picture I drew for a friend, with whom I shared it a couple of years ago:
St Michael The Archangel, defend us in the day of battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, oh prince of the heavenly host, by God’s strength strike down to hell Satan and all evil spirits that do walk the earth seeking the ruin of souls.
Did I mention that I like to design my own T-shirts? Well, I’ve mentioned it now.
Recently, Caroline W asked me to make a T-shirt showing her lovely dog. Here’s what I did. First, I cut out the very appealing face (!) she sent me on Whatsapp, then I imported it to Procreate on my iPad. I multiplied and manipulated it to form a pyramid.
Finally, made a few tweaks to the colour, light and saturation, so the faces weren’t too same-y.
Having done that, I went to Printful, where I get my own T-shirts made (and sometimes other things too).
I was about to do this for Caroline when I realised that it might be helpful to make a quick film showing how I do it, so that you can do the same. (Caroline or anybody else.) I hope you find it useful:
Handwriting is a spiritual designing, even though it appears by means of a material instrument — Euclid
Last year, I wrote approximately 96,000 words, by hand. Mostly I used pens, but pencils and biros laid down their lives too.
One in three British adults don’t write anything by hand for six months at a time. Our average speed is 68 letters per minute (or roughly 13 words). Fast writers manage 113 letters (20 words, not so bad) but slower writers copy just 26 letters per minute, or five words.
Assuming I’m fast, I spent 80 hours writing by hand. If I’m slow – well, it’s probably best not to work it out.
You may wonder: what kind of fool would write anything by hand when he can touch-type at the speed of ordinary conversation? And why type at all, when a relatively ordinary phone allows you to film everything, and save it to a boundless digital archive?
Answer: because time-consuming though it is, the physical process helps me to understand information, and remember it. And typing doesn’t do that.
Studies show that students who type notes tend to do so verbatim – they just drill it all down. Writing by hand is slower, so hand-writing note-takers are more selective, using their brains to digest, summarise and capture only what is needed. In memory tests, note-takers who type consistently perform worse than hand-writers.
But there’s a bigger problem with digital: it’s gone beyond being good, becoming too good, and ultimately no good.
We live in an age when almost any fact or opinion can be found online. But if that’s all we do, we leave ourselves no note of what we have learned – what we care about – to pick up and enjoy again later. And if you don’t remember a particular fact or insight, did you ever really learn anything?
Relying entirely on digital, I have realised, makes me giddy – actually light-headed. But when I hold one of my physical notebooks, I feel grounded.
Some that I filled have curled pages, a result of all the pressure from pencils and biros. Others, filled mostly with Pilot V5 rollerball pens, lie flatter. The pens flow easily over the page and, to be perfectly honest, make the job less tiring. (Note to self: stop using pencils and biros.)
To put my 96,000 words in context: it’s longer than any of my published books. To keep on top of it all, I “tag” my notes so that I can find what I need, even long afterwards.
I won’t go into the whole process, but here’s the most important bit: every time I buy a new Leuchtturm I leave two pages at the front to fill in gradually, as I go along, with numbered “contents”. I list regular themes and topics in the back of the book, each with a different colour, and I mark the edge of pages with that colour, wherever that topic is mentioned.
Time-consuming? If I do it as a go along, I hardly notice.
In this episode, James Mayhew talks about the process of finding his own style as a young man – initially, by copying others. If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know this is a regular theme: there’s a real liberation in setting constraints for your artistic practice.
In this particular case, the practice is visual art, but what James describes is relevant to any other kind of creative work, including writing.
I first came across James’s art as a parent, reading picture books before bedtime. We loved the Katie books. The first of these was published in 1989, soon after James left art school. Here’s what you need to know: in the Katie books, James takes his main character into the world of other artists – literally stepping into their famous paintings to meet the people pictured there.
As it happens, I have recently been doing a very slightly similar thing, and posting my drawings on Instagram. I’ve learned a lot from copying the great masters, and after I had done a few I thought of James, drawing the Katie books, and just knew I had to ask him about it. I’m so pleased he said yes.
Also in this episode, we talk about how (for a decade before the pandemic) James did live drawing sessions, collaborating with orchestras to convey the world of particular pieces of music. And we hear how he adapted that work, with a pair of musicians, to do it online.