The Diogenes Writers Retreat

A Cure for Procrastination

For the apparently incurable procrastinator, we are pleased to offer the austere and inhospitable accommodation known as The Diogenes, a small and minimally appointed dwelling provided with occasional lighting and running water. Remotely located in the Cilento of southern Italy, the dwelling is offered to suitable individuals on very favourable terms.

Some prefer luxury, others seek bounty, but as many of the great writers and artists have at one time discovered, only a few are at their best when destitute. For those who know in their deepest self that they must suffer to flourish and produce anything of worth, and need separate themselves from comforts and privilege to achieve this, The Diogenes is probably the answer. Unsurpassed by none save the eponymous barrel dweller of ancient Athens himself, the Diogenes brings to life the meaning of destitution. Without temptation or distraction, and certainly without an internet connection (visitors are searched before being abandoned), little will stand in the way of producing your opus bonum from under its naked timbers.

The beauty however, is the assurance that this will not be forever, nor indeed your end. An assurance the likes of Thomas Paine, William Blake, Fredrick Nietzsche and others suffering hardship or being unprivileged, were unfortunate not to possess. For them, solitude and hardship were supposedly part of their natural and irrevocable lot, cruelly imposed “by that Being whose ways are inscrutable to us, and whose dispensations, it is conceived, we ought not to look in to”, to borrow from the 1792 Commons speech by Pitt the Younger, a rousing and impassioned call for the abolition of slavery.

But unlike the lives of these great thinkers, and indeed of slaves, the deprivations of poverty at the Diogenes are those of one’s own volition, masterfully designed for the needs of the most inveterate procrastinator. As every procrastinator will have bitterly learned, though creativity stirs in their loins and must out, they are nonetheless rendered impotent by trivia and petty concern, and even sometimes mesmerised to the point of creative paralysis by the enduring achievements of others.

“I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s” wrote Blake, and at the Diogenes there is no other man; or machine, to hem the human mind so easily captured, so easily subdued and enslaved, whether by sloth or through fear. Distraction is the enemy of creation, and liberty from its clutch, for procrastinators at least, is found only in austerity and asceticism. Victor Hugo is said to have ordered his butler to lock away his clothing, so that naked, he might be forced to remain where he sat in his equally bare room, compelled by his own design to produce.

The second beauty in all this is that should your endeavour fail, take heart, no one will blame you once they discover where you’ve been staying. Though the truth will certainly be that your procrastination is incurable, you could very well make the case that the conditions were intolerable, and as such could never inspire anything but a desire to escape. That in itself may be something worth writing about.

Applicants are invited to submit their interest, but are kindly made aware that not everyone is found suitable. Requisite qualities include good physical health and a relatively sound mind, capacity to endure silence, and a hardy disposition towards drafts under conditions of inclement weather and atmospheric disturbance, rare though these may be.

Preference will be extended to those competent in the use of mechanical typing machines and/or paper and pen, though an exception may be granted those willing to demonstrate that any electronic computing machines they carry are unencumbered by games, music and image rendering media, other than those directly required for the production of novel work. This last condition will be assiduously determined.

The abode is clean, without lose timbers and floor, and is generally safe. Though beyond a meagre bed, desk and the lighting bulb this is all in terms of the little comforts.

As means of communication a large bell is provided, to be rung only when absolutely necessary, but the use of which, even in such extreme circumstance, will not be looked upon kindly.

Location

Castelcivita is a remote hilltop village somewhat devastated by the flight of its populace in recent times, principally as consequence of its isolation and resilience to change. 600 metres above sea level on the Alburni Mountain Range, it was Established during the Norman era in the 11th Century, and boasts a magnificent Norman tower and many a building and wall still apparent in original construction. Donkeys can occasionally be found carrying their burden along the narrow, steep vicoli, and once your sufferance is complete, you may enjoy the purity of local wines, cheeses, meats and olive oils. World famous caves are nearby, though are strictly off bounds during ascetic periods. Nestled in the Cilento, the entire surrounding could be a temptation, and therefore the utmost self-discipline is required if one is to be here for productive work.

The facts are that despite its sorry present state, Castelcivita was once and may well again be, a living example of a thriving medieval village set in splendid Nature. A restoration, perhaps, will depend on external interest and the resulting income, which, if sufficient, just might encourage some of the younger inhabitants to return and revitalise their ancestral lands. A bonus then, to all that creativity born of your suffering.

We look forward to receiving your enthusiastic and courageous application for this unique writers’ retreat.

It is Better to be Mad than Delighted

Following on from the post Writers: Beware the Lure of Search Engines, in which getting a feel for the uniqueness and originality of one’s writing is discussed, I am now partially obsessed with self-certifying my work to see if it is original or not. And that is due to my experience with one phrase in particular.

To my eternal misery a friend recently discovered that a “famous” phrase of mine appears on some chap’s poetry website, verbatim. The phrase came to me almost 25 years ago, before I took up serious writing and during a period in my life when I questioned my sanity. It occurred to me, all those years ago, that the only thing that actually assured me that I was not insane was the fact that I was questioning whether or not I was. Thus it was that I understood a fundamental truth, that “only the sane question their sanity”.

I had stumbled upon this gem not as a writer but as person in desperate need of assurance, rather like Descartes, who wanted to find out whether he existed or not. Only unlike Descartes, no one knows about my immortal phrase, and what is more, some blasted poet – a poet! – has nicked it.

But I am willing to accept that he thought of it independently, as I cannot recall ever writing it anywhere except in my notes, and those I have not placed on the internet at any time. And who knows, perhaps he even thought of it before I did 25 years ago, and only now got round to publishing it on the web.  But that is uncertain, and I do feel rather like Newton must have felt – if my megalomaniac spree might be allowed to continue a little – who, in 1666, had already invented the calculus before Leibnitz independantly did the same, yet it was Leibniz who got the credit first when he made his work known in 1677. Only then did Newton kick up a fuss and claim priority, and he did so on the basis of having thought of it first.

Newton had worked on the calculus during 1665 – 1666 and revealed and shared his work on the invention with those in his close community of colleagues at Cambridge, but had not gone widly public at the time. Leibniz then independently invented the calculus during 1673-76, but did not publish until 1684, some 9 years after his invention. It was this gap between making his work widely known through correspondence and letters in 1677 and actually publishing in 1684 that weakened Leibniz’s case. As S. Subramanya Sastry says in a paper on the infamous controversy, “Today, we consider the criterion of printed publication to confer on the author credit for the published work. However, in the 17th century, correspondence and even disclosure in front of reliable witnesses of private manuscripts or instruments had considerable weight; the work need not necessarily have been published”[1].

Newton had already shown his work to a closed community in 1665-1666 and eventually, because of the shear volume of surviving notes left by Newton, it has now been well establshed that Newton did indeed have priority of being first. Nonetheless, as  Sastry rightly points out, this does not in any way diminish the genius with which Leibniz arrived at his own invention of the calculus.

In my case of the phrase “only the sane question their sanity” I can produce two witnesses that can testify to my priority in the matter. My good friend, Scotsman and fellow writer James Wilkinson, who actually heard me utter the phrase in around 1990 (by then no longer in dispair I am happy to report); and his father, with whom he discussed it one Christmas. Both agreed that it was a fabulous phrase and would make a worthy immortal quote to be remembered by. But they did in fact better it, as in improve its emotional force, by suggesting that it be “Shakespeare-ised” or put into a more “Congreve-esk” form to make it more memorable. Thus, instead of “only the sane question their sanity” we now have “only the sane their sanity doubt”. I have no objection, as that does not change the underlying concept, for which I alone feel I can lay claim, and it does make it more memorable.

Now that we have opened up a different can of worms, that of sanity, it’s probably a good idea to in fact ask what does the phrase tell you? Basically it says that anyone who does not doubt their sanity can be considered insane, for how do you satisfy yourself that you are indeed authentically sane if you do not question it? Does not one wish to be reliably sane? Very well, then prove it, by examining whether you in fact are. The phrase or the concept that it expresses is in fact scientific, because only those things which undergo a process of query and testing can be considered authentic and reliable.

But, you may be asking, that’s all well and good, but what are the criteria for sanity through which you can question and examine it?

That appears to present a whole new problem, for which the fields of psychology and psychiatry do not appear to have diffinitive answers. But it does seem inutuitive that one of the criteria for sanity is that you in fact doubt it. And indeed, just as doubting one’s existence (apparently) shows that one indeed exists, then perhaps the only criteria for sanity is that you show that you question it.

Not so fast you are undoubtledly thinking. Does not the fact that you are questioning your sanity indicate that something is not right? And that therefore you have good reason to doubt it? That, though you are not completely and utterly barking mad, and are still capable of asking a coherent question – am I sane? – nevertheless, you are not entirely sane either.

And that leads us into another interesting question. Is it possible to be just a little bit insane yet still be capable of questioning your sanity? In which case the mere fact that you are questioning your sanity provides neither the proof nor the comfort of knowing you are sane.

Here is where the analogy with Descartes’ cogito is put to the test. It is not possible to exist just a little bit. You either exist or you don’t. So can the same be said for sanity? Is the relation between sanity and insanity binary, as it is with existence and non existence? Is it an either/or situation, or is there a spectrum of states that can be said to go from being entirely sane to entirely insane, passing through states such as “sandwich short of a picnic”, “a tad nutty”, “somewhat potty”, “slightly bonkers”, “quite a bit loony”, “on the way to being stark staring raving mad”, and so on? Remembering that in all states other than “entirely insane” one still retains the capacity to question one’s sanity . That is, when you are “somewhat” or “slightly” or “almost” insane, but not entirely insane, you can still ask “am I sane” and conclude that no, you are not, because you are indeed “somewhat” or “slightly” or “almost” insane.

Here’s what I think. Insanity – true, unrelenting and possibly glorious insanity – is the condition of being blissfuly unaware that you could in actual fact be insane. All other states, however “disturbed” they appear and as unsettling as they may feel, provided they are accompanied by an internal dialogue that is both aware and questioning of these very conditions, do not constitute insanity, not even a little bit. So to take an extreme example: if you hear voices and it bothers you initially, consider yourself perfectly normal but possibly with something to sort out, because being bothered about it is precisely the sort of reaction you’d expect a sane person to have. If you are stark staring mad, then these things cannot bother you, because you are stark staring mad, and possibly blissfully happy.

That I believe is what the Greek cynic philosopher Aristophenes meant when he uttered his immortal phrase: “it is better to be mad than delighted” he said, no doubt with some authority. If one is delighted with life, something is wrong. Because only an idiot finds life delightful, and that is because he does not worry in the slightest about how it should be lived, and importantly, that it will end one day. What helps drive us “mad” is the realisation that life is appalling, that though it is enough (thank you very much) that we must struggle to survive in a hostile world of hunger, pain and, worst of all, other people, all that effort is pointless anyway, because one day we will pop our clogs and that’s it. Indeed, insanity – blissful unawareness of the reality of existing, of the necessity of solving problems so as to overcome and endure suffering and perhaps extract some joy out of life- could be a most desirable state. So if you are insane then either you will meet your end quickly, and it will all be over because you can’t deal with your problems yourself; or someone else is forced to deal with them for you.

And that brings us roundly to the pig, for which we have John Stuart Mill to thank. This great British Enlightnement philosopher attempted a detailed argument as to why unhappiness as a human is preferable to the happiness of the most satisfied “beast”, concluding that

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

Utilitarianism (1861) Ch.II.

We could beg to differ with Mill. Neither a pig nor a fool can their sanity doubt. But a sane man will at many points in his life become plagued with doubt and bedeviled with fear, and thus be forced to address the uncomfortable question of whether he is sane or not. Maybe he is sane, and on the argument above he in fact is. Yet what an inconvenience! And to what end? Trouble for nothing. Better to wallow in mud, and not ask questions.

*

I had thought of constructing an entire book around my little phrase “only the sane question their sanity”, as much to claim precedence for the phrase as to write a book. But this present blog article, together with the use to which I put the phrase over the years in one or two ruminations jotted down here and there, and also my friend and his father as witnesses, shall have to suffice for precedence. And though I have never published it anywhere, I did some years ago put it through the SE certification test by typing it into a search box, and I just wonder whether that poet ever worked for a search engine.

[1] http://pages.cs.wisc.edu/~sastry/hs323/calculus.pdf

Writers: Beware the Lure of Search Engines

Unless you’ve established priority for a particular piece of writing, meaning you’ve already got it published somewhere, avoid using unsecured search engines to search for information on your work.

As a writer you will probably (and if you aren’t, you should) be narcissistically obsessed with the originality of your work. This is OK, because you’re a writer. In any other walk of life you’d be hounded out of society, or perhaps given a company directorship.

Staying on the point however, being very interested in the originality of your work – including your idiosyncratic treatment of the subject, plot or characters, and how well-crafted your opening and closing lines are (the first to grab your readers’ attention, the other to leave ’em reflective and dying for more) – is something that every writer will relate to. Originality plus something interesting to talk about is what will get you published and read, keeping perhaps an eye on style as well.

So how do you ensure your work is original?

In the old days you relied on literary agents, publishers, reviewers and sometimes the reader, who would pull you up for unoriginal work before it got published, trash it in reviews once it’s been published, and make a note never to buy your work again in the case of a disgruntled reader.

These days there’s another way to do it, which probably a good deal of the time gives a fairly accurate first order approximation of how original a thought is. You may even practice it already, and that is simply to type a phrase or general idea into a search box on a search engine and see what comes up.

You can waste quite a bit of your life doing that, and I have developed a standardisation to measure, roughly, whether or not any particular phrase or concept is original.

For obvious reasons phrases are easier to check than general concepts and ideas,and as mentioned a first indication of whether someone else has thought of your phrase is whether it is suggested in the search box when you start typing (if you have this “suggest” feature turned on in the search engine). The second indication is, of course, whether or not the search engine actually finds a result sufficiently close to your query as to be equivalent.

If the search box suggests the phrase but you can’t actually find it on any of the results pages, this means that at least one person has thought of the phrase though it may not actually have been written down anywhere, at least on the internet. It could be they are looking for something just as you are, and not that they are actually writing something that includes that phrase, and through which they hope they will become immortal.

And of course if you do find that the phrase appears on a page, then that does mean that someone has thought of it and also incorporated it into writing. Therefore you are not the original thinker and it is unlikely that you will become famous for it.

As I say, you may already be doing this kind of thing and may have discovered, as I have, that many fantastic and memorable phrases that pop into your head have already been thought up by someone else, often word for word. Language works like that. Or rather brains work like that with language. There are logical and syntactical structures, as well as rhythm and rhymes to language that naturally present themselves to your mind, and so it is not a surprise that more than one brain can come up with the same phrase to describe a particular concept. What would be surprising is if some of the phrases that stood out to you as memorable and of impact did not also occur to and stand out in somebody else’s mind occasionally.

So as to satisfy myself that a phrase is very likely original and as yet un-thought, I usually click through to the 5th page of a search engine, looking for exact or very near matches. If none turn up by the 5th page I certify the phrase as “SE5 approved” or “SE5 certified”. That is, I consider it as unique according to the criteria that it does not appear in the first five pages of a reliable global search engine. But always bearing in mind that as with Newton’s work on calculus (see this blog article on insanity: It is Better To Be Mad Than Delighted), the really good phrase you have come up with could be lying somewhere at the bottom of someone’s draw, part of an opus magnum that they hope will be remembered for forever once they publish it.

If you want to be more certain of your phrase’s uniqueness – because it is a particularly good phrase for which you also hope to be remembered for all time, in the tradition of Rene Descartes’ cogito ergo sum or William Congreve’s “hell hath no fury as a woman scorned” – it may be wise to search till the 10th page and also in other major search engines. Thus, the certification may become GBYSE10, meaning you searched through to the 10th page of each of the 3 major search engines – Google, Bing and Yahoo – and  happily found no exact or very close matches.

Naturally, to be utterly certain that the phrase is unique you need to review all relevant literature, including printed matter that has not been digitised and published on the web. As well as perhaps rummaging through other people’s draws, if life were long enough. And as you would expect, the only way to in fact test your phrase as unique is to publish the piece such that you can claim priority over anyone who has thought of the phrase but hasn’t yet published. An established blog – someone else’s as well as your own – is one such method, and submitting it to established writer publications is of course another, also better method. That way you have something to point to if anyone else tries to lay claim to it.

Oxford Comma

By Scriblum writer Habeeb Marouf.

A while ago there was a piece in the London Times on the Oxford comma. Some people use it and some people don’t, and apparently neither are guilty of any sort of grammar crime.

But why must one be forced to choose between these two positions? Frankly the wisdom that should guide you in choosing when to use it is basically when you feel like it.

Kalashnikov Rolls off the Tongue and Into Your Hands

By Scriblum Retreats writer Habeeb Marouf

Newspapers are today reporting the death of Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the eponymous and hugely successful weapon so beloved of revolutionaries everywhere.

This rebel’s weapon of choice, it is claimed, is both easy to use and maintain, not to mention being reliable under the most extreme conditions. The claims must be true, as over 100 million have been produced since Mr Kalashnikov invented the weapon in 1947, attesting to an unrivalled popularity and demand.

But it is also true that the name is easy to pronounce, despite its fearsome looking syntax. “Hand me the Vledvnevosk comrade” doesn’t role as easily off the tongue in a tight situation as “Hand me the Kalashnikov”. Perhaps this in part also explains the popularity and success of this weapon.

Writers should be aware of the perils of uninviting syntax when choosing exotic names, as they risk annoying rather than enthralling their readers. When thinking up a name for an exotic character, item or place, it pays to consider how often it will be used, and whether the reader will be bothered to master the pronunciation if it appears often and is central to the narrative. It may look impressive on the page and add richness to your style, but a difficult to pronounce name will try the patience of most readers if it is overused.

The best type of formulation is indeed that exemplified by Kalashnikov, exotic yet not trying once you get it the first time. It’s multisyllabic, and so has the complexity required to impress and intrigue, and to conjure images out of the ordinary (at least, in this case, for non-Russians), yet the combination of vowels and consonants is rhythmic and steady. Whatever else Mr Kalashnikov might be accused of, having an irritating name that editors might use as an excuse for binning your manuscript is not one of them.

Hand Written Code Versus Auto Generate

The pages of the Scriblum web site are not generated using templates or WYSIWYG software programs, but written using coding editors such as Dreamweaver or even sometimes Windows Notepad.

Is this a good thing?

It’s a good question. Which is better, for example, the old style ribbon and percussion typewriter, or a snappy word processor running on a lightening computer? Come to think of it, extending that idea back a little, are hammer and chisel better than pen and paper?

One would think the arguments for or against any of these writing technologies would consider more than just the relatively superficial factors. Factors such as speed and ease of correction. Starting a new sheet of paper if you make a mistake is quicker and vastly more convenient than hauling out another slab of stone from the corner of your cave.

The same applies to comparisons between paper-and-pen and the ribbon-typewriter, and also, it is clear, between the ribbon-typewriter and the computer-word-processor assemblies. Typewriting is faster than handwriting if neatness and legibility are considered. And cutting and pasting from one section to another rather than re-writing, that is certainly an advantage of a word processor over pen and paper.

Each new technology has brought superior benefits to the writing process, and without such advances we would be literally stuck in the stone age.

Can a similar comparison be applied to software tools? Specifically, coding editors such as Dreamweaver and Notepad on the one hand, and template/WYSIWYG applications such as WordPress, Blogger and Weebly on the other? Coding editors preceded templates and WYSIWYG, and indeed are much “slower” and take some skill to master. So it would seem that using templates and WYSIWYG is an improvement.

But someone who is coding using Dreamweaver, and possibly even just Notepad if they are inclined towards masochism, may like to argue that what they lose in speed they gain in flexibility and power of creation. Templates are limited they might say, because they are fixed both in diversity and individual design, and to alter them you do need to know something about raw code. WYSIWYG tools are also limited, since you can create websites only using the features that have been programmed into the software. Things are set to improve that is true, as the technology advances, but currently, creating dynamic and powerful websites using templates and WYSIWYG without programming knowledge is very difficult, the hard coder will argue.

However, for most of the time and for most people, what they are creating is not the actual website. It is the content, the majority of which is text and images and perhaps other media such as sound and video files occasionally. For most people all they want is for the website to work reasonably well, and for this, templates and WYSIWYG serve the purpose. They are not interested in being the world’s best website creator, just as a novelist doesn’t care to be the world’s best typist or indeed how to repair a typewriter or PC. Likewise, beyond a competent grasp of how to use them to write down or display your ideas, nothing more needs to be known about template software and WYSIWYG tools.

As such, and especially as they evolve and become more powerful, templates and WYSIWYG tools represent a real advance, enabling the majority to use media that was once only accessible to the “scribes” and “high priests” of the programming elite- just as writing was the preserve of an elite in ancient and medieval times.

But with all these advances down the ages from one media to another, and now from one form of a single media to another (that is, advances among different kinds of software), has something been lost along the way? Is something sacrificed with gain in speed and flexibility, and in overall convenience?

Possibly. One could argue that stone tablets are not simply information-carrying media, but also sculptures with some aesthetic value in addition.  Engravings on temples and pyramids certainly look impressive, and they last a long time as well.

But realistically, there can be no argument over whether the advance to paper was an improvement. The first novel would still lie unfinished, surrounded by a wasteland of botched tablets and blunt chisels, with probably the author’s own gravestone in among them somewhere, had pen and paper never been invented. The gain then, in transitioning from stone to paper, is clearly greater than the loss.

Unlike stone tablets, the argument in favour of “older tech” appears at first glance to be rather stronger in the case of pen and paper, as compared to print and typewriters. Hand scripted works are certainly more attractive than type, and, extending the comparison, printed matter is certainly more attractive than a flickering word-processor screen.

Yet, if need be, or if we simply feel like it, can we not print or write by hand that which is speedily written on-screen? And even carve it in stone if we so wished?

Probably nearly everyone would like to see their works on paper and without doubt engraved in stone, but given these media are laborious and more crucially, time consuming, the fact is we are quite content with getting our works out and in circulation by the simplest means available.

But perhaps there is one reason for valuing the laborious, or shall we say, more challenging method of creating a website using hand written code. Simply, that one knows the personal effort and work that has gone into it, like a da Vinci or Rembrandt if you’ll permit, and for that reason it is more a product of the author, and somehow more genuine.

So perhaps something could be said in favour of a roughly hewn website, one that spectacularly fails to sing and dance in front of your eyes. Though it doesn’t sing and dance, it is at least unique. The sentiment is akin to the turnaround in the prestige of mobile phone ownership, wherein these days a person without one is to be admired and their company sought rather than be scorned and looked down upon as they would have been a decade ago. And if you are lucky to know anyone without a mobile device of any kind, and perhaps also without even a clunking desktop-PC at home, you’ll also know they are thankfully not given to singing and dancing.

Though of course this could all be an apology for the Scriblum website, and employing a clever programmer who can do the singing and dancing for you is could be a better option.