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.

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.

A Note On Books

Printed books are soon to be on their way out we hear, no longer to be our favoured medium for detailed and meaningful information. Often lengthy, requiring study perhaps, or simply containing an entire universe in the form of a novel impossible to put down, printed books are getting a bad press.

By Scriblum writer Habeeb Marouf

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

Francis Bacon, Essays, 1625

With the era of electronic publishing and reading – on iPads, e-readers and perhaps refrigerator doors – beginning to encroach upon the printed book’s hallowed ground, it is apparently just a matter of time before this ancient medium gets binned. What was once not only read but perhaps also tasted, swallowed and chewed is now set to be digitised. The question is, will it be as easily digested?

The universal digitisation of books will certainly happen, especially in light of Google’s announcement (Sept 2009) that it is set to digitise every book ever printed; which is very kind of them. And also in light of the fact that apparently any old fool can now publish something electronically via Kindle, Google itself, as well as through many other accessible e-publishing tools. As an ironically foresighted article in a 2005 issue of The Bookseller pondered

Everyone has a book in them, and the danger, for some, is that soon everyone will have that book published.

But even if the migration from print to digital (and The Bookseller did not in fact take an entirely negative view) appears relentless, there’s still good reason to hope that the total demise of print will not be for a few generations yet, at least. As a long term storage medium, paper is at present much more reliable than electronic forms, which deteriorate with each read/write cycle and are also inherently unstable, suffering a kind of “natural” electromagnetic whithering equivalent to the growth of mould on paper, or the slow fading of ink. Though they deteriorate too, paper and ink can nevertheless survive millennia, whereas “e-mouldiness” can destroy data in decades or just years, especially if the media is already a few years old. (So writers be warned: print out and keep a hard copy of your work!).

The greater longevity of paper is one argument that may help printed media to stick around indefinitely, or at least until e-media equally as reliable is developed. But another good reason may be the limitations that electronic forms of information actually cause us to confront. Biologically, we (as in us, right now) are simply not yet adapted to getting data exclusively via screens and in some cases headphones. In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr examines this limitation by looking at our apparent addiction (including himself) to social networking, obsessive email checking, online shopping, the use of search engines and no doubt soon, electronic books. He claims that this superficial use of electronic media, that often involves nifty multitasking among many different applications, is making us stupider. Skimming and flitting through information teaches the brain to expect lower focus times, and repeated multitasking literally re-wires neuronal pathways. The upshot, says Carr, is that the brain grows to expect information in short bursts, reducing concentration and, as a bonus, making us more stupid.

The really serious downside is much worse however. As the neuron pathways for skimming and superficial gleaning are strengthened, those for more focused, deep reflection are cut back! Electronic multitasking, apparently, shrivels the best bits of your brain. That’s bad news for traditional book reading. As Carr puts it:

If you neglect more focussed ways of thinking, those pathways will ultimately fall apart. It explains why when you turn off your computer or phone and try to read a book your mind isn’t so adept at concentrating and will want to flit about as it does online.

Supposing Carr is right, what difference does it make what a book is made of? An e-book is a book all the same, and so presumably one can become engrossed (or be distracted from it) just the same as a printed version. Apart from a dejected forlornness when the batteries run out (at which point you simply whip out your print copy of whatever it was you were reading and carry on, by candle light if necessary – haha!) there is nothing terribly different about e-books[1]. One might argue.

But Carr’s analysis of the neurological element to reading mightn’t just argue that we are getting stupider through e-reading, it might also show we may be missing out on some richness and actual enjoyment when  “obtaining data” from printed books (i.e., reading them held in our laps). Hyper-links are very useful, it is true, but there is an element missing surely when we jump from link to link rather than turning from page to page in search of something, or for a quick recap, or simply to read on. The physical action of turning the pages might well add to the experience of reading (it does for me), and the weight of a book may be important as well, and perhaps even, and this applies to many people I have spoken to, its odour and shape. We may not perhaps consciously perceive a book’s physical presence in these subtle ways, but the sum total of our perceptions might still amount to better assimilation and a nicer experience. For as long as we have hands and noses, and perhaps ears with which to hear the rustle of quality paper, the physical dimension of printed books may be another good reason for keeping them in frequent use. With a distinguishable mass, volume, odour and yes, even sound, even a lowly paperback can exploit sensory channels that an e-book simple doesn’t have access to.

Perhaps you may have also noticed that when leaving off reading from a printed book or magazine and then return to it later, your eyes often astonishingly land on the first word of the next paragraph you’d have read earlier had you in fact continued reading. No such useful trick seems to occur when reading from a screen, and usually you have to read at least the beginnings of several paragraphs before finding out where you are.

I guess though, that there is no reason to be overly devastated at the threatened demise of print. If any of our species – at such time when books do become a rarity – feels they yearn for the odour, touch and traditional elegance of books (and who knows with some people, also their taste), they will of course always be able to get their hands on one. Someone or other would soon enough provide that service, hopefully.

But probably such a time when print is rare is at least a few generations away. That’s because anatomically, and according to Carr also neurologically, it looks like we can’t yet fully stand up to the rigours imposed by electronic immersion, to say nothing of its inability to give us a tactile and possibly sensual intimacy with what we are reading. Who knows, perhaps even Carr’s discovery that our attention span is suffering can be explained by the ever decreasing contact with real, hard, physical reading matter.

There is nothing to say that our descendants (probably enhanced) will suffer such limitations, but it remains to be seen whether they will in reality be better than we are, or perhaps, be a little stupider for reason of their separation from paper.

There may yet be just one more consideration irrespective of our anatomy and neurology that perhaps could save the printed book forever, if only as a parallel though still ubiquitous medium alongside electronic forms,. The luddite that lurks in each writer and book lover might yet help commute the sentence of total obscurity, as we acknowledge the simple pride and totally explicable pleasure of actually owning printed books. Though an electronic reader device can doubtless hold thousands of instantly downloadable books – something that could well be quite useful to an enlightened luddite – it nevertheless seems a tragedy that there is nothing substantially material to show for each one of them, even to oneself in the quiet sanctuary of a back room; or perhaps in the hall or on the landing; or, if you are lucky enough, in your library, where you can surround yourself with all manner of books that perhaps occasionally you can share and show off to others, letting them smell and touch them, though strictly no nibbling. To quote a Sunday Times editorial commenting on the demise of the print version of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary [2],

Books, as that bibliophile Anthony Powell noted, do furnish a room.

And, the Sunday Times article goes on to say (not forgetting the egotistical luddites who actually write books)

For authors, there is no better feeling than holding the first paper copy of their book.

Books are aesthetic objects in themselves, often individually personalised by underlining, turning page corners, slipping in notes and scribbling all over them in margins and on covers, all of which is extremely useful and extremely difficult to do on a screen. And perhaps we might now also note that, though the user need not be warned “batteries not included” when buying a printed book, the simple answer would be “who needs them!

***

A man should treat his women as he treats his most precious and beloved books. He should take them to bed, sleep on them, nibble their ears a little and then stack them neatly along the wall for later use*.  HM

*Replace gender as appropriate


[1] To counter this problem, researchers are developing body “power-take-off” devices that will obtain electrical energy from your body. You’ll only end up having to carry enough food with you however.

[2] OED Falls Victim To The Digital Divide, The Sunday Times 29 August 2010