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Long, Short, Public, Private

On Making Things Public

I’ve long been attracted to creative processes that are built around a repeated daily activity. Where the structure of the piece to some degree reflects the process of creating it.

Morton Feldman (on the advice of John Cage) would write a page of music and then copy it out neatly. Ferneyhough too, in a piece like La chute d’Icare, would write a page and then move on, not going back to change things. In our internet age it’s not uncommon to make things public as one goes along, and I’ve long been puzzled by my tendency to the opposite – spending inordinate amounts of time working on blog posts while at the same time carrying around the idea that I’d like to be able to easily post small bits of writing as I go along: A discrepancy between desire and practice.

Thomas Basbøll’s recently abandoned summer writing project has given me a little more insight into the relation between the kind of material one is working on and the process of making it public. I’ve been inspired by his method of composing a (c. 200 word) paragraph within the time frame of 27 minutes – preferably at a fixed time on a daily basis. His summer project involved writing a paper that was to consist of 40 paragraphs (the content of which was mapped out in an overview) over the course of 40 days. However, unhappy with the pressure of making each section public as he went along, he abandoned the project after having posted the first 10 paragraphs: He hadn’t considered “the enormous difference between the experience of drafting a paper one paragraph at a time in private, to be revised and then shown to select readers and reviewers before publication” and making each half hour’s worth of work public as he went along.

Thomas expands on the shift between public and private with reflections on the relation of writing to time – insights that I find could equally be applied to composing music.

Writing does not happen in “real time”. The words are arranged in a careful manner that speech could never achieve. Every time you write you are in principle “merely drafting” because you can always go back and change it before communicating the text to anyone else. That possibility, and writing with an awareness of it, just is the experience of writing. It is “the privacy of your own mind”.

The crucial shift here is the move from the “the privacy of one’s mind” to making something public – at which point it loses something of it’s draft status even though it could of course still be categorised as such. In Thomas’ case making that shift too quickly upset the writing process:

I was trying to do it without that sense of an indefinite (if not finally infinite) amount of resources. A very important aspect of the writing experience was getting lost. It is the sense that there is plenty of time.

Thomas found himself in a situation closer to speaking. “But with a (self-imposed) obligation to a level of clarity that we never ask of speech.” The level of clarity required of an academic paper was at odds with the pleasure Thomas found in writing his daily blog texts.

The flip side of having plenty of time is writing as a kind of performance – an aspect equally at the heart of Thomas’ 27 minute method. Endless revisions aren’t always beneficial to the writing process: At a certain point rearranging ones words might result in a text worse than the one one started with. It might be better to give the same paragraph a number of (27 minute) attempts 1 before choosing which ‘performance’ to present. The same goes for drawing. Or music.

Thomas’ summer project had a solid outline, but in the absence of a strong structural ground “performing” a paragraph at a time creates form itself – which perhaps makes this approach particularly suited to unstructured situations. Feldman, having abandoned the use of musical systems, also thought of his pieces as a kind of performance 2, although certainly not one that was carried out in public.

Time

There’s another aspect of time that Thomas points to – the asymmetry between the amount of time invested in composing a paragraph and the minute or so it takes the average reader to read it. That asymmetry might however be levelled out if we take into account the ‘digestion time’ required by the compressed level of information in a well composed text or the long tail of the resonance it might set in motion in the reader. Frank Chimero refers to this in his critique of ‘reading time’ estimates for articles. In a previous essay I’ve wondered if this ‘digestion time’ has something to do with what seems to be a present day preference for taking in information in a way that is closer to ‘speech-time’.

The amount of time invested in a drawing or painting mostly results in a similar asymmetry – only the photograph flips this relation on its head, even though the glance within which most photographs are consumed comes close to the speed with which they are created.

A Step Back

And then there’s the other kind of performance which has to do with the relation between author and public. Warren Ellis, another writer whose posts tick in on my RSS reader (nearly) every morning, comments on the need for taking a step back in order to replenish his creative wells.

Derrida contrasts the foregrounding, or ‘fetishization’, of the author figure with what he wanted to understand as central to writing: ‘writing’, he says, ‘means to withdraw oneself’. —Derrida3

There’s the aspect of the author stepping back both within the text as well as in terms of public presence. “We’re always told that such an attitude is born of a bygone era” Warren remarks, at the same time recognizing the value social media has had for him.

100 Days

There are clearly forms of writing that benefit from the discipline of making them public on a daily basis – where the public nature of the project can provide the impetus to overcome slumps in motivation. The repeated nature of the task may also ease the boundary between public and private, loosening the grip of an overcritical mind. The daily installments of Jeremy Keith’s (recently completed) 100 x 100 words are a good example. In a podcast conversation with Andy Clarke and Jeffrey Zeldman Jeremy emphasizes the value of ending up with a kind of public record in which the subject matter isn’t (over)evaluated as one goes along. He argues that it’s not possible to second-guess what one might find valuable from a future vantage point. Public missteps might turn out to be valuable learning experiences. One might consider this to be one of the great aspects of the web.

Mandy Brown in her essay Hypertext as an agent of change points to the value of hypertext in bringing a “speed and fidelity” to communications that in turn gives rise to “a transparency of iteration and revision previously unavailable”. ‘Typographic fixity’ facilitates the rapid advancement of learning which Brown characterises as:

…the accumulation of small bits of information by a community who collectively work together to gather and refine and challenge each other’s assumptions.—Mandy Brown

Jeremy Keith’s project was part of a group effort at Clearleft inspired by Michael Beirut’s 100 Day Project. James Bates of Clearleft describes the point of their version of the project as primarily an exercise in creativity and sustainability in addition to honing skills or learning something new. Beirut himself sees the point of the project as being a way to balance inspiration and discipline. Although his 100 days culminate with a mandatory public presentation, sharing each day’s work as one goes along isn’t required. He nevertheless states:

“What’s great about the 100-Day Project is that you don’t need anyone’s help to do it. But if you want to undertake some kind of disciplined, sustained activity, then doing it in a group and feeling like you have the support of other people is incredibly useful. That’s why I enjoy the idea of the 100-Day Project being a social project.…”
Michael Beirut

Elle Luna is an artist who has strongly focussed on the communal aspect the exercise. Talking about her 100-Day Project created in partnership with The Great Discontent she emphasizes the power of community in the endeavour: Making the material public as one goes along provides an added impetus to maintain the discipline of creating it. With the act of creativity (in community) in the foreground, value is placed on process over product. At the same time one ends with a body of work.

A Bygone Era

Talent is formed in quiet, character in the bustle of the world
—Goethe 4

I sometimes think about Carl Jung who spent decades of his life working on his Red Book, a book that was, despite requests, kept private until it was finally published in 2009 many years after his death. “A bygone era” as Warren Ellis points out. Certainly an approach to creativity that wasn’t dependent on the public eye. A reminder of the deep transformative role that art can play in our lives even when not played out in a public space.


  1. And with the word “attempt” we are back to the original meaning of the word “essay”. See Mandy Brown’s Hypertext as an agent of change.  

  2. See my previous article Concept, Image, & Idea:

    My pieces are to some degree a performance. I’m highly concentrated when I work. In fact I found one of the ways to arrive at concentration… is that I write in ink.
    —Conversation between Morton Feldman and Walter Zimmerman, Morton Feldman Essays, p. 229, (Beginner Press 1985).

  3. A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Simon Glendinning   (US)  (UK) – quoted in Warren Ellis’ blog post: To Withdraw Oneself

  4. “Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille, ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Torquato Tasso


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Rudiger Meyer is a composer interested in the play between traditional concert music and new media.