Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Solar punk – inventing an alternative future

“Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter – what shall remain is woven by the poets”. It’s been twenty since I adopted this quote by Hölderlin as a personal motto.
As writers, we keep the fabric of the world together. We are the keepers of tradition, weaving the loose threads of the past into the present. We are also custodians of the present, we give it shape, as witnesses, so that it carries into the future. But writers – and poets, thinkers, dreamers, entrepreneurs, or innovators of all sorts – do more: we propose visions of a potential future, inventing a different world to come. And by doing so, we make it possible.
Building the future starts with a bold act of imagination, rousing our emotions, and driving us towards action. This is a critical task today, as we face the funk of COVID19, while climate change and environmental collapse continue to loom in the background. Luckily there is a growing movement to rally us around an alternative future: solar punk is creating a post-kevlar, post-black-mirror, post-apocalyptic vision of the future, one based on peer-to-peer abundance, and solidarity between humans, nature and machines. Shall we build it?

This post was inspired by a piece on Singularity Hub from my friend and FOGA co-founder @carin Ism, where I contributed a few notes

Amplifying the signal

My partner used to take me to concerts – not so long ago, when concerts were still a thing. Last year, we listened to the Doric quartet. Walking back from Hamer Hall, I raved about that concert. Here is how I phrased it: their interpretation was such that I could identify the signal clearly – the melodic phrase, and the harmonic intention. There was a deliberate attempt at making sense of the score. Playing in that manner takes expertise, but also courage. Because, when you decide to interpret music in this manner, you state this is the music. No fudging. And if you made a wrong choice, inaccurate interpretation, people notice.

I had the same experience a while back, listening to Peter de Jaeger play a piece by Messiaen at an ANAM concert. Suddenly, there were echoes of jazz, it sounded like Gershwin. That was the message. I thought: ‘Of course, that was the musical world of Messiaen, no wonder he captured it, incorporated it to his work’. Peter de Jaeger revealed this to me, and showed how this piece fit in historically with others at the time, only by a choice of deliberate interpretation. He was reading the score, and shared the meaning he found with an audience. He made sense of the piece.

For this, he amplified a certain signal – melody, harmony, rhythm – isolating it, muffling the rest as noise. In the same way, the work of an editor is to amplify a signal. This is what I do, when editing: I look for the signal in the noise noise, then work with an author to amplify the first, and reduce the latter. It is a very personal process. I might be right or wrong. In fact, what I perceive may not even be clear to the author themselves. My unconscious brain, or whatever it is, comes into play.

Corollary: when a piece has nothing but noise, no signal, I will sense this, make it clear to the author. So, the skill – my gift, one may even say – is not my capacity to understand, but remain puzzled. In fact, I have never felt – or been – more useful than when I got puzzled.

 

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #4

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [I wrote this section in French – and translated it afterwards]. 

17 december

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

***

Three years ago, after coming back from China, I found myself crying after a dinner with colleagues, terrified by their laziness and dumbness. So, I shouldn’t feel sad not to work there anymore. It is probably unjust that, as I work and do more, I am paid so much less than I used to be – but the happiness I’m finding replaces what I used to derived from a salary. 

I was thinking, on the way back from the cinema, that I never really looked to get materially richer – but wished to offer my family the glory that comes from fulfilling your duty, social concerns, or cultural success. As I read the Brothers Karamazov, I was fascinated by the character of Aliocha – whom I later heard being described as an idiot. I have aspired, for a long time, to a certain naivety – irony, can one aspire to naivety? Telling myself that money would come somehow. 

And that may be through love: my father, or Philip, will support me if things go badly. And when I’m old, will people still love me then? Bah, maybe, and if not, well, I can still derive happiness from looking back at the beautiful things I did. 

But then, the hard part is succeeding in those. I was thinking today about ambition – and I am ambitious, for sure – and what people call success. ‘What did you achieve’, someone could ask, but the answer, as Alain used to teach, depends on perspective. For some I have known here, shagging sexy Chinese women counts as an ‘achievement’. For me, it’s  about deepening married love. One is not necessarily more noble or better than the other. In the same way, linguistically, I have not succeeded in ‘passing’ an exam – but the dice were skewed from the start, since I was responsible for assessing my own level. 

That’s the difficulty where I find myself, but also the freedom I gave myself: I operate in a world where I define the criteria for success. And I believe that, since I passed the competitive exam for Ecole Normale, then agregation – having succeeed at the most difficult competitive exams of the country where I grew up – but then, becoming a bit vague and lost as to what I wanted to do – and finally, deciding to migrate, convert, start a completely new initiative. Am I succeeding, or is it that, since I did not defend my PhD, I am fleeing away from academic failure? 

One thing is clear at least, which I remember very clearly: that I used to envy Alexis, at times, for daring the career he chose; and that I envied Alain that he lived off his scripts, more than I ever envied anyone at the Sorbonne, teaching at Henri IV, or directing a department at ENS. Creative freedom, that is what I have aspired too for a long time. And I shouldn’t, therefore, count as a failure that I have been touching to it these days, quite the contrary. 

Of course, it’s difficult. There is the difficulty of being paid little, and the frustration that comes with that. There is the difficulty of having little money to pay anyone I might need for help. There is complete uncertainty towards the future. And then there is, more radically, the difficulty of freedom, this fear not to be on the right road, because there is no road, because there are only the possible paths on the ocean, and new islands to discover. 

Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #2

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

15 december

 

Today, I was happy when I thought of this journal – I would be writing tonight. I also felt confident, and balanced, this morning. I made a plan of going to Wuhan and Changsha. I’m having appetite for the future again.

Two years ago, I was in the hot springs at Rye, resting my eyes and body among the hills, in the warm water. Yesterday, other Hamer scholars organized a trip to the local hot springs. I didn’t go. A trip to the hot springs with Hamer scholars would not be the most relaxing experience – busy bus, crowded springs, and – who knows – dumb conversations maybe. Still: why is it that I’m so bad at taking breaks, why is it that I feel guilty taking pleasure, and would rather sit, in work productive or sterile – spending as much, sometimes – for few results, and further burn out.

 

 

How did I relax recently? Yesterday, I spent four hours with Hao Mingliang – wonderful guy – but speaking Chinese all the way. Before, I sat at the cinema café reading about Nanjing – in Chinese – and I paused after seeing him at a Bubble Tea place inside the shopping mall – reading Chinese. These ‘pauses’ are nothing but ways of making me work that much further; not actually pausing.

Even when Philip came, apart from excessive sleep, I didn’t pause much. Only when we went inside the aquarium did I – and it made me cry – watching dolphins and fish. Then I had a moment of pure restfulness.

Writing this text is restful though – but I wouldn’t have thought of it that way necessarily. I have developed a habit of calling all sorts of activities as ‘work’. My step-father once told me ‘you call reading novels work’. To some extent, it was – I was in a literary stream at school – but he had a point. I called it work to protect my study from the dumb requirements of entertainment, that my family was pressing on me. But now that I’m older, I might actually get more ownership of my pleasure, and stop calling so many things work – just insist I have different forms of pleasure.

By calling everything work, I can’t relax. I also can’t work very well, or at least, fit in ‘paid work’. During this stay in Nanjing, I was remarkable at networking and studying, but only made 800 yuan from a TV show, living off my scholarship. I studied and I networked heavily, but did I work?

In the field I’m in, it is remarkably difficult to discern what is work, and what isn’t. After Ecole Normale, I have been used to having a ‘status’, and getting money for what I am, rather than what I do. Maybe that’s acceptable for me – but is whatever I do while I receive this money therefore work? And am I working myself to death for too little a sum, out of status consciousness?

When I prepared for exams, at Ecole Normale and before the aggregation, anything for the exam was work, with a clear result: I would get a lifetime job and salary. When I wrote my PhD and taught classes, both of these things were work. But already, I started writing novels, and reading books to inform them – and that was work as well. Then when I moved to Australia: there was film work, there was exhibition work, writing was work – and so was teaching, and so was my job at the Department of Primary Industries. Now Marco Polo Project is work. Work, in all its forms, has taken over my life, and I can’t relax, have a beer, wind down.

A few things help me get through. TV series do the trick – especially with Philip. But I’ve watched through Dexter and Gossip Girl, True Blood is coming to an end, and there’s only three more seasons of Glee to come. I think I might stop watching after these. But how will I rest then?

I’m planning a short trip down south: that’s a first step. Maybe, I will give myself a ‘relax’ budget every week, that I will spend on things that make me relax. So that I can rest better, sleep better, and be more vigilant when awake.

On the writer as a project manager

In my Linkedin header, I identify as a writer and educator. I never studied business, or anything resembling business – yet over the past ten years or so, I realised I have done a pretty decent job at project management. Though the skills required are not exceptionally original, I certainly saw that not everybody did well at it. I’ve reflected quite a bit on this unexpected skill, and came to realise that project managers and writers have a lot in common.

1) Situation A to situation B

A fiction plot takes a protagonist, or a set of characters, from situation A to situation B. That is exactly what project management is about: where are we at, where do we want to go, and how do we get there?

2) Who’s doing what?

The most central element of project planning is breaking down a big vision into a set of tasks, and assigning them to different people, trying to match task with character. This is what writers also do. And as for communication, writers have to figure out not just action and characters, but also voice and point of view: at all times, be very clear who’s doing what, what they know, what they see, and how they would describe whatever is happening.

3) Writing is a skills

Project management requires producing a large number documents – beside the project plan itself, there is web-copy, collaterals, team briefings, minutes, and endless emails and text messages. Writers are, generally, rather good at writing. And we make a pretty decent job of producing all of these business documents. Generally, we even manage to get our point across rather well.

What should we get from this? 

Teams and businesses are often looking for an ‘admin’ person, or a ‘business manager’. The best match may very well be a writer, someone who will listen to the story, and turn that into clear, structured written material. So if you’re looking for a new staff member to support project management, admin and strategic support – get a writer in there.

 

On the desire to share

What would the French moralists have to say about this bizarre desire to share everything – and rather than keep our unwanted manuscripts in the back of boxes inside drawers, publish them online. Some absurd hope that someone will stumble upon them, and find some gold in them?

Writing as entrepreneurship

A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.

From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.

Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .

An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.

On truth

as

The question remained since, haunting me. “I don’t believe in a single truth,” my father repeated, “but individual perspectives.” The sophistic position, hiding under a veil of humility. My cousin – a criminal barrister – put it more bluntly: “I can’t imagine how anybody would be presumptuous enough to become a judge.” Especially when defending people pays so well.

My ongoing commitment to writing has to do with a yearning after truth. But again, this is a blurry concept. There are truths about the past – historical explanations. These are notoriously difficult to reach. Sources are unreliable, memories change, we don’t have any foolproof model of causality, and our conclusions are likely to be incomplete. Yet we have a fascination for heroes of past truths, detectives or adventurers, Miss Marple and Indiana Jones.

Another type of truth is predictive. The voice of the prophets, Cassandra, retrospectively vindicated, or not. How much of it is self-fulfilling, and how to gain trust in time, here lies the debate.

Finally, there is effort at articulating truth about the present, clumsily trying to describe the world around us, uncover its patterns of causality, and – yes – make a judgement about the relative relevance of its various elements. Then, clumsily, try to cristallise it in words. Does that qualify as truth? And does this kind of truth have a history?

On dailiness

Since the beginning of this year, I have made a shift in my writing practice. I used to believe that I should block off moments to execute a piece – short story, novel, essay. Ideas would bubble up under pressure, a form emerge, and the writing come together. External deadlines would help, and I should set up a calendar based on competitions and calls for stories.

Now, I write a page every day, and publish it myself. I have no further goal. This is not ‘a project’. Projects involve a tension, an anxiety. I imagine a future state where the piece is complete. I sense the future piece. I draft it in my head. I make a plan. I know where I’m going before I even start. In this new daily practice, I am not tensing towards a future. I am present.

Projects entail scarcity. I set a goal. Reaching it requires something I miss. I establish what that is, and I labour to get it. Daily practice engenders abundance. From hollow spaces in my day, I breed new thoughts, new sentences, new writing. Over time, they grow, fall, mingle, form a rich humus, where new flowers bloom, fast, rare, beautiful.

This requires trust. Trust in the process. Something will come. Not if I simply stand still and wait. I have to move, even without a clear end point. I listen to my internal rhythm, I follow my inner compass. Then I look back, and I understand.

This requires flexibility. Halfway through journey, I can change, take a turn, step aside, or jump. It is acceptable. Over time, through this daily repetition, I change.