Posts Tagged ‘writing’

As I get into the “actually writing” stage of my current book project (Glacier, for Reaktion Books) I find myself writing quite differently from how I’ve written previous books.

Previously, I’ve had ideas, developed a plan, and then written stuff down – looking up any facts and figures that I needed as I went along. It seemed to work OK, and it was pretty easy. Perhaps because this new book ranges into areas where my prior knowledge was less complete than my knowledge for the previous books, I set about this one in what I imagined to be the way that real authors work: I started by doing some research! With the “How to write your dissertation” book, for example, research had not really been required. Everything that went into the book was already in my mind before I started the project. All that was required was for me to think of a neat way to say much the same things that I had been saying to students for years. Similarly with the old “Glaciers” book: I pretty much knew what I needed to say, and just had to check details as I wrote.  This one has been different. For a couple of years now I have been collecting, with terrific help from my wife, all manner of bits and pieces of information that are quite new to me, and I have discovered all sorts of things that I previously knew nothing about! I’ve been helped by people such as musicians, art curators and historians with whom I don’t normally have much to do and I have accumulated a mass of material that now needs to be sorted, arranged and turned into the content of this book. So far, I have worked through the accumulated notes and documents for a couple of the chapters trying to put them into an appropriate “narrative”, and I have to say it is quite difficult! It’s a bit like being a student again – setting out to write something on a topic about which you are still learning. Perhaps this is a bad thing. Perhaps a real author should have already discovered everything about the topic, internalised all that knowledge and turned it into understanding, and be ready at the point of writing to present the fully polished pearls. Well, I’m still polishing the pearls as I arrange them into a sensible order.

The difference between the two approaches is a bit like the difference between trying to make something out of a collection of pearls (which I seem to be attempting this time) and trying to make a pearl out of some stuff in my head (which is what my previous approach felt like). I have a feeling that for me this new approach is going to involve an extra step in the end: when I’ve made a string of polished pearls I suspect I may decide that I didn’t want a necklace after all and may have to condense and refashion it into… well, I don’t know. And that’s where my new approach is just like my old one: part of the fun of writing is not knowing quite what you are going to turn out to have said!


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I’ve been interested for a long time in the way everything is connected. Douglas Adams’ “Total Perspective Vortex” extrapolated from a small piece of fairy cake to reconstruct the entire universe, complete in every molecule. You could start with anything (I always cite Mahler’s 6th Symphony) and, beginning with one small question about one small part of that thing, from connection to connection work your way outwards and eventually reach the total sum of human knowledge and experience. Sometimes, as we look around us and see all the pieces reaching out to each other, the world looks like a maelstrom of whirling connections. Yesterday one flashed past that I thought I’d write down as a little example.

When I turn on the engine in the van the radio comes on automatically and I, automatically, reach to turn it off since it is usually playing some dreadful CD that Debbie has left in. Yesterday I reached to turn it off but stopped because it was playing radio, and a song I liked. “Mahler?” You ask? No. Cyndi Lauper. Girls just want to have fun. I can like that as well as Mahler, can’t I? Well anyway, that was what happened, and I drove off happily listening to Cyndi Lauper. Hadn’t heard it for years. Later that day a student submitted their Inspirational Landscapes project online for me to mark. (By coincidence, I had mentioned my “extrapolating from Mahler” project and read to them the bit about the fairy cake. I even read them some Proust, who had a fairy cake all of his own, extrapolating from a dunked madeleine to a lifetime’s memories.  I didn’t play them Cyndi Lauper. The student submitting the work was the only person in the class who could count the beat to Solsbury Hill (don’t you love that 7-time beat?). But that isn’t the connection). Part of the student’s submission was a YouTube video that they had created, and when the video ended, YouTube automatically (no, things happening automatically isn’t the connection) YouTube automatically offered to play me another video uploaded by the same student (here it comes), and the video – nothing to do with the Geography project – was that student playing keyboard and singing… “Girls Just Want to have Fun”.

Writing this post, and thinking of the student who unwittingly inspired it I am reminded how much of what I’ve written here and elsewhere has been inspired by my students, usually without them knowing it. Pasted to the wall of my downstairs toilet as wallpaper amongst the mouldering front pages of many of my papers is the front page of an article I wrote for the journal Progress in Physical Geography in 1997. The article was about how much progress was being made in the science of glaciers and how much new information was being published every year. I started the article with an anecdote about a student. That student, in response to a start-of-course questionnaire in which I asked the group what they wanted to learn – what they wanted to know – had written “I want to know it all”, and I took that as a starting point from which I expanded to, and expounded upon, a broad sweep of information and the unlikelihood than anybody would ever “know it all”. The student who wanted to know it all was called Cara. I had never heard that name before I encountered that student. At the end of the section of the paper where I told her story I mentioned some obscure data set and said “perhaps I should send that data to the girl who wanted to know it all”. Reading that again now I realise she almost certainly never saw that paper or realised that her quick comment on a small questionnaire in a big class of students would lead to something being published in an article, let alone that it would still be fresh and relevant in my personal maelstrom of connections 15 years later. And that’s the starting point for another project: we can never know what will stick. We never know what impacts the smallest things we do might have. We never know who notices what. This year’s student will probably never guess that I saw her singing Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Perhaps I should send her a link to this blog.

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The American writer Austin Kleon, who wrote “Newspaper Blackout”, has also written a book called “Steal Like an Artist”, so I am hoping that he won’t mind that I have stolen his idea to help teach my Geography students. The picture here from Kleon’s website http://www.austinkleon.com illustrates what he does.

"Creativity is Subtraction" from austinkleon.com

As Kleon puts it: “Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.”

So how do I use this teaching Geography? The point I’m trying to make with the students is that Science is a way of exploring and understanding the world, but that there are other ways of exploring and understanding the world, and that sometimes those different approaches can help each other out. For example, as a Geographer you might often want to look closely at the world around you to see details that will help you to describe, understand and represent the way the world works. Science is one way of doing that. But I learned from my friend and colleague the artist Miriam Burke that a good way of forcing yourself to look carefully at something is to try to make art about it. Trying to make a picture or a model or a poem of something really makes you look closely at it. Art is a great way of exploring. That’s why, for me, art and Geography go nicely side by side.

So I took a copy of the first page of one of the basic course textbooks (“Geography – a Very Short Introduction” by J.A.Matthews and D.T.Herbert, 2008) and I started crossing out words. I asked the students to do the same. Now I’m sure there’s a whole psycho-pedagogic discourse on the traumatic consequences of making students cross out swathes of their text book. We’ll save that for a different blog. The point I want to record here is about how asking students to cross out most of the words in a page from the textbook makes them look much more closely at the original source than if we just asked them to read it. And if we insist that their Blackout Poem reflects the underlying meaning or core concept of the page they are editing (but that it must do more than simply abbreviate the content of the page), the activity seems to engage a whole new level of critical attention to the source (helping students to learn and think about the material) and at the same time switches on a creative or interpretive intellect that fixes the academic content of the original document into the mental context of the student’s own “work” on the piece. In other words, by USING the original document to create something new of their own, they get much more out of it.

This illustrates something I constantly tell students: that the best way to learn something is to use it for some purpose, especially if that involves communicating it to somebody. If you are struggling to understand glacier dynamics, set a date where you have to teach glacier dynamics to somebody who knows nothing about it.  It also illustrates nicely how doing something that appears to be non-academic can be a big help with your academic work. The value of play. If I can get my students to PLAY with their scientific source material… well, they’ll end up just like me!

I only came up with (sorry, stole) this idea a couple of days ago, but already I see huge scope ranging from fun little tutorial activities to major coursework projects. You could even do it just for Art. Oh, yeah, Austin Kleon already thought of that.  When I tweeted my first attempt at a Geography Blackout yesterday it quickly became far and away my most retweeted tweet ever, so this seems to have struck a chord with others, too.  And that’s why I thought I’d say just a little bit more about it here. For the record, here is that first attempt. My “Geography Blackout” redaction of the opening page of Matthews and Herbert (2008). I suspect there may be more to follow.

Gosh, I hope nobody steals this idea.

Peter Knight's "Exploration"

Peter Knight's "Exploration", inspired by Austin Kleon's "Newspaper Blackout" and by page 1 of "Geography - A Very Short Introduction" (Matthews and Herbert, 2008).

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I started a major new project this week: a new book called “Glacier” that has been commissioned by Reaktion Books. “Started” might not be quite the right word, as I put together the proposal last summer and signed the contracts over six months ago, but I like to start every big project with a period of doing nothing: just letting the task sit quietly at the back of my mind for a while. Settling in.

Looking at the proposal yesterday after a six-month cooling-off period it had become sufficiently distant and unfamiliar that I could see it as a new reader would see it. It was interesting how, after six months, new ideas and new connections jumped up at me crying out to be included in the plan. That’s what happens in the six months of doing nothing: everything that you do on other work gets subconsciously filtered, analysed and stored up ready to be released when the project is reawakened.

Some of the new ideas come from new things that I have discovered and explored in the intervening time. For example the proposal includes a short list of different ways of looking at glaciers: as part of a physical system; as an inspiration for artists and scientists; as a victim of human environmental impact; etc. Looking at that list today it seems obvious to me that I should have put it in the context of the “Beholding Eye” work of geographer D.W.Meinig, because over the last six months I have been learning about Meinig’s work, and each new thing we learn shuffles itself into a position in our grand view of everything. “Ah!” I say, “that needs to go in the book”. (If you don’t know who I’m talking about, I have an entry about Meinig and “The Beholding Eye” here in my “Deep Geography” pages).

Other links and connections come not from things I’ve discovered, but from ideas I’ve been developing in parallel projects. I’m not sure if it shows clear-minded focus or narrow-minded shallowness on my part that as I brushed the dust off the Glacier proposal I realised that it fitted nicely into the framework of a “new” project that I’ve been starting to work on over the last couple of months. I had actually forgotten completely that I had included a whole chapter in the Glacier proposal called “Beyond Physical Geography”, which expands upon the idea that Physical Geography connects us to something beyond ourselves: “a way of seeing more, beyond the obvious, through the boundary between vision and imagination”. Although I had forgotten that section, and was mightily impressed yesterday with what I’d written about glaciers and unicorns (yes, really… you’ll need to read the book!), it illustrated again how leaving the project to rest for half a year allows ideas to come together. For the last few months I’ve been working on an idea that I call “Total Geography” about which  I’ll say more in a following post. I realised for the first time yesterday that my Total Geography project and my Beyond Physical Geography chapter were aspects of the same big idea.

And so clearly the time for doing nothing has run its natural course. Ideas have started to converge. I’ve cleared the decks of all distraction (for the first time ever, I think, I don’t have a single e-mail awaiting attention in my inbox right now).  It’s time to begin. Ironic, then, that instead of getting started I’m writing a blog post about getting started, and I have an appointment this week to meet with my co-author on another project to sign another book contract. Appropriately, that book is to be called “Big Ideas in Physical Geography”, and the meeting is to sign the contract, eat cake, and celebrate the start of doing nothing for a year on “Big Ideas” while I get started on “Glacier”. Here we go!

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Perhaps because it’s the turn of a year I have encountered over the last couple of weeks a lot of people completing, or embarking upon, projects to do something every day or every week for a year. It’s the kind of thing I think I would love to do, but the kind of thing for which I always tell myself  I don’t have the guaranteed free time. One obvious option would be to do something connected directly to work: a Glacier of the Day blog for students to enjoy, perhaps? Perhaps not. An appealing and more sensible alternative would be to choose one of those things for which I keep telling myself I must find more time but which, year after year, continue to go undone. I want to paint more. I want to write more. I want to re-watch more old cowboy films. And then I’m back into the old trap of  there being so much I want to do that I can’t choose, and I go off for a cup of tea, or back to work, instead. But then I saw two websites that seem to have focussed my intent.  The first was Valerie Wetlaufer’s Poem a Day blog (the title kind of explains what she’s doing there) and the second was Jenny Matlock’s “Saturday Centus”, in which a weekly prompt is provided to inspire participants to write 100 words. In my writing (can I really call it that?) the fundamental problem limiting worthwhile output has been that I have nothing much to say, so while I work off-stage on that particular problem here’s a nice game to motivate that all important act of actually writing by providing (forcing) a constraining idea.  Perhaps this might help to kick-start my stalled writing engine and keep it ticking over until I discover what my point is. This way I don’t have to wait until I have the perfect idea for a poem – I just have to write 100 words this week on that topic. Let’s try it and see where it goes.  My first thought (as usual) was to spend the day setting up a new blog or web page to house the flood of great writing that I was about to produce. Luckily I recognised that old trap, and will just put my first attempt here right away. If I manage to keep it up (ie do another one!) or if I graduate to something more like Wetlaufer’s one a day, then I’ll take this outside and move it onto the website. So here’s my first go at the Saturday Centus:

The  “prompt” this week was a photograph of an orange, growing on a tree, but with snow on it (a bit like a little hat of snow sitting on the orange). You can write whatever you like, limited to 100 words. Here are my 100 (well, 96), which come from a context of seeing snow in cruddy back streets of Stoke and Newcastle this winter while teaching classes about ice ages and thinking about The Earth.


I live near the Goose Street car park.
Where the gas works used to be.
This is rain country with short, cool summers.
We don’t grow oranges here.
Before people, a glacier a mile deep
Covered everything for a thousand miles.

Snow fell last night.

When it felt the first, soft, silent, falling flakes
Did the ground remember the mile-deep ice?
Those prison years must have started the same way.
Oranges don’t have fears as old
Or memories as long and cold as that.

To them, today, the snow is just some funny kind of hat.


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A recurring theme of this blog has been that what we see out of the window depends only partly on what is out there and partly on what we have previously pasted onto the inside of the glass. Little surprise, then, that on reading the first couple of pages of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” I was struck by their relevance to some of the other things that are going through my mind at this point as I embark on a process of what I am calling i-simplification at the start of a new year, and as I position myself for  the final approach to my 50th birthday. The i-simplification is a simple de-cluttering of my online and electronic environments. Over the ten years or so that I have been keeping multiple websites, writing blogs, maintaining carefully isolated identities etc,  I have moved deep into the dark territory that lies beyond overwhelming. Many websites, many identities, many empires connected by links that only I can see. So I have taken a machete and am starting to hack away at some of the overgrowth. Identities: cut down to just three or four. FourSquare and similar distractions: gone completely. WordPress: cut back to just this one blog. Only drops in the ocean, I know, but a gesture, at least. I think the i-simplification is just part of a typical New Year feeling and a logical consequence of a broader decision to sort out some of the activity-clutter that plays havoc with my largely futile attempts at time management. In the untitled opening section of “Invisible Cities” Calvino writes of there being in the lives of Emperors a desperate moment “when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin… that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” This moment comes after the pride in the extension of territories, and after the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up thought of knowing and understanding them. Then comes the emptiness, then that desperate moment. Then the discovery of the tracery of the subtle pattern. So my thought upon reading that opening section, while hacking my way to i-Simplification and my 50th birthday, concerns on the one hand (while perhaps in the back of my mind touching upon camels and needles) the issue of how pride in the boundless extension of our territory may obscure the vision of that subtle tracery which may elude the termites and on the other hand the way that what we read depends only partly (perhaps very little) on what is actually written.

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I asked a group of Geography students this week about climbing mountains. Most of them said that they did it for the view from the top, that they wouldn’t bother doing it in the fog, and that if there was a choice between an easy path and a hard path they would take the easy path. I was surprised.  I climb a mountain for the activity of climbing the mountain.  To “engage with” the mountain. If the mountain is foggy, that’s fine, we’ll enjoy the mountain in fog. If there’s a challenging path probably it will give me more, so I’m happy to check that one out. The Road Less Travelled. A  mountain in the fog is still a  mountain. I was thinking later about what they’d said, and  about our motivations for other things.  Using their logic I guess they’d assume I was writing this blog so people could read it. Well I don’t think that’s so, either.  As far as I know probably nobody but me reads this. I write it to engage with the material, not for the outcome of it being there to be read.  Why do I put it online then? Writing something that might be read by somebody else, even if that’s not terribly likely, makes you write differently, just as being forced into rules writing a poem in a particular style forces you to write differently. There is some kind of inspirational constraint at work.  So it being there to be read does make a difference, but it’s not the point. The fact that there may be a view from the top does make a difference, but it’s not the point.

I remember Richard Feynman talking about sending off a letter, and he referred to sending it off “into the void”. That’s a bit what this is like,  sending stuff out into the void.

So I’m sitting here on the shore, or on the mountain top, in the fog, looking out into the void. Ideas float in, and if you don’t catch them they’re gone again. If you do catch them they change shape as soon as they come out of the fog and into your hand. You can’t catch them. So you sit in the fog feeling them slip through your fingers. The students didn’t ask (they weren’t that kind of group), but if they had done, that would be a fair answer to “So, why do you climb mountains?” Perhaps I climb them to feel them slip away through my fingers.

Of course it’s not true. But that is one of the constraints of writing online.

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