[-empyre-] Sue Thomas - introduction
Hello everyone, and thanks for inviting me to be part of this fascinating
series of conversations. We've been asked to discuss "whether the concept of
writing is still adequate to describe the most eloquent examples of creative
processes involving words and digital media."
I'd like to begin by outlining my own experience of writing so it's clear
where I'm coming from. It's possible that those on the list who know my name
will connect it with the trAce Online Writing Centre http://trace.ntu.ac.uk
which I founded in 1995, with the help of Simon Mills, and of which I was
Artistic Director until this year. You may not be aware, however, that for
the most part, my own writing has appeared in conventional print format. I
have published two novels, 'Correspondence' (1992) and 'Water' (1994); a
'Handbook for Creative Writing Teachers'; an edited anthology 'Wild Women'
(1994) a collection of contemporary writing by women related to Clarissa
Pinkola Estes' study ''Women Who Run With The Wolves', and most recently a
personal travelogue/memoir of wired life 'Hello World: travels in
virtuality' (2004). I've also published quite a few short stories, essays
and articles, and I'm currently working on a book about nature and
It may seem odd that such a print-based writer should be the driving force
behind trAce but the reason for that is quite simple: I am interested in
online community and the way we live with computers, and when trAce began we
had no specific intention to work with digital writing. What most fascinated
us was the cultural phenomenon of writers working together online, and then
as time went on, a part of that community responded to the digital by
producing new media writing.
My personal experience of writing in the digital focussed for several years
on LambdaMOO telnet://lambda.moo.mud.org:8888 and MOO-based writing in
general, because I was intrigued by a world made out of text. I did make an
early piece of hypertext, very clunky (!) but still viewable - Revolver
(1997) http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/suethomas/revolver/ - but really my personal
interest has always been more towards plain text than multimedia, more about
what happens on the internet rather than how it is inscribed upon. (This
essay 'Walter Ong and the Problem of Writing about LambdaMOO' has more on
this http://trace.ntu.ac.uk/Process/index.cfm?article=126 )
But in relation to the reason we are here this month, I would like to think
about what writing actually is. Wikipedia says: "Writing may refer to two
activities: the inscribing of characters on a medium, with the intention of
forming words and other constructs that represent language or record
information, and the creation of material to be conveyed through written
language." (I was interested to read Marcus's definition: "Digital Writing
is the inscribing of characters on an Interface".)
In 'Walden' (1854) Henry David Thoreau describes a Canadian woodchopper who
occasionally passes by his cabin: "He particularly reverenced the writer
and the preacher. Their performances were miracles. When I told him that I
wrote considerably, he thought for a long time that it was merely the
handwriting which I meant, for he could write a remarkably good hand
himself. I sometimes found the name of his native parish handsomely written
in the snow by the highway, with the proper French accent, and knew that he
had passed. I asked him if he ever wished to write his thoughts. He said
that he had read and written letters for those who could not, but he never
tried to write thoughts..."
The writing in the snow is what Wikipedia would categorise as inscription,
making an image which represents or records information, whereas what
Thoreau calls 'writing thoughts' is a process of creation which involves
translating an idea or an experience into text or, as Ted Nelson said 150
years later, "text is the self-portrait of human thought'. For this, one
needs no images, only plain text. The intricacy is in the language alone.
So I would like to ask whether this conversation around 'writing' is to be
about thoughts, or inscriptions on the digital snow, or both?
Thoreau, H.D. 1854, 'Walden'
Ted Nelson quote from Tonfoni, G. 1994, 'Writing as Visual Art'
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