Crossed Lines: An occasional email newsletter

Writing is terrifying. You have no idea where your words will go or how they will come back to haunt you. It freaked Plato out twenty-five centuries ago and it freaks me out today.

Your only hope is that the reader will assume good faith. That she is willing to step inside the text and feel through your words, rather than put them on trial and find them, as they will always be, wanting.

The internet is wonderful in more ways than I need to tell you, but it does not abound in a willingness to assume good faith. Words unaccompanied by bodies are more easily misunderstood. It is easier to be careless or unpleasant through a keyboard than in the flesh. Mailing lists go to war over which way to open a boiled egg. Comment threads sprout into a hydra of misreadings, some wilful, some innocent. Not always, but often enough to make us wary.

Years ago, at an exhibition opening, I staged a battle reenactment of a (pretty tame) mailing list fight. Twelve of us sat around a table and read aloud twelve minutes of extracts from what had been twelve thousand words of mails. The guy whose attack on me had triggered the original episode agreed to read my words and I read his. It shook us both.

The internet is not often a safe place to be vulnerable. Good writing, unless it is well-armoured polemic, requires vulnerability. I suspect this is why so many of the writers I know have an angst-ridden relationship to the internet.

To write with no fear that your words will be held against you, that is what it takes for written words to come alive. And the model for this, I think, is the letter you write to a friend. There are certain books which started life as letters and they come alive in this way. I am thinking of John Berger’s ‘and our faces, my heart, brief as photos’, parts of which must have been written as love letters, but I realise that I could be thinking of any of a dozen of Berger’s books or essays. I am thinking also of Hugh Brody’s ‘The Other Side of Eden’ which grew out of his letters to his friend Ted Chamberlin. Where technologies open gaps between us, whether the technology is the internet or the alphabet, friendship can make those gaps disappear into irrelevance. When you write to someone you know to be a friend, you don’t worry about whether they will assume good faith.

I stumbled into blogging more than ten years ago. I was living in wild west China, one of maybe two dozen foreigners in a city of 400,000. This is not the place to try to explain how the experience changed me, but some days it was all too much. I started writing “round robin” emails to friends back home, then I got guilty about clogging the inboxes of those I never heard back from, so I started using a site called LiveJournal instead. After a couple of months of posting there, I realised with a jolt that two people I’d never met had started following my posts.

For a long time, though, blogging still felt intimate, a place where I could talk through whatever I was working on and assume that anyone who was interested enough to be reading would assume good faith. Then it didn’t feel like that anymore. Lots of other things happened, I moved countries and changed the shape of my life, and I let my online life drift for a couple of years. Then this year, as I found my feet in Sweden, I started this site as a place to write about the work I’m doing.

I think it works. It’s a public home, a place for publishing things. But lately I’ve been feeling the itch for a more personal way of writing over the internet. Around the same time, I started reading email newsletters from people like Warren Ellis and Deb Chachra – and I was struck by how different a newsletter can be to a blog.

A newsletter arrives in your inbox without demanding any response, which makes a pleasant change from most of the rest of the email you get. Still, it has to be interesting enough to actually make you want to read it. There’s no comment thread. Often, there’s not even a public archive, so it lives somewhere just a little more intimate. Sometimes it can feel like a personal email a stranger has sent you by mistake.

So, because clearly none of us has enough words in our inboxes already, I thought I’d try joining in the renaissance of the email newsletter. I give you Crossed Lines, an occasional letter about what I’m reading, writing, thinking and talking about. And about what ever else I feel like writing about. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

The first letter will go out at sunrise, one morning in the near future.

Sign up for Crossed Lines here – make sure you click on the link in the Confirm email from TinyLetter.

(Image from here.)

Stir to Action: Crowdfunding a workshop programme

STIR magazine has been going for a couple of years now, based in Bridport, Dorset, born out of the moment of the Occupy and Transition movements, and doing its best to bring together currents of action and reflection, hacking, commoning and cooperation.

I’ve written for them a few times, most recently a review of Martin Shaw’s magical books about myth, wilderness and wildness in the latest issue. Here’s a taste of that piece:

What is at stake is not the planet, as such, but a way of living within it that we have created as a species, parts of which go back tens of thousands of years, while other parts are barely a generation deep, though we already struggle to imagine living without them. Our sense of loss at all the shadowed beauty being driven out of existence, our guilt, our still-remaining desire to feel proud of our place as a species – all of this exists in tension with our attachment to what we know and our sense of powerlessness within the structures we have built. These forces play out within us and on a planetary scale. To understand the relationships between the inner and outer worlds that define the crisis, something like the subtlety of mythological thinking is required, its ability to dance with paradox and its openness to surprise. And perhaps, even now, there remains within the stories the capacity to make those relationships anew. For as Shaw says, that has always been the power of story, to ground us in such a way that universe becomes a cosmos.

You can read the rest of that piece and lots of other great articles from people like David Bollier, Annemarie Naylor, Siôn Whellens, Anna Laycock and Tom Hirons (another Dark Mountain storyteller) in Issue 7, which is available here. I particularly enjoyed the cover story, Dan Gregory‘s essay ‘There Is No Such Thing As Capitalism’, which resonates with JK Gibson-Graham’s ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’, another book I’ve been reading lately.

Anyway, what prompted me to write about STIR today is that they’ve just taken the next step in their larger project, launching a crowdfunding campaign to create a six month programme of workshops. The aim of these is to bridge the gap between reading about inspiring cooperative projects and actually making these kinds of projects happen in the place where you live.

Here’s a video where Jonny and Abby, the founders of STIR, explain a bit more:

They launched the campaign a couple of days ago with the aim of raising £5000 to cover the costs of the workshop programme and they’ve already passed the £1000 mark. I’ve just made a small contribution. If you feel inspired to join me, the campaign site is over here. As you’d expect, there’s a menu of offers available to supporters – in this case, many of them involve the work of the fine illustrators who make the magazine itself such an attractive read.