Sitting Comfortably Round the Virtual Campfire?
Welcome to Year Zero Writers.
I’m Dan. I’m the one who blogs all over the place about the future of publishing like the long lost love child of Wittgenstein, Cassandra and the authors formerly known as Homer. Bear with me. The medication takes time to work.
Just so you know, all my posts here are Creative Commons. You can reproduce them and do what the hell you like with them except make money and forget to tell people I wrote them. If you want me to come over and take part in any debates on your blog, just holler. I’m listening most of the time. Or maybe that’s just the voices.
When I started writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, one of my favourite authors, Patti DeLois, told me what I was doing was like creating a virtual campfire. I liked the phrase. And I’ve been thinking about what it means ever since. This ramble about What.Year.Zero.Means.To.Me. is a result of those musings.
Two years ago I spent a week in Marrakech. It’s not only a magical place in its own right. It’s hugely important in the world of storytelling. At the heart of the city is the Djemma el Fnaa, a giant square leading into the labyrinthine souks where you can sample everything from sheep’s head to snake charming. But at the heart of its heart, as the sun crawls down the sky and the fires light to warm against the cold desert nights, are the storytellers. True, most of what they rehash are third hand versions of popular legends, but this place is significant because it’s the only place in the world recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for something intangible – its oral storytelling.
So whilst global groups campaign to save the whale, the tiger, the ozone layer, or the rainforest, we have allowed one of the most important aspects of human life to come within an ace of extinction.
How? Because, in part, of the book. And the industry built on its fragile spine. When words were put on the page, and then set in type, and bound between covers, something happened to the story. It got “fixed” – like a pastel drawing, or a photograph. And as more and more stories got fixed, and faithfully reproduced in edition on edition, our attitude towards them changed. We saw “books” as precious. We saw the form of words they contained as sacrosanct. We forgot that a book, that words themselves, are no more or less than vehicles for stories – the most basic means communities have of sharing amongst themselves, of thinking about and deciding upon their values, of expressing themselves, of uniting, of understanding and combating their fears.
Don’t get me wrong. I love books. But I love books because I love stories. I love stories because they speak to me. But many of the stories I find in books don’t speak to me. They’re written by people unlike me about situations unlike mine. And when I have a question, they refuse to answer.
Year Zero Writers produce books. But we are, first and foremost, storytellers. This site is the square at the entrance to the labyrinthine souks of our weird subconsciouses. For me, a story isn’t fixed on the page. It breathes, as the person who wrote it, and the person who reads it, breathe. I DO believe there are storytellers, and people who listen and question. Culture isn’t a free-for-all. It’s a conversation. And the stories that emerge are the product of that conversation – articulations of answers to questions, attempts to convey the choices people face and the decisions they might make, efforts to deepen understanding, to ward off fear, to overcome prejudice, to reflect the reader back, but in a way that’s somehow transformed and that offers not new knowledge but greater self-knowledge.
Pick up your plateful of dinner. Imagine the sun setting over the sand, and pull your clothes tight around you. Let your face feel the gentle heat of the fire. Come with your questions, sense the security of the hands of others holding yours, and enter the cold desert night with us. It WILL be morning. The sun WILL rise, and you WILL leave. Different from how you came. You can cry. You can scream. You can reach down into yourself, take out your heart and lay it bare. It’s OK. It’s dark here, and no one can see your face save in the deep, cavernous shadows cast by the fire. Whatever you left outside can’t get in. You’re safe. You could be a fuck-up or a freakshow, we don’t care. As long as you’re here you’re one of us.
Now that you’re sitting comfortably, shall we begin?