we listen: pithy capsule reviewlets.

Way back in the mists of time, when I was an eager-to-please and obsessively completist young blogger with an exciting and fast-moving sidebar (oh, we all had them!), I made a habit of providing brief descriptions of the albums in my we listen chart, which would pop up as mouseover text for each individual link.

After Firefox came along, with its pleasure-denying limit on the maximum number of characters for mouseover text, the fun ceased. (Also, to be honest, the code was a right old faff to maintain. So I’m not complaining or anything.)

However, if I were still providing these “pithy capsule reviewlets”, as I skittishly dubbed them, then they might have looked something like this.

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1 (2) Tender Buttons Broadcast
Although initially abrasive/austere/unyielding, repeated listens (and a superb live show) have revealed an unexpected inclusive warmth buried at its heart. Sparse, fractured space-age-gone-wonky pop songs, as picked up by a dodgy shortwave radio from a parallel universe.

2 (5) Supernature Goldfrapp
Starts off as pure electro-glam pop, but it’s by no means not all pop. Mingling the best elements of the first two albums, Goldfrapp are finally ready for the mainstream; and I for one respect their all-too-rare lack of unseemly haste.

3 (6) Held on the Tips of Fingers Polar Bear
Energetic yet tightly focussed drummer-led contemporary jazz, scored rather than improvised, discreetly innovative.

4 (-) Feels Animal Collective
The first half is as gleefully bull-in-a-china-shop bonkers as their previous Sung Tongs; the second half is quieter, dronier, more expansive, and (in the nicest possible way) vaguely prog.

5 (10) Coles Corner Richard Hawley
Old-fashioned orchestrated balladry (Roy Orbison & The Bad Seeds?) with a lugubrious, tender-hearted sentimentality; texturally fantastic, even when the songs wear a little thin towards the end.

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6 (29) The Magic Numbers The Magic Numbers
Having largely left me cold for months (they promised me warm California sunshine, not dour indie-lite Camden drizzle), something is finally clicking. Maybe it’s the sheer class of the songcraft, as it emerges, shaking its mane, from that woolly heap in the corner.

7 (3) Chavez Ravine Ry Cooder
Its first half affectionately celebrates the vibrancy of a long-vanished Los Angeles community, now buried by bulldozers; its second half is an extended elegy for it. Both halves are equally ravishing.

8 (8) Ceasefire Emmanuel Jal & Abdel Gadir Salim
North Sudanese veteran meets South Sudanese rebel rapper, in the name of national unity. Initially disappointing (I’m so over African hip-hop), but this is now slowly sneaking up on me.

9 (13) Noah’s Ark Cocorosie
Sorry, got to say “fractured” again. Like a faulty musical box from a Victorian penny dreadful, as exhumed by a pair of New York arthouse Wyrd Sisters. Features Antony from the Johnsons, if that’s any indication.

10 (7) The Rough Guide to Franco Franco
You can’t have a serious African music collection without a bit of Franco for historical perspective, you know. Them’s the rules.

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11 (9) You Could Have It So Much Better Franz Ferdinand
It’s all a bit routine, isn’t it? But not without its charms. Then again, I’m biased (sigh).

12 (28) In the Heart of the Moon Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate
Despite being more than a tad Incidental Music In New Age Gift Shop, these improvised guitar/kora noodlings are beginning to find their place – even if that place is mostly in the background, over a nice piece of chicken, with puy lentils and an agreeable tangy reduction.

13 (1) Orientation Thione Seck
Recorded in Dakar, Paris, Cairo and Bombay over several years, this ambitious spiritual cousin to Youssou N’Dour’s Egypt is nothing short of a masterpiece. Best heard loud, through bloody good speakers.

14 (22) Clor Clor
Herky-jerky-quirky power-pop, of the Futureheads/early-XTC variety. I’m seeing them in a couple of weeks, supporting Sons & Daughters.

15 (-) Without You Masters of Persian Music
A perfect atmosphere-enhancer for the Monday morning drive back to Nottingham, as dawn breaks over Carsington Water and the dark silhouettes of the geese rise over us in airborne shoals. You wouldn’t think it, would you?

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16 (16) Stars Of CCTV Hard-Fi
Ee, there’s hope for the younger generation after all. All across the land, fortysomething dads with Jam and Specials albums in the attic are beaming with approval as they pass their sons’ bedroom doors. And why not.

17 (-) Come & Get It Rachel Stevens
Frisky, intricate, sophisticated electro-pop, all but wasted on dull FHM-babe cipher.

18 (11) Kitty Jay Seth Lakeman
Foxy twentysomething dude from Dartmoor breathes fresh new life into boring old folk Sensation! Recorded in bedroom! Mercury nominated! (See also Spiers & Boden.)

19 (18) Legends of East Africa Orchestra Makassy
Twenty years old, still sounds marvellous, contains first African track I ever bought (Mambo Bado).

20 (25) Ruby Blue Roisin Murphy
Her out of Moloko, as produced by Matthew Herbert. Some have slagged this off for being a bit Smooth Jazz Wine Bar, but I beg to differ.

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21 (17) Crying at Teatime Alfie
Just as I finally get round to buying one of their albums, they go and split up on me, due to “lack of interest”. Bah. Lightweights. They’ll be wanting a living wage next.

22 (4) Dimanche à Bamako Amadou & Mariam
Proper pop stars in France, where Manu Chao’s production influences must have helped nudge them into the mainstream. Sure it’s Crossover, but “authenticity” has always been overrated. Unquestionably the soundtrack to our Summer, and still on light rotation even now.

23 (19) The Understanding Röyksopp
It hasn’t made the same waves as its rather more stylistically unified predecessor, but there’s plenty of goodness here none the less.

24 (12) Humming By The Flowered Vine Laura Cantrell
I wouldn’t normally go for this sort of thing, but she was great live, like Nanci Griffith before she went Cheesy Showbiz; 14th Street is especially lovely.

25 (21) A Certain Trigger Maxïmo Park
“Solid” guitar band, who have hooked me in a way that so many of their 2005 contemporaries have failed to do. (Hello Bloc Party!) There’s nothing wrong with “solid”, you know. Same goes for the Doves, if you must know.

Post of the Week #2

Jeepers, you guys! On launching the “Post of the Week” wheeze last Monday, I was certainly hoping for at least a modest amount of reader participation… but never in my wildest dreams did I expect for us to end up with 18 nominated posts by Saturday morning. Not that I’m complaining; you came up with some stunners, both from names which are already familiar to me, and from blogs which I’ve never heard of before.

We had below-stairs revelations from transatlantic liners in the early 20th century. We had exposed genitals on the London Underground. We had flirtatious glances over the organic vegetables (the latter two posts combined into one, for the purposes of voting). We had mythical beasts and holy grails, patently shit strippers and questionable intimate hygiene. We had bewildered kiddies at the door, and dizzy Miss Lizzies on the tube.

Over here, a token straight man attends a Eurovision party. Over there, a single man tries to assess whether or not the grass is greener on his side of the relationship divide. And way over yonder, a good-natured orgy in the middle of an industrial estate makes for the first blog post ever to give me the horn, good and proper. (But then, I lead a sheltered life.) Oh, and there was something which I think was about boats, only having read it three times I’m still not quite sure. (Anyone?)

And then there was Anna from little.red.boat, who earnt herself no less than three nominations. (I’d say “record breaking”, if it didn’t feel a little previous.) Which did we like best? The bossy crisp packet, the sneaky hour-thieving bastards, or the lovingly “prepared” birthday meal? Or would we all feel differently, thus fatally splitting the little.red.boat vote?

As it turned out, my fellow judges (Karen and asta) and I all plumped decisively for the birthday meal post, making it a clear runner-up to…

this too: When last we met.

A worthy winner indeed. Here’s what one of the judges said about it:

“The history of a relationship summed up in a few raw and yet stylistically elegant paragraphs. Staggering.”

And here’s what another judge said:

“It reminds me of the famous Frizzy Logic post, The hurt of not-knowing. I know it’s sad and most of the nominees are more light-hearted, but it is rare to find a from-the-heart post that is also well-written, and this is it. I like it.”

Now, who’s going to tell the author? After such a moving, intensely personal piece of writing, I scarcely like to bounce into her comments box, whooping and shrieking and waving my hands. (“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE A WINNER!!! MIKE AT TROUBLED DIVA IS GOING TO LINK TO YOU ON THE TOP OF HIS BLOG FOR THE WHOLE OF THE NEXT WEEK! THINK OF THE TRAFFIC! ISN’T IT FABULOUS?!!“)

No, methinks not. But Jean, if you do find your way here, then your post was much appreciated by all three of us, and hopefully by quite a few more besides.

Right then. On with the nominations for Week Two. The rules of engagement are here, and this week’s judges are Clair and Pam. Nominations in the comments box please, and all nominees will be appended to this post as they appear.

1. SHANE: The Body – Part II: Blind.
(nominated by Zinnia Cyclamen)Later, I found Marie pottering over a smouldering grill-pan.
Shane: Ah. How’s things?
Marie: Recently extinguished.
Shane: Mm, I see. And the Very Important People? They were ok? Nothing too intense?
Marie: (pause, at which Shane begins to feel a tad uncomfortable) Well, they were very sweet-
Shane: Good.
Marie: -considering.
2. greavsie in blogland: Greavsie is understanding Language and Life.
(nominated by annie)‘German!’ came a hush whisper as my Boss covered the phone, making a slitty throat motion with his hand and offering me the receiver with the other.
I’d take the receiver and set off with my best Nuremburg pronunciation. ‘GUTEN ABEND, HIER IST HERR DOCTOR SMITH. ICH MOCHTE GERN MITT HERR SCHMIDT SPRECHEN BITTE.’
3. GUYANA: the hollow gold bangles.
(nominated by asta)“You can tell when a goldsmith is lying if he says he can carve on gold,” the whistling doctor tell we. “You look at his toe near the big toe. If it is straight, he does not carve, he engraves. If it is twisted, he carves.”I laugh, thought was a joke. But was no joke.

4. In and Out of Confidence: Breaking it.
(nominated by Natalie)As I lay down I sensed a large, dark, thick, pungent, pale green cobweb cloud above my head, spreading out over the ceiling and layers falling down and around to hover just above my body. I was terrified and lay awake, trembling and keeping my eyes fixed on that imaginary cloud until the morning light drove it away.
5. Synchronicity Or Just A Coincidence: How do you want to live your life?
(nominated by guyana-gyal)He paused for a second and then proceeded to tell me how he was in the Jordian military. How sitting here on the sidewalks of DC on a nice day people watching reminded him of the markets in Jordan. How the family he is renting a room from are like strangers. He talked at length about how people here are always moving so fast, they forget how to sit still. I agreed.
6. Rachel from north London: 90 days and 90 nights.
(nominated by mike)How I wish I had the strength and the freedom to break ranks and embarrass you properly. But I know I will be eaten alive by the media if I am the ‘dissenting victim’s voice’. I get enough calls from journos as it is at the moment.
7. blogjam: North Korea – Day Three.
(nominated by mike)Another song follows, then a third girl gets up to sing. This tune has a more strident beat, and pretty soon all the Westerners in the room are clapping gleefully along. And then the visuals kick in on the big screen. It’s all missile launches, marching soldiers and mushroom clouds. Christ knows what she’s singing about, but it ain’t Scaramush, Scaramush will you do the Fandango. Immediately we’re all exchanging ‘WTF?’ looks and trying not to look like it’s the most surreal moment of our lives, but the atmosphere in the room has just been cranked up several notches.
8/9. Tokyo Girl: EITHER Overconfidence OR Ostrich gizzards at the vomitorium.
(nominated by mike – who can’t quite decide between, not to put too fine a point on it, piss and puke)EITHER:
“Oh look, you did need the toilet,” I said in the calm matter-of-fact manner advised by the book, stifling my inner harridan behind a forced smile. “Let’s go home and get some dry clothes.”OR:
“Oh shit, disgusting,” I said loudly. The two Japanese men leaning against the wall looked at me blankly. Fortunately my Japanese runs to: “Puke, shocking!” The two men giggled and nodded in acknowledgement.

10. mondrian’s neon fantod: Today I Am Not Proud To Be A Texan.
(nominated by patita)Today I am deeply disappointed in approximately 75.5% of the voters in my home state. Today I am bewildered, confused and saddened. See, I don’t know what happened to the occasionally difficult but always decent frontier mentality of my people.
11. Autoblography: Shades Of Peace.
(nominated by Karen)Today I remember the people sitting around tables at the end of every war. I remember the beginnings of peace. I remember the efforts of those working to maintain peace. Instead of remembering the fighting and the death that grew out of differences, I am trying to think of the years people around the world have lived without war.
12.londonmark: Leaving Messages.
(nominated by Pete)I realise we haven’t spoken in something like four months, not since you skipped the pond and set up in New York. Hope things are going well for you, I don’t see you around anymore buddy, guessing you’re okay and just, y’know, adjusting to new life and settling in and making your way in the world and looking for that special bar where everyone’s gonna know your name. Life’s different without you.

Lecture notes.

Primarily for the benefit of the attendees, this is a brief memory-jogging précis a near-as-dammit transcription (I just can’t help myself) of the talk which I gave to the Creative Collaborations “Your writing sucks” conference on Thursday morning.

“I am a blogger.” From guilty grubby little secret, to something which wins “networking opportunities” at boutique hotels.

What is blogging?

Impossible to answer concisely (“dead air” on the Radio Nottingham breakfast show) – as for every rule an exception – BUT:

– reverse chronological
– short articles
– usually a single author
– frequently updated
– most recent article at top, older in archives
– most link to other blogs – “community” or loose network of overlapping communities
– most allow readers’ comments

Produced via standard software:
– free, easy (no tech know-how, can get started in 10 mins), portable (no special software, just need browser and line)

Background.

Term dates to late 90s.
Started appearing from 1999 onwards – small self-contained group
cf. bursting of dot-com bubble
– “ants scurrying amdist the rubble of the dot-com crash”
– loss of original spirit of web (egalitarian/pioneering/enabling) – attempt to redress the balance
Need To Know: “THEY STOLE OUR REVOLUTION/NOW WE’RE STEALING IT BACK”

Defining moment: 9/11
– bush telegraph (“so and so is safe, such and such is sealed off”)
– oral history (“we were there, this is what it felt like”)
“Big” media/old media interest – endless “discoveries” of blogging – mixed +ve/-ve reaction

Audience/reach.

Technorati says 20.5 million
…but most are “dead” sites
Better estimate of “active” sites: 3 or 4 million?

Vast majority have tiny readership, c.3-20 regulars
Big media says “you’re failures” BUT these sites are INTENDED this way
– online diaries, cf. letters, round robins, Xmas newsletters
– small ring-fenced network of buddies, eg. Livejournal/Myspace, teens/early 20s, “my parents don’t understand/school sucks/Green Day rules“, bad Gothic angst poetry

Other end of scale: tiny number with readership in thousands
Especially in US – phenomenon more mainstream
Top few have 100,000+

Rest of us float around somewhere in the middle
Troubled Diva (TD) has 650-750 visitors a day
(notably less at weekends: I’m your coffee break/water cooler moment)
c.30% through search engines
c. 200-300 regulars who “follow” the blog
Quite high for UK – BUT – successful UK blog = #39 in Albanian singles charts

Subject matter.

95% online diary/journal, but few of the big hitters
Next most popular: political.
– reaction to 9/11
– few left wing or party political
– many libertarian or “hawk” re. US foreign policy
– politicians (Boris Johnson)
– commentators: journalists (Stephen Pollard/Melanie Phillips) & many wannabe journos!
– can be dense/complex/difficult to plot on trad left/right axis

Celebrities (Moby/Streisand/Paul Daniels/Scott “Dilbert” Adams), but cannot engage with readers due to remote status – so in “blogosphere” perspective, marginalised figures

Special interest: music, MP3, hand-drawn, photo, sports, creative writing, business/marketing, web design, web punditry, sex, food, knitting, God…

Confessional aspect.

– depression/divorce/sexual misdemeanours etc etc
– cathartic for writer, car crash rubbernecking for readers?
– “online disinhibition effect”
– liberating effect of screen: confession booth/heart to heart with friend/therapist
– “I’m insignificant”/”no one will find me”
– OH YES THEY WILL!

Many, many examples
– people have been sacked (“Dooced”)
– sites closed abruptly
– own experience (unfairly bitchy account of posh lunch party, found by friend of the hosts)
– assume that they WILL find what you’ve said, don’t say anything wouldn’t say to face
– stick to being rude about politicians/celebs: that’s what we pay them for!

OR… stick to YOURSELF as subject
– hence criticism “bloggers are self-obsessed”
– goes with the territory

My own category… “personality” bloggers.

Not usually categorised as such
Sink or swim on attributes of writer’s personality
That’s what hooks readers & brings them back
Not always WHAT we write about but the WAY we say it
Can you take a day where nothing happened, and still make it interesting?

My own blog – background.

Started 4 years ago by accident/curiosity/desire to imitate (Single White Female)
No clue what to do with it at start
Friends & family not interested
Started getting comments, leaving comments, others reading my comments, checking my site, if they like it they stick around
Unexpected alternative audience of strangers, small but growing
Dsicovered “blogrolls” (lists of favourite blogs, kept on sidebar)

My defining moment: 40 in 40 days project
Autobiographical 40 day series
Established a readership
Found my voice – or had I? – considered, “writerly”, literary aspirations

As time went on, relaxed this voice
– more pseudo-conversational, immediate, rough & ready
– “first draft”, doesn’t HAVE to be polished (written in gaps during the day, time pressure)
– may look crap in print, but not intended for that – immediacy part of charm

Discovered blogging heirarchy, “A list”, blogging awards (The Bloggies)
– horrified – against egalitarian principles – “they’re not all that”
– or jealous?
– then nominated myself this year
– volte-face, “so glad my dear friend so and so is nominated”, like pigs at end of Animal Farm
– but we evolve!

Success of blog – mentions in press etc – largest pressure – stage fright/”stats vertigo” – visualise 3 or 4 people in room, now a whole crowd

Finding of own voice.

Whole medium geared towards it
INSTANT – INTERACTIVE
Idea for post – one hour later it’s published – one hour later there’s comments – instant feedback
Know exactly how people are reacting, all the time
Can monitor stats – like stock exchange index – can dip, then strong content makes them rise again (we all check them!)
Can see when blog is linked by others
– or individual posts are linked
– or when added to/removed from blogrolls
I engage my readers
– talk to them, e-mails with them
– read their own blogs

…I KNOW WHO MY READERS ARE

Therefore can precisely target content, BUT more sub-consciously than overtly
You simply learn to write with your audience in mind

Not all bloggers take this approach
NME indie band: “we just do what we do & if anyone else happens to like it, that’s a bonus
I’m the opposite!

BUT… at the same time, write with YOURSELF as audience
– the sort of blog YOU’D want to read

so a kind of happy serendipity at work

also… ITERATIVE.
Most blogs don’t hook you in at first read
Takes time, repeated visits, build up picture of writer, want to know more about them.

AUTHENTICITY valued highly in “blogosphere”
(even if content filtered through persona – jokey, drama-queeny etc)
– blog readers are constantly sifting/evaluating – making quick judgements
– sharp antennae, can easily spot fakes/wannabes
– remember: not in it for the money, so motives are “pure & noble” / untainted by commerce
(even if we’d all jump at chance of book deal/offer of newspaper column…!)

blogs as fair online representations of personality…?
but… you tease, you don’t give it all away, people never quite feel they know you?

TD thrives on unpredictable/erratic/rough around the edges/what’s coming next?
no need for “brand consistency”
– ok to experiment/fail – failure can still be interesting

therefore FREEDOM to write what you want – no commercial pressure

“Edited” vs. “Unedited”

No editors in blogging
A freedom, but a mixed blessing?

– TD tends towards verbosity – but my favourite stuff often in the cracks/digressions/parentheses
– Written style which tends to the over-stuffed, chaotic, sentences running away with themselves/being reined back in the nick of time

Blogging as presenting UNEDITED version of self
– spend a lot of time in real life holding back
– at work, in social situations with people who don’t share my interests/pre-occupations/world-view
– blog is where I can say what I want, without being interrupted
– eg. musical interests / interests not shared with partner

Thus blog audience is self-selecting
– virtual social life?
– differences between real/virtual friends
– can be loyal, can be fickle, come and go
– cocktail party analogy: mingling, forming/dissolving groups/cliques
– “darling it’s been wonderful talking to you, but there are some interesting people over there whom I simply MUST meet!”
– good strategy for absorbing rejection!

We THINK we know each other, but do we really?
– building a strictly controlled (idealised?) image of self – witty / urbane / fascinating etc
– Walter Mitty syndrome? (bored office worker vs personality blogger)

Thus is it fairer to say we’re presenting EDITED versions of self?

Conclusion.

Blogging as obsession
– constant voice in head / inner tabloid journalist on own life
– “ooh, can I blog this?”
– friends: “Mike, you’ve got to blog this” / “Mike, please don’t blog this!”

But if you can harness obsession, rewards can be great

Blogging has made me – 43 yr old office worker – successful on my own terms for first time ever
– reconnection with ability which lay dormant for years
– re-configuration of sense of identity
– has given much needed confidence

So… having started at random four years ago… I’ve ended up standing here this morning… slightly mystified… but hugely grateful.

Footnotes:

1. To read some more points of view regarding “finding your voice” as a blogger, take a look at the comments box at the end of Wednesday’s post.

2. During the Q&A session, I was asked to recommend some other blogs. These were: little.red.boatJonnyB’s Private Secret DiaryGuyana GyalNaked Blog.

3. Towards the end of the afternoon session, I mentioned an recent instance where corporate creative writing had spun out of control: the Barry Scott/Cillit Bang incident. You can read more about this incident here, with a follow-up here.

4. Further reading (didn’t mention this on the day, but it’s really excellent, and relevant to the whole day) – gapingvoid: how to be creative.

5. Here’s a guide to the most linked UK weblogs (from within the blogging community) in May 2005.

Update: 6. Here’s a write-up of the whole day, written by Jess (who I met at lunchtime).

That “your writing sucks” conference, again. “Hun accustomed as eye ham…”

I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more. I could have spread my wings, and done a thousand things I’d never done before…”

Oh, my darlings. I simply had the most wonderful day!

It was, I have to say, a huge relief to be billed as the warm-up guy. Plenty of time to be forgotten about later on, if I turned out to be crap. No time to sit around stressing myself out, unable to concentrate on the rest of the proceedings. No chance of being unduly influenced in style or tone by my fellow speakers. (I am, as I’ve said before, highly prone to Zelig-style tendencies.) Instead, I just had to get up there and bloody well Do It.

I’m not an experienced public speaker. Indeed, the last time that I addressed an audience was over six years ago – and that was at a funeral, so it wasn’t what you might call a usefully analagous experience. But the thing is: once I get over the hump and make the commitment, public speaking is something which, given more regular practice, I could probably do quite well. Deep down inside, I’ve always known this. It was good to be reminded.

As K advised me the previous evening – just in the nick of time, as I was seriously sweating by then – I didn’t make the mistake of over-preparing, and instead managed to strike the right balance between comfortable familiarity with subject matter and overall structure, and the flexibility and space in which to extemporise and elaborate, wherever the fancy took me. All of which meant that – joy of joys! – people actually laughed at my quips and bons mots, which hadn’t been laboured to death in advance. (Because I did feel that laughter was probably the best way to kick-start the whole event.) Why, I even had my hands in my pockets at one stage. There’s casual!

OK, so I did grind to a shuddering halt on one occasion, about two thirds of the way through. But people don’t pick up on that sort of thing nearly as much as you think they’re going to, as I learnt from doing that short series of podcasts over the summer.

As I spoke, the front page of Troubled Diva shone proudly behind me, on a giant screen (this being one of the benefits of holding the conference in a cinema), to a degree of magnification so great that even people on the back row could read the opening paragraphs of Wednesday’s craftily constructed post, complete with its Yo Broadway! shout-out. All I had to do in addition was to hit the F11 key, for Full Screen mode – thus bringing the all-important Troubled Diva coffee mug into view, at the foot of the screen. Other speakers may have had books to plug; all I had was my merchandising tat, so plug it I was bloody well going to do.

(Before commencing my speech, I did suggest that if people got bored, then they could always read the blog, and stick their hands up when they were ready for me to Page Down. Maybe there was a sea of hands, and I didn’t spot it. I don’t like to look at audiences too closely, in case I make eye contact and weird out.)

Honestly, it felt so good. Not only that: it felt so right, so natural, so Me. (The last time I felt like this was while I was writing the Eurovision preview piece for Time Out magazine.) I’m an IT consultant, working on “legacy” software for a car manufacturer; I don’t get the chance to hang out with other writers. And from what I later gathered, many of the self-employed freelance writers attending the conference don’t get much of a chance to hang around with each other, either.

Maybe that’s partly what accounted for the disarmingly lovely atmosphere, which pervaded right throughout the day. My worst fears were availed: instead of being confronted by an intimidating crush of brittle, pushy schmoozers – all networking furiously, whilst glancing over each others’ shoulders in case someone more important passed by – I encountered nothing but openness, friendliness, supportiveness and encouragement. Who knew?

Many thanks to Jeanie Finlay for recommending me as a speaker, and to Gareth Howell (Digital Arts Forum) and Ben Afia (26) for inviting me, and for organising such a splendid and rewarding event. It was also great to see Richard J. again (we’ve been out of touch for way too long), and finally to meet Clare, who has been reading this blog almost since its inception.

Oh shit, I really did promise to post my lecture notes, didn’t I? WHY DO I SAY THESE THINGS? Sheesh. Well, soon come. Ish.

I shall now go and have a nice sit down, while I attempt to get over myself.

That “your writing sucks” conference, then. Look what I did at school today, mum!

Tell you what: let’s jump in at the end, and work backwards.

During the main afternoon session, we were asked to undertake various “automatic writing” exercises:

“…to get words flowing instinctively and creatively, to get us to commit to the written word whilst silencing that inner voice of self-doubt; to appreciate our own intuitive and individual response to words, ideas and stories. Be prepared to write without thinking…”

As someone who struggles with Bloggers’ Block on an all too regular basis, this was a hugely enjoyable, liberating and confidence-boosting way of spending a couple of hours, and there was enormous fun to be had in sharing our efforts with each other.

A couple of examples for you. Following a complex process of word selection which I won’t bother you with, we were tasked with writing a short piece about our four chosen words – mine being Elizabeth, Edinburgh, euphoria, and elbow-pads. However, there was an added, devilish twist: every word in the piece had to begin with the same initial letter as the words selected. And we only had two minutes.

Following a sudden, glorious flash of revelation, this is what I came up with.

‘Ello! Elizabeth ‘ere, entering Edinburgh. Eh, Edinburgh’s effing excellent! Excited? Ecstatic! Eww, embroidered elbow-pads everywhere – entertaining! Easily emptiable, especially erotic… ‘eavenly!

Next, we were charged with composing a short story, containing exactly twenty six words. The twist? Each word had to begin with each consecutive letter of the alphabet, starting with A and ending with Z. Again, just two minutes. (Or maybe it was three.)

This was my favourite exercise. As my effort works best when read out loud, I’ve recorded the results onto a short MP3, which you can listen to here. Alternatively, you can read the story in the comments box.

Finally, we were divided into pairs and asked to collaborate on another short story, by passing a notepad back and forth between us… but one word at a time, with no conferring. Our workshop leader warned us that this might be a frustrating exercise, with each partner trying to pull the story in different directions. Happily, our team’s experience was quite the opposite. Despite never having met each other before, and despite not discussing what we were going to write in advance, we found ourselves constructing a miniature political satire, with a level of synchronicity that bordered on the spooky. (Mind you, there were a lot of Meaningful Looks.) Here’s what we came up with. (I provided the first word; my partner’s words are in italics.)

Yesterday, David and Tony declared they loved Americans. “We think Americans are gorgeous!” Never hesitating, both men embraced Condoleeza, who visibly cried, clutching them jealously. Government officials confirmed that they had a filthy menage à trois.

If you attended the conference yesterday, then a) hello and welcome to Troubled Diva, and b) if you fancy sharing the fruits of yesterday afternoon’s labours with my lovely and supportive “community” of readers, then please leave them in the comments box below.

I’ll tell you how my talk went a bit later.

That “your writing sucks” conference, then. (They’re going to have this bit projected behind me while I’m speaking. HELLO BROADWAY CINEMA!)

Oh God.

Oh God oh God oh God.

It’s tomorrow.

My therapist and I have decided that I should commit to performing at least one activity each week that will take me outside my comfort zone. For instance, I made myself change a ceiling lightbulb yesterday evening, even though I had to place both my feet on the very top step of the stepladder, with no additional means of support.

Despite being so scared that I felt physically sick, I managed to do this. And it felt good.

But look, isn’t that enough to fulfil my weekly quota? I changed a lightbulb, for crying out loud! So do I really have to speak for fifteen minutes (plus another five for questions) tomorrow morning, in front of an audience who have paid good money to hear me wittering on about Troubled Blithering Diva?

After all, I don’t want to run before I can walk. Small steps. And any other Putting One Foot In Front Of Another metaphor that may or may not be appropriate.

Oh, do drop the faux drama queen act, Mike. You know perfectly well that it will all be fine.

Because – and here’s the thing – given the choice between climbing to the top of a ladder, and giving a talk in front of a bunch of strangers, I’d rather give the talk, every time.

Tell you what, readers. Shall we put that Iterative And Interactive Grassroots Online Community Building Paradigm Wotsit into practice, right here, right now? (Hmm, needs a bit of work. I’ll get it tickled up before tomorrow.)

Take a look at this, from the publicity material for the conference:

“Finding a voice is the key to engaging audiences in any form of creative writing. Whether you’re writing for a specialist audience, putting your own life into words, or developing believable characters. The writers in this panel write for different audiences and media and will share their varied techniques for bringing writing to life.”

The key element here – and possibly the unifying theme for the whole day, from what I can gather – is that phrase “finding a voice”.

So, tell me.

  • Has blogging helped you to “find a voice”? And if so, then what sort of voice have you ended up with?
  • How did the process take place? Was it a natural process, or did it involve trial and error?
  • Would it have been a different sort of voice if you weren’t writing on a blog?
  • If you do write elsewhere than on a blog, then do you slip into other tones of voice which suit the medium in question?
  • Or is the whole idea of adopting a “tone of voice” mere poncey bullshit, because you write straight from the heart (man)?
  • Or is your writing voice is basically the same as your conversational voice, because you don’t believe in masks (man)?
  • Do you deliberately adopt tones of voice that you know will play well with your readership?
  • Or do you just (deep breath) do it for yourself, and if anyone else happens to like it then that’s a bonus?

Tell me, do. And if I run out of things to say and need to pad my speech out a bit your contribution is sufficiently interesting and worthwhile, then I might quote you tomorrow morning. (Yeah, I know. Lazy bugger.)

On Friday, I’ll be posting a transcript of my notes for the speech, primarily for the benefit of the course attendees. Well, it has to be better than sending them all to sleep with Powerpoint slides. (Is it just me, or does the very sight of a Powerpoint slide send anyone else off into an automatic catatonic trance?)

Wish me luck. Although, to be honest, I’d rather you answered some of my questions.

Gorgeous re-designs.

As long-standing readers will know, I haven’t altered the basic visual design of this site since Spring 2002 – when I abandoned the last vestiges of the original Blogger template, in favour of the symphony in mauve which has come to define my brand.

To be honest, I might never re-design Troubled Diva. There’s something about it which works for me – and I still find it visually satisfying, even after all this time. It’s a “busy” look – and as such, somewhat out of fashion – but then I like busy-looking blogs, stuffed full to bursting with a myriad of clicking opportunities. They make you feel like you’ve landed in the middle of a swarm of activity, or something. Also, I like to have as much content as possible accessible by a single click, with a minimum of sub-pages.

Besides, design really isn’t my strong point. Having devised something which works, I have become almost superstitious about tampering with it, lest I break the spell and dissipate the essence.

Having said all that, I love it when other bloggers – equipped with the requisite skills and enthusiasm – re-design their sites in fresh new ways, whilst still managing to retain whatever it is which constitutes their core identities.

Bugger, I’m over-selling again.

Anyway, two of my regular reads – Gordon McLean and Pixeldiva – unveiled their new looks today, and I’m mightily taken by both of them. I especially like the way that Pixeldiva has chosen to blend her words and pictures, and the way she has chosen to display her comments.

(Besides, if I redesigned Troubled Diva then all the merchandising would become instantly redundant, and we could never allow that.)