Free Coordinates

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  • Published: Mar 27th, 2021
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Tell your truth beautifully…

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“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations… They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries…” So begins the only known recording of Virginia Woolf, who goes on to explore why it is so difficult “to create beauty… to tell the truth…” with the “half-a-million words all in alphabetical order” at our disposal.

Easy or not, and our current culture’s love of image notwithstanding, words are arguably our primary tool for telling the truth and creating beauty (ideally at the same time). As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “Humans have a special power to connect with and regulate each other: words. In my research lab, we run experiments to demonstrate this power of words. Our participants lie still in a brain scanner and listen to evocative descriptions of different situations. One is about walking into your childhood home and being smothered in hugs and smiles. Another is about awakening to your buzzing alarm clock and finding a sweet note from your significant other. As they listen, we see increased activity in brain regions that control heart rate, breathing, metabolism and the immune system. Yes, the same brain regions that process language also help to run your body budget. Words have power over your biology – your brain wiring guarantees it.”

Given the undoubted power of words, what can we do to up our chances of using them wisely and well? Virginia Woolf has some good advice at the end of her talk: “words…like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them…they like us to pause…”

So the next time you have to use one or more of those half-a-million plus wonderful words in our lovable language, take a moment. Listen for the echoes. Look for the associations. Think about what you feel. Do your best to tell your truth beautifully.

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  • Published: Jul 3rd, 2020
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Close to music…

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As close to music as I can get is how I like to write.

As Oliver Reichenstein points out, “Being fully immersed in writing is like composing and playing music while we drum up our perceptions into letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs.” In his post on Music in Writing, he shares Martin Amis’s take: “What you’re trying to do is: Be faithful to your perceptions, and transmit them as faithfully as you can… You know I just say these sentences again and again in my head, until they sound right. And there is no objective reason why they sound right. They just sound right to me. So it’s euphony, sometimes it’s harshness you want. But it’s… it’s just matching up the perception with the words… in a kind of semi-musical way.”

Beyond the sheer pleasure of listening to the melody, beat and tone of your words as you write, why write this way? Grace Nichols nails it: “The rhythm and musicality of poetry is more direct in its appeal to the human heart and spirit.” In short, musical writing is more effective.

So, write with your ears, and let your sentences sing.

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  • Published: Nov 10th, 2019
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A safe space for stupidity…

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On a recent trip to LA, I was held captive in a quiet corner of The Broad by William Kentridge’s brilliant Second-Hand Reading. In six or so minutes of animated words, images and music, the work takes you on a magical journey which is both substantial and light-touched, heavy-souled and uplifting. I happily watched it again and again, each time sensing something new in the looping lyrical storytelling.

In a TEDx talk, William Kentridge describes how “ideas come into the studio and meet charcoal, paper, ink…” This fluid, handmade “thinking in material” is core to his art. And so, in turn, is the task “to find the less good idea. One knows the danger of confident men with their good ideas, and the damage this does every time. Give yourself over to the logic of the material… The main idea gets pushed to the side and other things emerge from the process of working… the less good ideas… This is key in the studio – to allow a space for this to emerge… to allow the studio to be a safe space for stupidity…”

So for anyone struck dumb by the terrors of the blank page, or indeed convinced of the perfection of their opening line, take a leaf out of Mr Kentridge’s book. Start writing. Be stupid. Goof about a bit. Get your hands inky. The less good ideas will emerge, and who knows – they may well prove to be great.

 

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  • Published: Jul 3rd, 2019
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The necessary qualities of good business…

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In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I came across a “devoted band that called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole bunch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

Strikes me that the qualities the Eldorado Explorers lack are the very ones that lie at the heart of what goes into good business: hardihood, audacity, courage, foresight and serious intention. These five are a handy guide and inspiration for all of us trying to do worthwhile work in the world.

Better a good business than a sordid buccaneer. Every time.

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  • Published: Nov 2nd, 2018
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The noise words make…

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Sorting through various family papers, I came across a letter the poet P J Kavanagh had written to my mum back in 1980. In it he says that “what distinguishes verse from prose is a tune. Not necessarily an obvious one but some sort of pleasing noise nevertheless… If you re-read one of your favourite poems, with this in mind, you will discover that a large part of what makes you like it and remember it is the noise it makes.”

Robert Macfarlane picks up the theme while bringing prose into poetry’s soundworld: “We think a lot about rhythm in poetry but we don’t talk about it so much in prose. But I’ve always felt that rhythm in language speaks to the backbone, to the back of the scalp. It’s what makes the head tingle if you get it right, and it does a form of communication that propositional language doesn’t. And so when I’m writing prose, as much as I can I work on the rhythms. And the very last thing I do with any book, and I’ve just done it with 130,000 words of Underland, is I speak it back out to myself, on my own.”

So whether it’s 130,000 words or 130 – make your words not only ring true but sing, too.

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  • Published: Apr 18th, 2018
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He’s no tiger…

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On a recent trip to LA I was struck by the sheer brilliance not only of the sunshine but also of much of the communication. Our American friends seem to revel in clear lively English. Whether that’s shedding light on age-old tar pits…

goo

 

 

 

 

 

 

tiger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

or discouraging cars from driving down dusty ol’ cowboy towns…

hoofs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a confidence and playfulness in words we can all enjoy and draw inspiration from.

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  • Published: Nov 4th, 2016
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Private…

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While wandering the magical Cass Sculpture Foundation, I noticed this notice:

private-home-crop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No high walls or barbed wire. No blunt “Private Property – Keep Out”.

Just a quiet statement: private home. Not property, not house, but home.

It’s a neat reminder of how just one word can make a world of difference.

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  • Published: Oct 10th, 2016
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Three funny sounding words…

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Never Knowingly Undersold. These “three funny sounding words”, as John Lewis calls them in their current crop of print ads, sum up the retailer’s unchanging price promise to customers. It’s a promise they’ve stuck to since 1925 and one they maintain they’ll always honour. Indeed why wouldn’t they – good value never goes out of fashion.

But are they really that funny sounding? There’s certainly a distinctive character to them, which is an undoubted plus. A more straightforward trio such as Always Good Value would also be more forgettable.

Funny or not, there’s a lot to be said for the power of three, for example in adding melody and memorability to your writing, and in creating a groundbreaking way to give everyone, everywhere a simple address.

So in distilling your story and/or articulating your promise, it’s no bad thing to go for three distinctive words. Funny sounding optional.

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  • Published: Feb 12th, 2016
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Hugs with lobby…

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Put my postcode into what3words and out pop these three words: hugs.with.lobby

This poetic threesome rubs shoulders with other equally arresting triumvirates such as manual moon skills, tonic twig town, insist gold level. Although randomly generated, like astrologers’ predictions, they invite you to attach to them much meaning. This is a happy by-product of the core ambition of the business: to create the simplest way to communicate location by giving every 3m x 3m square of the planet its own unique trio of words. So for example, 10 Downing Street has slurs this shark for its three, while the White House has improving enjoy buddy. Read into those what you will.

According to What3Words, 75% of the world’s population has no address, but now we can all let everyone else know where we are no matter where in the world that is. A new take on triangulation employing our eminently lovable language – like all great breakthroughs, it’s both brilliantly simple and simply brilliant.

Applause all round.

 

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  • Published: Dec 31st, 2015
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From commuovere to komorebi…

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By way of an end of year sign-off, recommended reading for the new year: the delightful Lost In Translation, An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. It’s a treasure trove of lovable language – from commuovere (to be moved to tears by a story) to komorebi (the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees).

As author Ella Frances Sanders says in her introduction: “In our highly connected and communicative world, we have more ways than ever to express ourselves, to tell others how we feel, and to explain the importance or insignificance of our days. The speed and frequency of our exchanges leave just enough room for misunderstandings, though, and now perhaps more than ever before, what we actually mean to say gets lost in translation. The ability to communicate more frequently and faster hasn’t eliminated the potential for leaving gaps between meaning and interpretation, and emotions and intentions are misread all too often. The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive and indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d long forgotten. If you take something away from this book other than some brilliant conversation starters, let it be the realisation (or affirmation) that you are human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and with feelings. As much as we like to differentiate ourselves, to feel like individuals and rave on about expression and freedom and the experiences that are unique to each one of us, we are all made of the same stuff. We laugh and cry in much the same way, we learn words and then forget them, we meet people from places and cultures different from our own and yet somehow we understand the lives they are living. Language wraps its understanding and punctuation around us all, tempting us to cross boundaries and helping us to comprehend the impossibly difficult questions that life relentlessly throws at us.”

Wishing you a happy and prosperous 2016, one and all.

 

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