“What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.” – Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way (Moncrieff translation)
Founded by Adam Hyde, the Book Sprint is an intensive collaborative writing approach which brings together a group of people and a facilitator with the goal of writing a book in three to five days. It deploys “a writing process which is materialized in software, organized by a set of practices (patterns) and supported by a writing facilitator.”1 This Book Sprint was organised by Time’s Up for the purpose of distilling a book out of the ideas and material presented at the Data Ecologies 14 symposium, which most participants had just attended and spoken at. Hailing from a diversity of backgrounds, including Madeira-ITI, AltArt, and of course FoAM (partner organisations in the Future Fabulators project), they were joined by facilitator Barbara Rühling at a retreat by Lake Attersee. Participants were: Alkan Chipperfield, Tina Auer, Tim Boykett, Nik Gaffney, Trevor Haldenby, Julian Hanna, Maja Kuzmanovic, Marta Peirano, Peter von Stackelberg, Istvan Szakats, and Luis Wohlmuther.
We drove down from Linz to Attersee on a bright hazy Sunday and booked in at Chandlerhaus, a four-storey chateau sandwiched between the flickering greeny waters of the lake and the precipitous backdrop of the Höllengebirge. Frau Kneissl, the establishment’s manager who singlehandedly catered for us during the sprint, showed us to our rooms. We spent the day resting after the Data Ecologies seminar while all afternoon the Rosenwind – an easterly wind beloved of local sailors, which purportedly fills the air with the scent of roses – blustered through the curtains. An undeniably picturesque location, and yet – the displaced 70s interior decor, the brooding “mountains of hell” pressing in so closely above us, the comparative isolation – maybe even the ubiquitous Christian iconography and the enigmatic presence of Frau Kneissl in the background – imparted eery propensities. Though none of us (as far as I know) were haunted by dreams of dwarves speaking backwards, the owls were definitely not what they seemed…
While curious at the prospect of the booksprint, I approached it with considerable foreboding.2 For someone who crumples like wastepaper under the slightest hint of pressure, who could barely even pass exams at school or university, it sounded like a tough proposition. Vaguely alarming images of just-in-time automotive production and speed dating came to mind. And sure enough, the ups and downs as the days unfolded had me suffering writer’s block, deadline paralysis, cabin fever, fatigue, exhaustion, vertigo – you name it. At a certain point the pressure cooker of production melted my brain to mush and induced what felt like a catastrophic runaway feedback loop of fatal disengagement.
Yet I became intrigued by the intensity of what I’d somehow blundered into. What if I approached this as a psychological laboratory experiment with ourselves as guinea pigs, an expedition in reflexive anthropology and microethnographic fieldwork? In this way, I found myself focussing far more on the process at the expense of the product, and my concern with the actual contents of the book ended up being subsumed by the experience as a whole.3 But even so – under slightly different circumstances it could all so easily have lapsed into a series of unfortunate episodes instead of the mad and marvellous rush it finally was.
Our facilitator (and co-creator) over the next four days was Barbara Rühling. Her influence was like that of a quick and consistent breeze, light and pervasive, never once ebbing or growing stormy but always behind us, urging us onwards, dispersing and drawing us together again. She met our oftentimes tempestuous perturbations with a calm liveliness, and sent out a lifeboat when some of us inadvertently went off course and even capsized in troubled waters. At a glance she would detect, with quiet exactitude, the lineaments of individuals’ dispositions and capacities, effortlessly coaxing out their strengths, bringing visibility to their ideas and weaving them into the wider fabric – while gently but firmly turning up the tempo when the push came to shove. And some of us needed a lot of shoving. Needless to say, perhaps, she also seemed to possess the disconcerting ability to be in a multiplicity of places (and maybe also times) at once: jumping deftly between people, groups, concepts, creative phases, and up and down the stairs – with the occasional nimble (and possibly mischievous) intervention thrown in for good measure. Quite an act to follow while remaining unfazed and curious throughout…
Monday morning nine o’clock sharp saw us tumbling out of our dorms well rested and ready for action (or not), climbing the steep staircase and gathering up in the “attic” of Chandlerhaus, the glittering Attersee almost within arm’s reach through the windows on one side, the ponderous escarpments of the Höllengebirge on the other. Almost without preliminaries we were up and running. The approach was refreshingly straightforward, the “pattern” conspicuous by its near-invisibility. Starting now and proceeding over the next four days we’d define our scope and audience (roughly summarised as “down with experts!”), cluster our themes, segment them into chapters, draft, redraft, edit, revise, review – and bingo. The clock was ticking. An avalanche of stickies was poised to flutter down upon us.4
So far so good. A kaleidoscope of possible, actual, existing, probable and downright irreal futures was refracted back to us in a stickystorm dashed out in the first half hour and festooned across the wooden panelling of the loft, where it spilled into the transparent space of the skylight and, some report, came to hover over the still-bright expanse of the Attersee. The next half hour or so had us clustering this assemblage of simultaneously extracted and generated notions into rough groups, which would ultimately form the basis – with suitable refinements along the way – of the book’s chapters. More immediately, these clusters served to define the lines along which our first breakout groups were assigned.
In general, the way these groups worked was a neat blend that accommodated the spontaneous formation of elective affinities, while also periodically dividing these up and shuffling them round to keep us on our toes: diversifying, invigorating, and forestalling stagnation and inertia. The dynamic seemed to be one of recursive oscillation. A time-lapse representation of it might show several individuals jumping up and down together like meerkats in animated discussion. Suddenly they would scatter, each meerkat scampering away to its own corner to sit and madly type. Moments later, one of them might be observed to initiate rapprochement with the others, and the cycle would be repeated. All up, this might sound like a recipe for pandemonium. Yet when it was combined with the “restriction of the field” to a communal collaborative workspace and a shared objective, it actually fostered a rewarding sense of focus, at least as several participants reported.
If only it were all Post-its and primroses. Upon breaking out with Nik and assigned to the (already nebulous) topic of “big data masquerading as information processing” (among other intangibles), a sinking feeling overcame me. It was not that we didn’t dream up some catchy notions. If anything, we took the collective brainstorming session to a whole new level in our own dyadic musings. Random associations and connections rolled out thick and fast. But the moment we decided on the subtopics each of us would go off and focus on individually (inasmuch as the two of us could ever decide on anything) and Nik extolled me to “run with it!”, everything seemed to grind to a stuttering halt. Collective or solitary, sprinting or crawling – the task of deriving from the flurry of stickies something that would stick suddenly seemed insurmountable. Becalmed in the doldrums (and hoping to deflect the gentle but persistent proddings of our facilitator), I turned my attention to how others were faring.
It was not reassuring. Everywhere I looked, frenetic activity was taking place. Everyone seemed to be sprinting at light speed, while I was stuck in a black hole. Trevor, for instance, would alternate boisterous discussions with the featherlight keyboard equivalent of a multi-barrel rapid-fire machine gun. Maja, plugged in to very loud, grinding industrial electronica, deployed her fearsome powers of concentration to write seemingly without interruption for hours on end, her sprinting capacity honed to a razor’s sharpness through years of practice dashing off funding proposals at the last minute. For her, free at last from a host of mundane obligations, it was like advancing extremely rapidly over smooth, open waters. Peter, Julian, Tina, Tim, Marta, Luis – all seemed engaged in sensible and pragmatic discussion coupled with measured periods of individual distillation, mapping out the quadrants of their topics and drawing up promising lines of manoeuvre. Nik, on the other hand, sometimes appeared to have drifted into abstraction, while Istvan was showing signs of restlessness.
Other fault lines became apparent. A few of us started to feel that the emerging text was diverging too starkly into separate sections: one dealing with concepts and ideas, the other with various concrete tools. Some of the writing that had been so prolifically generated was showing signs of inconsistency and lack of reflection. On Tuesday morning the weather closed in – a cold incessant rain fell, mist wreathed the stark cliffs and slate grey lake, and it would remain like this for the rest of the sprint. In contrast, the loft was heating up; smoking heads and increasingly raucous discussion alternating with the muted patter of keyboards and rain. By dinner we had exactly 22,555 words in the online document – but how many of these would stand up to scrutiny after breakfast tomorrow?5
As the penultimate leg of the sprint, Wednesday was a significant day. At this stage the book’s content and shape would have to be progressively and definitively locked down. This day saw the appearance of Istvan’s hand drawings of talking fish, hard copy printouts, scissors, tape, and very analogue cutting and pasting. It was all coming together; it would be right on the night. Or would it? As the day wore on, something seemed to be growing visible – maybe not a “Geist” exactly, but more a nebulous accretion of strings and attractors. The half-blind groping towards a collaborative esprit de corps belied unaccustomed telepathies. The process had developed an internal momentum, a will of its own. By Wednesday evening – the first time in the week when “After Dinner” became a significant unit of temporal activity – this momentum had apparently become a veritable roller coaster ride that would surely have been unproductive if not futile to attempt to divert.
If the creative process were to be seen as a syncopated beat in alternating Dionysian and Apollonian modes, we’d definitely reached a Bacchic ad libitum on Wednesday night. Fuelled in part by the cumulative effects of nearly three days’ commensality and countless glasses of wine, participants were in a riotous mood. Distinctions between work and play grew fine indeed. The mounting insanity, the atrocious DJ’ing, cabin fever induced by the overcast weather – I had to escape. I fled the loft to walk in the twilight and talk to yaks and, returning to an eerily silent downstairs by the fire, became absorbed in black elephant selfies. By the end of this evening (and I don’t exactly know when it ended) we had 34,111 words. Tomorrow, it seemed, the sober process of redaction would have to start all over again.
And so it went. More discussion, frantic proofreading, the realisation that by lunchtime we still didn’t have a front cover image or even a book title, final decisions on the ordering and naming of chapter headings that lasted late into the afternoon – it was a last-minute affair. But somehow – sort of, kind of – it all came together, and by Thursday dinnertime the sprint was over and Futurish version .09 was born – if not from blood, sweat and tears then from a swirl of stickies, a cacophony of clicking, and uncountable bottles of wine.
We went downstairs to salute the occasion with schnapps, performed the ritual cremation of a previous draft of the book on the open fire, then went out into the damp, misty evening and onto the Attersee, where some especially brave (or foolhardy) Canadians and Australians jumped in the icy waters of the lake. At dinner the outside world started seeping back into our hitherto gnostically secluded group, in the form of various (significant) others. Apparently wandering in from another planet where the air they breathe has a more rarified, likely psychoactive, molecular structure than that of our own earthly atmosphere, Book Sprint mastermind Adam Hyde joined us for the evening.
One could elaborate on the “histories, presents, and possible futures”6 of textual artefacts and writing processes in general that the Book Sprint experience brought to mind. One might think of Kerouac’s “first thought, best thought” versus Flaubert’s monthlong polishing of a single sentence, or the Zen painter or poet’s ten-year silence before composing in a single instant a haiku or painting of a crab. Returning to Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysus, we might frame the experience in terms of a eucatastrophic feedback loop of informed ecstasy. But it has all been said and done elsewhere. And in any case it is, as they say, beyond the scope of this blog post.
Any intellectual venture is simultaneously an emotional one – and vice versa. Returning to the city early Friday morning the sudden ending, the rapid agglutination of impressions, the dizzy contrast and abrupt decompression had me bursting into tears in the empty apartment. “Mad as a barrel of badgers” (as the saying goes)7 and transfused with liminal, unravelling densities, captured only in the transient and imperfect mediums of stored photons and neural circuits, the week just past now shared the fate of all time and every actual, existing future. And yet – the ending is always also a beginning, the past is the future written backwards. Warmest thanks to everyone who participated, to the Time’s Up crew, and to our facilitadora, sine qua non. May we all sprint happily beyond the event horizon!
Microcolophon & metadisclaimer: Written at FoAM Brussels HQ to the intermittent soundtrack of girl bands and Goldberg Variations on a shiny new MacBook Air that I can’t afford.
- Check out the BookSprints site if you require a more sensible and coherent account of booksprinting than is provided anywhere in these reflections. And for further depth and breadth, don’t miss the recently booksprinted book on sprints, available in ePub or PDF, which makes for an illuminating read and is the source of the above quote (p. 3). ↩
- The standard disclaimers apply here: these impressions lay zero claim to unbiased impartiality. They’re subjective, unreasonable and emotional, possibly the product of delirium, and the sole responsibility of the author. ↩
- I hear rumours that at least one other report about this Book Sprint will see the light of computer screens soon. The inbuilt limitations of my own “approach” and its textual detritus may not be so glaring when viewed as one shard of a communal endeavour. Stay tuned to Time’s Up for further info. ↩
- The following account borrows from Barbara’s tweetstream for a minimal hint of chronology, the wordcount sequence – and several neat phrasings that would be impossible to improve upon. Apologies for the plagiarism, but it could not be otherwise. ↩
- Mealtimes were one of the few constant punctuation marks to our often freewheeling approach to scheduling during the sprint. Indeed, the common unit of time became that of, for example, Before Lunch and After Lunch, and later, After Dinner. ↩
- Rachel Baker, David Berry, Mark Brokering, Michael Dieter, Amanda French, Barbara Rühling, and Adam Hyde. 2014. On Book Sprints. 1.1 ed. Berlin, p. 10 ↩
- In Justin Pickard’s apposite words. ↩