100 hours of solitude: a public writing experiment

Leila Johnston, Managing Editor

In December, writer David Varela and the Arvon Foundation will create an exciting – and possibly mad – public writing project to raise funds for literacy.

Tell us about the project. What will you be doing?

I’m going to be taking requests, writing whatever people want, in return for donations to the Arvon Foundation. And to really open up the writing process, I’ll be writing live on webcam and making every keystroke visible on our website, as I type, so people can see exactly how I work.

In the same spirit of openness, everything I write will be available for anyone to copy or remix under a Creative Commons Zero licence – meaning they don’t even need to attribute the work to me. It will be absolutely free to use.

I’ll be doing this for 100 hours up at Lumb Bank, one of Arvon’s writing centres, which happens to be the former home of Ted Hughes. Throughout, I’ll be maintaining a vow of silence – which includes abstinence from social media, which might be tricky for me.

Right now, anyone can make a request and pledge money at our Indiegogo campaign page.

Have you ever done anything like this before?

Outside my more literary work, I’ve had several jobs where I’ve written to a brief – and I always find those creative restrictions inspiring. There are so many writing exercises that start with a word or an idea as a creative stimulus. This is just an extension of that.

I’ve worked on online games and a lot of my working day is spent responding to people online, either by Skype of email. That’s a fact of modern life. The bulk of my writing is created as part of a dialogue with somebody. In fact, most of my work is a response to a challenge posed by someone else, whether that’s conscious or not.

As for the length of the project: I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write so intensively and it’s going to be a test of endurance. Everybody has faced deadlines, but this looks likely to be more demanding than any project I’ve ever undertaken. There will be a great deal of coffee involved.

Is there an intended outcome of the experiment? What sort of things do you anticipate might happen? What do you hope will happen?

It’s entirely possible that I’ll go insane. Sleep deprivation, caffeine overload, total isolation and the fear of the blank page could all push me over the edge. Add to that the wintry location (it will be the week before Christmas) and it could all turn into an online recreation of The Shining.

From my point of view, I’m interested to see if my writing improves or degenerates over time. Will I find a rhythm and a rich seam of inspiration? Or will my fingers go numb and my brain seize up as the words clog up my synapses? Watch online to find out.

How did the idea of doing it at Ted Hughes’ house come about? Have you visited the location?

The idea was born when I was last at Lumb Bank. I teach a residential course in Writing for Games, alongside the fabulous Naomi Alderman, and during our week there earlier this year the Arvon team were talking about fundraising ideas. I foolishly volunteered this concept.

It’s not the kind of thing Arvon would usually do, but they’re rapidly updating their line-up of courses – our games writing course being one example – to reflect the digital world, so it makes sense for them to modernize their fundraising activities too.

A place like Lumb Bank has a deep sense of literary tradition, and everyone who visits the place finds that inspiring. The history of Ted and Sylvia Plath (who is buried just up the road) adds a dramatic edge to the place too. But it also has wifi coverage and most visitors come along with their own laptop. Even writers can see the benefits of moving with the times.

Using Indiegogo to crowdfund the campaign was a complete departure for Arvon. They’re more used to asking donors to mention them in their will or to make a donation and get a plaque erected somewhere.

Incidentally, the reason we’re using Indiegogo rather than Kickstarter is that Kickstarter doesn’t allow campaigns that have a charitable element.

Are there any subjects or styles you’re either worried about or particularly looking forward to tackling?

It wouldn’t be wise to reveal my fears here. I expect the public will enjoy setting me devious and difficult challenges, so I’m not about to show my areas of weakness. No doubt those will become evident soon enough anyway. But I’m a very flexible writer and I’ve worked in a broad range of media, forms and genres, so I’m looking forward to seeing what people come up with. I like the fact that these will be ideas I never would have come up with on my own.

Do you feel the gap is closing between audiences and writers? Is that at least partly what this work is about?

I’m quite a sociable person, so that narrowing of the gap probably suits me better than it would a classic solitary novelist. I get bored on my own – but equally, I realize I get distracted from writing, so 100 Hours of Solitude should be a test of how I deal with physical isolation.

The internet is full of conversation platforms – Facebook, twitter, blogs, even YouTube, which I regard as conversation rather than pure broadcast. Being in conversation with your audience means that you get some quick and unmediated feedback, which I realize can be scary and brutal. It’s why you find some writers faking their Amazon reviews. It’s understandable.

But this constant conversation also allows you build a community that is actually more supportive and forgiving than you might otherwise expect. If you involve people in the creation of your work, then they tend to be much more receptive. Releasing your work becomes more like holding a cast & crew screening – everyone is well disposed towards the work before you’ve even shown it.

So I’m hoping people will be sympathetic when I blurt out my thousandth haiku after 99 hours in a cold Yorkshire farmhouse.

On the one hand extremely open and public, this project also references a great tradition of reclusive writers and writing retreats. Did these figure consciously when you were coming up with the idea? Can we ever be really reclusive as writers in the digital age – and should we?

I think it’s a dilemma facing everyone now, not just writers: how much do you stay social and how much do you cut yourself off from distractions? It’s worth remembering that you always have a choice. You can always turn off your phone or turn on your out-of-office. It’s always possible to retreat. But it’s difficult.

Personally, I suffer from an (unfounded) anxiety that opportunities are passing me by and I’m somehow missing out if I’m not checking my email at least every couple of hours. And if I’m ever stranded without my phone, I feel virtually naked.

Lumb Bank takes that decision out of my hands. Any interactions I have with the world will have to be through the website, out in the open. I will be physically stuck in the middle of nowhere, and constant surveillance will ensure that I don’t stray onto twitter for a quick fix. This is cold turkey. I’m counting on everyone out there to keep me clean and busy – so give me plenty of work to do.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest news, trends, job opportunities and events in the digital publishing industry.
We do not sell or share your information with anyone else