Memory Makes Us: Collaboration and Ephemeral in Digital Writing
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Memory Makes Us is an ongoing literary experiment by if:book Australia that creates an interface between writers and readers and blurs the boundaries of each throughout the creative process. The project gathers a group of authors to write live in a public space using as their inspiration memories contributed by the audience to a theme chosen by the authors.
This presentation explores the project in detail and challenges assumptions about the book’s place within a wider body of text, the nature of collaborative writing, and the permanence of physical and digital media.
Memory Makes Us takes place simultaneously online and in a physical space. Online, readers contribute memories via a dedicated project web site or using a social media hashtag. The authors write to a publicly accessible document embedded in the project site. The live event sees the authors working in an open location within a literary festival. The audience records their memories using typewriters and notepads, hand-delivering them to the authors at work. However, the complete body of work in Memory Makes Us is the web site where writers’ and readers’ contributions are of equal significance.
Standard online collaborative writing tools define access by editing rights. Instead this project creates a role for readers as influencers and inspiration, while recognising and honouring a singular author’s vision.
All work produced for Memory Makes Us, both physical and digital, is ephemeral, with a deliberately limited lifespan. The project’s legacy will rely on the memories of its participants and readers. http://www.memorymakesus.org.au
Before I introduce the presentation properly, let me first paint you a scene.
On 31 August this year, I was sitting in the large atrium area of Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia. The Melbourne Writers Festival—two weeks of literary events and activities—was still in full swing and my project called Memory Makes Us was a centrepiece of the final day. In front of me three authors were working feverishly to produce a new work on their laptops. Behind me, a few of the hundreds of festival goers were providing inspiration for the authors in the form of memories. To record their memories, they used manual typewriters.
I looked up at the giant screen currently broadcasting authors’ work in progress, at that moment featuring Paddy O’Reilly, and that’s when I saw my memory.
It wasn’t even that great a memory, just something that occurred to me when I thought about Paddy’s theme of ‘The Body’. My mind was drawn back to the 1980s, to my family’s beach holidays at Coolangatta, and to the laughable excuse for sunscreen we used at the time. Without my knowledge, Paddy had at some point in the day taken my words and dropped them into the work she was writing.
I looked up and recognised my words, but my delight was short lived.
I watched Paddy highlight the entire passage and hit delete.
Well, not the entire passage. Just one word remained: scorching. Paddy wrote a few more words around mine, taking it in a new direction, but I was comforted by that one word’s presence. That word right there, that one was mine, even if I was the only person who knew it.
The experience of Memory Makes Us is always personal and I think some of its most interesting moments have come from the project’s exploration of the intimacy in the relationship between writer and reader. And for me, this gets to the very heart of what if:book Australia is all about and what the possibilities are when we begin to investigate the creative expression of digital media as an extension of the physical world.
if:book Australia is a small non-profit organisation based at the Queensland Writers Centre and linked to an international fellowship of organisations that explore book futures, including of course Bob Stein’s Institute for the Future of the Book in New York and if:book UK led by Chris Meade.
In Australia, our brief is to explore new forms of digital literature and investigate changes in the relationship between writers and readers. This we do through research, writing and speaking, teaching, and experimentation.
Since its inception in 2010, if:book has published tens of thousands of words from some of Australia’s best writers and thinkers.
We have created choose-your-own-adventure-style branching locative stories.
We took a complete book from concept to print (to print) in twenty-four hours, but then we cracked open its database of edits to create a browsable interface and API, which I’ll be bringing to hack day tomorrow if you’re interested.
Finally, we took all that editing data back to print, creating an artwork that’s equal parts beauty, mathematics, and visual gag. The resulting 28-volume set The Complete 24-Hour Book has been shortlisted for inclusion at the International Symposium of Electronic Arts in Vancouver next year.
Our work has been made possible through the generous support of the Australia Council for the Arts and Queensland University of Technology.
Memory Makes Us
Today though, I want to focus more closely on Memory Makes Us, an ongoing experiment that creates an interface between writers and readers that blurs the boundaries of their roles in the creative process.
Now in its second year, the project creates a series of live writing events that have taken place throughout Australia. Presented by if:book Australia in partnership with local festivals, Memory Makes Us has challenged writers in Darwin, Melbourne and Brisbane to create a new work live before an audience with the final event of the year in Perth scheduled a little over a week from now.
During the event, the audience both online and in person is invited to make contributions to the writing in progress.
It works like this: each writer selects a theme for their prospective work and we ask for memories around that theme. For our upcoming event in Perth, Maxine Beneba Clarke will write to the theme ‘Harmony and Rhythm’ and Kate Fielding to the theme of ‘Haircuts’. What are the memories that occur to you when you think about the themes? Head to the site at memorymakesus.org.au and leave them with us.
In the lead up to the event, anyone can submit their memories as text, images or video to the project web site. The authors read these submissions and frequently cut and paste them directly into their work.
During the event, audience members can record a memory in one of two ways: either by scribbling on a post-it note or bashing out a few sentences on one of the manual typewriters provided at the venue. To leave a memory with an author, you simply walk it around to their table and leave it in his or her workspace. Once you’ve done that you can take home a button as a small token of our appreciation for your donation.
Up to three authors at the event will sit before their computers in a public space and they write. Writers festivals or other related events are a great opportunity to stage Memory Makes Us because it taps into an interested audience already gathered. The authors’ work is fed to a large screen and simultaneously to the project web site, every keystroke visible to the world.
And as the number of collected memories grow through the day, they are attached to the author’s table, eventually reaching the floor and ‘flowing’ out towards the audience as a kind of visual flourish and as a marker of our progress.
So Memory Makes Us is a literary event that mashes performance with writing, physical media with digital, and reading with participation and writing. And as we’ve toured it around Australia, I’ve been able to make a few observations on its broader implications.
Writing can be performance
The origin of Memory Makes Us was in an earlier if:book project, The 24-Hour Book, which I spoke briefly about earlier. For this project we used Hugh McGuire’s Pressbooks platform to make a book with a ridiculous deadline. Now, a lot of interesting observations came out of that project, but one in particular intrigued me: the authors interactions live with the audience via the comments stream. Sometimes it was to discuss the story in progress, a kind of critical analysis in motion:
—What will happen next?
—I don’t know. You tell me.
Sometimes it was more, well, straightforward:
—The next person to bring me a Coke Zero gets their name in this story.
It got me thinking about how a live interaction between author and audience could create a new kind of work, a new kind of collaboration in which the author remains the final arbiter, but is also open to inspiration and influence from readers while the writing is in progress.
This is writing as a performance, but one distinct from other performative aspects of literature: this isn’t a reading of a prepared work, nor is it freestyle poetry. It’s improvisation not with speech but with text and the tools of contemporary writing: keyboard and cut-and-paste.
But performance isn’t limited to the authors. The audience is also an essential part of Memory Makes Us.
Online, readers contribute to a repository of memories that occasionally has a slightly voyeuristic quality to it (which certainly wasn’t my intention).
And at the live event, I can’t underestimate how important the manual typewriters are as a lure for potential contributors. Even though they were a late addition to the initial pilot project, Memory Makes Us wouldn’t be the same without them, even though it means I spend much of the day being typewriter tech support for people who can’t find the enter key. The typewriters also seem to bring out the best in the live environment. They are of the moment and they create a uniquely tactile link between audience and author.
The result is an experience at once familiar and strange.
Know what to ask for
What we want from the audience in Memory Makes Us is inspiration, a ridiculously vague and daunting expectation to place on general readers. What we ask for is a memory.
The themes help focus the contributions and provide a little structure for the authors when sorting through. In our pilot project for Memory Makes Us last year, we hadn’t yet hit on the idea of focusing memories around a theme. Fortunately our featured author for the pilot was Kate Pullinger who was more than capable of pulling together a beautiful work despite the bombardment of generic, unfocused memories.
It’s seems pretty obvious given the title, but memory is what holds all these disparate ideas together. Choosing the right theme, something specific to help focus the contributions, but broad enough to apply to anyone is the only magic trick in the process. A good theme sets the tone and brings out the most potent, charming, and honest memories:
I have a cat, but I’d rather have a dog. I’m here with a friend, but I’d rather be here with somebody else. (from Desire)
And the impact of sharing something as personal and intimate as your own memories brings an emotional energy to the project in what could easily have been a purely intellectual exercise.
It’s actually working. This weird thing has heart. (post-it note from the pilot project)
‘Collaboration’ doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means
Not all submitted memories make a recognisable contribution to the authors’ work and for this reason, the project’s web site includes a repository of all the memories collected, both online and in person, searchable by theme. Memory Makes Us is not solely the product of its featured authors, but includes the raw text and images provided by its audience.
Reading Memory Makes Us in its entirety means processing a lot of data, but it also provides a fascinating insight into how authors go about what they do:
- Kate Pullinger riffed off the memories she received, pasting them into her piece then responding, and—almost inadvertently—created an extended reverie of own her family and childhood.
- Marie Munkara constructed an epic poem that liberally quoted from memories, but at the same time wove her own experience and a sense of her culture throughout.
- Nicholas Johnson, working to the theme of ‘lies’, created an imagined interrogation scene, peppered with the memories of the audience.
In order to achieve the author/audience collaboration in Memory Makes Us, we had to cobble together a collection of disparate tools. No one existing platform was up to the task. I spent months trawling through online collaborative tools only to discover that ‘collaboration’ in all these tools was defined in the same narrow way.
Defining documents by editing rights, or defining editing rights by access severely limits the possibilities for a project that seeks a role for readers as influencers and inspiration, while recognising and honouring a singular author’s vision.
In our current solution, the writers work in Google Docs, in a document with public access but editing rights available only to the author and me. This document is embedded in the project web site which runs on Wordpress. The interface for submitting and archiving memories is a custom plugin created for us by a team of talented developers from Brisbane called Human Ventures.
What we ended up with has worked beautifully, but for me it has suggested that thinking about collaborative writing first as a technical problem rather than a creative problem would seem to limit our understanding of what can be achieved. Personally, I’ve never had the need for more than one person to be simultaneously editing within a single document.
So is this a book, or what?
For most readers, Memory Makes Us is a web site. For festival visitors, it’s a live event. Next year we’re planning to take it to print, so it will be a book too, of sorts.
But none of these individual ‘formats’ capture the whole project.
Memory Makes Us exists in its most complete for on the web where writers’ and readers’ contributions are presented in their entirety and with equal significance. But the web still doesn’t capture Memory Makes Us. Not entirely.
Because it’s in the live interaction where the project really sings.
At the important drinks-and-debrief session that follows each event I am always struck by the extraordinarily warm and generous reactions of the participating authors. They come away from the experience exhausted certainly, but also strangely elated.
It was so refreshing to just write with no planning and imagery from someone else's brain that I was actually allowed to plagiarise—in fact, expected to! That was very, very cool. Josephine Moon.
The British poet Warsan Shire, one of our authors at the Brisbane event, actually continued working on her piece for a week following. It was completely unnecessary, but Warsan felt indebted to the audience who contributed and wanted to honour their contributions with the best of her own work.
Levin Diatschenko from Darwin has spun his Memory Makes Us work to the theme of ‘Family Tree’ into a full-length novel and has continued to accept memories as he works.
Readers too have expressed similar sentiments both in person at the event and online through social media.
I would go as far to say ‘this weird thing has heart’ is one of the nicest things anyone has said about my work at if:book.
Nothing lasts and sometimes it’s worth making that obvious
Memory Makes Us will eventually disappear. Following its final event (whenever that might be), the letters and words of authors and audience will begin to vanish until nothing remains.
For our print edition we’re investigating using ink that fades over time, eventually creating a book that acts only as a sign that the project existed. The digital work will degrade in a different way. The text here will become corrupted, moving the text from meaning to nonsense.
The deliberately short lifespan of Memory Makes Us is the project’s final statement on what writing is and what it means for authors and readers alike.
We write to remember and to be remembered, but the reality of writing has always been more fragile than we usually acknowledge. In the physical world it might get pulped or fade away. In the digital world it might be abandoned, unindexed, or outmoded.
The writing we remember for centuries is not only preserved, it’s made accessible and, crucially, it’s repeated and referenced and acknowledged as an influence over and over again.
What remains of Memory Makes Us after the final event won’t be an archive, a repository, or even a book. It will be a collection of memories, imperfect, fleeting, and personal.