Bob writes …
‘Writing that influences’. What does that mean? Perhaps there is no single, exact meaning. Influence comes in many forms, and can be either intended or unintended. Clearly, if you look at the contents of this anthology, it means different things to different people. The theme for this edition is taken from the title of the 4th Annual Collaborative Writing Workshop that was held in Brighton in May this year, ‘Writing that influences: making waves for development’.
This is where Alison Terry and I, who met there for the first time, took on responsibility for producing this anthology. Given the novelty of our writing relationship, as Joint Editors we wondered how we might write this editorial overview. After several attempts, we decided to experiment by writing a separate section each, and then see what emerged. This piece is the result. Through this collaboration, no doubt on some occasions you will hear us speak with one voice, and on others in our own individual voices. We wanted there to be space for both.
As Edna O’Brien has written, ‘August is a Wicked Month’. Some of the May Workshop participants fell prey to other pressing preoccupations (in some cases another writing commitment). So they were unable to send us copy to meet our August deadline. However, subsequently, Tom Boydell and Olive Hickmott, who had not been with us at Brighton, were inspired to write something on ‘Writing that influences’. We’ve also included a posthumous piece by Brian Hughes, originally written under his pseudonym B A Humar, for reasons that will become immediately apparent when you read it.
Although we consulted each other before making any editorial proposals for each article, Alison and I each liaised primarily with different authors. So we decided to divide up our brief commentaries here between us, according to those authors with whom we were, respectively, first point of contact. In this section, therefore, I highlight some aspects of the writing of Alison herself, Maria Fleming, Tom Boydell and Brian Hughes. I also make some observations about writing and influence.
Alison Terry has contributed a piece called ‘Memes, magic and mental hygiene’. Here, she suggests it is time for us to explore a new sense of responsibility for our part in shaping the world around us, now that we have the power of global communication at our fingertips. Alison points out that we have access to multiple perspectives when shaping our account of reality – a reality that we collectively redefine from one moment to the next. This ongoing process of co-creation, where we each have a circle of influence that is potentially global, has profound implications for more than just change within organisations.
In her article ‘Writing @ the speed of technology’, Maria Fleming cautions against the potentially corrosive impact of instant digital media, fearing this may affect adversely the speed, quantity, quality and reliability of information flow. If we’re not careful, she believes, this will lead to uncritical, short-term thinking. Maria urges that we pay greater attention to nurturing critical thinking, and she enumerates ways in which writing influences her. Finally, she advocates a return to basics, to nurture ‘the art and craft of articulate and meaningful expression.’
As a long-standing Member of AMED, and a much-published author on personal and organisational development, Tom Boydell analyses and reflects on how his writing and its impact has evolved over some 45 years of practice. In ‘Writing that had an impact’, He suggests that writing may be as much about the writer as about the topic under consideration. Professional change agents should find this a fascinating personal and historical retrospective – a kind of barometer of the shifting trends and practices in writing that has (or has not) influenced personal and organisational development over nearly half a century. Some well-known characters flit across his pages. Tom also notes an unexpected emotional impact on him as author as he reflects on his work in the writing of this piece. For him, as for us, the struggle and the learning continues.
Unusually, we’ve included a posthumous short piece by Brian Hughes, called ‘Façonner des mots vivants’. As a respected adult educator and consultant in international development, Brian’s writing was always elegant, concise and insightful. He was passionate about writing in any form, and he excelled at what he wrote. In this piece, he identifies four sources of ‘creative writing’ that we believe apply equally to writing for personal and organisational development. These strands are:
(i) ‘the external’ – the outside world of people, history and events;
(ii) ‘the intelligence’ – a writer’s conscious thoughts, ideas and perceptions;
(iii) ‘the unconscious’ – a dimly perceived internal reservoir; and
(iv) ‘words and language’ – a writer’s basic materials.
Some personal reflections on writing that influences
What do I make of the experience of writing for, and jointly editing, this edition? In collaborating with Alison and with all those other people mentioned in our Acknowledgements, I’ve been compelled to return to first principles and ask ‘What do I now understand about writing and influence?’ What follows is a provisional response to that question.
In its many varied forms and contexts, writing is ‘an extension of human language across time and space.’ We’re told that writing is a distinctly (uniquely?) human phenomenon. Although it was a long time in coming, it’s been a long time in existence, and it’s constantly evolving. Writing is both a noun (or thing), which we recognise in the form of text or script, and a verb (or activity) – something we do (if we know how). It can produce good, bad or indeterminate results, although these effects are not always directly attributable to the writing itself. It can also, of course, fall on stony ground. Writing has an interdependent relationship with reading and speaking, and can influence the writer as well as the reader or listener. Hence it is a component of a tripartite and dynamic communication process which, in suitable circumstances, facilitates informed thinking and action. But it is not a panacea, and not everyone is able or willing to write, or to read what others have written.
Are writers a breed of solitaries apart? Among other things, I’m prepared to call myself a writer, because I regard writing as an essential part of my professional repertoire – it’s an important tool of my trade as a consultant and facilitator. And I take great pleasure in reading well-written pieces, of whatever description, be they fiction, non-fiction, poetry or journalism. But – as a writer – I don’t see myself as special, and indeed I spend much of my professional life writing and encouraging more clients and colleagues to write. However, when I’m involved in a substantial piece of writing (as now) I do seek to isolate myself temporarily from other distractions, including human beings.
It’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that writing to influence self and others is enabled and influenced by writing technologies. This is the subject of several of the articles here (Alison Terry, Maria Fleming and Bob MacKenzie).
Dictionary.com offers various definitions for the phenomenon of influence. One is ‘the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behaviour, opinions, etc., of others.’ Time was, astrologically, when influence was said to emanate from ‘the radiation of an ethereal fluid from the stars’, and was often attributed to the exercise of occult powers. For some writers, influence is derived from intoxicants such as alcohol (Dylan Thomas) or drugs (de Quincey, Coleridge) – ‘being under the influence’. Influence as a term is reputed to derive from the Latin ‘influere’, meaning to flow, as in a river (and as in good writing). And for me, a particularly appealing definition of influence is ‘the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways’ (Legal Dictionary). According to this view, influence is a subtle process, not always immediately recognisable or attributable.
How do we judge writing that influences?
Aditya Chakrabortty cites a survey of writers’ obituaries in the New York Times, written a decade ago by Franco Moretti. Moretti was trying to gauge how literary critics judge a writer’s lifetime achievements. Chakrabortty notes that ‘these short biographies concerned themselves with concrete achievements: books, contributions to human knowledge, laws.’ However, as Moretti observes, ‘There is [in these critical assessments] no room for projects, hopes, ideas; only what has been realised counts.’ Influence can be subtle, unpredictable, imperceptible – even elusive. Yet – like much of what happens in organisational life – it is often only what is concrete and measurable that is recognised and rewarded. But that should not stop writers of any persuasion from continuing to try to exert a positive influence through their writing. Ultimately, perhaps, writing that influences constitutes an act of faith or sheer cussedness.
For many organisational consultants and change agents, Steven Covey is one of the best known writers on influence. Covey’s Habit 1 enjoins us to be proactive and expand our Circle of Influence to diminish our Circle of Concerns. By recognising and focusing on what we can be and do, we can exert a positive influence on ourselves and others, and thus help to bring about positive change. As an act of faith, perhaps, we must continue to assume that writing can help us to expand our Circle of Influence.
Alison writes …
A personal perspective
As a newcomer to AMED, this is my first issue of e-O&P; I feel honoured that Bob invited me to co-edit it with him. It’s been hard work: the theme, Writing that influences, turned out to be tricky. What do we mean by ‘influence’? How can we measure whether it has happened? And can it really be achieved through writing? Working independently as an editorial consultant, I am not familiar with the business environment of organisational change – except through editing theses on the topic, which is how I ended up being introduced to the AMED Writers’ Group. My own contribution to this issue is therefore something of a philosophical meander, which may be more abstract than typical e-O&P content.
It’s been fascinating to participate in the process of seeing our co-contributors move from the hectic and hazardous terrain of e-mail promises through to the solid ground of delivering a final article. When we first planned to collaborate on this issue, I think Bob and I had pictured ourselves comfortably reading through all the potential contributions, exploring and consolidating our feedback through leisurely conversations, and watching the issue gradually take shape under our gentle guidance, much as a topiarist might stand back to admire the latest careful snip. But August seems to have unfolded in a time zone all of its own, so it will come as no surprise that the reality of putting this issue together was rather different. We are both, however, confident that the articles that appear here belong in this particular issue rather than to any other – not bad for such an elusive theme.
Some of this issue’s contributions
Bob MacKenzie’s Pens, Print and Pixels explores a whole network of ideas that at first glance seemed to conflict with my own, given his wariness of the potential ‘shallowness’ of internet-age writing versus my belief that the world-wide web challenges us all to assimilate complexity and paradox in our writing. Indeed, prior to tackling our first draft, we wondered whether to make our editorial the forum for some kind of response to each other’s views. Yet we found our ideas slotting together in ways we hadn’t anticipated, and through responding to each other’s writing we found ourselves exploring unfamiliar paths that held surprises for us both. As he commented towards the end of this process, when I thanked him for a Eureka moment described below, ‘perhaps it illustrates the symbiotic relationship between writers, writing and conversation (even if conversation is an email exchange)’.
In People, Politics and Paradigms Vicky Cosstick charts the course of a consultant’s report, noting with wry equanimity that it is just as likely to drop below the horizon as it is to soar magnificently in the direction intended. From a very different perspective, Olive Hickmott’s Healing Stories explains what kinds of narrative help her clients to overcome a whole range of difficulties – including dyslexia, her past experience of which lends extraordinary passion and insight to her writing.
Is anyone reading this?
Writing my own article, Memes, Magic and Mental Hygiene, nudged a tumble of ideas that didn’t stop with the conclusion of the article. A friend who read the first draft described how overwhelmed he feels by the explosion of writing in the internet age: ‘Like those online photo galleries,’ he said, ‘All those millions of photos being uploaded every minute, but who’s actually looking at them?’. It seems that everyone is writing, everyone has something to say; but who’s actually reading any of it?
Well, we simply can’t read everything. Someone might once have made it their life’s task to read through the entire library at ancient Alexandria; ambitious though that would have been, it may have been within the realms of possibility if they read fast and lived long. Now, however, the equivalent ‘library’ is ballooning outwards faster than anyone can keep track of it – there can no longer be any sense of working our way along a well-ordered shelf.
Yet we do read, constantly. And it’s surprising how often I find myself reading, quite coincidentally, about something that has only recently captured my interest. ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’ is one ancient proverb that certainly seems to apply to things I find myself reading: I think I’ve chosen them at random until I turn the page and find that ‘Aha!’ moment, suddenly realising that I’ve found the precise piece of the jigsaw I’d been unconsciously seeking.
Find your own truths
The proliferation of writing nowadays means that it’s possible to make a statement about virtually anything – both trivial and significant – and find some text to back it up. This has extraordinary implications for academia and science, where supporting references have traditionally been considered the stamp of authority that guarantees reliability of information. A medical writer friend was recently briefed by a major pharmaceutical company to draft something that made various ‘aspirational’ statements about their new drug – then to find the clinical evidence and supply appropriate ‘robust’ citations. Such a cart-before-horse approach is easy enough with PubMed, a digital archive of the world’s published medical research: presumably launched as a tool to aid scientific clarity, it is already a towering Babel of conflicting randomized, controlled trials that demonstrate, refute and frankly contradict. Whether in the field of medical science or some other arena, the avalanche of conflicting expertise suggests that we must each become our own authority (and I’m sure the etymology of ‘authority’ isn’t wasted on a group of authors!). We are literally creating our own truth, writing it into awareness for ourselves and others.
How do we recognise our truth when we see it? When do the words ignite some irresistible quality of brightness? One thing is certain: unless something deeply integrated into our own experience resonates with the writer’s perspective, their words wash over us without disturbing the familiar rock-pool of our interior universe. In this sense, we can never really write to influence anyone – or rather, it is inevitable that our writing influences; but we have no control over how. Like everything we do and say, what we write can have consequences that are often quite the reverse of what we intended; and yet there will be the occasional reader, perhaps accidentally coming across our writing, who ‘gets’ what we are trying to say, more perfectly than we could have hoped to express it.
Sometimes the truth can take us by surprise in our own writing. Very occasionally, I write something down that almost fizzes in my veins when I look at it, because it draws the veil aside, suddenly making visible what I recognise as a powerful core belief. This happened in my work with Bob to bring this issue of e-O&P to publication. In an email encouraging him to explore his ideas in greater detail, I found myself writing: ‘We all carry the answers inside us, and if we let our ideas loose to play on the page we have a much better chance of finding out what they are than if we defer to ‘authorities’… I’m passionate about this because I think humanity as a whole is trying to make sense of things and we must all contribute what we have to the pot, now that we can – otherwise a subtle but important ingredient might be left out’. No sooner had I written this than I understood that this has long been the motivation behind my work, not to mention the force that drove me to put together the Verbalchemy’ workshop that I’m facilitating on 19 November.
Order in chaos
In a relatively short space of time (my parent’s lifetime), the rug of apparent certainty has been swept out from under our feet. No one is in control; no one has the answers; and whatever our original intentions, we cannot know what influence our writing might have. This may seem overwhelming; but just because we don’t understand what’s going on, does that mean there is no sense to it? Just because we’re not in control, does that mean chaos reigns?
‘As above, so below’ is a Hermetic principle that can be observed in many ways at every level of reality (such as the fractal patterns of subatomic particles mirroring those of galactic clusters). When the bigger picture is too vast to contemplate, it can help to focus on the detail. The German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) is renowned for his beautiful drawings. Capturing the intricate detail of microorganisms such as diatoms, protozoa and radiolaria, he reveals each to be a living mandala: proof, if any were needed, that the designs of Nature – evolving organically in ways that we don’t even see, much less control – are exquisitely beautiful and perfect. I have chosen some examples to illustrate my article.
As we hurtle ever faster into increasing complexity and confusion, science is discovering what the mystics have always known: that what looks like chaos to us turns out, on closer inspection, to be a self-regulating process of great subtlety and harmonic depth. Indeed, it seems to be human intervention with the aim of ‘improving’ things that throws a spanner in the works. I believe that the same is true of our collective consciousness: in its own way, in its own time, it is doing what it needs to do, learning what it needs to learn.
Something is taking shape; and our job is not to control this, nor to despair that it’s all beyond our comprehension, but simply to represent our own truth as clearly as we can – and then let go of it, trusting in whatever outcome emerges. Whatever pressure we are under to hope or pretend that our writing has influence, I think we must yield to the understanding that it may not have the influence we intend; but the ultimate result will be far more perfect than anything within the scope of our own design.
Alison and Bob write …
Finally, do check the Writing News section for a list of literary events that might capture your interest and spark your creativity! Please also use the Forum to enter into dialogue with the authors or editors, post news of any events that are local to you, or to write a review of something you’ve participated in.
Despite the stereotype of the solitary writer, writing is often a collaborative process, at least in different phases of its development. So in many respects, the contents of this issue have been a joint effort, co-created or influenced by many people in a variety of capacities. The authors, of course, have made an obvious contribution through their respective articles. However, it’s worth acknowledging that, one way or another, all our contributions have benefitted from conversations with others about emerging ideas and drafts, and from reference to other writings. We hope these conversations will continue, and we’ve created a space here on the AMED website to facilitate this.
A great deal of work has gone on behind the scenes before this edition of e-O&P could go live. As core members of the e-O&P Working Party, Deborah Booth and David McAra have willingly and expertly provided backroom technical support, as well as second or third opinions whenever we’ve faced an editorial dilemma. Ned Seabrook constructed a template and process that’s made it easier for us to convert final copy from Word into pdf format. Belina Raffy came up with the image for our cover page. Alison Donaldson and Vicky Cosstick co-facilitated the May Writing Workshop with Bob MacKenzie, where the seeds of this anthology were sown, with contributions from the other participants. As a result of the efforts of all these people, and of the many others who have played less obvious but still vital roles, we hope that you will be touched – and perhaps even influenced – by some of the writing that you’ll come across here.
Keeping the conversation going
We hope that you’ll find something here of interest to you, and we’d welcome a continuation of this dialogue. So we’ve created a blog space for each author here, on the AMED website, to which we hope you’ll contribute. The writing and learning continues. …
Alison Terry and Bob MacKenzie, Joint Editors
About the authors
Alison is an independent writing and editing consultant who has developed a seminar, Verbalchemy, on bringing writing to life within organisations – workshop in Brighton on Friday 19 November. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob is an independent coach, consultant, facilitator, and writer. He is also Professor of Management Learning with the International Management Centres Association business school. Bob has become increasingly fascinated by the role that writing plays in a professional’s repertoire, and is Convenor of the AMED Writers’ Group. This writers’ group aspires to generate those very pre-conditions for writing that influences imagined by Spufford. Bob welcomes contact arising from what he’s written here via e-mail: email@example.com.