My Digital Life with D.H. Lawrence

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A digital storyteller is someone who makes content available across media devices. This could be videos on a Youtube channel, an App that gets you to perform tasks, or via a website. The content usually has an interactive element to it, meaning that the reader, or perhaps more accurately the user, needs to engage with the story in some capacity.
Whether we like it or not, reading has changed. Younger audiences now expect content to be presented in a wide variety of formats and in bytesize chunks. They read on their mobile phones, their iPads and those laptops that get smaller and lighter each year. To accommodate these changes my digital projects conform to a simple ethos: If the 20th century was about knowledge, then the 21st century is about experience. Therefore I’m always looking at ways to bring people into the conversation.

My specialism is in cultural heritage trails, exploring the lives of key Nottingham writers. I do this in collaboration with Paul Fillingham, of digital agency Think Amigo. Our first project together was The Sillitoe Trail (www.sillitoetrail.com) which explored the enduring relevance of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Very simply, this was an App which navigated you via GPS to key locations of the novel. At each location you would be provided with pictures, facts, quotes, audio and an essay. These in turn were created by different artists. My aim was to make literature more accessible by providing different ways of understanding the story, with the hope that our readers may then go on to read the book. More recently we created Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel serial celebrating’s Nottingham’s literary history.

Now Paul and I have turned our attention to D.H Lawrence. Lawrence was a controversial writer who championed sensuality in an over-intellectualised world. In the 1920s he embarked on a journey of self-discovery known as his ‘Savage Pilgrimage’ which took him across Europe, Asia, Australia and Mexico. Accompanying him on his journey was a travel-trunk, which we encountered at the recently closed down Durban House, Eastwood. We were intrigued by the object, its construction, its floral decoration and internal drawers; which in addition to housing Lawrence’s socks and undergarments would have contained manuscripts, sketches and stories, documenting his travels around the globe.

We want to develop Lawrence’s personalised travel-trunk as a Memory Theatre. Memory Theatres, very simply, were filled with rare and expensive artefacts and once used by the aristocracy to convey cultural capital and status. But whereas only selected guests got to view them, ours will be available to all.

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Lawrence lived a nomadic existence, travelling the world in search of Rananim – a utopian community of like-minded people. But he would never find it. In essence, he enjoyed the journey, rather than the final destination. In the opening chapter to Sea and Sardinia he talks of a desire that “comes over one” that is an “absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction.” Rather than writing yet another book on Lawrence we want to capture this unsettled aspect of his personality by creating a moveable object.

Our Memory Theatre will be a beautifully crafted work of art in its own right, to be explored and admired, stopping off at key locations in Lawrence’s life. The drawers will contain artefacts that capture the essence of his personality. So for example, in 1918 Lawrence sent Catherine Carswell a shoebox containing 20 varieties of wild flowers with their roots intact, all carefully placed inside damp moss. In her biography of Lawrence she explains “With my box of Derbyshire flowers there was a small floral guide, written by Lawrence, describing each plant and making me see how they had been before he picked them for me, in what sorts of places and manner and profusion they had grown, and even how they varied in the different countrysides.” One of our drawers will contain a book of 20 pressings of flowers from Derbyshire. When the Memory Theatre arrives in Sardinia we will arrange for a local guide to add 20 more, and so on. As the Memory Theatre travels in physical and digital form, its aesthetic and emotional value will grow, accumulating its own savage history and provenance.

The Memory Theatre will include digital screens to give context to the artefacts. It will also have a virtual presence for those unable to see it in the flesh. Users will be able to virtually ‘open’ drawers with content geared towards the capture and sharing of the users’ experience.

The internet is all about collaboration, and at times it can bring the best out of people. If nobody uploaded videos, shared knowledge on Wikipedia, or stopped tweeting their opinions it would effectively be a technological void. I wonder whether Lawrence would approve. He was always seeking a small community of like-minded people. He certainly wanted followers. But I doubt he would approve. If he thought industrialisation dehumanised people, goodness knows what he’d make of the Youtube Generation, all gawping into screens.

I’d like to think of our D.H Lawrence memory theatre as a form of digital literary criticism in that we’re trying to create an artefact to represent and encompass the personality and body of work of a prolific writer. I want our students to look differently at stories, and the modes through which they can be told. Lawrence raged his way across the globe, his work was constantly censored, he wrote about sex, pit villages, he knew every flower off by heart, he was a prude, prickly, the greatest DIYer the literary world has ever know, he deplored money but was fastidious with it, and he had some very weird ideas about submission. How do we make this artefact look, smell and feel like Lawrence?

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To help Paul and I think through the project, we’re working with three students from NTU for one year. Rebecca Provines, Richard Weare and Stephen Tomlinson are helping us think about the artefacts, reading and researching through Lawrence’s work, and figuring out costings and audience engagement. Then we’ll start to build it and map out our journey.

If you want to follow the progress of our digital savage pilgrimage then please visit our website. Lawrence was an avid letter writer and we’re paying homage to this by sharing our progress in a weekly blog. Better still, why don’t you leave a comment and join in the conversation?

This article was originally published in the Southwell Folio, November 2016.

#BeingHuman: Digital Storytelling: When, why, how? 14 Nov

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“If the 20th century was about the quest for knowledge, the 21st century is about experience.”

As a devout reader of physical books and someone whose idea of heaven is loitering around libraries and bookshops I’m somewhat surprised that my career as a writer is being defined by digital storytelling. But it’s a contradiction I embrace due to the infinite opportunities of expression it affords.

Writing serves many functions. On one level it acts as a form of therapy that enables individuals to make sense of both themselves and the environments they inhabit. Writing is also about control in that it enables an individual to be the master of the worlds they create. Digital is about being a master of galaxies and entire solar systems and so naturally appeals to the vanity of someone deluded enough to think they have something worthy to say.

Writing is also about experimentation, placing the author in the minds of characters and situations to try to better understand what it is to be human. Experimentation is at the heart of creativity and digital enables a writer to think themselves not only into the mind of a character but into how the character exists across mediums and digital platforms, all of which come with their own grammar.

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I fell into digital storytelling because an opportunity arouse and I took it. I haven’t looked back since and will be talking about this journey as part of the Being Human humanities festival on Saturday 14 August, of which Nottingham is one of five named ‘creative city’ hubs. Last year Paul Fillingham and I created Being Arthur, the first ever 24 hour Twitter presentation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for the inaugural Being Human festival and this year I want to share a little bit of my journey with the hope that it may help others who are thinking of giving literature a digital makeover.

Whether we like it or not, digital is changing our experience of reading and our understanding of literature. No longer limited by the confines of the physical page, writers can now present content across media platforms as well as offer multiple narrative paths into the text to suit the needs of every type of reader. I’ll be showing how I’ve done this with the Sillitoe Trail (which was voted in the top ten of content for BBC/Arts Council multimedia platform The Space) and Dawn of the Unread, a graphic novel that explores Nottingham’s rich literary history (and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in March).

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I’ll also be sharing experiences on two other projects I’m currently putting together: Untold Stories, a multi-collaborative graphic novel that will give voice to “The lives that dare not speak their names” and addresses issues of censorship and persecution around the world. This is planned for 2016 and will follow the format of Dawn of the Unread but this time will combine philosophical arguments with direct calls to action.

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The DH Lawrence Memory Theatre is pencilled in for some time in 2017. DHL embarked on a journey of self-discovery known as his ‘savage pilgrimage’ which took him across the globe. Accompanying him on his journey was a travel-trunk which had various compartments and drawers. Paul Fillingham and I are hoping to retrace this Savage Pilgrimage, explore Lawrence’s significance as a writer, and develop his personalised travel-trunk as a ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ or Memory Theatre.

Memory Theatres were filled with rare and expensive artefacts and once used by the aristocracy to convey cultural capital and status. Our Memory Theatre will journey in both physical and digital form. It will be a beautifully crafted work of art in its own right, to be explored and admired, stopping off at key locations. The drawers will contain real objects including; documents, poetry, paintings and essays, produced by a variety of creative practitioners. Some drawers will house interactive touch-screens, offering a glimpse into the digital heart of the Memory Theatre.

The digital component will be available as a web-service across various media platforms. Users will virtually ‘open’ drawers with content geared towards the capture and sharing the users’ experience. As the Memory Theatre travels in physical and digital form, its aesthetic and emotional value will grow, accumulating its own savage history and provenance.

The 'dots' contained within the side panel in this image are the 'code', enabling the artist to then create an image around them to 'hide' the code.

The 4 ‘dots’ contained within the side panel in this image are the ‘code’, enabling the artist to then create an image around them to ‘hide’ the code.

We may very well use aestheticodes (QR Codes with a lot of slap) as a means of recording the journey. If you want to learn more about what these are then catch the talk before mine (10.30 – 12.30) at the Writers’ Studio.

The aim of the talk is give an insight into issues involved in putting together a digital storytelling project: audience, partnerships, funding, narrative, platforms, creative ‘production line’. It will be followed by a Q&A and the opportunity for other artists to discuss their own ideas for digital projects.

Digital Storytelling: When, why, how? Nottingham Writers’ Studio 1-2 pm, 14th November.

To register for this event please follow this link.