The Future of Writing is in my Jacket

by Michael Mason


The following article is excerpted from the book, The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (Counterpoint, March 2011) Edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee.

If you want to know where writing is going, you shouldn’t look in a library or a bookstore. You shouldn’t even look online. Instead, you should rummage through the pockets of your nearest writer for clues. Take a peek in their book bags, purses, or backpacks. You’ll find everything you need to know.

In the right inside pocket of my jacket, where most people might carry sunglasses, you’ll find a Panasonic LX3 camera. It has a Leica lens capable of switching to wide-angle shots, and I can use the camera to shoot video as well. In the left-side inner pocket, I have an Olympus LS-11 voice recorder. The camera and the recorder are more important to me than pen and paper. My jacket functions as a portable production studio, but it’s my satchel that does (and requires) the heavy lifting.

My satchel is a worn-out leather bag, once a rich amber color, now frayed and graying like myself. I take it everywhere I go, and when it’s too hot for wearing my jacket, it ends up carrying the camera and recorder for me. In any season, though, you’ll find it packed with all sorts of geeky paraphernalia. Right now, it contains a neoprene laptop sleeve (where I usually keep the laptop I am typing on right now), three pens and a highlighter, a Moleskine notebook that I use for writing notes to my daughters when I travel, a laptop charger, a portable hard drive, two video adapter cables, an ethernet cord, business cards, a pair of German-made, surgeon-grade nailclippers (I obsessively cut my nails to the quick), an LED flashlight keychain, a paperback book, a folder pocket full of release forms and several transcripts of interviews I’ve conducted (I’m writing a second book right now, and I upload all my audio files to a disabled American in the Philippines who does all my transcribing). Although I carry pens and paper in my satchel, I don’t use them for much other than quick note-taking–phone numbers, memos, grocery lists. I haven’t outsourced those tasks to my phone. Yet.

I’m a writer, and yet I acknowledge that the tools of my trade have more in common with a Hollywood director than a typist. Yes, I still deal with words, but the words are complemented by the sounds and images I record while doing my work. When I conduct interviews, I always record rather than take notes. It isn’t that I don’t trust note-taking, it’s that I might also turn that interview into source material for a radio production (which, I might add, requires its own kind of writing). I also take pictures when I’m conducting interviews because they help me remember details I might otherwise forget: the goofy collared shirt my subject wore, the little boy doing a puzzle in the corner of the patio, the manufacturer’s name on a piece of lab equipment. As a result of carrying these tools, I’ve learned to use them. I can edit audio using headphones. I can Photoshop pictures, and I can cobble together video. I don’t consider myself a photographer, a radio professional, or a director, but nobody is expecting that of me. They’re expecting me to write, and they’re curious about the places and people I visit.

When I’m done writing my book, I expect to have dozens of hours of audio and video from the interviews I conducted. I’ll probably have hundreds of photos. I plan to take the best moments from all those interviews and use them for the book. But then I’ll take those same moments, and perhaps others, and use them to enhance the book, in the same way that a person can enhance their movie experience by listening to a director’s commentary or watching a “making of” special feature. Writing, for me, has become a production beyond sentences and paragraphs.

Readers who are interested in my writings might go to my website and see photos and videos I’ve posted about my travels and my work. Just last week, I posted a video of a set of perfused pig lungs breathing independently of a body, under a glass dome. The video only lasted several seconds, but it drew a large number of comments online. Readers were intrigued and wanted to know more about my project, and that’s a good thing for a writer. Like anybody else, we want people to take interest in our work, but historically, writers have always let publishers drum up that interest. You might call this endeavor marketing or self-promotion, but those are ugly words that imply a purely profit-driven motive. I don’t think all the photography and audio and video recordings are going to sell more books, necessarily. I’m doing those things because I enjoy doing them, and I like sharing things with my readers. If it ends up selling more books, then great, but if not, at least I have a wonderful archive, a sort of multimedia documentary of the work I’ve done. This attitude—one of sharing and connecting—has usurped the traditionally hip notion of writer-as-recluse. Today, readers find an unattractive, neurotic quality to a writer who hides or distances themselves from their audience.

As for me, I enjoy connecting. It doesn’t take much effort on my part to write a few sentences on my blog, send a message to my fans, or post a link to the newest article on brain research. I don’t feel the need to do it everyday, but I think connecting with readers sends them a message that helps dispel a lot of terrible stereotypes about writers. We’re not prima donnas; we work hard. We don’t sit around and wait for inspiration; we’re constantly looking for storytelling opportunities. In fact, this year, I’ve written three different articles based on stories I’ve found with the help of my friends and fans on Facebook. It’s an anthropological goldmine.

So, you take a peek in my pockets, and you think that perhaps I’m correct, and that maybe writing is going digital and that a writer needs to learn how to work a camera and a microphone. But I’d say that is just the surface, and that something far stranger is happening. I think the traditional roles of artists are corroding, that the lines between filmmakers and visual artists and musicians and writers are weaving together so that a single person can effectively pull off a serious project across any medium. Tomorrow’s writer will be illustrating their own book covers, publishing a coffee table book of photos to accompany their bestseller, self-broadcasting their interviews to public radio stations, running their own video channels online, and releasing films they’ve adapted from their own work. And they’ll be doing this with the help of publishers. As the technology gets easier, more and more voices will chime in, but it will be the writer, chief among the other artists, who stands to succeed the most. At the heart of their craft is storytelling, and it will be story—in the most classical sense of the word—that achieves relevance in our wondrous, imploding world.