'Random Tales Across Jordan'

- A Creative Journey Through 

Non-Fiction as Dreamer, Maker, Critic

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De Montfort CWNM Assessment (April 2009) by Claudia Cragg 

Context and Influences  - 'Dreamer'  

Travel is, for a foreign correspondent (Luter, 1964, p.7) as essential a tool as pen and paper, as well as these days a recording device and the laptop. In order to work, we have to travel to a story and that involves a journey but that journey is rarely a pleasure. More often that not, we are spliced between holidaymakers surviving economy on the way out, collapsing on the way home, and in between darting in and out of a cheap hotel to meet specific people only to find they may stubbornly refuse to talk.

For many years, the unorthodoxy of work of the writer, Sophie Calle, (b. 1953) has intrigued me especially on the issue of creativity and identity. In formal journalism, however, I have always been unequivocal that the artificial constructs she uses have no place. That is, unless like Calle you work for a open-minded, voyeuristic newspaper with a very progressive readership like 'Liberation' and I probably never will. The hallmark of her work, however, has been to impose an entirely arbitrary set of constraints to produce a work of creative non-fiction, the most famous being her Suite Venitienne (1979), The Hotel (1981, now in The Tate Collection) and Address Book (1983).

In the last of these works, she found a lost address book and constructed a narrative adopting the techniques more usually applied by a private investigator than by a journalist. The work caused enormous controversy for Liberation, and was saved only from a thorough damning because it is considered 'conceptual'. The consensus eventually concluded that the creative emphasis of this piece lies in the artistic idea itself, as opposed to just the finished artefact and its content. Calle is associated with the  Oulipo School (Mathews & Brotchie, 1998), the 'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle'. British poet, writer and academic Ian Monk is both an adherent and authority on the school. Classic Oulipo traits are clear in the work produced when Calle persuaded her mother to hire someone who would be invisible to her, yet photograph and note her every movement, she says, just 'to provide photographic evidence of (her) own existence'

In my personal opinion, Calle without fail always went too far for me but Intellectually and creatively, there was something worth emulating. The factor that has most influenced me here came from reading the 1988 essay of the late Jean Baudrillard (Leach, 2002, p 52). In this, he describes 'Suite Venitienne' in terms of a reciprocal loss of will on the part of both the pursued and the pursuer. This ruse would perhaps allow me to tease my non-fiction work into greater creativity and so I decided to apply this to a journey I was to take in October of last year. I would interview people entirely at random to produce a piece of creative non-fiction from a 10-day thousand-mile car trip that my husband and I took through the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  

The Process - 'Maker'

The journey would therefore become, as it were, a character in the narrative and, for the first time ever I would not pre-arrange interviews. I decided rather to experiment and allow the journey itself to generate, haphazardly, people so interesting that I could not help but interview them.

This adoption of 'the Calle technique' would, I soon discovered, make the project a great deal easier than for a more conventional working expedition. The planning only involved route familiarization, Aqaba to Amman and back, and knowledge of the important historical sites and points of interest along the way. Some time was spent mugging up on a few very basic Levantine Arabic phrases and, once there, I launched myself out of the car, recorder in hand and taped ambience and almost every conversation I had. Upon my return I had hours of tape but had taken the precaution of noting 'Topical Points' in a daily email sent to myself from the road. Because of poor eyesight and a complete lack of visual talent, my husband took photos which I knew would be essential.

The most critical research period for this project came after the material's assemblage. This involved a long and problematic period of trial and error to try and decide on the form of the final presentation (my electronic Personal Creative Journal shows this took from the beginning of February to the beginning of April). For this, I read on very widely (Bibliography) as to how other journalists and travel writers have published similar projects in New Media and then worked through every possible software and technical permutation. Whatever I was to choose, would have to knit audio, visual, and text together in an innovative way to enhance the text (both audio and written). YouTube was then used to present a short video film as a proposal. (Subsequently, this piece would be adapted and re-worked, and put back on YouTube in its new form, as a teaser for the project as a whole. It also forms a key part of the resulting website as introduction). This was constructed with Pulp Motion. In the next stage, I dabbled endlessly with Dreamweaver, Flash, Photoshop only to find my creativity stymied by my lack of prowess. Then I spent a considerable amount of, as it turns out wasted, effort using an online drag and drop flash website creator Wix.com but this was not as malleable as I would have liked, so more research followed until SiteCube appeared on my screen.

Revisions - 'Critic'  

The criticism phase of this project could not have been more important. It came in two parts and on both occasions, no physical construct was available for my peers to assess. This was deliberate. After reading through endless books on travel writing and travel blogs and websites, I was still floundering. One very helpful student peer then pointed me to Oliver The Musical which resonated as the type of site that would work well. Other students all suggested there would be a need for cultural, political and sociological information to define the piece as a narrative about Jordan in particular. Responding to this, an exhaustive search was undertaken for the very best links to direct my website visitors to practical information. As will be clear to any reader, though, this project is an experiment of journalism with New Media as well as with conceptual art for me and the absolute point of the work lies in each one of the Random Tales the project has generated.

The critique that clinched the form the final project has taken came in my second tutorial (PCJ 26 March 2009) came from the clear-headed view from Professor Sue Thomas, the kind that is always unavailable to someone hard at work in the middle of a project. The best approach would be, she thought, to take one person/tale per page. Of key importance was her point that, with most websites a visitor might land on any page and could only be confused, with my proposal as it was, as to the rationale of the project as a whole.

Despite the assertion of both Wix and SiteCube that they offer 'simple drag and drop' creation of superlative websites, my initial efforts with both were maudlin and bland. There are some really annoying quirks, too (line spacing has a mind of its own, and the upload order of interviews in the Media Player is subject to no logic. I am giving constant feedback to the developers as a result. The final result has taken, I think, hundreds of hours to put together. A visitor will now be clear as to the purpose of the content regardless which Tale they jump in to. This was a significant breakthrough that has, in my opinion, turned out to be the make-or-break hurdle that as creator I had to clear or fail. From now on, in all my New Media work I would be very hesitant indeed to forge ahead without the feedback so fortunately brought to bear here.

Conclusions -  Insight and Awareness   

Journalism is necessarily intrusive. It cannot not be and journalists are not allowed to be creative. Even in these TV reality-show days, professionalism usually requires (and even a recent standard textbook, Keeble, 2005, p. 58,confirms) that an interview has to be pre-arranged on the basis of mutual consent. These arrangements invariably take a great deal more time than the interview itself and tarnish the spontaneity of the conversation. With 'Random Tales' though, through the use of New Media and a touch of Calle conceptualism, the road journey itself offered up the subjects by chance. The interviews which resulted, as well as the final creative non-fiction work, have become both a record of the people met as well as a record of 'me', the fact that I was there too. This is something that my solidly uncreative non-fiction career to date has rarely, if ever allowed. In addition, and of paramount importance has been the use of New Media tools (audiovisual plus print presentation, a dynamic flash website) and the wealth of experience accrued from previous CWNM projects. These have liberated me from the strictures of formal journalism in a way I would not have previously thought possible.  My greatest disappointment has been collaboration. Despite my very best efforts, at home and internationally, all collaboration came to nought. The lesson here, I think, is you can make a lot of useful connections through networking in New Media but this does not, sadly, mean that the people you meet will in the end deliver.

IMPORTANT NOTE: As a piece of academic work, this incarnation of 'Random Tales' has a strict word limit so it turns out that by chance another artificial constraint has had to be imposed on the number of tales that may be told. Presented HERE are just five. This project will, however, grow in the future on a separate site through UGC collaboration with others (through EnTrip, and as a result of extensive posting on related Jordan travel discussion boards) to grow an eventual compendium of possibly hundreds of random tales of Jordan.

Bibliography

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Excerpts from The Oulipo Compendium 

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