Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with George Murray

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George Murray

What is the difference between a diversion and a distraction? George Murray's newest book of poetry, Diversion (ECW Press), digs into the very thing that many writers try to avoid — our information-saturated world, full of constant (and competing) streams of content. George, whose wit and observational talents were on full display in his acclaimed book of aphorisms, Glimpse, embraces the new cacophony in Diversion and the result is a collection that is entertaining, dark at times and keenly observant.

Today we speak to George about Diversion, and he tells us about coming to recognise his own distraction, the internet as a baby and his own favourite diversions.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Diversion, and how it began for you.

George Murray:

Diversion is essentially an abstract diary of what it means to be distracted. Because of its focus on declarative statements, it resembles in some ways a book of aphorisms, but perhaps a book of aphorisms in the middle of an acid trip or on a ‘roid-rage bender. It’s an angry and funny book about the shrinking space and time available for quiet reflection and subsequently our dwindling ability to distinguish what’s profound from what’s mundane.

A few years ago I noticed I wasn’t writing, or even thinking about writing, as often as I once did. I used to take notes while standing in line at grocery store, waiting for the kids to get out of school, while browsing a bookstore, etc. — but lately I had been only able to come up with lines or ideas when it was inconvenient to write them down, such as while driving. At first I chalked this up to age or time-of-life or kids or a generalized trying to survive on something that paid money (i.e., not poetry), but slowly it dawned on me that the reason I wasn’t writing was that I was distracted.

I was always in front of screen — sitting at the computer, looking down at the smart phone in hand, walking through public spaces jammed with monitors — and everything was buzzing or chirping or otherwise constantly seeking my attention — emails, text pings, twitter and facebook notifications, updates for apps and software, etc. Further, everywhere I looked ads were becoming TVs — from billboards to the five screens in each restaurant, to bus stops, to drive-thrus, and on and on. There was always radio on; my kids were at me; work needed a file; Windows wanted to update; I had 73 important messages in my inbox; there was a cat video I just had to look at; someone had tweeted about me; someone posted an article of 25 lifehacks we just couldn’t live without and #13 really blew them away! The CNN news crawl was counting deaths in Africa; the stock ticker was plummeting; some kid was lying face down in the ocean; the CDC was releasing Ebola updates. There were three radios in the cubicle farm competing with each other for country, pop, and soft rock; PA announcements said calls were waiting on line 3; a light was flashing on my phone to say the call I was currently on was being interrupted by another call.

There was no longer any time for quiet thinking, which I had always thought a necessity for poetry, in the world of 24 hour constant information bombardment. My eyes, both outer and inner, were the children in a custody battle between angry parents vying for their attention.

I was starting to get “phantom hip buzz” where you feel your phone vibrating in your pocket even when it’s not there. It’s like a brand new form of tinnitus. It was becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between a moment of profound realization and a moment of mundane reflection on something stupid simply because the volume was too loud on about a million streams of info.

OB:

Here you embrace the idea of the cacophony of our ultra-connected world. What motivated you to open up to the idea of diversion as potential inspiration rather than distraction?

GM:

Well, after I despaired about the above for a while, after I grew angry and resentful, I stopped for a moment and thought: wait a minute, what if this is what there is now? What if there’s a poetry to be found here, in this contemporary moment of constant distraction? What would happen if I spent a year letting it all in and embracing it instead of railing against it? So I did.

I started recording ALL my thoughts instead of just the ones that came from those moments of epiphany that sometimes led to poems. The rush of ideas and thoughts was enormous, but of course, the vast majority of them were idiotic, or profane, or pornographic, or otherwise horrifying to me. My mind was sometimes pinging off the works of Seamus Heaney and sometimes off the works of Taylor Swift. Sometimes I had an idea while watching a sitcom, other times while watching a cat video, other times while shopping Amazon, other times while watching porn, and still other times while listening to my kids talk about Nintendo. I decided to keep it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly — and see what came of it. And a sort of aphorism-like poetry came out of it.

OB:

There's a lot of discussion about whether social media brings us together or isolates us as people. What are your feelings about the psychological and emotional aspects of social media? Do you see it as a net positive or net negative change in the way we communicate?

GM:

While the book isn’t really about social media, so much as ALL media and all interaction, social media does come up quite a bit — if only because it’s now a ubiquitous part of many of our lives. I am guilty of spending too much time on it, in part because I live in a remote place and have friends all over the world. Social media keeps me engaged in their lives and allows us to share the same sort of information we’d have shared at a pub when we lived in the same cities (except with more cat videos).

It’s hard to say whether it’s good or bad, mostly because we haven’t seen what’s going to become. Everyone forgets the internet is a baby. It’s just over 20 years old. It’s not what it’s going to be. We’re in a transition time, the sort of pupa stage. Who knows what it will become. Social interaction seems like it will be a huge part of it, but who knows?

Privacy is a concern, as is a sort of conditioned sociopathy on the part of generations who have never known an internet-free world — who have never had to look someone in the eye while trying to break them through verbal abuse. A false sense of activism is another concern — the idea that “liking” or “retweeting” information is an action.

But on the other hand, I learn an enormous amount through social media. And my best pals in New York and Vancouver can watch my kids grow up in St. John’s. And when I arrive in London to meet up with someone I’ve never met before but have known professionally for years, there’s no moment of awkward shuffling before we launch into a friendship.

OB:

Tell us about your writing space and routine.

GM:

I have neither. I keep a notebook and a thing called “Evernote” on my phone and computer. I take voice memos and use the stylus on my phone to scribble e-notes, and when I can stop somewhere I write by hand in a little notebook. A “writing space” for me is a place I can plug my wires into a wall for juice and internet connection.

OB:

What are some of your own favourite diversions?

GM:

I like to read, listen to and play music, draw. After many, many years away I have returned to playing D&D, mostly with my kids. I like hiking the hills of Newfoundland and picking berries and foraging for mushrooms. I enjoy the occasional thinking-based video game. I like cryptic crossword puzzles and science and math books that are just a little too advanced for my brain to handle.

OB:

What were you reading while working on Diversion? Does your reading routine change while you're working on a project?

GM:

Well, besides the entire internet, I read poetry constantly, a lot of science articles, the occasional novel. I can’t really say my routine changes because I’m almost always working on a project. But I suspect I read MORE when I’m writing poems and less when I’m working on fiction. Something about sustaining the voice over the long-haul in fiction as opposed to my willfully eclectic approach to poetry.

OB:

What are you working on now?

GM:

I am supposed to be working on a novel — but it’s at 275 pages and I haven’t written a word on it in a year, so it’s easy to imagine that won’t go far. I have some bits and pieces of poems here and there, another kids’ book coming, and a complete book of aphorisms waiting for me to organize it. That said, since I’m not writing poetry these days, I suppose I should get that novel done.


George Murray is the author of five acclaimed books of poetry, one bestselling book of aphorisms, and two books for children. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

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