Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello, I’d like to introduce…
“Hello, I’m Nick Parker. I’m the director of That Explains Things. – Official blurb: ‘find your voice, tell your stories, explain your things’. And also the creator of Voicebox – the ‘tone of voice in a box’ kit that is, I hope, helping brands and marketeers and writers think about the whole ‘tone of voice’ thing in a clearer, more useful way.”
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
Oh, there are loads. (I am not a ‘tidy desk’ person).
But two in particular that have shaped my approach to writing: Made to Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath – I think it’s much more helpful to think about creating ‘sticky ideas’ than it is to think about ‘copywriting’.
Also, John Simmons’s The Invisible Grail. It’s the middle book of his trilogy about creative business writing, and it’s a book that I often find myself reading out passages from in workshops – partly because the creative constraints John gives himself in the book make great starting points for workshop exercises.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
I have a terrible memory, so I’m sure these are just the ones that have randomly popped into my head. The Economist’s ads are iconic for all writers I think. Though this year, Nike’s ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ film gave me goosebumps every time I watched it, in the same way that Guinness’s ‘surfer’ ad did to me years ago. Though if I’m honest, the one I think about most often is a print ad I saw about 20 years ago for a full English breakfast that came in a can (yes, really). The headline was: FROM CAN TO PAN TO MAN. Genius.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
The will to keep on editing and tweaking long after the point where normal people would give up and think ‘ah, that’ll do’.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
My younger self was an idiot. He wouldn’t listen to a word I’d have to say. And quite right too. And it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you read lots, and widely, and have a curiosity about the world and look for the interesting in everything. Which come to think of it, is what I did anyway. Which is just as well, given that I’m not listening to me.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Silence, usually. I can’t have anything on that has words, otherwise it’s distracting. I’m on a permanent half-hearted quest to find music that I can have on in the background that isn’t just ‘background music’. In the non-background background music genre, I’d nominate Pole’s first album (‘Pole 1’). It’s very quiet techno made from pops and glitches and scratches. Nils Frahm turns up a lot on Spotify. Oh, also I’ve got an App called ‘Bloom’, which generates random ambient sounds. I use that a lot.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
White Noise by Don Delillo. The strangeness of modernity and the strangeness of families all mushed up together in a way that’s both bleakly ironic and somehow very tender. It’s the book I re-read the most. It gets more contemporary-feeling every time. (It was written in 1985).
The Underground Man by Mick Jackson – the fictionalized diary of a real English eccentric who commissioned huge tunnels to be built under his estate for no apparent reason. I read it about 10 years ago and to be honest I can hardly remember anything about the plot at all, but it has the most heartbreakingly melancholic tone that sort of haunted me for years afterwards.
The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien. There’s something about how it’s simultaneously very plainly written and absurdly weird that makes it completely hypnotic to me. Also, cod-philosophical footnotes, what’s not to love?. Marvellous.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
I’m still very proud of my book of short stories, The Exploding Boy and other Tiny Tales.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
A small bag of ready mixed cement (so I can make a proper step into my shed office.)
Who was your teenage crush?
Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. I never even saw the film, I just had the poster! I’ve just looked her up on Wikipedia. Her biography contains the line ‘…she also admitted that, while on acid, she once ate a dead man’s ear’. Crikey.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Hmm. Probably a ‘Steamboat’ I had in Singapore. It’s basically a big pot of boiling broth and you chuck bits of vegetables, meat, freakish-looking seafood etc in to make a sort of spicy primordial soup. Not sure how you don’t get food poisoning. But it was properly delicious, and accompanied a conversation that ended up changing my life.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
The grown-up answer to this question is a nice peaty single-malt.
The honest answer is Diet Coke.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
I’d go to Japan. When I was younger I was obsessed with hyper-tech-sleeping-pod-Tokyo Japan. These days, it’s Hokusai and Zen and the idea of wabi-sabi. Absurdly, it’s only just occurred to me that I could, like, just buy a plane ticket and go there for a holiday.
What’s in your pockets?
A dog poo bag (unused), a bit of foil off an Easter egg, and a sticker that says ‘There Ain’t No Rules, with love Victore’, which I was surreptitiously going to stick into my son’s homework book but to be honest had forgotten about until you asked the question.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Most of my scribbling is done in pencil (Pentel Graphgear retractable pencil with 7mm leads if you’re interested, which of course you are. I lose one every six months or so. I’m on about my tenth now). For planning and structuring things I use Artefact Cards and Sharpies. And for the actual writing and editing, I use a computer. I’ve recently bought a reaallly widescreen monitor which means I can have several A4 documents open side by side at actual size, and it’s turned working on a computer from a necessary chore part of the process to actually pleasurable.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
No, I don’t. I follow a lot of copywriters on Twitter, though. That’s where I get most of my copywriting news/gossip/recommendations from.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Coffee, black. Boring story alert: I always used to have it with milk but suddenly about a year ago I started having it without. No idea why. I quite like being someone who takes their coffee black. But still, weird eh. You think the self is knowable but really we’re a mystery to ourselves, innit.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
Not a specific mug, but I do have very strict Acceptable Mug Assessment Criteria: Not too big, not too small, no stupid slogan, has to be non-gender-specific patterning or design, and a properly weighted handle.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
My favourite children’s book was called Arm in Arm, by Remy Charlip. It was a book of nonsense rhymes and riddles (I’ve just googled it, and the exact subtitle is ‘a collection of connections, endless tales, reiterations and other echolalia’). It’s full of weird little illustrations that I used to pore over for hours.
Your favourite word?
The Japanese word ‘Kodawari’, which apparently means ‘sincere unwavering focus on what you are doing with the intent of making it perfect, while knowing that perfection is impossible and the work itself is the most crucial thing of all.’
I also really like ‘Spork’.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”)
For some reason, I hate the abbreviation ‘uni’ for university, and ‘ciggie’ for cigarette. I always say both words in full.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
Oh, it’s Reasons to be Cheerful, part 3 by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.
Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly,
Good golly, Miss Molly and boats.
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet,
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats
18 wheeler Scammells, dominica camels
All other mammals plus equal votes…
I do love a list song, and this is the best of them. And I remember Nick Hornby saying or writing somewhere that it should be the National Anthem, and we could just keep it updated with other new reasons to be cheerful. I thought that was an excellent idea.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
Oh, anything. If there’s a dance floor, I’d rather be on it than sitting round on the tables saying PARDON WHAT? I dance very badly, but with enthusiasm.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
No. As in, no I don’t have any.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
I’m just writing some marketing stuff for Voicebox. And Voicebox is the thing that’s perpetually in the pipeline! It’s my ‘tone of voice kit’ that I created. It’s for start-ups, small businesses, agencies, copywriters – and is essentially the simplest way I could think of to help people ‘do’ tone of voice.
It’s been getting a great response which is really gratifying – and lots of customers from Europe and the US, which I hadn’t really anticipated. (Doh!) The whole ‘discipline’ of tone of voice is often seen – even by copywriters – as a bit of a dark art, and it needn’t be. It’s also great to be learning something new – selling a product and having customers is different from having clients and selling a service. I’m learning lots and making all sorts of new connections. It’s great.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
There’s a child’s face looming over sheep made of cotton wool that’s been sort of unravelled. The child is smiling. The unravelled sheep looks distressed.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
‘Write more like you speak’. Incredibly, I’d been a professional writer for about 10 years before I heard it! I’d been doing it intuitively, but actually realizing consciously why my stuff ‘sounded’ like it did was super helpful.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
I’m writing a book about anxiety, aimed at 8-10 year olds. It was probably some ideas for that. The key to it, I think, is finding the right metaphors and analogies.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
There’s a lovely bit at the start of Derren Brown’s Confessions of a Conjuror where he tells a story about going to the London Aquarium and noticing that underneath the little nameplates on the tanks, the names of the fish are written in braille. He says that if you’re blind, your experience of the London Aquarium would just be of a list of fish. He says that he hopes that his book isn’t just a list of fish. I often find myself reading some terrible bit of business writing thinking this is just a list of fish.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Sorry, I’ve never seen it. I know. Nor Sopranos, or West Wing or Game of Thrones. I’m rubbish with box sets. (I’m still only halfway through Six Feet Under).
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
I don’t really have a favourite film. I like directors with a not-really-real style – David Lynch, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson. But I’m not really that into films – Whenever film buff types start comparing favourite films I realise that I haven’t seen most of them, and that I’d probably enjoy ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs’ more. (‘Cloudy Meatballs’ is great, btw.)
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
Epictetus’s Collected Writing – Epictetus was a Stoic. I think of the Stoics as being kind of Western Buddhists.
The Clock of the Long Now by Stuart Brand – you know that clock in the mountain that’s gonna run for 10,000 years and chime like once a century and Jeff Bezos is something to do with it? It’s a book about that project, written about 10 years ago.
The Inheritors, by William Golding – a novel about a tribe of Neanderthals who meet ‘new man’. He’s exploring the idea that what if the Neanderthals were the kind, imaginative ones – and we’re descended from the people who ‘out-evolved’ them. Golding thought of it as his best book, apparently.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
A guy called David Sudnow. He was an American jazz pianist who ran a course called The Sudnow Method, to teach people how to play jazz standards. But he was also a sociology professor and phenomenologist, so his course was simultaneously a brilliant method for playing jazz tunes from a ‘fake book’, and also a kind of exploration of the idea of ‘what does it mean to teach or learn a big skill?’
I took it in about 2005. It came on 3 CDs from America. (It’s now online at www.sudnow.com). The first 40 mins or so is essentially a kind of stand-up routine about why the worst place to go to learn anything is any place they teach it ‘because they’ve got a vested interest in you coming back’.
He died in 2007, so I only got to know him very briefly. His course has been a model for me of how to find a smart angle on learning anything – and also on my own approach to teaching writing – which is a similar ‘big skill’ to playing the piano.
Who is your favourite artist?
Favourite is probably Picasso. But I’m really drawn to artists who obsess over things or return to the same themes – and that can be anything from Morandi and his bottles, to Frida Kahlo and self-portraits to pretty much all forms of ‘outsider art’. I’d love to own a painting by the English surreal-landscape painter Christoper P Wood.
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
I can work pretty much anywhere. I once wrote a short story while standing up on a crowded train, and that really stayed with me as a reminder that you can get in the flow anywhere really. That said, I find I need to be back in my shed office at least once a week.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?