From the blog

Iain Thomas on social justice and why artists should remain anonymous

The success of Iain Thomas’ microstory blog I Wrote This For You emanates from his ability to write succinctly, often reflecting in his words the struggle, the loneliness and the darkness of our human experience. He simultaneously reminds us to keep hope while allowing us, his readers, to share our own stories. 

Much of what Iain Thomas does fits directly into the work we do here as Cloudhead. He creates art, imagery and words to inspire people. He uses technology to collaborate with people he’s never met, and finally he encourages open expression so that more people have the resources they need to thrive.

Thank you, Iain, for taking the time to answer our questions, and to Jon Ellis as well for allowing us to include your photography.

If you could describe the one person you’d most want reading your writing, who would that be?

Someone who wants to feel a little less alone in the world. Someone who wants to feel like someone, somewhere knows him or her. It’s what I wanted when I was writing I Wrote This For You and I think, for some people, to know and be known is incredibly important to them.

Jon Ellis©_IWTFY-4

Some people will read your “you” and assume you’re talking about someone else. Anyone but them. What would you say to those people?

The most important experience for me in terms of the project is the one you have initially when you first come into contact with it, if you don’t believe that it was actually written for you in that moment, you won’t believe it later and I doubt there’s much I could say that could convince you otherwise.

There is no story I can tell you that is as powerful as the story you can tell yourself.

So I’d wish them luck on whatever they choose to read next and thank them for their time. There’s plenty of great art out there for them to enjoy.

You speak to you, but what is your personal story in microstory?

And then you realised you were alone in the universe. But so was everyone else.

Jon Ellis©_IWTFY-1

Do you believe each human has a responsibility to support his fellow man/woman/child?

To a degree, yes, if we want a better world, we all have to build it.

If yes, what is that responsibility?

I think the responsibility is to simply be awake to the individual moments of life and to the world around you. And to take your preconceptions each morning, examine them and decide what purpose they serve. If you’re doing this properly, this should often result in you disregarding them.

What is the best way one person can create change and be socially responsible in this world?

Reach out to someone else and convince them to reach out to someone else. Assume the best of people, not the worst. Become the person you think is missing in the world. W.H. Auden once said, “Love each other or perish.” I think that’s truer than it’s ever been.

How do you think growing up and/or living in South Africa has informed your views of social conscience and how the internet and technology can create connections in particular?

I grew up under white rule during apartheid and, as a white person, benefited from it. Even though I was only 14 when it really ended in 1994, I am ashamed of that part of my country’s history. I’m also ashamed of its more recent history of crime, corruption and disregard for the poor. So when I started I Wrote This For You, I wanted to remove any trace of my nationality, gender, age or any other identifying factors, because they were such contentious subjects and they were constantly being examined and re-examined in art and media around me. I wanted some kind of outlet that wasn’t going to be tainted by anything I brought with it, to simply be seen as human and nothing more or less. The Internet allowed me to do that.

In terms of technology, also in 1994, Interpol arrested my brother for hacking into Belgium’s telephone network. We were doing some incredibly crazy things back then. The Internet was the Wild West and I was fascinated by the ability to talk to strangers across vast distances and it’s a fascination that’s always stayed with me.

When I started I Wrote This For You in 2007, it really couldn’t have existed at any other point in history, in terms of technology. I needed it to be anonymous, it needed to be free and it needed it to be accessible. I’m afraid that considering the current climate of spying and prying on private individuals, it might be one of the last projects to be able to do that.

I encourage young artists to be anonymous while they still can be.

Jon Ellis©_IWTFY-3

What banned book (or art, music, film etc) should everyone see?

As much as I don’t know if true anonymity exists anymore, I don’t think anything can truly be banned or censored anymore. Art and information finds a way, to paraphrase a line from Jurassic Park.

Although it’s no longer banned to the best of my knowledge, Slaughter House Five is one of the most poignant, moving and important works of literature I’ve ever had the privilege of reading. I would point at that.

Humanity will become humane when it understands itself completely.

How has being physically separate from Jon Ellis created space in your work that would not be there if you were working face-to-face?

I think the nature of the medium you use to communicate shapes the communication itself. Jon and I know each other purely through words, photographs and an amount of Skype calls I can count on one hand. I know him in a very pure way, like I know many people online. Also because we were free to take the project at our own pace, it never felt like work.

The gaps left in the communication between us created gaps in the storyline we were creating, which is what we allowed the audience to fill in, I believe.

What has been your biggest challenge/letdown/complaint about writing?

My biggest challenge is convincing myself that I’m not a talentless hack who sprouts trite clichés every morning and there is real meaning and substance in what I want to write.

My biggest letdown is that writing, even ‘successful’ writing, is far lonelier than I ever imagined. I thought I would get a letter after I Wrote This For You reached #1 on the poetry bestseller list from some kind of association of poets and artists and be invited to participate in something or to share ideas in some kind of forum. The truth is, there is no artistic clique where everyone sits and contemplates each other’s work and yet, as a creative person, part of me craves that. There is no real Midnight In Paris but it would be beautiful if there were. The closest I can get is a Midnight On A Screen.

Reach out to someone else and convince them to reach out to someone else. Assume the best of people, not the worst. Become the person you think is missing in the world.

My biggest complaint is I don’t really have the right to complain about anything, I’m incredibly lucky to have accomplished what I have and I remind myself to be grateful for what I have whenever I can.

In what ways is it better to be physically present when collaborating with someone or a group of people, particularly if you want to create social change?

I think things happen faster when you’re physically present, there’s a sense of purpose in the real world that is, unfortunately, absent along the electric wires that make up the Internet. While the Internet does give you far more opportunities for collaboration, they are far more likely to fall by the way side as half-ideas. Presence has energy and momentum that doesn’t exist in an email or over Skype.

What stories would you want to hear that you don’t hear?

I’m a friend of the founder of Project Isizwe, a group trying to give free WiFi to Africa, which I support, and I think that as we grow more connected as a planet, we will unleash a torrent of stories that we cannot currently even imagine, points of view we’ve never considered and insights we’ve yet to share.

There’s a quote by Stephen Gould I’m fond of, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” The more stories we share, the more the world can talk to itself, the better it will understand itself and the better it will be for all of us.

Humanity will become humane when it understands itself completely.

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