Writing

This post first appeared in Organic Coffee Haphazardly. You ought to stop by that site and meander on through the literate entries. 

 

writing

He answers the question each time he raises his pen to paper. The story came before the word. It is a rhythm, the storytelling. Each cluster of thoughts breeds opinions on where to go next. Choosing a path, he keeps the flow going. He follows his instinct not worrying about pretty. Just let it flow.

It is his addiction; stringing words together. He has been there many times feeding the craving that defies rules of prose and punctuation, yet appears from nowhere to take up residence on the page. Like a fine piece of art, this first draft is the sketch that defines the composition. It tells the rudimentary story. Countless edits later that story will be the painting he envisions. Not today. Today the story is a new idea. A colt trying to stand on spindly legs, falling but getting up again while gaining strength with each failure.

The coffee gets cold. A refill is not on the horizon for the words have control. No interruption. An element of backstory emerges as he maneuvers a character and wonders why she did that. The pen moves to the margin to jot a quick note and capture the fleeting thought, phrased in a shorthand he hopes he will remember in the weeks to come when he returns to this page. A memory causes a smile as he recalls wondering if this paper with such wide margins was going to be useful or a waste of space. He has created entire worlds in less than ten words in those margins. The depth of his characters lives there. It is a soup of partial memories and unformed plot lines that are the writer’s equivalent of biographical fiction.

Forward. The pen moves him where he needs to go. Ink flows from the nib to the paper providing a tactile feel for each letter with a sound that applauds progress. Pushed forward under his control the pen yields surprising turns. How often, when he feels he has a clear view of the story ahead, does the pen take him in a different direction? A line of site interrupted by an obstacle set there with cruel subconscious intention, reminding him that life is seldom a straight line. And the challenge of the obstacle lets him show his characters in a new light. They are as surprised as he, and that surprise finds its way into the syncopation of syllables, creating an energy of anticipation. ‘Yes,’ he thinks. That could happen, and the flow continues. Fresh and alive.

For a moment he wonders where the need to tell the story comes from. What ancient, prehistoric challenge had man faced that made storytelling a survival trait. It is nothing but constrained lies bundled together. Then he wonders if a simpleton, binary thinking computer, that is only as good as the fiction of the code that man has created for it, can be induced to create a new thought or even polish up an old one? Maybe some day they will rediscover the analog computer and find the secret to artificial intelligence. The secret of infusing a survival skill into a computer. All this in a mental flash that is more image than prose.

That is what he does. He is less a writer than a transcriber of the images that form in his mind. The stories don’t form in sentences and words. They form as high definition movies in his mind where he can rewind and fast forward instantaneously until he settles on the scene that will be transcribed. A change in dialog or location to suit his will. The will to tell a good story. It is magic and he doesn’t overthink it. He let’s the magic move him. Understanding it too deeply might ruin it for him, but that thought leads him to ponder more questions. The cycle continues and each turn of his mental crank reveals more of the story. His pen scratches more words on the page.

Writing is presentation of discovery.

It’s Black and White

I’ve decided to rekindle my photographic eye by taking black & white images through a 24mm wide angle prime lens. That was basically the rig I learned that basics of exposure and lighting doing. I had a trusty Nikon FE2 35mm film camera with a 24mm wide angle on it. I used other lenses, but that was the rig that I used most. I still have it and it feels like comfort in my hands. I don’t use it because film is basically gone. I miss film and I don’t miss it. In my darkroom film was messy and smelly and chemically. There was so much waste product just to get to the print you wanted. All of that waste cost money. Throw away paper, film and chemicals. Modern digital sensors with massive memory cards and great software for photo processing allow for fantastic image creation and are more environmentally friendly.

I now have a Nikon D700, a pro level digital camera, and recently picked up a nice 24mm autofocus lens at a reasonable price. There is something about that degree of wide angle which makes you think about what you are shooting. And the fact that it is a prime lens, meaning it only has one focal length, you have to physically move to get the frame right.  That means you have to think about composition and look with a wide angle frame of reference.

Photo Dec 19, 3 06 02 PM

As I started to take shots I realized that advanced technology was getting in my way. You see, taking a good B&W image with film required understanding where the darks and lights were in relation to each other and adjusting the exposure accordingly. There is a system developed by Ansel Adams called ‘The Zone System’ and it provides a way of metering parts of the image and then, based on the tonal range of the image, adjusting the exposure and development.  The reason this was so important is because the actual luminance has a range that is much greater than what film can record. The Zone System allowed you to expose and image and develop it in a way that compressed the range and gave you an accurate representation of what you visualized.  It is one of the reasons Ansel’s images are so deep and rich.

To do the exposure correctly you need a good light meter. Yes, the metering systems on modern cameras are phenomenal. But they are geared for color images. IN the above image, the device sitting next to my D700 is a Sekonic light meter. I use it for flash and normal light exposures when I want great accuracy. It is a one degree spot meter, so I can take a reading off of a very small part of the image.

In the Zone

Let me show you what I mean.  Here is a shot of my Kindle Paperwhite sitting on the kitchen counter. The leather cover of the Kindle is black and has a nice texture to it. I wanted that aspect to show against the marble grain of the countertop. The notebook is a deep blue cover. Using the metering system of the D700, which is very advanced, I got this image. (Sorry it is out of focus, but that doesn’t alter the metering.)

kindle averaged

It’s a decent shot. I mean as far as the exposure goes. I wasn’t composing anything artistic. I was trying to prove a point.

Now, using the zone system, I measured the Kindle’s cover and placed that luminance at a lower range along the grey scale. It should look black, not dark grey. All light meters measure in a way that the exposure they provide will average out to an 18% grey scale. Which is about where the blue spiral notebook is in the above shot.

Because your mind is good at adjusting, you “know” from this shot that the Kindle is black, even though it shows up as a dark grey.

By adjusting the exposure to place the cover as black, not dark grey, I got this image:

kindle zoned

It is a subtle difference, but now you really see that the cover is black and that it has a deep texture. You also pick up a little more texture in the marble and coffee cup. It is a much more realistic interpretation of what I pre-visualized. Now you know why Ansel Adams art was so appealing.

What’s the Point?

I am a technologist. I have been most of my adult life. My income stems from my ability to see where technology is going and to make progress in bringing it to fruition. I have such great appreciation for the disruptive effect of technology and how that disruption breeds new opportunities, if you are willing to take some risk.

The trouble is, that layers of technology can obscure some basic understanding. Recording light on film or through digital sensors works a certain way. Our technology doesn’t change that. In this instant it seems like technology tries to take our intellect out of the picture. It stems from making it convenient, but what is the cost? Over the past few days I’ve had to stretch my sense of perception again, waking up old synapses that understood how to shift and move apertures and shutter speeds. The end result is I feel part of the pictures I am taking. I feel more like I can express what I am trying to visualize, not just snap a shot. I compose. I think about the light. I place reflectivity where I want it to be. I fail a lot, but when I succeed, the image is what I envisioned.

My point is that a broad application of technology is not always good. There are times, like with my computer assisted hip replacement, when technology has massive benefits. There are other times when technology insulates us from understanding and feeling more. Technical running shoes seem a good example of that. They eliminate the feel of the ground under our feet and shunt the muscle development in our feet leading to numerous biomechanical issues that we then throw even more technology at. There is a similar issue in writing. Advanced publishing software and digital book services allow anyone who can type into a computer to publish an e-book. That is a great thing, except many writers forego the process of having their work edited for content and format. Getting that critical feedback and incorporating the feedback into their work is what makes a good author a great author. Not all feedback is correct, but all feedback makes you think about what you have done and what you have said. Don’t forget the basics, regardless of how easy it is to create the content.

Would I eliminate the advanced light meter on my D700? Absolutely not. But I spend time understanding why it works and where its limits are. Afterall, I can switch to manual mode anytime and override the programmed exposure. I often do, but I can do it because I understand light. I understand the basis for why photography works.

Don’t just accept technology. Ask why. Dig underneath the covers. Understanding is freedom. Few things are ever just black and white.

Run free. Run smooth.

The Body of Writing

You won’t find blogs from me with the “N things you need to do to be a successful writer.” Frankly, there are a lot of people out there giving advise on how best to succeed as a writer so my voice would just be lost in the din. The best  advise I ever got was from Stephen King in his book “On Writing.” In that tome he dispelled some misbeliefs I had held and which had kept me from writing for decades.

Up until then I thought you had to have a fully formed plot in your head to be able to start a book. As I read other books I’d often wonder how authors thought of all the plot twists before they started to write.  I tried outlining and found that I was not built to construct that way. After each little attempt I would put it aside and let the idea simmer on a back burner.

At one point I decided to try writing the kind of literature people were buying. Romance novels! I had a friend who was an avid romance novel reader and she told me what made a good romance.  I attempted a few starts because at least I had a plot strategy. (Sorry, I can’t remember what it was. That notebook is decomposing in a dump in Arizona.) I did learn that I was not up to writing that style of book. I couldn’t even get out of the starting gate. I hadn’t read any romance novels, so it was not territory I could navigate. Reading is the foundation for writing. I didn’t really understand that, but have always been an avid reader.

Years later, when I read the King semi-biographical tutorial, everything changed. He recommended a very simple mantra. “Just fucking write.” Stephen freed me from the deception I had. He explained that he seldom knew where his books would go, he would just come up with the premise, start the story and let things get mixed together and develop as he went. It was as much a surprise to him as it would be to his readers.

So I decided to make my start and reinforced the effort by buying a fountain pen and a nice notebook. That was just something I wanted to do. Little did I know that creative first draft writing is all about using a pen or typewriter. A manual, tactile connection to each word.

Words on the page

Words on the page

Computers are fantastic. I love my MAC. But my first drafts are almost entirely written in ink or typed on a page.  I learned the difference between a first draft and an edited draft from King, too. That was the second liberating idea. Kind of a corollary to the first.  “Just fucking write and don’t look back.”  Get all the rambling thoughts and ideas out on paper first and don’t stop the stream of thought by trying to fix things that will obviously need to be fixed. There is no delete key on my fountain pen. Yes I do cross things out and make little notes, but I move forward with each touch of the nib to the paper or the key to the ribbon.

My #1 Olympia SM9

My #1 Olympia SM9

It might be that I am just a physical person, but this works for me. My sister, who is an expert typist and has immaculate penmanship, thinks I am funny. She was a professional secretary and she types faster than a manual typewriter can sustain. That little delay in putting the words to the paper makes me have to think of the word I am committing to. It makes me have to phrase the sentence and feel the rhythm of the writing. Good typing is all about keeping a smooth rhythm.

I got rhythm and off I went. At first by hand and later by keystroke, six-hundred pages later I had created my first novel.  It is entitled “A Bend in Space” and is still nicely tucked in my filing space awaiting my deft hand in reforming it into something that people would like to read. I like the concept and the plot but it needs work. I have learned a lot since then and need to go back and apply that learning. The beauty of it is that I have all my original writing to reference. Every moment of brilliance that leaked from my pen and every WTF-did-I-mean sentence that seemed necessary at the time. Nothing deleted.

By the time I started my second book, SYN-FIN, I was no longer afraid to just start attacking with words. In a nice bar in Santa Clara after a Cisco Users Group meeting I had a beer and began writing this image that started to form in my mind. For me writing is about how I describe the movie that is unfolding in my mind. Here’s the image:

Hungover, face down on the crushed granite of the Arizona desert, the early morning sun warmed the skin on the back of my neck.

frontcover

I loved the start. It still makes me smile, and that is all any writer can ask. Write what you like and about what is interesting to you and it will come off in the words you choose and the phrasing you make.

I guess I did come up with a list. You see what happens when you just start and let the words take you along?  This is what happened just now:

  1. Read.  Read a lot. Read often. Read good and bad and every genre you can stand.
  2. Just fucking write. It will get better.
  3. Don’t look back. Save editing and self doubt for the second draft.
  4. Don’t write to an audience. Write what you like. The audience will find you.
  5. Write anywhere and everywhere at any time.

Photo Nov 07, 5 15 18 PM

Sometimes, if I stop for a refreshment while waiting for a train, I’ll start putting words on paper. At home I have a writing area. Here’s my desk. I show it because it means you can pretty much write anywhere. I need to clean it up a bit, but it represents the history of writing because there is pen and paper, a manual typewriter (actually, several) and two laptop computers (MAC and Windows). And coffee. Coffee is important.

Photo Nov 18, 8 59 04 AM (1)

This is where I go word surfing. I like that term. Does that mean I have to wear a bathing suit when I write? Hmmm.

Want to be a writer? It’s all up to you. There really aren’t any rules. Go and discover your own and then publish a blog with a list of what you found. Feel free to use any of mine.

Run Free

Running for Team Hole in the Wall

This fall I plan to run a 60K distance in support of the Team Hole in the Wall.

Team-Logo-Web-2013-copy2

My event is entitled 60 at 60 and you can link to it here:  http://events.teamholeinthewall.org/2013communityevents/jlgrunr

Why the Support the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp?

The organization was started by Paul Newman and is dedicated to giving seriously ill kids and their families some time to have fun. As Paul said, every kid needs to “raise a little hell.”

I can totally get behind that sentiment. Having three wonderful children and a beautiful granddaughter who are all healthy and hellraisers in their own right gives me reason for thanks.

The Camp started here in Connecticut and has expanded. All of the proceeds go to running the camp and helping kids be kids. I’m just a big kid at heart anyway.

What’s with the 60 stuff?

On June 23, 2013 I tick off my 60th year. I consider myself to be pretty average – as in I’m nothing special. But, I’ve made the most of it. My ability to do that is, to my estimation, related to my running. I am not an obsessive runner, but I am a constant one.

Let me be clear. I am a very lucky man. When I run I celebrate my good fortune. That is also why I feel compelled to help others while I cover the distance.

Running has been in my life since I was a freshman in high school. Actually, running was been part of play and entertainment as long as I can remember, but it became part of my “workout” when I was thirteen and joined the wrestling team. I’ve had off times, but never for very long. Running has been a constant companion for me. It is the place I go to meditate, solve problems, vanquish stress, and celebrate life. While that is happening I also fight disease and aging while justifying eating these every so often.

A Boston Creme!

A Boston Creme!

To celebrate my love of running and my temporal achievement, I decided to run 60 miles in one day. Then I had some hip/IT band problems. I’m now recovering from that issue and decided that 60 kilometers (37.28 miles) is more doable. That’s about a marathon and a half. I hope you can understand that I don’t want to risk pushing it because I do want to keep running in comfort for another 47 years.

The main event will happen in the fall of this year when the weather is more suitable for distance running. In the interim I am doing the Fairfield Half Marathon on my birthday. That will be the official kickoff to this event.

I’ll be running in my Luna Monos.

Photo Jun 02, 8 10 44 PM

There is more to come.  In the next few posts I’ll explain more about my decision.  I’m going to ask you to weigh in on a couple of options, so please keep linked to my blog. I will also explain how you can participate in the event beyond giving your pledges.

Please, follow my blog and forward the link to this page to your friends and family.

Thank you, in advance, for you support!

Run Free!

A Cascade of Fear

A good friend of mine, Savannah George (www.dsavannah.com), posted a great piece on fear today.  She is a wonderful writer and a world class editor.  I suggest you click the link and read her post. It’s about getting rid of fear and the stifling effects it has on us.  The concept came to her after she had spent some time online with a friend who said he wasn’t afraid of anything.  From him, to her, to me.  Kind of a fire brigade with the topic of fear in the bucket. Hey!  It’s 5AM and metaphors have never been my strong point in writing.

Although I agree with Savannah’s concept and that fear can have devastating effects, I’m not sure I want to rid my life of fear.  In some ways I’ve turned fear into motivation.  Just after I read her post a fellow writer posted a comment in a writer’s forum about being afraid that her words were eloquent enough and her plot had already been written.  I remembered those same feelings from when I started writing my first book.

I sat there in front of my typewriter – the one at the top of this page – and stopped writing.  Fear had tied my hands.  Fear that I was not good enough to write a book. For a long time I just sat and stared at the mechanical beast, lost in self-ctitical thoughts. I wasn’t coming up with anything unique.  The plot I had was about a young adult and his father and friends.  It was just another YA novel. A clone of thousands of other novels already on the shelves.  Why go on?

Fear is like water. It finds its way in, no matter what. The fear that started to rise in my head was the fear of not living up to what I had said I could do. Wasn’t it better to write a shitty book than to have not written one at all? A fear of failure started me thinking.

I thought of the millions of songs and books that men and women have written. Isn’t that amazing. Relatively speaking we have no new words or notes, yet we keep throwing them together and coming up with something new. In retrospect, it was fear as motivator that made me put my fingers back on the keyboard and type.  Soon I became more afraid that I would let the ideas I had in my mind evaporate than I was of righting a bad book.  Three hundred thousand words later I had completed my first novel.

It is still unpublished.  It kind of sucks.  But it has a glowing premise and some great characters. If I hadn’t spent the months writing that first book, I wouldn’t have attempted SYN:FIN.  And SYN:FIN is a good book even if I say so myself.

What I’m getting at is that fear has two sides.  It can make you freeze at the presence of a threat or it can motivate you to run long and hard to find escape.  Fear was one of the reasons we started to run and kept running. From our response to fear, we developed one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal – the ability to run long distance.  That ability is arguably the reason we are what we are today – all full of imagination and melody.

I’m OK with fear because I have a greater fear of standing still than I have of moving forward.  Hmm?  I wonder if that is the definition of ADD?

Thoughts?  Don’t be afraid to post your comments.  I don’t bite. Much.