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.

Playful Light

I was playing with light this morning. More correctly, it was playing with me.

Objects lying on my table picked up a glancing blow of light filtered through a window screen. It made me stop and take notice. To see the page I was writing on as something different than a receptacle for my words dripped there by fountain pen. It gave me a view of an alternate reality. One in which the object becomes the subject.

Photo Jun 22, 6 25 19 AM

The light snuck up on me while doing my daily journal entry. It was more how it played on the page and bent around the curve of the notebook, like light under the force of gravity. Through the lens of an iPhone I caught a fleeting moment.

Honestly, light is to a photographer what “squirrel” is to a hunting dog. Am immediate and irresistible distraction. Add to the mix that I have ADD level distractedness and you have a recipe for periodic dalliance.

I went back to my journal entry and finished it. Closing the Clairfontaine notebook that has become my addiction, I was caught again. Light was chasing me. Taunting me.

Photo Jun 22, 6 56 28 AM

This time I placed my favorite Aurora fountain pen on the notebook and snapped a shot. And looked around. An old calculator used last night was finding new life under the fractured light.

Photo Jun 22, 6 56 05 AM

Then the light reasserted itself and I recaptured my notebook thinking that the objects aren’t really what we see. What we see is the reflection of light in a way that our brains interpret the waves bouncing against the back of our eye sockets. What my image captures is the illusion I live in every day.

Photo Jun 22, 6 53 58 AM

Then I looked outside and remembered how many times I have sat on the deck and tried to understand what light shows me every day. Sometimes it is a rainy moment, reflecting the grey sky while giving up the textures below the water. The lines on the notebook page made me think of an image I found during the previous day’s rain.

Photo Jun 21, 5 57 01 AM

I usually don’t crop photos, although I have no set rules. In this case I liked the plants hovering at the top of the image. They seemed to fit with the gleaming sky against the patterned wood. A set of textures and touching textures.  Lost in the gleam of sky I remembered another image from a few days earlier.

Sitting on the deck I looked up and watched clouds painting pictures against the blue sky. Over the past few days of summer the clouds have been poetic.

Photo Jun 12, 5 49 13 AMPhoto Jul 20, 6 01 19 AM

IMG_3602 IMG_3606 Resevoir cloud

The ideas of refraction and reflection tickle neurons in my brain when I look at these photos. I am one of those who love how the simple laws of physics explain the beauty we see around us. How life and living is such a gift. It begs to be understood. We shouldn’t shelter ourselves from looking for the explanation. From being like the light. Looking at things from different angles and seeing the same thing anew.

That is why life is so beautiful. We all see it through our own optics.

I offer you this challenge. At least once today, capture an instant of light the makes you think. That opens your awareness. Post it in the comments on this blog for all to see and enjoy. I look forward to your images and thoughts.

Run free. 

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

Leaves on Fire

I learned photography shooting black and white film. My go to camera was my trusty 35mm Nikon FE2. I must have pushed thousands of rolls of film through that little beast and is still works. I don’t do film anymore, but I can’t part with that camera.

When the digital age came along, I started experimenting with them, but I wasn’t really impressed. Then Nikon introduced their pro level cameras and I saw the end of film on the horizon. I bought a D70 on a trip to Kuala Lumpur and have been hooked on digital ever since. My latest rig is a D700, which I have had since it was released. There are newer and better cameras out there, but I’m happy with my D700.

Yesterday I was on a run and paused to take a shot with my iPhone. Actually, I took several because…well, just because. That’s what you do. You just respond to a scene that calls out to you. It’s part of my running mode these days. Stop and enjoy what you see. Running can take you to places you won’t/can’t see from a car.

Photo May 03, 9 22 13 AM

The reflection of the sky on the water caught my eye and then the edginess of the trees offered an unsettling contrast to the tranquil sky. I was 7 miles into a 10 mile run, so there’s no telling where my mind was.

Then I saw a rock.  One that I have passed a hundred times, but this time it looked different.

A rock

A rock

I don’t like how the top of the rock is washed out. Extreme contrast is a limit on phone cameras. The new growth of spring was a soft contrast to the hard rock surface that reinforced the grey to green.

I thought about that shot as I ran the last couple of miles and had wished I had my old 4×5 view camera to take it in black and white with excessive detail. A view camera is one of those with a bellows and a ground glass plate where the image is focused. You have to drape a cloth over your head and around the back of the camera to see the image. And the image is upside down and reversed left to right. There is no better way to develop compositional skills. It is also a real pain in the ass to carry around, setup, load film into and develop each sheet of film. But the results were astounding.

This morning I followed my black and white muse as the sun rose. Leaves are just beginning to emerge on the trees surrounding our house. The juxtaposition made it feel as if they were on fire. In color it looked interesting, but bland. My vision was in black and white when I took them. I previsualized what I wanted. In both cases I cropped the shot and did a little post production shift of contrast, but not much. It would have been the same work I would have done by altering the developing times and shooting the print on different contrast paper if I was using legacy methods.

BW Leaves on fire

The graphic pallet of this shot is very nice. I see some issues with it, but the image is still strong. Stronger in black and white than in color. I worked it so that there were no absolute whites and some texture in the very dark areas. What appeals to me is the repetition of vertical strokes with some lateral conflict as a backdrop to the shimmering leaves.

Admittedly, I should have taken a bit more time and used a tripod. There was a slight breeze, which would normally have stopped me because of loss of clarity, but not today. I was just playing around and having some fun with my visualization. Just like my running, I don’t take it too seriously these days. I just do it for enjoyment and my own enrichment.

Here’s the other shot from the same timeframe.

BW of backlit leaves

I softened this one a little. Quite frankly, I screwed up the exposure, but the result was to make the shadows very dark. Which worked out OK. You know they are leaves on trees, but if you look at it long enough your eyes follow a pattern and each grouping leads to the next. The bright leaves centered on the abyss keep you coming back to the center.

I had forgotten how nice black and white is and how it makes you think more about what you are shooting. These are not the best shots in the world, but I like them because they reminded me to look deeper at what is around me.

More to come.

Run Free!

It’s A Good Day for a Run!

I remember the first time I used running as a tonic to sooth my tattered nerves. It was the mid-80’s and I had one of those company politics revelations. I was young and naive and had been thrown under the bus by a coworker. He was an account executive for whom I provided technical support on a major proposal. The details are unimportant.

Walking into the house after a long drive home that day, my wife immediately saw the strain and stress in my face. I told her I couldn’t talk about it yet and needed a run to cool off. Going for a run hadn’t really been in my mind until I walked in the door. It seemed he right release of the pent up energy storming through my body. I donned my shorts and T-shirt and headed out for something like a three-miler. Three miles was a long run for me back then. When I returned home I was in a better place and was able to have a conversation about what happened.

Since that day I have logged many running miles of meditation, stress relief and healing. I’ve been through lots of changes and running has kept me in a state to handle the good and the bad. Regardless of the reason, each run feels like a celebration. Not the New Years kind. The quiet kind that brings a smile to your face because you feel at better in your own skin.

Wednesday, April 17th, was one of those healing days. Two days before something evil happened at the Boston Marathon. As a runner who has completed 3 marathons, this senseless act hit me on many levels. To me running, like music, is a universal language. Man ran to survive. Running contributed to the development of our brains, arts and sciences. It makes us what we are. (I wrote a blog about it – www.jlgrunr.com). In races we compete, but we care for each other at the same time.

I headed out on a beautiful spring day, intending another a familiar 3 miler. It didn’t take long for my feet to lead me to a local trail. Some days you just follow because your feet know where to go. There were no cars parked at the trailhead and I knew I would be the only person out there. Feeling the earth, rocks and roots beneath my feet got me smiling. The air was in the upper 50’s, cool and crisp. The tall trees showing signs of budding after a strange mix of winter weather.

The running trail

The running trail

It was just what I needed to get centered.

The trail winds uphill for a while and then turns down toward a small stream where I usually turn around. I took a moment to stop and enjoy the scenery. Sweat rolled down my forehead and I pulled my top layer up to wipe my brow.

The turnaround

The turnaround

Like a lot of runners, I have my kit folded and ready to go, so I don’t think much, just grab what I need and go.The base layer shirt I had on is one I like because it fits snug and has a comfortable cotton feel. I didn’t know how appropriate it was until I looked down.

Don't mind the sweat stain

Don’t mind the sweat stain

I flashed on why I was so thankful to be a citizen of this country. My politics tend to the liberal side of moderate, but I have close friends and family who represent a broad spectrum of political belief. That is very cool because accepting differences is what keeps us great as a country. I am grateful for the freedoms of speech and religion we are granted in our constitution (meaning we need to continually prove worthy of them) and in the culture of inclusion in which we are raised.

Evil can not dampen our freedom. If anything it makes us want to be more belligerent in our quest for equality and mutual respect.

Last October I ran the Hartford Marathon in 3:37 and change. It is a qualifying time for the 2014 Boston Marathon. I plan to submit my entry as soon as the Boston Athletic Association opens registration in September. Screw evil. I am a runner.

Run Free!

Being Grateful

It has been a difficult time here in New England. Between hurricane Sandy, Sandy Hook, strange weather and, now, the Boston Marathon atrocity, we’ve been put to the test.

I woke early, which is my habit, and sat with a cup of coffee not as focused on the work staring back at me from my computer as normal. My eyes looked out to the rising sun and this is what I saw.

A reminder…

Sunrise Reminder

Sunrise Reminder