Tag Archives: writing

2017-03-0: Beyond the Northlands

Beyond the Northlands

Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas (2016)

by Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough (-)


The sagas are an interesting mix of historically-based story-telling and fantasy, hard for a modern reader to understand without knowing their manner of composition and context. The “Vikings” are thoroughly stereotyped in most people’s minds, to the extent that the actual roles of the Norse in history is little known to most of us. Barraclough does an admirable job of putting all of this into a coherent picture.

One of her points is that succeeding versions of saga stories were reinterpreted to reflect the culture in which they were refined. Of course, this interests me because it is exactly what I am doing with Njal’s Saga (Neal’s Story). Her writing is vivid and full of humor. I can recommend this book to anyone with an interest in any aspect of the Vikings or sagas. It might be interesting to send her a copy of Neal’s Story.

I particularly liked the part on the West, primarily Greenland. Coincidentally, just after reading it, the Smithsonian Associate magazine (March 2017) had an article describing the latest research on the nature and fate of the Greenland colonies.



2017-02-02: The End

This is an idea for a series of short stories, inspired by a remark made to me by a colleague at Unisys circa 1993. The remark was by John ?, a Texan who always wore western-style coats and cowboy boots, to the effect that if he learned he had a terminal disease, he would “take out” certain bad people. I think he had mafia types in mind, rather than political assassination, but it’s impossible to be sure now.

Anyway, the notion could serve as the premise for a series of stories involving different people in a retirement/nursing/hospice setting who “catch the meme” from one of their community, and separately carry out various schemes with various kinds of targets.


2017-02-02: Saved By Aliens!

This is just an idea, perhaps already done by someone else.

At a conference of astronomers, held at a time when society is going to hell in a handbasket (i.e., much like today), two astronomers hatch a scheme to convince earth’s leaders that they have detected an alien vessel heading for earth, apparently decelerating to stop in our vicinity in several years time. The hope is that this news will result in global cooperation to meet the impending crisis.

2017-02-02: Gant’s Woman

Besides Harry Gant’s manuscript for I Saw Them Ride Away, he left a rougher set of pages on the subject of women. I haven’t yet read the whole thing, but the bits I have read seem promising. Someone (Susan volunteered) needs to transcribe the text. Then Castle Knob’s crack team of editors needs to assess the viability of the project and create a plan for developing a publishable work.

The manuscript is in one of the large plastic file boxes that also contain photos and other material of Gant’s.

2016-10-21: Present Tense Storytelling

In a tips-for-better-story-telling article, Kat Boogaard recommended using present tense for more interesting stories, indicating that the tip applied both to verbal and written stories. In some commentary, Heather Yamada-Hosley had the following to say:

This can be true for IRL storytelling, but is absolutely not true for fiction. Unlike IRL, fiction relies on a narrator to present the events to the reader, in effect, making mere details into a performance. IRL, the speaker can take the place of the performance aspect, but in a novel, Present Tense hamstrings the narrator in several ways.

When I try to explain that Present Tense makes narrative sound more like exposition, denies the narrator the ability to condense and explain, forces the character to discover every tedious detail, makes scenic and other narrative introductions impossible, and blocks other narrative techniques that enhance the writer’s ability to convey the experience of the POV character’s events, I often get pushback examples of authors who have produced successful present tense novels, like, for example, Neal Stephenson. But IMHO, these novels succeeded in spite of being in present tense and not because of it.

There is also an intuitive but completely unfounded belief that Present Tense increases the sense of ‘immediacy’ in a story. But let’s consider that notion by examining the two most common POVs. One of the key differences between First Person POV and Third Person POV is that the former is told by the POV character from the story end, relating events as they recall they happened. This has the advantage of being more directly personal, in that we are directly in a single person’s mind. The reader does not have to switch emotional connections with characters and knows with deep understanding what the character feels and thinks. Assuming the storyteller is not unreliable, or noticeably more biased than a normal person, this provides a close emotional connection for the reader. But, First Person is distant in time. Intuitively, this would make First Person less immediate. The ‘current’ action is still described as though it just happened, but it is tempered and perhaps imperfectly remembered, so could seem a bit more distant. Third Person POV, on the other hand, is considered less close emotionally since the reader has to switch their emotional connection with each character POV change, but it is related just after events have occurred. ‘Current’ action in Third Person is told just after it happened.

But readers mentally adjust the action to whatever ‘current’ is for the story, distant for First Person or recent for Third Person. To the reader, ‘current’ is whatever they just learned. If you just learned your best friend had murdered someone a year ago, you would likely still react to this ‘news’ as strongly as if it had happened much more recently. Maybe there would be some difference if the difference was decades. But would it be any different if the murder occurred seconds vs minutes?

Changing from First Person to Third Person may make a story seem marginally more immediate since it is a change from the end of the story to recent events. But shaving a few seconds or less off to change from Third Person ‘just happened’ to Present Tense ‘happening now’ throws out a lot of narrative tools for no gain whatsoever.

A writer wanting the closeness of First Person without sacrificing any illusion of immediacy would be better off writing in Third Person, but with a single POV. Nothing in Third Person says that there must be multiple POVs or that the narrator cannot be the character looking back from a wiser time, just as First Person normally does.

I found these comments interesting, and expect to revisit them as I do more writing.


2016-07-15: Waters of March

Susan and I went to see Sergio Mendes at Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis this year, nearly 50 years after we first saw him in Pittsburgh. During the months before the show, I listened to a lot of Brazilian music, and made some playlists. When I’m working but need something to drown out background distractions, I sometimes listen to instrumental music or non-English songs.

Among the songs I liked well enough to look into was Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Águas de Março (Waters of March). This is an unusual song based on a sort of stream-of-consciousness poem he wrote at his country place, when the torrential rains of March in Brazil made the road impassable. I’ve read that it was once voted the greatest Brazilian song. Jobim also translated the poem into English. I have many renditions of the song, in Portuguese, English and French.

It occurred to me that it might be interesting to make new versions of the poem, with words that evoke people, places or events in my own life. It then occurred to me that it might be fun to engage Ren in a project to make versions based on things we share from time to time, potentially over several years.

It also occurred to me that if an instrumental version of the song is available, it could be used as background (like karaoke) to sing the new poems.

Status 2016-07-15:

  • In the Castle Knob scheme, this project is identified as CK-0-MB-WM.
  • I started by making a document with the original Portuguese lyrics next to Jobim’s English lyrics. I might be able notate the structure the poem should follow to fit the music (emphasis and rhymes).
  • I downloaded an instrumental version of the song by Ernest Coleman. I don’t know if this matches the original or the English version (which has a couple of extra lines).



2016-01-29: Rhombic Dodecahedron

I’ve been interested in the rhombic dodecahedron (RD for short) ever since I learned that it is a space-filling polyhedron (i.e., they can be packed together with no wasted space), and that all faces are identical, like the rhombus below. Here’s a rotating 3d picture, and the relative dimensions of one face.

Rhombicdodecahedron . . . RDface

The angles of the rhombus are approximately 70.53 and 109.47 degrees.

My first thought was that a modular building, such as house, could be made from a collection of them, with suitable openings and infrastructure. I made a couple of them out of thin plywood. Later, when I started thinking about modular spacecraft for the Two Years at the Hot End story, I decided to make several of them and see how well they could be used. By this time, I was using Shapeways to 3D-print my designs, so I designed a rhombus with flanges to connect them at their edges, and clips toehold them together. I designed a large hole in the rhombus, to provide access to the interior, as if for a door or airlock.

The cost of ordering two faces was too high at the original size (10 cm along the long diagonal), so I reduced it to half-size. At this size, the thickness of the clips and the indentations to hold them didn’t meet Shapeways’s design rules, but they provide a “print it anyway” feature, which I used. The first two faces worked pretty well, so I ordered 10 more to make full RD. This worked fine, as in the figure below, but was too expensive to make very many.

Next I designed a set of twelve of the faces connected into a single “part” by way of two bars of clips. By printing as a single part, the cost was reduced by about 70%. The images below show the 3D model and the part as received. Apparently for packing, Shapeways separated the faces into pairs.

To have a reasonable number of RDs to try various arrangements, I next designed a complete RD only 2cm across, with clips to hold them together and again with holes for access. I made a grid of 25 of these, with thin wires strung between them, and rows of clips attached. This still counted as a single part for pricing purposes, and was affordable. The picture below shows five of the RDs and a couple of clips, and the rest still strung on their wires. Unfortunately, the size of the holes was a bit too small to allow tweezers inside to attach the clips. I might end up using water-soluble glue to arrange the RDs into various configurations.


2016-02-19: Places To Go In The West

Once we move to Seattle, we probably won’t have much reason to come east again. Therefore, it might be worthwhile to make a list of places to see and things to do between here and Seattle.

  1. Des Moines, Iowa – If I discover any genealogically interesting facts in Iowa (Harry Gant was born there in 1881), stop to see records, etc.
  2. Hastings, Nebraska – John E Gant was a business man and civic leader in Hastings around 1890. Maybe there is something interesting there. Also, his brother (Harry Gant’s uncle) had a homestead (quarter-section?) near there.
  3. Denver, Colorado – The newspaper archives there aren’t available online. There might be something interesting about the Gant family in that area.
  4. Fort Collins, Colorado – The Gants lived there, in town and on a nearby ranch, for many years. There might be something interesting to see or learn from local records. I would let Ken Armstrong know of my visit there, and maybe he would like to come to his grandfather’s old stomping grounds at the same time.
  5. Cheyenne, Wyoming – Gant spent considerable time in Wyoming, especially in connection with Cheyenne Days. There might be something interesting to see there. Also, that area is the setting for Neal’s Story. I’d like to get a basic idea of the lay of the land, the Oregon Trail, etc.
  6. Maple Creek, Saskatchewan – Ken Armstrong’s home. It might be nice to meet him face to face, if we can’t meet in Colorado or Wyoming.
  7. Los Angeles – This could probably wait until after we move, but I would like to examine LA newspaper archives for references to Gant.
  8. Mariposa, California – It would be nice to see Mike Wenrich again.

2015-12-04: Wish You Were Here

While Chris and Grant were in Kuala Lumpur, Chris kept a blog at chris.blackstone.name, with the title Wish you were here, and the subtitle Chris and Grant’s adventures in Southeast Asia. It was very well written, and had a very nice selection of photos.

A while after they returned, Susan and I decided to try collecting the blog posts into a book, to surprise her.


She was blown away, and agreed to continue catching up on posts for which she had notes, but hadn’t yet written them out in detail. We’re still waiting for some finishing touches to wrap up this project. We also need to revise the cover collage.


  • 2015-12-04: 90% complete, waiting on Chris.
  • 2015-12-09: Added posts from March, for their trip (with Ren) to Japan.



2015-11-28: Rocket Science For Amateurs

I’ve been fiddling with the Orbiter space flight simulator since early 2009. One of the interesting features is its community of users on the Orbiter Forum. The veterans are very welcoming to newbies, and constantly helpful in solving problems. They also analyze recent space-related events and proposals. Several members expend large efforts in developing add-ons to enhance the Orbiter experience, particularly the developer of Orbiter itself, Dr. Martin Schweiger.

Among the contributions is a book, Go Play In Space (GPIS), written by Bruce Irving with help from a couple of others. For several years, newbies have been urged to read this book for a gentle introduction to Orbiter. A second edition of the book was written for the 2006 version of Orbiter. When the 2010 version was released, I heard that Bruce was planning a new revision. I volunteered to help edit the new version, to test updated scenarios, and otherwise try to be helpful without actually having enough expertise to make primary contributions. Bruce and Mark Paton accepted my help, and we updated about six of the ten chapters. However, the process was slow, with everyone having other commitments, and eventually petered out.

It occurred to me that it would be simpler to switch from a book-oriented approach for GPIS to a wiki-like approach. This would allow updates to be made incrementally, and by multiple contributors. The analog is the “release early, release often” approach to tech startups. I was also aware of some other out-dated Orbiter-related documentation that might benefit from this approach. I conceived the idea of an umbrella website that would include this type of reference documentation, and thought of calling it Rocket Science For Amateurs (RSFA). I contacted the relevant authors and obtained permission and encouragement to proceed, and actually set up a MediaWiki website for the purpose.

The administrative overhead of running the site proved too burdensome. However, OrbiterWiki is another Orbiter-related website. It seemed easier to move the RSFA material there. The main difficulty was restrictions on the types and size of files that can be stored on Orbiter Wiki. I was able to reach the administrator, and made a pitch for RSFA. He (or she; user names are ambiguous) made the necessary changes, and I moved the latest versions of GPIS and the IMFD Full Manual to OrbiterWiki. I announced it on Orbiter Forum on 2015-01-02. Since the announcement, I added an index to a set of YouTube tutorials and demonstrations.

There has been little response so far (over a year on). I have ideas for additional topics to add, reposting (with permission) some orbital dynamics articles by another Orbinaut.


  • 2015-11-28: in-progress – three topic areas ready for use (out of a dozen or so possible)
  • 2016-02-14: Added article on a Simplectic Integrator (by Keithth G)
  • 2017-03-12: Discovered that several articles by Keithth G on Orbiter Forum, which would have made good material for RSFA, have been deleted; no reasons have been given, but someone speculated that his employer might have viewed the material as their intellectual property.


2015-11-27: The Meme: Introduction, Application, Manifesto

The Meme: Introduction, Application, Manifesto (MIAM) is the oldest project on my list. The idea entered my head around mid-1990. I actually developed drafts of several chapters before getting bogged down. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the need to keep track of meme-related material I had read was the impetus for writing the book reports that make up so much of this backlog.


2015-11-27: Started, but on hiatus.


2015-11-27: Two Years At The Hot End

On the Orbiter Forum (discussion of topics related to the Orbiter space flight simulator), someone mentioned that they were reading Two Years Before The Mast, by Richard Dana, and that the story might work if set in space. I re-read the book, and tend to agree. I envision it set in late 21C, with asteroid mining having recently become established as an economical activity. The narrator would serve on a ship making passes to/from the asteroid belt, with a nominal two-year tour of duty.

Some of the assumptions I would use:

  • Fusion power plants providing great amounts of power, based on the Bussard polywell ideas, and the boron-proton reaction. The reactors and radiators are at the rear of the ships: the “hot end”.
  • Ships based on a rhombic dodecahedron module, such that any size ship could be built by connecting an appropriate number of modules, or a large ship could be split into smaller units (limited by the number of power plants).
  • 3D printing capability (“makers”) on board to fabricate any material needed, from tanks of raw materials, refined by atom-sorters. Capacity to make panels for modules, if maker operates within an open module (one panel removed).
  • Module panels have flanges to construct modules; attachment points for exterior shielding, sensors, thrusters, structural support, landing gear, etc.; large opening for hatches; smaller opening and channels for liquids and gases; signal and electrical power channels.

Some observations that might influence the story:

  • Asteroid belt characteristics: semi-major axis range 2.1 to 3.3 AU; edges and Kirkwood gaps at 2.1 AU (4:1 resonance with Jupiter), 2.5 (3:1 resonance), 2.82 (5:2), 2.96 (7:3), 3.28 (2:1).
  • Volume of torus 2*pi*pi*r*r*R = 19.2 cubic AU.
  • Total mass ~3×10^21 kg; 1/3rd mass in Ceres; 1/2 mass in Ceres (mass 9×10^20 kg, dia. 950km), Vesta (2.6×10^20kg, 525km), Pallas (2.1×10^20kg, 512km), Hygiea (8.7×10^19kg, 431km); 200 have dia > 100km; 2 million have dia > 1km; eccentricity < 0.4.
  • Density of asteroids with dia > 1km = 2*10^6/19.2 ~10^5 per cubic AU, < 1 per 10^19 km; average distance of 10^6 km.
  • Average speed at a=2.1 AU = ~20km/s; at 3.3 AU = ~16km/s. Typical passing speed 4km/s. To detect potential collision within 24 hours, need detection range of ~4×10^5km.
  • Odds of a belt-crossing probe hitting asteroid is < 1 in a billion.
  • Chief engineers on all ships are called “Scotty” for obscure historical reasons.
  • Learning is in two phases: theory and practice. Theory is learned rapidly (a few days) by use of drugs and tech, but lost unless practiced (which takes much longer).

In addition to the story, I would develop modules and ships for Orbiter, and for printing as desktop models.


  • 2015-11-27: Vision only
  • 2015-02-01: Proof-of-concept 3d-printed rhombic dodecahedron faces/clips (5cm long)


2015-11-27: Neal’s Story

When I first read Njal’s Saga, the great Icelandic saga, I was struck by the nature of the society the story was set in. Trying to imagine another similar society where the story might have occurred, I thought of the American West in the mid-1800s. Neal’s Story is my attempt to re-set this story in that setting.


2015-11-27: I am using the 150 chapters of the Dasent (public domain) edition to organize a first draft. I have written the first 30 chapters.




2009-03-26: Haiku

Haiku (1949)

by R. H. Blyth (1898-1964)

I’ve looked for this set of books since reading Smullyan’s The Tao Is Silent at least twenty years ago. Recently, I requested Volume 1 from the Marina inter-library system, but received a phone call from a librarian who said that a mistake had been made, and it wasn’t available. She then proceeded to track down three of the four volumes and sent them instead!

Blyth published these volumes in post-WWII Japan. I found the preface to the first volume interesting:

The history of makind, as a history of the human spirit, may be thought of as consisting of two elements: an escape from this world to another; and a return to it. Chronologically speaking, these two movements, the rise and fall, represent the whole of human history; and the two take place microcosmically many times in peoples and nations. But they may be thought of as taking place simultaneously or rather, beyond time, and then they form an ontological description of human nature.

There seems to me no necessity, however, to make a Spenglerian attempt to show from historical exmples how there has been a movement toward ideas, ideals, abstractions; and a corresponding revulsion from them. In our own individual lives, and in the larger movements of the human spirit these two contradictory tendencies are more or less visible always, everywhere. There is a quite noticeable flow towards religion in the early world, and in the early life of almost every person, – and a later ebb from it, using the word “religion” here in the sense of a means of escape from this life.

The Japanese, by an accident of geography, and because of something in their national character, took part in the developments of this “return to nature,” which in the Far East began (to give them a local habitation and a name) with Eno, the 6th Chinese Patriarch of Zen, 637-713 A.D. The Chinese, again because of their geography perhaps, have always had a strong tendency in poetry and philosophy towards the vast and vague, the general and sententious. It was left, therefore, to the Japanese to undertake this “return to things” in haiku, but it must be clearly understood that what we return to is never the same as what we once left, for we ourselves have changed in the meantime. So we go back to the old savage animis, and superstition, and common life of man and spirits and trees and stones, – and yet there is a difference. Things have taken on smething of the tenuous nature of the abstrctions they turned into. Again, spring and autumn, for example, non-existent, arbitrary distinctions, have attained a body and palpability they never before had. We also, we are the things, – and yet we are ourselves, in a perpetual limbo of heaven and hell.

It was necessary for us to prostrate ourselves before the Buddha, to spend nine years wall-gazing, to be born in the Western Paradise. But now, no more. Now we have to come back from Nirvana to this world, the only one. We have to live, not with Christ in glory, but with Jesus and his mother and father and brothers and sisters. We return to the friends of our childhood, the rain on the window-pane; the long silent roads of night; the waves of the shore that never cease to fall; the moon, so near and yet so far; all the sensations of texture, timbre, weight and shape, those precious treasures and inexhaustible riches of everyday life.

Haiku may well seem at first sight a poor substitute for the glowing visions of Heaven and Paradise seen of pale-lipped ascetics. As Arnold says:

Long fed on boundless hopes, O race of man,
How angrily thou spurn’st all simpler fare!

In the chapter Spiritual Origins (of Haiku) speaking of the relation of Haiku to Zen, Blyth says:

The Mahayana doctrine of the identity of difference, or indifference of opposites, is one that sets apart Buddhism and Christianity as nothing else does. This distinction explains how deeply connected Buddhist experience and Oriental poetry are, and why Christianity has been inimical or indifferent to such poets (as poets) as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Chaucer, Blake, Shelley. Paradox is the soul of religion, as it is of poetry, but where it is not recognized, or where it is anathematized, religion and poetry dwindle into dogma and sentimentality respectively.

I can’t possibly finish these volumes of Haiku before I must return them, but I was happy to meet Blyth.


2007-04-26: Tales Before Tolkien

Tales Before Tolkien

The Roots of Modern Fantasy (2003)

ed. Douglas A. Anderson (1959-)

This is a somewhat interesting book related to Tolkien’s creative triumph. It collects 22 fantasy stories that were written “before Tolkien”. Shortly after collectors had published folk-fairy tales came the first German kunstmärchen or “literary” fairy tales artistically composed by a single author. Fairy tales for children were soon followed by fantasy for adults.

The earliest tale in this book is from 1812; the latest from the 1930s. The editor’s introductory notes tell which were definitely or likely known by Tolkien, and which were likely or definitely not.

Some of the tales are better than others, but the range illustrates what the fantasy literature landscape was like before Tolkien made his very big mark. I can recommend it to Tolkien fans for that reason alone.


2006-11-10: Understanding Comics

Understanding Comics

The Invisible Art (1993)

by Scott McCloud (1960-)

This book was mentioned in an odd context: as containing insights into the presentation of ideas in graphical and textual form, applicable to the making of effective PowerPoint presentations. I am not much interested in either PowerPoint or comics, so the mere fact that I read the book is somewhat interesting.

McCloud (whose work I’m otherwise unfamiliar with) approaches comics as an art form, and so appropriate for serious criticism and understanding.

Using a face as an example, he shows a sequence of drawings from a near-photographic rendition to a circle-line-two-dots, and says: “When we abstract an image through cartooning we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning,’ an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.”

He describes several dimensions along which variations in style or approach can be applied to the creation of comics, such as complex-simple, realistic-iconic, objective-subjective, specific-universal, pictures-words. He illustrates the second with a series of faces, with the smiley-face exemplifying the iconic. Of the last he says: “Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ The message is instantaneous. Writing is perceived information.  It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.” Thus he re-labels the dimension as received-perceived. He further says: “When pictures are more abstracted from ‘reality,’ they require greater levels of perception, more like words. When words are bolder, more direct, they require lower levels of perception and are received faster, more like pictures.

On page 52-53 McCloud constructs a triangle with edges labeled ‘The Representational Edge’ (bottom), ‘The Retinal Edge’ (left), and ‘The Conceptual Edge’ (right). He labels the lower left corner ‘Reality’ and the lower right ‘Meaning’. The far right side is mostly empty beyond a line labeled ‘The Language Border’. Within this triangle, he has drawn over a hundred faces from various comic artists’ works. It is an interesting exercise, though I don’t really know what to make of it.

Starting on page 169 is some relevance to presentations, introduced with the statement that “the creation of any work in any medium will always follow a certain path. A path consisting of six steps. [idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, surface] First: The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes, of the work … the work’s ‘content.’ Second: The form it will take … will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A pot holder? A comic book? Third: The ‘school’ of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter, the genre that the work belongs to …  maybe a genre of its own. Fourth: Putting it all together … what to include, what to leave out … how to arrange, how to compose the work. Fifth: Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the ‘job’ done. Sixth: Production values, finishing … the aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work. In all the arts it’s the surface that people appreciate most easily, like an apple chosen for its shiny skin.” Later he says, “In practice, any aspect of comics may be the one which first draws an artist into its orbit. Still, the learning process for most artists is a slow and steady journey from end to beginning, from surface to core.”

As I read this, perhaps because of the way I was prompted to read it, I was tempted several times to copy pages and take them to work; however, it seems unlikely to appeal to, or even be comprehensible to, my coworkers. It might be more interesting to Chad, as a summary view of one artist’s view of art.


2005-09-26: danger on peaks

danger on peaks (2004)

by Gary Snyder (1930-)

This is a book of poems apparently composed as a unified work. Snyder begins with his first ascent of Mt. St. Helens in 1945, and of learning the next day that Hiroshima had been bombed by an atomic bomb. Later in the book are poems connected with the devastation of Mt. St. Helens by its own blast.

I found the book very touching in many places, particularly Summer of ’97, about building a house, and part VI, After Bamiyan, referring to the Taliban’s destruction of the Afghan buddhas.


2005-06-18: Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

by Anne Lamott (1954-)

This was recommended on someone’s (I’ve forgotten whose) weblog. I’d never heard of Anne Lamott, but something about the recommendation intrigued me, and I requested it from the library.

In the first part of the book, Lamott tries to explain why she started and persisted at writing, painting herself as a weird kid with no friends or prospects, and as a neurotic adult convinced that everyone has severe mental problems. I was tempted to drop the book early. Eventually she got to the advice about writing, which she has taught for many years.

Describing the difficulty of actually sticking to writing, she has a quote from E. L. Doctorow (whom I also haven’t read): “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” And Chesterton said that hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.

In her advice on characters, she says:

Think of the basket of each character’s life: what holds the ectoplasm together – what are this person’s routines, beliefs? What little things would your characters write in their journals: I ate this, I hate that, I did this, I took the dog for a long walk, I chatted with my neighbor. This is all the stuff that tethers them to the earth and to other people, all the stuff that makes each character think that life sort of makes sense.

The basket is an apt image because of all the holes. How aware is each character of how flimsy the basket really is? How present are your people? Someone once said to me, “I am trying to learn to stay in the now – not the last now, not the next now, this now.” Which “now” do your characters dwell in?

A little later she says:

I once asked Ethan Canin to tell me the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and without hesitation he said, “Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.” I think he’s right. If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn’t really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time. I could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for about an hour without needing much else to happen. Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. . . .

Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I.

On plot, she refers to books by E. M. Forster and John Gardner. She then says “Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.” Later: Plot is “what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t”. And “Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is. Then you can take them from good to bad and back again, or from bad to good, or from lost to found. But something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers will not turn the pages. Think of a hockey player – there had better be a puck out there on the ice, or he is going to look pretty ridiculous.”

She says:

John Gardner wrote that the writer is creating a dream into which he or she invites the reader, and that the dream must be vivid and continuous. I tell my students to write this down – that the dream must be vivid and continuous – because it is so crucial. . . . you don’t get to sit next to readers and explain little things you left out, or fill in details that would have made the action more interesting or believeable. The material has got to work on its own, and the dream must be vivid and continuous.

She says, “Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.” I suppose this is part of the instruction about Life. “The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in ‘The Farmer in the Dell’ standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.” She promotes “compassionate detachment”, and gets very Taoist. She has this poem by “the Persion mystic, Rumi” taped over her desk:

God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flowerbed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

She also has a Gary Snyder poem:

Ripples on the surface of the water–
were silver salmon passing under–different
from ripples caused by breezes

Throughout, she plays down the importance of publication. She urges writing for its own sake, for its effects on the writer, and as a gift to readers such as friends. She quotes Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”, and says “if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not everyone will be glad that you did.”

The bits above were the interesting bits for me, and I’m sure there are better books for writers than this one. Still, every little bit helps. Perhaps her urging will motivate me to write more.


2004-02-18: Will in the World

Will in the World

How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004)

by Stephen Greenblatt (1943-)

Greenblatt is a Harvard professor, editor of The Norton Shakespeare, and has clearly pondered the ways in which a person’s background thought affects his expression, or at least the ways in which the known, surmised, and conjectured background thought of William Shakespeare affected his expression in the sonnets and plays.

I read this book not long after Michael Woods’ In Search of Shakespeare, and the early parts of this book contained a lot of familiar material. However, the two works have different objectives and approaches. I found them both very interesting.

Greenblatt describes the constraints on players of the Elizabethan period, and the religious, social, and entertainment communities in which Shakespeare came of age. Addressing his later work, Greenblatt describes Shakespeare’s innovations, particularly what he calls the opacity of motivation: a way of describing a character’s actions without explicitly describing his thought processes, rather allowing the audience to infer them from more or less subtle hints implicit in the behavior. The final chapter describes how thoughts of retirement must have influenced his latest plays.

I found it interesting to learn how the fortunes of his company were affected by the accession of James, and the ways in which Shakespeare probed the limits of censorship or royal acceptance. I also hadn’t known of his business success in setting up for a long retirement.

Greenblatt acknowledges many scholars and biographers. Interestingly, among them is Woods and the movie Shakespeare In Love.

As often happens, this work inspires me to read further. I would like to look into the Norton Shakespeare, though I can’t tell if I will give this project enough priority to actually accomplish it (it’s over 3,000 pages!).


2004-12-16: Chronicles


Volume One (2004)

by Bob Dylan (1941-)

I ran across a mention of this book more or less at random, and requested it from the library catalog.

This is a more straightforward work than some of Dylan’s other writings, and covers parts of his life from childhood to about 1987. There is a surprising amount of information about his early days in the Minneapolis folk scene from 1959 to about 1961, and his early New York years. The material is presented out of order, and without many actual dates, but it is possible to keep it more or less straight.

From about 1961, he has this to say about the Beats:

Within the first few months that I was in New York I’d lost my interest in the “hungry for kicks” hipster vision that Kerouac illustrates so well in his book On the Road. That book had been like a bible for me. Not anymore, though. I still loved the breathless, dynamic bop poetry phrases that flowed from Jack’s pen, but now, that character Moriarty seemed out of place, purposeless – seemed like a character who inspired idiocy. He goes through life bumping and grinding with a bull on top of him.

After his success led to celebrity, and after he had a family, he felt trapped by the hordes, becoming a tourist destination. Around 1968 he withdrew and abandoned his supposed leadership of the music and youth scene, “spokesman for the new generation”.

What mattered to me most was getting breathing room for my family. The whole spectral world could go to hell. My outer image would have to be something a bit more confusing, a bit more humdrum. It’s hard to live like this. It takes all your effort. The first thing that has to go is any form of artistic self-expression that’s dear to you. Art is unimportant next to life, and you have no choice. I had no hunger for it anymore, anyway. Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key ingredients is missing, it doesn’t work. It was impossible now for me to observe anything without being observed. … I had never intended to be on the road of heavy consequences and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots. Liberty for myself and my loved ones had to be secured. I had no time to kill and I didn’t like what was being thrown at me. This main meal of garbage had to mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I’d have to go to great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.

He then describes how he went about wrecking his public image to get people off his back. My favorite part of this passage is the part in bold (my emphasis) above.

His father didn’t seem to understand him, asked if art wasn’t something that painters did. However, in one phone call home, Dylan recalls his father saying, “Remember, Robert, in life anything can happen. Even if you don’t have all the things you want, be grateful for things you don’t have that you don’t want.”

In Chapter 5, River of Ice, about his Minneapolis days he mentions a lot of artists who influenced him in that period. He listened to a lot of Folkways records, and mentions Foc’sle Songs and Sea Shanties by Dave Van Ronk and others. Van Ronk would later get him his first steady gig in New York. He also mentions the Electra record Sampler, which had Peggy Seeger among others, and the cowboy song “Doney Gal”. He listened to John Jacob Niles’s songs “Maid Freed from the Gallows” and “Go Away from My Window” a lot. He mentions old ballads he heard from Harry Webber, such as “Old Greybeard”, “When a Man’s in Love”, “Roger Esquire”. He heard someone’s record with Tom Darby and Jimmy Tarleton singing “Way Down in Florida on a Hog”.

At some point someone let him listen to a collection of Woody Guthrie records; prior to this, he had only heard Guthrie singing on records with other people, singing traditional songs.

I put one on the turntable and when the needle dropped, I was stunned – didn’t know if I was stoned or straight. What I heard was Woody singing a whole lot of his own compositions all by himself . . . songs like “Ludlow Massacre,” “1913 Massacre,” “Jesus Christ,” “Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Jackhammer John,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues,” “This Land Is Your Land.”

All these songs together, one after another made my head spin. It made me want to gasp. It was like the land parted. I had heard Guthrie before but mainly just a song here and there – mostly things that he sang with other artists. I hadn’t actually heard him, not in this earth shattering kind of way. I couldn’t believe it. Guthrie had such a grip on things. He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto. He was like none of the other singers I ever heard, and neither were his songs. His mannerisms, the way everything just rolled off his tongue, it all just about knocked me down. It was like the record player itself had picked me up and flung me across the room. I was listening to his diction, too. He had a perfected style of singing that it seemed like no one else had ever thought about. He would throw in the sound of the last letter of a word whenever he felt like it and it would come like a punch. The songs themselves, his repertoire, were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them. Not one mediocre song in the bunch. Woody Guthrie tore everything in his path to pieces. For me it was an epiphany, like some heavy anchor had just plunged into the waters of the harbor.

That day I listened all afternoon to Guthrie as if in a trance and I felt like I had discovered some essence of self-command, that I was in the internal pocket of the system feeling more like myself than ever before. A voice in my head said, “So this is the game.” I could sing all these songs, every single one of them and they were all that I wanted to sing. It was like I had been in the dark and someone had turned on the main switch of a lightning conductor.

A great curiosity respecting the man had also seized me and I had to find out who Woody Guthrie was. It didn’t take me long. Dave Whittaker, one of the Svengali-type Beats on the scene happened to have Woody’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, and he lent it to me. I went through it from cover to cover like a hurricane, totally focused on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio. Guthrie writes like the whirlwind and you get tripped out on the sound of the words alone. Pick up the book anywhere, turn to any page and he hits the ground running. Who is he? He’s a hustling ex-sign painter from Oklahoma, an antimaterialist who grew up in the Depression and Dust Bowl days – migrated West, had a tragic childhood, a lot of fire in his life – figuratively and literally. He’s a singing cowboy, but he’s more than a singing cowboy. Woody’s got a fierce poetic soul – the poet of hard crust sod and gumbo mud. Guthrie divides the world between those who work and those who don’t and is interested in the liberation of the human race and wants to create a world worth living in. Bound for Glory is a hell of a book. It’s huge. Almost too big.

His songs are something else, though, and even if you’ve never read the book, you’d know who he was through his songs. For me, his songs made everything else come to a screeching halt. I decided then and there to sing nothing but Guthrie songs. It’s almost like I didn’t have any choice. I liked my repertoire the way it was – stuff like “Cornbread, Meat and Molasses,” “Betty and Dupree,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton” – but I’d have to put it all on the back burner for a while, didn’t know if I’d ever get back to it. Through his compositions my view of the world was coming sharply into focus. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple. It seemed a worthy thing. I even seemed to be related to him. Even from a distance and having never seen the man, I could perceive his face with a clearness. He looks not unlike my father in my father’s early days. I knew little about Woody. I wasn’t even sure if he was alive anymore. The book makes it seem like he was a character from the old past. Whittaker, though, had got me up to date on him, that he was in ill health somewhere in the East and I pondered that.

During the next few weeks I went back a few times to Lyn’s house to listen to those records. He was the only one who seemed to have so many of them. One by one, I began singing them all, felt connected to those songs on every level. They were cosmic. One thing for sure, Woody Guthrie had never seen nor heard of me, but it felt like he was saying, “I’ll be going away, but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.”

I’d say Dylan was somewhat influenced by Woody Guthrie.

His girlfriend took him to hear a Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil production that included a song called “Pirate Jenny”, which also had a great influence on his approach to writing.

In about 1963, Dylan was given a pre-release copy of Robert Johnson’s blues songs being released by his record company, Columbia. This also impressed him:

When Johnson started singing, he seemed to like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor. I immediately differentiated between him and anyone else I had ever heard. The songs weren’t customary blues songs. They were perfected pieces – each song contained four or five verses, every couplet intertwined with the next but in no obvious way. They were so utterly fluid. At first they went by quick, too quick to even get. They jumped all over the place in range and subject matter, short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story – fires of mankind blasting off the surface of this spinning piece of plastic. “Kind Hearted Woman,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Come On in My Kitchen.”

Johnson’s voice and guitar were ringing the room and I was mixed up in it. Didn’t see how anybody couldn’t be.  But Dave wasn’t. … The record that didn’t grab Dave very much left me numb, like I’d been hit by a tranquilizer bullet. … Over the next few weeks I listened to it repeatedly, cut after cut, one song after another, sitting staring at the record player. Whenever I did, it felt like a ghost had come into the room, a fearsome apparition. The songs were layered with a startling economy of lines. Johnson masked the presence of more than twenty men. I fixated on every song and wondered how Johnson did it. Songwriting for him was some highly sophisticated business. The compositions seemed to come right out of his mouth and not his memory, and I started meditating on the construction of the verses, seeing how different they were from Woody’s. Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence. Johnson bypasses tedious descriptions that other blues writers would have written whole songs about. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined. When he sings about icicles hanging on a tree it gives me the chills, or about milk turning blue . . . it made me nauseous and I wondered how he did that. Also, all the songs had some weird personal resonance. Throwaway lines, like, “If today were Christmas Eve and tomorrow were Christmas Day.” I could feel that in my bones – that particular yuletide time of the year. … Everything for Johnson is legitimate prey. There’s a fishing song called “Dead Shrimp Blues” unlike anything you could expect – a screwed up fishing song with red-blooded lines that’s way beyond metaphor. …

I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction – themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them. I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience might have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future. “The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out,” he sings. Johnson is serious, like the scorched earth. There’s nothing clownish about him or his lyrics. I wanted to be like that, too. …

In a few years’ time, I’d write and sing songs like “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Who Killed Davey Moore,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and some others like that. If I hadn’t gone to the Theater de Lys and heard the ballad “Pirate Jenny,” it might not have dawned on me to write them, that songs like these could be written. In about 1964 and ’65, I probably used about five or six of Robert Johnson’s blues song forms, too, unconsciously, but more on the lyrical imagery side of things. If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record, when I did, there probably wouldn’t have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down – that I wouldn’t have felt free enough or upraised to write. … To go with all of that, someplace along the line Suze had also introduced me to the poetry of French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. That was a big deal, too. I came across one of his letters called “Je est un autre,” which translates into “I is someone else.” When I read those words the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier. It went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul and Woody’s hopped-up union meeting sermons and the “Pirate Jenny” framework. Everything was in transition and I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up.

Of course, Dylan has been through some significant changes in his outlook, and it is impossible to know how the current Dylan really sees his earlier versions, and how he has censored himself. Nonetheless, the book is interesting and if there is ever another volume, I’ll read it.