Writing… winnowing out the packing peanuts

 
 
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
 
“So many large words, as though syllables will hide the truth” Sharon Mock, She Walks in Shadows
 
“Vigorous writing is concise.” Walter Strunk Jr.
 
As a software person, I try to keep aware of the technologies available to me. Whether I choose to use them or not. Part of my awareness program is reading articles and white papers. One issue I find, more often than not, is superfluous and, often, hyperbolic text jammed around the meat of what I need to consume. For instance, I am reading more and more about something called NoSQL databases. I am aware of what they are, and generally enough of how they work. But I’m trying to make clear to myself when and where one would choose this form of database. Almost every article I read has so much fluff surrounding the core thesis, it makes it difficult to find the “bullet points” I need. Things such as, “in response to the voluminous rise of chaotic data”, or “the original design of relational databases do not meet the exponentially growing needs of scaling and agility of modern applications.” I have purposefully altered the text so no one source will stand out. It is often exasperating to try to find the information inside all this hyperbolic jargon. And yet, I am guilty of the same thing.
 
When I write for pleasure, mostly fiction, I find quite often my eyes straying to the word count. “Cool, almost a thousand words so far in my short story!” Yet after allowing my fevered brain to cool off a bit and re-read the story, I typically find no single thread of my original plot line, and so many tangental strays it’s hard to count them. My dilemma then is, do I just command-a and delete, or spend the time trying to sort the whole mess out. The former is usually the best choice. Hemingway said, “write drunk, and edit sober.” Sadly my sober writing self makes my editor self need a drink.
 
Writers write. Or so my lizard brain tends to think. Therefore if I want to be a writer, then by god I need to write. Words. Lots of them. That there is writing wouldn’t ya’ say? Hmmm. Maybe not. Think of when you get that couch-sized box delivered, and after tearing into it you find a single pen you’ve ordered… buried somewhere in millions of packing peanuts. And you think, *jeez, what a total waste.* That’s the fluff. That’s the purple prose. That’s the useless crap that gets in the way of what you really need. And if I can just sit back for a minute and sip a mint julep (well Ernest, I guess I won’t be editing now) and just remember what it is I love, and have so loved, about reading, I’ll most likely notice it is the “S” word. The story. Oh yeah, I’ve heard of those. Tolkien drew me into a wonderful fantasy world filled with darkness, but then pulled back a curtain to show the spark of joy and hope that can be gleaned from even the darkest of nights. Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein, and so many others blew my mind out of the stratosphere, and showed me the marvels of the universe. And the universe’s perils. Donaldson tripped my brain on other worlds where everything I thought I knew was turned on its head. And a protagonist who often acted as the converse. “Why?!” I’d shout in my head as Halfhand did some other horrible thing. The more words the better? No, not really. Yep, it’s the stories, not the words. Well, sort of. Words are the communication medium writers use to give us the story. But the greatest writers, the ones we want to read anyway, are the ones who tune these worded stories to a razor’s edge (another great story) to slip us into his or her vision. It’s like a radio signal to our brain, and no static at all. So all you writers (including tech writers), take note. Leave out the fluff, tune us in, and we’ll tap our foot to your tune with no static. At all.
 
Peace, love, and light.
 
Marv

The Mind’s Eye

The Mind’s Eye

Kathy turned the eye of the stove on, its blood red coil searing the events of the evening into her mind, dulling her disturbed emotions. Hands shaking, she poured the peeled tomatoes into a saucepan, and added the dried noodles. These are Teddy’s favorites, Kathy thought glancing into the living room as she walked to the rubbish bin, Kathy could just see the edge of Ted’s slippers resting on the floor in front of the couch. God, he would watch that idiot box all day and night if he could, Kathy thought.

Outside, a storm that earlier had moved in with a shrug was now growing restless. Flickers of lightning cast shadows through the kitchen window. A brilliant flash startled Kathy.

“Teddy darling, you really should turn that TV off. The lightning is going to burn it out.”

 Oh Teddy, I’m always taking care of you, and Lord knows you need it. Kathy’s mind wandered down familiar paths. You and your fanciful dreams Teddy, you have no idea how many times I’ve saved you from hurt. Kathy remembered so many times when Ted would bound up the stairs with some new – foolish in her mind – idea. The camper for instance, seriously Teddy, don’t you think things through?

“Kathy! What if we bought a camper! We could take some of our friends and tour the campgrounds in the state. I’ve got some brochures here; let’s take a look at them!” Ted said. The excitement lighting his typically dull eyes.

“Well Teddy that is quite an idea. How much do campers cost?”

“Well, we have a few options. I could rig up a hitch on our station wagon and get a little camper to pull behind it. I asked a fellow at the auto parts store, and he said our wagon could handle a nice little airstream.”

“Do you really feel comfortable putting all these people in danger with your ‘rigging’ of a hitch?” Kathy warned icily. “And this sounds awfully expensive, remember we have to prepare for our retirement, you know how these politicians are, they are already spending our social security money.”

“Oh I know that Kathy,” Ted countered. “And I know we have to take care of ourselves, no one else will! But I feel like I need to live a little now, not just put it all off until I retire. I sometimes wonder if I’ll make it that long.”

“Oh don’t be silly Teddy, I take good care of you, and if you will listen to me, you will stay healthy as a horse.”

“I’ve seen some sick old nags.” Ted said as he grumbled back to the stairs. “And don’t call me Teddy.”

“What was that Teddy?” Kathy said without even a glance in Ted’s direction.

“Nothing dear.”

Kathy’s attention was drawn back to the present. Like little pulsing hearts, the veined-tomatoes began to writhe in the heat. With this movement, Kathy gave the concoction another stir, placed the lid on the pot and began the simmer. At the same time as the lid clinked onto the pan, a single dark red drop formed on the fabric of the couch behind Ted’s head. The drop coalesced and dropped to the floor deepening the stain on the carpet.

Kathy busied herself around the kitchen. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, was Kathy’s motto. Kathy had a never-ending supply of mottos to apply to those around her… and occasionally even to herself. Just take the time Teddy got it into his head that he should get a job with the National Park Service. Oh there had been quite a row with that one! Teddy had really gotten himself worked up until he finally the merits of staying with the company he had been with for fifteen years already. 

“You’re building equity in yourself.” Kathy had asserted.

“Actually I’m building equity in a company and group of executives who don’t care about anything other than their bottom line!” Ted said bordering on insolence. “They certainly don’t care about my bottom line.”

That was so like my Teddy, really just a boy at heart, and he does so need a mum, my little Teddy boy.

Ted continued, “My equity is in myself, and my abilities, and in my heart. Kathy honey, nothing makes my heart beat stronger than to be out in the boundless beauty of nature!”

“Oh Teddy darling, I know you think that’s what you want, and I’m sure you’ve convinced yourself of that. You are very convincing you know, and I love it when you stand up for what you think you believe in. But, you know how valuable you are to your company. You know how much they need you. You do have an obligation to them and honestly to me to be a faithful employee, and a faithful provider. “

Ted winced when Kathy uttered the word ‘but’, then turned and walked away calling over his shoulder, “Don’t call me Teddy.” Kathy just smiled; this was how she knew that he was seeing reason.

The storm outside blew tiny raindrops against the window causing a subtle ‘swish’ like a broom brushing against the pane. Kathy glanced into the living room, her eyes slowly moving to the television, its warm glow framing the scene. Ted sitting on the couch, his head lolled to the side, the shadowy trail of blood from the hole in his temple gleamed in the ethereal light. A car commercial ended, and the local news came on with a recap of an earlier silly story about another company filing bankruptcy. Oh big news, Kathy thought. She had told Ted that this would pass. Kathy had even considered calling down there to the news station and giving them a piece of her mind. “This is just fear-mongering,” Kathy would tell them flatly! Kathy’s reverie was interrupted by the dancing ‘tink’ of the lid on the pan. The smell of the torrent of tomatoes writhing among the pasta made Kathy feel grounded. A quick stir with a wooden spoon, and then Kathy’s favorite part: Popping the fleshy veined hearts, halving them so the pasta could soak up all that good juice. Oh Teddy will just love this.

Lonnie Stokes

“You ripped my scab you shithead.”

Lonnie held his arm up to my face, “I ought to make you eat it Harmon.”

“You did it L-Lonnie.” I said. “You di- did it trying to take my lunch box.” My voice hitching as I barely held back the tears.

“Only a queer would have a Scooby-Do lunch box Harmon. And you’re a damned queer if I ever saw one.”

It was an understatement that Lonnie Stokes was the bane of my existence on my bus rides home. I watched as Lonnie picked at the scab — one of three perfect little circles on his left arm. His hair stuck out every which way; especially the hair around his ears, swooping up to the skies, making his John Deere hat look like a bird about to take flight. His t-shirt had a rip under the right sleeve, and I could see a purplish bruise with yellow edges.

“What are you lookin’ at Harmon? You got some kind of problem?”

“I ain’t looking at nothin’ Lonnie.” I said as I looked away quickly. I remember what he did to Randy Stanley, and it made that bruise look pleasant.

“Nothin’?” Lonnie twisted in his seat facing me directly, his farm-hardened body indenting the torn t-shirt. “You callin’ me nothin’?  I’m gonna give you what you’ve been asking for you queer son of a bitch. “

They say that in times of great stress time slows down. Now that I’m a neuroscientist I know that isn’t actually true, but I remember clearly seeing the minute details of that incoming fist; little white scars from hay bailers on a weathered canvas. The calluses on the knuckles were the last I remember though.

Lonnie got kicked off the bus for a week after that little incident. He didn’t come to school during that week. I heard his folks didn’t have a car, just their farm truck, and even there in East Tennessee it wasn’t street legal. The next time I saw Lonnie we were getting on the bus for the ride home, and I was a scared boy. He stared at me with a hatred I could feel. Palpable. I didn’t look long at him, but I did notice that his bruise now had a little brother, the purple hugging his eye and reaching across for his ear. For the rest of the year I made sure to get in the front of the line and take a seat at the front of the bus.

Those bus rides were a microcosm of the human experience, distilled down to its most visceral elements. I remember some good times talking and sharing football cards with the one or two friends who rode my route. But mostly I remember Lonnie. He dropped out his junior year, and I never heard from him again. Though he still foments fear in me, I think of him often, and I recognize now those little cigarette-sized circular scars as crop circles of perpetuated violence, and think about how sometimes our society does indeed eat its young.

Michael Park’s Summer Vacation

Michael jumped at the knock on the door; almost knocking the paint can off the stepladder.

“Coming.” Michael said as he wiped a little paint residue off his hands.

“Are you Mister Michael Parks?” The policeman said.

“Yes, I’m Michael Parks, my dad was the mister part though.” Michael said. smiling as he opened the door.

“Mister Parks, were you at Elm Springs Elementary School yesterday?”

“Yes I was, I was there with a couple of other teachers. We were finishing up the class records and archiving them to the county’s servers.”

“Mister Parks, I’m going to need you to come down to the station with me. We have a few questions for you.”

“Do we have to do this now? I’ve just started painting the kitchen and my wife will kill me if I don’t get it done today. My wife. Don’t make her angry, you wouldn’t like here when she’s angry.” Michael said trying hard to keep his hands from shaking.

“I’m afraid this can’t wait sir.” The policeman said.

Michael saw the serious look on the policeman’s face and decided to forego his next joke.

“I’ll be right with you, let me change shirts and wash my hands.”

Michael fumbled with the buttons on his shirt, anticipating what was in store. It was just a joke, just a bit of fun, and no one got hurt. Michael thought.

Michael had never ridden in the back of a police car before. He stared at the smooth plastic cover where a door handle would normally be. I guess it’s pretty obvious that they’d not want you to roll the windows down. Michael thought. Walking into the police station Michael saw the reason for his delightful ride; what comic books would call his arch nemesis: Dolores Wagner. Michael had taken no more than three steps into the station when Dolores stood and stabbed her finger in his direction.

“That’s him! He’s the one that vandalized the school. He’s the one who defaced and destroyed government property. He’s a terrorist and should be locked up.” Little flecks of foam stood in the corners of Dolores’ mouth as she spat each word at Michael.

“Oh come on Dolores. A few styrofoam peanuts in one of the teacher’s file cabinets, and some hand lotion on door knobs doth not terrorism make.”

“Again with the wise cracks. Hmmm Mister Parks?” Dolores face assumed it’s smug shape. Where Michael was concerned Dolores typically had only two looks: twisted with rage, or smug when those she pressured into action would come down on Michael.

“I suppose you have forgotten about car theft haven’t you Mister Parks?” The vein on the side of her neck throbbed in rhythm with her speech.”

“Oh Jesus Dolores, I just shuffled peoples cars around in the parking lot. It’s just a bit of fun to kick off the summer. I mean, you remember what it’s like to have fun don’t you Dolores? You just put your lips together and… well, you know the rest.” Michael said, not able to keep from bouncing his eyebrows a bit at the last part.

“You see officers. He can’t even take his crimes seriously.”

“Mister Parks, I would advise you to hold up until we have time to discuss the situation with you.” Sergeant Overton said, lightly placing his hand on Michael’s shoulder. A subtle glance in Dolores’ direction, and Overton’s face dropped with resignation. “I believe Ms. Wagner, as the director of Water County Schools is going to press charges. And Mister Parks, with this happening on government property this could be quite serious.” This does actually fall within the law.

“Are you serious?” Michael said, the surprise lifting his eyebrows as much as Overton’s had dropped.

“Serious Mister Parks. Deadly serious.” Dolores said coldly.

“Serious sir. Sadly.” Overton sighed.

And so began a most interesting summer vacation for Michael Parks, the former math and science teacher at Elm Springs Elementary School.

The Rock Quarry

I have climbed Mount Everest. I have also climbed the Matterhorn. I have fought German Panzers advancing on Patton’s position. I have broken trail with Daniel Boone. And I have parlayed with the leaders of the Sioux nation whilst living amongst them as a mountain man. All within earshot of my mother calling me to dinner.

This place of magic and imagination was “the rock quarry”, a unique and wonderful throwback to a time of growth in the area. It was a place nestled in a juxtaposition of time, born in an era when life was much harder, and the fingerprints of pioneer technology were still evident. Yet this place existed in my modern childhood; a time of television, fast cars, and free-love — which I was too young for dammit.

In the early twentieth century the wave of westward expansion had swept over the area long ago. Knoxville’s river-city heyday had come and gone, and out in the country we were left with mostly just filling in the lines. The county I grew up in was ‘modernizing’ its infrastructure; building new roads, and improving some of the existing secondary roadways. A final gasp of its mule-powered muscles; mules and manpower in lieu of dump trucks and mechanical excavators, and without the means to haul the roadbed materials, the county dug quarries along the way. The use of local resources, both terrestrial and human, was necessary, and gave many of the locals a bit of profit. Sweat equity had a different meaning back then. The original purpose of these quarries was utilitarian, but by the time I came along that original purpose was gone, and for me it was a place of inspiration, challenge, and adventure.

Though my childhood was an amazing slice of time compared to the era when the rock quarry was born, it was pretty antiquated compared to life today. We had television, but could receive only two of Knoxville’s three stations. We received the third station, the station that broadcast Batman had just enough to barely make out Adam West as he pondered whatever superheroes ponder; this was a tease that bothered me to no end. I recall once during a futile attempt at adjusting the little flags of aluminum foil wrapped strategically around the rabbit ears I was able to make out “to the bat cave Robin”; which totally made my day. I believe I commanded my family *to the bat cave* for the next two weeks. Even with just two stations, there was still plenty of fodder for my imagination: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; Lost in Space; Davy Crockett; and the updates to the Apollo missions amongst many. I did mention that regardless of my lack of television I did grow up in an amazing time didn’t I? Television and space exploration not withstanding, my solace and recreation was in comic books, and the  forest around my house.

My family lived in the ‘holler’. I have to be honest, it just sounds funny to call it the hollow even though geologically it is a hollow depression in the ridge, probably caused by the collapse of some ancient limestone cavern long ago. Still yet it was the holler to me, and to everyone I knew. At the time, our gravel driveway left the main roadway through a small meadow — beautiful, but prone to flooding — and across a homemade wooden bridge. This was the sort of bridge with broad braces on angled support poles with planks perpendicular to the braces creating runners for your tires. I can’t tell you how many people would take one look at that bridge and give a hearty “hell no.” (Most likely a “heck no”, we were in a good Baptist community after all.) Across the bridge, the driveway followed a brook, the “branch”, whose violent past had likely cut an easy path out of the holler and down into the valley. The driveway curved left and ascended up into the hollow… uh, I mean holler, and a couple dozen yards up, the quarry appeared on the left like a gaping cavity in the hillside. This cavity sloped slightly downward into a crescent-shaped cutout, and the floor of this cutout was carpeted with fine gravel – obviously these were the tailings of the quarrying operation. Though the quarry wasn’t actually very tall, maybe thirty feet at its zenith, still, the deeper you went into the cutout, the more you had to crane your neck to see the top of the quarry. Because of the topography of the hillside, the contours of the quarry’s height followed a sharp parabola. A wizened climber would have chosen one of the side routes to easily scamper up, but not the thrill-seeking adventurer such as I. No, for me it would be straight up the middle, with only the slightest meander around a protruding boulder and then latching onto the cedar tree that grew from a crack in a boulder face and up to the top of this escarpment I would spring. Sir Edmund Hillary himself could not have been more proud than I was on any of my many successful climbs. Standing at the top of the quarry my gaze was unhindered of the main road in the valley below. And it was here that I was indeed ‘King’ of my mountain. And it was here that my imagination would soar.

You may recall that the woods, and the quarry in the woods, were the place I could unleash my imagination, and the television shows I watched gave me inspiration, but so did comic books. I recall reading war comics like Sgt. Fury, and the Howling Commandos, I would devour these stories and then reenact them as soon as daylight came. A tobacco stick, or some other ‘mostly’ straight piece of wood served as my M1 carbine; or perhaps I’d break the stick a bit smaller and it would be my ‘Tommy gun’. For me it didn’t matter what story I was reliving, nor its source: comics, television shows, or even the encyclopedias I read with great enthusiasm, I could always find some place in the quarry to relive it. The large cracks in the rocks were my Crystal Cave, and I would either be the modern Floyd Collins (who met his death while exploring Mammoth Caves), or the fictional Merlin experiencing his historic visions in his Crystal Cave, or Sgt. Fury savoring his victory whilst chomping on a stogie. The rock quarry was everything and anything to my growing imagination.

Though my Everest was not so tall, and the Panzers and Germans were only in my mind, my imagination paved the way for many facets of my life; most of my successes, when thoughtfully analyzed, clearly show among their sources the spark of creativity that the rock quarry gave me. Erosion, encroaching development, and kudzu will slowly render my rock quarry into little more than a steeply sloped gravel pile, but it will remain a bastion of adventure for me. And for this I am eternally grateful.

Peace and Love.

Marv

Just Write

“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.” —Allen Ginsberg

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” —Ernest Hemingway

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” —Stephen King

Oh Calliope, muse of writing, where art thou? That has been my lament for some time now. Sadly it is no fault of the muse, but my own blind eye turned away from the page. Writing is easy; or the act of writing, as an exercise, is easy. When I am responding to questions, or stating an opinion, or a point of fact, I can pontificate profusely — and as my work colleagues would confirm, I typically do. I find delivering words through my fingers onto the keyboard a quite liberating action. I can pepper my prose with the appropriate humor, or deliver the: one, two, three punches as bulleted lists with relative ease.

But, and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming… to write, as in to write creatively, is oh so hard. Ideas aren’t the problem, those typically flood my mind, seeping into every crevice; no it’s that instantaneous editing, guidance, and shepherding of the plethora of ideas into the least nauseating prose I can set down into the bits on my computer that is the real issue. I sit at the keyboard and wonder — and yes Jethro Tull, often aloud — how this plot should proceed, what should this character say, I’ll mutter “show don’t tell” under my breath incessantly. I’m sure I’m a comical figure whilst writing: I talk to myself and make the necessary facial expressions as I answer; I’ll exclaim, “no, no, no” when I’ve made a decision in plot or character that I realize was wrong; and finally throw my hands in the air as I start up a game of solitaire — draw three, Vegas rules of course. A truly agonizing experience, and I’m sure a horrible sight as well; sorry work colleagues.

When I know I should write, I will make every excuse in the book. I have been known to avoid eye contact with my computer when I know I should be writing. I honestly think I’d rather clean than even sit at my computer. But then comes the perfect storm of ideas and decisions. Calliope has spoken. I look at my computer and whisper breathily, “oh hello you.” With only the slightest hint at digital foreplay and I am on a roll. I’ve corralled the creative juices into something that is cohesive, and maybe even just a bit entertaining or enlightening… then I am in bliss. It feels amazing, the pouring forth of prose that every alcohol-soaked brain cell died for; some sort of culmination of the essence of me, of my personality… of the cerebral WhoIs of me. Yes then it is all worth it. When I’ve typed out a few hundred words, hell maybe a thousand or possibly more, I will get giddy, cocky even. I’ll laugh and mock myself for stupidly procrastinating. Swaggering around in my own mind, I’ll make commitments to “do this every day”. It’s always easy to revel in success, even if the success is confirmed by only you. Such a great feeling, and it is what I dared to begin writing for in the first place.

But then begins the editing process. Oy!

Peace and love.

Marv

Music and writing

“Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” – Charlie Parker

“Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid” – Frank Zappa

“Playing the flute is like writing a book. You’re telling what’s in your heart…It’s easier to play if it’s right from your heart. You get the tone, and the fingers will follow.” – Eddie Cahill

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” – Aldous Huxley

I love music. I listen to music every day, and I can’t imagine not having some form of music in my life. I think it’s genetic. My grandfather, a farmer back in the day, would relax in the evenings by picking out tunes on the banjo; a banjo he traded a pig for by the way. He didn’t have Pandora, or iTunes, or MP3 players, but he still got his music fix. I read somewhere once that some paleontologists think that human speech developed first through group singing. I think I can picture that, actually it is highly reminiscent of a hipster concert. (Although the hipster concert would most certainly be hairier.)

My choices of music vary as to what task I’m performing. As a software designer by trade, I tend to listen to ambient, or other sorts of music whilst coding. If I listen to something like Nine Inch Nails, I tend to write mean code. None of us want mean code. If I’m cleaning the house… No honest I do. Sometimes. But if I’m cleaning the house, I like to listen to something a little more upbeat. For a long trip I love putting on a huge playlist of my most favorite songs, or maybe listen to a couple of comedy albums. Nothing like some Mitch Hedberg to get me through the doldrums of interstate whatever.

Now that I’m trying to write more, writing fiction or essays that is, I tend to be quite selective in the music to accompany the type of story I’m writing. For instance I’m writing a short story about a young man from a place in the south, who is on a bus ride back home to attend a funeral. I can’t listen to Bebel Gilberto, she’s much too worldly. No I choose something to put me in just that right mood. Maybe the soundtrack to True Blood, or maybe the Legendary Shack Shakers. I want something that gets me into that gritty ‘70s Burt Reynolds southern exploitation frame of mind. Shakey puddin’ anyone? Now when the  protagonists mother calls him an “ungrateful little shit”, I can really feel it. I hope all of you do too. Well, when you read it that is. And I hope it’ll be published sooner rather than later, I have a few thoughts for publishing, and I’ll keep you all in formed. (Had I been listening to some southern grit music: I’ll keep all y’all informed.)

Peace and love.

Marv