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 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

Huntsville, Alabama

I’m going to Huntsville! Yup. For five wonderful days. Umm Why am I going to Huntsville you ask? Well, let me tell you… I’m going to Huntsville to write. I have made a decision to write more, and you can’t write more without writing. So I’m trying to figure out just how I can create the right environment to encourage myself to sit and tap out those profound words that keep bubbling to the surface of my consciousness. Okay, it just so happens that I’m staying at a Hotel/Spa, so I’ll get a massage too. But writing, that’s why I’m going to Huntsville. I know from painful experience that it’s difficult for me to sit on the couch with the television and Netflix beckoning to me so raucously to think that I can just lounge on the couch and write. Wrapping my head around the word processor page is much more difficult than putting my fingers on the keys, but once I get in the flow I can churn out some Hemingwayesque prose. (Yeah only in my mind.) Okay fine,  the hotel has a Ruth’s Chris steak house in it, so a massage and a steak or two. But also writing. Yep that’s why I’m going to Huntsville. It’s not far from the house, and though I’m sure it’s a fun town, it’s not a beach town, and it’s not a huge tourist draw like New York City, or filled with tourist attractions such as Washington D.C. (I could spend five days just in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum.) I would like to find a couple of places to which I could flee for a few days, or maybe even a week,  every quarter or so. All part of my nefarious plan.

So after the massage, and a steak or two, and maybe just one visit to some of the NASA attractions nearby. Man I am gonna write!

Peace and love.

Marv