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Archive for June, 2009

Help! I can’t connect to the Internet. I logged into my computer this morning only to discover that my cable was out. I wonder if we’re at the mercy of our electronic toys. What will I do if I can’t “communicate” with the world? What if I could write without the distractions of email, click this, click that…?

Falcon01

Well, I never have to boot up my fountain pen when I want to write. I’ll just uncap my Namiki, with a nib like the beak of it’s Falcon namesake, pull out a fresh sheet of paper and get to it. Speaking of paper, I had been using Ampad Gold Fiber pads for my writing. Nice paper but pricey at $15 for a half dozen pads. I was in Staples last week to stock up and discovered my new favorite paper.

My Falcon loves my new pads. They’re simply called “eco-friendly writing pads” and they’re made from 80% sugarcane waste aka “bagasse.” I endorse Staples’ claim that “the quality is just as good as traditional tree-based paper…” In fact I like this paper better. And the best part is the pads are cheap. I spent $2 for two pads.

I’m writing this post with pyroom, my latest simple electronic tool. Writing with only the words on a simple screen is liberating. The temptation to respond to an email alert is gone. The screen clutter of menus and other doodads is gone. Writing this way is the electronic version of a fountain pen and a clean sheet of paper. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

I finally got my Internet connection back. Instead of sitting in front of my computer wringing my hands in despair waiting for Comcast to get their act together, I went for a ride on my bicycle. Riding my bicycle on a warm June morning is more fun than surfing the Internet anyway.

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Of course flowers can’t really have bad hair days, but an image can suggest much — when we take the time to look and use our imagination. If you passed the “pink spiky” in your yard you might not even notice an individual blossom. I can’t even remember the name of this guy. No matter how many times I ask my wife and she tells me, I forget again.

pink spiky 1

Something drew me to this flower so I set up my Nikon on my tripod, screwed on my closeup lens and took a much closer look. I’m captivated. The image of a bad hair day popped into my head while I was looking at my photos, thinking about what I would write for my Monday Musings and what photo I would use.

Well maybe I just think this photo is cool and I cooked up an excuse to use it. Macro photography is fun because you see things you can’t see with a casual look. When you look through the viewfinder at the isolated, magnified image, an entire new world opens.

How often do we look at the world around us without seeing?
We name a thing and claim to know it, but we haven’t seen it. I can’t name “Pink Spiky” but I’ve seen it and that’s the important thing. Each time I look at the image I see deeper.

I don’t suppose flowers have souls but all things have an essence. True seeing is discovering that essence. Life is a delicious, creative journey when we take the time to see, to imagine and to photograph or write about the stops we make along the way.

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The hardest thing about cutting the grass is deciding to do it. The easiest part is putting the lawn mower away when you’ve finished. You have a choice. You can either look out your window at the grass that won’t stop growing or you can just cut it, then sit back and enjoy the view later.

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View from My Window

Writing is the same way. Why do we find so many excuses not to write? We’re not ready. I need another cup of coffee. I don’t know where to begin. The list is endless. All writers are creative when it comes to making excuses not to write.

Writing is hard work. And the hardest thing of all is getting started. What’s the answer? Begin anyway. Just start writing even if you have nothing to say. The sweat may soak your T-shirt, you may get out of breath, but just keep that lawn mower moving.

Focus on what you’re thinking now. Keep on writing and don’t look back. You can clean up your spelling and grammar later. Keep at it and you’ll find your rhythm, unexpected ideas will pop into your head. Go with them to see where they take you.

When you finish. Rake up and toss the debris. You’ll be surprised at the gems you’ve discovered. Sit back and admire the view. Think about where you’ll go from here and keep writing. You can put your lawnmower away later.

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The first post I wrote for The Aware Writer was Google Docs Secrets For Distraction Free Writing.  I still like Google Docs but I like working on my own system with my own tools. Looking for a new writing environment is like shopping for new shoes. I hate shopping for new shoes. My old sneakers are comfortable and they still work, so why buy new ones?

OldDesktop

My Favorite Desktop Background Image


I thought I solved my distraction free writing environment yesterday
when I changed my desktop background to the moonscape. The more I looked at it the more I missed my old background. So I changed my mind and put the old one back. Here’s a screenshot. I love the picture.

So what did I do instead? I found new sneaks that fit almost as well as the old ones. When I used windows, I had a neat, full screen, leave me alone and let me write in peace without the dodads program and it’s a freebie. If you’re a windows user, Q10 gives you a very nice, uncluttered writing environment and it even makes typewriter noises. Sounds like the old typewriter carriage return when you press enter. Give it a try. The author just released a new version this month.

When I went over to the other side and bought my Linux box last year, I couldn’t take Q10 with me. I finally found a decent replacement last night. It’s called pyroom. The program is written in the python programming language (that’s why the py prefix) and is inspired by WriteRoom, the granddaddy of the the full screen writing programs. WriteRoom is a Mac only program and the only thing I know about the Mac is that I can’t afford one.

pyroom

pyroom with the Soft Letter Paper Theme

Here’s a screenshot of pyroom. I wrote this post as my first real test drive of pyroom. I like the black screen with green letters theme, but it turns my monitor into a mirror. I don’t need my face in the place. Nothing on the screen but words. What a concept. No bells, whistles, menus, windows, emails clamoring for attention — just me and the words. If you haven’t tried the full screen experience, give it a go. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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I’ve been looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I like to use a powerful text editor for my writing instead of a bloated word processor. I have a good one that does everything I need (almost). I wanted an editor that takes up the entire screen but keeps the text in the middle just like WriteRoom for the Mac. I wanted a distraction free writing environment.

Desktop

Smack my forehead! I finally figured it out this morning.
The editor isn’t the bad guy, it’s the desktop that’s the problem. I had a nice peaceful background image. Peaceful or not, it was a distraction, so I got rid of the distraction.

I’ve never liked eye candy on my desktop. When I got my new ubuntu Linux system last year, I vowed to keep an uncluttered desktop. I’ll put the occasional file on my desktop, but only temporarily. I only wish I had the discipline to keep my real desktop clean.

A totally black desktop with no image at all is much too drastic so I found a nice moonscape instead. I tweaked my upper and lower menu panels so they disappear. Now, when I open my editor in a window centered on the screen, I have my distraction free environment and I didn’t need to give up my editor.

I’ve taught it how to look up words in the thesaurus or dictionary. It checks my spelling, counts my words and does everything I need it to do. I didn’t need a new text editor at all. I turned the telescope around instead.

When you’re writing and get stuck for ideas, try looking through the other end of the telescope. The perspective change can be enough to break through the logjam.

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I’m not even going to try to express the image of Megan in words. I really like this photo. It’s a high key image that captures the moment and peeks into Megan’s world. What is she doing that has her so enthralled? I know but I won’t tell you. You might have an idea, but you’ll always wonder.

Megan's World

Wonder engages the imagination. Wonder involves the viewer. Maybe the image brings back a memory, maybe we’re simply drawn into Megan’s world for a moment. I’m at a loss for words to describe the moment but I don’t need words because I have this image instead.

Last week I wondered how you measure a baby’s smile. You can’t of course. Here goes. I’m going to use that Gestalt word again. A powerful photo grabs your emotions in the instant and sticks like velcro. No two people will see this photo in the same way. Each person will come away with a different emotional experience.

As writers, if our words don’t invite people to stick their fingers in the emotional pudding for a taste then we’ve not done our jobs.
When someone reads our words they build an emotional picture in their minds. If the words are powerful, they can’t help it. Our job is to help them see our passion, but their way and their passion — not ours.

Enjoy the moment with Megan. I know why she’s wearing the hat but I’m not telling you. Wonder — it’s part of the magic.

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Writing an E-Book has me thinking a lot a about format. PDF files are based on printed paper sizes first and viewing with a computer second. I got to wondering about standards, where they come from and why we use them. Did you know that the standard gauge for American railroads (the 4 ft. – 8 1/2 in. distance between the rails) is the same spacing used by Imperial Roman war chariots?

490px-Thor_in_his_chariot

Thor in his war chariot

Of course we didn’t base our railroad design on the Roman chariot. The Romans built their roads in Britain (among other places) to accommodate their chariots. When horse drawn wagons gave way to the first “iron horses” in Britain, it was only natural they use the same roads with the same ruts. The Americans borrowed from the British in the early days of railroading and the standard simply evolved out of circumstances.

So does a paper standard for E-Books make any sense in a digital world? Paper comes in sheets of definite size while the computer excels at scrolling. Traditional printed books give the reader clues in the form of the table of contents, page numbers, formatting, etc. The PDF version of turning the analog pages of a book are hyperlinks in the text and an index or thumbnails alongside the text.

Readers need to find their way around inside a book.
They need visual clues no matter what the medium. Electronic reading devices are springing up like weeds after a rainstorm and each has it’s own screen size and format. There are no standards yet. If you format for all possible conditions, you can’t format at all because the device itself will wrap text depending on screen size and the font size choices the user makes. You lose all the visual clues with a plain text file.

I’m sticking with PDF for now. Does that limit me? Yes, but I think it’s worth the limitations because I can provide the visual clues that a reader needs. I struggled with the page size but settled on 8 1/2 X 11 inches. Why? Because this format is easy to read on a typical computer monitor and can be printed on demand. Yes, I know my E-Book won’t work on a small screen, but I’ll worry about that tomorrow, when we have standards.

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Blogs and bloggers are positively Medieval and that’s a good thing. Medieval bards were the first citizen journalists, individuals carrying the latest news from place to place with their tales and ballads. People are curious. We’re communicators, we’re social and we’re nosey. We need to know what the neighbors are doing.

Even before the printing press came along, ballads were handwritten and passed around on broadsides (or broadsheets as they came to be known). If the bards were the first news reporters, then the broadsheets were the first newspapers. Today, the term broadsheet refers to the familiar 4-fold newspaper format of the “serious” newspapers. Unlike the tabloids, they print only “proper” news.

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The NY Times motto is “All The News That’s Fit To Print.”
Then again the Boston Globe masthead says: “The World Is Governed Too Much.” I think they’re right about that one. My favorite is the masthead carried by the Scripps newspapers.

“Give Light And People Will Find Their Own Way.”
Those powerful words were placed on a newspaper masthead in New Mexico back in 1922. Carl Magee refused to back down. He provided the light that helped blow open the Teapot Dome scandal in 1923. He suffered personally and financially because of his stance, but never wavered in his convictions.

The modern newspaper institutionalized the gathering and broad casting the news but it has always been courageous individuals like Carl Magee who pull the curtains of secrecy aside to reveal the truth.

Bloggers are the bards of the Internet, shining their light (mostly) at the speed of light and the people can and do find their own way. The world has come full circle. Every day the Internet dilutes the power of institutions and gives power and freedom back to individuals. We have the freedom to decide for ourselves and that is a good thing. It’s The Long Tail wagging.

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I got to thinking about writing the other morning while writing my morning pages. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, introduced me to morning pages. She says “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it.” Morning pages are three pages of longhand stream of consciousness writing done each morning before you do anything else. I suppose I should do mine first thing. Instead, I wait until after breakfast. Then I pull up a chair, fire up my pipe, savor that first sip of fresh brewed coffee, pull out a fresh sheet of paper, uncap one of my favorite fountain pens and let my mind go.

Homemade-merry-go-round

The morning pages ritual is not about writing. Morning pages are an outlet for your thoughts and feelings. Morning pages are a mind dump and you never know what will come out. Hint: getting things out into the daylight is the whole point.

I wondered. If morning pages aren’t about writing maybe first drafts aren’t about writing either. The same holds true for clustering and writing vignettes. Although we might be using writing tools (in my case pen and paper) we aren’t writing at all, we’re freeing our minds and allowing our ideas to come out on the page, real or virtual, without pre-judging or organizing.

We lump every activity we do while creating a written piece into “writing” but it’s not all the same. We do different things at different stages and label all of what we do as “writing.” Thinking about this can take you in circles.

If all writing is re-writing (and ultimately it is) it means we are editing at some stages. But wait! If we sit down to write and censor our first drafts as we write then we’re editors when we ought to be writers. Kind of makes you dizzy thinking about it.

The great sports writer “Red” Smith once said: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Yes, and the more you edit in the early idea stages, the more you tighten the tourniquet until the blood flow of insight slows to a disappointing drip or stops altogether.

Balance. Balance and co-operation between our right brain design mind and our left brain inner critic are the keys to finding our voice. Only then will we be writing from within. We may lump all we do when we create into the term writing and that’s OK — so long as we keep things in the proper sequence.

All design, all truly creative acts are iterative and circular. We go round and round, spiraling closer and closer to the finished work. Writing is a journey of discovery, of finding and polishing the gems and discarding (or saving for another time) the ideas that don’t fit.

Going in circles reminds me of the merry-go-rounds in playgrounds all over. Fun places where kids spin themselves in circles making themselves dizzy. I remember getting that merry-go-round cranking then laying back to watch the sky go by. Relax on your writing merry-go-round. Be easy and have fun. Allow your self (your dragon) to come out and play.

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Good luck. You’re going to need it. How do you measure a baby’s smile? is an expression I like to use when someone suggests measuring the unmeasurable. Any attempt to measure a baby’s smile or any other emotion is going to run head on into an oxymoron, an impossibility. A baby’s smile is an emotional outpouring that forges an instant connection with our own emotions and our inner being,  and short circuits our rational side.

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You can’t possibly measure the tears of a broken heart, the earth shattering grief of losing a loved one, the beauty of a sunrise or a baby’s smile, but you can try to capture the moment in words, a photograph or a drawing…

Such an image is a gestalt (leave it to the Germans to invent the perfect word). The more powerful the image, the stronger the gestalt. We, the viewer or reader, are drawn in instantly. Somehow we become one with the object. We know, we feel, and the sum is much greater than the parts.

When I work with a photograph, I know when it’s right. I can’t explain, and I don’t think an explanation matters anyway. The image speaks for itself. It’s easier to understand how a photograph, a drawing or a painting can give us that gestalt, that instantaneous recognition, because our right brain is visual, swallows whole and understands without words.

Words are sequential and take longer to “decode.” The creative writer has a different challenge then. A challenge to create a word image, to paint a verbal picture that builds to it’s own crescendo.

The poet probably comes closest, as he or she packs so much meaning and emotion into few words. I love the haiku. So spare and yet such fullness in only 17 syllables. Much is unsaid and therein lies the real power. The unsaid completes the image because we, the readers close the circuit.

Smallest warrior
Wordless, she pierces the heart
Smiling her embrace

Yes, what is left unsaid is the secret to powerful images, be they visual images or word paintings. The photographer who captures “the moment,” the writer who cares about every word and phrase, who creates pictures with words — they understand that you can never measure a baby’s smile. They know when the image or the words are right and that’s enough.

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