Essays vs. Stories

We all tell stories all the time. Sometimes we relate events that have happened to us. Sometimes we repeat things we’ve read or heard in the media or from friends. And even when we make up new stories they are variations on patterns of stories that we have heard. The trick, I suppose, is to be aware of the patterns that you are riffing on and be sure that you make the story your own.

I am becoming a fairly competent essayist (opinions to the contrary welcome, especially if you can tell me specifically something I can improve). I would like to become a story teller. What is the difference? I have an idea but it’s kind of fuzzy. This blog is full of essays. An essay is a search for the essence of a topic. My blog posts are not highly polished. I write them off the top of my head. I edit them lightly and then post them. A proper essayist would write the essay. Put it aside. Come back and read it. Edit it. Get friends and colleagues to read it and comment on it. Edit it some more. And then post it. I suppose blogging just exposes the dialectic process more. I write a draft. I post it. Hopefully, people comment. I write more. Eventually, we arrive at something nearer the essence of the topic together. I think this is a good process. Perhaps better than the “proper essayist” process I described before.

Back to the point. I want to become a story teller and I am discovering that I don’t understand the process of creating a story. I know a good story when I hear one. I occasionally tell a good story. At least, I think I do. Help me out here. How do you create a story?

Discussion Started?

A friend of mine pointed out some issues with how I had commenting set up on this blog and suggested some ways to improve it. I am grateful for the suggestions and have implemented them (I think). Commenting should now be “enabled”. If you comment and have problems, my gmail account name is jkelliemiller. Please drop me a line explaining what didn’t work and I’ll try to fix it.

I’ve learned from my experiences on YouTube that a dialog is worth the hassles of filtering spam, etc. Thanks for being patient while I worked this out.

The Freedom to Fail

Paul Graham is an inspiring essayist. I agree with most of what he says. In August, he wrote an essay entitled Holding a Program in One’s Head. This essay gave me a lot to think about. He captured the essence of much of what upsets me about the corporate environment in which I try to practice my profession. He overlooks one important aspect of an environment that will encourage creativity and innovation. That is the freedom to fail without repercussions.

I sometimes listen to Terry Gross’ radio program Fresh Air on NPR . Recently she interviewed Steve Carell and Terence Blanchard on two separate programs. The thing that struck me is that they both had similar stories to tell about the environment that nurtured their respective careers.

In Steve Carell’s case, he spoke of his experience as a cast member of Second City, the famous sketch comedy troupe where many of Saturday Night Lives cast received their training. He said that the great thing about that environment was the opportunity to fail. He went on to explain that they were expected to go out and try new characters and ideas. If they worked, great. If they failed, there was no penalty. They were just expected to go out the next performance and try something different.

In a surprisingly similar fashion, Terence Blanchard described what it was like when he joined Art Blakey’s legendary Jazz Messengers band. Terry Gross asked him if Blakey was a disciplinarian. Terence responded that on the contrary, all the members of the band held Blakey in such high regard that he had to spend a lot of effort putting them at ease. When they asked him to let the band play the classics that made the Jazz Messengers famous, he told them that they should compose their own music and make the band their own. Terence went on to say that it was great to have the freedom to fail. To try new things without worrying about whether they would work or not.

I think that programming is the same kind of creative activity that acting and creating music is. By the very same reasoning, I think that the freedom to try things and fail without repercussions is essential to writing innovative software. Furthermore, I think that most software falls into the category of innovative software. We make the mistake of treating software development like the other engineering disciplines and ignoring the central difference between it and them.

If we are building a building or a circuit board or any other physical product, we have a clear idea of the functionality we are after. We might build a model or a prototype to clarify our thinking but we wouldn’t dream of trying to sell a model or a prototype as the final project. Typically, a lot of effort is expended to rigidly define the product so that we can effectively produce it exactly to plan. The reason we do this is that the process of production is costly to change. We get cost breaks from producing many items exactly the same.

Software is different. In the first place, the per unit cost of producing software is negligible.  Secondly, you rarely know exactly what you want the product to look like until you are well along the road to producing it. Unlike physical production lines, changes to software are easy and inexpensive to make. In all but the most extreme circumstances, software requirements are discovered as you implement the program.

You can define requirements in very broad terms, e.g. “this is a point of sale terminal for a video rental store”, but the details of how that should be implemented should be derived from interactively creating software that automates the repetitive tasks of running a video rental store with someone that understands those tasks intimately. And, who knows what those tasks are better than someone that runs a video rental store.

An analogy that was created to explain the rationale behind eXtreme Programming (XP) captures the essence of this principle. You don’t drive a car on a long trip by carefully aiming it in the direction of the destination and tying the steering wheel in place. You would be in the ditch before you went a mile. Instead, you constantly adjust the course, you drive the car. In much the same way, you must drive toward the creation of an innovative piece of software.

That’s why I love being a programmer. That’s why I hate programming in a corporate environment where management doesn’t understand these basic facts about software development and wants to maintain rigid control over the process. But then again, the money is good.

Fall Reminds Me of Germany

Thirty years ago I was in Germany. It is hard to believe that it was that long ago. I was stationed in Neu Ulm, Bavaria, Germany. At that time Germany was divided. The cold war was still in full swing. In fact, my job was repairing the computers and guidance components of the Pershing missile. The Pershing was somewhat of an oxymoron, which is to say they called it a “tactical” nuclear missile. The strategy of the firing batteries (Pershing was deployed to the field artillery, go figure), was often dubbed “shoot and scoot”. About half way through my enlistment it finally dawned on me that after all the missiles were shot, I became plain old infantry. It was a somewhat sobering thought.

Anyway, I remember the fall of 1977 very well. It was my first fall in Germany and I was learning all about October Fest and German beer (the best beer in the world as far as I can tell). I learned that there were lots of great German bands, everything from rock to folk to oom pah to classical. I learned that the German people were generally very friendly, especially when you tried to learn and speak their language. Most of them had 6+ years of English in school and if you made the effort to try to speak Deutsch they were quick to answer in English and help you with your Deutsch.

I had a friend named Marty that went through Pershing school with me. We were both stationed in Neu Ulm but he was in a different unit. We both loved immersing ourselves in German culture. Marty learned to speak German much more fluently than I did. He dated German girls and was one of the few single friends that I had that rented an apartment off post. We hung out in a little bar in Ulm called the Munchner Kindle. That was where I learned to love Witzen beer and Asbach Uralt, a wonderful German brandy. We would drink and eat pom frites and do card tricks for the local girls.

After I was there about six months I could afford (barely) to send for my wife and 18 month old daughter. We moved to an apartment in Leibi. After a couple of months of riding the bus to and from work, I finally managed to buy an old volkswagen. It was so nice to be able to go to the PX for groceries and not have to carry them home on the bus. Our apartment became a popular place for parties. All my friends that lived in the barracks would come over on Friday night and sometimes stay until Monday morning.

I’ll write more about these times in another blog post soon. I’m just getting started here. It was a wild ride. But we survived and it changed us all forever. I guess that is true of any experience but there is something different about being half way around the world in a different culture where the predominant language is something other than English. In short, this was when the apron strings were truely and irrevocably cut.

Courting the Muse

7anby made a video that described his writing process. I know, every writer’s process is unique, otherwise much of the magic of the written word would be lost, but there was a spark of recognition as he described how when the muse is at work, the words flow effortlessly. I write to achieve these moments. It is such a joy to see your ideas flow out onto the page and be captured for posterity.

Another point of recognition was when he talked about how he needed to write. I feel that way too. I’m not sure that anyone will ever read these words, but I need to write them for my own mental health. I need to write them so that I can become comfortable with the process and start to shape it to my will. I think the mind-page connection has to be firmly established before you can start to successfully shape what goes on to the page. If I think about what I’m writing too much, my censors kick in and I start trying to edit what I’m writing instead of concentrating on getting a draft onto paper. I’ve been told all my life that the most important part of writing is rewriting and perhaps that’s true. But you have to write something first before you can rewrite it.

I suspect that is why so many writers keep journals. This gives then the opportunity to become comfortable with the mind-page connection. It’s just like learning to play a musical instrument. You have to noodle around with it for a while until you’re comfortable with the instrument and then you’ve got to practice. And, as the super athletes tell us, you’ve got practice doing it right. If you practice your mistakes, you’ll get really good at making them.

I doubt that writing in this journal/blog once a day is sufficient to develop the skills and process that I’m after. But it is better than not writing regularly at all. So I’ll continue writing these short essays and when I skip a day, I’ll get back to the grindstone the next day. I’ve learned that that’s how you get in the habit of doing anything that you want to make an integral part of your life. And I want to make writing, video making and exercising into daily activities in my life. Thanks Mike (7anby) for inspiring me to keep this up until I get it down.

Cyberspace

As I read my email and watched some of the YouTube videos on channels that I subscribe to this morning, I realized how different my life has become in a very short amount of time. Back in the early 90s I worked in a Virtual Reality lab at a large corporation. We were trying to determine if and how we could use immersive virtual reality to do things better, cheaper, faster, safer, etc. We were chasing the holy grail of cyberspace, that place that is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. As I exchanged comments with fellow YouTubers in North Carolina, Liverpool, New York City, Florida and Arkansas, it struck me that cyberspace has become a lot more subtle than Neal Stephenson and William Gibson ever imagined. There is no immersive virtual reality, for which I am thankful. I used to get motion sickness from wearing the VR helmet. The glue is the virtual places that we congregate online, through the web or email or the telepresence of our webcams.

I used to scoff at the term social-web. I was convinced that what we were experiencing was a variety of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). What I’ve realized lately is that the social-web is CMC of a very intimate variety. I probably have as many friends on line as I have in “real life”. I hate the term “real life”. It implies that my online friends are somehow not real. I tried using “3d space” but it is just a little too geeky for me, and I consider myself a geek. I don’t know what we should call it but I’ll recognize it when I hear it.

I recently upgraded my amateur radio license to Extra Class (the highest class possible). I now have privileges to talk on the part of the radio spectrum that propagates around the world. I haven’t got a radio yet but I am shopping around and thinking seriously about building a low power transceiver. I realized as I was thinking about cyberspace this morning that the allure of ham radio has always been the magic of talking to someone far away as if they were right here with me. I haven’t been on the air in years and I haven’t been on the air in the HF bands ever so I don’t have any radio friends yet. But I am sure that they will be just like the YouTube friends I have made.

Inspiration

I have a friend on You Tube with the screenname 7anby (7 to his friends). I met him on Stickam. On Saturday night Pam and I watch bad science fiction, horror and various other B-movie genre movies that are old enough to be in the public domain on a channel called Sleaze Sinema. If you don’t know about Stickam, it is a video chat site. Our hostess streams the video of the movie on the main screen and we all sit around and make snide comments in the text chat window. Several of us are on camera in the other smaller screens and others aren’t. We laugh and do a really good job of entertaining ourselves.

Back to 7anby. I met him on Sleaze Sinema and then I subscribed to his You Tube channel. He writes really evocative short stories and reads them on camera and posts them to his You Tube channel. Lately we have been encouraging him to write a novel. Today I was watching a couple of his videos and he was having the same problem I was talking about yesterday. He sat down to write five pages on his novel and ended up losing part of what he had written to the demented user interface that is called Microsoft Word. So, he makes a wonderful video and tells a great story about his grandfather.

This is exactly what I was talking about. He sets out to write five pages and he makes two videos instead. I want to make videos but I can’t seem to come up with ideas for short videos or the time to make them. Note, I mean videos that tell stories, not vlogs. I want to make more vlogs too but that’s a separate issue. I’m just feeling good that I am writing in my blog more regularly and that what I’m writing in my blog is more than just stream of consciousness crap.

I’ve got more to say about the Sinema but I’m going to try the technique of leaving things to say for next time so that I can get started easier next time. The problem with so many creative endeavors is getting started. Once you acheive flow (another topic to explore at length in another post) it is hard to find a place to stop. I hate being forced to create in little disjoint snippets of time. I want my flow, dammit.