Writing Compared with Composing Music

Music proceeds from the beginning through the middle and finishes at the end. There are various patterns that have been developed over the ages and musicians learn them as they learn how to play their instrument. In classical instruction, the musician learns to play music that is written out in manuscript form. In some, more informal, forms of musical instruction the student is taught to reproduce the notes that the teacher plays for them.

Literary pedagogy is different. The student writer is given reading assignments that are intended to inform his or her grasp of the structure of various forms of literary expression. Sometimes, they are given writing assignments that serve to help bound the universe of potential topics and help the novice writer have a place from which to embark on their exploration of the literary landscape. Seldom are they told that the process is easier if you know what your destination is before you’ve made the trip.

Coming from a background where I have had more experience with musical composition than with literary composition, I struggle with this concept. It leaves me staring at the blank page wondering where it is I want to be when the page is full.

I have to admit, on those occasions where I have successfully approached a piece in that fashion, it has been orders of magnitude easier to write. It seems to me to encourage a kind of multi-pass approach to writing. In the first pass, you wander around looking for something interesting, recording your travels as you go. Then, once you’ve found something interesting that you want to write about you go back and edit out everything that is irrelevant to the point and fill in anywhere the supporting narrative is week.

It’s not the way I have worked. I’m not saying that it isn’t the way I ought to work but I have always just set out on the first pass and accepted whatever I ended up with as my final product. When that works it is exhilarating. When it doesn’t it’s depressing. I think it is time to start using method instead of depending upon serendipity to fuel my literary journeys.

Aristotle taught that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. He never mentioned in what order you should create them. Therein lies the difference between knowing what to write and how to write it. I won’t lie. I struggle with both questions. But at least now I have a better handle on the how, if not the what.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Bright, Shiny Tools for Writing

Sometimes the tools that you use shape the kinds of things that you create. If you work with a hammer, you will build things that need hammering. If you have a saw, you will build things by shaping them with your saw.

I am much more conversant with the tools of the writers trade than I am with the actual craft of writing. I know how to construct sentences. I am good at typing. I have even gotten fairly good at writing in longhand with a fountain pen.

I write my blog post with the in-app editor of WordPress. It is very functional. It helps me format my post without having to manually add all the html and css mark up. It even has specialized tools for creating tables and formatting snippets of code.

It makes it easy to tag my posts with hashtags indicating the topics that are talked about in them. That makes it easier for people to find my blog posts when they are looking for blogs they would enjoy reading. I hope my blog is something that some people would like to read.

I write my journal with a web site called 750words.com. It keeps track of my word count, it counts how many days in a row I’ve written more than 750 words a day, and it analyzes my prose for the tone of the words that I write. It is all very objective. It’s a program, not a human, after all.

I have used Scrivener to write on a couple of occasions. It has a lot of tools for such things as keeping track of your research, posting summary cards for each scene so that you can experiment with reorganizing your story by arranging the cards in a different order. I can see how it might help you think of variations on the story if you stall out while writing it.

I’ve also written with Atom and emacs, two different yet similar text editors that are used by lots of programmers. I’ve never written much prose with vim, another popular programmer’s editor. I can barely write code with it, much less regular prose.

I have written with both Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages. They both distract me too much. I tend to pay more attention to formatting what I’ve written and much less attention to what I am writing. I prefer a plain text editor any day.

I’ve taken notes with notepad++. I’ve written code with it. But, I haven’t ever written prose with it, aside from short snippets of comments in between the programming sections.

I used to draw pictures of my software designs. I often used Microsoft Word to keep my familiarity with it current. It is bound to serve some purpose in the future. I have also used Open Office and Office Libre. I don’t know if they are two different programs, two different frontends on a common backend, or if maybe one of them was forked from the other.

I am enjoying pen and paper a lot lately. It is a very free form medium. I need to start writing in a paper journal some of the time. Given how I struggle with thinking of things to write about, I’m not sure how successful that would be.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Optimistic Cosmic Rant

I have become more and more concerned about a systemic disregard for objective, repeatable facts. It is often accompanied by bullying tactics where those reporting observations not in the interest of those parties controlling vast quantities of wealth and political power (but I repeat myself) are ridiculed, coerced, persecuted, prosecuted, and even mysteriously become victims of tragic accidents or illnesses. It would be paranoid to contend that accidents and illness do not happen. It would be just as undiscerning to ignore a systematic pattern of such mishaps.

I am referring to a series of breakthroughs in non-oil based energy production that have been either promiscuously classified by the military-industrial complex or, even more sinisterly, systematically suppressed and erased from public access. All in the interests of the small percentage of people that hold the vast majority of the capital world wide.

I know that just voicing these opinions will label me as being some kind of crackpot along with the many others that these elements have attempted to discredit in the court of public opinion with varying degrees of success. Being a writer, I always have the excuse that I am trying out some fictional plot. I say with all soberness that I am doing no such thing.

I am a sceptic, particularly when it comes to claims of the paranormal. I brook no nonsense about magical powers. On the other hand I do accept the assertion of Arthur C. Clark that sufficiently advanced technology will seem as magic to sufficiently primitive observers. Star faring entities seem to me to qualify as sufficiently advanced over our puny, largely planet bound technology.

We think that we have mastered the majority of the processes of the physical world but you only have to look back to the late nineteenth century to find assertions that the patent office should be shut down since every significant invention had already been made.

I also feel that I should point out that all new developments in science started out as pseudoscience, attacked by those scientists with a vested interest in the status quo. I believe we are on the cusp of even more magnificent scientific developments but we must first deal with those who  wish to constrain us to a zero sum economy of scarcity when an economy of plenty is not only possible but imminent.

We will travel to the stars and beyond. We will learn the vast secrets of the universe that we haven’t begun to imagine. We will not be oppressed by bullies for much longer. We came from the stars, we are made up of the elements formed by vast cosmic processes when the universe was young. We will return to the stars.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Comparing Baking with Writing

Following instructions is not my strongest suit. Watching the comic relief bake off by comedians. Apparently comedians have trouble following instructions too. It was fun watching them attempt something so obviously outside their area of expertise. It was also touching to see their reaction when their entries were well received.

I know how that feels. I have been writing short stories and getting them critiqued by my fellow writers at the Downtown Writers Group. It is good to hear their suggestions for how I might improve my stories but it is also magical when someone really likes something that you’ve written. It means even more coming from another writer that has experienced the struggles of pulling a story together and making it hold together.

The key to learning to write is to write a lot. The more you write, the more you understand how to write. I have started attempting to write micro stories that are complete in around five hundred words. I’ve discovered that this is a big challenge as there is not many words with which to establish setting and character. It does give me the opportunity to write more stories and explore many different techniques.

I look forward to sharing the best of my micro stories with my critique group. I feel like I am much more of a beginner than the rest of the members of the group. I have written for a respectable length of time but I have less literary background than they seem to have. I hope to improve in that area by reading more criticism and maybe taking a class or two.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Library Time

The library is no longer the bastion of quiet that it once was. That is not all bad. It is good that people are interested in reading books and talking to people about them. It is good that parents are bringing their children to the library. It is good that librarians are losing their reputations as strict disciplinarians.

I suspect that there are still some places that are quiet in the library. I am sitting across from the main circulation desk on the floor with the Youth Services Desk and the children’s collection. It is typically quieter upstairs. In a way, I’m surprised at how much space they have and how many interesting activities they sponsor. I definitely need to come here more than just the two times a month that my writers group meets.

As much as I love the internet, it is encouraging to me that the internet hasn’t had the predicted effect of killing libraries. If anything, many libraries have embraced the network and integrated it into their services. There are plenty of other services they have to offer besides looking up facts, an activity that Google is admittedly far more adept at.

I am going to work on varying my topics more. I plan to find a time for working on my fiction other than the time that I have reserved for blogging. I also plan to spend time on topics other than artificial intelligence and programming languages. That will take some extra reading on my part but I never was one to complain about reading.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Absolutely Shortest Blog Post, Ever

If I’m going to get a blog post written and posted today, I’m going to have to do it now. I have twenty minutes left in the day. I have been thinking about what to write about and nothing is coming to mind. I’ve written about the panic of this situation. I’ve written about the value of learning to write under a deadline. But this is the first time that I’ve ever written about the topic when I was feeling the pressure so directly as I was writing about it.

I don’t have to write a lot to fulfill my commitment. In fact, I could post what I’ve written so far and technically I would meet that commitment. But I would feel like I was cheating somehow. I wouldn’t have an Aristotelian complete composition. I would only have written a beginning, and a middle. Or, if you prefer, a beginning and an end. Without this paragraph to serve as the middle, the composition wouldn’t be structurally complete.

But now, I’ve done it. I’ve written a beginning, a middle and an end. I have addressed a topic, coherently. I’ve done so typing just about as fast as my fingers will fly. And, I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t put off writing your blog post until eleven forty or you run a very real risk of not getting it written in time to qualify as a blog post for today instead of one for tomorrow. Goodnight.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Courting the Muse

Artistic expression is a spiritual activity. First their is the quiet waiting for inspiration from your muse. Then the careful nurturing of the thread of truth that emerges from your silent anticipation. The reverently teasing the truth from the light that illuminates the vision. The vision, in turn, elevating the spirit to a fevered pitch of ecstasy.

It sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? I’ve never experienced artistic expression in quite that organized a fashion. In my experience it is passionate chaos. There is the endorphin rush when things are coming together but that is offset by the struggle to manifest the product of your inspiration, whether that is a story, a song, a painting, or some other artifact of being touched by the divine.

That is what the ancients thought happened to artists. They were touched by divinity and gifted with an alternative perspective on the world. The spirits that motivated them were called their genius. It was the genius that provided the insight and talent to produce their art. This made it easier on the artist when they woke up on some days and couldn’t do  what had been so effortless the day before. By attributing the creativity to the genius, the artist was allowed his human foibles. Without the constant pressure to produce, the artist was able to maintain the relaxed atmosphere that encourages creativity and avoid the depression of creative block.

Alas, I don’t believe in independent spirits that motivate my art. I do have a process aimed at reproducing that of the ancients and their genii. It starts with sitting quietly and relaxing. At some point I put my hands on the keyboard and start to type. If I have engaged my inspiration, what comes forth is coherent and expressive. If not, I keep typing. Writing is a craft as well as an art and by virtue of writing coherent sentence, I become a better writer.

Often, after a couple of sentences I hit upon the essence of what I am writing about. Sometimes after I’ve written a couple of pages I decide that what I’ve written is not what I intend to say. At that point, I save it as a draft so that I can come back to it later to see if there is anything to be salvaged from a previous draft.

More frequently, the second time around I am in a better frame of mind and manage to produce an acceptable work. I won’t say that every one is a sterling creation but they do help me understand myself and my options. They give me inspiration to avoid the pitfalls of the past. And sometimes, I do write something that I am proud of. Those incidents are happening more and more frequently as time goes past and I have more experience writing.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Welcome My Friends

The fog was so dense it was like a cloud had descended to obscure the world. Everything was reduced to wisps of light and dark and the ubiquitous fog between. The drip, drip, drip of condensation from the tips of tree branches kept the cobblestone paths slick. Occasionally the glow of a neon sign would herald a shop of some sort but it soon faded as you wandered on aimlessly.

The fog dissolved the most cheerful, resolute attitude and turned it into a homogenous gray blob of apathy. It had been like this for days, weeks probably. Relentlessly, without a moments respite. Occasionally there was a buzzing overhead as if an entire hive of bees was flying in formation overhead. Aside from that there was an eerie silence permeating the entire area.

I first noticed a feeling of being watched. I looked around but saw no one or nothing watching. But the feeling persisted so I hid behind the next large tree I saw. Moments later, a strange creature emerged from the fog. It looked a little bit like a very long dachshund until you started counting legs. The thing was like a canine centipede. It must have had two dozen legs in all.

It came creeping to of the fog, nose to the ground and feet pounding. It followed my trail until it realized that I had gotten off the beaten track. It looked up but by the time its front end stopped and saw me hiding behind the tree. The rest of its legs hadn’t gotten the message and kept coming. It ended up in a writhing heap in front of my ersatz hiding place. I laughed in spite of myself and the poor thing finally got its feet back under it and scurried back into the fog from whence it came.

This in no way prepared me for what happened next. Sitting on a park bench behind me was a tall man in a white suit with a top hat. He was smoking a cigarette stuffed into a long holder but from the smell it wasn’t tobacco he was smoking.

I started to say something to him but he just put a finger to his lips and nodded his head no. He indicated the bench next to where he was sitting as if to invite me to sit with him. I thought about it for a moment and then had a seat. He clapped his hands three times and a troupe of little men about two feet tall came running and tumbling into the clearing in front of us. They were dressed in dark gray suede suits with black shirts under them. They were perfectly proportioned, just scaled down by a third.

Next, from out of nowhere they produced florescent yellow balls and were juggling among themselves while still tumbling and doing various acrobatics. They stood on each other’s shoulders making towers three high and continued juggling. This went on for fifteen minutes until all of a sudden, they all ran off single file into the mist.

I couldn’t help but applause and the man in the top hat joined in. Then he stood up, tipped his hat at me and turned around three times and faded away.

I never figured out where any of them came from or went to for that matter. I go back to the area every spring in the hope of seeing them again. But some things are pure magic. They happen once and then never again. You have to live in the moment and appreciate every one of life’s little miracles.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Pay Attention. There Will Be A Test.

There is a technique in engineering known as biomimetics. It is a practice where a designer patterns the behavior of an artificial system after biological processes. An example of biomimicry was the early attempts at designing a flying machine by studying the way that birds fly. The successful application of this approach has bloomed in recent years and yielded many phenomenal devices and processes. One of particular interest to me is the genetic algorithm.

A genetic algorithm mimics the operation of DNA to encode behavior as small snippets of code that can be randomly combined to produce individuals that run that code in a specific environment. The performance of each individual is evaluated against some fitness criteria and then a new generation of individuals is constructed by randomly recombining the components of individuals from the previous generation favoring the contributions from the more successful individuals over the less successful ones. The cycle then repeats some arbitrary number of times or until an individual is “bread” that meets some target fitness level according to the fitness criteria.

Surprisingly good performance is often obtained with relatively few iterations. The behavior produced in this way is not necessarily intelligent. Intelligence implies sophisticated mechanisms for problem solving that involves dynamic adaptation of generic cognitive capabilities to an unanticipated spectrum of problems. Genetic algorithms do produce impressive behaviors though.

I saw a video on the internet today that talked about how some plants used clever tricks to co-opt more intelligent species assistance to accomplish their objectives. The example was given of a plant that had a broad leafy substance that looked like a female insect’s genitals. The male insect attempted to copulate with the plant thus pollinating it without the plant having to expend any energy producing nectar to attract it.

There is a site on the internet called IFTTT (IF This Then That). It allows you to set up conditions that the site monitors for a given value and a set of consequences that the site will execute if the trigger condition is observed. It seems to me that this is the sort of mechanism that is ripe for establishing behaviors that are very clever, perhaps even profitable, without having to resort to actual full blown general artificial intelligence.

And the next step might be, a site that treats IFTTT recipes that are themselves used as snippets in a genetic algorithm. The key thing that would need to be developed would be a fitness function that would judge the generations of individuals until some success criteria was achieved.

I may have to do some hacking myself. I understand that various online stock tickers have IFTTT interfaces. I could build an interface to various news sources and run a genetic algorithm that attempts to pick stocks based on the news sources. I wouldn’t be the first to try it and probably not the first to make money that way if I got it to work.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Lady or the Beast

I sat at the bar nursing my bitters and listening to the fiddler set his fiddle on fire with the speed of his fingers and the heat of his bow. I had been sitting there all evening walking the thin line between mildly buzzed and full blown pissed. I had been watching a young lady sitting at a table in the corner. She had a single glass of wine sitting in front of her all evening. I never saw her so much as take a drink.

The bar maid stopped to ask if she needed anything every now and then but she always smiled and nodded no. As I sat and watched her, she sat and watched the door. It was as if she were waiting for someone. Several times the local wolves on the prowl attempted to make a move on her but she always shook her head and gestured toward the door.

One particularly persistent predator kept approaching her time and again but she was equally as stubborn at rejecting his advances. The evening wore on and finally the bartender announced that they would be closing in half an hour. The young beast ordered one last beer and took it to the end of the bar where he could sit behind his prey and watch her every move.

The patrons started trickling out in pairs and threes. Soon there were no  customers left in the place except the wolf, the lady and me. The lady handed the bar maid a large tip as she got up to leave. She left the glass of wine untouched. As the door closed behind her, her stalker grabbed the glass of wine, downed it and followed her out the door. Afraid for her safety, I threw some cash on the bar to cover my tab and followed him.

It was a moonless night and the street lights cast narrow cones of lights with vast expanses of dark in-between. In the distance, a coyote howled. I could see the silhouette of the lady pass out of the border of the light at the end of the block. Romeo was attempting to be stealthy and gave her a fairly long lead. I kept him in my sight but I wasn’t anxious to get so close that he picked a fight with me.

As I was coming into the pool of light at the end of the block I heard a commotion in the dark up ahead. I decided if I was going to be of any assistance I would have to move quickly. I ran headlong into the dark so fast that I fell over something laying across the path. It knocked the wind out of me for a minute but I was pumped full of adrenalin at this point so I soon pulled myself together and got on my feet to see what it was I had tripped over.

I was afraid it was going to be the body of the lady but as I lit my lighter to see what it was I saw the face of the dandy with a blank stare in his eyes. I looked closer and saw that his throat had a big gash ripped out of it. He was laying in a pool of his own blood. I could hear a low panting noise in the dark beyond the reach of the light from my lighter. I could see the red reflection from two eyes. As whoever or whatever it was became aware of my attention, they turned and ran deeper into the night. I chose discretion and ran back the way I had come.

The news the next day said a local boy had been mauled by a bear. I had my doubts about that. I never saw the lady again.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.