On Connecting to those worlds out there…

In a recreation centre basement, a middle-aged man feels that old anxiety – the anxiety of having to speak in front of a group of strangers. The address he must make now is especially poignant. He clears his throat and swallows the fat dry lump that had formed there.

He pictures a room filled with men and women, some older than him, many younger. He closes his eyes and sees row after row of folding metal chairs, each physically supporting a soul not unlike his. It’s just like an Al-Anon meeting, except that he really can’t see his audience very well until individuals make themselves known by responding. He feels like he’s standing in a dimly-lit room full of cardboard cutouts.

“My name is John, and I’m addicted to the Internet.”

Instead of a verbal welcome from his audience, he receives a chorus of invisible mouse clicks from unseen hands. Supportive audience members register “likes” and RTs, or vote their approval by forwarding his statement onward to their own circles of friends.

The reaction of the group is organic and almost immediate, but it’s far from natural. But this is the way many of us share our personalities with each other nowadays.


Recently, we suffered a power outage in my part of East Vancouver. It affected almost 8000 citizens for kilometres all around us. There was that funny buzz or “thump” and everything suddenly went pitch black. After a few moments of disorientation and cursing, we got some candles lit and phoned the local power utility to get an ETA for when they’ve have power restored. Once we had an idea of a timeframe established, we sat down at the kitchen table and ate a few cookies by candlelight.

What struck me was how very quiet it was without the constant background hum of our building’s ventilation system, electrical power supplies, elevator motors, or the buzz of fluorescent lighting. All those little mechanical noises become the background noise of one’s life. We get used to never hearing the absolute silence of a powerless town.

I also noticed that the sky outside was a lot brighter than I’d realized. With all the streetlights off, my eyes quickly adjusted to the relatively light early evening sky. The electric lamps that we power on to help us see at night seem to make the night sky look much darker than it is, so we become dependent upon them.

Even though I live in a condominium surrounded by a couple hundred other occupants, I would only recognize a handful of them by sight, and only a few of them in the dark. We live in physical proximity, but also in relatively anonymity. By comparison, I can identify most of the personalities who associate with me online, and I know how and why we are connected.

It was only a few moments before I began to feel bored, “jonesing” for information. With no AC, there could be no radio, but I found immense satisfaction and relief in the fact that I could tether my laptop to my smartphone to get Internet access. This allowed me to go to the power utility’s web site and see a Google map of the areas affected by the blackout, and a revised estimate of when power might be restored. Twitter and Facebook provided echoes of what other citizens were experiencing, in real-time.


The Internet and social media kind of serve to connect my mind to others in a personal way. It surprised me how much I missed having access ti the Internet for real-time news updates, and to social media for that weird invisible community.

It’s the same feeling of fascination I get when I get a headache and realize it’s because I haven’t had a coffee yet. My body is telling me I’m dependent upon that thing.

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On Creativity: Multiple Media and a Billion Artists

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Once in a while, an artist will inspire me, and make me appreciate connections to other artists, from the current time, or from a relatively distant point in the past.

Maybe a singer-songwriter like Adele or Beck will say something extremely poignant to me through their music. The same with film-makers like P.T. Anderson, Michel Gondry, or Quentin Tarantino, through their movies.

But even more so, the farther back in time I go: Orson Welles speaks to me strongly.  Buster Keaton makes me cheer for the little guy, and Fritz Lang and Murnau make me wonder what happens in the darker corners of our minds. Illustrators and graphical storytellers like Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee feel like uncles. Their lines are like well-known handwriting that evokes a familiar voice in my head. Steinbeck made me anguish for the poor and desperate working families. Charles Dickens made me love the charity, trust and loyalty of dear David Copperfield.

Some of the stories were recorded decades ago, and some well over a century ago, but they are alive in real-time whenever I experience them again.

I think that the human mind must truly not care a thing about timeliness, or temporal sequence. There is just now.

And now, we all have the capability to dream, to create, to defend our values, and to reach out to each other through our art. The insanely fast, relentless growth and spread of digital communications technology allows us to bring our minds and hearts together in time and space with an immediacy that we’ve never before known.

Of course, there’s a lot of crap and idiocy out there online and in realspace, but in the midst of it, a billion potential artistic voices are trying to call out to each other.

 

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On Creativity: Inspired by Orson Welles

Orson Welles
Once in a while, when one feels they are in a bit of a creative slump (I suppose “downturn” is the fashionable term for it nowadays), it helps to be reminded of some of the great artists whose work has inspired me in the past. I have recently become inspired (again) by Orson Welles.

I’ve had a few artistic heroes. In terms of a modern creators (particularly multidisciplinary ones who work in film, direction, and radio), Orson Welles looms largest in my mind.

I associate him most strongly with black and white film and with things like film noir, compelling photography, autobiographical themes, and moments of explosive energy. His life and personal drives were lived very much in the public eye, and his art seems deeply infused with his personality, ego, and psychology.

Today, I read a statement that described Orson Welles as a renaissance man of the 20th century:

Innovative film and theater director, radio producer, actor, writer, painter, narrator, and magician, Orson Welles (1915–1985) was the last true Renaissance man of the twentieth century. From such great radio works as “War of the Worlds” to his cinematic masterpieces Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello, Macbeth, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight, Welles was a master storyteller, as expansive as he was enigmatic.

I agree -he was a true renaissance man.

Here are a few links about Orson Welles that I’ve recently enjoyed:

Great Directors: Orson Welles:
http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/welles/

Orson Welles – Genius Without Compromise:
http://www.squidoo.com/orson-welles-hollywood-genius-

Orson Welles (Wikipedia):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles

“Me and Orson Welles”:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Me_and_Orson_Welles

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Enigmatic Memes: Bathroom Grafitti I Have Known

Bathroom wall graffiti gives a glimpse of the way people think: it is drect, anonymous and comes with little sense of responsibility, similar to how most people’s backyards tell us how the homeowner truly lives.

Bathroom wall scribbles hardly qualify as art or creative writing, but I can think of some that is more creative than others.

Back in 1985, when I was a first-year student at the Emily Carr College of Art, the men’s room in the Foundation Department had some enigmatic and interesting graffiti. Above one of the urinals, written in tiny letters in the grout between the tiles, were three words, a little zen riddle which puzzled me in the back of my mind. Weeks later, for some reason I can’t recall, me and a few classmates were standing in the hallway at lunch hour, discussing bathroom grafitti. Shaun Hayes-Holgate only had to say the words “Toast or Pockets?” and we all knew what he meant, and exactly where we all, er, stood.

Gossip also went ’round about a long exchange between a student and one of our instructors, which apparently became fairly heated, to the point of using very blunt expletives. The instructor in question was known for writing copious notes on sheets of paper on his classroom walls using a brush pen, which gave his writing a distinctive calligraphic style. Apparently, the instructor’s brush pen was equally effective on drywall and may have given him away. So much for an author’s anonymity.

By comparison, I found the bathroom grafitti at UBC rather disappointing. In the men’s room in the Student Union Building at Western Canada’s largest, most prestigious University, I half expected some sort of first-year philosophy course scrawled across the tiles. Instead, it was the same sort of racist, homophobic ranting and cartoon genitalia that you’d find on the walls of any high school. So much for higher education. (My wife, defending her Alma Mater, declared that these were just first-year students.)

Today, 25 years later, Emily Carr seems to have kept some of its off-beat, enigmatic flavour, but overall, I find that my old school seems so much more mainstreamed and packaged than it was back in my day. Certainly, the quality of bathroom discourse seems to have degraded. Maybe students and teachers have their meaningful exchanges in Twitter and Facebook nowadays. All I know is that today, over the toilet in the Emily Carr Foundation men’s room was scribbled “Kelsey Grammar, bitches!” to which someone had replied “Hell yeah!”

Perhaps devolution is real, or perhaps I expect too much from post-secondary education.

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On Reading: Raymond Chandler, a Biography

It seems like the last few times I’ve read certain authors, their names have become prefixed with “Uncle” in my mind. Is that weird? Well, maybe. It’s human though.

I guess I want to identify with, or feel connected to good storytellers.

When I read Einstein’s book on Relativity, his voice was so distinctively heard in my head, that it felt as if I were sitting on Uncle’s lap, with his voice speaking in my ear. It may have started there, I’m not sure.

Next were the memoirs of Groucho Marx, whose anecdotes, observations and humour seemed warmly self-deprecating. It wasn’t long before he became my “Uncle Groucho”. Likewise with his brother Harpo, whose long, detailed autobiography seemed to put me right into his early life in New York, and later, into the middle of his loving, idiosyncratic years as a devoted family man in California.

I think it’s the first-person narrative of an autobiography that makes it work so well. The “you” is replaced with an “I”, which we all have inside us, and which resonates one-to-one with similar “I”s.

That’s why pulp fiction author Raymond Chandler got under my skin more than, say, Ian Fleming. Like an autobiography, Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe novels are written in the first-person, so they each sound like Marlowe’s autobiography (although really, they are Chandler’s).

Raymond Chandler was highly intelligent, a keen observer of people and human nature, and also a major, chronic alcoholic who came to a sad and lonely end. He’s triumphant and tragic, all together.

So, he’d probably be a colourful “Uncle” who could spin tall tales and be witty as hell, but also could as easily fall down drunk into the tree and ruin a Christmas morning.

Been there.

Welcome to the family “Uncle Raymond”.

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On Writing: “Anatomy of a Writer”

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

This inspiring article by Valentina Nesci (from www.write-a-holic.com) offered me a “big picture” view on my pursuit of fiction writing…

“Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t only lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally honest and true than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.”

Every so often, particularly if I’m returning to a project I haven’t developed in a while, it helps to have the “reset Button” pushed on one’s perspective and expectations. This article pushed it for me.

As they say, “Writers write.”

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On Writing: Motivating Characters (and their Author)

What is it that will drive a character to take an action?

By this, I mean to ask “What, in the character’s mind/worldview is the rationale that will cause them to do one thing instead of another? For the Author, this includes considering the underlying goal of driving the story in a believable way, consistent with the character’s behaviour as the reader understands it at that point in the story. An Author pulls a lot of strings and balances a lot of balls in order to get these goals to mesh.

For me, this requires either research into the elements that form a character: lifestyle, health issues, career or technical skills, values and religion, speech/vernacular and attitudes.

It sounds like a lot when I lay it all down at once here, but realistically, I only have to focus on one of those categories/areas at a time. In many cases, I can use my own experience to answer questions and narrow down the scope of research. Subjective elements (a character’s personal opinion, for example) is much easier to write – it requires little qualification via research.

Basically, whether I can immerse the reader in my character’s world by virtue of objective-seeming realism, or by using compelling and rich subjective “opinion” based on my own experience, it all boils down to creating an experience that the reader accepts and in which they want to immerse themself.

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Mourning Coughey (A story sketch)

The bagel gave its secrets to me limply and without a fight. I was hungry and it got what was coming to it. They always do, stupid bagels.

The sky was grey and overcast, threatening to rain. Large trucks blasted their horns irritably at little cars that were too slow to get out of their way. I knew I was going to end up trudging home in the rain again.

I blinked hard, trying to clear away the mental fog from a sleepless, sweaty night. I’d spent most of it fretting uselessly over problems belonging to other people – chasing stranger’s ghosts down unfamiliar alleys. How can you find something when you can’t even remember what you were looking for?

I went over the situation again, step-by-step: I hadn’t touched that golden writing project in around a year. It was the next big thing for me. Maybe it would buy me a seat at the published writers table. Back then, I knew it was going to be amazing – better than my last (first) book anyway. Way better.

But the momentum I’d held in my brain and hands when I’d last worked on it had long since seeped off, bled out, dried up and been swept away by the first-person drama that took hold of me in the real world. Trivial things like keeping a job, questioning my life, pitching a job into the dustbin, and then eventually finding a new one. It’s amazing how quickly the prospect of facing your own personal economic downturn can turn an impassioned dreamer into a practical, brim-wearing bean counter. That zero-line in the bank balance was getting a little closer each day. Brother, can you spare a thousand bucks?

This is your waking life, buddy. You can’t dream it away, but you’ll keep swimming upstream against its relentless oncoming pressure like the gallant little goldfish that you are, dragging your baggage behind you, hoping to turn old ballast into new fuel.

I took a deep drink from my mug and thanked the Benevolent Hand That Had Created It. Thank god the coffee was good, and still hot. And the sun was peeking out now. That was something. Okay, smart guy – it’s time to try and scribble down that next big idea.

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On Writing: Having Uncommon Thoughts in Common

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, you really can’t see the outside shape of it.

To observe and comment on your life and world, you need to have a certain amount of objectivity – detachment – from it. If you’re too-comfortably living inside your world, I don’t think that you really can see the outside shape of it. You’re too close to it.

On Having an Outsiders View of Things

By outsider, I’m thinking of someone who goes against societal norms, conventions or values, especially in cases where they wish to help someone else who is less fortunate.

Dickens and David Copperfield

I tried to read Copperfield back when I was about twelve. We had inherited a few classics in old hardcover editions, which I’m guessing could have been from the early teens of the century. Being something of a fetishist for old things, I took David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn to my bookshelf, like a thief in the night. I wish I still had those old books. I got through Huck Finn without any trouble, but Dickens’ complex, florid style stopped me cold after a few pages, and I never went back, until recently. Thirty years later.

Anyway, Dickens had really gotten to me when I finished reading Copperfield last month. It struck me just how much I felt in agreement with the social values that he communicated through his characters. He boldly ran counter to the class-snobbery of his day, imbuing the poorest folk with the purest ethics and strongest character. David felt compassion for others, and tried to help them even when he himself would suffer because of it. Especially, Dickens seemed to care for the suffering of children living in poverty.

I recall one character (maybe Wilkins Macawber?) stating that you cannot judge a book by its cover. As a young lad, David was not well-off at all, and went out of his way to demonstrate character traits that one wouldn’t expect from such a young person. I heard David’s voice in my head, throughout the course of his “life” in the novel, and identified with his ethics, humanity, strengths and weaknesses.

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, and More…

The two Raymond characters who stand out in my mind the most are probably his most famous: Phillip Marlowe, and The Continental Op. Marlowe’s clear-minded, almost weary cynicism, and keen observations of the weaknesses in the ethics of others fascinates me. At first, I found some of Chandler’s use of period vernacular to be too frequent (almost to the point of obscuring meaning, rather than accentuating the colour of it), although I’ve come to appreciate how skilled he was at it, and how difficult it is to create punchy, compelling and rich dialogue that portrays the personalities, motivations and world of each character. Chandler wrote as if he was having fun with his colourful, smirking, almost expressionistic similes. You were allowed to accept his artistic license with tongue in cheek. Marlowe seemed a bit too flipant or devil-may-care, but he was no chump, and neither were you, thanks to Chandler. (I think the makers of the James Bond movies used this same kind of flippant tone. Ian Fleming did not, in his original novels, although he admitted to being a big fan of Raymond Chandler.)

Jeff Lindsay’s “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”

Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan (you know – from that TV series?) is a unique mix of cold-blooded serial killer and objective observer of the human condition. He’s bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the emotions of his friends (and his victims), and searching to validate  his own existence. He kind of sees himself as the trash collector of the universe, killing those most despicable monsters – child killers, rapists, pedophile priests – whom he decides deserve it, according to The Code of Harry.

Dexter is highly intelligent, wryly funny, and in many ways, truly superior, and yet, he is bereft of real emotional reactions (i.e. sociopathic), so plays an elaborate game of pretend in order to pass as normal to his coworkers and the rest of the waking world.

Something in Common with Uncommon Voices?

What is it that makes me feel kinship to someone who died well before I was born? I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed David Copperfield, and hearing Dickens’ voice. Chandler’s voice acts on me similarly: I feel a familiar personality at work in my head, some recognizable territory that I’ve visited in the past, but remains a little fresh each time I see it again.

I think that the intimate, personal sense of recognition that I have with these two authors has a lot to do with their characters’ first-person perspective: David Copperfield, The Big Sleep (and all the other Phillip Marlowe stories I’ve read by Chandler), and Darkly Dreaming Dexter are all written in the first person. It’s incredibly personal, intimate and effective – putting the reader right into the protagonist’s point of view.

Perhaps because I live in my head so much of the time, I enjoy living in someone else’s head in the same way.

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On Design: Fulfilling the Urge to Learn and Create

As usual, I’m in the midst of a few different processes at the same time, all self-imposed. I moved on from my last full-time job in March, and in the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a personal re-evaluation of my skills as well as my professional identity. It’s that whole “changing my job/career/identity” mental anguish process wherein, periodically, I rattle my own cage and see what settles out from the upheaval.

As usual, I’m in the midst of a few different processes at the same time, all self-imposed.

I moved on from my last full-time job in March, and in the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a personal re-evaluation of my skills as well as my professional identity. It’s that whole “changing my job/career/identity” mental anguish process wherein,  periodically, I rattle my own cage and see what settles out from the upheaval.

My inner pragmatist has a very strong voice, compelling me to be practical and look for employment opportunities which allow me to use my familiar skills, or to cast a diverse search, in the hopes that I’ll have the right skills in the areas that a prospective employer wants.

“Update or Risk Being Left Behind” – Technical Skills

I started out in computer graphics over 20 years ago, back when the adjective “computer” actually distinguished you from the airbrush artists and print illustrators who were using photo-mechanical processes to create their graphics. I began creating 2D and 3D animation and titles for video, and then got into graphics, icon design and screen layouts for software projects. From these experiences, I always wondered about and cared about the viewer – who they were and what they needed from my work.

Any print design work (business cards, letterhead, and other stock) seemed to come about incidentally from the needs of my current employer or from some freelance opportunity. I wanted to become a good designer, and I especially wanted to know how print design was executed. I became interested in design as an exercise to see how the principles of visual literacy that I’d studied at Emily Carr College were involved, and how style and society influence design.

Overall though, being a child of the TV era, motion, animation and interactivity have always seemed to stimulate me more than static imagery. Over the years, my curiosity about my audience became more and more informed through experience, and began to transform into an interest in usability, and user-centred design.

Gradually, my interest in the user’s experience (the front end) blended into an interest in web site programming (the back end), and so I took opportunities to learn (or at least hack around in) languages like Rexx, Perl, Cold Fusion, Javascript and PHP.

So, my deal is that I’ve been a kind of a Swiss Army Knife of design – I can do (and have done) a little bit of everything. This is also called a Jack of all Trades. I struggle against the corollary of that old chestnut, the dreaded “Master of None”. However, at the 20 year mark in my professional career as a visual designer, I must admit that my skill-set does now feel rather idiosyncratic and in need of a refresh.

In the early days of my career, there weren’t the same dominant players in terms of software tools or computing platforms. I started out building web pages using text editors on Unix, so if I had nothing more than Pico (or, heaven forbid, vi) and a simple Paint program, I could still build a web site. I still tend to be biased towards getting my hands dirty in HTML source code, but as technology has changed over the years and become more complicated and abstract, working solely at the source code level has become more and more difficult.

Nowadays, Adobe is the undisputed “big dog” in the world of print and interactive design tools. I knew that I needed to upgrade my toolkit and skills, so after some online research and reading, I decided to bite the bullet and buy Adobe CS5 Web Edition. With the exception of a video editing suite from Corel and an animation program from another vendor, my whole digital studio will be powered by Adobe.

The challenge for me now is to get up to speed on the current generation of tools, and relearn how to do things in a new, more integrated design environment. For example, a lot of the different tasks that I used to do with four different tools can now all be done within Dreamweaver.

Many Things to Learn

From a practical and creative challenge standpoint, I’ve found that combining a number of related goals into a common, over-arching activity makes a lot of sense for me. Translation: I like to kill lots of birds with as few stones as possible, and my learning opportunities work best when they have a practical goal.

Case(es) in point:

  • When rebuilding my online portfolio, I learned Flash Catalyst in order to create a Flash-based portfolio application that presented a richer user-experience than a straight HTML site, and allowed for fade transitions and nicer graphics.
  • …however, because I now had a larger portfolio with more projects to present, the above project became too complex for a first Catalyst project (which is meant more as a Flash prototyping tool), so I abandoned the Catalyst approach in favour of a new HTML design that used the Lightbox Javascript library, with which I was already familiar. I was still able to use most of previous design and almost all of the production graphics that I’d already created. I’m still satisfied with the end result.
  • I needed to learn about prototyping web pages using Adobe Fireworks. When my ex-employer asked me to update their website and change some of their menu structure, I used it as an opportunity to learn how to create a site wire-frame in PDF format, using Fireworks.
  • For years, I’ve wanted to update “True Life” (one of my personal websites), and change its design from a framed layout (yeah, I know – ancient) to a modern, non-framed layout that used Divs and CSS instead of tables and font tags (again,  ancient). I’m using this project as an opportunity to refresh my skills in Dreamweaver, starting with a pre-made Dreamweaver PHP template and its built-in tools to rebuild the entire site.

Related Posts:

On Design: Visual Literacy in Interface Design

On Narrative: A Story runs through it…

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