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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On Writing: Chasing Echoes and Ghosts

For me, the energy and desire to write always seems to get bogged down in the necessity to research. It’s just part of the process. In my fiction, a certain amount of factual research is needed in order to pin characters, places and things down in a realistic, believable way.

When it works, and I gather information that qualifies some details, it fills me with a sense of accomplishment and closure: I feel that I can build on the objectivity I have established, and move on from there. However, there are times when I can’t get the answers I’m looking for, or no clarity or objective detail can be established on some topic. In those cases, I feel like I’m staring into a gap in the tableau I’ve been developing, and in my insecurity and self-consciousness, I become convinced that the gaps are big enough to drive a truck through. I’m left with a lingering lack of confidence.

If I cannot establish some kind of adequate, believable, factual precedent for an idea, character or locale, then at some point, I find myself faced with “Plan B” – I use my imagination and whatever other information I have gathered in order to close the gaps.

When it doesn’t work, I feel like I’m chasing wisps of ideas, ghosts of people, down unfamiliar alleys, following echoes to who knows where.

I don’t get writer’s block. I get lost in a conceptual morass, looking for the way out. Eventually, once I dig back into the world I’m building, I’ll find the beacon I need to make my way.

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On Research: How did it ever get done before the Internet?

How the hell did writers ever do research in the days before the Internet? A lot of cultural and technological development took place to get us where we are today.

I’m not exactly a digital native – I remember the days before Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. I remember the days before the web, and email. I remember using a 2400 baud modem to log into local Bulletin Board Systems located on private desktop PCs all over town, just to stay abreast of local chatter.

Back in high school, I remember that we were taught how to use the card catalogue to look up books by their call numbers. It seemed to take a long time and a lot of searching to find one or two 20 year-old books, and then, more searching in each volume to find the information you were looking for in the first place. I just cannot imagine how much time and effort a writer would have to take in order to do research for a book, back in the days before the Internet.

The difference in time and effort spent on research today is like the difference between walking somewhere and teleporting there.

Finding Informed Opinions

When I need to make requests of various experts, but I don’t know to whom I should make my queries, I can just bleat a tweet out into the twitterverse, or send a few quick emails. Within 24 hours (maybe just an hour or three) I will have at least a couple of useful leads. Answers.com and other “Ask an Expert” sites are all over the web too. People will bid to answer your esoteric questions for relatively cheap rates. And, there are also a boatload of free message boards where amateur experts, aficionados and historians share information on a multitude of topics. No phone calls, letter writing or travel required.

Consult that Encyclopedia Britannica

When I’m looking for third-party researched data on general topics – like the kind of information I’d look for in an encyclopedia – I just go to Wikipedia, and if necessary, corroborate the information with other online sources.

Go There and Research Stuff in Person

Thanks to Google, Bing and others, I can get street-level and bird’s eye views of many places on the planet. This can go a long way towards informing any descriptions that I’d want to add to a story.

Of course, no street photography can give you the sounds, smells, temperature and tactile impressions that come from live human experience. By the time we manage to virtualize those sensations, we’ll be in the era of virtual travel, and reading textual descriptions will be largely irrelevant.

How Will Narrative Change?

At the point in our future where virtual environments become predominant, I think that narrative – the “story” – will be something that you as the reader/participant construct in your mind as you experience the writer’s virtual world. In that scenario, the writer will be a facilitator – a guide – and you will be the one creating your own narrative as you take your own steps through the story.

This is similar in evolution to how the hyperlink changed the idea of informational linking between books. Back in the pre-Internet days, a footnote in one book would refer to a passage in a different book, and to experience that second book, you’d have to go find it and read it. Hyperlinks transport your mind from the body of one book to the body of the next book with nothing more than a mouse click.

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Playing with Write or Die: “Fartley and George”

Getting started on a writing task is always a big challenge for me. Once I’m rolling, it seems that the opposite is true (when to stop?), but getting started is the most difficult part most of the time.

Enter a little site called “Write or Die”.

This site offers tools to put the flame under your rear. I used the free Desktop Edition, which provides a custom editor with a timer and various levels of prompts, ranging from gentle reminders to outright word assassination.

You set your own initial goal, say 150 words in 10 minutes, or 1000 words in an hour or whatever, and the rest is up to you.

With Kamikaze-level prodding from the free Desktop Edition, I burped out this little scene in a few minutes.

I didn’t say it was good – just fast. Enjoy.


That damned grass hadn’t been mowed in months. It was growing tall as hell, and it really pissed Eileen off. She’d been after George to cut the damned lawned for months and he never did. Why was everything always up to her?

George’s beloved and ancient laborador retreiver, Farley (or “Fartley”, as Eileen had dubbed him) was laying in the sun, like a great lump across the back sidewalk, blocking the gate. If there ever was a better advertisement for neutering, she hadn’t seen it.

Fartley rolled over, grunted and emitted a loud canine fart, and then sighed contentedly. She turned away from the window when she heard George do the same thing from his spot on the couch.

Boy, what a marvelous little family she had assembled around her, she reflected, pushing open the window.

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