September 21

Visualizing as a Reader [Books]

Here’s a question for you: What do you see when you read a story? Is it just the words on the page, or do you picture the setting and characters? Does a lot of description help your imagination, or do you prefer sparse description so you can fill in the blanks with your imagination?

As a reader, I’m not a big fan of too much description. I like to know the lay of the land, but with a brief summary. I don’t need to know the patterns on the furniture or the wattage of the lightbulbs in the table lamps. In a way, it seems like overcompensation by the writer. Woman reading a book in bed.

If I had a choice, I’d prefer to read a story with little description rather than too much. I like to be an active reader, to pause as I’m reading and allow the scene, the sights and smells, to come together in my mind. 

Of course, it also depends on the story. Some stories call for more description. Fantasy and science fiction, for example, deal with different worlds, creatures, magic, and alien technology. In these cases, more description can help the reader to immerse themselves into the story.

When I first started writing fiction, I thought it was important to go into as much detail as possible. I’d describe my character’s hair, eye color, height, weight, shoe size, favorite color, what they had for dinner the night before. Well, not all of that, but you get the idea. It made my stories bloated and dense. 

The more I read, however, the more I learned about what I liked as a reader. In turn, I began applying these things to what I wrote. As the saying goes, write stories that you want to read. I think it would be better phrased as, write stories that you would enjoy reading. Young boy reading a book.

This brings me back to visualization. When I write fiction, I do picture my characters in my mind, but I try not to convey too much of that to the page. I want my readers to picture them the way they want to. When I write about a young woman with dark hair, the reader can imagine her as being white, Black, Hispanic, or Asian. I think it allows the reader to better immerse themselves if they can see who they want to see, instead of being forced to see what’s in my head.

Do you have a preference when it comes to reading stories? Do you like to be an active reader, filling in the blanks with your imagination? Or do you like to have the writer paint the picture for you? I’m curious to know.

RB

September 14

Bradbury Challenge – Update 2.1

Fueled by a bit of inspiration and a couple shot of tequila, I finished my latest draft. That’s the second one I’ve completed in the past four weeks. And yes, if feels good. Apparently, I was much closer to the finish line than I thought in my last update. First page of my short story, Misfits.

I’m also still working my way through Leaves of Grass and a collection of horror/weird fiction short stories I stumbled across online. Reading a little of both each day is an odd juxtaposition. On one page beautiful verse honoring the early U.S, the potential of a young, wild country, and on the other page are zombies. No wonder I’ve been having weirder dreams lately.

The latest draft turned out well. I’m happy with it. It ended sort of like how I originally envisioned it, but as always, the story led the way and veered off the path a bit. It worked out, tough. Now it gets filed away for a few weeks until I can look at it with fresh eyes.

One other thing, I want to share one of the poems I read the other day. It’s one of my favorites of Whitman’s, a sort of challenge to future poets (writers). Seems appropriate at the moment.

Poets to Come
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the
darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

Hope this inspires you, as well.

RB

September 10

Living in a Bubble [Mental Health]

Depending on where you live in the world, COVID may or may not be a pressing issue. What I mean is that some areas are handling the virus with common sense. The majority of the population in these places has been vaccinated, people are wearing masks in public, adhering to social distancing, and the numbers of infected remain low.

Then there’s here, where I live. Things are frightening. Two days ago I read that one of our two local hospitals has started bringing in refrigerated trucks to hold the deceased because the morgue is full. And they’ve also canceled all non-emergency procedures. And they’re running out of beds and staff, who are quitting due to the overwhelming number of cases.

woman inside a bubbleBecause of this, I’ve been living in a bubble. I’ve been vaccinated, but I know that I can still carry and transmit the virus. I don’t want to have to live with the guilt of knowing I got someone else sick, especially if it kills them. Plus, I know that I can still get sick from COVID. Not as badly as the unvaccinated, but I don’t want to go through that, even a mild case.

Living in this bubble has been interesting. Luckily, I work from home, so I don’t have much reason to leave the house, except for grocery shopping and taking my mutts to the vet every so often. I’m comfortable with that. I have stacks of books to read, stories to write, games to play. I don’t have to worry about getting dressed up, I only wear shoes maybe once a week, and I get to spend a lot of time playing with my dogs.

Of course, this also means a lack of human interaction. I have Zoom video meetings a few times a day with coworkers, which is okay, but it’s not quite the same as a face-to-face discussion. And I have five minutes to talk to the cashier at the grocery store. And, well, that’s about it.

Now, keep in mind that I’m not what you’d consider a social butterfly. I enjoy small get-togethers, good conversation, adult beverages, but I’m not one to necessarily seek it out.

After a year and a half of distancing, it’s interesting to note that I miss those small gatherings. It’s the conversation, mostly, hearing about other people’s interesting adventures and excursions. Hearing them describe things, conversations they’ve had, things they’ve overheard. Basically, hearing other people tell their stories.

There’s something about the oral tradition of storytelling. At parties, dinners, backyard cookouts, people relay their personal short stories, their creative non-fictions. Humans have been doing this for millennia. The main difference being that now we stand around a gas grill rather than squat around a campfire.Photo of campfire at night

Living in a bubble removes my exposure to that continuing tradition. It’s unfortunate, but necessary at the moment. Luckily, I still have my partner sharing her stories with me, coworkers who involve me in side conversations on a video call once a meeting ends, and there are podcasts. So many podcasts.

That all helps to fill the void. But yet, I look forward to when things get back to some semblance of normalcy. I’ll enjoy hearing voices first-hand, picking up on the nuances of body language, sharing laughs and gasps, immersing myself in those interesting stories.

Stay safe.

RB

September 9

Bradbury Challenge – Update 2 [Writing]

So far, so good.

I’ve read another book, Packing for Mars, and been working my way through Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The latter is for my ‘poem a day’. I’ve read Leaves of Grass many, many times over the years. It’s one of the greatest poetry collections, so raw and pure, and I find it inspiring. A perfect accompaniment to this challenge.

The story is also coming along. I’m just over halfway through the first draft. I estimate the ‘halfway’, though. The story is leading me along and I really only have a rough idea of where I hope it will take me. It feels like it’s getting there, like I’ve gotten to the point where things are beginning to come together for a confrontation, a revelation, then a resolution.

I’ve been enjoying the routine and I feel like it’s making a positive difference in my creativity. I feel more inspired to write, I’ve had more ideas popping into my head, and I’m even seeing the world around me a bit differently. What I mean is, I’m not seeing it in a two-dimensional, black-and-white way. I’m seeing more nuance, color variations, more beauty.

For example, there’s a butterfly bush in the front yard. I don’t know what kind it is, but it produces these tiny orange flowers and small black berries. Over the past couple of weeks, the bush has been attracting a wide variety of butterflies. Black and yellow, bright yellow, black and blue, Monarchs, and some too small to identify from my seat in the living room.

Now they’ve been out there all summer, the bush and the butterflies, but it’s only recently that they’ve been catching my attention. I’ll see the fluttering wings out of the corner of my eye, and I stop what I’m doing – reading, watching television, sketching – and spend the next twenty or thirty minutes just sitting and watching these little guys (and girls, I’m sure) dancing among the flowers.

I think this is due to a change in perspective, which in turn is the result of the Bradbury Challenge. Pushing myself to be more creative is changing the way I see the world around me. In a positive way, of course. I think that’s amazing. Ray Bradbury

I’ll have my second short story draft completed in a few more days (barring too much distraction from the butterflies), and then it’s on to the next. I’m still not sure how far I’m going to take this before I stop to work on the completed drafts. Or maybe I’ll work the editing process into the challenge.

So many possibilities.

RB

September 7

Review – Packing for Mars [Books]

Mary Roach enjoys being a writer. It comes across in every one of her books. It’s not surprising since she gets to investigate, research, and even get hands-on with her subject matter. Packing for Mars is no exception. Of course, she gets to hang out at NASA and spend the day with astronauts. What’s not to love about it?

As far as non-fiction is concerned, this is a fun read. Roach throws herself into her research, speaking with astronauts, NASA administrators, researchers, and inventors. Her focus isn’t just on the parts of the space program we read about. She also delves into some of the less-known but just as interesting aspects.

There’s a chapter on food and eating in zero-gravity. Waste disposal, both in the early days and with modern technology. And yes, there’s even a chapter on sex in space. I’m still not certain if it sounds sexy or incredibly awkward. In zero-g, a body in motion stays in motion, if you catch my meaning.

It’s not a great book, however. While I enjoy Roach’s writing style and her wit, I felt like she spent too much time focusing on the history of the space program at NASA. It was interesting, but for example, she spends more than a chapter writing about the first two chimps the went into space. It didn’t really feel like it needed this much attention.

The book is subtitled, “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, and she does touch upon this, but I feel the book looked back far more than it looked forward. If that makes sense. I would have preferred to have read more about where we are going, rather than where we’ve been. I understand laying a foundation, giving readers some context and history, but that seemed to be her focus.

I’m a huge fan of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and all the different companies, institutes, and universities that contribute to the exploration of space. I think it’s important to explore and research everything we can out there. As Roach notes in her book, yes, the money could arguably be better spent on terrestrial issues – housing, education, medicine – but, I would argue, we don’t know what we might find out there that could benefit everyone down here.

Roach does note many things that we currently have thanks to the space program. Everything from microwave ovens to smartphones, medical procedures, cybernetics, computer components, none of which would be here if we hadn’t gone out there.

Packing for Mars is a fun read. I imagine I’d be just as giddy and excited as Roach seems to be when she rides in the ‘Vomit Comet‘, or when she hangs out with both astronauts and cosmonauts. Who wouldn’t be? Trajectory for zero gravity maneuver

If you aren’t familiar with the space program and all the various aspects of it, then you’ll find this book an interesting read. It shies away from the highly technical stuff, no rocket science needed. Instead, it’s mostly about the people – plus a few chimps and dogs – that helped to advance our knowledge.

If nothing else, you’ll come away from this book with a deeper appreciation of what astronauts go through, the highs and lows, and how much work goes into the simplest process to ensure safety. Think of this as a science book for the non-scientist.

RB

September 3

Review – The Demon-Haunted World [Books]

There are good books and there are great books. In the realm of non-fiction, I’d place Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, to be in the latter category.The Demon-Haunted World book cover

Sagan, without argument, was one of our great minds. If you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s, you knew who he was. His television program, Cosmos, was one of the most-watched shows ever. And the thing I always liked about him was that he always came across as a down-to-earth person. Just one who was smarter than everyone else in the room.

The Demon-Haunted World was published in 1995, which was a transitional period in the world of technology and science. The internet was becoming a big deal, Windows 95 was released, the first Sony PlayStation went on sale, the Galileo Probe entered Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the existence of a Top Quark was announced by the scientific community. 

I think much of this got Sagan thinking about progress and how it can have both good and bad affects on society. What he ended up doing was writing (along with co-author and life partner Ayn Druyan) a eerily accurate forecast of where we are today.

Photo of Carl SaganSagan, obviously, was a proponent of science. As an astrophysicist, he was able to see things from a wider perspective than the average person, and coupled with his joy of knowledge and learning, he did his best to get people interested in science and its place in our lives.

I think The Demon-Haunted World does a good job of extolling the importance of science education in schools, as well as for the general public. But at the same time, it also serves as a warning about anti-science mentalities and how a lack of basic scientific knowledge can be dangerous and insidious. 

Sadly, many of the things he predicted that could happen if science education were to be de-emphasized have come to pass. Roughly one-third of the US population rejects science. We can see it in with how easily people are swayed by unsupported rumors and theories, who reject scientific research in exchange for ‘gut instinct’ and social-media research.

I found myself repeatedly shaking my head while reading this book as I realized how right Sagan was, and how disappointed he’d be if he were alive today.

If nothing else, this book demonstrates the importance of science in our lives, the importance of science education, and the importance of critical thinking skills. These things have taken a back seat in school curriculums, and unfortunately, society is suffering because of it. 

The Demon-Haunted World is a well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book. It’s a shame that the people who would benefit the most from it aren’t likely to read it.

Regardless, I recommend it for anyone with an interest in science, psychology, sociology, and critical thinking. I learned a lot from reading it. Even decades after his death, Sagan can still teach us something important. 

RB

August 30

Bradbury Challenge – Update 1 [Writing]

So my first week doing the modified Bradbury Challenge went well. It’s an adjustment to my daily routine, but I was able to get my reading accomplished and finished the first draft of a new short story, “Bank Shot”.

Title and first paragraph of my short story, Bank Shot

It was interesting to note that, despite giving myself a two-week deadline, I didn’t feel rushed. I had the story outlined in my head, so it was basically just transferring it from my imagination to the page. And strangely, the ending I originally had in mind didn’t change when I wrote it out.

When writing, I’d say that ninety-nine percent of the endings I initially envision never make it out of my head. By the time I write it all out, the story of the moment goes in another direction, or my protagonist does something unexpected and changes path. Something always happens when I let the story take the lead.

This one, for whatever reason, didn’t change. Is that a good sign? I hope so.

I actually finished the draft this past Thursday, so from start to finish it took ten days to type out 2,100 words. My writing window was small, only about thirty minutes a day, and I skipped working on it for two days due to other priorities. All in all, I’ll take that as a success.

So I’m now ready for the next story. I have an idea in mind, something I’ve been mulling over the past few months. I have the opening scene mapped out, and there’s a nice little twist I’d like to try with it near the end. And no, I don’t have an ending in mind. This will be one of my organically-written stories. Just the opening and a thin thread to follow.

I’m looking forward to seeing where this leads. Wish me luck!

RB

 

August 16

Music Moment – Elderly Woman Behind the Counter…[Music]

As one of the main bands to bring the early 90s Seattle sound – aka Grunge – to the mainstream, Pearl Jam has always been a constant member of my many playlists. Their sound is unique, recognizable, and their songs always feel as if they’re painting a mood or telling a story.

One of my favorite songs of theirs is Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town. To me, it falls into both categories. It’s a story song, giving the listener a glimpse into the life of an elderly woman living in a small town, probably spent her entire life working in the same old diner, and realizing the one of her customers is an old acquaintance who just returned to town. Older waitress in a diner

At the same time, the lyrics invoke a mood of melancholy. It’s a song of missed opportunity, regret, lost chances, and resignation. Yet, does the old woman really regret her life, or is she simply accepting her fate?

Eddie Vedder, the lead singer and lyricist for the band, also has a unique voice. His style reminds me of Jim Morrison, the late singer for The Doors. There’s a rawness, a natural flow, to the words. They aren’t necessarily traditional in the rhythms or rhyme schemes, and they have a rawness that appeals to me.

Here are the lyrics. Give them a read, then check out the video link that follows. The song is a brilliant mesh or words and music, evoking a scene that is bittersweet and touching.

Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town

I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar, yet I can’t seem to place it
Cannot find the candle of thought to light your name
Lifetimes are catching up with me

All these changes taking place, I wish I’d seen the place
But no one’s ever taken me
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…

I swear I recognize your breath
Memories like fingerprints are slowly raising
Me, you wouldn’t recall, for I’m not my former
It’s hard when, you’re stuck upon the shelf

I changed by not changing at all, small town predicts my fate
Perhaps that’s what no one wants to see
I just want to scream…hello…

My god its been so long, never dreamed you’d return
But now here you are, and here I am
Hearts and thoughts they fade…away…
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away…

Hearts and thoughts they fade…away
Hearts and thoughts they fade…away

Lyrics and Music by Pearl Jam

 

RB

August 8

The Bradbury Challenge [Writing]

It’s no secret that Ray Bradbury was a prolific author. By the time he passed in 2012, he had written over six-hundred short stories, twenty-seven books, plus essays, criticisms, screenplays, and poems. The man was a writing machine. 

Luckily, he was open about his creative process and how he was able to accomplish so much with the written word. As I noted in a previous post, his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, is a must-read for all writers. Bradbury was passionate about the written word, about creativity, and about encouraging other writers.

And this is where the Bradbury Challenge comes from: his daily routine as outlined in the book. Basically, each day Bradbury would read one short story, one essay, and one poem. That was the fuel for his creative fire. Fiction, non-fiction, and a bit of lyrical beauty to get the imagination working. Ray Bradbury

But it doesn’t end there. The most amazing part is that he also wrote one short story every week. Of course, there were weeks, maybe months, when he couldn’t because of other commitments. He wrote so many other things that I couldn’t imagine how he’d have time to squeeze a short story in each week. But then again, the man was a word machine.

Because he’d always been an inspiration to me, I thought it was time I challenged myself to the challenge. Now, I know that I can’t follow his lead exactly. I have a full-time job (writing, no less), plus other daily and weekly responsibilities. Bradbury was a full-time, independent writer. 

So I’m going to partake in a modified Bradbury Challenge. 

My challenge to myself is this: read one short story or book chapter a day, read one poem a day, and write one short story every two weeks. 

While more manageable than Bradbury’s routine, it’ll still take effort on my part. I’ll have to change up my daily routine and cut out some of my usual downtime in order to get words on the page, but I think it’ll be worth it. 

I’m looking at it like an exercise routine. I started back to exercising every morning two months ago. I started small, ten minutes a day alternating between core, strength, and yoga. This week I’ve upped that to thirty minutes a day, doing core/strength/yoga on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while doing thirty minutes of yoga on Tuesday and Thursday. 

At first, it was tough. I had to push myself to get into the routine. But now, two months later, it’s gone from a routine to a habit. A good habit. 

I think the same can be applied to creativity. I’m going to start with this modified Bradbury Challenge and, eventually, get to where it evolves from routine to habit. Then, maybe, I’ll see about writing one story every week. 

I’ll be starting this on Sunday and will post updates, along with my usual musings, every week. And you’re welcome to join in, in your own way. 

I hope to make Ray Bradbury proud.

RB

August 6

Inspiration from Others [Writing]

A few of the stories I’ve written, or drafted, were inspired by things I read elsewhere. For example, there’s a song by Black Sabbath titled “Neon Knights“, which I turned into a short story about, well, neon knights. It’s only made it to the first-draft phase, but it has potential as an interesting fantasy/sci-fi mash up.

Neon Knight from Black Sabbath album coverThat wasn’t the first or only time that happened. There have been other song titles and lyrics that have sparked an idea, as well as book titles, chapter titles, and even a sentence or phrase from something else I’ve read. There’s something about these little combinations of words, once read or heard, that ignites a creative fire in my imagination.

But then, I always feel guilty about it. For some reason, it makes me feel like I’m stealing something from the original artist. I know, silly, right? In fact, I’d be flattered if I found out that someone created something after being inspired by something that I created. That has to be the highest compliment an artist can receive.

The problem I run into is that I find these little embers of inspiration everywhere. I see them in the stories I read, the music I hear, the world around me. I see a red-tailed hawk perched on a high branch in my back yard and wonder about him. What does he see from up there? What is he thinking? What has he experienced? All that begins to form a story in my mind.

I even find inspiration simply sitting at a stoplight. I look at the people sitting in the cars around me, watch them briefly (so they don’t get freaked out), and wonder about their lives. Where are they going? Where are they coming from? Why does that woman look sad? Why is that little boy bouncing around in the backseat like a billy goat? Brain jumping rope

Occasionally, these spontaneous ideas are worth writing down so I remember them later. Most, however, are just exercises in creativity. Mental improv. A way to pass the time while stuck in traffic on a hot August afternoon.

The downside is that I have a ridiculous number of ideas scattered about on various notepads, envelopes, and scraps of paper. One of these days (ha!) I’ll have to try and organize them. Or at least put them all in the same place. More than likely, I’ll continue to jot them down and stick them in a drawer on in my jacket pocket so I can discover them again someday and be inspired to write something.

RB