On writing as a process

So, I haven’t written anything in 3 days and I actually feel guilty about it. This is a good thing. Writing has been good for me so far in many ways that are not necessarily empirical. It’s hard to quantify the type of catharsis that comes simply from getting my own thoughts out of my head and into a linear, written form. I’ve gained some clarity on the things I’ve written about as well as a sense of closure on some items (or at least a sense of taxonomy for where the issue should fit in my life).

Writing forces me to make choices. What to say? What not to say? What fits with what? What is and isn’t pertinent and important? It also makes me step away from the flow of ideas that are “gut level” and visceral and come back in a day or two to revise. I’m in need of revision in my life a lot of times and doing this “after the fact” editing in my writing will hopefully help me to remember that my gut level responses are not always right, or at least not always worded exactly the way they ought to be.

I really like the concepts of means and ends. I also believe that every action undertaken has one of two possible ultimate ends in mind at the type of the action’s genesis. The two possible ultimate ends of any human are: 1) to please oneself; and 2) the glory and pleasure of God. I learned this from reading Charles Finney’s Systematic Theology, written in the 1830’s before the Civil War.

Those being the only possible ends, I have to say that writing for me is a means of accomplishing both. I believe God has gifted me with the ability to synthesize thought and language in order to communicate ideas effectively. Thus, writing becomes a “tip of the cap” to honor God for granting me that giftedness. But writing also gives me personal, subjective, internalized pleasure that is quite real and gratifying.

I don’t always write with an end in mind. Like at this very moment, the writing is a means of getting some free form ideas out of my mind and onto this digital paper. But the act of writing is almost an end (a proximate one…) in itself. Being able to see my ideas take on some “concreteness” from the amorphous soup of my thought life is a pleasurable exercise in its own right.

I’m not sure if most writers sit down with their end clearly in view. I’m not sure if that is what makes for “good” writing. I think it must be true in some way that all “art forms” allow enough spontaneity in the artist that he enjoys the form, the medium, as much as the finished product. Surely a guitarist enjoys hearing himself play. And a ballerina must love the feeling of the dance. I suppose it could be true that the “enjoyment” is not necessarily always positive or pleasurable for the moment. I’m thinking of Van Gogh, and others like him, who painted or created with a sense of foreboding and self-loathing, and yet when a particular piece was complete, there was sense of finality and accomplishment. (At least temporarily, as Van Gogh was known to have painted over many paintings as he reused canvases due to both his self-doubt and poverty.) My guess is that no matter what the art, if the art form were too unpleasant for the artist, he would stop doing it before long.

I have just assumed that writers always knew the whole story beforehand. I think it’s true of some of them. (Dostoevsky is said to have known the last sentence of Crime and Punishment before he began the novel). But maybe that isn’t always the case. Of course, if a topic is given beforehand, it’s best to stay on point, but otherwise, I’m curious how much freedom and therefore “discovery” and surprise is experienced by writers.

I believe it’s this notion, probably erroneous, that I had to know the whole story, have everything mapped out and charted and diagrammed on the front end, that kept me paralyzed and not writing anything for so many years. I had no complete story in my mind, therefore I didn’t write anything, on any subject. But I’ve come to see in a few short weeks of self-imposed discipline, that I do know some about a few things and I can write it down.

I like where the words take me. I like not knowing exactly how the ribbon will get tied and where I’ll put the bow on the package. It’s exciting to let the ideas flow out and take their own shape under the watchful eye of my inner editor and critic. I get to “play jazz” and listen at the same time as an audience member.

That aspect of writing as a “process” is very unexpected for me. It is also thrilling! It is that feeling that makes me want to sit down and devote time to this endeavor. Even in a week during which I have 4 kids living with me (because of Spring Break) instead of the usual one, I have completed 4 separate trailer deals, I’ve celebrated one of the kid’s birthdays, and I’ve been stretched to still try to be a good boyfriend. I plan to keep on practicing and as Merlin Mann says put 5 words together on a page.


Happy 25th Birthday, Rachel

Rachel PhotoShoot - 2

Today is Rachel’s 25th birthday. I have not seen her since Jordan was being released from the hospital with a broken leg in early May of last year. It was not a pretty scene. Since that meeting, there have been one or two ugly text exchanges. It is a broken relationship. Likely beyond repair. I hope not.

Still, on her birthday, I can remember her coming into the world at 409-B Wakefield in the upstairs corner bedroom of the townhouse her mother and I moved into when we got married in 1987. I remember being splashed full in the face with the amniotic fluid as she crowned and her head emerged from Jackie’s body. I can remember how hot she felt, and how red she looked, and I remember the way she smelled. And I remember how tremendously relieved and grateful to God I felt that she and her mother were safe and sound and alive.

Rachel was born on a Saturday. So, a few minutes after her birth, I drove around the corner to the beauty shop where Jackie rented a booth and cut hair to let them know she wouldn’t be in to keep her appointments. I parallel parked along Montford in front of the shop and when a complete stranger climbed out of the car behind me, I beamed and shared the news with him that I was a father, that my wife had just given birth at home to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. If I’d had a cigar, I certainly would have offered him one.

She was absolutely perfect, even when she looked at us sideways from her tiny eye slits. Her first nickname was “Sideglance”. Perhaps she never really trusted us, even from the beginning.

Early attempts at breast-feeding her proved futile. Both she and Jackie just couldn’t get the hang of it at first. To make sure she stayed hydrated and got some nutrition, Jackie pumped milk which I fed to her using a syringe and a tube run along the tip of my index finger. Her hard little gums would clamp my finger and when she sucked, the milk would flow through that tube. I stayed awake with her in my lap in the downstairs chair the whole first night of her life, changing her wet diapers and feeding her with that finger tube when she’d wake up hungry.

I was so proud of my little girl. And I loved her as hard and as well as any father has ever loved. As I write this with tears streaming down my cheeks, I’m still not sure what happened. I don’t even know when the train left the tracks. It’s heart wrenching and almost more than I can comprehend that something that began with such grace has become something so filled with hurt and bitterness.

There’s nothing clever to say in summation. Happy 25th Birthday, Rachel. I still love you, Daddy.




The Scale and The Pendulum, or Bad Libra

So, at the moment, it feels pretty much like I am giving free rein to the “serendipity” half of the equation in my life. Since I am also engaged in high school algebra (helping my oldest son who is in the 9th grade), it occurs to me that whatever I add to one half of my “serendipitymastery” equation, I must also add to the other side to keep it balanced. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, I am a Libra. The significance of this is only that the Libra “sign” is a set of scales. LOL! I am a BAD Libra! I don’t balance well. Not to say that I’m imbalanced in general, but in life, the day to day kind, I’m just not balanced on a daily meter.

That is likely true for most people. We function much more like the swing of a pendulum. We all vacillate between extremes. Granted, they are subjective, personal, individualistic, and therefore relative, extremes, but extremes none-the-less. I am reminded of a phrase Mal Reynolds used in the television series Firefly, “out here on the raggedy edge.” In the series, which is one of my all-time favorites, but being a strange brew of science fiction and spaghetti western, when the fearless leader Mal said it, he was usually referring to their current physical environs. It was synonymous with, “out here in no man’s land”, or, “out on the edge of the known mapped region of space”. But I like the simplified, “raggedy edge”. That is where I live internally. I’m usually near the raggedy edge of the pendulum swing of my Bad Libra’s scale. I live pretty near to one extreme of “happy-go-lucky”, “take it as you find it”, “fly by the seat of my pants” Serendipity, or the focused, driven, “conquer this right now!” mindset of my obsessive Mastery alter-ego.

An example is my recent discovery of Hazel for Mac. Hazel is a cool, no, wicked cool, app that runs as a system preference in the OS X operating system. You can find it at www.noodlesoft.com/hazel.php. I forget exactly what manner of mental foraging I was engaged in when I stumbled upon it, but once i read about its cool ass capabilities, I had to install it on my system. (The pendulum had reached the raggedy edge of Serendipity and was about to swing wildly in the direction of Mastery’s raggedy edge.) Go ahead, intrepid Mac geek, get you some! They offer a free 14 day trial. What are you waiting for?

Hazel monitors a folder in your file system and then performs actions on the files it contains or that show up there. It comes loaded with some example folder/action pairs to try out. An obvious folder is the Downloads folder where all the cruft that you and I download from the world wide web (Serendipity Nirvana) gets dumped. This folder of digital shit is like my house. Stuff just accumulates there and gets left where it sits. Enter Hazel. This app can sort all the files by type (and even create sub-folders of that type), delete the files that have been there for an amount of time I determine, move the files to appropriate other folders, etc.. Very cool indeed! But wait, that’s not all…

While grokking out on all of its basic functionality, I started looking at all of the links on the Noodlesoft “Buzz” web page (www.noodlesoft/buzz.php)  for ideas and examples of what other geek types were doing with Hazel. I found an amazing, though not exactly cheap, video tutorial by a guy with a great German accent named Andreas Zeitel. If you’re interested you can find the tutorial here: www.macosxscreencasts.com/tutorial/hazel-tutorial. Anyways, midways thru the tutorial, Andreas has shown an example action that Hazel can perform which invokes an imbedded AppleScript to grab any file with file extension .PDF living in a folder called toEvernote and auto-magically opens the Evernote desktop app and send said file to Evernote as a new note. Cool, eh? I had to do that of course because by now, I’ve…just…got …to …tackle …all…Hazel…can…possibly…do!

I’m engrossed. No, addicted! I’m like the guy that has had a jones for coke for a month and then when he finds some he can’t possibly spread it out over say, a weekend, rather, he snorts all of it, ALL of it by the end of the first damn night.

At the end of Andreas’ tutorial, he gives an example of how one can set up Hazel to automatically open web pages you’ve been browsing on your iOS device. That way, when you get home to your mothership Mac, it will be displaying the very web page(s) your were browsing while your significant other was in the dressing room at Marshalls.

It involves Dropbox (www.dropbox.com/home), and creating a “Send to Dropbox” account (https://sendtodropbox.com), and creating a new user in your AddressBook with that handle so you can email files with web page URLs to a new folder created in your Dropbox account, and finally, a wicked cool, imbedded ruby script.

Keep up with me, now. I’m comfortable with Unix. I can write some basic shell scripts. The word “metadata” doesn’t scare me. I can even bullshit my way around a conversation involving Apache, or Postgresql, or php. I’ve installed Ruby and Rails on my system, but I’m not that guy that just uses ruby every day like typing a text message. And this damn action in Hazel using the ruby script just won’t work! I’m stymied. Do I give up? Do I count my blessings? Do I thank the coding gods out there who have created such Hazel and Dropbox goodness for me to enjoy? NO! Hell to the NO! I have to FIX it!

I get so engrossed on something at the raggedy edge of Mastery (I have to keep calling it that to avoid the obvious truth that really I have major OCD tendencies) that I even dream about whatever it is I’m captivated by. So yes, I dreamed of Hazel, and /usr/bin/ruby, and folder actions, until the next morning I woke up and just emailed Andreas Zeitel to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his video tutorial and how much I’d learned, but there was the one little, bitsy problem with my ruby script, and if he would be so kind, and if he had the time, could he possibly take…a…look?

I’ll be damned. Andreas is good people! He sent two different replies detailing possible problems with my script. One involved ruby’s reluctance, er, refusal to recognize “smart quotes” in any script. When that didn’t work, he just sent me a link to a page where I could just freaking copy and paste that mother of a script into my own little Hazel action world. Joy! It all worked! And it was the seventh day, and I could rest from my labors. Ha!

On to the next discovery…the pendulum is swinging back.