Monday, November 30, 2009

Thoughts on Mapping the Writer's Tool-Space

(Some Initial Results of Mapping the Writer's Tool-Space)

You can usually tell when I’ve hand-written these pieces, prior to typing (at least, I can tell); they have a different rhythm, flow and feel. It has something to do with the interaction between a writer and the writer’s tools.

Each tool or method of writing has with it a unique blend of attributes, advantages and disadvantages, which have the effect of forcing the writer, either through convenience or the hard limitations of systemic principles, into a narrow window of behavior. Handwriting is slow, letter-by-letter, in linear (serial) order; while the word processor is almost entirely random-access, but limits one’s field of view to a few paragraphs at a glance.

Given the variety of writing methods at our avail, due no doubt to the recent explosion of information technology, in conjunction with a near proximity to recently outdated methods whose physical artifacts still remain functional (i.e. typewriters, old fountain pens, etc.), we exist at a unique time in technological history when such diverse tools and methods can be evaluated and compared in actual use, rather than being relegated to dusty museums or history books. What we require therefore is some straightforward method of evaluating writing tools by their effect on our usage patterns; we need a good, old-fashioned writer’s tool smack-down.

More precisely however, we need to agree upon some parameters, a common language of terminology on which to base our evaluations. One method is to map the Writer’s Tool-Space: to define several axes of freedom, then quantify each tool or method as to where it falls out within that space.

One obvious, perhaps the most obvious, parameter is convenience of editing; not just the initial layout of characters, words and phrases but how easily they can be rearranged, manipulated and revised. We could call this flexibility of editing “compositional freedom.” The full spectrum of compositional freedom ranges from entirely random, whereby letters, words, lines, paragraphs and/or whole pages (even entire documents) are copy, pasted, cut or rearranged at will; to the restricted limitations of linear access only, whereby the document in question is a linear sequence of characters whose order is entirely and immutably fixed – etched in stone (literally or figuratively). Within these two extremes can be plotted the respective compositional attributes of virtually every writing technology or method imaginable, from literal characters carved into stone to symbols manipulated on computer displays.

Another systemic parameter useful to consider is how much of the document can be seen, or visually accessed, at any one moment, during the actual writing process. This characteristic is hard-wired into the structure of the physical media being employed, and can range from entire pages viewed at one glance (in the case of handwritten sheets or storyboard layouts) to fractions of sentences (in the case of cell phone-based texting, and typewriting). Within these extremes, the entirety of the known methods of writing can be located in proportion to their ease of visual access.

Given these two major criteria for evaluating the Writer’s Tool-Space – visual access and compositional freedom - it becomes useful to compare the one against the other; implying some form of two-dimensional mapping, as illustrated herein. It seems probable that virtually any writing process, or collection of writing tools, can be found mapped within this Tool-Space, further implying that various means and methods can be evaluated, one against the other, by their relative locations within this space. For example, we might compare handwriting on paper against word processing, where we find that handwriting permits a wider visual grasp of the document, albeit with minimal editorial flexibility; while word processing offers greater flexibility for revision, with a more restricted view.

We might also consider that the writing process itself often occurs in phases, each one requiring that certain attributes be enhanced, while others remain suppressed. For example, during the initial write there is often the need to purposefully minimize the ability to revise and edit, and instead to enhance the undistracted collecting of words, phrases and paragraphs. In this case many writers may find the more restrictive and linear access methods to be most useful. Conversely, during the later revision and editing phases of the writing process the need transitions to flexibility of editing, when methods such as the word processor become more expedient. Between these extreme stages of the writing process are intermediary phases when having a large visual scope of the document is important, while still retaining some ability to perform restricted changes and edits; it is during these intermediary phases that methods such as red line editing of typed, printed or written text is useful.

(Vector Diagram of an Example Writing Process, Mapped Onto the Writer's Tool-Space)

It becomes axiomatic that the writing process itself (although varying from one person to another) could in general principle be mapped as a progression from the more compositionally restrictive to the more flexible, with the visual component representing a progression from the narrower to the wider view. Such a progression can be mapped as a vector within the Writer’s Tool-Space diagram.

It should also be recognized that individual writers would each find their own custom writing process, which will often vary considerably from one person to the next, such that these various processes can be mapped on the Tool-Space diagram as a series of vectors unique to each writer.

(Vector Diagram of a Variety of Writing Processes, Mapped Onto the Writer's Tool-Space)

For example, person “A” might initially compose his work using paper and pen; then red line edit; then perform the final stages of editing using a word processor. Person “B”, conversely, could be found to practice a regimen of composing on an Alphasmart device, and then perform final edits in a word processor. Person “C”, alternatively, could use the word processor for the entire writing process.

It is also possible that the same writer may use a multitude of different writing processes, depending on the nature and purpose of the writing. For example, a professional writer, employed by a media agency, would most likely use a word processor-based method for the bulk of their professional writing, yet revert to a more hands-on, linear approach for their personal writing.

(My Initial Scribblings)

I have only touched the surface of what is possible to understand about the process of writing by the evaluation of the Writer’s Tool-Space. There are also other dimensions of understanding worth exploring: for instance the speed of data entry within the writing process; or the dimension of the story’s granularity, from the finest detail of individual letters within words to the coarseness of the story’s overall arc of plot as viewed from the outline or storyboard level; or the aesthetic appeal of various writing tools and methods. Given the almost limitless possibilities to understanding the writing process, it seems that a mere two-dimensional diagram is entirely insufficient to fully illustrate the extent of the Writer’s Tool-Space. While it is of utmost importance for a writer, rather than fixate upon the tools and processes employed, to actually write, I believe it is of some practical value to consider the entirety of the Writer’s Tool-Space as a vehicle for the further improvement of one’s writing.

Given the near-proximity to the conclusion of 2009’s National Novel Writing Month project, it is anticipated that there would be some relevant feedback to this subject, based on individuals’ NaNoWriMo experiences. So, how about you; where do your writing tools, methods and process fall out on the Writer’s Tool-Space diagram?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Early Thanksgiving Type-O-Rama

And the result of this group type-o-rama is a guest typecast from my better half, the Mrs. Joe Van Cleave:

(It must be stated here that the pre-Thanksgiving meal was more than a mere enchilada casserole; it was a New Mexico green chile and chicken enchilada casserole, along with a red chile/cheese enchilada casserole; homemade rolls; cornbread muffins; callebacitas casserole (squash, corn, onions, cheese, etc); pinto beans, tortillas, honey-baked ham; salad; dessert; etc. Everyone went away stuffed and satisfied. Oh yeah, and multiple family members got to type on my collection of various manuals. Most of it was "the quick brown fox", or variations upon "qwerty", etc. But my Better Half didn't roll her eyes too widely. And after it was all done, she inquired as to how much I thought it would take to get the little turquoise Singer Scholastic fixed up. - Editor)

Youthful Typing Hijinks

An Autumn Poem

(click on image for larger size)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Half-Frame Fullness (Redux)

*Four Corners Dark Link

Postscript: In an experimental mood, I (originally) typecast these onto colored 3x5 note cards, with the result being that my scanner doesn't respond well to the deeper red colors, hence the poor quality of the typings.

I also had "issues" with two of my three typewriters feeding the stiff card stock through their rollers; I had to finally settle with the 1930s-era Underwood Universal. I'm thinking of making a template to print on regular typing paper, little rectangular windows I can type within. Black letters on white paper. Thin paper, the type that feeds easily.

I'm trying to avoid having to upload each typecast sheet to a photo hosting website prior to posting them on my blog; Blogger seems to limit the size and resolution of images directly uploaded from one's computer, so to get larger images on my blog I have to upload them to a hosting website first, then link them to the blog. Or perhaps it's a template issue that I haven't figured out. I'm running out of room on two of my free photo hosting websites, so I'm trying alternatives. The idea of note cards was to only type one or two paragraphs per card; then when uploaded they would be adequately large to easily read, without having to go through a photo hosting service. Oh well; back to the old drawing board.

Post-Post Script: The beauty of typecasting, like any Luddite-laden activity, is that you get to redo it if you want; it just takes more effort. I decided, therefore, to make a typing template for 3x5-sized frames, using Paint Shop Pro, printed onto plain white paper. I retyped the text of this article, then uploaded the scans to my photo-hosting service at just the exact size and resolution needed for the blog, to minimize bandwidth consumed. A bit easier to read I think.


We Interrupt This Blog for an Important Bulletin

As a public service notice to the greater sphere of typewriter users, known henceforth as The Typosphere, it is necessary for us to make mention of a disturbing new trend in renegade typewriter usage by unknown elements of what has come to be known as The Black Ribbon Brigade.
Founded in the late 1980s at the height of the Cold War, the B.R.B. as they prefer to be known have been creating papers, documents, pamphlets and other typewriter-based works to undermine the established order and wreak havoc with the expected norms of mass communications.
In an unprecedented new low of despicable media jamming, the B.R.B. are now reusing published advertisement fliers for their own nefarious purposes of humor and silliness, which can no longer be tolerated at this time of serious economic and national security concerns.
In light of this new threat to the social order, the Luddite Alert Level must be raised from chartreuse to crimson. All citizens of The Typosphere must be on the look-out for any and all non-standard typing activity. The B.R.B. have been known to use official-looking documents, order forms and templates for their dark work, so vigilance is required. All typewritten documents must be scrutinized for the proper lack of humor and silliness. They've even been known to impersonate participants in NaNoWriMo.
To assist the public during this crucial time we have included examples of the B.R.B.'s work, recovered after a recent police raid on a sidewalk coffee and bagel shop. Should you see typewriter-produced work of this kind, or any suspicious typing at all, you are encouraged to contact your local Office of Typographic Security. Remember our slogan: You can never be too paranoid.
Remember that together we will get through this challenging time, and rid our great culture of the scourge of The Black Ribbon Brigade.

That is all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Beat Thing

Click this link to learn more about David Meltzer's work.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cormac McCarthy's Perfect Day

(Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal Online)

So you think that you're just a pretend writer, with your freshly oiled typewriter, kerthunking away in the kitchen or wherever you prefer, with your stack of blank paper, fresh ribbon and correction tape, with dictionary for spell checking? So you think that “real” writers, the ones of acclaim and notoriety, the ones actually being published and payed, only use computers; that the image of a smoke-filled room and manual typewriter is only for the movies or those select few of the Typewriter Brigades, the Typosphere? Well think again.

True, most writers do use computers of one sort or another for at least one stage of the writing process, whether it be for collecting research data, composing the first draft, or throughout the entire process. But there are the occasional writers who, having developed a now-arcane writing process with which they are comfortable, stick to it over the years and decades, regardless of changes in media technology swirling about them.

One example I happened upon this week is Cormac McCarthy, the acclaimed writer, whose recent novel “The Road” is being made into a feature film, to soon be released. In this interview, on the Wall Street Journal's website, McCarthy alludes indirectly to his craft of writing being typewriter-based, without actually coming out and directly saying so. As with most true writers, his process is simultaneously an extremely personal choice and also something not easily talked about. McCarthy is a private person, and doesn't like to be asked at book signings (which he rarely attends anyway) about his writing methods.

But there are these clues in the WSJ interview, like here, where he admits “Instead, I get up and have a cup of coffee and wander around and read a little bit, sit down and type a few words and look out the window.”

Hmm, he types a few words at a time, slowly, thoughtfully, introspective. This sounds like the pace of a typewriter man; not the kind of writer incessantly demanded upon by the necessities of the laptop's battery life, spelling and grammar checker, and screen saver; or spoiled by the distractions of the Internet.

There's another clue, further down in the interview: “My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper.” There; that's it: the final proof. Here, he's being asked by the interviewer, John Jurgensen, what the affects of aging have upon his writing process, and what are the most important things left in life. There's being with his son, John; and this sitting in a room with some blank paper. "That's heaven. That's gold and anything else is just a waste of time.”

Just two simple quotes, two subtle clues. I'll leave it up to you to decipher for yourselves whether Cormac McCarthy indeed uses a typewriter (there is the inevitable Google search to lead you further). But as for him, he's found his little bit of heaven in the craft of his writing. How about you; have you found your little bit of heaven in your writing?

Monday, November 09, 2009

On the Care and Feeding of a Future Artist

(All images captured by Joe Van Cleave at Tent Rocks; Lumix G1, 20mm-F/1.7 lens, polarizing filter)

The Line Writer and his Grandpa are sitting at a table – a wobbly table, of the kind that causes the orange juice, laced with fresh pulp, to splash akimbo across the worn Formica-like surface, wetting the corner of his composition book – in the center of Winning Coffee, on a quiet Monday morning. There’s a large breakfast burrito (with red chile sauce on the side) partially eaten, partially mangled, on a cheese-laden plate next to his writing book. It’s official: he’s written today’s date at the top of the page, therefore a writing entry is now an obligation. At least, I would hope so. Actually, like his Grandpa, he’s probably more attracted to the idea of writing, and its associated paraphernalia, than the act of writing itself. But that’s okay; I’m figuring that becoming a Certified Office Supply Junkie is a kind of gateway drug to more active literary pursuits.
He’s already picked up my habit of writing with an ink pen in a composition book, and then red-line-editing any corrections needed with a felt-tip pen, which he borrows from me periodically, such that I keep it on the table between us. I’m trying to encourage him to write something about our little afternoon jaunt yesterday, up the highway toward Santa Fe, to the Tent Rocks National Monument, near Cochiti Pueblo, where we hiked and he used his new (to him) film camera, an old manual Minolta X-370, gifted to him by Yours Truly, under the proviso that he use the One Camera, One Lens, One Film methodology and learn film photography The Right Way. Of course, he’s already begging for more lenses with which to use with the camera body; not that he understands why he needs more lenses, having more to do with the nice solid, mechanical feel of the bayonet lens mount’s click, twist and release action.
One film-related lesson he’s already absorbed, after a Saturday night of street photography on the way to dessert at the Flying Star Café, is that, unlike digital cameras, if you’ve already loaded the camera with daylight-speed film, then shooting at night will be more problematic. He will learn these lessons as each roll gets dropped off for development and printing, and he learns the essential lessons of anticipation, patience and ultimately the reward of viewing his photographic efforts on paper, sometime in the future, removed from the flux of the moment when the exposures were first made.
I desire for him to develop his own photographic vision, distinct from mine, despite the level of influence I may have already imparted to him; yet at the same time he also needs the tutelage required to master the technical aspects of camera control, focus, composition and exposure, so as to be able to make informed decisions about his art. What’s essential to this vision is being able to see clearly; not in the ophthalmologic sense, but aesthetically being able to mentally map the juxtaposition of shapes, lines, shadings and tones of the objective world into a two-dimensional subjective response. The photographer is found to be constantly mapping the objective world through the two-pound, gelatinous neural processor of the brain, even in the absence of an actual camera; this is the photographic eye in its day-to-day activity: always alert to new possibilities photographic.
For Noah, I desire to cultivate this inner aesthetic sensibility, all the while not losing his ten-years-old attention span or interest. This will, I anticipate, remain a challenge; just like the novelty of owning his very own mechanical typewriter has obviously worn off, with the resultant affect that getting a typewritten piece out of him is a careful balance between cajoling and arm-twisting. We are fortunate at this stage that his Grandpa remains a formidable influence upon him (which is both encouraging and frightening), such that he will often grab his writing bag and sit down with me also whenever I choose to do so; this remains a still-powerful tool in my bag of Grandpa Tricks (so nobody tell him, okay?); how long the affect persists into his teen years is anybody’s guess, so the more seeds that are sown, watered and fertilized now, the better.
Noah seems to have lost interest in the breakfast burrito, which has chilled to a corpse-like room temperature before our very eyes; what is now captivating his attention is that Bradley, the bookseller who sets up his wares along the corner counter by the coffee roasting machine, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (Bradley used to own the Living Batch bookstore, years ago), is setting up his boxes of books, carefully secured in packing-tape-reinforced produce and wine boxes, assisted by a younger gentleman who wheels them in through the gauntlet of patio tables and chairs from an old van parked out on the curbside, under seemingly constant scrutiny by the Parking Meter Patrol Officer who has a particular talent for spotting vehicles parked without a current stub prominently displayed on their dash (ask me how I know this; another reason why I like to motorcycle down to Winning Coffee on weekdays: motorbikes are exempt from parking meters).
The boxes of books are now in the process of being set up as makeshift display cases along the counter. Noah has abandoned both his breakfast and the one paragraph he’s penned in his composition book, and is intensely inspecting the titles and cover illustrations to the various paperbacks on display. Bradley’s assistant is doing his best to work around Noah, who is not aware that he’s in the way; but, like any astute businessman, a potential customer is not to be discouraged.
There’s a peripheral story lurking here, worth inserting only because I’ve been sitting on it for a few years, having told it repeatedly to friends and family but never to my wider blog audience. Noah’s composition book is wide ruled, as are most that are commonly available in local stores; mine is college ruled. Back in the late 1990s, after I’d begun journaling, I desired to purchase some college ruled, stiff, cardboard-backed comp books with which to write in; the local big-box office supply store only had wide ruled. But there was a college ruled Mead composition book in stock that sported a thin cardboard inner cover, laminated to a black, plastic outer cover. Fine, I thought; a more waterproof comp book; I bit, and purchased. It was only several days later, after the book had sat in the heat of an enclosed car’s interior on a hot, sunny day that I noticed both covers of the comp book would dramatically curl up. I don’t mean curl up as in a subtle bend to the cover, but a semi-cylindrical curling of both covers whereby the comp book would come to resemble a Quaker Oats container, rather than a bound notebook of paper. Being a determined Office Supply Junkie, I made note of the mailing address, inside the cover of the book (The Mead Corporation, Dayton, Ohio 45463, U.S.A., for you sticklers for accuracy), and proceeded to mail off a Formal Complaint Letter (using terminology such as “differential temperature expansion,” and so forth) to the Head Office. Weeks later I received a package in the mail, much to my surprise. Inside was a polite letter, and a stack of stiff, cardboard-lined, college ruled, composition books. My faith in Corporate America was momentarily renewed.

I’ve written in these composition books, on and off, in the intervening years since; I’m currently writing in one of the last remaining from that box I received years ago. When I’ve ran out (or, planning ahead, prior to running out), I will need to secure another supply. In my Eternal Pessimism, I’m not expecting a new batch to magically arrive at my doorstep any time soon.
My Pelikan M100 begins to run dry; I break out the bottle of Parker Quink blue/black and perform the Pen Refill Ritual, this time in public, amidst eaters and writers, sippers and Internet surfers, who can spot a Certified Luddite at least a block away, but whom are not entirely surprised, given the cadre of fellow writers who frequent Winning Coffee, and also by the fleet of Italian and faux-Italian, Asian-manufactured motor scooters parked out front.
I’ve penned a few more lines in my Mead college ruled composition book, and Noah returns to our table with a book he’d like to purchase. I give him three ones, including a bit of a tip for Bradley, just for added writerly assurance, and we depart Winning Coffee with our writing paraphernalia and the addition of a Kurt Vonnegut novel, perhaps a bit much for a ten-years-old boy; but then I am reminded (and mention to Noah) that I started my interest in reading, early in high school, also with Vonnegut. Back in the car, on the way back to home schooling, I inquire how he came to pick this one particular book; he indicated that he was drawn to it, like it seemed to be the right one.

I suppose that’s all a Grandpa could ask of a ten-years-old Grandson, on a quiet Monday morning.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On the Proper Technique of Municipal Waste Disposal