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I mentioned that my dad had given me some boxes filled with my grandmother’s writings. They were old beer boxes. It’s always been his way of storing and hauling things, in beer boxes, a trick I supposed he learned in college. Beer boxes are free, after all. Go to any liquor store and they’re bound to have at least a few cardboard boxes they’re willing to give you. Beer boxes are sturdy enough, built for holding bottles or cans, and they have handles. Go to the liquor store on the right day, and you’ll hit a jackpot of dozens of boxes, perfect for moving day. It was one of those moving days, when my grandmother moved from the house where she spent most of her life, where she raised her children, in Hampton Virginia. She moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, to be closer to the rest of our family. She was in her mid to late sixties then, I think. Dad did most of the moving himself. Over the course of several trips, he packed, loaded and hauled most of my grandmother’s belongings. Her new, but smaller apartment wouldn’t hold everything, so the writings were carefully removed from their original file cabinet and transferred into a set of brown cardboard boxes emblazoned with the irrelevant phrases “Bud Ice” and “Corona” where they remained, stored in the basement, for about 20 years.
Now, here’s a difficult riddle! Say you loaded up some very similar boxes, 20 years ago, while loading dozens of other similar boxes, and someone asks you, 20 years later to recall the specifics: what order were these papers in before you loaded them into these boxes? I didn’t bother asking dad that one.
It’s an important question, though. The wiki at the library at UNC gives a great overview of some first principles to consider, during an archival project:
When you survey your collection, pay special attention to the order of the materials. A basic archival principle is “respect pour l’ordre primitif,” which is French for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Maintaining the original order established by the creator of a collection preserves contextual information that may be important to researchers. The original order itself may also make an important statement about its creator. Using the original arrangement scheme, moreover, may save the processing staff valuable time and energy. Retaining the basic arrangement as received, when possible, is part of the archivist’s responsibility to preserve historical documents in as close to original form as possible. Keep in mind that respect pour l’ordre primitif does not preclude tidying up the materials or adding a supporting superstructure to aid in description and cataloging.
I can only assume that unloading a file cabinet would proceed from the front to the back, which wold put things that were at the front of one drawer at the bottom of one box. Luckily, at the bottom of one box was an envelope, which contained the manuscript labeled “First Best Poems”. I decided to start with that, assuming that it would have been the thing most readily at-hand within the original arrangement. The other things were generally grouped according to type: poems were together, novel and novel drafts were together, plays and play drafts were together, short stories, essays and miscellaneous notes were grouped and then there was the correspondence, which is somewhat tricky because it also contains drafts from all of the aforementioned groups, but nearly all of it is inside of its original, post-marked envelope. It is all, all of it, remarkably well organized.
It turns out that my grandmother’s mother, Bessie Lynn Hufford (1882-1975) had worked as a librarian and was also a published writer. (I found at least one newspaper article written by my great-grandmother, published in the Indianapolis Star on June 27 1929 June 27). My dad tells me that, as a young girl, my grandmother had devised her very own card catalogue system for her books, as a way of emulating and learning from her mother.
I can’t keep the beer boxes, though. I’m worried that the cheap cardboard may have chemicals in it which might contribute to the yellowing and decay of the papers inside. Already, many of the paperclips around those papers have rusted, causing stains around the margins of some of the pages.
So, in summary, this is what I’m doing to protect and organize the collection:
- remove the files from the old beer boxes and use library-quality document storage boxes instead
- remove all metal clips, rubber bands, fastners, etc.
- replace envelopes (many are very yellow already and contain metal clips) with good folders. (I prefer folders with the tabs that go all the way across).
- be certain to document/store envelopes that are labeled, post-marked, etc. so that the new folders retain all the information provided by the original folders.
Some of this good equipment is expensive, compared to ordinary office supplies, so it will take me some time to get all the ideal materials, but this is the eventual plan. In the interim, I’m using ordinary folders and a banker’s box.
In October of 2012, I visited my parents and my dad said to me “ I’ve got some boxes for you.” He gave me three boxes, all of them filled with the entire collected writings by my Grandmother, Elizabeth Kinnett. She wrote essays, poems, short stories, stage-plays a novel; she kept a journal from the time she was a 12-year-old girl throughout her life; she kept a regular correspondence from the time she was in college throughout her life, with friends, fellow writers, editors, publishers. My dad handed all of it over to me. My initial response was, “Wow, look at all this paper!”
I’m going to catalog, annotate and digitize these writings. Along the way, I’ll blog about the work I do, share what I’ve learned and what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, etc. I hope to have a conversation along the way, about the experience of reading her work, about the technical aspects of taking care of the documents, and of course about her writings themselves.
When I was very young, I would visit Grandma’s house, and inside her coffee table, which is now my coffee table, two small drawers contained an assortment of chapbooks and literary journals where her work had been published. She would show them to me. I never once heard her read her work, though. One of her poems, “The Fields are All Alight” was featured as part of my parents’ wedding ceremony When my grandmother died, I was still in junior high school, struggling not to forget my first locker combination, and her writings have waited in boxes since then. I’ll write another entire post about my memories of her. This post is just an introduction.
Of all the people in my family to inherit her writings, I suppose it makes sense for it to be me. I am also a writer, with an undergraduate degree in Writing and Communications, so my dad thought that I might be better able to find an answer to my dad’s question: “What do we have here, anyway? Is it good?”
Beyond that, as a writer myself, I might be able to deduce some things about grandma’s process, her personality, feelings and motivations, her aesthetics.. her self, and to help bring that understanding to bear on her work. Although we’re a generation apart, and I only knew my grandma when I was very young, it stands to reason that we might have a few things in common, her and I. It might be worthwhile to explore those things.
There’s also the matter of my day job, which also helps in some ways to equip me for working with her writings. I’m the web developer for a museum, which means that I can have coffee or lunch with archivists, curators, imaging specialists, library scientists and scholars, and I can ask their advice about some of the finer points of the work. I began with so many questions, and I am so grateful to my friends at the museum for their input. I’m also grateful to the great community at Meta Filter for their help with some of the technology-related aspects of this project.
(stupid disclaimer: On that point, I do want to make a disclaimer. I’m going to blog about the work I do with these writings, share what I’ve learned and what I’m doing, but I don’t want this to sound like a professional opinion. Although I do work in a museum, I am not a conservator or an archivist, and although a few of my friends gave me some casual advice, that’s all it was. If you follow along with what I’ve learned, and apply it to any project you might have, with writings or documents from your family or history, I hope you have a wonderful experience. But if you go off and destroy something valuable on my advice, well, let me just say I’m no expert, so be careful! )
Once I got the boxes home and made a careful list of their contents, I decided right away that I wanted to make a new copy of the poems, bound as a book, to give to my Dad for Christmas. This would give me a deadline and a goal to meet, so that I could begin to get through this big stack of writings.
Now that Christmas is over, I can blog about this, without spoiling the surprise for him. He loved the book! It contained 83 poems, which I had digitized from their original draft, which she had tentatively titled “First Best Poems”. I used a scanner to create digital images of each page, OCR software to create digital text from the images, a word processor to make minor corrections, and layout software to design the book. Then I had 3 copies of the book printed, by a print-on-demand online service. Now, the family can easily read her poems! Here’s the introduction I wrote for the book.
The poems collected here were written by Elizabeth “Betty” Kinnett, primarily between 1962-1972 and assembled into a collection. In 1972, according to her notes, these poems were retyped and placed into a manila envelope. It was labeled “Carbons of 50 first best poems”. In 1973, a poem was added to the collection, along with a note on the envelope: “ written 1973”. Between 1973 and 1976, a total of 19 more poems were added. On each, in handwriting, she included a specific date. Those dates are included in the notes at the end of this collection. I have also provided a few notes on key terms, forms and themes.
I have made every effort to present these poems in their original sequence, with only three exceptions. Two of the longer poems were moved once forward in the sequence, to allow them to appear in this book, spanning a spread. The poem was first in a nearly identical collection of poems, which the author used for sending out to publishers. There are still more poems, organized into separate folders. These poems may be incomplete or from other years.
This is not a complete collection of my grandmother’s poems, but it is, in her words, a collection of the “first best poems”. I don’t remember much about her, except that she was always surrounded by music. When she wasn’t playing music on the radio or the television, she was humming it softly to herself. I hope that her song can continue humming, with the creation of this volume.
As I continue working with my grandmother’s writings, I’ll blog about all of this in more detail, but I’d like to close this introduction by inviting conversation. What do you want to know? Do you have anything similar to share?
One of the most important business skills a writer needs is the ability to track the submission process. There’s a maxim out there, variously attributed, which says: “serious writers should keep their work in circulation until it either sells or the ink wears off”.
It can be tricky to keep that circulation going, especially if you’re trying to get a variety of things published. The publishers and media have different requirements about what to send, how to send it, when to send it, the length of the overall process, and so on. This can be confusing.
It is important to record the details of each submission. Surely, there must be a bulletproof system out there, time-tested by professional writers, right? I have set out to find that system, so that I can use it in my writing career. These are the results of that hunt.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about last summer’s hackathon at the museum, and about makerspaces, code sprints, flash mobs and other forms of participatory, rapidly developed experiences. I think that these are all a good fit for a museum, to put the “muse” back in “museum”. A creative space, like a makerspace:
Modeled after hackerspaces, a makerspace is a place where young people have an opportunity to explore their own interests, learn to use tools and materials, and develop creative projects. It could be embedded inside an existing organization or standalone on its own. It could be a simple room in a building or an outbuilding that’s closer to a shed. The key is that it can adapt to a wide variety of uses and can be shaped by educational purposes as well as the students’ creative goals.
Unlike those who are trying to program computers to write books, the digital humanities is something else entirely. It is a new and evolving field that is a sort of catch-all for a bunch of different humanities subjects that have gone digital.
Unlike those who are trying to program computers to write books, the digital humanities is something else entirely. It is a new and evolving field that is a sort of catch-all for a bunch of different humanities subjects that have gone digital.
I’ll be part of a panel discussion soon about something called “the digital humanities.” It’s a new term, whose definition is still in the works I think, but it works well for me. The post linked here offers several good sources of information about the subject. I was an English major in college, and now I work with computers for an art museum. To the extent that both computers and the humanities can be used to augment, describe or maintain the human record–I’m interested! Oh, yeah, and if data is information, and narratives are information, then the only book that isn’t data is a blank one.
We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. We’re four years closer to the end of the world. We’re four years further away from the beginning of the world than we were four years ago. We’re four years closer to the day the sun will exhaust its fuel, speaking of atomic energy, and on that day, a day we’re now four years closer to, on that day the sun will swallow the earth. We’re four years closer to a sustainable future. We’re four years closer to my fortieth birthday, my forty-fourth birthday, and four years closer to the day that I will die. We’re four years further away from the day I slipped and fell on the playground and skinned up my leg. Four years later, there was a scar there. Many years later, I can’t see that scar anymore. We’re four years closer to the year 2052. We’re four years closer to flying cars, to men on mars, drinkless bars, harvesting the stars, artificially intelligent avatars, the war to end all wars. We’re four years closer to the largest population ever recorded on Earth. We’re four years closer to a larger national debt. We’re four years closer to the last time you’ll ever eat ice cream. We’re four years closer to the death of the oldest tree in the city of Baltimore. We’re four years closer to the extinction of another species. We’re four years closer to the exhaustion of all the petroleum, all the iron, the wood, water, copper, tin, nickel, sulphur, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, laughter, clay, oxygen, ice, snowball fights, elbow room, landscapes without billboards, sandalwood extract, cork, blue corn and all the other shit we’ll have less of in four years. We’re four years closer to retirement. We’re four years closer to paying our student loans, our medical bills, our mortgages, our credit card bills, our car payments, our insurance, but in for years we’ll still be paying for cable, internet, cell phone data plans, gasoline, insurance payments, taxes, taxes, taxes. We can’t tax or save our way out of this one. Time to pony up! Maybe in four years we’ll pony up. We’re four years closer to four years from now when we’ll pony up. We’ll pony up then. Pick another date we’re four years closer to. We’re ten years closer, too. We’re twenty years closer. Those of us who have been on this rock long enough are fifty, sixty maybe even seventy years closer to that date. We’re ten thousand years closer to ten thousand years from now than we were ten thousand years ago. We’re four years closer to being further from the beginning.
Every day begins a period that will end in a thousand years, just as each day is the end of an age that began that long ago. Why make distinctions? Time is not against us; it is only our perception of its end that fills us with dread.
I’ve been tinkering once again with generative writing, and searching for some tools to help me automate a cut-up method, starting from a variety of source texts. Along the way, I discovered a bit of software called dadadodo. Trouble with that is, it is a command line tool for Unix, and I’m not so skilled in that department. Enigmarelle Development did make a freeware version of it for the mac, but that was back in 2006? The app no longer works on newer macs. I’m posting it here for safe keeping, and in the hopes that somebody can help me to update this to a usable point.
update: a day later, the app has been updated to run on newer macs.
dadadodomax is a Mac OS X application, built around Jamie Zawinski’s dadadodo command line tool. In the words of its creator,
“DadaDodo is a program that analyses texts for word probabilities, and then generates random sentences based on that. Sometimes these sentences are nonsense; but sometimes they cut right through to the heart of the matter, and reveal hidden meanings.”
Adding files Add files to your project by dragging them into the list view. You can also use the ‘Add Files’ button or menu item (under the File menu.) Acceptable file types are text or HTML files. Unix .mbox files should also work, but haven’t been tested.
Generating text Generate text from your source files by clicking your mouse on the ‘Generate’ button in the project window, or use the ‘Generate’ item in the File menu. With the ‘Output HTML’ checkbox checked, text will be output and saved in HTML format; with it unchecked output will be in plain-text format.
see also: discussion of a windows port
see also: user manual for DadaDodo
Since my last post, I’ve been gearing up for sound, and there’s a new addition to my toy box, this Casio SK-5 Sampling Keyboard.
Armed with all this cool (and cheap!) stuff, along with some software, I’ve begun to make recordings.
First, I wanted to learn to record spoken word in stereo. Here’s my first attempt. I call it “lie detector test”.
Recently, and in a similar “vocal” frame of mind, I was messing around with text-to-speech software, feeding it strings of random letters and listening for interesting results. Here’s one that my friend Curt helped me to record:
The good news is: that one has already been sampled by a jazz musician! Here it is, included within a larger work, along with samples from others.
It’s one thing to record your own voice, and to have someone else include it within a larger composition, but I wanted to see what sorts of musical compositions I could come up with on my own. The first one was just a simple little melodic thing:
The second one is a bit more complicated. It includes a sample of a cricket, a piano playing backwards and also a modified recording of my own voice. Now we’re getting somewhere!
Having declared creative bankruptcy, and having paused the idea of the play until I can find a way to stage a play without really staging it, I’ve decided to tinker with audio some more. Maybe I’ll do some more spoken word recordings, and see where that goes.
Batteries not included
I’ve put together a surprisingly functional setup over the last few days. Here are some details about what gear I chose, in case anybody else out there is interested in the setup. (I’ve noticed a ton of youtube videos showing off various studio spaces, but I’m not much of a YouTuber and besides, mine is more modest than these.)
The centerpiece, of course, is a microphone, my trusty Shure SM58.
That microphone has served me well for several years now, but I had never been able to connect it to a computer. I didn’t have the adaptor, and besides, I haven’t had much experience with audio software, since college.
Since I had no audio input on my computer, I had to improvise. IN the days before smart phones, I used the Olympus Digital Voice Recorder VN-5200PC. This is a very easy-to-use and inexpensive handheld, digital recorder. It’s perfect for quickly capturing the voice, or for gathering samples of found-sound. The only complaint I’ve ever had about it is that it records to the windows media format, and not to something more ubiquitous like the .wav format, but with some simple file conversions, I’ve been able to get around that.
If you have a smart phone, it may not make sense to own another, dedicated device for quickly capturing sounds, if you can use your phone for that. On the iPhone, for example, there’s an app called FiRe, which does a surprisingly good job of recording audio, in a variety of common formats, and it will even upload your recordings to sound-cloud for you! Since installing this app, I really have no more need for my trusty old Olympus.
Of course, neither of these methods will record the very best audio possible, but they’re cheap and easy, so I love them. Even so, since I have a nice microphone, I needed a way to use it with my computer, to record digital audio.
To do this, I went to Ebay to score an M-Audio Fast Track Pro. I’m proud to say that I got it used, at a very decent price and that it works great! Basically, you plug your microphone’s 1/4″ cable into this thing, and it sends the audio to your computer, via USB. It also has MIDI in, in case you have a MIDI device, and another port in the front for a cable for another microphone, a guitar, etc.
I thought, now what can I do with the other port? My two portable devices, I can connect them to the Fast Track, but I need an adapter and a cable. (I happened to have these already, but they’re both very cheap.)
This thing has a sexy name: the 1/4″ to 1/8″ female to male adapter. With this, you can change the front port of the Fast Track into something that will accept audio from smaller devices, anything at all with a standard headphones port, such as an iphone, a voice recorder, or even my trusty old short wave radio. You could also get a single cable for that, but use this adapter to connect ordinary headphones to the Fast Track, rather than to buy studio headphones.
I needed a cable like this, as well, which I happened to have lying around.
For a nice and cheap desktop microphone stand, try the “Quiklok A188 Quiklok A188 Desktop Tripod Microphone Stand” You may be able to find one used for less than $10.
I thought it was important to buy used equipment at rock-bottom prices, for two reasons. First, It’s not like I’m going to devote my whole life to being a musician; I’m a writer, after all. Second, you have to pay money out the ass for most of the audio editing software out there. (You may be able to guess which of those reasons is the most compelling to me.)
I’m trying out demo versions of several of the most popular software applications designed for editing audio. I learned that the term for such an application is DAW, short for “digital audio workstation”. Which one is best for me? I’m not sure, and I’ll post about that later, but for now I’m leaning toward Adobe Audition. I’m using a PC, so Garage Band is unavailable to me, unfortunately. Audition is a great second choice though. I’ve used it before, I’m familiar with other Adobe Software, and of all the applications I installed, it was the only one that I could figure out how to use, right out of the box.
I’m not much of a gamer, but I recently bought an Xbox360. It seemed like a good investment: it will play my old games for the original Xbox, it will network to my Windows desktop to play my movies and music, I enjoy playing Skyrim on it, and the Xbox360 has additional, non-game applications on it (i.e. Netflix)! Let’s talk about those apps for a moment.
To be fair, the Xbox360 does’t really have very many apps on it (maybe two dozen?), and some of the built-in apps barely work. I think there may be more apps for the Kindle Touch than there are for the Xbox360, and certainly anybody with a smartphone of any kind wouldn’t be impressed with the apps selection on Xbox live. If you’re like me, and you aren’t much of a gamer, the Xbox360 seems like it missed a ton of opportunities to be even more fun, beyond the scope of the games it was originally designed for. Just for example, let’s talk about the music apps, because it sure is nice to be able to use the TV to play a lot of music.
They say that music and video in new Windows 8 will have better Xbox integration, and I sure hope it works better than the current setup. Currently, I’m able to stream music from my computer to my Xbox, but the Media Center app for the xbox crashes and lags way too often. Luckily there’s also the standard music player app on the xbox360 (there are two of those, too?!) and it will play my music, but without any extra features like album art. It’s clearly designed for listening to music while playing a game, which is fine, but it could be finer. My old xbox was finer, but only because I hacked it with the Xbox Media Center operating system. (Sometimes I wonder, if the old XBMC software was open source, then why the hell didn’t Microsoft use it?) Things like the Roku and the Apple TV offer a lot smoother experience with video and audio, but of course they lack the games. Can’t one device do both things?
When I investigate the other options that there are for music apps, I see that there’s at least one internet-enabled radio app. No, it isn’t Spotify. It’s older than that. No, it’s not Pandora. It’s last.fm. That’s great, because I’ve been using last.fm for years, but those other two are conspicuously absent. What gives?
I can think of some apps that would be great to have on my TV, via the Xbox, such as Flickr or Instagram, YouTube.. and who knows how many others there could be, if only it were more encouraged for people to build them. Somehow, I get the impression that it isn’t so easy, fun or encouraged to build these apps, which is probably why they don’t exist. The focus is obviously on the games, where of course there ought to be focus, but I wonder: is that all there is?
Flipping through an old notebook in 2008, I discovered this little, asemic “poem”. I call it “ink pen broke on an airplane above Virginia”. The details of that flight, its destination and purpose are lost to me now. This may be the only souvenir of the entire trip.
If it’s too difficult to build a set and find some actors, and if filming is prohibitively expensive, then how am I to bring a story to life with movement and sound? One option might be to hack the old video game Sims 2 to make a movie with it. It seems it’s been done often enough for there to be a tutorial online about it. Another interesting advantage to this is that the game has been around long enough for there to be all sorts of props available, such as this 60′s fashion wardrobe.
Has anybody out there ever done this? Are there better options? Any advice? Let’s hear it in the comments thread.
Yesterday, I opened the Microsoft Word application on my computer, for the first time in weeks. It wasn’t because I have been on vacation, too busy, or not writing. It’s because I rarely want to use it anymore. I still do a lot of writing, in long form on my laptop and in note form on my phone, but I just don’t prefer to use Microsoft Word to do most of that stuff anymore.
I think this change is an interesting one, since one of my very first blog posts was on the subject of Microsoft Word, and my hope that new features would allow me to use it more easily for blogging. Those new features were added to Microsoft Word, long ago. Since blogging has become popular, Word just hasn’t kept up with the other changes in the way that people do electronic writing.
Here are some examples.
1. Collaborative writing.
Recently, for a project at work, I needed to work with my counterpart to write a document, while I was in San Diego and she was still in Baltimore. Within a few minutes, we could setup an online, collaborative writing space, using Google Docs, and it was much easier to work together, in real time, to write the document, than it would have been by using Microsoft Word. We could watch each other type, make corrections, and have threaded conversations in the margins.
2. Distraction Free Writing
There are dozens of very popular new applications, not just for mac users, to enable a clean and simple user interface for writing, one that removes all distracting elements from the screen, so that the computer acts like a typewriter. (Word Processing is NOT typewriting but that’s a subject for another day.)
I can say from recent experience that my writing has benefited immensely from a distraction free interface. I use an app called ByWord these days. Yes, Microsoft Word does have a full screen feature, but not right off the bat, and it isn’t customizable the way I want. I want to be able to open up an application and, bang, seconds later, start typing. When I’m in a hurry to get an idea written down, I don’t want any crap in my way, I just want to get down to it.
Also, I’ve discovered through practice that I’m pretty picky about what my favorite writing interface settings should be. I prefer a monospace typeface, in a fairly large size, at about 65 characters per line, rendered in a near-white color against a near-black background. Microsoft Word still acts like black ink on white paper, and doesn’t give me the ability to write with the settings that I’ve learned to prefer.
3. Cloud Storage
Blogging was just part of the early days of writing “in the cloud” or in other words, to store the writing in a secure location on the internet, for backup or display. Lately, applications like Dropbox, Google Drive and others make it easy to store files from your computer in this way. I can’t really fault Microsoft Word for not adding a built-in feature to do this, since all you have to do is to save your document to a special folder, and it will be synced up with your cloud storage.
Nevertheless, one of the other writing tools that I use, Evernote, has the ability to automatically store an online copy of everything I write in it, as soon as I write it. I love this. It means I can take a note while I’m out on an adventure. Then, as soon as my laptop battery is recharged, I can refine the note into something more coherent. Then, when I get home I can use my home computer to really finish it so that when I get to work I can copy/paste/print it into something final. All of this happens without very much re-saving, burning to disk, USB drives, etc. I don’t have to worry about the brand of my phone, computer or operating system. My writing is just there, where I need it, wherever I am. Because of this, Evernote is very often a preferable way to take notes than Microsoft Word, and because of Evernote’s wonderful phone app, I prefer it to Microsoft’s own note-taking thingie, which is nice, but not as flexible.
4. Version Control
Version control allows you to keep track of each version, or state, of a work in progress, so that changes can be reversed later, or so that the versions can be compared. For a writer, it would also be a very powerful tool. Think about it: how much literary scholarship has been devoted to the various versions of works by Shakespeare, Whitman and others? Writers and posterity alike stand to benefit from easy version control. Computer version control, at present, is still something that is pretty much only available to nerdy programmer types because, sadly, Microsoft Word has recently reconfigured its version control abilities into oblivion, at present the best version control for writers is still too complicated for someone like me, who prefers distraction free writing.
Although it isn’t as robust as full-blown version control, Dropbox does have the ability to keep track of different versions of a file, which is useful. It’s what I’ll use for now.
An Imperfect Fix
At first I used a single, huge application with tons of features I don’t use to do all of my writing. Now, I use several, small and dedicated applications to do a variety of different kinds of writing: I use note-taking applications for note-taking; distraction-free applications for composing; blogging applications for blogging; I do still use Microsoft Word for refining final versions, especially for print; now that I have a smartphone I take a whole lot of quick notes with that. Overall, I have a setup that works very well for me, but it is an imperfect fix, because it is still a bit on the nerdy side. I doubt that very many of my writer friends would want to build this setup for themselves. They would rather wait for one app that does it all. In the hopes of shortening that wait, here’s a quick list of the most important features that a word processor should have. If anybody (Microsoft or otherwise) wants to build the application that everybody will always use to write with, then it’s going to need these features, in my opinion:
1. Immediate distraction-free writing, with easy, simple configuration.
2. Cloud storage, compatible with most major cloud storage services.
3. Version control made simple!
4. Markdown should be optional, not required. Some of us prefer keyboard shortcuts or menu drop-downs. (I’m fond of control-K to do “insert hyperlink” myself)
5. Ability to post document to any major type of blog service. Bonus points for integration with social media e.g. posting notes to Facebook, etc.
6. Save documents to major formats: .rtf, .doc, .docx, .pdf, .txt, .html…
7. Mac or PC? Who cares! You might need to work either way on occasion.
8. A compatible smart phone app, and it shouldn’t matter whether you have an iphone or an android.
9. Advanced features could include: commenting and tracked-changes features (like the very good ones that microsoft word has) and collaborative writing features (like google docs or Etherpad).
… or maybe there just really isn’t the need for one writing application that does everything. Word has features for writing legal documents and dissertations, and although I write a lot, I don’t write too many of those things. Perhaps this move toward lots of tools is just the new way. I’ve described how I do it, anyway.
How do you do your word-processing?
Why doesnt the weather forecast offer up the liklihood of rainbows, or conjecture about the beauty of the sunset each day? The media meteorologists suggest, bring an umbrella, but never when to wear your hair such that it mght get caugh in a pleasant breeze. They’ll report upon the likelihood of rain, but never how long the puddles might last. When it snows, they won’t report: will it be good for snowballs? or a snow forts? will it only be powder? Is dust part of the weather? Which days are good days for shadows, for shade? They report the record heights and lows for temperature, not kites. Why so many obvious details and never any interesting ones?
In my post a few days ago I mentioned that I hope to begin working on “one thing at a time” for a while, to gain more focus. My list of ongoing creative projects is too complicated. I’m declaring creative bankruptcy, so to speak. I’ve had too many irons in the fire for too long. Why so many? It seems I have trouble bringing an end to some projects.
I can see two reasons why some of my projects seem to hang around forever.
First, some ideas just don’t seem to be designed so that I can reasonably finish them. For example, last year I was hard at work on a play, revising the script and blogging some related notes. Before I can finish that project, as designed, I’m going to need actors who are very skilled at improvisation, a director, a choreographer, an elaborate set featuring electronics and plenty of vintage furniture, and of course a stage. The material aspects alone are prohibitive, especially now that I no longer live in a warehouse loft, where I could store junk and create a stage. In light of all that, perhaps I should either redesign the idea so that I can actually make it happen, or give up on it.
Abort, Retry, Ignore?
Second, some ideas just don’t work out. This might actually be true of most ideas, but for example my first play, and my book of poems, those ideas both became boring to me. I haven’t been inclined to admit that, but it’s true. The first play, “Street Preacher” was a college project which I always thought I would one day “finish” but I never have done that. Now, I think perhaps it is best to let it rest where it did, as a college project, and to move on. A few years ago, I tried to create a book of poems. It fizzled, partly because I lost my sense of where it was going and partly because I lost interest. I was able to recycle the project, though, and it became the foundation of a finished spoken word album. Sometimes, giving up is useful.
If some projects are impossible, and others have died, what’s the solution? I’m not certain yet, but I think, for now the solution is to revise the list, and the projects so that I have smaller, simpler projects, designed to be actually accomplished somewhat quickly. The projects that can’t be revised that way, I guess I’ll retire them.
I used to think it easy to write every day. All it takes, I thought, is to think of the most interesting thing that happened that day, and to describe why it was interesting. That was back when I wrote every day. I was younger then. When you’re young, everything that happens is automatically more interesting to you, because it hasn’t happened to you very many times. It was easier, then, for me to see things as new and interesting.
In addition to the novelty of youth, I also had quite a bit more travel in my life then. It is difficult to describe the feeling of being in a new place all by itself, without also describing the place, but for me anyway, there’s a feeling that all new places have to them. The details are more apparent. You think about the place you’re in more distinctly, when it is a new place, than you do when you have it memorized. Once you have it memorized, you’re not thinking about it anymore — you’re remembering it, and there isn’t much need for new thoughts during a memory.
Now, I live in a city where I’ve been for six years, in a house located in the same neighborhood where I work, a neighborhood which I rarely leave, to be honest. (Even so, I can’t say that I’m well acquainted with the other people who live and work in my neighborhood. My ability to make friends is oddly unpredictable. I’m good at it, when I want to be, I suppose, but I can’t control when or whether I’ll want to be, on any given day.) Some days, I’m just going through the motions. Learning the motions is intersting. On the other hand, going through the motions automatically can get awfully boring.
This is all an elaborate way of saying that it’s time to take a vacation, I think. It’s time to get out of the neighborhood, to go someplace where I’ve never been, to meet new people and to do new things.
The blog has been on hiatus. My life, for the most part, has been on hiatus because of work.
I don’t normally mention the day job on this blog, but it has been a wild and exciting ride, for the past year or so: launching a major website with more than 10,000 pages, reaching the million visitors mark for that same website, watching it earn an honorable mention for a webby award, working to contribute to a massive upload to wikimedia, collaborating to create a crowd-sourced museum exhibition… what a rush!
Is it July already? Almost my birthday? Time sure does fly when you’re working your ass off. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I’m glad it’s over. I need a vacation, and then to rekindle my social life. I can’t keep up that pace of work forever; I would die, but it sure was fun while it lasted. Now that life seems to be returning toward normal (whatever that is), I wonder: what’s next? Yes, vacation is definately the first order of business, but what do I do now?
I’ve started to reflect on what I’ve learned from this intense period of work. It will take some time until that reflection results in any concrete understand. I’ll contribute to at least one paper to describe some of the work. That will help. At first glance though, one thing seems clear: focus helps. Recently, a colleague at work reminded me of that pop psychology concept, “flow” which is probably just another word for focus. Well, whatever you call it, it can be very helpful, and somewhat refreshing, to go through life for a while with a “one thing at a time” approach. Life can’t always be solely devoted to one thing, of course, but focus is useful.
Before this intense period of work, I was already quite busy with: a small publication, the website for that small publication, my own website, freelance clients, a full time job, various social circles, a habit of regularly attending literary events in Baltimore, and a writing practice that included work towards a play and a new set of spoken word pieces and on and on and on. Then, work took over, and I put every bit of that stuff “on pause” for a while. Now I’m back, and I have a moment to survey it all and I think “wow, what a mess”.
Perhaps it’s best not to choose “what’s next” just now. Perhaps the best course of action, for the rest of the summer, is to take some time to relax, to take stock of it all, to prioritize and then, eventually, to find some new focus.