Monday, January 26, 2015

The Five-Foot Rule

Have you heard the expression, “The five-foot rule applies?” (If you can’t see it from five feet away, no one else will notice it either.)

When I was four or five years old, Daddy hired a carpenter to finish off the upstairs of our home, to add needed bedrooms. Every day I watched as the man measured, cut, nailed and created walls and ceiling and finished floor. I “helped,” by picking up scraps of wood and putting them in a box, and by staying out of his way (that was no doubt the biggest help). Sometimes the man would nail something together that I had imagined, handing him the scraps and telling him what I wanted. He must have been very patient.

I loved the process, the sound of the saw cutting, the hammer nailing, of the smell of fresh-cut pine, the texture of saw dust. I love those things still. And building things has forever remained a part of my life.

One summer a vacant lot on the corner was cleared and prepared for construction. For the next several months (I was ten or eleven by then), I watched and listened and absorbed what the tradesmen were doing. I wandered through the unfinished frame after the workmen had gone for the day, studying the patterns the two-by-fours made against the sky or on the unfinished floor. Plumbers and electricians did their work, and I learned what those patterns meant, too. And I decided I would be an architect.

When I was about fourteen I started working summers and after school in an architect’s office. I did simple drafting, blueprinting and other jobs. And during that same period, I discovered radio and television and filmmaking, and I abandoned my vision. But not completely.

In the years that followed, writing and shooting, directing and editing and producing films, I realized that the principles I learned from the building trades, and in the short time I spent in a school of architecture, applied to whatever I did. Regardless of the finished product, the disciplined way of thinking demanded of an architect (or an engineer or a carpenter or bricklayer) applied.

Over the years my wife and I have designed a couple of houses, built one from the ground up, supervised the construction of the house we now live in, and renovated more than one. We’ve done carpentry, electrical work and plumbing, even taken classes in masonry and brick laying. Building is part of how I define myself. Working alone more often than not, I’ve constructed storage buildings, sheds, playhouses and a doll house. Last year I built a new woodshed.

And of course, I’ve kept on writing.

Building and writing have much in common. Neither can proceed without a plan, a blueprint if you will. Both must have a purpose well defined, a beginning, a middle and an end, and a set of materials to work with. And just as writing depends on knowing what a reader wants, building or renovating a structure must take into account what the ultimate user wants. The quality of the “build,” be it manuscript or dwelling, will determine the satisfaction of the reader or the occupant.

For me there is great satisfaction and reward in creating an interesting story, and in building a structure that performs as it should. Designing something new and useful, something that works as it should, is creative and satisfying. Whatever frustrations there are (and there are many), the end result can be rewarding. Writing and building both have dark corners that don’t always show themselves until late in the process. A good blueprint can carry a lot of the burden, but inevitably there will be things that delay, that add cost, that change the ending of the story. Creativity is what carries the day.
Here are some rules that apply to almost every project, written or constructed:
First, always begin with a clear end in mind. Your vision may change as you build, but you cannot find direction without a solid target.
Second, define the materials you will use before you begin. They will help determine what is possible as well as practical.
Third, be sure of what comes next before you stop for the day. You can waste a huge amount of time and resources trying to pick up where you left off.
Fourth, if you must make changes, be sure you know how that will affect what comes after. Cliff hangers are great for mysteries, but deadly anywhere else.
Fifth, anticipate failure and learn from it. There is always a work-around. If you think you won’t need one, you haven’t learned from experience.

These rules won’t guarantee success, you understand, but creativity, vision, and the ability to see errors and correct them are as much a part of your tool bag as anything else in it.

And the five foot rule applies.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Finding Time

Time is an almost physical element that burdens us throughout life. We can have too much of it, we can never have enough. We make time, we take time, we lose time and then we find it. We even give it. Yet it is nothing more than a word.

If one goes quickly through life one wonders where the time has gone. It hasn’t gone anywhere. It is we who have moved on, or failed to move at all. If time is relative, it’s a relative you sometimes wish you didn’t have.

I’ve come to this topic because my time, it seems, is less than it used to be. A natural consequence of living, and one we all must accept. It isn’t permanent, however.

The hands of the clock lead us, point to the future, but do not tell us of the end. “Time enough for that,” we say. Still, I wish there were more of it. That’s only because I never seem to get everything accomplished that I set out to do. There are distractions.

Doesn’t it happen to you, too? You make a plan to accomplish something you want to do or feel you need to do, but it doesn’t happen. Or it does, but at a later time. Do you think about why that is?

It’s because our lives intersect. None of us lives completely alone. Even a hermit living in the deepest forest must at times let outsiders dictate action, I’m sure. We are all connected, whether we hear it ticking or not. The clock, that is. It may simply be a heartbeat that we notice, ticking off the seconds that make our lives, but it is a clock, none-the-less. It isn’t one you can wind regularly to keep it running, though.

We keep track of time using the sun, the seasons, the minutes in an hour. Changing shadows remind us of the passing of time, as does the changing face we see in the mirror. Most of us use a device called a watch; named, no doubt, because it allows one to watch time passing. Shadows, sun dials, calendars, watches, clocks, even grandfather clocks: names to mark or memorialize time. To account for it. It is one of those things that cannot be restored. When it is gone, it is gone forever.

Make the most of it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Writing Home

I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing, part autobiography, part memoir, and in general, a manual for writers. The book confirmed many of the things I have learned over a long writing life, about form, description, character development and other essentials of creative writing. It’s good to have so much in common (in terms of understanding craft) with a successful and driven writer. I’m not a reader or fan of paranormal or horror stories, but writing is writing, and the skills and techniques are much the same across all genres of fiction. The rules apply to non-
fiction, too, because good writing is good writing.

One of the chapters in King’s book is about where he writes. From basement corners to what one imagines is a more conducive creative space, he describes the places he has adopted (and adapted) to his needs.

I suppose most of us who write have some idealized writing place or space we eventually hope to occupy: a study, an office, a small cabin in the woods. In fact, I think most of us write where ever we are, whenever we can. Still, there is that vision.

For me the place I’ve always thought of as my “writing home” would be a large room, illuminated by sunlight coming in tall windows, overlooking picturesque forests or fields or even colorful urban rooftops. The room is furnished with a huge table with lots of room to spread out copy, books, papers, pads and so on. I even picture myself steadily pounding away at a keyboard (the modern view, please: a computer). Sometimes I’m sitting with my back to the view, at others looking out over whatever there is to look out over, if you know what I mean. Nice, but not reality.

I’ve written on park benches (not very productive), in airplanes, sitting waiting in an office lobby, in libraries and kitchens and other unlikely places, few of which resemble my ideal space. In our house here on the side of a mountain, where the vistas can be long and wide or abrupt and short (depending on which side of the house one is on) I finally was able to design and build the perfect writing room, our private library: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, dark wood ceiling and floor, dark wood walls where wall is visible, windows that give excellent views of the mountain behind the house and the fields below, an oriental carpet providing a soft, comfortable floor (I like to write barefoot). There is a rich, dark old library table, a perfect desk lamp, a comfortable leather swivel chair and in the summer a lazy ceiling fan to move the air – altogether perfect. Except that I don’t write there.

My writing room is small, narrow, perhaps cramped by some standards. The walls and ceiling and floor are light knotty pine. Much of the wall space is covered with shelves for the books I depend on for research, as well as other books I like to have around me. As in the library, there are also pictures and plaques marking my long life; things I know are here but seldom see anymore. I have built-in work surfaces on all four walls, and windows that give me a wide view of the fields, flashes of light where the sun strikes the river, and the rising mountain beyond that. And I face a wall barely two feet away when I write. It is messy because I’ve always kept a messy desk. If I need to spread out, that’s a motivator for putting things away, cleaning up my space, discarding the bits and pieces that seem to accumulate on any flat surface before me. This is where the writer in me lives. It must be what I need to be able to castoff the real world and live in the world I can create, otherwise I’d use that perfect space we created in our library so long ago.

It isn’t where you write that matters. It’s what you write that counts. My writing home is far from the vision I have.

But what the heck, it’s home.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

I don’t want to know

There are things I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know how today will end. At least not until it ends. And I don’t want to know how the world will end, because I will not be here to see it or remember it. Inbetween there are a lot of other things I don’t want to know.

I don’t want to know what your preferences are in the bedroom, the bathroom or even the livingroom, unless it has to do with your comfort when you are visiting me.

I don’t want to know who my congressman is beholden too because I want him to be beholden to  me. And I know that will never happen.

I don’t want the government in my bedroom. I don’t want it on my back, either, but I don’t seem to have a choice any longer, about those two functions. (See above)

I don’t want to know what some drug manufacturer thinks I should be taking. That should be my doctor’s recommendation. And I don’t want him making that decision based on an ad in a consumer magazine.

I don’t want to think about any of these things because most are beyond my ability to affect them anyway.

I don’t want to know what kind of daydreams you have behind the wheel of your car or SUV or pickup. In fact the idea of you or any other driver daydreaming at the wheel scares me more than I can say.

I don’t want to know what you prefer in the way of food, or drink, again unless you are a guest in my home. I don’t want to know about the service you received at a restaurant or department store unless I have to visit either one.

And more to the point, I really don’t like to recommend anything to anyone, simply because no matter how good it was for me, you might find it anywhere from less so to abominable, and that could interfere with our relationship, friendship, business dealings or a host of other interactions.

It’s hard these days to avoid either making or getting recommendations. Too often I open my email and find a must-open missive that wants me to know how someone I don’t know feels about something I don’t want for a problem I don’t have. Either that, or I’m told it is my responsibility to share my innermost feelings about something I bought or sold or gave or received.

Frankly, it’s no ones business.

On the other hand, there are things I do want to know.

If we are friends, and I have written or said or done something that offends you or hurts you, I want to know and try to make it right. If there is something I have written, and it touches you, no matter how, I’d like to know that, too.  Perhaps you will correct an erroneous impression I’ve gotten, or I don’t have my facts on straight, and correcting that will make it right, I need to know that, too.

If something has happened in your life, and we are friends, and I can share either the sorrow or the joy, that’s what friends are for.

As we begin this new year of 2015, we have no idea of where we will be, or how the year will end twelve months from now. I’ve made no New Year’s Resolutions because of that, and because none of us know where or how we will be in a year’s time. Best, I think, to go on assuming tomorrow will come, and be ready to face it when it does. If we get to the end of the year together, friendship intact, love still alive, our world still spinning in the way it always has, then we may count ourselves fortunate and be glad.

The year just completed proved at least one thing: we added another year to our personal histories. That gives us courage and strength to meet the next one, I hope. That you are reading this essay gives me pleasure. I hope that this and all the others meet your expectations and make you think, offer insight, perhaps provide a laugh along with a nod of understanding.

 I wish you all a Happy and Productive and Satisfying New Year.