Externalizing inspiration

<cite>North American Review</cite>, May/Aug 2009.

North American Review, May/Aug 2009.

Last time I wrote about keeping a writing notebook. Let’s say you started one, or have been keeping a notebook for some time. What do you do with it? Once you’ve filled a notebook with all these ideas, how do you transfer that inspiration to a final story or novel?

From an essay I wrote for North American Review regarding a short story of mine they published, I discussed how I used a writing notebook:

On occasion I revisit my writing notebooks for inspiration…Many of my stories evolve from my own (sometimes misplaced) attempts to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.

The inspiration for the story the published (“The Obituarist”) came from three lines scribbled into my notebook years ago:

“The Obituarist – Dying, old age, writes obits for living ppl. Also writes fiction—short stories?—and has come to realize that man is reliant on conflict, tension, etc. because all our stories rely on them, and they are not stories otherwise. Speaking to a young person writing his obit. (Or he writes book reviews.)”

That was it. I had a title alright, and some idea of a character and his situation, but nothing further. As I explained for NAR, about a year after writing this in my notebook I began working on the story itself, which is now collected in A Concordance of One’s Life.

This is the true value of a free-form writing notebook. For some people, a writing notebook is to prevent forgetting something. For others a notebook is a journal, a way to talk to one’s self, a method of expressing pent-up emotions.

My writing notebook is to externalize my thoughts. Externalizing inspiration, no matter how crazy or random the inspiration may seem, is itself an act of creation. Writing an idea in a notebook is as important as sitting down before the computer and formally typing the story. Those erratic sentences I scribbled about the obituarist were not subsidiary or tangential to writing the story. Those words were the genesis. The story started with them, not a year later when I typed the opening sentence in my word processor.

By committing some scattered notions to the page, I’m getting them out of my skull, where they’re fluid, malleable, and insubstantial, and forcing them into the physical world, where they take shape and harden into form. It’s important to judge my ideas objectively in the bald daylight to determine if they’re worth expanding upon.

Plenty of my inspirations go no further than the notebook. That’s not a bad thing. Most do not age well. When I return to my notebook, I often blanch upon reading these old inspirations. I will hurry to turn the page—a sure indication I made the best decision not to pursue them.

Wiring sources of inspiration together

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim NelsonIn my NAR essay I wrote that “The Obituarist” grew from a single idea. More often I find success in combining ideas, “to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.”

I hold a pet theory that true inspiration is rarely, if ever, a single atomic idea. I see inspiration as multiple ideas coalescing. They accrete mass over time until a tipping point is reached and the creator feels the urgent need to get the accumulation down on the page in the form of a story. (Or on the canvas, or modeled in clay, and so on.)

For an example of wiring disparate bits of inspiration together, I point to another story in the collection, “A Concordance of One’s Life.” The elements from my notebook contributing to the story include:

  1. Man writes a concordance of his own memoirs (but why?)
  2. Adult feels cheated about something that happened when he was young
  3. Small town becomes a literary tourist attraction (a la Hemingway’s house in Key West)
  4. A man with a name no one can pronounce

When I began writing “Concordance” the early drafts only involved points 1 and 2. When I paired them, I thought I’d answered that first question (“but why?”). I was wrong; the early drafts of the story went nowhere. I’d noted the second two bits of inspiration in my notebook before starting the first draft but failed to make a connection. I thought they were for a separate story, if I used them at all.

In a later draft I added the third inspiration and sparks began to fire. The quiet mountain town as a tourist attraction added a quirky backdrop to my drafts, odd scenes of faceless people going from location to location with their well-worn concordances in hand. Still, the story was shiftless and moody and failed to progress.

The final bit of inspiration came from waking one morning and, hazy-headed, realizing the cheated man was not the concordance’s author. Rather, the narrator was a friend or an acquaintance who went unmentioned in the concordance (even though everyone else in town is described within it). I’d given up on the story several times over a span of nearly two years. Patience and focus on the story’s needs led to plenty of sparks that Saturday morning. The draft I wrote became more-or-less what was published by Watchword later that year.

(Somewhere in this is a moral about not giving up on stories, but I must confess it’s sometimes good to cut anchor and move on. Some stories simply cannot be salvaged.)

The fourth point on inspiration—”man with a name no one can pronounce”—found its way into the story during the Saturday morning writing session. I’d been thinking about the man with the unpronounceable name as the basis for another story, but it had no feet. At the computer Saturday morning, I included it as a gag, a side bit of detail. As the story came to fruition, I realized it was one of the most important and salient aspects of “A Concordance of One’s Life.”

Making the most of your writing notebook

Pablo Picasso – Tête d’Homme (1969) (CC BY 2.0)

You keep a writing notebook, right?

Years ago I attended an exhibition of Picasso’s sketch pads and notebooks. People thronged he museum fascinated with the charcoal and pencil scratchings of a 20th century oil painting master. Most of the sketches were loose, ad hoc, even sloppy. None of Picasso’s originals were on display. Scaled-down reproductions were presented beside the sketches produced in preparation for the final work.

What drives my fascination with the exhibit are not the sketches themselves. As artifacts, yes, they were captivating. (Imagine pages upon pages of the best doodles you ever saw.) What was more fascinating was their role as the connective tissue between Picasso’s imagination and the final masterpieces he executed over a lifetime.

We have no analogue in the world of fiction. Perhaps Hemingway’s or Henry James’ notebooks are studied by literature students, but I can’t imagine the notebooks of even the most famous writers drawing the attention of Picasso’s notebooks (although some of those writing notebooks are not forgotten).

Don’t keep a writing notebook for posterity. Don’t expect anyone but you to read it. But if you have any interest in writing, I recommend keeping a writing notebook. If it was good enough for Picasso—and Hemingway, and Henry James—it’s good enough for you.

Not an organizer

Let’s get this out of the way: A writing notebook is not an organizer. Keep your to-do lists somewhere else.

I actually have two writing notebooks, one for inspiration and ideas, the second to organize the nuts-and-bolts of my writing: producing treatments, sending query letters, and so forth. For the second, I follow a simplified version of the Bullet Journal approach, which has served me well for years now.

You’ll be tempted to keep your organizer and writing notebook in the same physical book. I caution against it. An organizer is exactly that, a place of constraint, rigidity, and order. (In other words, it’s to get things done.) A writing notebook needs to be a free-form place. Random ideas, bits of dialogue, strange notions, bits of fleeting language disconnected from anything rational. A writing notebook can even hold drawings, things like maps or bizarre flora & fauna.

I separate my organizer from my writing notebook for a reason. If I combined them they’ll blend, and I’ll find myself attempting to organize my creative notions. Rigidity comes later in the writing process.

I’ve inhabited a number of different writing notebooks over the years. I once went through a series of the ever-trendy Moleskines, pocket-sized and hardbound with their handy elastic band to keep the book shut. Most memorable is their twee “As a reward: $______” on the inside cover, allowing the owner a chance to estimate the dollar value of their own musings.

There exists numerous Moleskine knock-offs fine for the job. I’ve gone through several and can’t recommend any one. To mix things up, I’ve tried other notebook form factors as well. I even once experimented with a high school composition notebook, thinking the different size might yield unexpected fruit. (It did, but not in the way I was expecting—which was the entire point.)

Don’t get locked into one writing notebook manufacturer or model. Different paper weight, rule widths, dimensions, and bindings will subtly produce variation in the words you pour across the pages. The same goes for ink and pen types. The only variants I’ve not explored are graph paper (which I fear will introduce too much inflexibility) and unlined paper, which sounds like pure chaos for this writer, a man who barely read his own cursive.

As far as organization, I go minimal with my writing notebook. If I have a story or novel in mind, I’ll write my working title at the top of a fresh page, add the date for my own reference, and start writing. (I usually have at least one title in mind when I reach for my notebook, even if doesn’t survive to the first draft.)

If the idea is a random thought not associated with a story, I’ll give it its own page with the most simplest or basic of titles at the top of the page, only to separate it out from the other work I’m developing.

Even if my idea is merely one or two sentences, I’ll usually give it it’s own page. Don’t fear mostly-empty pages. There’s no reason to be aggressively economical with page use. That’s about as far as I go with organization.

I also don’t worry about being orderly with my entries. For example, I have a novella side-project at the moment. When I longhand narration into my notebook I do not concern myself with entering the new prose in chapter order. I don’t worry if what I’m writing follows anything else I’ve written in the preceding pages, or even if I will use it at all in the final work. If I’m inspired to write, I write.

Giving myself the freedom to write whatever I want whenever I want to is important. Artificial barriers such as “I can’t write this until I’ve finished that” merely give me a reason not to write at all, the biggest threat for any writer.

I try to ensure I have my notebook on me whenever I’ll be in a place when I can allow my thoughts to wander and explore. No, I don’t carry it with me at all times. (I don’t even carry my smartphone with me at all times.) If it makes sense for you to keep it on you at all times, do it—but don’t forget to carry a pen as well. One without the other is all-but-worthless.

My writing notebook is also not merely for writing prose. For example, when working on a novel I might have a page or two dedicated entirely to listing the names of the book’s characters. This allows me to swiftly look up a name if it slips my mind while writing chapters. For Bridge Daughter I had pages of medical terminology, real and fictional, as the novel employed quite a bit of it and I wanted to ensure consistency.

I don’t produce a table of contents or an index for my notebooks (such as how the Bullet Journal system advocates). When I’m entering words in the computer, I trust myself to recall what I’ve written in my notebooks and dig it out on-demand. (This sometimes means having two notebooks handy when I’m typing, as my ideas on the book may span more than one.)

Nothing is wasted

Returning to Picasso’s notebooks, another impressive aspect was their sheer volume. He produced metric tons of work he never intended to show or sell. These were for him, not us, as a means to an end.

I’ve frequently heard of or witness writers being stingy with their output. They view five pages of prose in their notebook never being published—or even making it into a working draft—as a “waste.”

Nothing is wasted. All writing is practice for the next round of writing. If you view every word in your writing journal as precious and must be conserved the way crude oil or drinking water must be conserved, you’re doomed.

Like Picasso, view your writing notebook as a place to be sloppy and free, a place to expend language wantonly. Be verbose, be chatty. Don’t worry about passive voice or tense changes.

I save all my old writing notebooks (for nostalgia, I suppose), but I don’t obsessively mine them for ideas, thinking each little scrap of language or inspiration must be utilized. My notebooks brim with imaginative dead-ends. I’m fine with that. I’d rather my ideas rot in my notebook, off the vine as it were, rather than go to waste on the vine—lost as fleeting thoughts in my head.

Computer programming & writing fiction: Iterative processes

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Previously I’ve noted the similarities between computer programming and writing fiction, saying both attracted their own practitioners. I then explained why I view computer programming, as well as computer programs, as forms of art.

How else is writing fiction like computer programming? Practicing the two, one common aspect I’ve gleaned is their repetitive natures. Both are iterative processes.

I cannot in good faith declare any fiction I’ve written “done” until I’ve read the final draft from start to finish eight or more times. (Usually the number is higher.) With each read, sentences are moved or removed, paragraphs rearranged, punctuation revised, word choices are evaluated, and so on. Shaping prose is one of the most important skills a writer can cultivate. (Journalists do this in their sleep. Minutes after the final out, San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser files a game summary that is polished, informative, and to the point.)

In fiction, editing is usually described as fine-tuning a manuscript, but more often it’s about being bold—knowing when to strike a paragraph, a page, or even a chapter, all in the service of a better story.

As any computer programmer can tell you, this is a familiar process. Programmers probably spend more time at the keyboard revising existing code than writing new code. Small program edits—similar to line edits or word choice—are common enough, but when more major surgery is performed, programmers will often use a special word: refactoring. Refactoring is restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. (It’s usually done to make the code easier to read and maintain, not to add a new feature or fix a bug.)

That’s the crux: Without changing existing behavior. It’s funny, in writing fiction, if you make a lot of bold changes, it’s considered a success if the story seems “new” or “better” to a reader. In writing code, success is if you make a bold refactoring and the program operates exactly as it worked before.

The Ouroboros

I enjoy reading how other authors developed their fiction. Authors selected for Best American Short Stories (and other volumes in the Best American series) are given the opportunity to write a capsule for the books’ back matter. They often discuss inspiration for the story, and how external factors shaped its outcome. Writers’ correspondence is another goldmine for learning creative processes. (In particular I recommend Raymond Chandler’s Selected Letters, which is a master class in writing, style, and technique.)

Often when an author discusses how they developed a story, I’ve noted they can’t pin down the exact moment of inspiration. There might be some flash where the creative process launches, but so many times writers confess how stories come from a nagging itch to write on a subject or develop some character trait. Long-forgotten inspiration will come roaring back to life for some reason. Writers some times talk about stories as though they “demanded” to be written.

Programmers have similar stories, although the inspiration may not be as abstract as, say, a line of dialogue or a character detail. Usually it’s a need driving the creation of new software, needs like “I wish there was a web site for me to connect to all my friends” (social networking) or “I wish I had a typewriter where it was easy to correct mistakes, and it would even check my spelling for me” (word processor).

Many times I’ve read of authors returning to old work and fighting (or succumbing to) the urge to edit it. The edits may only be a comma here, a semicolon there. They may be larger edits , striking paragraphs or scenes in the pursuit of a tighter tale. Programmers deal with this urge too, always looking to tighten up code and make it more efficient or elegant.

I’ve quoted this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating:

…software development is an iterative and incremental process. Each stage of the process is revisited repeatedly during the development, and each visit refines the end product of that stage. In general, the process has no beginning and no end. [Italics mine.]

That was written by Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of the C++ programming language. Everything in this quote pertains to writing fiction as much as it pertains to writing code.

When I edit stories, I visit and revisit the story as part of the editing process, to smooth and refine the language, to ensure the story flows smoothly. Programming has a similar process, a continual revisiting and revision of the code to remove flab and tighten up its execution.

That’s what Stroustrup meant when he said the process has no beginning and no end. Stories and computer programs are never finished. They can always be made a bit better.

Sometimes alteration worsens the final product. When coding, I often talk serious changes as “surgery.” While it might be necessary, it’s possible to hurt the program while improving it. Touching code in one place can break code in another place. This is why sometimes you’ll download an update to an app and it seems slower or simply broken, even though the developer swears they’ve made improvements.

Likewise, fussing over a novel or a story can hurt it too. In the original editions of The Martian Chronicles, the chapters were dated like a diary, starting from 1999 and ending in 2026. Today, revised editions use dates from 2030 to 2057. A small change, undoubtedly made to preserve the story being told “in the future,” but it stole away some of the book’s charm. In my youth, 1999 was a magical date, a momentous odometer signaling a shift to the bold 21st century. 2030 is just another number.

A common adage among software developers is “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” The same can be said for fiction.

Distillation

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Programmer Ben Sandovsky observes:

Treat yourself [the programmer] as a writer and approach each commit as a chapter in a book. Writers don’t publish first drafts. Michael Crichton said, “Great books aren’t written– they’re rewritten.”

Sandovsky is exhorting computer programmers not to make hasty changes to a computer program, but to edit and revise those changes before officially adding them to the program.

Late in the editing process, I’ll often read my stories aloud to make sure they flow well. I’ve never read my code aloud—computer languages aren’t like human languages, for the most part—but I’ve certainly eyeballed my code closely, going over it line-by-line, before committing it.

I often use the word distill for both pursuits—to purify, condense, and strengthen through repetitive processes. Writers and coders don’t simply edit their work, they distill it down to its essence.

Lazy writing makes for boring reading. Lazy programming makes for buggy software. In general the process has no beginning and no end. The art is knowing when to let go and release your hard work to the world.

Twenty Writers: David Kidd, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on the series as well as a list of other reviews and essays.


Peking Story by David KiddDavid Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China has settled into a somewhat unnoticed shelf of American literature: the literary eulogy.

Serialized in The New Yorker in 1955, collected in book form in 1961 as All the Emperor’s Horses, and republished in 1988 under the title it holds today, David Kidd’s book is an underappreciated classic in American nonfiction. Memoir, travelogue, New Journalism, creative nonfiction—none of these terms seem an apt categorization of Peking Story. The book is wistful, mournful, and laced with dry humor—a eulogy.

As the book opens, Kidd is a college student on a foreign exchange trip to Beijing in 1946. There he meets Aimee Yu, one daughter among many in a prominent Beijing family. In the span of a few pages, the couple are married. Courting Aimee is more glossed over than spun out, treated as a perfunctory narrative requirement. Peking Story is not a romantic book in the sense of love and matrimony. It’s a romantic book in the sense of Eastern exoticism and lost traditions. It’s right there in the subtitle: The Last Days of Old China.

As the book progresses, David Kidd the narrator develops as a kind of mystery himself. He doesn’t come off as one would imagine most Americans would talk or act in 1946, especially a college student from the Midwest. There are moments that read like a Graham Greene novel, the world-weary Britisher turning up his nose at the dreary reactionaries and their anti-imperialist manifestos—only Kidd studied at a state school, not Oxford. That’s one of the many mysteries of Peking Story, this American narrator who sounds distinctly un-American, seemingly more comfortable in Chinese silks and soft slippers than sneakers and blue jeans.

The Last Days of Old China

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Kidd goes to some lengths to remain outside the books’ lens, preferring to focus on the events and people around him. Peking Story is a public story told by a very private man, and that shapes the book and contributes to its unique form.

Kidd alludes to his private nature (and the burden of telling his story) in his preface:

Only a few Westerners who once lived [in pre-Communist Peking] are still alive today—no more than ten or twenty of us at most, scattered throughout the world. I used to hope that some bright young scholar on a research grant would write about us and our Chinese friends before it was too late and were all dead and gone, folding back into darkness the wonder that had been our lives.

To this day, no such scholar has appeared, leaving me, as far as I know, the lone, first-hand chronicler of those extraordinary years that saw the end of old China, and the beginning of the new.

Author David Kidd

Author David Kidd

With the courtship and marriage out of the way, David Kidd eagerly moves into the opulent Yu family estate just outside of Beijing. (“Beijing” and “Peking” are Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, respectively, for the current capital of China. As Mandarin is now the official language of the People’s Republic of China, I use it here and reserve “Peking” for the book’s title and quotes from it.)

It is within the Yu family compound that Kidd slides his marriage from the reader’s field of vision. In its place he slides in the colorful Yu family itself and their grand estate, garden, and art collection. Beyond the compound’s walls the Communist revolution begins to encroach on their daily lives. These elements are Kidd’s true focus, with his marriage merely the frame to explain his presence on the estate grounds and in the Yu family’s lives.

The Yu’s are rich beyond the everyday meaning of that word. The family’s history and prominence extends hundreds of years in China’s past. The grandfather was at one time the Chief Justice of the Republic of China’s Supreme Court. The family estate is known for having one the best gardens in all of Beijing, and perhaps China. The Yu’s once held mansions and houses all over northern China, but declining fortunes and currency devaluation have chipped away at their holdings. By the time Kidd arrives, the Yu’s have only the family mansion, a burial shrine outside the city, and a stunning collection of historical Chinese art the family cannot bear to part with.

Arriving in Beijing two years before the Communist Revolution and leaving two years after it, Kidd witnessed China’s transition from a strict traditional society with deep class striations to a country intent on leveling the field and erasing its past. Rather than write this story with a breathless, you-are-there urgency, Kidd describes the changes from the comfort and safety of the Yu estate. Kidd’s encounters with the new Communist regime comes fleetingly, such as when they must register with the local police that the Yu’s intend to hold a costume party. Kidd portrays the revolutionaries as dreary, inconvenient, and déclassé.

I normally hold little interest in British entertainment of the upper-class variety, the rich lolling about on their divans and club chairs, plotting intrigue against each other while servants rush up and down stairs attending their every whim. For all of Kidd’s blind spots, Peking Story works because Kidd plainly sees the Yu’s way of life crumbling beneath their feet. Rather than pick up guns and defend their estate—what an American story that would be—the Yu’s shrug, brew another pot of tea, and reflect upon their garden before its wrested from them. The tension between dynamism and stasis is the backbone of Peking Story.

The bronze braziers

As a fiction writer, what I draw from Peking Story is Kidd’s skillfulness at sketching out characters and painting colorful scenes with graceful economy. Although Kidd comes across as waspy throughout the book (and a bit too blithe to the poverty about him), his education and breeding gifted him with a clean writing style that flows effortlessly. It’s harder than it looks.

Kidd’s narrative construction is as classical as his prose. The chapters are arranged almost perfectly. Early scenes that read as little more than humorous anecdotes are later revealed as precursors of devastating consequences for the Yu family. Kidd neatly sews disparate anecdotes together to craft chapters that compare and contrast China’s culture and the steamrolling revolution. Although “compare & contrast” rings like a English teacher’s tired essay topic, these pairings illuminate the reader’s way through Peking Story like a trail of paper lanterns.

The most memorable anecdote in Peking Story relates to a collection of bronze braziers the Yu’s display throughout their mansion. As Kidd tells the story, the luster of these incense burners is indescribable. They must be continually heated in order to maintain their luster, and so the Yu’s charge their servants to maintain a small charcoal fire burning beneath each at all hours. Kidd tells us the Yu family has kept the fires lit and the braziers hot for hundreds of years.

Then, encouraged by the Communists beyond the estate walls, the servants begin to question the people they’re working for. One morning the Yu’s discover all the charcoal fires are extinguished. The once-indescribable bronze braziers are now irreparably dull and gray.

The tale of the bronze braziers is the most memorable and powerful anecdote in the book. It’s a perfect metaphor for the aristocratic Yu family keeping alive China’s culture and the Communist revolution threatening to upheave it all.

However, the story may be too perfect:

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry.

James Cahill’s rebuttal to Peking Story is well worth the read. In particular, he voices here a suspicion I had in the back of my mind the first time I read the story of the bronze braziers. Their sublime beauty destroyed by petty malice seemed a writerly addition by Kidd who (possibly) felt the need to put an authorial thumb on the scale.

I’m torn on this subject. Cahill’s objections are worth any reader’s consideration, but I still find myself drawn to the elegance and power of Kidd’s prose. I don’t particularly care about his sexual orientation, although it certainly would explain why his marriage takes a back seat in the book.

In Kidd’s defense, unlike fabricators like James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and JT Leroy, Kidd’s falsehoods—if they are false—don’t create an undeserved authority or prop up an exaggerated persona. His presence in China is documented, as is his marriage to Aimee Yu. The story of the bronze braziers sweetens the book, the kind of misstep even a seasoned novelist might make to seal a point with the reader.

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China. Joe Hunt. (CC BY 2.0)

It’s not the first time a well-respected work of nonfiction was revealed to contain fabrications. Questions about the veracity of Steinbeck’s Traveling with Charley have been received with a shrug by Steinbeck fans and academics. If Cahill is “angry” at the “deceptive” Peking Story, he must be outraged at Steinbeck. If not, why? Because Steinbeck’s sympathies are on the right side of history and Kidd’s are not?

(I would point out that if Kidd stretched the truth, it’s conceivable a kernel of truth inspired the story. Even if the braziers were not damaged beyond repair, it’s possible the Yu’s kept incense burning day and night through the household, and that one night, due to Communist influence, the servants rebelled, damaging them somehow. The metaphor of an Old China lost is not so strong, but the thrust of the anecdote remains.)

Where Cahill sees deception, I see craft. The reader’s reaction to the story of the bronze braziers is a leading indicator of the way they’ll receive the entire book. Some will toss the book aside, disgusted with Kidd’s approval of Chinese high society and disdain of the servants. Others will sympathize with the Yu’s, for no reason other than their desire to preserve a four thousand year-old culture and its rich traditions. In either case, Kidd’s anecdote encapsulates the entire book and the reader’s reception of it. It’s that kind of skill that encourages me to write a 2,200 word essay on Peking Story.

However, I’m less sure Kidd’s sympathies lie with the Chinese aristocracy per se. Kidd does not hold up the Yu’s as bold keepers of the flame, but rather as eccentrics. Without exception, Kidd’s tragedies are the loss and destruction of Chinese art, culture, and tradition. Kidd mourns for the dispersal of the Yu collection and estate more than any death in the book. He also mourns the death of common sense. In Kidd’s hands, registering a costume party with the Beijing police is as absurd as proving to the American consulate his wife is Christian to guarantee her visa out of the country.

Then there’s the matter of Cahill accusing Kidd of kowtowing to “anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S.,” guessing Kidd was “encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby.”

Kidd may be accused of all manner of motivation, I suppose, but Occam’s Razor strikes me as appropriate here. I see Kidd as genuinely upset at the rearrangement of Chinese society. He seems deeply shocked to witness a four thousand year-old cultural legacy deleted in a fit of moral outrage. The suggestion of shadowy, powerful forces funding a book that, frankly, did little to reshape American attitudes toward Communist China is unnecessary to explain the existence of Peking Story. I also don’t view The New Yorker—even The New Yorker of the 1950s—as a publication to kowtow to right-wing nationalists.

Fabricator or not, Kidd is forthright with his opinions and biases. When it comes to motivation, it’s simplest to take Kidd at his word. Cahill, on the other hand, appears more motivated by a sense of social justice than he’s letting on in his essay.

What’s more, for Cahill to argue Kidd misrepresented the Chinese Communists as a “mean-spirited movement” is to ignore the crop yielded by Maoism: The Cultural Revolution and its purges, denunciations, historical rewriting, and reeducation tactics. Kidd’s stories, first published eleven years before the Cultural Revolution’s earliest stirrings, practically predicts the furies to unfold. It’s a literary feat almost as impressive as Graham Greene warning the United States out of Vietnam in 1955’s The Quiet American.

The 21st century may be China’s century, but Peking Story eulogizes the price China paid to make its great lurch forward.

David Kidd died in in 1996, leaving behind a life as far-removed from his Midwestern origins as possible. After fleeing Beijing, he settled in Kyoto and founded a school of traditional Japanese arts:

As a tourist attraction, Mr. Kidd did not disappoint. To sit on a cushion before his throne, listening to his erudite patter, and seeing him sitting cross-legged on his kang, a divided Chinese sofa, rustling his silken gown as he gestured extravagantly with his inevitable cigarette, was to be in the presence of a presence.

With China’s role ascending in the 21st century, I would recommend Peking Story to anyone curious to learn about China’s future from its past. For those who want to go deeper, I would pair Peking Story with the superb Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang and Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

Computer programming & writing fiction: Is coding art?

Girl with an 8-bit EarringIn my last post comparing writing programming and writing fiction, I concluded both were similar because of their relationship with their practitioners. “Art is a kind of recruiting poster for itself,” I wrote. “An art attracts its own artists.”

Wait—is computer programming art? It’s accepted to call fiction art, but can computer programming really be considered

the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words. (The Free Dictionary)

Think of what programming a computer really boils down to: Ordering and organizing a series of mathematical instructions followed precisely by the machine. The computer is allowed no imagination in its interpretation of those instructions (if it possessed an imagination, which it doesn’t, at least not today). If there’s an art in computer programming, it stands in the purview of the programmer, not the machine. That’s how it should be. The art of painting is not in the tubes or cans of paint, but in the painter.

But is the arrangement of those computer instructions somehow “beautiful”?

It’s important to discern a difference between a computer program being art and the act of programming as an artistic form. Let’s start with the latter.

I believe programming is an art form, at least by modern notions of the term. Writing fiction and writing code requires continuous subjective decision-making during the entire process (a “conscious use of the imagination”). A personal fervor is vital for quality results. When a writer lacks that fervor, it shows in the end result, both for fiction and computer programs.

Programming is not a rote process of memorization and recall. There is no “correct” way to write a computer program but, like writing a novel or a short story, there are many wrong ways.

Bill Atkinson, creator of the original MacPaint, painted in MacPaint. (Daniel Rehn, CC BY 2.0)

Bill Atkinson, creator of the original MacPaint, painted in MacPaint. (Daniel Rehn, CC BY 2.0)

Coding requires taste, aesthetics, and an eye for detail. Programmers develop deeply personal philosophies. Some coders prefer verbosity (like Henry James in his later years) while others prefer economy (like Hemingway or Cain’s early work).

There’s a scene in August Wilson’s Fences that is one of the most distilled scenes I’ve ever read: The father and son debate buying a TV to watch the World Series. On the surface a mundane domestic moment, the scene is actually Fences in-miniature. The beauty of this scene mirrors brilliant software design, where each piece of the program is intimately connected to the entire application.

Years ago, I could always tell when I was working with a programmer who started coding on the Macintosh versus a programmer weaned on Microsoft Windows—the two companies have distinct programming styles and philosophies. Programmers who learned to code on those operating systems carried those styles and philosophies with them to other platforms and projects.

A computer program can be functional, operating, and seemingly free of bugs, and a programmer may still read the code and say it doesn’t “look” right. (The trendy term for this is “code smell.”) What’s more, two programmers may say a program doesn’t “look” right for entirely different reasons. This reminds me a great deal of the world of poetry, where poets may agree a poem is poorly executed and then squabble over the reasons why. (There are similar disagreements in the world of fiction, but I find them to be less…doctrinaire.)

Writing and programming both involve elements of discovery and improvisation. Even though I’m writing a series of blog posts advocating outlining stories before writing them, I don’t believe an outline can—or should—contain every detail present in the final story. An outline should not be so rigid as to prohibit discovery during the writing process.

For a long time, there was a big push to eliminate discovery and improvisation in the world of software development, as “discovery” and “improvisation” seem undesirable in a field of proper engineering. (In the 1960s, IBM famously discovered that the number of bugs a programmer produced was proportional to the amount of code he or she wrote. Their solution: limit the lines of code a programmer could write per day, a logic straight from the pages of Catch-22.) Newer software philosophies, notably Extreme Programming and Agile development practices, have flipped that thinking and embraced discovery and improvisation as healthy and necessary.

Suspicion of programming as an art form probably springs from a general lack of understanding of how programs are written. Programmers share an arcane terminology among themselves. They build and manipulate mysterious machines that have come to play a powerful, sometimes menacing, role in our lives.

<cite>Ex Machina</cite>, a 2015 film about a computer programmer who falls in love with an artificially intelligent android.

Ex Machina, a 2015 film about a computer programmer who falls in love with an artificially intelligent android.

That suspicion probably also arises from stereotypes. Programmers don’t look like artists. In popular culture, programmers are portrayed as geeks more comfortable around machines than humans. Sometimes coders in film or TV even fall in romantic love with their own programs. (Never mind that this trope originated in antiquity and regards an artist and not a bricklayer or farmer or soldier.)

Another reason people question programming as an art is that computer programs “do” things. There’s an academic suspicion of pure art having any sort of utility, probably due to fears of commodification and commercialization. We don’t think of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring as “doing” anything other than hanging on a wall in some drafty museum, but it must be doing something to cause people to stand in line for hours to view it. It’s funny, this idea that pure art doesn’t “do” anything when it so plainly does. If art didn’t do anything, why would we care about it?

And this rolls back to the distinction I made earlier: Is computer software itself art? I’ll challenge the question with a question in return. We regard skyscrapers and bridges and automobiles and colanders as kinds of art. We laud architects, automotive designers, and commercial illustrators as artists. Why treat computer programs and their creators differently?

Next: Iterative processes

Colander, c. 1600 - 1650, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Colander, c. 1600 – 1650, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Computer programming & writing fiction: Art as a recruiting poster

IBM SelectricHow is computer programming like writing fiction? Is writing code anything like writing stories?

When I was young, perhaps seven or eight, I banged out my first short story on a second-hand IBM Selectric typewriter my mother brought home from her office. Powered on, the Selectric vibrated the whole desk and emanated a low mechanical hum, some unseen engine in the contraption idling. I still recall the smell of the ink in the typewriter ribbon and the satisfying, officious schock as the typeball jumped from its perch and tapped lettering onto the crisp onion paper I’d fed into the roller.

The story I wrote was a retelling of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” transplanted to a science-fiction setting. (In fact, I think I creatively titled it “The Most Dangerous Game in Space”.) My determination to spend hours coping with that unforgiving contraption went beyond an affinity for the classic short story. As an avid young reader, I’d come to wonder if I could pen my own fiction. My aspirations weren’t so bold as to imagine being published, only to see if I could write my own, but later that dream crept in too.

The Most Dangerous GameAround the same time (this would’ve been 1979), I cajoled my parents into buying a home computer. Silicon Valley was marketing home computers as personal productivity assistants, devices to balance one’s checkbook, manage a home mortgage, track stocks, and so on. Home computers were also being pitched as tools to give students an edge in school. I couldn’t care less about schoolwork—and I’ll be damned if that computer ever balanced my parents’ checkbook—but with a home computer I could play video games, my only real motive for wanting one.

Innumerable hours playing videos games led me to try to write my own. It was a natural progression, just as reading I, Robot set me to thinking of my own robot stories.

I never did write a video game, at least not one that anyone would want to play, but software development did become my career path, one I’m still following over 35 years later.

Likewise, although I didn’t finish that short story, writing fiction remains an important passion in my life, even more important than programming.

Walking these paths, I’m sometimes asked if writing software and writing stories are the same. Or, at least, if they bear any similarities. And my answer is, yes, there are commonalities between the two.

I’ll explore more parallels in the future, but already I’ve alluded to one thing they have in common. I’ve never met a good writer who wasn’t first an avid reader, and I’ve never met a good programmer who wasn’t first an avid computer hobbyist.

Art is a kind of recruiting poster for itself. An art attracts its own artists.

Next: Is coding art?

On Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour

Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz LeiberSaturday I had the pleasure to take Don Herron’s Fritz Leiber Tour. Like his more famous Dashiell Hammett Tour, Herron recreates through personal research, recollection, and local points-of-interest Leiber’s life story and the circumstances that led him to spending his last years in San Francisco.

My attendance in the tour was accidental. In October, while talking with Nicole Gluckstern after the conclusion of the Bikes to Books Tour, I mentioned what can only be called a minor parallel in my life with Fritz Leiber’s, and how I’d been meaning for years now to learn more about this prolific author. Nicole told me she was in talks with Don Herron to have him lead a one-off, by-invite-only Fritz Leiber Tour. I eagerly jumped when she asked if I wanted to attend.

Leiber’s life defies a summary in brief. The child of actor parents (his father appeared in a number of early Hollywood productions), Leiber developed an avid readership over a career of decades with his wide-ranging work—science fiction, fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, horror & the occult, and more. In addition to experience in theater and acting, Leiber was an amateur astronomer and one-time editor of Science Digest, making him the rare science fiction writer with an actual background in science.

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Will Hart, (CC BY 2.0)

Fritz Leiber as Dr. Arthur Waterman in Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural (1965 or 1966). Still by Will Hart (CC BY 2.0)

As a child and young man, I was familiar with Leiber through his science-fiction short stories (although I don’t recall reading any of his novels). His stories were featured in “best of” collections and back issues of science fiction magazines I dug out of dusty cartons in Livermore’s public library.

Then, via Dungeons & Dragons, I learned of a swords-and-sorcery series featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a duo comprised of an oversized swordsman and a diminutive thief. When I saw this series was penned by someone named Fritz Leiber, I distinctly recall thinking, “What a coincidence—there’s a science-fiction writer with the same name.” No coincidence, it turns out. (According to Herron, Leiber coined the phrase “sword-and-sorcery.”)

A personal friend of Leiber and his second wife, Herron is a fount of history and insight into this prolific author. Much like his Hammett tour, Herron led us down and around Geary Street and the Tenderloin (names which might ring familiar to readers of Bridge Daughter). Then we boarded MUNI and trekked up to Corona Heights (and its stunning views of the city) in the Castro District. All locations have some connection to Leiber and his semi-autobiographical Our Lady of Darkness. It’s a Lovecraftian novel that takes place in 1970s San Francisco whose main character endures a battle with the bottle and grief over the death of his wife, just as Leiber was undergoing at the time.

I hope Herron considers permanently reviving the Fritz Leiber tour—but I suspect the only way that would happen is if there was a strong revival of interest in Leiber himself. Personally, I’ve already added Our Lady of Darkness to my reading list, and I plan on searching out more of his work.

About that parallel

When I earlier claimed a parallel with Leiber’s life, I should explain. I don’t mean some personal connection with the author or his work, only that Leiber wrote about an event in his life that rang similar to one of my own.

Eight years ago, after going through what can only be called a divorce immediately followed by a second relationship gone sour, my trials culminated with me busting up my shoulder in a bad accident. I severed all the tendons there, leaving me with a separated shoulder. (To this day it looks like I have “two” shoulder bones.)

I found myself bedridden for six weeks and unable to move my right arm. Day and night I consumed painkillers, delivery Chinese food, and—unwisely—whiskey. (I wrote about this episode for We Still Like‘s “Gravity” issue, a piece titled “Taylor & Redding”.) I spent my time in my apartment, alone, absorbed with Miles Davis and Cal Tjader. I spent my less stuporous hours reading whatever I could get my hands on. In particular, I located at the library a thick collection of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, which I consumed cover-to-cover.

To keep from going stir-crazy, I took long walks up and down Nob Hill and through the Tenderloin, often at odd hours of night. Due to the painkillers, sleep was varied and sporadic. Some of these walks were as late as three in the morning, when the insomnia was too much to bear.

On these walks I discovered locations and buildings named in Hammett’s work, all mere blocks from my Geary Street apartment. The old part of San Francisco is rife with short streets and dead-end alleys, too insignificant to be incidentally included in a story for local flavor, yet Hammett would feature them prominently in his work. These names did not come off a map or phone directory, these were streets intimate to Hammett, a writer obsessed with specifics and verisimilitude. Some of the Continental Op’s stories are set in Chinatown. It got so I went out of my way to seek them out.

Humphrey Bogart and "the dingus." (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Humphrey Bogart and “the dingus.” (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This led me to reread Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (which I’ve written about not just once but twice). There, in this single detective novel, I re-experienced in concentrate everything I’d experienced the prior weeks poring over the Continental Op stories. In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade walks streets I walked every night, attends theaters down the block from my apartment, eats at restaurants still in operation. Sam Spade, living and breathing in San Francisco circa 2008. My front stoop was backdrop and stage for this classic of American literature.

It’s not merely the rush of casual literary association—similar to the rush of meeting a celebrity—that overwhelmed me. Details of the novel easily overlooked snapped into clear focus. That gunman Thursby is shacked up at Geary & Leavenworth suggests he’s residing on the hairy edge of the Tenderloin, an area rife with flophouses, while the supposedly-delicate Brigid O’Shaughnessy rooms on posh California Street. Sam Spade rides streetcars up and down Geary Street, a notion that defies imagination, as Geary in downtown San Francisco is narrower than the suburban lane I grew up riding my bike on. (The Geary streetcars were known as “Iron Monsters” and phased out in 1956 to make way for America’s love affair with automobiles.)

I’d been forced to move to Geary Street a few years earlier due to a bad break-up and the meager income I drew, living paycheck-to-paycheck tending bar. I wasn’t happy to reside a stone’s throw from the Tenderloin, infamous as San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood. It’s not—there’s a dignity in the TL easily overlooked—and Hammett’s work gave me a second sight, another way of reading my surroundings, and with it came another way to see my own circumstances. I say without qualification, Dashiell Hammett’s writings carried me through one of my lowest periods of my life.

Some time after my recovery—personal and monetary fortunes on the rise—I sat at the bar of John’s Grill in Union Square nursing a drink and waiting for my dinner to arrive. (“Jack LaLanne’s Favorite Salad”—a cold seafood salad with avocado slices, pure protein and fat.) On the back of the menu I found a newspaper article the restaurant had reprinted, “Stalking Sam Spade” written by one Fritz Leiber.

And I distinctly recall thinking, “That’s funny…there was a science fiction writer with that name.”

Stalking Sam Spade

Light reading while waiting for your steak medium-rare at John’s Grill.

After Leiber snapped out of the grief over his wife’s death and started drying up, he too rediscovered the city he lived in by reading it through Hammett’s lens. Geary Street, he wrote, is the “spine” of The Maltese Falcon, and he set out to locate its landmarks much as I’d attempted myself. Leiber was more organized about the project than I ever was, and “Stalking Sam Spade” does a much better job detailing his discoveries. Learning about San Francisco’s past through a detective novel led him to search for the history of the apartment house he lived in, culminating in his building becoming the nexus of Our Lady of Darkness.

Perhaps the allure of “rediscovering” a city through literature is not unique to San Francisco, but it’s certainly an active and avid pastime here. While some people move to San Francisco solely concerned about which address is currently beau chic or which nightspots are ripe for seeing-and-being-seen, I’ve encountered just as many who’ve found themselves ensnared in this game, the game I played those sleepless nights. It’s much as the Baker Street Irregulars “play the game” retracing Sherlock Holmes’ footprints as though he’d lived and breathed. With each step of the game comes the chill of revelation, the buzzing realization you’re walking the streets Hammett, Kerouac, Frank Norris, and others once trod daily. Each San Francisco writer is inspired in very different ways by the same city—a city that reinvents itself every generation, granting each artist who lands here a bed of fresh soil to sow and till. Some waste it, some fail to tend their seedlings. Others grow oak trees still standing today.

As Herron pointed out on our tour, Leiber got one fact wrong in “Stalking Sam Spade”: Spade’s apartment was most likely at Post & Hyde (not Geary & Hyde), the same location as Hammett’s apartment when he lived in San Francisco. A landmark plaque is on that building today, just as there is one at Burritt Alley—the location of the first murder in The Maltese Falcon—a plaque that did not exist when Leiber wrote his article.

Photo by Parker Higgins

Photo by Parker Higgins (CC0)

Another plaque that did not exist at that time is today placed on the Hotel Union at 811 Geary Street. It’s dedicated to Fritz Leiber and the book he wrote while drying up there, Our Lady of Darkness, a book inspired by his quest to re-walk the chapters of Hammett’s San Francisco and see the world anew.

Learn more about Don Herron’s tours and books at donherron.com