five quick things I think you’ll like

I'm doing something fun and geeky this morning, but I need to close some tabs before I can really get into it, so I'd like to tell you all that John Scalzi's book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, for which I wrote the introduction, is now available in trade paperback. I genuinely loved this book, and they even quoted me on the back:

John also wrote an absolutely brilliant dark fantasty novella called The God Engines, which recently became available. He put the first chapter on his blog for everyone to enjoy.

Remember John Carpenter's The Thing? It's one of my favorite Sci-Fi movies of all time, and I just loved reading a story from The Thing's point of view.

I found some basic advice to self-published authors from a book publicist. This is getting printed out and added to my personal reference library.

Finally, in the comments to my last post, reader Michael asked:

As a writer, do you find yourself looking at the world a bit differently than before? Do you catch yourself being a bit more observational — trying to take in all of a given place/scene/moment instead of just "being" somewhere? Have you caught yourself running through the description of a place in your head?

I answered:

All artists are compelled to do what we do, whether it's music or storytelling or painting or whatever. I don't know what it's like for other artists, but I'm only happy when I'm creating things. A big part of creating things as a writer is staying open and observant, so when I need to create something for a reader, I have memories and experiences to draw upon. This is especially important as a narrative non-fiction writer, where I can't just make something up to bridge a gap or make a story better.

I struggle sometimes to find a balance between just "being" somewhere and mentally recording what it's like to be there, butI don't really have a choice in the matter; I was doing this as an actor long before I was a writer, because I needed to have as big a mental library as possible to aid in the creation and realization of characters, and I'll keep on doing it until my last breath, I imagine.

But, to answer your question more directly: on the one hand, staying observant and really keeping all of my senses as heightened and open as I can is just part of my life, but on the other hand, it *can* make me feel like I'm the guy with the video camera who is in the room, but not really part of what everyone is doing.

I'm reprinting it here because it's a a fairly frequently-asked question, but also because I want to hear if other writers/actors/creators feel the same way.

Okay, I'm off to get my geek on. I should have something geeky and awesome to show off later today.

63 thoughts on “five quick things I think you’ll like”

  1. THIS! I’ve felt this way about creating things my whole life. Your posts always encourage me to make time for my sewing projects. I’m currently creating a quilt from old t-shirts I couldn’t seem to part with!

  2. If you haven’t already, you should check out Romero’s Diary of the Dead. It’s essentially a zombie movie, but the secondary conflict is the filmer’s struggle to survive a zombie attack, while at the same time being an objective observer to the events around him. It really drives home the point made in the response to Michael.

  3. I think as an artist you can’t really shut off the looking/observing/storing for future reference thing. That’s part of what makes you an artist.
    I have a sketchbook in my purse constantly, and a digital camera, and I am ALWAYS saving the look of that thing, or trying to remember the way the light moved across something. Sometimes it’s a shield against real life to be able to put up the sketchbook and observe, sometimes it heightens the experience and every time I look back at the sketch I hear, smell, feel the way I did that day when I drew it.

  4. Although I’m probably not a ‘writer’, I certainly write. Everything I do and think and feel is recorded and stored away somewhere. I’ve been in the middle of huge arguments with my other half and caught myself recording thoughts and feelings for use in prose. Sometimes I feel like a guy with a video camera, but I typically go decide on something I want to capature from a particular experience, and focus on that. Sometimes it’s the room, the feel of the day, or the people I’m with. If I know I’m capturing what I want to from something, I can relax and enjoy it. Then I don’t feel like I’ve got the camera.

  5. Yes. As a writer/journo/TV broadcaster/blogger/tweeter/sharer, I definitely think we’re compelled. There’s just no other way to explain it. We don’t just do it because we like it or want to… we HAVE to.
    When I don’t write SOMETHING/ANYTHING for a while, I feel all bottled up and stressed and I just have to let it out in some form. Sometimes, I can avoid the actual creative process by doing something related, like singing or playing the guitar. But most of the time, that’s just a temporary fix. Like craving chocolate but having hot chocolate instead.
    As for the balance… It’s really tough to just “be”. At least for me. I find it hard to leave the observational, detail-oriented, analytical part of me behind and just enjoy experiences. I always have the need to record and to share, and it’s only after much struggling that I can push that need aside.
    I’ve found that going into a situation deciding NOT to report but just to enjoy sometimes helps achieve that “it’s okay not to tell the whole world about this” feeling. But not always. Although it does become easier with practice!
    Thanks for sharing! :)

  6. I do catch myself writing the scene or action in the back of my mind from time to time, though in real life I’m more likely to try to figure out how I’d frame it for my camera. The thing that most annoys me as a writer is when I’m reading something else and can’t move past a slightly awkward sentence or phrase until I’ve rewritten it to my satisfaction. Though I’m not sure whether this is because I’m a writer, or because a solid 50% of my day-job involves document editing…

  7. @Wil:”But, to answer your question more directly: on the one hand, staying observant and really keeping all of my senses as heightened and open as I can is just part of my life, but on the other hand, it *can* make me feel like I’m the guy with the video camera who is in the room, but not really part of what everyone is doing.”
    EXCELLENT way to put it. I’ve often found myself in the position of having to consciously restrain myself from *analyzing* a movie or a tv show or a book, and just frelling *enjoy* it.
    And then go back later and analyze it.
    When you realize that you’re getting to a point where checking out the writer’s style or choice of phrase or plotting is your first instinct, and just being entertained by the thing is second or third or worse, then it can actually be a little sad.

  8. As a fairly introverted person it’s entirely in my nature to observe situations, often in fair detail. It’s very hard for me to switch that off and just participate. I have minimal writing talent :)
    As a musician I’m forever running musical ideas over in my head, but I wouldn’t say they necessarily reflect the situation I’m in!
    Also as a musician who’s flown sound desks before, it is so damn hard to just listen to live performances and not either pick apart the musicians, singers or PA work.
    Albums don’t tend to be too bad, they’re so over-produced these days any criticism revolves around that.
    Live stuff? It seems that more and more we’re seeing people who just have no clue about performing live, and record companies just not that interested in coaching them.

  9. As a musician and educator it’s often hard for me to sit back, listen to music and enjoy it or–in a performance setting–to just create something instead of worry about and analyze it. I’m constantly in musician mode, and also teacher mode, even when watching television or watching a friend’s band perform live. Ugh, why did they use that chord? | I wish they’d tune their guitar. | Hey, this would be a great example of polyphony for music appreciation…
    It’s something I’ve been struggling with for years but every once in a while the analyst/artist takes a back seat to the spectator and I am in the moment, enjoying it with everyone else. It’s truly wonderful when that happens and I’d like to say that it happens more often these days than in the past… The jury’s still out on that one. New year’s resolution, perhaps?

  10. OMG… a quilt out of t-shirts? How awesome! I am crafty and I usually use my sewing skills for major and minor alterations… but this… this idea is crazy and awesome! I might “borrow” this idea….!
    I always am catching my eye at things I can make, I saw an old window turned into a mirror in a New Orleans bathroom once, and then did it myself with an 80-year old window from my house. Candles, sewing, misc, etc… I’m so crafty.

  11. I was once a photographer. I struggled between living now and mentally framing shots in my mind. If I had a camera in my hand, I often felt like I missed out on something by not really being there; when I didn’t have a camera, I kicked myself.
    I once sat and watched a boat sink and the first thought that came to mind was: “That would have been an amazing shot.”

  12. I find I’m not all consciously observant, but more like a sponge. I absorb emotions, sounds, the atmosphere, colors, all of it and store it away somewhere. I also don’t recall consciously. I’d describe it more like getting in a mood. This is particularly pronounced when acting. I still do lots of research on my characters and tend to overly develop them, at times having to resync with my fellow actors to make sure they’re seeing who I am seeing when I am in character. It usually works out perfectly, I don’t feel like I’m acting at all, but rather creating a mood from the collected bits and pieces.
    Now in my day job (because seriously, who earns money acting anyway…) I get to design stuff. I find I’m terribly uncreative when thinking hard how to best design something, and I work best when I get all kinds of influences around me, setting a mood.
    How cool is that I just discovered this by writing about it, listening to Danny Elfman and Thomas Newman in my warm, cosy, 1-bedroom apartment.
    And how sad that my employer doesen’t see things my way, sort of stifling my creativity in the process – it’s his loss after all. Well, 1 1/2 years are a short time anyway. Can’t be sunday every day, right?
    Oh and before you get your geek on, let me lambast you for plugging that atrocious CGI/Gore/cheap scare Carpenter version of The Thing instead of the utterly mortifying 50s original. “Who goes there” never made more people scared witless than this marvelous black and white classic.

  13. I work as an actor and voice over artist in Chicago. My wife can’t stand watching a lot of TV or listening to the radio with me. (though I usually loathe watching most TV) I listen to the commercials intently and am insanely critical of what I hear. I also go about picking out my work or the work of friends and colleagues. I often find myself walking around listening to people, watching them; trying to find something interesting or a great sound or look to tuck away for later.
    I can’t help it nor can I turn that critical ear off. Though a great movie or TV show can get me to turn off the acting eye/ear, I find that great work gets me looking harder at the work being done. Best case scenario – it just makes me want to work more and harder. That’s why I take solace in video/board/card/P&P games. Besides books, it’s one of the last few entertainment sources where I can shut off the actor sense and just enjoy it.
    And heaven help me or my family when I’m not working, teaching voice over, auditioning or recording. I can’t stand time off. I get bored and restless.
    So, yeah – you’re spot on, Wil. We can’t help it. It’s an odd compulsion. Thankfully we find outlets or are blessed when someone thinks we should be paid for it every now and then.

  14. I’ve definitely done this in many ways, whether I’m taking photos of an event, sketching or just attending I often feel like someone on the outside looking in, at least at points, because I’m not fully engaged in that event. To be honest, I often thought it was just me being awkward sometimes- it’s nice to see other people talk about it.

  15. My cousin and I made a quilt out of t-shirts once for my aunt, who is a children’s librarian and does t-shirts for her summer programs. It came out great and now she can see that all the time and remember about different programs she’s done instead of it being hidden in a drawer or box somewhere. It’s one of my favorite things about recycling old clothes into quilts.

  16. This is my second quilt of this style. It was ridiculously simple once I got started, and the quilt takes up a lot less space than the giant stack of t-shirts I hadn’t worn in over a decade!
    I wish I was crafty like you. Sewing seems to be the only thing that inspires me so far.

  17. I was thinking about this just the other day, in fact. An old friend of my husband’s was confiding in us about her plans for suicide, and I felt almost morbid watching them interact. I had my own two cents, but while everyone else stared at the bedspread, I studied their faces, committing details to memory. That kind of disconnect is something I’ve done for years, honing it as a skill more recently. I sometimes tell my friends that it is a hazard of hanging out with a writer.

  18. As a lifelong writer of unpublished stories, I too have always found myself observing more than interacting, though I don’t think I share the same cause-effect relationship others have discussed. I don’t think I observe because I’m a writer. I write because I’m an observer. And I’ve never felt my tendency to be an observer has set me apart, as observation is itself a form of participation. When I look at the world around me and run through the narratives in my head, I feel just as engaged as I would were I just there watching. This is simply my way of processing information and immersing myself in the experience.

  19. I find that something similar happens to me when I’m finding inspiration for the next Ambient track I make. I create this music primarily for myself…there is a TON of ambient electronica out there, but I still haven’t quite found exactly what I want to hear (Red Shift is likely the closest)…so I just make it myself. Since my music is supposed to bring out specific emotions or images, I find myself mentally taking note of how certain situations “feel”. When doing this, i experience something similar to you, Wil…except I don’t have a camera. I feel more like a ghost floating around everyone, taking in the electromagnetic signature of a room.
    http://www.livingwithanerd.com
    By the way, if anyone is interested, here are three of my tracks completely DRM-free. Please distribute them as you may wish; I never plan on selling them, so they are free for you to enjoy. Make sure you turn the volume up a bit, as the tracks are quiet. Also, if you can, listen with headphones instead of speakers.
    http://www.livingwithanerd.com/Music/Cold_Signals.mp3
    http://www.livingwithanerd.com/Music/Omicron_Ceti.mp3
    http://livingwithanerd.com/Music/Light_Horizon.mp3
    Please leave a reply here if you like them, I have a few other tracks you can download for free if you are interested (DRM-Free, of course)

  20. The older I get the less helpful I find the idea of maintaining some sort of status as a passive observer to life. I’m far more likely to engage with a book or film that way – trying to figure out why I do or don’t like it, or what does or doesn’t work – but observing and cataloging life can only get you so far.
    Sure you can make note of how people talk or an interesting conversation, the way they walk or hold their bodies, you can even catalog the sights, sounds and smells of a place. But none of that tells, or more importantly shows, what it is to be that person, and to be in that place, and for me one of the most important tasks of the writer is to illustrate “What it means to be human.”
    I don’t mean that in a Platonic sense, but in a phenomenological or existential sense. The goal of writing, again for me, is to show what it is to be this person in this place, and to, at least on a good day, say something about the human condition in general.
    So while observation can help teach us the mechanics to describe something, we really need to do less observing and more learning – learning about other people and what makes them tick, as well as learning about ourselves. Because ourselves are ultimately the way in which we know and experience being in the world; so when we’re experiencing something firsthand we’re doing primary research of the best kind when it comes to creating the world on page or stage. Of course we don’t all get to experience every possible scenario and sensation in the course of our lives, which is why we observe others, and learn about others, and why we ask ourselves Stanislavsky’s “Magic If.”
    Or not. These are after all simply the ramblings of a guy who spends too much time thinking about philosophy, and who tells aspiring writers that step one on the path is to acquire a drinking problem.

  21. I do that routinely, and I’m just a layman. I don’t consider myself to be a grammar nazi, but nothing draws me out of a book faster than a badly written sentence or spelling mistake. Once I’ve been disengaged by something like that it takes me a fair while to get back into the book.
    Pet peeves
    * Incorrect usage of sound-alike words, e.g. your & you’re. Sure it’s an easy accidental mistake, but it should never get past a proof read.
    * Over use of, pointless, extraneous, and easily avoidable, if you know what you’re doing, commas.

  22. I’ve taken to judging the quality of a live performance based on whether or not I even think of analysing it.
    If a musician can get me to be in the moment, purely enjoying and listening I consider them a good artist.
    I’ve been stunned into insensibility more by the work of local musicians than by big stars.

  23. That is a very good gage! Using that measuring system I’d say I’ve found the same results–I also find myself more in the moment when listening to local musicians. :-)

  24. I think at best I can call myself an Aspiring Amateur Writer… I’ll be happy to become an amateur and then I can work on being better than that. That being said, I find that I am having to learn how to think differently about where I go, what I do, what I watch other people do, and so on, so I can then write about characters as if they were truly different people and not just a projection of another facet of me. Similarly, I need to learn how to view the same thing through different people’s eyes so I can write believable characters.
    I’m not there yet, but I can see the usefulness in writing in being able to look at the world around me in many different ways.

  25. "I don't think I observe because I'm a writer. I write because I'm an observer."
    That's an interesting way to think about it. I'm going to meditate on that a little bit. Thanks!

  26. I’ve dabbled in writing for years, short stories, screenplay type stuff and blogs etc. But a few months ago when I started writing my first novel I found myself constantly describing things with my internal monologue. Not even just the places, but interactions between people too. Instead of just listening to conversations, I add little bits of narrative after people talk like: “…she said sharply, her words laced with venom.”
    Glad to see I’m not the only one.
    BTW, writers using Macs out there, I just got Scrivener for xmas and it rocks! It’s an awesome writing/outlining/editing/resource-aggregation/etc tool. It’s made working on my book much easier. Check it out: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html

  27. Currently (and for some time), I feel that this is one of the central goals of life: to fill it up with so many situations in which to simply be, that one does not feel compelled to constantly observe/record “removedly” for subsequent access/recall during all of the situations in which it is not comforting to simply be. For me this might even be the definition of happiness: life so overflowing with good stuff that you can enjoy it while it happens and don’t have to save it for later when you need to avoid bad stuff.
    However, that’s only really true in a solipsistic worldview, so striking the balance between enjoying the good stuff and making some of your good stuff available for others (their enjoyment of which, itself being good stuff) is the constant balancing act that keeps things interesting — if your life is in that position.
    I definitely don’t feel like I’m creating quite enough sharable good stuff yet, but it still feels possible, so there’s hope. Definitely wanting to Get Excited and Make Things.

  28. Thanks to all! I was super excited about the mirror. That window actually used to be in the laundry room (the one in the reflection) but we had replaced the old windows. It was fun figuring out how to get the glass out, and get a mirror for the right size, and of course leaving it in it’s half painted-rustic state. (fun fact: I turned another old house window into a table.)
    On the candles, I had a ton of wax from half melted-down candles (I make them all from recycling old candles) and added colors and scents. I gave a lot out as gifts and kept some to gift later, and kept a couple for myself. They turned out great, and you don’t have to worry about them dripping all over the place!

  29. There is a part of me that is secretly jealous of you creative-types. I haven’t a creative bone in my body…it’s as if the entire right hemisphere of my brain is a mass of al dente noodles.
    Mmmm…noodles. :)

  30. I’ve been making t-shirt quilts to preserve memories since I was about 12. I’m so pleased other people do the same thing!
    I’ve also built bulletin board collages with newspaper clippings, postcards, pins, photos, etc for a long time. They let me show what I’m thinking instead of just running around in my head all the time. In years to come, I want to be able to look back at a tangible record of the time I’ve spent here.

  31. I am in complete agreement with you. That creative need or compulsion is ingrained and, at least for me, has been a part of me as long as I can remember. The world is an amazing, fascinating place and I can’t help but look for the possibilities. Sometimes it’s an analytical thing (Thank you, Mom) like trying to figure out how much pancake make-up Busch Gardens goes though in the Halloween season, but there any others where I feel a bit like a little kid in show-n-tell who just can’t wait to share with the class. I see something or hear something and I want to capture that moment that is almost gone before it is lost forever to share with the ones who missed it or just weren’t paying attention.
    There are times when I feel like my camera or pen separate me from the world around me, but I am who I am. While I know that there are things about myself that I can change that creative artistic need is not one of them, so I see no point in trying to deny it. Thankfully I have friends and family who understand it, or at least attempt to, and support me in my endeavors. My father’s thinning hair is not my fault. I promise.

  32. It falls into two main categories for me:
    1) People who just experience life.
    2) People who experience life and have to document it in some medium or another.
    There are people who don’t experience life…but I don’t want to talk about my bosses *wink*

  33. Wil, ironically you captured the creator’s feeling of “being there” versus “being” there perfectly. The question now is, when you were being the guy with the video camera, observing, were you also aware of being the guy with the video camera aimed at the guy with the video camera? IOW, were you aware of being aware of being there?
    You must have been – you were observing yourself observing yourself, or you couldn’t have described it so well. So you see, there are many levels of being and awareness. Whatever we’re being, there is another part of us aware of that, oserving that, then observing that… Whatever we choose to be (create), a part of us rises above it to witness it. Then the witness is inspired to create something more… and rise above that. We are the observer and the observed.
    I think you tapped into a very primal paradox of existence (not to mention Hollywood) in this post! You should explore it more. This business of becoming aware of becoming aware of becoming aware is what transcendental meditation and various practices of rising into the sublime, divine levels of being are all about! This is no small thing you ponder, Mr. W.
    I think finding the balance between creating and tasting is at the heart of the creative challenge, don’t you?

  34. I have been writing my entire life, but not intensely until last summer. Since then I notice that I do pay attention to people, places and conversations a little more. I’m always looking for a new place to make a scene happen, new quirks for my characters and phrases that may be humorous or useful.
    I am excited to watch things now, I see everything with a new fascination. I write because I have to, but I notice things so that I can write.

  35. Add me to the list of folks who can’t get past sentences that don’t work for me. I get stuck and go into loop mode. I have to fix it in my head to move on.

  36. I do this, too. I’m not a photographer, but I’d like to be sometimes. I see things that I want to capture so badly. They speak to me. But when I do have a camera with me, while I get some great shots, I feel like I miss out on life.

  37. I’ve been writing since the second grade (well, on and off). I do have that “man with the video camera” feeling, but I’m not sure if that feeling caused me to become a writer, or if I developed that feeling as a result of being a writer. Chicken, egg, etc. I suspect it was the former. I’ve always been incredibly shy and never had many friends, so writing has just been a way of expressing myself, I suppose, though I don’t really think of it in those terms. When I’m in public places, I’m constantly zoning out, unconsciously recording details, listening to other people’s conversations.
    I feel like there is always two versions of me; one living in the moment, feeling whatever I’m feeling, and another hovering around me, thinking of how I would transcribe this emotional state if the other Me was a fictional character in a book I was writing. Sometimes I feel like an alien that’s been sent to Earth to observe humanity and report back to my superiors about what makes them tick. “These Earthlings have a strange custom of pressing their lips together and orally exchanging bodily fluids; but to what purpose? Resolved to find out tonight by engaging in said ritual with elderly female currency-collector, the one they call ‘Lann Dlord’ of the Apartment Complex. Gromtock out.” Christ, my life is a bad sitcom…

  38. “All artists are compelled to do what we do, whether it’s music or storytelling or painting or whatever. I don’t know what it’s like for other artists, but I’m only happy when I’m creating things.”
    Yes. This.

  39. Hell, yes. As a photographer, I feel like I am viewing most of life through just one eye. And most of the time, I do feel like I am outside of everything, only observing but not a part of it.
    …Of course, I feel like this even when I am not holding a camera.
    I wonder which came first?

  40. Do you ever wish though that you could switch it off? Be someone who is happy working a menial job and not have the drive to create? I am an artist / illustrator / photographer / crafts person and I can never switch off. I have to be creating in some way and if I don’t I get itchy fingers (metaphorically). People always say how they would love to have my creativity and I say I would love not to have it sometimes and just be content to work a 9-5, come home, watch tv and go to bed (and also not be the family designer / photo editor / web site creator). I think if push came to shove I will still choose the creativity. But do you ever wish you could just ‘be’?

  41. Wputting words down for a story, I am everywhere at once. If I’m (very reluctantly) stolen away from it, I do everything in my power to get back to the creating as quickly as possible. I’m constantly seeing things and making mental notes to be able to describe them or bring myself back to that feeling, how gross and base or depressing it is.
    I can’t get rid of this and I wouldn’t want to.

  42. I don't think I could switch it off any more than I could stop breathing, but sometimes, yeah, I wish I could just hold my breath for a long time.

  43. It’s tough, isn’t it?
    I used to really struggle with my, um, artistic identity. I didn’t want to call myself an “artist”, but I wasn’t quite a “photographer” either. I’m not particularly creative or know the technical aspects. But… I have an artistic eye. I would stare at things, sometimes, and be amazed at how beautiful it was and– wait, why isn’t anyone else staring? Why doesn’t anyone else see how those two buildings merge up there?
    I capture things when I see them, but I’m incapable of creating this stuff on my own.
    A couple of my shots:
    http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4036/4260206384_09c6781c15_o.jpg
    http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4025/4259449573_90dcf1b8c1_o.jpg
    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2690/4259449373_95ffc70b45_o.jpg

  44. Honestly, people.
    If you can make it through the day without need for a rubber room or straight jacket…well I’d say that’s pretty f-in’ creative.
    Yeah.

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