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Santa Fe Retreat: Judy Chicago July 23, 2014

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We spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our self-designed writing retreat. Take a look at PART 1 and PART 2.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Shortly after we arrived in Santa Fe, Anna leafed through a free tabloid and discovered that the visual artist Judy Chicago was giving a gallery talk at the opening of her new show at the David Richard Gallery. Anna had first come across Chicago’s work in a women’s studies class taught by Penny Gold at Knox College.

We don’t usually write about art at Lofty Ambitions, but we do when there’s a connection to science or to aviation and space exploration. The new work at the gallery demonstrates Chicago’s recent interests in the human body and especially the surface and underlying bones and muscles of the head and face. She became interested in the tradition of anatomical drawings, like those by Leonardo DaVinci. This focus rose earlier in Chicago’s work, when she made three-dimensional cast sculptures of a woman undergoing cancer treatment—that series is casually referred to as the Toby heads. The more recent work, including paintings on glass, explores the relationship of the anatomy and physiology of the face to the expression or emotion that is presented or feigned. As she put it, “I’m interested in what’s under the skin.”

Toby Head, 2010

Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010

The gallery talk between Chicago and art historian Kathy Battista can be viewed HERE–definitely worth the time!

This exhibit and event are part of the year-long celebration of Judy Chicago’s 75th birthday, which also includes exhibits around the country. So a few days after seeing Judy Chicago in the flesh, Anna visited the New Mexico Museum of Art to see the exhibit there and get an overview from docent Meriom Kastner. That exhibit included Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010 and also several pieces that addressed nuclear science and industry. One of the pieces in the Holocaust Project, which was part of a series that could be viewed from different angles to different effects, offered commentary on the Apollo Moon landings (see the end of this post for photographs of that piece).

So, if all you’ve seen of Judy Chicago’s work are photographs of The Dinner Party, we suggest you look again. Her range of subject matter and artistic media is amazing. When she needed to do watercolors for a project, she learned how to do watercolors. When she became interested in glass and translucency in painting–or when the watercolor medium and techniques couldn’t support her vision for a piece–she took a workshop in glasswork. She even worked with a foundry to figure out how to cast paper as a large three-dimensional sculpture.

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Her new book, Institutional Time, is now on Anna’s reading list in hopes that Chicago’s critique of visual art education in universities might shed some light on creative writing education as well. In fact, Anna published a conversation essay with graphic designer Claudine Jaenichen and visual artist Lia Halloran in New Writing and is very interested in connections across different artistic fields.

Of course, we were in Santa Fe to write. And several of our recent posts have offered ways to turn our attention toward writing. Though Judy Chicago talked about visual art and her own artistic practices, much of what she said in her gallery talk applies to writing and to collaboration. Her attitude is one of adventure, of trying new things, of pushing yourself beyond what you can already do comfortably.

We share some of her words of wisdom here:

What isn’t imaged can’t become part of the cultural discourse.

New forms allow new content.

Every failure is an important success—a step in success.

I was interested in how a gesture could mean a variety of things.

I do like to play with details.

For me, art is about discovery. It’s about discovering what different techniques allow me to express.

Judy Chicago explained that Disappointed Head was inspired by a disappointed artist she knew who, in his fifties, thought getting into a particular gallery would change his life. He went into debt, got into that gallery, and nothing changed. 

Finally, Judy Chicago’s comment about tattoos (and her use of tattoo-like techniques on porcelain heads) because who doesn’t wonder: I’m not doing that on my ass, I can tell you that!

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993


viewed from the right

viewed from the right


viewed from the left

Santa Fe Retreat (2) July 16, 2014

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Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Recently, we spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our very own self-made writing retreat. Writing was our goal, but we also recommend Santa Fe as a great getaway even if getting away from your routine is your only goal. You can read about lodging, food, and shopping in our first Santa Fe Retreat post. But wait, there’s more!


Santa Fe is a hub of galleries and has several good art and history museums. When we took a loop around the Plaza, many of the passers-by were chatting about their own art practices or exhibits they had seen. Santa Fe’s Society of Artists features 44 artists, and the city boasts several art schools.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

When Anna discovered that the David Richard Gallery was hosting an opening for Judy Chicago’s newest work and that she and art historian Kathy Battista would be giving a gallery talk, she rushed over to the Railyard. During that talk, Anna learned that an exhibit of Judy Chicago’s work since The Dinner Party was on display at the New Mexico Museum of Art. A lovely docent named Miriom Kastner offered an overview of the exhibit, the progression of Chicago’s themes, and the various media Chicago has learned and used in her work over the last several decades.

Some of Judy Chicago’s work fits the subject matter we cover at Lofty Ambitions, and she had some great things to say about the creative process, so we’ll have a separate post focusing on her work and ideas.


BathtubRowDoug’s writing time in Santa Fe was devoted to his novel-in-progress, The Chief and the Gadget. The Chief is the passenger train between Chicago and Los Angeles, and The Gadget refers to the first atomic weapon, which was developed in Los Alamos. Of course, though we’d been there before, we had to spend a day on The Hill, at Los Alamos. Our two destinations were The Los Alamos Historical Museum and the Bradbury Science Museum, both of which are free.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

We hung out at Fuller Lodge, where scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr, and Enrico Fermi socialized. We drove by Oppenheimer’s house on Bathtub Row, now a private residence. The property used for the Manhattan Project had been a boys’ boarding school when the government bought it in 1942, so Fuller Lodge is also where William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal ate meals as teenagers.

The Bradbury Science Museum is run by the Los Alamos National Laboratory so it covers the history of the Manhattan Project and also the lab’s research projects since then. We watched a short version of the documentary The Town That Never Was and perused the exhibit about some of the individuals who had lived on The Hill as part of the Manhattan Project.

Please take a look at our Photo Essay based on our trip to Los Alamos three years ago and our whole “In the Footsteps” series!

Yerkes Observatory (Photos!) July 9, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

This past weekend, we visited Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, near where we each vacationed as children, long before we knew each other. This University of Chicago observatory was funded by Charles Tyson Yerkes, but the 40-inch refracting telescope and the building that houses it are the result of George Ellery Hale’s first grand vision to build the largest telescope in the world. If you haven’t read our posts about Hale that emerged from our visit to Palomar Observatory, you might want to browse that series after this post.

Richard and Dan were the docents on Saturday, and they ran extra tours, back to back for several hours because hundreds of people opted for a trip to the observatory after a round of golf or before an afternoon on the lake during this beautiful holiday weekend. In fact, we were impressed by the level of interest in the observatory and the range of ages of visitors, which reminded us that people think space is cool.

Yerkes Observatory was dedicated in October 1897. The telescope was designed especially to use the spectroheliograph, an instrument Hale had invented himself to study gases in the Sun. He used this instrument to detect carbon in an outer layer of the Sun even before the observatory was officially dedicated. Some of the glass plates from observations of days of yore are now displayed as window panes. Gerard Kuiper, who would go on in his career to discover atmosphere on Titan as well as moons circling outer planets, started his work as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory.

Though Hale went on to best this once-largest telescope and though subsequent advances, including the Hubble Space Telescope, now reveal parts of the universe farther than this 40-incher can see, Yerkes Observatory remains an active research center. Researchers here are building the HAWC—High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera—for NASA’s SOFIA project, a Boeing 747 modified to be an airborne observatory. The observatory hosts several educational outreach programs too, in which students can visit the grounds for observations or can operate smaller telescopes by remote control over the internet to conduct observations.

Even if you’re not particularly interested in space, Yerkes Observatory is an architectural marvel, boasting gothic images of satyrs that might be Yerkes himself and three domes. Take a look here at Yerkes Observatory through Lofty Ambitions’ eyes.











Lofty Ambitions Anniversary: 4 Years! July 2, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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It was an unusually busy spring for the Lofty Duo. Doug was the conference coordinator for Intertwingled: The Work and Influence of Ted Nelson, and Anna took on a new book project while still trying to work on her book about the history of the space program. Our transition into a summer schedule was abrupt, and it’s caused us some reflection.

Two Shuttles, Two Bloggers

Two Shuttles, Two Bloggers

One of the things that we just realized is that this week marks the fourth anniversary of Lofty Ambitions. We actually wrote a prologue post on June 30, 2010, to map out our basic plan for Lofty Ambitions. In that post, we announced that the blog would begin formally on July 1, 2010—so it did.

If you look at the blog’s tag cloud on the right-hand side of the page, you’ll see that Beer appears as one of the most common tags in our blog, so we’ll be tipping a pint tonight with Anna’s sister, Brigid, and their Aunt Maggie in celebration of four years of consistent publication.


One of the primary reasons that we started this blog, besides our mutual love of aviation and writing, was to document the end of the Space Shuttle program. Many years ago, after we’d done some academic writing about aviation museums, we talked about collaborating on a book that would highlight three aircraft from different eras of the twentieth century. We’d missed out on any opportunities to be connected to the first two aircraft by virtue of our mid-1960’s births. But the shuttle was the last of those three aircraft. Yes, we know that the shuttle is also a spacecraft, but it looks the way it does and landed the way it did because, underneath it all, it’s an airplane. In 2010, we wanted to get close to it before it was gone.


Endeavour on its way to California with Two Bloggers

We got closer that we ever could have hoped. This blog and our university magazine helped us garner press credentials to witness two of the last three shuttle launches, and we documented those experience through this blog, magazine articles, and newspaper stories. By putting our experiences out in front of the world, we also inadvertently became people that you could contact when you had a question about NASA or the shuttle. We both agree that the things of which we are most proud are the questions that we’ve answered and the connections we’ve made because people have read the blog and wanted to know more. Along the way, we’ve answered questions about the height of astronauts, helped two fifth-graders win first place in a statewide history contest, and been told by the astronauts who were there that we got the facts right.


In the last four years, we’ve managed to post every single Wednesday. We’ve come right up against the deadline on a few occasions, but we’ve managed to get something out every week. Our blog stats reveal that this is our 421st post. If you’re quick with the arithmetic, you’ll realize that’s significantly more posts than four years worth of Wednesdays. Often when we go to a big event—like a rocket launch—we publish every day that we’re on site.


Two Bloggers at the Launch Pad with Atlantis

We also use a rough average of a thousand words per post. A little more arithmetic will tell you that that comes to 421,000 words (more or less).

One of the missions of the blog is to discuss writing-as-a-couple. We are happy to report that being responsible together for producing a blog post every Wednesday has been great for us in terms of our writing and our coupledom. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ability to collaborate and engage with each other as writers.


In the past year, we’ve recorded a number of our activities as multi-post series. LaunchPad is a wonderful opportunity for writers to learn more science, specifically astronomy & cosmology. A Writing Residency details the two separate stays we had at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony; we plan to get back there again in this next year. Palomar Observatory & George Hale is an extensive look at the life of George Ellery Hale and one of the observatories that he built; we’re trying to figure out how to visit another of his visions soon. And JPL & EarthNow is one of the wonderful NASASocial programs that we were selected to attend. We’ve also written about losing friends to cancer, and Anna’s new book project has something to do with that.


AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

Last year’s posts, both those that are a part of a series and those that stand alone, have served to remind us of how many things are going on in the areas of interest to Lofty Ambitions: Aviation and Space Exploration, Science, and Writing as a Couple.

The vagaries of our schedules and rocket launches are such that we haven’t been to a launch in this past year, though we’ve happily watched blog posts, Facebook status updates, and tweets as a number of the friends that we’ve made via this blog have been to launches. We meant to go to the SpaceX-3 Commercial Resupply Services flight launch, but it was delayed in March (when we could go) and wound up be launched in April (when we couldn’t go). We’ve both agreed that we need to go see a launch in the near future, and we’re keeping our eyes on the two SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches planned for 2015.

As always, we continue to be grateful that we’re able to write about the things that we love to do, about which we want to learn more. At the same time, we’re always on the lookout for new challenges, new opportunities. It’s been a wonderful four years, and we are already planning for the next four. Keep reading!

Santa Fe Retreat (1) June 25, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
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With Anna not teaching in the summers and with Doug on his first professional development leave this summer, we decided to splurge on our very own self-made, eleven-day writing retreat in Santa Fe.

Writing was our goal, but we also recommend Santa Fe as a great getaway even if getting away from your routine is your only goal. In fact, this post is more about the context that fostered our work instead of bout the writing process or product itself.



Fort Marcy Suites

Writers on a retreat need space to write, and this retreat required space for two. We also wanted a kitchen to conserve writing time and save money. Thanks to Debbie Rindge, who discovered the place several years ago, we stayed at Fort Marcy Suites, which offers 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom suites and had a decent nightly rate compared with hotels nearer to the Plaza. The walk to the Plaza is just a few minutes, but the walk back is all uphill, which we liked as a sort of forced exercise despite the altitude. Doug wrote at the dining room table, and Anna wrote in the living room, illuminated by the skylight.

Fort Marcy Suites would also work well for a family or couples on vacation. For those who don’t want the extra space and the kitchen or the walk, La Fonda is Santa Fe’s classic hotel. For those who won’t spend much time in the room and don’t want to spend as much cash on lodging, Garrett’s is a motel within walking distance of the Plaza. It’s wise to book early, as these lodging options sell out at certain times of the year.


We went to the Whole Foods the first full day we were in Santa Fe to stock up on food, mostly food the could be made quickly or eaten without cooking, like fruit, hummus, and cheese. Most of our meals, we ate in.

Huevos Rancheros at La Fonda

Huevos Rancheros at La Fonda

Meals out were rewards or respites for us, and we indulged ourselves more in the second half of our retreat, after we’d accumulated thousands of words. We repeated our favorites. Twice, we ate blue corn pinion pancakes and the trout breakfast at La Fonda’s La Plazuela. Twice, we had pizza with kooky toppings and a couple of IPAs at Draft Station. And twice, we ate pumpkin ravioli, mushroom gnocchi or walnut gorgonzola ravioli, and antipasti at Il Piatto’s late happy hour that featured half-price wine and appetizers and a prix fixe that’s a great deal. We are creatures of habit, and meals became ritual here.

We found a new favorite restaurant too, a late-retreat, big-reward restaurant that came highly recommended: La Casa Sena, which has a large patio for dining. We ate goat cheese sweet corn croquettes, seafood appetizer involving curry and yucca chips, and the red quinoa butternut squash moussakka. It’s known for its wine selection, and we opted for one we’d first had at Bin 36 years ago in a different vintage: David Bruce Petit Syrah.

Appetizers at La Casa Sena

Appetizers at La Casa Sena

We didn’t get back to two restaurants we like: Tomasita’s, which is a short drive to the Railyard area, and Pasqual’s, which is very small and, therefore, always has a wait and can feel rushed. And sadly, the casual Atomic Grill next to Pasqual’s has become something else.

To offset our culinary extravagances a wee bit, Doug worked out at the Fort Marcy Recreation Center, just a couple of blocks from where we stayed, and Anna took a couple of long walks around downtown, listening to Madonna and occasionally popping into a store to browse.


We weren’t in Santa Fe to shop, but what writer doesn’t seek out the local independent bookstore and buy a book? Collected Works is located right in the heart of things and seems to have a steady flow of traffic. The bookstore hosts lots of events and has the requisite coffee shop space. The fiction and biography sections are good, the new nonfiction is extensive, and, of course, there’s a good selection of books related in some way to the Southwest. Though she didn’t realize it until she was reading the book on the flight home, Christopher Hitchens’s book Mortality was published by Hachette, the company with which Amazon is currently feuding.

Scenic New Mexico

Scenic New Mexico

The Plaza area boasts many shops, most of them independently owned, but we want to mention just one. Two brothers opened Ojo Optique last August to focus on eyewear by independent designers who do only eyewear. If you think you’re getting something special with Oakley, Prada, or Versace, you’re probably wrong because Luxottica makes 80% of the world’s eyewear, owns the second largest vision benefits company in the United States, and was investigated by 60 Minutes. We had some fun trying on frames from Salt, which is based in California; Moscot, which started a hundred years ago out of a pushcart in New York City; Anne & Valentin, a company started by a couple in love in Toulouse; and many more independent eyewear designers.

We’d rather support Collected Works and Ojo Optique than Amazon and Luxottica.

IN THREE WEEKS: Galleries, Museums, Field Trip! (Next week is this blog’s fourth anniversary! And then a quick detour to the Yerkes Observatory!)

So You Want to Develop a Website This Summer June 18, 2014

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As we wrote last week and the week before, summer is underway, and we have a summer of writing planned for ourselves. So, we perused some of the nonfiction and fiction writing guides on our shelves to remind us of obvious principles we take for granted, fundamental motivations for writing, or what it means to work on a big project.

LaptopThis summer, we also want to re-envision our websites. We each have a serviceable website already; see Anna’s HERE and Doug’s HERE. But we want to move to a more user-friendly platform so that it’s easier for us to keep our websites current and easier for readers to find what they’re seeking and also some bonus surprises that have been hard to incorporate using the current system.

These days, a website is part of the writer’s obligation. With options like WordPress, authors can create professional-looking pages and, therefore, have become more responsible than ever for establishing a presence and platform for themselves. Since we use WordPress.com for this blog every week, it makes sense to start using it for our websites too.

Website development offers relatively quick, visible accomplishment. It’s fun to compare templates and arrange content. A lot of the content already exists and just needs to be reshaped. You can see a completed webpage after a good day’s work on it—and everybody else can see it too. Of course, website development takes time away from writing, so we may not get to the website revamp until later this summer.

That said, once we have our summer writing routine established (we’ve been working on that!), working on our websites could help us understand our book projects. Creating an online presence can force a writer, for instance, to compose a pitch that encapsulates the essence of a book project. Especially for a nonfiction writer, developing content for the author website can clarify what contribution the book makes to the field and why you are the best person to write this book. The website is a sort of lens through which to see not exactly the writing itself but, rather, the writing as a book.

Here are a few of the resources and approaches that are likely to guide our thinking as we re-see our websites.

Sell Your Book Like Wildfire By Rob Eagar

In 2008, the publishing research firm, Codex Group, surveyed nearly twenty-one thousand book shoppers across America […] to understand the relative effectiveness of author websites among shoppers and determine the elements that keep them coming back to a site. […] Visiting an author’s website is the No. 1 way that book readers want to get to know and support their favorite authors. And this desire is true regardless of age. […B]ook shoppers who had visited an author website in the last week bought 38 percent more books, from a wider range of retailers, than those who had not visited an author’s website.

Four Goals for Your Author Website: Credibility / Content / Community / Contact information

Ten Requirements for an Author Website: Home Page / Newsletter Sign-Up / Free Resources Page / About Me Page / Speaking Page / Events Calendar / Endorsements / Media Page, Books (or Store) Page / Contact Page

Your Writer Platform


Things to AVOID: a mish-mash of colors, anything unnecessary that makes your page take longer to open, misspellings, a cluttered sidebar.

BONUSES to consider: a slideshow, a video, additional resources on your topic, sneak peeks or exclusive content not available elsewhere.

Five Author Websites We Like

Full Disclosure: We also like these authors as writers and as people! And they’ve recently published books or chapbooks and updated their websites to reflect these new publications.

Patricia Grace King: http://www.patriciagraceking.com

The menu is straightforward, the images are striking, and the links for getting your hands on the books are easy to find.

Paulette Livers: http://paulettelivers.com

The website focuses on the new book, the events and interviews show engagement with readers, and (until June 1) there was a raffle for Cementville that undoubtedly generated an email list of interested readers.

Rebbeca Makkai: http://rebeccamakkai.com

The typeface is a bit bigger than other websites and, therefore, feels a little louder without suggesting yelling. The book cover image on the home page moves slightly when your cursor rolls over it. Lots of endorsements.

Allison Benis White: http://www.allisonbeniswhite.com

The design is very streamlined, and content doesn’t clutter any page, so the whole website feels clean, crisp, and focused. The menu picks up a design element from the title and design of the first book.

Tom Zoellner: http://tomzoellner.com

The home page features the trailer for the new book, social media links, endorsements, and a video from the author’s appearance on The Daily Show for a previous book.

So You Want to Write (Fiction) This Summer June 11, 2014

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DeskWorkAs we wrote last week, it’s already June, and we have a summer of writing planned for ourselves. Anna is working on a nonfiction book project, and Doug is working on a novel.

So, last week, we perused some of the nonfiction writing guides on our shelves to remind us of obvious principles we take for granted, fundamental motivations for writing, or what it means to work on a big project. See that post HERE.

This week, we do the same thing with a few fiction-writing guidebooks. Things we may already know but need to keep in mind. Fundamental principles. Overarching ideas. Parts and whole. Big projects.

The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing

Edited by Leder, Heffron, and the Editors of Writer’s Digest 

Remember, you want to do more than get your readers’ attention in your first fifty pages—you want to draw readers into the story. These opening pages are where you first create tension that will drive your readers through to the climax. So if you’ve already opened with an attention-grabbing scene, check back to make sure it also raises the questions that your ending resolves and that the next few scenes enlarge on these questions. —“The Fifty-Page Dash” by David King


Creativity isn’t seeing what no one else sees; it’s seeing what anyone else would see—if only they were looking. Ideas come when we peer at the world through another set of eyes. —“Pump Up Your Creativity” by Steven James

The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction

By Brian Kiteley

The top ten words of 2004 were “incivility, Red State/Blue States, blogosphere, flip-flop/flopping, esrever, Fahrenheit, iPod, IM, liberal, and Eurosceptic.” What can you do with this sort of knowledge? Can you make a gragment of fiction out of this, especially as it relates to some story that takes place during that year? I found the above list on www.yourdictionary.com. [… Choose the year your novel takes place.] See what happens. You are likely to wind up with a set of echoes from that time, but you may also simply be challenged to play with an unusual and unwieldy set of words that have nothing to do with each other except that they were popular in this one year.


Examine a group of people that are part of a team. […] Show us how these people are tied together—the ridiculous and moving bonds of something other than friendship […]. The idea of this exercise is to study the way people create group relationships—the invisible web of commitments and hierarchies.

Writing the Breakout Novel

By Donald Maass

Probably all of your favorite novels are novels that swept you away, whisked you into their worlds, transported you to other times or places, and held you captive there. This is significant. Being taken somewhere else is a quality of great fiction. I am not talking about writing mere escapism or about sticking to historical settings. The quality I mean is the one of creating a fictional world that exists convincingly, wholly and compellingly apart and unto itself.


Think hard. Be honest with yourself. Are the stakes in your current manuscript as high as they can possibly be? Can you define the stakes right now? Can you point to the exact pages in which the stakes escalate, locking your protagonist into his course of action with less hope of success than before? […] The reason we care about a character in mortal danger is that we care about that character, period. His life has meaning, purpose or value. Life-and-death stakes are empty unless they are tied to underlying human worth.

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

By Donald Maass

Complexity in a novel generally is a desirable quality, but how do you manage it? Adding plot layers is one way; enriching your cast of characters is another. One way to achieve that latter effect is not by adding new characters but, paradoxically, by eliminating them; or more accurately put, by combining them. […] Are there roles that can be combined? It may take less work than you think to accomplish it—and it may add more than you can measure to your novel’s sense of complexity.


Indeed, characters with poorly developed inner lives cannot long sustain reader interest. I am not suggesting writing endless passages of gushy exposition (sometimes called interior monologue), like one finds in low-grade romance novels. Rather, I suggest bringing forward on the page a protagonist’s self-regard: that reflection and self-examination that shows us that a character has a compass-true sense of themselves and a grasp of the meaning of what is happening to them at any given moment in the story.

So You Want to Write (Nonfiction) This Summer June 4, 2014

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It’s already June; summer is underway. We want to write this summer; we want to write a lot this summer. By a lot, we mean spend a great deal of time writing and produce gobs of pages.

DorlandDesk1To kick-start our summer of writing, we perused some of the nonfiction writing guides on our shelves, not so much to read them through in hopes of discovering the key tidbit of advice that will make our projects work well or more easily but, instead, to remind us of obvious principles we take for granted, fundamental motivations for writing, or what it means to work on a big project. Reminders about the interplay between writing well and writing a marketable book well. Overarching issues and big ideas.

Here, then, are some of the big ideas from the nonfiction writing guidebooks—perhaps not the expected ones—that caught our attention.

Voice & Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction

By Stephen J. Pyne

The point is, scaling involves more than size, in the same way that a dripping faucet and the Mississippi River are both running water but the dynamics of one is not simply the other with more volume. Writing does not scale in a linear way: genre invokes differences in kind as well as degree.


For the serious author, writing is a vocation that contains its own order. It can shape a life as much as it does a day’s routine. It demands a duty and discipline that can be indistinguishable from a moral code and that can similarly satisfy, a purpose applied to create something tangible that you can lay before others, a universe of meaning.

Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write

By Elizabeth Lyon

Think about what shape you’d like your life and career as a writer to take in five years, ten years, and beyond. Make sure you would be proud to have a particular book as your legacy to the world.


Put yourself behind an editor’s reading glasses. Editors considering a previously unpublished author must be assured that you can finish such a big project and not drop the ball halfway through.

Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction—and Get It Published

By Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato 

First off, let’s deal with a popular misconception: that writing style counts most, or even heavily, in getting a would-be writer past those first hurdles [with an acquisitions editor]. In fact, the decision to offer you a contract is made on the basis of a submission package […. Y]ou must understand that how well you can write your book, indeed how good a writer you are, doesn’t initially come into play. First an editor must determine if your project is, in concept and focus, commercially viable.


Over the course of the book, this running commentary, this voice of the author putting his or her stamp on the research and extracting meaning from it, becomes the author’s interpretation of the material. How—that is, by what reasoning standards—she introduces these observations, defends them, and allows them to build into a coherent, defensible, and ultimately persuasive statement is the book’s argument.

Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction

By Dinty W. Moore

I’ve known a few writers who manage eight hours a day, just as if they were pulling a shift at the “writing” factory, but that’s unusual. Most writers I’ve spoken with over the years manage two to four hours, and maybe a few more when really focused on finishing a project. […] Even thirty minutes, twice a week, is going to make you a better writer. Just thirty minutes. But you have to show up, as if you had a boss who was regularly studying your time card, and as if you wouldn’t get paid otherwise.


But vigorous revision—the stopping to move each piece of furniture out onto the lawn and deciding whether it really belongs—should come when your essay is beginning to reach some sense of cohesion. By that I mean that your essay, around the third or fourth draft, may be turning itself into something very different than the essay which you started.


Hale, Palomar, and (the End of) the Story (Part 11) May 28, 2014

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We’ve spent a lot time and posts thinking about George Ellery Hale and his observatories over the last nine months or so, and it’s come time to say good-bye to this topic. We visited Hale’s crowning achievement: the 200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory that bears his name. That’s where we started this journey nine months ago, and that’s where we’ll end it.

Hale Telescope

Hale Telescope

As was Hale’s way, he was never content to work on just one project at a time. At the same time that Hale was finalizing the financing, design, and construction of the Mount Wilson 100-inch telescope, America was deciding what to do about the war in Europe. Like many in the United States, Hale’s opinion of the war was galvanized by the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. Helen Wright’s book about Hale describes one early American response to the war when she says that Secretary Josephus Daniels had selected Thomas Alva Edison to head a Naval Consulting Board to “aid in developing war devices to assist in perfecting the Navy as a fighting machine.”

When Hale saw the suggested list of board members—names such as Henry Ford, Orville Wright, Simon Lake, and Alexander Graham Bell—he is disturbed to see that the list only contains inventors, not scientists. He began a process of lobbying through his friends in Washington, D.C., that resulted in the June 1916 formation of the National Science Council. Hale became the first chairman of the committee. During the war, the National Science Council organized American scientific endeavors at the behest of policy needs in response to the demands of World War I. The National Science Council, an arm of the National Academies (National Academy of Sciences), exists to this day. In fact, this is likely the beginning of Big Science in the United States, and Helen Wright has the following to say about Hale’s time on the National Science Council:

It was an important step. Previously, organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science [ …] held meetings once or twice a year. But there had been little concerted planning for the general advancement of science and the national welfare. Now, under Hale’s leadership, American scientists would have the chance to develop cooperative research on an unparalleled scale […]. From this time science was to become an increasingly powerful force in American life.

At the conclusion of the war, Hale returned to the scientific endeavors he loved best: solar physics and building the world’s largest telescopes.

George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

When he wrote a number of articles about astronomy for popular audiences in the mid-1920s, Hale began the process of creating of the Palomar 200-inch telescope. The most influential one, “The Possibilities of Large Telescopes,” appeared in 1926 in Harper’s Magazine. Hale arranges for an early version of the article to be sent to Wickliffe Rose of the Rockefeller Foundation, even though the telescopes of Mount Wilson had largely been funded and administered by the Carnegie Institution. Just as there had been competition between the men themselves, Rockefeller and Carnegie, the two philanthropic institutions had no established history of working together. Personalities and conflicts nearly derailed Hale’s vision for the grandest astronomical observatory in history. After much negotiation, largely undertaken by Hale, the two foundations came to an agreement: Rockefeller would provide the then unheard of sum of $6 million dollars to build the facility to be gifted to CalTech, and the Carnegie Institute would provide the scientists and administrators to run the observatory. Hale had triumphed again.

Hale’s health declined over the years. Hale didn’t live to see the eponymous telescope gather its first light in 1949. He died in 1938, shortly after construction began on Palomar Observatory.

In writing this series about George Ellery Hale, we relied heavily on Helen Wright’s biography, Explorer of the Stars, and the PBS Home Video documentary The Journey to Palomar. In some happy serendipity, this copy of the Helen Wright biography is now a part of Chapman University’s Huell Howser California’s Gold collection. This copy of Explorer of the Stars was originally in the Mount Wilson Observatory library, and it is inscribed, “For the Monastery Library.” The monastery was, of course, Hale’s affectionate nickname for Mount Wilson Observatory in the early days, and it stuck. How Huell wound up with the book is a story we don’t know, but he did host an episode of California’s Gold about Mount Wilson.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Even though this post ends our series, one of the Hale-related things that we’ve been planning to do for that same nine-months still hasn’t happened. Though it’s only about seventy miles from our home, we still haven’t been there to see Hale’s mid-career achievements in person. (We haven’t been to Yerkes Observatory yet either, but that’s a different proposition.) When Midwestern friends and family ask how far away we live from Los Angeles, we often tell them: Only thirty-five miles, but that’s probably two hours of driving—each way. We’ll make it to Mount Wilson eventually, but it will take some planning.

Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 10) May 21, 2014

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George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

There’s an oft-quoted adage, It’s better to be lucky than smart. The suggestion seems to be that a roll of the dice is a better plan for success than having a better plan than everyone else. In her biography of astronomer George Ellery Hale, Explorer of the Universe, Helen Wright says, “Certainly Will Hale had been right when he called his brother [George] the greatest gambler in the world.” Wright invokes Will Hale’s assessment of his older brother as she discusses George Hale’s choice to start work on a 100-inch telescope before he has completed the 60-inch reflecting telescope atop Mount Wilson.

This was an extraordinarily challenging period in George Hale’s life. In early 1910, industrialist and science philanthropist Andrew Carnegie arrived at the Mount Wilson observatory for a visit. While Carnegie was mightily impressed with the observatory and Hale’s work, he was also—rightly—concerned about the state of Hale’s health. In her book, Wright quotes Carnegie as referring to Hale himself as the observatory’s “most precious instrument…the one most difficult to replace.”

In our post on Hale that immediately precedes this one, we mentioned that the first 100-inch mirror blank had arrived in Pasadena in less than pristine condition. Filled with air pockets, the so-called “most valuable piece of merchandise ever to cross the Atlantic” had been set aside in the observatory’s Pasadena shop. Hale immediately asked the French glass foundry of Saint-Gobain to pour a second 100-inch mirror. In addition to the stress on Hale’s health caused by this setback, complicated personal dynamics were taking their toll on Hale.

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory )

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory)

Hale’s master optician, George W. Ritchey, had refused to begin grinding the 100-inch mirror blank to make it into a usable lens. Ritchey’s motives in this instance were intertwined with his own ambitions: he had his own design for a telescope, one that relied on radically different mirror layout. Ritchey use the mirror setback to lobby both Hale—and Hale’s financial benefactor, J. D. Hooker—to build his telescope design. Hale was having separate problems with Hooker as well. Hooker had been withholding the final payment of $10,000 on his $45,000 gift. Hooker was variously infuriated by the issues associated with the first mirror and with his wife’s developing fondness for Hale.

The stress in Hale’s life reached its pinnacle during an academic conference held at Mount Wilson. In January 1910, 100 of the world’s leading astronomers from 37 countries met for the International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research. Hale and his observatory were the primary reason for the meeting. Unfortunately, his shattered nerves made it nearly impossible for him to participate. In the end, he hovered around the margins of the conference, making appearances at a party, a dinner, and a single technical meeting. Even as the congregation of stargazers tromped off for a night of viewing in Hale’s then masterpiece, the 60-inch telescope, Hale went to bed.

The first 100-inch mirror wasn’t workable, the second attempt in France to produce a mirror had failed when it cracked during cooling, and personality conflicts and Hale’s anxiety increased. After the conference concluded, Hale and his family decamped for a European vacation. While in Europe, Hale’s neurasthenia demonstrated a new and troubling manifestation, a visitation described as a “little elf.” Other researchers have pointed out numerous flaws with Wright’s characterization of the visitation, but this “little elf” view of Hale’s experience is the dominant one. It even made it into an episode of The X-Files, “Little Green Men,” in which Mulder both travels abroad under the pseudonym George Ellery Hale and recounts to a contact how Hale was inspired to build Palomar Observatory after being visited by a “little elf” while playing billiards. In The X-Files, the clear implication, of course, is that Hale had been visited by a little green man, an alien.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome at Palomar Observatory

Hale overcame this particular bout of mental instability in the same way that he did throughout his life. Though his troubles never entirely went away, he combatted his internal instability by returning to his work. Some of his tangible problems went away: Hooker died; Andrew Carnegie came to his financial rescue; and the original 100-inch mirror blank, the one Ritchey decried as useless, turned out to be suitably useful. By 1917, the blank had been ground into a mirror and installed in its telescope mounting on top of Mount Wilson. On Thursday, November 1, 1917, Hale, Ritchey, the British poet Alfred Noyes, and others gathered on top of Mount Wilson the for the first viewing using the 100-inch telescope. In his first attempt of the evening, Hale peered through the telescope’s eyepiece and was horrified to see a multitude of images of Jupiter. The assembled team agreed to come back later in the evening for another viewing.

At 2:30am on November 2, an auspicious day, Hale and his colleagues returned and aimed the telescope at Vega. This time, the image was perfect. First Light had been attained. In hindsight, the temperature differential between the mirror and its surroundings had been the issue. For Hale to see the outstanding images, the mirror erely needed to cool and to settle into its appropriate shape. As for the voids and bubbles that Hale and Ritchey saw in the glass when it first arrived, it’s been speculated that, over the unfolding years, these imperfections actually have helped the mirror keep its shape. Indeed, engineered voids in large mirrors have been used frequently since then, and this type of structural spacing would play a prominent role in the 200-inch glass mirror of Palomar Observatory.

The 100-inch Hooker Telescope on top of Mount Wilson would go on to play a dramatic role in some of the astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. Among the most important of those discoveries would be Edwin Hubble’s work on the expansion of the universe and the establishment of the cosmic distance scale.

The British poet Alfred Noyes—who, as we mentioned above, was present when the 100-inch telescope collected its First Light—nodded to the high stakes and risk associated with Hale’s efforts in his poem about “The Observatory”:

Before they made those solid tons of glass,
Their hundred-inch reflector, the clear pool,
The polished flawless pool that it must be
To hold the perfect image of a star.
And, even now, some secret flaw—none knew
Until to-morrow’s test—might waste it all.
Where was the gambler that would stake so much,—
Time, patience, treasure, on a single throw?

Here at Lofty Ambitions, we’re more inclined to align ourselves with the following Pasteur quote: “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.” In English, In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.If ever there were a prepared mind, it was George Hale’s.


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