NASA Airborne Science Program (PHOTOS / #NASASocial) January 26, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center
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We spent all day yesterday at Dryden Flight Research Center for an insider’s look at NASA’s Airborne Science Program. We drove to Palmdale on Thursday and had dinner, yes, at Yard House. The next morning, we arrived at the designated parking lot in Palmdale shortly after 7:00 a.m. That’s pretty early for us to be fully functioning, but we boarded the bus with the rest of the social media crowd and were off to Edwards Air Force Base. After lunch, the bus returned us to the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, pronounced day off) for a full afternoon of talks and up-close time with aircraft.
We’re already drafting posts about different aspects of the program–specific aircraft, pilot flight suits, what scientists learn from aircraft-based data collection–but we start here with a photo overview.
Read the next installment about NASA’s Airborne Science Program HERE.
NASA Airborne Science Program (Part 1) January 23, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center, Space Shuttle
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We admit it; we’re hooked. We like being insiders. We’re curious about what NASA is up to, even though they’re no longer up to the space shuttle program.
We also like Palmdale, California, though we haven’t seen all that much of it. We drove out that way for the first time on Thanksgiving weekend of 2008, shortly after we moved to California, to see the space shuttle Endeavour land at Edwards Air Force Base. That trip—just a couple of hours drive each way—set the stage for our two-year adventure following the end of the space shuttle program two years later.
Palmdale is a place with lodging close to Dryden Flight Research Center, so that’s where we stayed when we followed Endeavour home to California last year. On that trip, we stayed an extra night, exhausted from our cross-country travel between California and Florida and back and, suddenly, not wanting to rush to LAX to see Endeavour’s last landing, instead preferring the image of the shuttle aloft to linger in our minds as long as possible.
During that last jaunt into the desert, we dined at the Yard House in Palmdale. We’re creatures of habit, dining there three nights in a row, just as we had found favorite restaurants on the Space Coast and stuck with them, though one went out of business and then went out of business again between our visits. So we imagine that, in the next couple of days, we’ll sit ourselves down at Yard House to enjoy an ahi poke bowl, Gardein buffalo wings, and, depending on their monthly special drafts, a Lagunitas IPA or a Half Acre Daisy Cutter, the new beer we discovered in Chicago earlier this month
Tomorrow, we’re off to Palmdale not so much for a familiar meal, of course, but to spend a day learning about NASA’s Airborne Science Program. As NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden once reminded us, the first A in NASA stands for aeronautics. In addition to studying space, NASA studies the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, using satellites and aircraft. We’re part of a group of social media nerds who will get a “behind-the-scenes” look at airborne science projects on Friday.
According to NASA, the program’s primary objectives are as follows:
- Conduct in-situ atmospheric measurements with varying vertical and horizontal resolutions
- Collect high-resolution imagery for focused process studies and sub-pixel resolution for spaceborne calibration.
- Implement “sensor web” observational strategies for conducting earth science missions including intelligent mission management, and sensor networking.
- Demonstrate and exploit the capabilities of uninhabited and autonomous aircraft for science investigations
- Test new sensor technologies in space-like environments
- Calibrate/validate space-based measurements and retrieval algorithms
What does that mean? We’re not sure yet, but we’ll definitely share what we find out. We’re thinking ice caps and forest canopy and pollution. In the afternoon, we’ll be “in the hangar,” so we’re hoping to see several different airplanes, including the unmanned Global Hawk originally designed for military surveillance and the ER-2, and maybe peek at the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that’s sitting out there in the desert somewhere with nothing much to do. You’ll just have to check back at Lofty Ambitions to find out what airborne science means (Part 2: PHOTOS and Part 3: Flight Suit).
I Remember California: Endeavour Delay September 17, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center, I Remember California, Space Shuttle
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We’ve experienced shuttle launch delays before, and we had worried that the weather couldn’t possibly be sunny the whole of Endeavour’s planned flight path today. Still, when news came that there would be a twenty-four-hour slip in the start of the impending ferry flight, we felt a little sick. We’ve come to think of Endeavour as our orbiter—the one we saw at Edwards Air Force Base in 2008 when a mission ended in California, our home of just a few months; the shuttle whose crew we twice saw on their way to the launch pad in 2011; the first orbiter we saw launch in person; the one that Stephanie Stilson gave us a personal tour of in July 2011; the one we watched back out of the Mate-Demate Device yesterday morning; the orbiter that is coming home to California, and to us, for good.
We were on the “up close” bus tour of Kennedy Space Center when the tour guide announced that Endeavour’s ferry flight had been delayed a day. We’d just been inside the immense Vehicle Assembly Building (more on that in an upcoming post) when the bad news came. From the Saturn V Center, where the bus let us off for the Apollo 8 launch reenactment and to see some amazing Apollo artifacts, we called the special phone number for media updates and learned that the flight is delayed because of expected weather problems between Titusville, Florida, and Houston, Texas. A little rain, we thought, as it takes just a little rain to keep the mated orbiter on the ground or require it to fly around the precipitation. A bit queasy from the news and from our lack of sleep last night (up at 4:00a.m.), we grabbed a couple of caffeinated beverages, sat ourselves down under the looming Saturn V rocket stages, and tossed around possible ways to handle the new circumstances.
Anna must be back in California on Tuesday for the kickoff of the Tabula Poetica Reading Series that she directs. She’s excited that poetry has burgeoned at Chapman University and that Victoria Chang will give a talk and reading on Tuesday. “I can go back with you,” Doug said. “We can see Endeavour land together at Dryden.”
“But you didn’t see Discovery from the runway last time,” Anna replied. Doug had stayed at the News Center to watch the 747 fly the orbiter over the Vehicle Assembly Building. “It’s so cool. It’s like no other takeoff,” she added, knowing that she was suggesting he stay without her. Weeks ago, we’d discussed this as a possibility, and Doug had already arranged for the time away from work. Endeavour’s ferry flight will be the last-ever for the shuttle program, and we don’t want to miss it, if we don’t absolutely have to.
The media update indicated that NASA still plans to get the orbiter to LAX on Thursday. Unless Endeavour skips Dryden Flight Research Center, scheduled as an overnight stop on Wednesday, that means we need to drive to Dryden late Tuesday night as we’d planned. No extra day built in for getting from here to there, not anymore. Could Doug really stay until Tuesday, in hopes that the delay is only twenty-four hours? How much would the switch cost? Was this the way we wanted to experience Endeavour’s move—not seamlessly together, but piecemeal?
Unexpected circumstances like these are the reason we’ve worked so hard to function as a team, to hone our style and story together, to be able to pick up where the other leaves off. We’ve done this sort of thing before, and we’ve managed various levels of separation. We’ve come to understand that the way we want to be a couple is to be more than the sum of our parts, so if Doug gets to see Endeavour take flight from the Space Coast this time and Anna doesn’t, so be it. It’s important that we experience things together, but whatever we each do counts for both of us—that’s what we’ve tried to create over the last two years. We’ll be together on the other end.
Also, it turned out that it wouldn’t be extraordinarily expensive. In fact, though the extra day does require a little more investment, it was way cheaper to change Doug’s plans than we ever could have imagined. So Doug is now all set to stay on the Space Coast until Tuesday afternoon—plans were remade even before dinner last night. Remaking our plans—remaking ourselves in small and sometimes large ways—is not always easy, but it’s exciting. We hope that these circumstances require just a twenty-four-hour remaking. If the situation requires more, NASA and Lofty Ambitions will deal with that tomorrow. For now, we’re spending a day together on the Space Coast before Doug drops Anna at the airport. We’re together now, and we’ll be together on the other coast soon.
Irish Scientists March 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Beer, Chemistry, Computers, Math, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWII
This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.
Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.
William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.
Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.
In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”
Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.
Crab Cakes with the Wright Brothers February 9, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Beer, Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers
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This past week, we attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, DC. As we usually do, we applied a divide-and-conquer method to deciding which panels and presentations we would attend individually. Doug attended an especially intriguing panel on science writing, featuring David Everett, Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, and Christopher Joyce. We’ll have more to say about the science writing panels at this and last year’s AWP in future posts, but for this week, we’ve latched onto one of the panel’s takeaway ideas: the best science writing isn’t as much about science as it is about people.
We extended our AWP travel by a day to traipse up to Baltimore, where we had solidified our relationship a decade earlier during weekends walking the cobblestone and eating crab cakes at John Steven. (The people—especially our two bartenders last weekend—were as important to our great experience as the food and beer.). On the way back to National Airport, we stopped at the College Park Aviation Museum, a facility that recognizes that the best aviation museums aren’t as much about the planes as they are about the people.
Sure, the aircraft are important and impressive focal points as artifacts both of technology and history, but aviation museums aren’t simply storage spaces for engines, wings, and instrument panels. No, the best aviation museums collapse the distance between the viewer and the lives of the people who built, flew, and maintained the aircraft. These spaces use the buffed, shiny aluminum fuselage panels of a P-51 or a DC-3 as a mirror, allowing us to see ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women who made the last century aviation’s century.
Perhaps no aviation museum does this better than the one in College Park, as it brings aviation’s pioneers into focus. In fact, because the museum focuses on the early days of controlled flight, the aircraft on display could easily feel more distant and less dazzling than the jets and rockets just a few miles way at the two National Air and Space Museum buildings. Instead, the mannequins, voice recordings, and written narratives invite visitors into the story, all of it tied directly to the College Park Airport where the museum resides. Located a stone’s throw from the expanding campus of the University of Maryland, the College Park Airport is home to a hundred years of tentative takeoffs and greased landings. With its birth in 1909, this small airfield is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world.
We’ve written about this museum before in scholarship and at Lofty Ambitions (click here), and we were frequent visitors in the early 1990s, when the artifacts—no planes—were housed in a doublewide trailer. Now, the artifacts—including numerous aircraft—are housed in an airy, inviting building. But the focus remains on the story of the College Park Airport.
Wilbur Wright began giving flight instruction on this site on October 8, 1909. The first Airmail Postal Service began at the College Park Airport on August 12, 1918. In a publicity stunt and Liberty Bonds promotion, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., sent himself as an airmail package that year. In 1921, College Park lost its role in the airmail system, and five years later, airmail was turned over to private businesses. On September 5, 1931, the first flight to use radio navigation to fly “blind” occurred at the College Park Airport. The airport remained a venue for air shows throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and we attended air shows there in the 1990s. In fact, Anna wrote a poem called “Fascination: The College Park Airshow, 1992″ to capture the sense of history—the hints of story—that the museum now portrays.
The museum’s western wall is an open vista of windows overlooking the active runways. The day we visited, first one, then two, and eventually a half-dozen hawks whirled and gyred over those runways and nearby stand of trees. Their unhurried arcs were a stark reminder that, while human ventures into the air surpass nature’s in quantifiable measures of speed, height, and distance, our efforts remain hollow echoes in beauty, grace, and the appearance of effortlessness.
Wright Brothers Day December 15, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Beer, Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers
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Two days later, on December 17, 1903, the Orville and Wilbur Wright succeeded, becoming the first airplane pilots. Orville made the first controlled, powered aircraft flight, which lasted twelve lofty seconds. Then, Wilbur flew, and Orville took another turn. Their fourth go that day ended with smashing up the front rudder, but these guys were used to that sort of mishap.
We’ve seen the original Wright Flyer, which is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It found its way there after an inglorious and decades-long debate, when the museum finally agreed with Orville to always and forever exhibit it as the first aircraft capable of manned, controlled, powered flight.
We’ve also visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the National Museum of the Air Force, outside Dayton, Ohio. Its beginnings were with Wright Field, a facility dedicated in 1927. Never before had an Army installation been named for civilians, nor for a living individual. Though Wilbur had died in 1912, at the age of 45, Orville raised the flag at his own memorial ceremony. Years later, Howard Hughes, returning from a record-setting transcontinental flight, stopped at Wright Field to give Orville the last flight of his life, this time in the new Lockheed Constellation. TWA President Jack Frye, Lockheed designer and Upper Peninsula native Kelly Johnson, and actress Ava Gardner were also onboard.
Only recently, we realized that the nephew of Charles Clarke Chapman, our current university’s namesake, was a pilot. C. C. Chapman was born in Macomb, Illinois, near where we went to college. After moving to California, he became a prosperous citrus grower and helped found what is now Chapman University. The signature on his nephew Clarke Chapman’s pilot’s license is that of Orville Wright.
But our fondest connection with the Wright brothers’ accomplishments is our visits to the College Park Aviation Museum and its annual airshow, almost twenty years ago. College Park, Maryland, is home to the University of Maryland, where Anna earned her MFA, and to an airport we discovered before there was much of a museum there. This small airfield was founded in 1909, when Wilbur Wright arrived with the Military Flyer to teach Army pilots how to fly. That November two soldiers soloed in their Wright aircraft, after only about three hours of instruction. The country’s first U.S. Army aviation school opened there two years later. The College Park Airport is the oldest, continuously operating airport in the entire world.
The list of firsts for the College Park Airport is impressive: first woman passenger (1909), first test of a bomb-aiming device in an airplane (1911), first test of a machine gun in an aircraft (1912), first air mail service (1918), and first controlled helicopter flight (1924). Anna’s poem “A Fascination: The College Park Airshow, 1992” (Constituents of Matter) weaves some of these historical details together. But we’re interested in the people, too—the Wright brothers, the wing-walkers, those who spend hours and hours flying and tinkering with their aircraft. We especially remember a man restoring an old airplane that day, while others buzzed overhead:
The man I know has started talking with the man bent
over a Boyd in a wooden shack where he has pried
six hundred screws from the sheet of one wing
and pulled back its corrugated skin
to expose its kitchen-plumbing fuel lines.
This hunched man thinks he can repair sixty years
of damage to hand-rolled aluminum: it matches no other.
This wing, its edge, is a discovered secret:
discard struts and fun flaperons tip to belly
to create the power to move air with a hand and a stick.
This man leans over his table, drinks hot coffee
from a thermos and hands us pieces
of the airplane. We see why things don’t fit.
Friday is Wright Brothers Day, according to the U.S. Code. On December 17, listen for the president’s proclamation inviting us all to observe the day with appropriate activities. Might we suggest a “flight” of wine or beer?
Beer! October 6, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
An old joke used to have it that ten glasses of Guinness, a glass of orange juice, and a glass of milk was a balanced daily diet. Perhaps, that’s the application intended by the beer’s slogans, Guinness is good for you and A Guinness a day. Some researchers have found antioxidants in the stout, and it’s a slight 125 calories per 12 ounces and a mere 4% abv (alcohol by volume). Beer is a simple food, requiring time and four basic ingredients: water, barley (or another starch source), hops, and yeast. While we can’t attest to the nutritional completeness or wisdom of this diet plan, we can discuss some of the fascinating properties of Guinness and other beers.
In 2004, one of the great beer mysteries, an existential quandary that had plagued generations of barstool philosophers and saloon scientists, was solved. Why do Guinness bubbles sink instead of rise? When you’ve poured your pint, bubbles near the inside surface of the glass experience drag (see Monday’s Guest Blog for a definition of drag) as they try to rise, but the bubbles at the center of the glass rise swiftly. When those bubbles in the center hit the froth, they are pushed outward toward the edge of the glass. The edge of the glass directs this flow downward, where you observe liquid flowing down the inside of the glass. Until the beer has settled and more bubbles have gathered at the top, this process creates a circulation of Guinness up from the center, over the top under the froth, and back down the sides. In addition, you see this happen in a pint of Guinness because the bubbles are small as they are released through tiny holes; the bubbles are nitrogen, which dissolves less well than carbon dioxide; and the liquid is very dark.
If you’d like to repeat this experiment for yourself (and repeatability is part of what makes it science), we recommend that you go directly to the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin, Ireland. Guinness was first brewed in 1759 on that spot, and the Storehouse was built in 1904 for the fermentation process, then changed into a small visitor’s center in 1988. In 2000, the building was completely remodeled as a seven-storey pint glass that walks visitors through the history and processes of Guinness, culminating at the Gravity Bar, which offers a panoramic view of Dublin and a free pint. You might also repeat the experiment at the Brazen Head, the pub on Bridge Street near the River Liffey that poured its first beverage in 1198, almost 300 years before Christopher Columbus happened upon the Americas and insisted he’d made his way to the Asian continent (Monday honors this event).
With that amount of lead-up, it’s about time that beer made its way into space. In the past year, beer and space travel have intersected in several ways. First to launch was Sapporo’s Space Beer. The recipe calls for barley descended from grains that sprouted on the International Space Station. Space Beer, unfortunately, was brewed in very limited quantities and its distribution has been limited to terra firma, specifically Sapporo’s home market of Japan.
Beer should be ready for space soon, though. An Australian company is developing a stout, akin to Guinness, intended for consumption by the anticipated hordes of space tourists that will be leaving Earth in the next decade. The goal was to create a beer that tastes delicious in low gravity, a problem because zero-gravity thwarts both bubbles and taste buds. The new brew was bottled last month and will be tasted next month on a plane that flies an elliptic path to create weightlessness. Given the wide range of physiologically unpleasant side effects reported in zero-G by even experienced astronauts—your digestive tract stops, dizziness leads to nausea, your hands and feet swell as the heart struggles to circulate blood—plying the novice space tourists with beer seems a logical advance. We imagine there will be no end of Earthside volunteers for the next test phase of this product launch in outer space.
Meanwhile, here on Earth, it’s pumpkin beer season. Our latest find in this category is Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, which is just pumpkin enough without going overboard and has a 7% abv. For one that’s more reminiscent of pumpkin pie and has a lower abv at 5.2%, try Buffalo Bill’s Pumpkin Ale. Other seasonal options include Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale, O’Fallon Pumpkin Ale, Saranac Pumpkin Ale, New Holland Ichabod Ale, and Wild Goose Pumpkin Patch Ale.
Back to School August 25, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Beer, Books
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Some people learn new ideas best by reading a book and taking careful notes. Others learn best by jumping in without a net and just doing. Some people understand triangulation abstractly, whereas others don’t really get it until their father takes them out to the backyard to measure a tree by taking heel-to-toe steps from its trunk. We know one computer scientist who, when he tackles a new programming language, always writes the same program, a language interpreter. Different undertakings or subjects can involve or encourage different ways of learning, too. For some tasks, no matter how old or smart you are (or think you are), there’s something to be said for going back to school. Teetering on the cusp that is forty and with books already under our belts, we decided to go back to school when we began our novel projects.
Doug is fond of the ritual and camaraderie of the classroom, with learning parsed out into manageable components that create momentum. Anna, a poet, has profound respect for the pedagogy of creative writing and wanted to reap the benefits of that approach as she moved seriously into fiction writing. If you’re a burgeoning novel writer in the Midwest, as we were four or so years ago, a likely sojourn is one of the many weekend (and weeklong, if there’s time) workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Among the instructors whose workshops we took over a couple of summers were Venise Berry, Susan Taylor Chehak, Kelly Dwyer, Jim Heynen, Bret Anthony Johnston, and Sandra Scofield. Each of these instructors focused on a particular topic—plot, developing scenes, middles—which helped us tailor our back-to-school experience to the stage of our individual novel projects. And the University of Iowa’s summer program has offerings in other genres too, so it’s not just for novelists.
One of the reasons we were able to take so many weekend workshops with different instructors was that we used a divide-and-conquer approach. We never took a workshop together. At the same time, we saw each of these weekends as a joint endeavor. Individual workshops meet for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon over two days, for a total of eight hours of intense interaction. Every evening over dinner and a beer, we shared highlights, reference points (such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction), conversations, and prompts from our individual workshops. On some Saturday evenings, we were also producing writing for the next day. By doing this together, we were able to brainstorm and critique each other’s work. Later, we adapted this practice for writing nights together after we returned home. (That practice of our Iowa Saturday night also has come in unexpectedly handy as we’ve composed our blog posts together.)
Iowa City—with its beautiful university campus on the river—is a place that inspires writing. You can feel the buzz. In fact UNESCO named it as a City of Literature, one of just 16 cities worldwide in its Creative Cities Network. Prairie Lights is one of the best bookstores in the country, and the town has variety of restaurants and pubs. Meals at the festival are on your own, but workshop instructors tend to arrange a lunch together and participants often gather informally for food and conversation. Of course, summer is hot in Iowa City, with a daytime average temperature of 88 degrees in July, and very humid. But for us, that made the sultry evenings all the more delectable, a kind of respite from the intensity of heat and study and a release into our own writing.
A workshop—or three—at the beginning of the novel-writing process worked for us because we were daunted by the scope of our projects, not sure exactly how to begin in a way that would lead to what has become The Undone Years (Anna’s manuscript) and The Chief and the Gadget (Doug’s manuscript). In This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley writes, “There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no reason to wait for inspiration. Getting your words down on paper takes time.” Committing to a focused writing workshop is a decision not to wait.
On the three-plus-hour drive home to suburban Chicago on those Sundays, we talked through what we had learned and made plans. We used those weekends as benchmarks from which we could map out the next stage—the next six months or so—of our novel projects. We rethought what we’d done, set goals for the foreseeable future, and found our conversations extended the energy of the workshops. The best commitments generate momentum, too.
We’ll have more at Lofty Ambitions about other workshop and residency experiences. In the meantime, check out the Poets & Writers Conferences & Residencies Database and the Writers’ Conferences & Centers for some opportunities.
A Ritual of Writing Together July 14, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
For the last four years, at least one night a week, sometimes twice, we’ve traipsed to a favorite local watering hole for dinner and drinks and to produce pages for our novels-in-progress. Most of our writing is done in isolation, but this night out is a chance to work side by side as well. By following this ritual, we each have completed a first draft of a novel and are well into revision. What at first seemed an excuse for a nerds’ date night has arguably turned into our most effective means for keeping our novels on track and ourselves on task as writers.
A happy concurrence is that the weekly outing has also embedded us in the lives of our communities in a particular way. We’re regulars. Instead of the cheery Hi, Norm, Hi, Cliff, our favorite server greets us every Sunday night with her friendly British hi, guys. Sit anywhere. Waitstaff in earlier days shared personal philosophy (every individual has an emotional gas tank), future plans, and insight on the news of the day (one was a student at Northern Illinois University when six people were shot there). After the waitstaff got to know us as writers (at first, we hesitated to tell anyone we were working on novels), they would let us stay until our last words were completed, sometimes closing up around us.
This writing ritual began at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where we kick-started our novels in 2006. Kelly Dwyer had given Doug an assignment to listen to and write down real-life dialogue. He knew, from his bartending years, that a corner bar in a university town was a good place to do just that, so we planted ourselves at a sidewalk table, ordered a couple of beers, and Doug jotted down snippets of conversation uttered by people walking by and sitting around us. Surprisingly, some of this dialogue found its way into the first draft of Doug’s novel, The Chief and the Gadget. The actors changed from college students discussing politics to a priest and an old woman having the same conversation more than sixty years earlier, at the time the atomic bomb was being developed.
Upon returning to our suburban Illinois home, we sought out a place to recreate the success of that summer experience. We quickly rejected places with unsuitable acoustics and favorites of young colleagues and students. We chose instead Charlie’s Ale House, which had a dining area separate from the bar, a good menu, and a wide-ranging selection of beers. There, we honed our ritual. Anna would order the Greek salad, with blackened salmon substituted for chicken, and a pint of Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA. For Doug, it didn’t matter what he ate or drank, as long as he had a meal and a beer. In honing our writing-night ritual, the details were more important to one of us, but the experience worked for both of us.
Before and during the meal, we talked about our projects at work and other distractions of the day. This quickly became both a debriefing and warm-up to the writing, not directly part of the process, but important nonetheless. Sometimes, we discussed issues in our novels; bandying about titles led Anna to The Undone Years, drawn from a Wilfred Owen poem. Once the dishes were cleared and the table wiped down, we each began writing in our own Miquelrius notebook. We would write and write, stopping only briefly to sip from our beer and ponder a phrase. Usually, we wrote for more than an hour, until we felt for a natural stopping point, a pleasant form of exhaustion. Then, we each read to the other those pages that we had written, in part to hear it aloud and catch mistakes and opportunities, in part to have brief, immediate response. We depended so much on our weekly habit that when we had a visitor—Anna’s sister, a writer friend—we hauled that person along and hardly deviated from the process. This pattern, repeated hundreds of times, guided us all the way through our novel drafts.
And then we moved to California in August of 2008. We were unsettled and inundated with sunshine. We didn’t know where to go to recapture the previously engrained experience. We didn’t know how to adapt the process—eat, write, read aloud—to the revision process, when we were working from printed pages. We even discovered that, after we moved, our branch of Charlie’s closed its doors. The ritual as we had known it—as we had made it—ended. The ritual fell away completely.
But only for a short while. We had come to depend upon our ritual to produce pages and to think of ourselves and each other as practicing writers. We missed it when it disappeared. Our writing time felt more sporadic, less dependable. So we recreated a new version, this time at the Olde Ship in Santa Ana (a colleague recommended it) and Haven Gastropub in Orange, the latter of which is a short walk that became part of the new pattern. We share our meals now: a salad and a salmon appetizer or veggie burger (great fries!) at Olde Ship, a salad and flatbread or a spaghetti squash and ceviche at Haven. And that’s become part of the ritual, too. For now, we don’t read aloud, but we miss that part and will figure out how to make that useful again in the coming months.
We are busy people. At times, one or the other of us has been too busy to write at any other time during the week. We each used to be excellent at procrastination and could be tempted by its allure. It would be easy not to keep carving out this regular writing time together, especially when we’re tired or our schedules change. Sometimes, one of us travels, or after settling into Wednesday writing nights last fall, Anna was scheduled for a class that met on Wednesday night in the spring. In fact, part of the reason that we now have two nights and two places is because we sometimes have to skip a week, but having two nights makes it harder to skip the next time. Maybe a break from this recurring activity is refreshing and offers perspective on the work, but time away from this nerds’ date is time away from writing.
We’ve formed a habit, not an obligation so much as a commitment to each other, a writers’ allegiance. We’ve been surprised that environment almost always overrides exhaustion and renews focus. Without our ritual, each of us might have given up on the novel at some point in the last four years. A lot of novelists-in-the-making have great ideas and talent, but lose the struggle to keep the bum in the chair. Because of this ritual, we don’t give up on each other, so we can’t give up on our novels. If you want to find us tonight, we’ll be at Haven!