Writing Practice and Reflections, March 29 2020

I’ve been doing a thing for a while where I go through and do timed writes to random images from Lorem Picsum, which is a tool intended to provide random placeholder images but which also works decently well for doing just a writing prompt thing.

My method here is to go through five sequences of writing based on different random pictures, taking five minutes for each.

I’m not going to include the pictures I used, not really because of rights issues (they’re all from Unsplash and I could use them) but because I don’t want to be posting a thousand pictures and I don’t want to bother with grabbing out the exact photos while also doing the quick-writes.

After doing the writes, I go back and do some brief finishing up, but what you see in terms of the text is what I originally came up with. I might have some concept I’m exploring, I might be setting these within a context of larger stories, or I might just be noodling on the fly.

Image 1: Photo of the sky, taken with a fish-eye lens that shows European-style buildings, including a church. Italy?

I stood in the courtyard and looked up at the clear blue skies. Weather like this, it was impossible to imagine anything else. I’d never been to Europe before, but I recognized the facades of the buildings from photographs.

I don’t stay in one place very long. That’s the tragedy of my condition. So I took in the sights while I could; the street-lights with their dramatic flourish up and above the lamps in a neat hook, so different from the pragmatic styles of modern cities.

The windows reflected the sky, and I turned my gaze forward to see the cathedral in front of me.

I couldn’t tell what city I was in from that alone, but it looked like a decent enough place to stop and catch my breath.

Once inside, I listened carefully. Everything had to be put in place. The priest’s steps, somewhere further in the building. Foot traffic outside. A vendor pestering people, probably tourists.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

Was I safe?

Image 2: A gray harbor, with large boats. Maybe container boats, maybe fishing ships. The scene made me think of visiting Oregon, though I can’t quite place my finger on why because the times I went to the coast were all sunny. A ridge was visible in the distance.

The gray harbor was filled with boats fresh with the harvest of the ocean. They had caught it the day before, but day-old fish don’t stink to people like us. We live around them, let them flow around us. We’re part of the school, out here.

Across the bay I could make out the ridges of the north-side through the fog. It wasn’t great weather for sailing, but with modern technology people didn’t have to worry about that. Still seas were good, even if you couldn’t see, because eyes in the sky could see for you.

Things never change around here, even if they look like they do. Hard men and women living a hard-scrabble life.

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to leave, but I learned that it wasn’t for me.

It had taken some time, but I couldn’t help but return to the idea that had convinced me to stay as I looked out over the water that day.

“Hard people can still have soft hearts.”

The waters were harsh. I thought of Vikings sailing in on warships, their longboats coasting up to the beach. Maybe they had reached North America, and not only when my ancestors came over in the years between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but they’d certainly not reached the Pacific coast. My parents had merely humored my fantasies.

I heard her moving in the room behind me as I held my mug in my hand, drinking in warmth.

Image 3: Continued the piece I started with Image 2. This photo was taken at sea, facing the beach. The orange “cliffs” and buildings there made me think of California.

And then, as suddenly as my daughter had awoken, the waves began moving in the harbor. A wind blew toward us, and I could see it move the ships and take leaves off of the trees still clinging to the last gasps of autumn.

But the sturdy house was built to keep those things out, and the wind was just a reminder.

The world up here could be harsh, but it could also be meek. It seemed to like us, in some inexplicable way.

And that meekness was on display today. It was too cold to go out to swim, and the water itself didn’t entice me, but something about it being out there felt right.

Later that day, when the sun had sent its spirit into the mist and burned it away, we went down to the piers, watched the fishermen at work.

At the cafe, we had our usual routine. My black coffee and ham sandwich, exactly the way Priscilla made it for everyone else, but with the concession of tomatoes taken off. Renee ordered a croissant, thrilled at knowing a French word and being able to share it with the world. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her name came from her mother’s family, carried their Quebecois heritage, was French.

Image 4: A sprouting plant; maybe a fern? Distinctive seed pods between broad leaves.

The scientist in the greenhouse looked pleased with himself. On the whole, the plants looked like they existed in a twilight world, like a film where the color grading decided to obliterate an entire hue for the sake of some aesthetic trick.

But one sprout was a beautiful green, and not only green but also the perfect dimensions.

“Despite our earlier concerns with the phenomena impacting plant growth, we have one adapted specimen, based on the transgenic candidates that Lao suggested.”

It was progress. The settlers had found it nearly unbearable to live on a planet where things couldn’t grow.

The nutrient paste would be far better than any food that they could get from the greenhouse, even accounting for the lacking texture, but being able to see something natural on this rock was nice.

And, maybe, it could hold the key to getting home.

Humans didn’t usually get the sickness. Or, rather, a handful of us had the right phenotypes to avoid getting it. The first wave of colonists had an illness mortality rate not seen since the Middle Ages.

No explanation: no microbes, no radiation that we could detect, just rapid cellular aging and mystery malaise.

Image 5: A forest, giving way to an indistinct but textured blue background.

Every year they’d sent down a dozen seeds from the ship in orbit, grown in the hydroponic labs there with interesting recombinations.

Lao was pleased to hear the news. He’d been stuck in orbit, part of the second wave that didn’t go down.

Living in space had its hazards too. The ship had rings that spun on great big mechanical spindles, trying to pretend to have gravity.

Everything bent in weird ways, Lao’s father had said during the journey. Now Lao had his own children, and his father had died from the low-grav.

It was a reality out here. Things didn’t grow, things died. Planet-side or in space didn’t matter. What mattered was that Lao had found something that let things live.

He wasn’t surprised. He’d had a dream of a great forest, stretching out so far that the skies turned it blue on the horizon, and he’d seen the great spiral helix crack open to deliver the code.

Not that he’d told anyone, it would’ve sounded crazy.

But then, we hadn’t expected to find a world where things just couldn’t live, and we certainly didn’t expect what we’d find next. The grand machines buried beneath the layers of rock and soil that confirmed we weren’t alone couldn’t be detected by a telescope or a surface scan.

These are all one-off pieces. I really struggled with the first image, to the point that I was glad that I had forgotten to start the timer. I don’t do a lot of editing while I write, but I had established that the narrator hadn’t been to Europe before, but they had some condition that made them travel.

I’d thought about having the person teleport randomly, but then I realized that it was very unlikely that anyone who’d been doing this any extended length of time had probably been to Europe before, at least if the teleporting was to become relevant again during the course of this burst.

Really, by the end I was just glad to be putting more words on the page. I sort of wavered between something fantastical and something like a thriller. By the end, I think I definitely went to the thriller side of the equation.

For the second piece, made up of inspirations from the second and third images, I figured I’d have a man looking out at the sea, which he’d returned to after a long wandering. The idea of the daughter, Renee, came to me at the very end as the timer came up, though she hadn’t yet been named or even isolated to that conceptual level (I had a feeling that this figure should have a feminine counterpart, a representation of the psyche’s journey from wandering to home, but I wavered between a love interest and a child).

Once I got the sunny California-esque beach image, it served as the inspiration for the wind (because the waters there were more choppy). That was the inspiration for the wind (which struck me as a powerfully archetypal element; wind and great water, logos and the void, order and chaos) and the source of the conclusion to the harshness/meekness dynamic of the water.

I know this may sound pretentious, but that fundamental layer nearly possessed me as I wrote to the point where I am surprised that I was able to finish as much of that section as I did.

I wanted to write a cozy domestic scene, so the father and daughter wound up in a cafe, enjoying their daily routine.

There’s a lack of conflict here, in the sense that everything is good and everything is alright, but there’s also something sublime in this sketch that I think I can be proud of.

The third piece is my usual speculative fare, set on a world where everything dies. The focus of the photograph on a single plant (presumably among many, but only a single plant was defined) led me to think of one triumphant element. I’d started out with a scientist in the greenhouse having a triumph.

Then I realized that there wasn’t anything to really make this interesting. That’s where the death-world concept came from. The second photo that drove this story, which created Lao’s forest-dream, was something I had to bend to work in.

Really, this is one of those cases where I work with the overarching conflict in these sketches more than the image itself, because sometimes a very still image doesn’t strike strongly. The color difference between the forest, sky, and indistinct blue between was influential, though, and gave a visual turn that I like.

I’ve been experimenting with a hyperfragmentary style. Works well? Methinks not always. But that’s sort of the way the world works. I don’t think I’ll stick with it forever, but it’s been interesting to see what happens when you pare things back. It certainly helps with just raw typing speed relative to narrative progress.

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