Thursday, August 14, 2014

About Writing

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

+Rurousha tagged me in her blog to write about writing. She wants to know "how/where I find the time to take so many photos and write posts that are both scientific and lyrically beautiful". Uhmmm... I don't know about beauty, but the question about the time is easy to answer: I don't [find time], as evidenced by my taking more than two weeks to raise to the challenge and write this post. Now, I am supposed to comment a little more about my writing process. I'll do that while posting a few photos from Trieste taken last week, which is where I was while not writing this post.

What am I writing?

Trieste, Italy
I am not actually writing, this is a photoblog. Well at least it started as a photoblog, than I got distracted by the photo captions, and the photos became secondary to the text. Early in my career as an astronomer I traveled quite a lot, often in exotic locales which is where observatories are situated, or where conferences are held. Add to these work trips the visits to our families (mine in Italy and Mayli's in South America) and my photoblog rapidly morphed in a sort of unstructured travel diary, where lots of words are spent over-analyzing the places and situations utterly unfamiliar (and for that exciting) I come in contact with. Even after many years I still enjoy to be surprised by people and locales outside my comfort zone, which is what keeps me on my toes and keeps me real. I share a lot of this thinking on this blog. More recently, mainly because of my teaching duties as university professor, my travels diminished a little, and my posts have detached from the topics directly related to the photos. The images have become only the excuse to talk about whatever touched my mind, be it science, or society. And this is where usually I get in trouble.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, I am not sure my blog adheres to any specific genre. I mainly write to scratch the itch of the day (or rather of the month, considering the sparseness of my posts, lately). For a photoblog, my posts are way too wordy. For a blog, my images have way too much prominence. I am stuck in this in-between land where I cannot decide if I like more taking pictures or writing about them. Since I write mostly for me, this is not a problem, but this lack of focus is something I would not advise to anybody interested in increasing the volume of their readership (mine is ridiculously small)!

Trieste, Italy
My style is heavily influenced by a bunch of italian journalists that are more writers than reporters, spaghetti Hemingway of sort. First of all Paolo Rumiz, reporter for "Il Piccolo" of Trieste (you see, there is a connection to the photos) first, "La Repubblica" now. Rumiz is a gentle man writing with huge sensibility of his slow-paced travels around the world. One time he traveled from north to south in Italy with a "Topolino" (a car from the '50s) through little roads and even smaller villages (in "The Legend of the Floating Mountains"). Another time, he traveled along the path of Hannibal, from North Africa to the tip of the Italian peninsula. A few years back, he went all the way to Vladivostok along the Trans-siberian railway. The stories of his voyages are the high point of my summer months. From him I have learned that great stories are not written by focusing to the heroic acts of few actors, but rather on the daily struggles, little victories and annoying defeats of the ordinary people; like me, like us...

Sometimes I write about science. Science is what I do in my daily job (yes, astronomers work mainly in daytime, like everybody else). The science posts that appear in my blog are very different from my official science writing, the one of the scholarly articles. In my ApJ papers every word is measured and exact (at least it tries to be), a direct translation of math into english. My science posts have instead escaped from the cage: they liberally use forbidden analogies and figure of speech, and blur the lines between scientific rigor and misleading fantasy. My goal is to stimulate curiosity, not provide answers: don't try to learn science from my posts! I think I fault this to Italo Calvino.

Why do I write what I do?

I have no agenda. Well everybody has a hidden agenda, I just don't know what is mine. I started to write as a way to practicing English. When I arrived in the US my American English was quite awful. The little English I knew was British/international slang (my Ph.D. thesis advisor was from the UK), with a technical slant focused on my field of studies. American everyday-life-language was a big mystery for me (I remember a long conversation with the car insurance guy that ended with the poor man hanging up in frustration after saying "oh my dear God" because of my lack of understanding; I still hate to talk by phone). Writing a blog was a way to experiment without anybody hanging up on me (at least on my face). The topics I chose don't have a method: they are just something that happen to cross my mind, upset or elate me, or result from free association chains from the subject of a photo I shot.

How does my writing process work?

I use a computer, of course. If I had lived in the XIX century I would have used a quill, but now we have the magic of electronics that makes publishing easier. Oh wait, you mean to ask about my writing method, do you? Oh well...

Trieste, Italy
I am not sure I have a consistent process. I spend a couple of hours every day, weather good or bad, walking my dog. During these walks I let my mind wander; sometimes thoughts occur to me that I cannot easily shake off. Writing about them is a way to exorcise these mind-worms, a physical way to purge them from my mind and let them roam free one electron at a time, from my keyboard to the screen. Digital catharsis. When this happen, I mumbe for a few days about the subject, then try to find some photo in my archive that is remotely connected to the topic, and I start to write. Inevitably ending up to a different place from when I intended to be. But that's ok, isn't that what happens to characters anyway, once they leave the fingers of their writer (this is a reference to Luigi Pirandello)?

At the beginning (10 years ago, when I started the first incarnation of this blog) I posted more frequently, and the process what the reverse: first I chose the photo, then I wrote a caption for it. Now that the internet has changed (with the raise of social media) my photos go mostly on Google+, freeing my hand to tell stories on my blog, albeit at a slower pace.


Ok. what's next? Ah, I have to tag somebody to continue with this. Mmm, let's send the ball back to Japan to +Elizabeth Tasker. Why? Because she is a fellow astronomers and she also writes a mix of science and lifestyle posts in her blog. If you think I travel a lot, think how she has made her travel status permanent by moving to beautiful Sapporo. Elizabeth, the ball is on your court!

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

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